Tim Otto (I reviewed his book here) asks a question about those of us who call for a revival of devoted, intimate same-sex love within the historic Christian sexual ethic:
[I]f Wesley is encouraging people of the same sex to “go all the way” in spiritual, emotional, and intellectual ways, why not “go all the way” with the body as well?…
I’m curious as to how Wesley would respond to concerns that by singling out physical intimacy as wrong, his proposal is dualist or even gnostic.
This is a question I think about a lot, as it happens, so let me ramble through a few different ways of approaching it.
The first way is a sort of standard debate model: What are the consequences of this worldview? What are its unstated assumptions?
So like, I am extremely sympathetic to the anti-gnostic element of Otto’s thinking. Part of the story of how I became Catholic was realizing that my stereotypes of Catholicism as a life-hating, sex-hating, body-hating, anti-sensual religion was basically entirely front-to-back wrong. The God I came to know was a Creator God, Who creates and sustains the physical world through His love, for (among other things) His pleasure and our joy. Given that, it seems intuitive that the highest and deepest forms of human communion would require physical union, and the most obvious image of physical union is good old sex.
But if we accept (our culture’s underlying assumption) that sexual union is the highest form of communion between humans, the Christian practice of monogamy gets kind of weird, no? It starts to look like you shouldn’t love anyone “as much as” you love your spouse, rather than maybe saying there are many kinds of love that reach infinitude in different ways. A whole lot of women have experiences of friendship that are at least as intimate and rich as their love for their husbands, and this isn’t (or isn’t always) because their marriages are lacking anything. Historically men have expressed the same feelings, though nowadays straight men in our culture have a super hard time articulating a longing for same-sex love.
Moreover, the idea that celibate love can’t reach the heights of sexual love requires us to ignore or denigrate the love found in the monastery. Monks and nuns give their love in a startlingly unreserved and abandoned way to God; they also form communities of love (I mean, when monasticism is working this is what they do) in which your brothers or sisters are as inescapable, as infuriating, as beloved and as sanctifying as a spouse.
So I believe all that stuff and I think it’s an important corrective to an ahistoric (lol code for “Protestant,” sorry guys I gotta do me) cultural narrative. It is also not the reason I believe what I do.
So the second way of thinking I’d like to try here is thinking with the Church. My beliefs about specific issues of sexual ethics flow from my love of and relationship with Christ’s Bride, the Church. She has asked certain things of me and I will do what I can to fulfill my promises to Her–or like, when I don’t do what I can, at least I won’t try to justify myself!
My body is a gift from God; and so is my sexual ethic. There are certain ways we as Catholic Christians have been given, to make our bodies altars; we have not been given others.
This is a way of “living as church” which I know not all branches of Christianity focus on (or require? what I know about what Protestant churches require could fit comfortably in a thimble). But I want to note my actual commitments, which are not to specific theological arguments I make and understand but to Christ’s Church, out of love and gratitude.Which brings me to my third point, which I guess I will call a pastoral approach, or better, an argument about trust: about witness and counterwitness. In comments on Wes’s post, Kathy says–I mean she says a lot of important stuff, most of which I disagree with, but she says this one thing I want to flag:
It takes a leap of faith to even believe God accepts me with my authentic desires let alone bless me either in a marriage or with celibacy because many of the churches I tried to participate in did not accept me no matter what I did. The only church I was fully welcomed in was an affirming church and that says volumes.
It really does say volumes, doesn’t it? I mean that hasn’t been my experience. I have been ridiculously lucky. But I have met so many people whose experiences have looked more like Kathy’s than like mine; I go to the cathedral church in what used to be DC’s gay ghetto, I’ve found it easy to get competent and compassionate spiritual direction, I basically lead the world’s weirdest gay Christian life. And I am 100% sure that this statistically-improbable good fortune is part of why I can believe Catholic teaching. How can you love a church where nobody seems to love you? Why would you trust that church’s claims that they can help you surrender your life to the God Who is Love?
Pretty girls are the best theology. But the second-best theology is humble love for neighbor and stranger.
And the fourth approach is to try to ask the questions Tim Otto might ask if he believed what I believe. How do his concerns look when expressed in my worldview? How do celibate people love others with our bodies?
And there are two kinds of answers, which seem to conflict but I think don’t really. I’m not even sure this rises to the level of paradox; it’s more just, both of these things are true. First, we love others with our bodies when we serve them. Jesus washing feet is loving others with His Body. The basic, boring acts of caregiving take on poetic richness when they are done with love. They are images of intensely physical love: the love that holds, that helps to stand, that kneels to clean, that strains to lift.
And second, the bodies of celibate people are reserved, in a way, for God alone. The “theology of the body” is most obviously a theology of sex, not a theology of work or illness or food (although it can flow into all these areas). Is that a marker of contemporary obsessions, or is there wisdom there? Maybe both! Maybe there is beauty to be found in exploring the way in which celibacy makes our bodies gifts only to God.
I was trying to find this quotation which really stuck with me: “Peter was exposed to action; John was reserved for love.” And of course it turns out that it’s (slightly paraphrased) from Spiritual Friendship, because I only really know one thing. But yes: There’s a parallel here, where marriage exposes the spouses to certain kinds of action–the breaking open of the woman’s body, the terror of “having your heart walking around outside your body,” the economic cares and daily tasks and menial joys, and of course the action and disappointments and urgency of sex itself. Celibates are set aside for a more internal love, a secluded garden where we meet God.