One of the hottest topics in the public square today is the issue of anthropological identity, or, more plainly, what it means to be human. See, for example, Kirsten Powers’s recent column for USA Today on the church’s apparent need to embrace the validity of gay Christianity.
This issue is closely tied to cultural approbation of homosexuality and sexual orientation. What I find rather remarkable about this development is that it is so closely connected to conversion. This may sound curious. Wait a minute, you might be thinking–don’t Christians and gay rights activists find themselves at odds, and aren’t Christians the ones who constantly talk about conversion? Isn’t that a Christian thing, in other words? In actuality, it seems, both groups believe in conversion, albeit in very different forms.
In our age, becoming gay–accepting this innate reality–is regularly described and discussed in terms that closely resemble the experience of conversion. Coming out of the closet, being honest with oneself and one’s family and friends for the first time, being authentic–all of this kind of language points to the acceptance of homosexual identity as a kind of conversion experience. One becomes truly human in doing so, for one embraces a liberating truth that lays hold of the very core of one’s being.
We’re not unfamiliar with this revelation now, but the church has not–in my limited judgment–recognized that it this realization functions in many cases as a natural gospel or a secular conversion story. Consider, for example, how UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon (pictured above) described his “coming out” experience to USA Today:
UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon is happy now. He uses words such as “free” and “fun” to describe his coming-out process after he became the first openly gay player in Division I college men’s basketball on Wednesday.
“Why now? Because I’m comfortable with myself,” Gordon told USA TODAY Sports in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “I didn’t feel like hiding anymore. It was killing me, eating me alive. No one should have to go through that. I want to help kids who don’t know how to handle (being gay). I want to show you can be an athlete and be gay.”
There’s no specific theological language used here. But the terms Gordon uses to describe his experience resonate on an emotional and personal level with Christian conversion. Before he came out, Gordon’s lack of disclosure was, from his viewpoint, “killing” him and “eating [him] alive.” After coming out, Gordon is “free,” “comfortable,” and “happy.” He has been true to himself, and now he’s fully alive.
This is it. This is where it clicks. Being “true to yourself” is the secular version of Christian conversion. One does not convert per the standards of a divine figure, as in olden days; one converts to one’s own standards, one’s own self-conception. To be human is to have certain appetites and instincts, and to be fully human is to awaken to and embrace these appetites and instincts. This is the modern definition in working form.
All this is tied now to sexual “orientation,” a term that for most psychologists means a sexual proclivity that is inborn and unchangeable (see this Atlantic interview, for example). My colleague Heath Lambert, an expert in counseling, has spoken well to this issue and noted that sexual orientation is closely related to “patterns of desire” (see 80-81). When one acknowledges one’s deepest patterns of attraction, the narrative goes, one is being truly authentic. The church has rightly seen that this narrative does not conform to Scripture’s intent for humanity. But evangelicals have not, it seems to me, understand that the issue of homosexuality is not simply a matter of isolated moral philosophy, but is intricately connected to personal conversion of a secular kind. We’ve done well in responding to the biblical challenges; I don’t know that we’ve seen the broader picture, and viewed this issue not simply in terms of moral casuistry–i.e., asking whether given behavior is appropriate in certain circumstances–but in terms of personal spirituality.
It is my view that we need to do much more work on the latter front. So, toward that end, I think the foregoing prompts two key responses from the Christian church.
First, Christians should freely acknowledge that we have not always provided strong counsel on the matter of acknowledging inborn temptation. Sexual desire is real. It does not always follow an exclusive script. In a disordered and fallen world, people may experience a range of sexual temptations. In the past, among at least some evangelicals, it has been assumed that homosexual desire crops up only when abuse has happened, and that if it has surfaced, it should be swiftly quieted and eradicated.
We now understand, I think, that this is not necessarily the case. Sexual temptation of varying kinds is a part of the human experience in Adam, that is to say, as a part of the fall that affects us all. There are strong correlations between broken homes and sexual disorder, to be sure. But perversity does not only emerge in difficult circumstances. We are all perverse (see Romans 3). In other words, we are all affected by sinful sexual instincts. The church has not in previous generations acknowledged this reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. It is good for Christians to reckon with this in appropriate ways.
This is not to say that pastors should approve of any form of lust. They most certainly should not, whether in a homosexual or heterosexual form. But they should recognize that temptations of varying kinds are a part of the human experience. We are sinful. We must be honest about our sin. We need to square with the darkness of our heart, all of us. We need to be able to acknowledge what we are drawn to as sinners, and we need to hear from Christ’s shepherds that we are not alone or isolated or freakish. We are instead fallen, and we share that fallenness with all humanity.
The gay and lesbian community is, as insightful authors like Rosaria Butterfield have pointed out, welcoming and accepting. In some cases, at least, it has stepped in with genuine compassion to receive those the church has struggled to help. Where this has happened, we have to acknowledge as believers that this has weakened our witness about conversion, and strengthened the promotion of the “natural gospel” our flesh inherently craves.
Second, Christians have the opportunity to make clear today that the gospel of Jesus Christ is better than any other path to “conversion.” If the church has not always spoken well–and none of us will minister as we ought–then we should also be quick to see that we have the opportunity today to address this shortcoming. Hear me carefully: I am not saying that the church is responsible for the spread of the “gay rights” movement, or that if the church had provided even outstanding pastoral counsel and public witness, it could have solved all our public moral quandaries. This most certainly is not true. Secular morality at odds with Christian morality, a cultural phenomenon that picked up tremendous momentum following the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century, has a logic and force all its own.
But Christians have a chance today to make the case well. We have the opportunity to joyfully and winsomely say this: the gospel of Christ truly transforms. It does not plunge us deeper into our sin, but rescues us from it. Jesus welcomes all sinners, and he invites us all to freely confess the ruination of our hearts and lives. In Christ, and in Christ alone, we can be honest. We can reckon with our fallenness, confess our shamefulness, and be honest about our sinfulness. And then, from this point, we can become truly human, not by identifying even further with our instinctive perversity of varying kinds, but by renouncing it, leaving it, breaking with it, shedding it like a butterfly sheds the skin of the moth (see 1 Cor. 6:11, for example).
The Christian church is not about image maintenance. We are centered and focused on personal transformation. We are those who are humiliated in Christ, free to unburden ourselves and confess our guilt and shame, and ultimately those who are risen in Christ, delivered by the cross from sin and empowered by the resurrection to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12). Think about that phrase: “newness of life.” That’s conversion, the fruit of conversion, in three glorious words.
If conversion is just a matter of personal tidying, of becoming more religiously devoted, then Christians should expect that our understanding of salvation will be trumped by other public square voices. If, however, our understanding of conversion is that of total humiliation and total restoration, then I think we stand to offer untold joy and healing and newness to a world that is craving it with unslakeable thirst. Expect this: anticipate that as religious devotion of a middling, nominal kind continues to vanish from American culture, people will turn to natural gospels and secular forms of conversion.
Salvation isn’t going away. It’s changing forms. The quest for true humanity isn’t disappearing. For many people, it’s now non-religious in nature.
The church cannot save everyone by powerfully preaching the gospel of Christ, the power of true conversion. We can’t necessarily save America, let alone the West, let alone the world, by doing so. We may well continue to lose some vestige of our audience, and be further marginalized in the public square. But we shouldn’t be surprised by this, nor should we be scared of it. We should recognize the opportunity we have. All around us people are having a vigorous, full-throated, existentially-charged conversation about humanity and conversion. They’re tempted by natural gospels, by the sin-inspired offer of transformation by way of personal honesty.
Christians too champion honesty. But our solution lies not in ourselves. It is extra nos as the Reformers said–“outside of us.” Beyond us. Only God can save. Only God can transform. All other gospels will fail. Only the gospel that frees us to be both gloriously truthful in Christ and utterly dependent on Christ can make us, in the words used so frequently today, happy, free, and truly alive.