A lot of ink has been spilled in the evangelical blogosphere about the recently concluded Revoice conference. This conference was a gathering together of mostly same-sex attracted Christians who affirm traditional church teaching on the morality of homosexual acts, yet seek to reshape conversations about homosexuality in the church. One of its chief promoters was writer and theologian Wesley Hill, who has written books about his own personal story and co-founded the Spiritual Friendship movement. Last week, Hill wrote a report on the conference for First Things entitled “Revoice And a Vocation of Yes.” Before Hill wrote this piece, he and other Revoice organizers had already engaged in extended written back-and-forth with conservative thinkers like Al Mohler, Denny Burk, and Robert Gagnon. I would like to offer three more thoughts of my own, partly overlapping with but also adding to what’s already been said on the conservative side of these dialogues.
1. The “vocation of yes” is a slippery slope.
At the end of his First Things piece, Hill offers this summing-up of the “mantra” of Revoice in a quote from keynote speaker Eve Tushnet:
In a line that’s become a kind of mantra among Revoice attendees and presenters, the celibate lesbian Catholic writer Eve Tushnet has said: “[Y]ou can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” What Revoice offers—and, please God, will go on offering for years to come—is a way of thinking Christianly about homosexuality and other non-straight sexual orientations that moves beyond enumerating the sins we’re called to renounce. Revoice is trying to pose the deeper question: To which forms of love and friendship and service are we called to say yes?
On the surface, this expresses the basic truth that people naturally desire a positive telos for their life, something that imbues life with meaning beyond self-abnegation. Unfortunately, within the framework of Revoice and the Spiritual Friendship movement, this takes the particular, pernicious form of trying to channel romantic same-sex attraction into an absolute vocational good. Tushnet has written that she feels uniquely equipped to serve women by virtue of her lesbianism, not in spite of it. This must be kept firmly in mind even as Hill and others brush aside the concern that Revoice is leading the church down a slippery slope.
Another Revoice speaker, Ray Low, also repeatedly affirmed that his orientation has conferred unique gifts and insight onto his ministerial vocation. Now a youth pastor, he spoke about how he was turned down or fired by multiple other churches. He alluded to some of the reasons in this particularly telling passage from his conference address:
You know, it’s funny how people outside of the LGBT community just love to speak for it. Some people have told me that maybe I should just not share this part of my life to the church. That I should just keep it secret, get the care that I need outside, or not bring it into my ministry. This particular church asked me if I could stop using certain words, if I would delete some of my posts. They even went so far as to ask if I would consider going to counseling for my attractions. And I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t agree to it. I couldn’t compromise myself. Why? Because the solution to decades of silence on this issue is to promote conversation, not to cover it up, to talk more and not less, and that’s exactly what I tried to do.
Notice how Low implicitly casts “the LGBT community” as his primary community, his primary group identifier. Notice also the indignation at the mere suggestion that he might consider sexual counseling. So far from viewing his persistent same-sex attractions as a burden or a cross to bear, he views them as so integral to his identity that he would be “compromising himself” by seeking counseling for them.
Revoice founder Nate Collins is married to a woman but still openly struggles with same-sex attraction. He gave a Christianity Today interview where he attempted to answer its conservative critics. On the one hand, some of his answers would seem to be in tension with Tushnet’s work. At one point, he even uses the word “disability” to refer to gay orientation and says progressives shouldn’t view it as a “gift.” On the other hand, he insists that “aesthetic appreciation” of “male beauty” must not be conflated with erotic attraction, and that a homosexual orientation towards “same-sex image-bearers” could still be celebrated and folded into a Christian’s vocational calling. See, for example, this deeply strange passage:
If I’m visiting a church and I sit next to somebody and am I interested, then I might want to strike up a conversation and perhaps invest in a friendship if we decide to join that church. That’s a very different response from if I’m walking down the street and I notice someone jogging past on a hot summer day not wearing a shirt. It’s a very different perception of beauty, and my response to that perception of beauty is going to be different. Now neither of those on the surface are intrinsically sexual, I don’t think.
This is dangerously confused talk, to say the least.
While I have some disagreements with Rosaria Butterfield, formerly an active lesbian and now a Christian convert, she has rightly analogized this insistence on retaining one’s homosexual identity to bringing home a baby tiger. You can put a collar around its neck, complete with name tag, but you are in denial if you don’t think you are playing with fire.
2. This isn’t just about homosexuality.
Revoice didn’t just position itself to shift the conversation on homosexuality. It also positioned itself to shift views about the relations between men and women. Both Burk and Mohler have already discussed a particularly eyebrow-raising quote from Collins, where he cast gay Christians in a prophetic role against the church’s “idolatry” of marriage and the nuclear family.
In addition, I would like to highlight some remarks from Matthew Lee Anderson. Anderson is himself straight and married, but he has written at length in defense of the conference, echoing Collins’s language about “marriage idolatry” and making multiple false equivalencies along the way. In his pre-conference remarks, he addressed a question about comparing and contrasting marriage and friendship:
I’ve utterly repudiated the “wife is my best friend” language. I had a strong opposition to that, in part because I want friendship to mean something, and there are certain things that I do with my wife that I don’t do with other friends. [laughter] And I think that’s a really important difference. By preserving the distinction in that way, even if nothing else, you allow yourself to speak of the world with more categories than you would have otherwise. Part of the problem with blurring these things together is you don’t gain something, you lose a concept basically. And there is obviously overlap between the kinds of love that show up in a deep friendship and the kind of love that animates a marriage…
But when we think about the actual forms and the practices, I think it’s really worthwhile thinking about those differences might be. So I will say, there are lots of conversations that I have with my wife that I would have with no one else, but there are also some conversations that I have with some friends that I don’t have with my wife. And I think that’s also sort of my way of pushing against a kind of view of marriage within evangelicalism such that your spouse is not just your best friend but also your closest confidante in every single matter, so that there can be no… no hiddenness within the marriage. And I think that’s a problem. I think there are certain conversations that I do reserve for friends. And my friendships are deepened by our mutual knowledge that we do have something in common that I don’t have in common with my [wife].
In one sense, Anderson is articulating a very familiar “hetero” idea here: Straight men have an unspoken understanding that there are some things you can discuss with “the guys” that “the wife” just won’t understand. Generally, this is a not-terribly-subtle reference to conversations of a sexual nature: sexual temptations, sexual frustrations, sexual satisfaction or the lack thereof. I think this is an unhealthy dynamic that probably deserves a post unto itself, but in any event, it’s not new news.
Unfortunately, there’s another sense in which his bolded remarks play directly into Revoice’s unapologetic agenda to push a particular kind of friendship for homosexual individuals, one that stops short of sexual engagement but is still, in some sense, “romantic.” This is particularly ironic given his sensible, immediately previous comment about keeping friendship clearly distinct from romantic love. Eve Tushnet has proposed that gay men and women in a heterosexual marriage literally take additional vows to a “close friend” of the same sex. In other words, she endorses what could fairly described as emotional polyamory. Moreover, she insists upon the wisdom and helpfulness of this idea even while admitting a straight married man shouldn’t do the same with another woman. That’s different of course, because… because.
Is Anderson not aware of this? Or does he just not care?
3. Conservative Catholics have something conservative Protestants need.
Al Mohler, in his largely spot-on analysis of the Revoice phenomenon, says that he believes we start down this slippery slope the moment we deny that same-sex attraction is sinful in and of itself. He echoes Denny Burk, Heath Lambert, Rosaria Butterfield and many other conservative Protestant thinkers in demarcating this bright line between Catholic and Protestant theologies of sex. Where evangelicals teach the sinfulness of the orientation, Catholics describe it as “disordered,” reserving “sin” for actually wallowing in lust or being sexually active.
Despite the fact that I am not Catholic, here I must register my respectful disagreement with Mohler and Co. Mohler believes Revoice is too Catholic, when in point of fact they are not nearly Catholic enough. Indeed, the Revoice conference would clearly not have proceeded as it did if all the speakers shared a firm understanding that same-sex orientation is, in fact, disordered. Here again, I’ll refer the reader to the same article by Eve Tushnet I linked above, where she talks about how all her interactions with women are inextricably linked with her lesbianism. There, she also outright rejects the phrase “intrinsically disordered” in so many words.
Whether or not you share Mohler, etc.’s particular exegetical framework for temptation and sin, evangelicals need to consider that a truly robust theology of natural law is a bulwark against precisely the descent Mohler fears. The true danger is that even the natural law is now being abandoned.
In the end, Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet and others have a very particular agenda behind their “vocation of yes.” It seems to me that conservative Catholics and Protestants alike can unite in saying “No.”