Who would have thought that homosexuality would be the issue over which Christendom and the post-modern world would part ways?
After all, it doesn’t seem to be such a big issue, in the grand scheme of things. There aren’t that many gay people out there. Abortion, or divorce, or economic exploitation, affect many more people. Homosexuality became a “live issue” in politics only recently.
And yet, while in the future this might seem apocalyptical, as I write this it seems that this is the issue over which the two worlds are decisively breaking off. If you look at a “much more serious” issue like abortion, people in the post-modern world can at least conceive the case. In a place in the US, the broad middle is, while not sold on the pro-life cause, at least uncomfortable with abortion and cognizant of the fact that it’s not a medical procedure like any other. Similarly, though we disagree about a few things about marriage, we generally agree that divorce is A Bad Thing. We might disagree that gender equality entails accept women priests, but we agree (at least nowadays) that women can have jobs and should receive equal pay for equal work.
Gay issues turn out to be a much more momentous wedge because they turn out to be the thread that unravels everything else.
If sex is connected to a higher order and ordered towards a greater purpose than pleasure and the fulfillment of a cosmic reality of gender difference, then gay sex is immoral.
If sex is purely self-expressive and material and morally neutral as such, then any disapprobation whatsoever of gay sex is not only incompatible but reprehensible; not only reprehensible but, quite literally, incomprehensible.
It’s the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. An event that could be inconsequential, if it was not part of a web of iron commitments that plunge us all into war.
Because I follow both a bunch of orthodox Christians on Twitter and a bunch of secular media types, I was able to watch unfold the reactions to NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out, and the reactions to the reaction by ESPN’s Chris Broussard (which ESPN totally and cynically planned—also see an excellent critique by the Gay Christian Network’s Justin Lee of Broussard’s comments). Though Broussard put his foot in his mouth in some ways, in other ways he merely restated orthodox Christian teaching that choosing to embrace gay sexuality is sinful.
And the words from the secular types I follow were “medieval” “13th century” “intolerant” etc. Some time soon, someone will get fired from somewhere for expressing Christian teaching on gay sex, if it hasn’t already happened. And it’s increasingly likely that at some point soon Catholic schools will be forced to choose between embracing teachings they reject as a matter of conscience or shutting down.
The Christians on my feed pointed out that, whatever else you might think, Broussard’s comments were merely a statement of traditional Christian doctrine and that, as I-wish-I-could-remember-who put it, “tolerance” includes being tolerant of orthodox Christian views. But I increasingly think that ship has sailed.
But I don’t want to talk about the power dynamics here. What was most striking is how incomprehensible orthodox Christian doctrine on homosexuality is to secular post-modern types. And even “love the sinner, hate the sin”-type teaching, which is viewed as hypocritical and/or absurd. “Life begins at conception” is a view (actually, a biological fact, but nevermind that) that post-modern types can maybe sorta kinda wrap their heads around. But if you say “gay sex goes against God’s plan because God ordered us towards gender complementarity and intends the nature of the sex act to be open to life” you might as well be speaking Aramaic. The depth and breadth of the chasm is in some ways more important than the power-political battles that follow.
And the chasm means that homosexuality poses a significant challenge to Christianity.
Again, I don’t want to talk about politics here.
You might say that it’s an apologetical challenge. We need to learn to speak better, to explain better, to highlight some things better. And that’s certainly true. But it’s not enough. (It’s striking and revealing that even Tim Keller, who’s probably the best person in the world at translating orthodox Christian teachings for post-modern secular audiences, when asked about homosexuality, tends to simply state the teaching as inoffensively as possible and then change the subject, rather than explain. Keller understands the post-modern mind and understands that this is quicksand.)
It’s not enough because even when most artfully and eloquently stated, the message isn’t getting through.
And it’s not enough for another, more profound reason: the challenge isn’t about ideas.
It’s not about ideas because many people in the post-modern secular world view Christian churches as homophobic and simply view the teaching as yet another expression of that homophobia. Drop your apologetic armor for a second. Forget the ready-made arguments. Isn’t it obvious why?
For the vast majority of history, the world, and in particular our own culture, victimized gay people and homosexuality, and did so brutally, and did so, most often and at best, with Christian churches looking the other way. In the modernist narrative of progressive human individual liberation from structures of oppression, the history of homosexuality fits perfectly.
Where is the embrace of Oscar Wilde’s—tempestuous, halting, but whose isn’t?—Christianity, and not as a prop in the culture wars? As Alan Jacobs notes, many Christians are uncomfortable even with the thoroughly orthodox Auden because of his homosexuality.
Where was the Christian protest and vigil when Alan Turing was persecuted and driven to suicide by the British state? The very thought brings about a dark chuckle.
Ultimately, homosexuality poses such a vital challenge to Christianity because gay people really are “the least of these.” And NOT in a condescending, homosexuality-is-a-disability way, but in the forthright way that gay people have been historically shamed, attacked, “despised and rejected of men” for being gay, and very often with an assist or at least the consent of the Church. And it still happens today. And you can say all you want that that’s not “real” Christianity, that that’s not what Christian teaching says, that’s true, but it doesn’t matter—we did this. We’re doing this.
Homosexuality poses a challenge to Christianity ultimately not because of the ideas of the post-modern secular world, but because those ideas are an unavoidable reaction to our utter failure to rightly minister to our gay brothers and sisters.
If the Church was faithful to its mission towards gay people, the idea of Christianity as homophobic would not just seem wrong, it would be a punchline. It would be like saying the Red Cross secretly infects people with polio, or something. People wouldn’t even debate it, they would scoff. And a strongly-worded blog post isn’t going to make that happen.
Yes, we need to improve our language, but that’s not the challenge, or it’s only one peripheral consequence of the challenge. The challenge is to make it dead-obvious to the entire world that any gay person will be embraced and affirmed in any church, in any family, in any community. And yes, in this day and age, that includes "Side A" gay Christians, which doesn’t mean jettisoning orthodox Christian teaching, because hey, we’re all sinners, and we’re all wrong about something. (I uncomfortably straddle “Side A” and “Side B” teachings, since I am bound to affirm the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the morality of gay sex, yet support legal civil same-sex marriage.)
That’s the challenge, that’s the real challenge, and if it’s not obvious, it’s a tremendous challenge. Let’s get started.
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