A System in the Shape of an Obstruction

In 2017, Alastair Roberts wrote a defense of his signing of the Nashville Statement. At one point, he discussed the complications with NS Article VII and its impact on the folks and work of Spiritual Friendship. In doing so, he says:

“… It is also important, however, to appreciate that the ‘homosexuality’ of gay and lesbian persons is typically merely one aspect of broader experiences of selfhood and lebenswelt that, though perhaps atypical for their sexes (remember, sexuality is a gender difference—men are gynephiles and women are androphiles), can often find legitimate expression in ways that aren’t sexual, and which can be very good and praiseworthy. …”

In the ensuing comments section, I was asked by another commenter to elaborate on my engagement with this excerpt. And I want to capture those comments here. What follows is an extraction with light editing from my comments on that post.

In my experience, many of the men from the “good ol’ boys network” who wrote or signed the Nashville Statement have demonstrated (what, to me, is) a paper-thin and merely theoretical understanding of contemporary homosexuality and gay identity in places and aspects where the experiences of such persons simply will not overlap with the biblical framework and condemnations. Here, I mean what Alastair referred to as other aspects “of broader experiences of selfhood and lebenswelt that, though perhaps atypical for their sexes, … can often find legitimate expression in ways that aren’t sexual, and which can be very good and praiseworthy.” Those atypicalities have been long-neglected by many in the church. And the idea that those atypicalities are rooted in a sinful sexual disorientation has been the cause of much pastoral malpractice in my experience and observation.

Regarding those atypicalities of personality, they’re not easily described and can be individually unique. They’re also often quite subtle and are best learned by experience in the context of relationships.

Some of it can be a matter of a person being a statistical outlier for the tendencies of core personality traits of one’s own gender. For instance, consider a man who sees himself as a man but is a highly emotionally sensitive male (i.e. high trait neuroticism or negative emotionality) and has dominant interests in people rather than things (where men are typically more interested in things rather than people). Combine that with a love of the arts, a disinterest in sports, and a strongly isolating introversion (all of which will tend to distance a man from the male affirmation of participation in male groups).

Some of it seems to be a matter of the disposition and capacity for same-sex sexual desire simply existing as a discreet integrated component in a person’s whole being. Even if it’s being resisted and continuously repented of in good biblical fashion, it’s mere, actively contained presence makes it a formative element in a person. And it’s not because it’s an insidiously causative motivation; it’s an interactive obstruction. The fact that it’s there as an element requiring navigation and resistance colors everything else with which it’s cross-wired. One Christian man who’s appreciating the beauty of a male figure with no disposition for homosexual desire and another Christian man who’s appreciating the beauty of that same male figure while refraining from homosexual desire (and even sublimating it into creative inspiration) are two men having two distinctly different experiences of themselves as they experience the beauty of the same thing.

If everything that can possibly provide a pathway to homosexual desire gets included as something produced by crypto-homosexual desire, I can hardly blame people with a disposition to homosexual desire for thinking there would be nothing left of them as persons if all of that had to be eradicated because that’s what God supposedly wants.

Some of it is a matter of having greater interests in the non-sexual attributes of particular members of one’s own sex where the majority of peers only show those sorts of interests in member’s of the opposite sex. Think of a man who is fascinated, even intoxicated, by how charming, and gallant, and forthright, and noble, and kind his friend is. He sees these attributes in his friend and feels something like a gravitational pull to them and wonders what he’s supposed to make of them. I offer one illustration from a thought experiment by Matthew Lee Anderson. He starts by critiquing a post by Owen Strachan (another signatory of the Nashville Statement and former president of CBMW) regarding ‘attractions’ and ‘interests’ that are less than sexual and questionably “proto-sexual” in nature. And he closes with an illustration of a young man sitting in a coffee shop reading David Copperfield when a captivating stranger suddenly walks in:

“… Allow me to try to tease out what I think Strachan is trying to get at in a scenario that I present in far too attenuated form here. In the first, a young man sits in a coffee shop reading David Copperfield while listening to music. He is, by all external appearances, lost to the world. Yet as often happens in coffee shops, the door opens and he glances up to see a woman he does not know, but who he finds unspeakably beautiful, walk in. After she orders, she sits at the armchair across from him and opens up a copy of Bleak House and begins to read. From this point on, we might say he is lost to the world: he has noticed her, and feels as though he can’t help but attend to her, so taken he is by her charm and by her literary interests. He wishes, above all, to speak to her and find out her name and to understand what her interest in Bleak House is. Yet being of the bashful sort, he suppresses any thought of saying ‘hello’ and continues in vain to read the same page over and over.

“Now, it’s just in such an experience that we might say there is some kind of ‘attraction.’ Is it sexual? The thought is almost offensive: it is a strong interest, one which the fact of her beauty doubtlessly plays a role in and which may be converted to a sexual desire under the right conditions, but there is no reason to think that it is at this point. Is it benign? Not necessarily: it is an asymmetrical, non-reciprocal interest at this point, which may actually be unwelcome and has not been invited. And he may be in the conditions where its development into a sexual desire would be imprudent, and so if he recognizes that he is eager for it to become a sexual desire, he may wish to avoid conversation altogether. But ‘potent’ is not the same as ‘morally wrong,’ and there is no reason yet to think that such an attraction is wrong. Does it change the moral analysis if the person across the table is the same-sex, and our young man identifies as ‘gay’ and sometimes or frequently experiences same-sex sexual desires? It seems to me the answer is clearly not: this kind of magnetic interest (call it ‘chemistry) seems to be able to be untethered from sexual desires rather easily, even if this kind of experience happens more frequently with the same sex among those who are ‘gay’ than those who are not.  The only way in which it does become morally problematic is if all such moments are inherently ordered toward sexual fulfillment: but there is a vast continuum of ‘attractions’ and ‘interests’ before the pursuit of sexual activity comes on the table, and it is just this continuum which [those at Spiritual Friendship] seem to (rightly) want to draw our attention to.

“And there are good reasons for them wanting to. If a young man who identified as gay experienced this kind of magnetic attentiveness with members of the same-sex on a regular basis, he might be aware of certain dynamics within same-sex relationships that those who do not so experience it are not. He may not necessarily have a ‘privileged insight’ into friendship that heterosexual people lack: but then, I’ve learned as much about the structure of marriage from a man who was single his whole life as I have anyone else, so it’s not clear to me that ‘experience’ of any sort necessarily provides privileged access. Our capacity for empathetic imagination and our ability to understand each other is much greater than we realize. But even if his access into (say) the structure of friendship isn’t necessarily privileged by virtue of this regular occurrence, he may have an acute sensitivity or awareness of its structure that others lack. The absence of any threat of sexual attraction in a relationship may actually have a dulling effect on its possibilities or its dangers: paradoxically, the person who never experiences same-sex attraction at all may more easily presume that they understand friendship in a way that someone who must be constantly vigilant about the possibility of eros arising cannot be. And in this way, the gay Christian might remind other Christians of certain aspects or possibilities of non-sexual relationships that we may be prone to forget otherwise. That is, at least, my reformulation of the kind of ‘gay Christianity’ that I see [those at Spiritual Friendship] advancing at its best.

“The unhappy fact from the point of the theorist is that sexual desires emerge in us along within a whole cluster of thoughts, sentiments, anxieties, fears, intentions, and other psychological apparatus. Strachan is right that we need more clarity in our concepts as we unravel all of these, but I don’t think he’s delivered on it. …”

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