Ascending Mount Carmel – One Step at at Time – Part Three

In the previous parts of this series I raised the question as to whether pro-gay Christian literature embraced or fled from concepts of purgation. We also looked at some ex-gay writings and saw that in their guidance they seemed to follow the classical spiritual disciplines. Having seen this, our next question is "does modern pro-gay Christian spirituality have a sense of purgation?" I reviewed two favourably received anthologies of essays on homosexuality to see whether the issue was promoted or even addressed by those supporting some form of homosexual practice. The first set of results below are from the book Homosexuality and Christian Faith edited by Walter Wink:

Essay Author Stance Purgation / Redemptive Suffering
A Belated Justice Donald W Shriver Revisionist No Mention
Thoughts from the Weekend of the Quilt Carole Shileds Revisionist No Mention
One Family’s Story Paul Wennes Egertson Revisionist No Mention
Homosexuality and the Bible Walter Wink Revisionist No Mention
Biblical Fidelity and Sexual Orientation Ken Sehested Revisionist No Mention
Homosexualities Morton & Barbara Kelsey Revisionist No Mention
Accepting what cannot be changed David G Myers Revisionist No Mention
Homosexuality : A Word not Written Maria Harris & Gabriel Moran Revisionist No Mention
Exploring the Morality of Homosexuality Lewis B Smedes Revisionist No Mention
Where the Gospel Leads Us Richard Rohr, OFM Revisionist No Mention
Being Christian about Homosexuality John B Cobb Jr Revisionist No Mention
in God’s House there are Many Closets Peggy Campolo Revisionist No Mention
Liberty to the Captives and Good Tidings to the Afflicted William Sloane Coffin Revisionist No Mention – Suffering is raised (p107) and "turning the other cheek", but this is not in the sense of purgation
The Challenge of Nonconformity Elise Boulding Revisionist No Mention
Baptism, Bread and Bonds Ignacio Casteura Revisionist No Mention
Same-Gender Covenants M Mahan Siler Jr Revisionist No Mention

So a pro-gay book has no articles dealing with classical spiritual direction. We now turn to The Way Forward?, an anthology of essays across the theological spectrum edited by Timothy Bradshaw.

Essay Author Stance Purgation /Redemptive Suffering
Knowing Myself in Christ Rowan Williams Mildly Revisionist No Mention
Homosexuality in the Church Oliver O’Donovan Traditional No Mention
Call to Biblical Values Gerald Bray Traditional Yes – p40
Christian Same-Sex Partnerships Jeffrey John Revisionist Raised but not applied – p46
Travelling Together Michael Vasey Revisionist No Mention
Dancing in the Spirit Elizabeth Stuart Revisionist No Mention
Christ, Creation and Human Sexuality John Colwell Traditional Yes – pp 95-97
Questions of Clarification Dave Leal Neutral Briefly Touched
Divine Order and Sexual Conduct Simon Vibert Traditional Yes – p121
Truth and Love in our Sexual Feelings Martin Hallett Traditional Yes – and recognises the struggle and possible accommodation with fallen self – p132
A Psychiatrist’s Perspective Tom M Brown Traditional No Mention
Can Hermeneutics Ease the Deadlock? Anthony Thiselton Neutral No Mention

Some points are worth noting from this brief survey.

  1. In his essay in The Way Forward? Jeffrey John raises the idea that all enter into some form of redemptive suffering (quoting the St Andrews Statement) but then rejects that there is any form of purgation for those with same-sex attraction since experience tells those with the attraction that it is good.
  2. It might be argued that the survey is skewed in that many of the articles are not about the spirituality of people with same-sex attraction. However, this is not the point. The aim of the survey is to see whether the basic traditional concepts of spiritual direction are at all discussed within the dialogue around sexuality. The fact that in practice purgation is discussed far more in the traditional camp then the revisionist camp, regardless of the exact specific of the article, is the key observation.
  3. That said the exact fallout of articles addressing purgation was:
    1. Revisionist – 5%
    2. Neutral – 25%
    3. Traditional – 66.7%

I wondered whether I had just read the wrong books, so I went to an anthology of "christian gay experiences", the Colin Coward edited "The Other Way?". Once again, in 14 stories of personal experiences, I could not find one single reference to purgation, or indeed any reference to any form of classical spiritual discipline in relation to sexuality. The closest I came to trying to combine purgation with the revisionist gay experience is in the work Sexuality and the Christian Body. Here Eugene Rogers argues that:

"I propose that marriage, for the same or opposite sexes, can be a discipline of denial and restraint that liberates the human being for sanctification. The trouble with most conservative arguments is not that in denying same-sex couples the rite of marriage they would deny them true self-satisfaction, although they might. The trouble is that in denying same-sex couples the rite of marriage they would deny them true self-denial."

The problem with this argument though is that in order for it to work there must be the assumption that a level of purgation and sanctification is available in marriage that is not available outside. If that is not so (and I and I believe the great spiritual writers down the age. many of whom were single, would argue exactly that) then single people are able to participate in the same experience and sanctification of purgation, and therefore the need for same-sex unions to be blessed is unnecessary. The truth of course is that purgation is an experience encountered by both single people and married people and it is not dependent on their status in this regard. Rather it is dependent on an attitude of the heart that recognises sin and seeks to die to it. The church is not denying any engagement with purgation by refusing to bless same-sex unions. One might even argue it is doctrinally laying the basis for a journey into purgation, by declaring clearly in its refusal to bless same-sex unions where one ground for purgation is.

4 Comments on “Ascending Mount Carmel – One Step at at Time – Part Three

  1. The problem with this argument though is that in order for it to work there must be the assumption that a level of purgation and sanctification is available in marriage that is not available outside. If that is not so (and I and I believe the great spiritual writers down the age. many of whom were single, would argue exactly that) then single people are able to participate in the same experience and sanctification of purgation, and therefore the need for same-sex unions to be blessed is unnecessary.

    I’m sorry, Peter, but this is kind of a silly train of “logic.” The justification you describe here for allowing gays to marry (and then flippantly discard) is only one of a myriad of reasons why gays need to marry. Most of those reasons pertain to civil matters and can be readily resolved by allowing gays access to civil marriage and its pertaining governmental benefits.

    Sacrimental marriage has its own justifications, else it would have ceased to exist long ago. Gay couples in committed relationships can and do consider themselves (know themselves) to be married in the eyes of God, but having that union blessed by their community of believers certainly would confer benefits both tangible and intangible.

    In any case, I find your literary analysis in this entry rather specious. Unless the texts you describe were written as guides to contemplative spirituality (monastic or otherwise), I would not expect them to be full of the advice of the great mystics or to make specific reference to “purgation” or “mortification” or any similar spiritual practice.

    Attempting to prove a lack of spirituality on the part of gay people in general and gay authors in particular by their “failure” to write about the works of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross seems a bit ludicrous to me.

  2. Lorian,

    I actually don’t think there are any good reasons not to allow Civil Partnerships in the UK, though I would personally reject the notion of creating a moral equivalence between marriage and civil partnership. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that if you are not a Christian and you are happy in your monogamous same-sex relationship then the state should afford you some of the same protection it affords married couples.

    I admit that I have moved on this issue over the past 2 years and think that this is a genuine justice issue (unlike condoning active homosexuality in the church which is not a justice issue as the Scriptures argue against it). What will be really interesting is whether the recent study on social structures produced by the Centre for Social Justice here in the UK (Breakthrough Britain) can be extended to examine gay families. That would give us a better understanding (rather than just anecdotal) as to whether gay families create the same social good as heterosexual families. Should be interesting and if the answer is “yes”, watch the fur fly among my more conservative colleagues.

    I would challenge you on the subject of the texts I found to recommend to me an anthology of gay Christian writing that does address the issue. I’ve looked really, really hard (trawled through an entire theological library at one of the world’s top university) and failed to find anything. What was the striking feature for me was how in articles and essays that weren’t meant to touch the subject, time and time again ex-gay writers brought up these issues of purgation and mortification where as gay writers didn’t. That was statistically significant.

  3. Peter, I find your views on civil marriage for gays to be quite enlightened, and appreciate your comments. Incidentally, regarding gay family structures, as a gay parent of 6-year-old twin daughters, I’ve done a great deal of research on the subject. There have been quite a number of studies done, particularly on lesbian-parented families (fewer with gay dads), and uniformly, they show that the children of such families are equally as well-adjusted, happy and healthy academically, physically, socially and sexually as their straight-parented peers. There are minor differences observed, such as the tendency of boys raised by lesbian moms to score higher in the area of empathy than boys raised by straight parents. But there is certainly nothing alarming or cautionary in what has been observed thus far, with studies dating back over a period of at least 30 years.

    Regarding the texts referring to issues of purgation and mortification, I would suggest to you that the “ex-gay” texts you have examined would quite naturally focus more on these issues due to the fact that “ex-gays” have been lead to believe that their sexual attractions and urges constitute, in and of themselves, impurity and a temptation to sin.

    Gay and lesbian Christians who have accepted themselves have a much healthier view of their sexuality and are not “at enmity” with their own feelings and sexual attractions. In the same way that you will not find a great many married heterosexuals discussing purgation and mortification in reference to their sexual desires for their spouses, gay partnered people have no particular reason to dwell on the subject of purgation and mortification in regards to their sexual relationships with their spouses.

    “Ex-gays” share in common with monastics and others vowed to celibacy a self-denial of their needs and desires for sexual relationship and sexual expression. Hence they would naturally focus upon traditional monastic methods of extinguishing or sublimating these desires. It has to do with the choice of the celibate state, not with the sexual orientation, the holiness, or the spirituality of the individual.

    While a person in a committed, lifelong relationship may at some times experience situations where self-denial is necessary and sublimation, purgation, or mortification are helpful, normally those in vowed relationships, whether hetero- or homosexual, will experience far less need to “purge” themselves of “fleshly desires.” When they DO need to do so, often it will be in the form of purging themselves of such things as overeating, overindulgence in various passtimes, etc., rather than the purgation of unwanted sexual desires.

    In short, I’m not surprised that “ex-gays” write about purgation more frequently than gays, but I’m not by any means convinced that this constitutes a lack of understanding, awareness or appreciation for the spirituality of the great mystics.

  4. Incidentally, I want to subscribe to this thread so that I’ll be notified of your follow-up posts. I keep forgetting to click the box when I post. Sorry for the extra posting.

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