It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

20130614-012013.jpgIn the end, it just hit me.

A single sentence, in an article not even about homosexuality or theology, not about Leviticus 18 or Romans 1, not about the Boy Scouts or the Southern Baptists.

In the end, what got me was a New Republic article by the magazine’s science editor, Judith Shulevitz.

“The Lethality of Loneliness” describes how psychobiologists “have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you.” Loneliness is defined as “want of intimacy.”

The story is fascinating and well worth reading. Shulevitz reports that scientists rank emotional isolation as highly as smoking among risk factors for mortality, and those most likely to feel emotionally isolated are those who are most rejected – as Shulevitz puts it, “The outsiders: not just the elderly, but also the poor, the bullied, the different” (emphasis hers). The lonely experience higher levels of stress, which injects the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the chronic overdosing of which leads to numerous maladies, the most serious being heart disease.

Since those who are rejected feel lonely more often, we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the biggest studies into loneliness have occurred among those who are gay. Scientists studying HIV-infected gay men in the 1980s discovered this incredible fact: “The social experience that most reliably predicted whether an HIV-positive gay man would die quickly … was whether or not he was in the closet.”

Closeted men were more sensitive to rejection, more fearful of being outed, and therefore less intimate with those around them. Their lives were more stressful, and stress hormones feed the AIDS virus. And then came the sentence that stopped me cold:

[Researcher Steven] Cole mulled these results over for a long time, but couldn’t understand why we would have been built in such a way that loneliness would interfere with our ability to fend off disease: “Did God want us to die when we got stressed?”

The answer is no. What He wanted is for us not to be alone.

And there it is. Is it really that simple?

According to Genesis, it is.

The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. The Lord God commanded the human, “Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” Then the Lord God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.” (Gen 2:15-18)

For all of the debates, the study, the parsing – for all of the noise that surrounds the contentious questions of sexuality that foment around and through our churches – I think it really is that simple: God does not want us to be alone.

We need intimacy so much, it will physically hurt – even kill – us when we are deprived of it. Yet traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality requires such deprivation, with no allowance for individual ability to withstand it, even though we now know sexual attraction is nearly always beyond the conscious control of the individual.

We must therefore believe that God requires every gay person to deny the very drive for intimacy God himself has implanted. And perhaps this would make some sense if sexual orientation was a conscious choice, but because it isn’t, the traditional Christian teaching on this subject must lead us to this conclusion: That God has given every gay person a need, the fulfillment of which is physically necessary for survival – and forbidden.

To paint this picture with the broadest strokes possible, God has intentionally condemned nearly every gay person to an early, lonely, emotionally if not physically painful death because they have the sexual attractions he gave them in the first place.

Such a scenario fails this test proposed by Gregory of Nyssa more than 1,600 years ago:

It is, then, universally acknowledged that we must believe the Deity to be not only almighty, but just and good and wise and everything else that suggests excellence. … [N]o one of those exalted terms, when disjoined from the rest, is by itself alone a virtue – nor is the good really good unless allied with what is just, and wise, and mighty.

For what is unjust, or unwise, or powerless, is not good. Neither is power, when disjoined from the principle of justice and of wisdom, to be considered in the light of virtue – such species of power is brutal and tyrannous. … If what is wise be carried beyond the limits of what is just, or if what is just be not contemplated along with might and goodness, cases of that sort one would more properly call vice, for how can what comes short of perfection be reckoned among things that are good? (Catechetical Oration XX)

This line of thought has a long history in Christian thought. Gregory wrote in 380; about 620 years later, Anselm of Canterbury also declared that God’s self-description as loving and just requires a certain basic level of love and justice as understood by humanity:

When it is said that what God wishes is just, and that what He does not wish is unjust, we must not understand that if God wished anything improper it would be just, simply because he wished it. For if God wishes to lie, we must not conclude that it is right to lie, but rather that he is not God. (Cur Deus Homo)

This is vitally important to understand: God pervasively describes himself as love in the Bible. Consider 1 John 4, a remarkable passage in which I’ve bolded some key phrases:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.

Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. If we love each other, God remains in us and his love is made perfect in us. This is how we know we remain in him and he remains in us, because he has given us a measure of his Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the savior of the world. If any of us confess that Jesus is God’s Son, God remains in us and we remain in God. We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God. Whoever loves someone who is a parent loves the child born to the parent. This is how we know that we love the children of God: when we love God and keep God’s commandments. This is the love of God: we keep God’s commandments.

The Johannine author twice says God is love and builds his argument to the final bolded statement, in which God’s love is tied explicitly to God’s commandments, which he has already said are to love our brothers and sisters. Love. Love. Love.

And what is love? Paul had something to say about that, too. 1 Corinthians 13 is famous for its description of love, but it’s worth remembering it occurs in the middle of a discourse on spiritual gifts, which is why Paul opens the chapter juxtaposing love with not only the gifts of tongues and prophecy but with faith itself: “If I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing.”

Among the many definitions of love Paul gives in the subsequent verses, he says, “It isn’t happy with injustice” (13:6). Gregory’s notion that God’s goodness and justice are inextricably intertwined is simply an extension of Paul’s notion about God’s love. Perfect love is perfectly just. And God, being love, must also be just – and to the extent we see injustice, that cannot be love and cannot be from God, as Anselm argued.

Love is central to God’s vision of justice, so much so that when the prophets and the apostles and Jesus himself interfaced with the Mosaic legal traditions, they found a single overarching theme that subsumed all the particulars: Love God and love each other.

“He has told you, mortal, what is good and what Yahweh requires of you: to do justice, embrace faithful love and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

“Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated and breaking every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6)

“Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:23-24).

And, finally, the clincher, Paul himself:

Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law (Romans 13:8-10).

The fasts, the festivals, the worship, the rules – none of it matters if we’re not engaging with the unquenchable, justice-filled love of God, and doing so by loving each other. If love is our basis for interaction, we cannot violate God’s law.

Justin Lee provided my first sit-up-and-take-notice moment on this subject when he wrote about it in his amazing book, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-Vs.-Christians Debate.

If every commandment can be summed up in the rule to love each other, then either gay couples were the one exception to this rule, and Paul was wrong – or my church had made a big mistake (206).

Church tradition, operating under assumptions about biology and gender that we can no longer accept as scientifically valid, has for 2,000 years considered same-sex intercourse to be inherently sinful. But that tradition, though strong and enduring, pales in comparison to the equally old and vastly more important tradition in which we only ascribe to God the actions that conform to his revealed character.

Would God be considered good, wise and just – would he be loving – if he forbade a certain group of people from eating, condemning the only food they were physically able to eat and consigning them to death by starvation if they were to obey his commands?

“Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish?” Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew 7. “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”

We know how to provide for the needs of our children. Our LGBT brothers and sisters are no less God’s children than we are. Should we believe that God, having created a need they must fulfill to live full, productive, healthy lives, forbids them to fulfill it? Is that wise? Is that just? Is that good?

Is it love?

As Justin says, are gay couples the exception to 1 John 4? To Romans 13? To Matthew 7 or Micah 6 or Isaiah 58?

I don’t believe God devises biological traps from which the vast majority of gay men and women will be unable to escape. I don’t believe God creates people with legitimate needs that reach to the core of their being – and then forbids them from fulfilling those needs. Such actions would be “brutal and tyrannous.” They are not, and cannot be, the actions of the God who tells us that to love others is to know and love him.

Opponents of this view will argue that while I must read biblical support for gay relationships out of a collection of verses that say nothing directly about the subject at hand, the Bible clearly condemns same-sex intercourse in a series of passages that includes Paul’s famous condemnation of “unnatural desires” in Romans 1.

But we must recognize that no passage of scripture refers to homosexuality the way we do no less than 1,800 years later. The notion of a monogamous, consensual relationship between two adults of the same gender was nearly unheard of throughout the time of the Bible’s compilation. Gay sex was overwhelmingly limited to pederasty and idolatrous debauchery, and in Paul’s exceedingly practical letters to his churches, he was dealing with those issues, not a same-sex married couple; further, he was dealing with those issues from the perspective of a first-century Hellenistic Jew, carrying with him certain assumptions about gender and sexuality that are just as foreign to our culture as our notions would be to his. The argument from scripture against same-sex intimacy is much weaker than its proponents assume, and it simply falls apart upon close study.

Likewise, some might take issue with my intentionally broad use of the word “intimacy” to imply sexual activity when obviously intimacy takes many forms, and in fact many gay men and women have found intimate, fulfilling, non-sexual relationships as they commit to pursuing lives of celibacy.

I respect and admire those people, straight or gay, who have chosen celibacy, and certainly intimacy is not confined to sexual activity. However, for the vast majority of people, straight and gay, celibacy is not a workable solution biologically or emotionally. Deeply intimate love is consummated in the truly sacred, truly vulnerable act of sex. Through it, one feels fully known and fully loved. The need for this kind of intimacy transcends sexual orientation, and for most people it is physically necessary for a full and healthy life, as Shulevitz’s article makes clear.

Which is why the other argument against same-sex intimacy also fails to convince. This argument accepts scientific evidence that homosexuality is not a conscious choice but points out that many proclivities to sin – especially tendencies toward addiction – are not chosen either. But whereas abstaining from addictive substances or actions invariably improves one’s health, abstaining from the intimacy of sexual union with someone who fully knows and loves you is – for most people – physically and mentally damaging.

That argument, again, requires us to attribute to God a monstrous presupposition: that he lays upon people the desire for physical intimacy and the physical necessity for that desire to be fulfilled – then prohibits them from fulfilling that desire because of its very existence. To ascribe this cruelty to God is to so rewrite the definitions of love, goodness and justice that it is to rewrite the God of the Bible out of existence. I am not willing to do that.

Although I write my opinions strongly, I’d like to close by reminding you (as if you needed it) that you don’t have to agree with me. Disagreement is OK. Christians from nearly every tradition disagree on whether it’s OK to be gay – and, more to the point, whether it’s OK to have gay sex. My quest on this blog has long been to convince anyone who happens to read that the church can and should make this question one on which disagreement is acceptable. The consensus has crumbled, and good Christians now find themselves on different sides of the fence.

For me, I have decided, based on my reading of scripture and what I’ve learned about how God created us, that the marriage of two men is no different in God’s eyes than if one of the grooms were a bride, and that when they give themselves to each other on their wedding night, that selfless act of total intimacy is no less pure, holy or pleasing to their creator than any heterosexual union.

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11 comments on “It’s OK to Be Gay – How Science, the Bible and the Love of God Convinced Me To Affirm Same-Sex Relationships

  1. joshbarkey says:

    While I don’t necessarily disagree with your conclusion (or many of your points along the way) I think perhaps there’s a problem with your reasoning, in that you seem to me to be conflating intimacy with sexual intimacy.

    Sure, closeted gays may experience heightened levels of loneliness because of the broad deception they’re forced to live in, but it seems a bit simplistic to me to suggest that the solution to loneliness is sexual intimacy.

    I was rejected by my wife, who chose intimacy with another man. But the emotional health I’ve found and maintained since has not come from partnering up with someone, myself, but rather by allowing myself to sink into the intimacy of relationships with family and friends.

    I don’t think I’m less healthy or less productive of a person because of it (which you seem to imply), and neither do I think my life will necessarily be diminished if I end up remaining sexually un-attached for the rest of my life. It could be that if that’s my lot, it’ll allow me to invest more fully and lovingly in others, and perhaps teach my son a valuable lesson about what marriage means. I might have MORE close relationships than I would if I were to find myself in a fully, sexually intimate relationship. I don’t know.

    But given that everybody around these h’year parts tends to bow before the exalted apostle Paul, and HE didn’t seem to think singleness/celibacy was the absolute death of a person, I think it’s perhaps unwise to (unintentionally, probably?) stigmatize it with this sort of argument.

    Besides… while you and your wife might have a rich and fulfilling sexual and personal intimacy in your marriage, for many people that is not the case. For many, many people, marriage is actually a SOURCE of expanded, ongoing loneliness.

    Again, not necessarily knocking your conclusion… just doubting the solidity of this particular argument.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Josh,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m aware of the conflation – or, as I think of it, my broad generalization of the way people interact with their most intimate partners. I tried to address that in the post by acknowledging that many, many people find intimacy with non-sexual partners, whether they be friends or mentors or even God himself.

      My point isn’t to disparage non-sexual intimacy but to point out that for most people, true intimacy requires a sexual component. You mention that Paul supported celibacy, but it’s interesting to me that even Paul, who was a hard-core projector of his own life choices onto the morality of others, acknowledged that celibacy was not possible for everyone. Given that there’s no evidence that someone who is gay is somehow more able to be celibate than someone who is straight, the odds are good that truest, deepest intimacy for a gay person will include a sexual component, just as it does for most straight people.

      Again, this isn’t to denigrate the intimacy found by straight and gay people in non-sexual partnership – I tried to make that clear. It’s simply to point out that most people, gay and straight, seem to be built, emotionally and physically, for sexual intimacy with a person they find attractive, and that gay people are built to find members of the same sex attractive, AND that since both of those drives are chosen for them, we have to decide whether we can properly attribute to God the character that would require the one inborn characteristic to negate the fulfillment of the other.

      • joshbarkey says:

        Oh, my. Was I guilty of skim-reading, or only reading the words that already existed in my head (covers face in shame)?

        Thanks for your answer, Paul.

        I get your point. I think I was probably just responding to the odd trigger-word here and there… for example, in your response, here, you refer to “true” intimacy, and I immediately rocket off into wondering about what makes one kind of intimacy more “true.”

        I get that when you’re sexually attracted to someone, that fuses with the interpersonal attraction in some mysterious, perhaps sacramental way and drives you toward wanting an experience of as complete a self-revelation as possible (and a quick shot of dopamine, to boot)… but I wonder how you can disentangle all of that and say it makes it more “true.”

        It’s certainly more fun… but there are just too many what-ifs involved for me to use that as an argument for being “okay with gay,” so to speak.

        To prove I’m not really disagreeing with you, though, here’s how I came to where I now am on all this:

        First, I heard about the existence of hermaphrodites, and concluded that perhaps sexuality WASN’T a perfectly delineated dichotomy. Then, I learned that the “perfect” sexual vision I’d been barraged with my whole life wasn’t real, or possible (at least not for me, or any other human I’ve ever known). Throw in a little humility and a gathering storm of disapproval for anybody who ever says they’ve got even their own sexuality all figured out and BAM! I was done being right. Nunn-my-biznatch, as the kids would say.

      • Paul says:

        Haha, yeah, the more I learn, the more I realize that “gender” is a very slippery concept, and it really always has been; we just assume that our particular notion of it is the correct one.

        I hear you on the use of the word “true,” so I would invite you to add the words “true to them.” I don’t mean objectively true, but rather subjectively true, which is to say, true intimacy *for me* – and, I think, for most people – involves a sexual component. That doesn’t mean those for whom true intimacy does not include a sexual component do not have true intimacy, just that their true intimacy is different, and, I’ll reiterate, not at all inherently worse for being a minority strain.

    • The_L says:

      I would argue that the conflation of emotional and sexual intimacy is one performed by conservative Christian leaders, not progressives. To wit: the RCC, like many other conservative denominations, doesn’t say that its gay members must be chaste, but that they must be celibate.

      One can be chaste (i.e., refrain from sexual activity) while still in a romantic relationship. However, in order to be celibate, one must totally refrain from romantic AND sexual intimacy. It’s the difference between “I’m not having sex with my girlfriend” and “I’m not ever having a girlfriend.”

      It is one thing to state that chastity is a virtue; it is another thing to add the statement that celibacy is good for those willing and able to embrace it; it is a totally different, and exceedingly vile, thing to force celibacy on other human beings who may or may not want to be celibate, because of an inborn attraction they cannot consciously change.

      The monstrous thing is not celibacy; it is the denial of choice. A gay 12-year-old boy who has never even kissed anybody is told, “Because you have these thoughts about other boys and not about girls, you aren’t allowed to even date anybody,” and somehow people fail to see how that’s different from “Don’t have a particular form of sex.”

      And it’s hurting children. There is a reason that rates of suicide and homelessness are extremely high for GLBT teenagers. The reason is that, rather than encouraging them to be chaste, we are demanding that they live their lives alone.

      • Sophie says:

        I’d just like to say how true this is. I’m fifteen, and walking around, all I can think is ‘I wonder if I jump of that, would it kill me?’ Just fifteen. Do you know how scary that is? All because of the harsh, unloving teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The feelings of love I have towards othe women, are labelled as intrinsically disordered. I am told I must always live alone, never am I to look into the eyes of another woman and tell her how much I love her. For a year I told no one how I was feeling, I tried so hard to change. I have come all too close to taking my own life. I confided in a teacher who is out at my school. Talking helped a lot. I think people underestimate the need for role models, for LGBT teens. Turns out she was brought up Catholic too. She gave me hope. Eventually I got help for what I was thinking and feeling, even acting out sometimes. I am now out to my parents, they love me,but have made it all to clear to me that I must remain celibate for the rest of my life. I guess that hurts still more, because here are the two people I love most in this world condemning me to what caused me to nearly take my own life. They say they are teaching me the truth. And right now, I’m angry. So angry at this church who proclaim love, but neglect those who need it most. I wonder how many LGBT teen suicides the RCC is linked too. I’d say more than most people would ever think. Every 5 hours an LGBT teen commits suicide, and for every one that does, there are something like 21 more who try. This church needs to wake up. Right now. I still get these thoughts, but I dream of day when I can put all of this behind me, a day when I can look into the eyes of a woman I love, and know nothing will ever hurt me like that again. I believe that Gods love and truth is so much bigger than human understanding, and humans, who are proud enough, agnorant, ignorant enough to proclaim they know Gods plan for everyone’s lives, are just plain wrong. It causes this pain, I pray for all of those people like me, some who may not be able to see a light. And I pray that one day things can be different.

      • Paul says:

        Hi Sophie,

        Thanks for sharing. I’m so sorry for the pain you’ve experienced, and I’m really glad you found someone to help you through the dark times. Hang in there; times are changing, even if it doesn’t feel fast enough. I only hope more teens find the support you did, and I hope more churches find the ability to provide that support. I agree: Too many are dying for the church to act as if the same old answers are enough.

  2. […] couple of weeks ago, I described my support for same-sex relationships in terms of intimacy – that God has hard-wired people to need to be intimate, so much so that our […]

  3. Original Poster, I have nothing against gays, however one of your remarks unnerved me: the one in which you described solitude as bad as smoking or other self-destructive habits. Sometimes, one is better off alone, e.g. if one is in a bad relationship.

    Yes, I know about divorce. Divorce is no stigma, yet it can cause complications and upset. It is better to avoid all this by remaining alone.

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