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.