The Positive Vocation of Celibacy: An Interview with Dr. Wesley Hill
Dr. Wesley Hill is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry and author of Washed and Waiting, Paul and the Trinity, and most recently Spiritual Friendship. He is also the co-founder of spiritualfriendship.org, a website that cultivates theological and personal reflection from celibate, gay Christians. Ironically, the dialogue from that website has been an incredible source of wisdom for my future marriage.
As a follow-up to my review of his excellent book Spiritual Friendship, Dr. Hill agreed to an interview.
George Aldhizer: Your first book, Washed and Waiting, emphasized your struggle of living a celibate life. Spiritual Friendship emphasizes your hope and calling in living a celibate life. Does this contrast reflect an evolution in your thinking on your own sexual identity?
Wesley Hill: I think it does, yes. Washed and Waiting was more focused on what those of us who are gay are called to abstain from and how painful that can be. Spiritual Friendship is more focused on the “yes” of Christian discipleship for gay believers—what we called to pursue, positively. The earlier book was more interested in painting a picture of the challenges and difficulties of being gay and Christian, while the latter is more interested in the question of vocation and calling. As Paul Evdokimov has put it, “[I]n all the cases of deprivation Scripture speaks of, grace offers a gift; out of a negative renunciation it creates a positive vocation. To renounce one thing means to be totally consecrated to another that this very renunciation allows us to realize.” It’s the consecration that I’m more interested in now.
Many Christians would have trouble with any sort of positive conception of a gay orientation. How would you respond to someone who says, “Gay sex is sinful, how can a gay orientation be positive?”
For me, it’s important to remember that being drawn to or tempted by a certain sexual activity is not the sum total of a person’s sexuality. Wanting sex is part of being a sexual creature. But “sexuality” is a broader experience that has to do with relationality and communion. Traditional Christianity views the desire to have gay sex as wrongly ordered—which is to say, aiming at the wrong goal. Gay sex is about two people of the same sex, who are unable to procreate and complement one another in that sexually differentiated sense, trying to unite. Historic Christianity says that that doesn’t fulfill God’s created purposes for sex. But for everyone who desires gay sex, his or her sexuality isn’t reducible to that desire. As the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales put it in 2004, “Insofar as the homosexual orientation can lead to sexual activity which excludes openness to the generation of new human life and the essential sexual complementarity if man and woman, it is, in this particular and precise sense only, objectively disordered” (emphasis added). The implication here, of course, is that there is much about a “homosexual orientation” that isn’t “objectively disordered.”
How should married people of twenty years profit from your book? Engaged/dating people in heterosexual relationships?
Single people are perhaps especially aware of their need for friendship, since if they don’t have friends, they’re pretty obviously going to remain isolated. But just because married/engaged people aren’t always aware of their similar needs for friendship doesn’t mean they don’t have those needs. One of the dangers, it seems to me, in our current experience of romance is that we are tempted to think there is one, and only one, human being out there who can “complete” us, who can answer all or most of our relational needs. To try to build a marriage on that assumption is to set your marriage up for major heartache and—to use a Jewish and Christian term—idolatry. Friendship can be one way of reminding married people that their love, too, should be diffuse and wide-ranging. There is a unique covenantal love that married people enjoy, but that doesn’t mean that that is supposed to be the sum total of their relational, self-giving experience.
In both of your books, you’re talking primarily to a Christian audience that believes in the traditional definition of marriage. How do you respond to people who do not believe that same-sex marriage or same-sex sexual activity is wrong?
Yes, that’s right, I am trying to sketch some of the bigger picture for what’s called “the traditional view” of marriage and sexuality. I’m trying to talk about friendship, community, and hospitality as part of the traditional view’s “plausibility structure”—i.e., what makes the traditional view compelling and livable for people. But, yes, there are many who don’t share that view. And although I’m not writing primarily to them, I want to be in conversation with people like that, many of whom are my personal friends. What I have found most fruitful, when the topic comes up, is to talk with these friends about how and why we’ve each come to hold the respective views we hold. Rather than just comparing our conclusions (“gay sex is always morally wrong” versus “gay sex can be an expression of love and faithfulness”), I’ve found that it’s beneficial to go deeper and talk about our ecclesial affiliations and where we locate theological authority. Why is it that I, as a creedal, traditionalist Anglican, come to different conclusions from my social justice-oriented, politically progressive Methodist friends, for instance? Having that conversation is more productive than just “agreeing to disagree.”
How can Christians best interact with a culture that is accepting of same-sex relationships?
I believe we should keep talking about the Gospel and Scripture and our understandings of the Church. We should never assume the basics. So, I always want to try to present the traditional Christian view of sex and marriage by going back and talking about big biblical and theological foundations like creation (Genesis 1-2), the fall (Romans 1), covenant, the kingdom of God (Mark 10), and baptism. I think it’s very important to emphasize to people that my “traditional views” aren’t based in a “yuck factor” response to gay people. (I am myself gay, after all!) Rather, the reason I accept the Christian “no” to gay sex is because I accept Jesus’ teaching on marriage (Matthew 19), I am baptized and therefore my body is not my own (1 Corinthians 6), and I believe celibacy is a witness to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb of God (Revelation 19). Many people in our culture think that Christians are opposed to gay sex because of outdated views that gay people “choose” their sexuality and are just oversexed and rebellious. It’s important to me to say that that’s not the basis of the traditional Christian view at all. It’s rather our views of creation, sin, and redemption that shape our understanding of what sex is for and what marriage is.
In our culture, there seem to be two polar opposite views of homosexuality. Is it possible for Christians to reframe the current debate around homosexuality? If so, how can we start?
The Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley talks about our need for “erotic saints.” We need Christians—and I think, at this current moment, we need specifically gay Christians—who will try, with their own bodies and lives and histories, to live into the traditional view. If our culture thinks that celibacy is tantamount to loneliness, what will change that perception is if actual, real-life gay Christians prove that perception wrong by finding friendship and belonging in the Church. Towards the end of my book, I quote Brother John of Taizé: “Vibrant Christian communities where married couples and celibates live side by side in deep friendships could be a powerful countercultural sign, witnessing to the fact—almost unbelievable to many of our contemporaries—that clear limits set to the bodily expression of love do not keep one from finding happiness and fulfillment.” Amen to that!