Randy R. Potts and Matthew Vines continue their wide-ranging discussion about how to address gay issues within the conservative Evangelical culture in which they were both brought up.
RANDY R. POTTS: We can assume pretty safely that there’s a new generation coming up that is going to be very receptive to your message. That’s not just a stroke in our favor but church leaders today, knowing that, are going to have to find some way to approach that generation. If you can offer some way for those pastors to speak to the younger generation’s concerns about treating gay people in a better way, I think that gives you a big in.
MATTEW VINES: It’s true that there will be natural cultural changes that will be felt in conservative churches over time, no matter what. But in terms of what that’s going to look like, it really depends on a lot of things that are yet to be determined and that I’m trying to help determine. For instance, conservative Christians can become much more loving and compassionate toward gay people in about three different ways and I think that only one of them is acceptable. One is the way that Pope Francis has recently embraced, which is a wonderfully helpful thing given the precedent there, but that’s certainly not a long-term strategy – which is to just be much kinder, don’t actually change what you think about homosexual relationships being sinful but be much more compassionate and loving and gracious to gay people. That’s great but it’s not enough
RRP: It’s a starting point
MV: It’s a starting point. The next thing that represents a greater shift – and that I think is actually much more troubling over the long-term because some people will think that it’s a viable long-term strategy – is to treat homosexuality the way a lot of churches have begun to treat divorce and remarriage, which is that we’re acknowledging that we live in a sinful, broken world and we have to make some concessions to the reality of our situation while still recognizing that that’s not God’s best. So that means we can accept homosexual relationships because gay people exist in a fallen world, but we still believe that they aren’t God’s best…
RRP:… and we won’t celebrate them…
MV: They might have some sort of different kind of union but it wouldn’t be the same. And to me this is the religious equivalent of the whole civil union vs. marriage debate in the secular sphere. I could sum that up with, “Okay, we have to do something with them, because gay people are here in these relationships and they have a strong case for needing some sort of recognition and stability and support but we don’t want to give them marriage because that is something greater so we’re going to create something new and give that to them.” I definitely believe there would be a growing trend, if current cultural trends continue apace, what would happen over time in conservative communities is a gradual shift from the Pope Francis openness and compassion to a view that’s it’s inferior but still acceptable.
RRP: We will tolerate but not accept it.
MV: Yeah, it’s tolerable but always with this idea that gay people only exist because we live in a fallen world. We were not God’s intention and so same-sex relationships are tolerable because monogamous, committed same-sex relationships are better than “to burn with passion.” But it’s still better to be celibate if you could do that, or to be straight.
RRP: That’s the other alternative. It’s what the Mormon church is advocating right now by saying, “We love gay people. We just demand that they be celibate.”
MV: That’s basically the Pope Francis position also, although the Mormon church hasn’t even gotten as good in terms of how they’re expressing their compassion. But the third possibility, and the only one that I think is acceptable and one that I will absolutely be advocating, is to come to a more accurate understanding of these select passages in the Bible and come to what I think is the strongest understanding of Scripture that, first of all, acknowledges that it never directly addresses the kinds of relationships we’re talking about today in terms of same-sex relationships that are an expression of a same-sex orientation that manifest love and covenantal commitment. That’s not what you see in Scripture.
RRP: Well, there was no imagination of that kind of union back then of two men or two women in love who commit and raise a family. It was not part of the discourse. They couldn’t imagine that possibility when Paul was writing.
MV: I wouldn’t say that. That’s not entirely true. It is true that loving same-sex relationships that had any level of commitment were by far a minority experience of same-sex behavior in general. The most common example of same-sex behavior in Ancient Greece was pederasty, man-boy relationships – messed-up stuff – and in Rome there were master-slave relationships, which is essentially sex slavery, because all slaves were expected to submit to whatever sexual favors or advances their masters would make. That’s not really similar. But here were examples of some relationships that we would consider to be loving same-sex relationships with some degree of commitment. In almost all of them, however, there’s an age hierarchy or a class hierarchy.
RRP: And yet didn’t Nero publicly marry someone his age?
MV: Nero. Yes. Well, there was a status hierarchy. Nero did “marry” a man. But it was not a monogamous relationship. Nero was quite the explorer of sexuality and it’s questionable how serious a wedding that was. But you can find some examples here and there of loving same-sex relationships. The core difference is not how same-sex behavior was expressed; the real difference is how same-sex behavior was understood as it relates to personal identity. So the concept of a gay orientation is not something that existed in the world of people who are exclusively, romantically oriented toward others of the same sex and who are not capable of heterosexual attraction or fulfillment. That is something that is not reflected in ancient literature. Consequently, even loving same-sex relationships to the extent that they existed, which admittedly wasn’t that great of an extent, were perceived as someone going to excess because they could be fulfilled in a heterosexual relationship but they were going beyond that. So that’s why same-sex relationships of the time – even when they might look similar to today – would not have been accepted. There are two main schools of thought in the Roman world that rejected same-sex eroticism outright, whereas some Greeks accepted some and would reject others depending on the different hierarchies. The Roman Stoics rejected all forms of same-sex eroticism because they were non pro-creative. For the Christians, pro-creation was not as much of a concern. The bigger concern was monogamy. Same-sex relations would have been condemned categorically by Christians because they went outside the bounds of heterosexual monogamy with the necessary assumption that everybody was capable of heterosexual monogamy. The idea of a gay person is not an idea that any of the Biblical writers would have had.
RRP: It’s only now about 100 years old.
MV: Yes. And it’s only recently come to be understood widely in the last 40. So the unnecessary part of a rationale for a condemnation of homosexuality in early Christianity was that it involved people going beyond the basic monogamous structures of society. So the question for Christians today is, “Okay, we’re in a new interpretive environment here where we have some new evidence and understandings. We have gay people and we have to acknowledge that they exist.” Most people have gotten there to some extent. And so what do we do with that? If it’s true, as it is, that Paul and the writers of the New Testament were not operating with that concept, then can we say that Paul’s condemnation of lustful same-sex relations in Romans constitutes his teaching on sexual orientation?
RRP: He didn’t teach on orientation in a way we would recognize.
MV: He didn’t. So we have to recognize a gap between what Paul was discussing and the situation with which we are confronted. That’s what can allow Christians to say, “Okay, it’s not that Paul took a rosy view of same-sex relations. Obviously he didn’t. It’s that the logic and the framework of his discussion are totally different from the logic and framework of ours. So you cannot really say he was addressing the same subject.” That’s all to say, that the third possibility is that once you acknowledge that fact – that the Bible does not discuss what we are discussing – that you can understand committed same-sex relationships not only as tolerable but also as good and holy expressions of sexuality. We accept that sexuality in Christian theology is a good thing because the body is good, because it’s part of God’s good creation. It goes back to Genesis, that God created everything and decided that it was good. The human body is good. This is why God can become incarnate without degrading His character because the body is not degraded in and of itself even though the bodies we live in are decaying. Ultimately, that’s why Christians believe that God will restore the body and they will be resurrected by physical transformation of bodies to live in the new heaven and the new earth. We will not, as Plato suggested, be released from our bodies and live as disembodied souls for eternities. Some Christians have muddy ideas about this but that’s why the work of N. T. Wright is so important and has been so influential in clarifying how unanimous in affirming that understanding of the Biblical teaching. So once you take that idea – here’s what it looks like to get to a theology that affirms same-sex relationships as potentially good and holy and blessed and of equal value – it starts with the goodness of creation. That naturally entails the goodness of the body. Sexuality is a core part of the Bible and at least has the potential for goodness in how it is expressed. Gay people exist. If the body is good, if sexuality at least has some potential for positive expression, then same-sex sexuality as some people’s exclusive expression of sexuality has potential for good expression. People say, “Oh, well, what if someone were a pedophile? What if someone were attracted to animals or only people of their own family?” The problem with this is that, first of all, there is no such thing as a person who is only attracted to animals or someone of their immediate family. The reason why same-sex desire, once you understand that the Bible doesn’t address it as we are, should be understood as necessarily having some positive potential in its expression is because same-sex orientation has the potential of a covenantal expression of sexuality. Pedophilia is not covenantal. Bestiality is not covenantal.
RRP: But playing devil’s advocate, why is pedophilia not covenantal?
MV: If you look at when pedophilia was accepted we’d be looking at Ancient Greece and at pederasty. It can’t be covenantal because it is necessarily hierarchical and because the boy only remains a boy for so long and then he grows up and the relationship ends. Covenant is the idea of permanence. Bestiality obviously cannot be covenantal because animals cannot consent and whatever emotional aspect of that relationship that exists is not going to be the kind of emotional bond that is necessary for a true Christian bond of covenant. So I guess you could say that you could potentially have the possibility of a covenant between immediate family members. But that doesn’t have anything to do with gayness. I want to clarify that I don’t agree with that, but that’s an argument you could make independent of an argument concerning orientation. Furthermore, no one has ever presented a case where someone is only capable of attraction to a family member.
In order to determine if same-sex relationships can have a positive expression you have to look at what its expression is and what its expression can be, and in that sense, given the covenantal potential of same-sex orientation, there is no reason Biblically to reject it categorically. So, that is the third option, where Christians affirm the equal value and “created-ness” of same-sex orientation and the blessedness of same-sex marriages. That is not something that mere cultural change can create. Cultural change operates within existing paradigms and softens them or makes concessions within them
RRP: Like with the Pope, it’s a tone change
MV: Right. In order to get Christians to the third option – the only legitimate option -you have to systematically and thoroughly engage with the Bible. We need to be having Bible debates, Bible conversations, in-depth study, research, and argumentation that pervades the lay level of evangelical society and does so in a way that is reverent towards Scripture. Arguments alone won’t get you there. You have to have relationships. You have to have experiences. But without the arguments, your relationships and your experiences will only take you so far. So that is what I see as my mission over the next decade or so is to really be formalizing that position to then make it really easy for Christians to decide, “Okay, I agree with this.” Right now conservative Christians feel they have to create the position on their own to agree with it which is so much work and so daunting that it’s not going to happen. But if you create it for them and you make it easy for them to simply say yes or no then the sympathetic ones can start by saying yes. Suddenly you have two competing viewpoints and then over the time I think we can get to the point where we only have one.
RRP: So this is all future oriented. It’s things that you and I couldn’t have imagined when we were 12 and dealing with being gay
MV: I wasn’t dealing with it when I was 12
RRP: I thought you’ve said you had some kind of glimmer of it at age 12.
MV: I was age 14. That’s when I noticed attractions to other guys. I just didn’t want to deal with the implications of that – whether I was actually gay – and I didn’t deal with the implications for another five years.
RRP: Did you avoid friendships with guys? That’s what I did.
MV: No, I didn’t really have to. Most of my friends were girls.
RRP: Right. For me, most of my friends were girls too. I did have one really good guy friend from ninth grade on, but there was so much sexual tension for me that it was almost unbearable at times to be around him. You mentioned to me last night that you had a bit of that dissonance when you were living in Boston. In your head you were going through the cultural loss experience you were going to have coming out here in Wichita. But physically you lived in Boston where it was very accepted. You finally realized, there aren’t big implications [being gay]in Boston but there are back home. Why did you go home?
MV: Because family was more important to me than school. And I think the way we’re going to change things for gay kids in these more conservative communities is to let them see real world examples of gay people who are just like them – you know, gay Christians, maybe pretty traditional-minded in a lot of respects who are accepted by their families, who are embraced, who are living happy, fulfilling lives. The more that you can create that and the more you can get that out there on a wider scale and the more you can get that in the public consciousness in the media, that is really what changes how people respond. But I think in order to get to that point, it requires a lot of these arguments.
RRP: One thing I wanted to circle back to was that you feel like the reality on the ground right now in conservative areas is so distressing that you feel like – you didn’t use this word last night when we were talking – but I thought of the word “cloister” yourself for awhile until things get better. Do you think that’s something that is more about you personally? Or is it something that a lot of people are facing in red states? I don’t mean to put you on the spot.
MV: Well, my version of “cloistering” is much different than most people would understand that word. My version is a very publicly engaged form of cloistering
RRP: Right. “Cloister” is maybe the wrong word. You and I are both introverts and the idea of sitting in a room alone and reading for hours is a wonderful thing.
MV: Well, I don’t want to just wait around for things to change, I want to very actively be helping to change them, and bend them, and accelerate the trajectory of change
RRP: Right. But let’s say that you had some social event and you met this amazing guy in the next few weeks and it distracts you from all the things you’re working on right now
MV: (Laughs) Not acceptable.
RRP: But these things happen sometimes
MV: No, that can’t happen
RRP: Okay. Let’s say it happens after your book is published
MV: Okay. That could happen
RRP: So let’s say at a book release party …
MV: That’s too early
RRP: Okay. Soon after that. There’s this guy – sometimes these things happen – someone catches your eye all of a sudden. This person is wonderful. You find yourself dating him. Can you imagine – say, a few years after an event like that- can you imagine marrying him and living in Wichita and making a life there?
MV: It’s probably a little too early
RRP: In what way?
MV: Well, I wouldn’t have had quite enough time to reshape society in Wichita yet quite to my liking. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be in a place where my taking that next step is actually going to help things along instead of constricting me in my life.
RRP: But let’s say that
MV: Right now, if I were married to a man, and living in Wichita I would have to construct a totally different life path.
MV: Because a lot of things that I’m doing right now, the kinds of engagement that I’m trying to do, the kinds of communities that I would like to be a part of, and the kinds of circles that I’d like to be able to move within are not yet there. When I get married I would want there to be a certain amount of stability. I wouldn’t want to be in this conflict, this phase of re-orientation
RRP: But why not? That’s like saying Martin Luther King shouldn’t have gotten married during his …
MV: That’s not similar at all.
RRP: Why not?
MV: Because Martin Luther King, Jr.’s issue had nothing to do with marriage. It was all about race. And since what I am doing is all about sexual orientation and that is so intimately connected to marriage, it’s just going to ..
RRP: So if you met this wonderful man in, say, six months from now, what do you do?
MV: It’s probably not going to happen.
RRP: But you’re not in control of that always.
MV: You’d be surprised how much you can be in control of. Right now I am so single-minded in what I am doing that there is nothing that could distract me from what I’m doing unless you know my health falls apart, unless my actual ability to function is somehow impaired in a way beyond my control. I care about this so much more than I could ever care about my happiness in a given period of life.