To what extent does our experience of sexuality interact with our sense of personhood? This is a question that has come up in conversation and times of reflection. As I navigate the variety of ways this conversation around faith and sexuality is articulated in different parts of the Christian community, I often encounter what has increasingly seemed to me to be a reductionistic view of sexuality.
When people talk about same-sex oriented people there are a number of ways this reductionism emerges. Some people would refute the idea of same-sex orientation altogether. In their minds, the experience of same-sex attraction is something that is triggered by predisposing factors - and once those predisposing factors have been dealt with, the individual should be free to move towards a redeemed (i.e. heterosexual) sexuality. This may be what some individuals experience - though it may be argued that they did not have a same-sex orientation to begin with. But it does not fit the experience of all those who experience predominant and persistant same-sex attraction.
Others view same-sex orientation primarily or solely through the lens of sexualized attraction. While they may differentiate between orientation and sexual behaviour in theory, often these lines get blurred to the point that as they talk about gay individuals assumptions about sexual activity emerge. Or there is the sense that the sexualized element overshadows any other aspects of that person's sexual identity.
One pastor told me that his understanding was that gay men lacked the potential for committed monogomy in their partnerships. He hadn't encountered any people who had demonstrated anything different to him - but by his own account he did not know any Christian gay couples. From others, I regularly hear presumptions about sexual behaviour that seem outlandish and therefore carry the perception of being particularly immoral.
For those who have relational experience with gay friends or family members, there may be a more nuanced understanding that same-sex sexuality is not just about sex. There is a recognition that there are psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects of this experience of sexual identity. They know that their same-sex attracted friends long to be completed by a partner of the same gender in a more wholistic sense than merely a physical sexual relationship. They perhaps glimpse that same-sex sexuality is a unique way of navigating the world of people and relationships regardless of whether an individual is in a same-sex relationship or sexuallly active or not. Inherent in these glimpses is the intuitive sense that the manner in which an individual expresses themselves, creatively, through humour, and other forms of self-expression including worship, cannot be divorced from the reality that they are same-sex oriented. Such friends would sense that if their same-sex attracted friends needed to hide or be silent about this aspect of themselves, they may well lose connection to essential aspects of themselves.
Such an understanding can be hard to articulate in conversation with other Christians who are confident and certain that same-sex sexuality is nothing more than a deception, a charade, or a rebellion against God's created order. Some hold the opinion that an individual who honestly describes themselves as gay should receive no encouragement, resources or support in living an authentic expression of their sexuality (we are not speaking here about sexual relationships - but only about the honest disclosure of experiencing the reality of a same-sex orientation). Others believe that such withdrawal of care is harmful to a same-sex oriented individual. These two different perspectives tend to be very polarized and distrustful of the other. It can be a real challenge to find common ground where there is such a basic disagreement about the withdrawal or the offering of encouragement and support.
This is where a lot of disconnection happens in the current conversations around faith and sexuality. Ironically, such disconnection isn't even about the question of the appropriateness of same-sex relationships. It is something much more intrinsic, intimate and personal. And that is the disagreement over whether there should be acknowledgement, validation and honouring of the reality of same-sex orientation and the influence it has on an individual's sense of personhood or whether such validation should be discouraged for fear it will reinforce a state of being that is inconsistent with God's design.
To complicate matters further, different individuals have different experiences with being same-sex attracted. For some, not being validated was, in their minds, a good thing. For them, same-sex attraction seemed to be significantly attached to traumas and deficits - and with the experience of healing and resolution, such individuals found that same-sex attraction ceased being a dominant factor in their sense of self.
For others, however, lack of acknowledgement and space to express honestly their sense of personhood as intimately connected with their experience of same-sex orientation caused great harm. Some recount a sense of becoming shut-down in their emotions - unable to feel much of anything - and losing touch with any sense of desire, creativity or joy. Many describe simply going through the motions in worship and times of prayer - no longer able to connect intimately with God. It is not uncommon to hear accounts of profound depression and suicidal ideation or attempts.
So, what are we to conclude? What is the best approach? Our experience at New Direction tells us that the best approach is to encounter each person as a unique individual. To provide a safe and spacious environment in which they can express, as honestly as possible, where they are at in experiencing their sexuality as part of the bigger picture of who they are. Such honest expression ought not be feared. Inevitably, each individual still needs to wrestle with what their convictions will be about involvement in relationship and the expression of sexual intimacy. But we believe that people will be in a much better position to actually do such wrestling when they feel that they have had the autonomy to express their sense of sexuality and personhood without judgement or the assumption of externally imposed definitions.
Such an approach requires patience - for this isn't a quick process. It requires humility - for no one can step into another's skin and define their personhood for them. It requires gentleness - for such intimate knowing is a vulnerable and sensitive place. It requires encouragement - for we are created to be in relationship, called to love and support one another, and fashioned to be interdependent as expressions of God's love and acceptance one to another. And it requires trust - for it is the Holy Spirit who teaches, corrects and helps us to journey towards maturity in faith and obedience.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well. Ps. 139: 13, 14
Note: this article was previously published in the Summer 2011 edition of Pathway, the newsletter of New Direction. If you do not receive this quarterly communication but would like to, please email info(at)newdirection.ca