Justin’s Response to “The Hidden Paths of Love”

A week ago, Eve Tushnet and I were each asked to offer our thoughts on “morally appropriate relationships between persons who experience same-sex attraction.”

Eve’s response was called “The Hidden Paths of Love.” 

Mine was called “Three Ways I Was Wrong…And How We Can Get It Right.” 

In this second phase of the conversation, we’ve each been asked to offer some thoughts on what we agree and disagree with about each other’s articles. So if you haven’t already read Eve’s initial article, you’ll want to do that first.

As I read Eve’s words, I was struck by how much I like and admire her as my sister in Christ. She’s clever, funny, insightful, and compassionate. I know this not only from reading her article, but also from hearing about her from our mutual friends and from my own personal interactions with her. If our goal in this dialogue is respectful conversation, Eve’s inclusion was a great choice.

Eve and I have some differing theological views, but I found that I agreed with the overwhelming majority of what she said in “The Hidden Paths of Love.” She’s absolutely right in calling out our modern obsession with a particular kind of love and our relative neglect of other paths.

I’ve been in many churches where the implicit assumption was that everyone in the church was either married or yet-to-be-married. All too frequently, sermons and church structure revolve around the nuclear family unit, and adults who are divorced, widowed, or single for any other reason are either unintentionally ignored or pushed to “get back in the saddle” and look for a mate. No one means for this to happen, but it is a common and unhealthy environment that recognizes only one kind of love and neglects the value many find in temporary or lifelong celibacy. Eve’s words are so critical for these churches to hear, and I hope they take note.

I was especially moved by Eve’s descriptions of Matthew Loftus’s work with the Christian Community Development Association, Henri Nouwen’s life at L’Arche, and her own volunteer work at the pregnancy center. Service is so important in the Christian life and so undervalued by our culture. I wish that all Christians were known first and foremost for our generosity in service! What a world that would be!

So when Eve bemoans the lack of sermons and blessings focusing on friendship, service, and celibate partnership, I’m right there with her, cheering her on. When she says, “Part of the reason we don’t understand the value of Christian celibacy is that we have virtually no structures for supporting it among our fellow Christians,” I completely agree. I have friends who have committed their lives to celibacy, and I see how difficult that is for them and how little support they get from their church communities—often the same church communities that encouraged them to be celibate in the first place. Eve is absolutely right about this, and I hope her message resonates far and wide.

There are also, of course, a couple of key places in which Eve and I disagree and where I worry that her words could be used to support some very harmful theology.

My first concern is that many churches may be tempted to use Eve’s words about “other ways of love” as a justification for denying to gay men and lesbians a particular and important kind of love that they themselves would be unwilling to go without.

Imagine if someone wrote an article about the need for Christians to reclaim the value of fasting and poverty to bring us closer to God. That could be an important message. But what if—missing the point—wealthy, well-fed Americans began citing that article to justify not feeling bad about the plight of the poor and starving? 

I do believe that God can reward us for fasting, giving away our possessions, living simply, and the like. But these are voluntary choices undertaken within particular parameters. If someone writes about how they took a vow of poverty and had their life improved by that decision, we may all be inspired to aspire to something similar—and rightly so. But that should never move us to become complacent about consigning other people to involuntary poverty and hunger. That would be wrong.

Similarly, I agree that we as a culture have become too fixated on romantic love and marriage. And, yes, I believe we need to reclaim the value of other types of relationships and acts of service. But that truth should not lead to the devaluing of romance and marriage themselves, as if they were unimportant in human lives. The existence of these other loves must never become a rationalization for those who already have romantic/marital intimacy—or who do not particularly feel the need for it—to deny it to others. 

Eve makes an excellent case that our culture overemphasizes marriage as the only option. But in so doing, I think she downplays the fact that marriage really is important. Even without a need for procreation, I cannot imagine a world in which all Christians would voluntarily agree to stop getting married.

As good and important as these other forms of love are, there is something fundamental about marriage that matters to us as human beings. Romantic, intimate, committed human relationship meets a need that other forms of love do not. The other forms of love are good and can provide added meaning and purpose for all of us—married and unmarried—but they are not a substitute for marriage.

To be clear, I don’t think Eve is claiming that they are a substitute for marriage at all. I just want to point out that as much as I agree with her on the problems with overemphasizing marriage, I also am concerned with the problems of de-emphasizing marriage, particularly when talking about the lives of other people.

In Eve’s case, of course, she’s not talking about other people’s lives as much as she’s talking about her own. And I appreciate the depth of her faith; she’s willing to do something difficult because she believes it is what God calls her to do. Reading Eve’s article, I was struck by her vulnerability in admitting to some of her own struggles in the journey; this made me love her even more! Sacrifice is an important part of the Christian walk, and I commend Eve highly for her own willingness to sacrifice for God.

This is also an area where Eve and I see things differently, however, and on two different topics.

The most obvious difference is that Eve and I disagree on whether marriage is available to same-sex Christian couples. I believe it is, and she believes it isn’t. But the difference I was most struck by is how we came to our conclusions and what role the church plays in that journey.

For Eve, the church is “teacher and translator,” the source she trusts to answer this complicated question. 

“To ask me what I believe is in a certain sense the wrong question,” she writes. “I believe what my Church believes and teaches to be true.”

I share Eve’s love for the church, and I see it as a vital part of my Christian walk. But in some ways—perhaps in no small part because I am a Protestant—I see my relationship to the church somewhat differently.

For me, the church is like my family. Like a family, the church provides me with needed relationships and support in my journey. Like a family, the church offers guidance and can make me aware of ways I may have gone astray. But also like a family, the church is made up of fallible human beings. I trust the church, but I do not accept everything it teaches me without question or challenge. Most of the time, I think the church gets things right. But sometimes, the church gets things wrong. 

I am a Protestant in part because I believe the Roman Catholic Church got some things wrong along the way—including some much bigger theological issues than the one we’re discussing in this conversation. But there is no doubt we Protestants have made our share of mistakes as well. I learned about Christ and came to faith in the Southern Baptist Church, and I will be forever grateful for the Christian passion instilled in me by that denomination. Unfortunately, as much as I love the good things, Southern Baptists have also gotten some very big things very wrong, going all the way back to the beginning when the denomination was founded in part on the belief that the Bible supports slavery. 

Growing up, I was unaware of the racist history of the Southern Baptist Church. By the time I was born, such horrible views had long since been abandoned, and the congregation I grew up in never taught such things. But when I, as a young man, began to learn about my own denomination’s history, it caused me to question other elements of church doctrine: If my spiritual ancestors had been so wrong about slavery, mightn’t today’s Southern Baptists be wrong about other things—things our spiritual descendants might be embarrassed about just as we are ashamed of the mistakes of the past? 

Answering this sort of question requires two kinds of humility. On one hand, I must remember that I am only one person with limited experience and understanding; there is wisdom in the traditions of the church that I do not possess as an individual. But on the other, I also believe I need to be realistic about the limitations of my own church family, for though there is wisdom in community, no community is infallible. Holding these two points in tension, I need to be able to question and even disagree with my church family without forgetting that I myself can be wrong. 

I say this as a point of disagreement with Eve, but it may actually be less about disagreement than about degree of emphasis. In her own article, Eve says, “There are things the Catholic Church could teach which would make it impossible, I think, for me to accept Her as a trustworthy guide to God’s will.” In my case, I hit that point with the denomination I grew up in, causing me not only to seek out a different denomination but also to recognize my own responsibility to evaluate what my church says for trustworthiness.

I remain an evangelical Protestant, however, and I am convinced that any church family is fallible and imperfect, as am I. So as much as I admire Eve’s dedication to the Catholic Church she loves, I must admit that I’m concerned about trusting any church body to always get things right. My own history, and my own understanding of the history of the church, won’t allow me to do that.

These concerns and disagreements I have with Eve are not insignificant, but I also don’t want them to overshadow something else significant—that despite our disagreements, I am inspired by Eve’s honesty, integrity, and commitment to her faith. Faced with a journey that I know can be challenging and perhaps discouraging at times, she has sought to pour herself into doing good for others and challenging the church to do better. That is a good, right, and holy thing, and I think it’s an excellent example for us all as Christians.

So while Eve and I may continue to disagree on some things—and may at times be working at cross purposes—I am proud to have her as my sister in Christ and my friend, and I know I’ve found her writing already to bring some very important insight to this conversation.

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