Identity, Language, and Human Sexuality – Part One

July 10, 2019 7:24 pm

I flew into London last Saturday for a week of ministry and drove right into the largest Gay Pride Parade in history (or so the organizers claimed). Traffic was snarled, cab drivers riled, business owners thankful, and the Pride participants thrilled.

Some 1.5 million people gathered from around the world for the event, and thirty-five thousand people marched. Number Ten Downing Street was festooned with a rainbow arc, and virtually every business and all government buildings in sight displayed signs and flags supporting the marchers and ‘Pride’. The rainbow was ubiquitous. The newspapers carried glowing stories of the events with large numbers of photos from the march. Central London was charged with a carnival-like atmosphere and everywhere one looked, people cheered the triumph of Gay Pride, the rainbow flag fluttering in the breeze atop many central London buildings. RAF pilots flew their fighters over London to form a massive rainbow jet stream across the sky.

The victory of the Gay Pride movement in our culture was never more visible; the challenge Christians have to speak of and to this issue was also never more clearly seen.

Strangely, I was arriving in London fresh from debates about this issue and related matters at the PCA General Assembly in Dallas. Since then, there has been a lot of conversation online and off among Pastors and Ministry Leaders about the issue of sexual identity. 

That’s especially true about the kind of language it’s appropriate to use when describing followers of Jesus who hold to the historic Christian view of marriage while experiencing erotic desire exclusively or primarily for people of the same gender. Some believe that a phrase like ‘Gay Christian’ is a reasonable and acceptable way to speak of our brothers and sisters, or as a way for them to identify themselves, while others see in that phrase something that is misleading, misguided, and unhelpful, even contrary to Scripture, and harmful to people. The purpose of these two blog posts will be to explore why that language is an important part of this discussion, with wide-ranging implications.

Opinions on this issue vary widely in Evangelical circles, though not as much in the PCA itself. Conversations with Nate Collins (Revoice), Tim Geiger (Harvest), and Pieter Vaulk (Equip) would yield differing but nuanced conclusions about the propriety of the language, noting how its not what is preferred but that it might also be allowable in certain circumstances. Ministry Leaders and Authors like Sam Alberry, Christopher Yuan, and Rosaria Butterfield would likely make strong cases against its usage at any time.

More importantly, I do hear this language used in the Church in many places by many people and for that reason alone, as well as the place it will no doubt have in the discussion about the nature of sin and temptation that the PCA Study Committee will have to tackle, I want to offer some preliminary observations.

While I don’t use the phrase ‘Gay Christian’ and don’t think it should be used by Christians who hold to the historic, orthodox view of sexuality, marriage, and singleness, neither will I make this a shibboleth that keeps me from working with others who take a different view. It is important, however, that my view is clear and publicly so. This is especially the case since I’ve been the Pastor of people who would say that they were ‘Gay’ or ‘Same-Sex Attracted’, as well as their families, in my current church and in every congregation I’ve ever served. In addition, this is an important part of our ongoing conversation in the PCA about human sexuality. 

From Behavior to Identity

I believe the phrase ‘Gay Christian’ is deeply problematic for a number of reasons, most importantly because it is representative of one of the most monumental shifts in our collective understanding of what it is to be human that has been witnessed in thousands of years. This societal change is a triumph for those who adamantly oppose a Christian view of people as God’s image-bearers, often unknowingly supported by those who would want to affirm a Christian view of human dignity rooted in creation.

What has occurred? Simply put, they have succeeded in changing ‘homosexual’ from a word describing an action to a word identifying a person

By accepting the recasting of homosexuality as identity rather than behavior, our culture has embraced the full flourishing of a radical idea about what it means to be human and cast aside the last remaining vestiges of a civilization rooted in the soil of Faith. We once knew our identity in reference to the Creator above; we now look for our identity from our desires within.

It really is a big deal because the issue of identity and how it works in our culture is itself influencing our thinking in far-reaching ways we may not realize. We can’t really say very much about ‘proper’ identity vocabulary in reference to the use of a term like ‘Gay’ in relationship to ‘Christian’ before we pause to understand why we have such a strong reaction to the issue, to begin with. 

It all comes down to a major change in the way we think about what it means to be human, and that happened quite a while ago, and it didn’t even start with ideas about human sexuality. That radical change introduced a whole new way of thinking and speaking of ourselves and it’s at the core of our conversations about saying, ‘I’m a Gay Christian’.

I’m Not a Heterosexual

Here’s what I mean. Suppose I started a message at a conference by saying, “I am not a heterosexual.” Most people in the audience would probably conclude that I was claiming to be homosexual. We associate and use the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ to denote identity – being – we are saying who we are vs. who we are not, rather than saying something about what we do or don’t do. 

Would it surprise you to learn that these terms are a relatively recent invention, born in the 1800s? Would it shock you to know that for thousands of years civilization – whether Christian or otherwise – never used such terms to describe people?

For many centuries we spoke of two categories of people in regard to sexuality: male and female. That biological binary was the identifier. That men and women had sexual desires of all kinds, licit and illicit, was beside the point. Those desires represented their attractions, whether for good or bad, but did not define their persons. That they acted in various ways sexually was well known but those actions were exactly that – actions – not identities. They were men and women. They were (and remain) image bearers of God. 

The Rise of Expressive Individualism

In the nineteenth century, however, that began to shift dramatically. The notion of ‘individualism’, a term that was first used by DeToqueville in connection with Enlightenment assertions (broadly considered) about the nature of human personhood, began its rapid ascent as an arbiter of freedom and fulfillment in our culture. 

This movement marked the transition from what Charles Taylor has referred to as the ‘porous self’ to the ‘buffered self’.

The porous self existed in communion with a world beyond the visible, an ‘enchanted’ cosmos of spirit forces and communion between these and the tangible, visible order. The ‘buffered self’, by way of contrast, holds to a society in which there exists a hard, fixed, impenetrable boundary between persons and ‘the other’, specifically any supposed supernatural being(s) if they – or it – even exists.

The porous self could find its meaning and identity in relationship to God above. The buffered self, denying either the existence of or accessibility to God, cannot discover its meaning beyond itself; it cannot look up, but must instead look within itself for identity and meaning. The porous self confesses, “I am who God has said that I am”, while the buffered modern must say, “I am who I say that I am.”

The New Dominant Idea 

Sociologist Robert Bellah notes that a pre-modern person would seek to make something of the world, but the postmodern person seeks to make something of the self. This has the force of religious dogma in a post/anti-religious culture, and it is why any move to ‘deny the self’ is viewed so negatively and any move to deny any person the ability to assert their identity is viewed as oppressive, dangerous, anti-human, and ‘heretical’ in the ‘Individuist’ vision of reality.

The new human must search for identity within the realm of experiences and desires, not in texts of revelation; the goal of being human is not conformity to the nature of the Creator, but to instead give full voice to the authentic self. That is what it means to be fully human. “I am who I am. None shall deny me my liberty to define myself!” – this the Creed of the newest religion.

What This Means

The implications of this change are far-reaching, but let’s confine ourselves to the subject of sexuality.

Briefly stated, people once saw their personal identity in relationship to the Creator who assigned to them their creaturely identity: male or female. The new way of seeing reality did away with God’s relevance and authority to name/identify us; we were left to ourselves to define ourselves. How can we do so? Without a reference to the Creator above, humans decided to turn to our desires within.

Charles Taylor calls this approach to human identity ‘radical expressivism’, and others call this ‘expressive individualism’. While it concerns far more than our sexual selves, it also clearly includes them, and in some cases, these have become the defining characteristic of the person.

This search for the authentic self is rooted in Romanticist notions of the self, of giving full expression to feeling, especially that which is spontaneous and therefore viewed as ‘pure’. Nature is seen as neutral and intrinsic to the self, as Taylor again notes, “Fulfilling my nature means espousing the inner ‘elan, the voice or impulse… expressivism is the basis for a new and fuller individuation…’”

In the definition of the self that is rooted in desire and impulse, people had to take account of the sexual self to express identity. If one’s desires are for the opposite sex, one confesses, ‘I AM’ a heterosexual, but if one’s erotic desires are for the same sex then one can say, ‘I AM’ a homosexual. Nature then is not primarily an aspect of physicality but psychology as well. Indeed, the inner dominates the outer and is permitted to neutralize it: the voice of the heart has a higher place in this new hierarchy of being than the structure of the body. ‘Male and Female’ fade into the background; ‘homosexual and heterosexual’ step forward as identities. 

If a man has desires for a sexual relationship with another man, despite the fact that his body was clearly designed for a sexual relationship with a woman, leading to procreation, he must acknowledge that desire trumps design and identify as ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’. Despite the objective fact that the human body is created male and female for reproduction, this ‘natural’ state must be brought into submission to the true identity by the assertion of the inner self.

Think about how this impacts young people. Suppose a thirteen-year-old boy is aware that he has same-sex desires and shares that fact with a professional – a teacher or a counselor, maybe even a Pastor. As things are currently ordered, many would immediately say to him, “You’re gay.” They have taken the desire and made of it an identity, one that young man must now try to fit into, looking for all the accouterments of a Gay life. And now that he knows ‘who he is’ – something all young people especially want to know – there will be very little one can do to talk him out of that identity.

This impacts the discussion of Gender Identity as well. A person may be physically male but if he ‘feels’ himself to be female, he must consider adjusting his body to that inner reality. In this new era, ‘sex’ may be between the legs, but ‘gender’ is identified between the ears… and it can evolve. Not only that, but the body can be modified, at least by those who can afford the surgery. A man can then ‘chestfeed’ a baby. 

Revolutionary Times

Camille Paglia is a pagan lesbian feminist. She is a brilliant writer as well. She correctly notes that “homosexuality is not ‘normal’. On the contrary, it is a challenge to the norm: therein lies its eternal revolutionary character… Nature exists whether academics like it or not. And in Nature, procreation is the single, relentless rule…our sexual bodies were designed for procreation. However, my libertarian view, here as in regard to abortion, is that we have not only the right but the obligation to defy nature’s tyranny… We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.”

In the new moral ecology that Paglia so aptly describes, no external moral standard can be applied to human nature for no external moral code is needed (even if one exists) beyond the good of the self; the full expression of feeling and thought, flowing from the interior to the exterior, is a manifestation of the truly human, and that sense of the self is what is ‘true’. That truth, ‘my truth’, is true truth and not subject to the judgment of anyone else. ‘I am who I am’ is uttered now not by Yahweh, but by each of us acting as our own gods, an ancient impulse that led to a terrific amount of trouble to begin with.

I disagree with Paglia’s vision, but I do believe she understands nature and the need to neutralize or ‘conquer’ it if a new kind of human is meant to emerge in her revolution. 

In this new self-exalting society, true virtue, heroic virtue (!), exists not in denying the self for the sake of others (or the beloved other, a spouse or child or city and nation) but in expressing the self for the sake of the self alone. Only in such a fully expressive state can ‘others’ be helped, though their flourishing is not a goal. All that matters is the full expression of the true self as defined by the self, according to desire, passion, and thought.

This ‘expressive individualism’ is at the bedrock of our current civilization, and any discussion of the LGBTQ+ issues must take it into account. It is why my LGBTQ friends feel that their personhood is being attacked if anyone says that homosexual actions are ‘sinful’ or ‘wrong’. In response to such assertions another new word, ‘homophobic’ (invented in 1972), is rolled out to silence all objections: agree with the Identity Tyrants or be labeled and silenced. 

It’s why Christians who hold to the historic standards on these issues are met by such a visceral and angry response in our culture. It is not at all clear that our culture ‘approves’ of homosexual behavior per se, but they have no grounds left to challenge it. Our culture has embraced an idea of ‘truth’ and the ‘self’ that demands they defer to every person about their ‘expression of self’ and defend everyone from anyone saying the self they’re expressing is ‘wrong’. This is a tectonic shift in our culture, causing moral earthquakes across the globe. People are understandably shaken.

Back to the Body

In short, the entire conversation about human sexuality has been transformed from a discussion about the actions and desires of men and women into a discussion of the self-perception and definition of humans by themselves without reference to their bodies (their embodied self), procreative purposes, or any Creator-defined identity and purpose. In this new era, a new binary has triumphed over the old. In the historical view, we were first male or female; in the radical new view, we are first either gay or straight.

And that is why when in the imaginary meeting I said, “I’m not a heterosexual”, the imaginary audience responded in a predictable fashion. I am not, you see, a heterosexual. Nor am I a homosexual. I am a man. I am a male member of the human species, made in God’s image, just a little lower than the angels, but with every aspect of my being affected by a deeply rooted antagonism to God and his ways that always erupts and poisons my life. I am, in fact, a Christian man. I am not very good at it most days, but that’s a reminder that I need a Savior.

This is also at the core of the conversation in the PCA over the language to be employed in pastoral care, evangelism, preaching, and so on – and as people of the Word, we all agree that words matter. And people matter. So we must ask whether the position I hold is faithful to Scripture and loving towards people. It must be both to pass muster. 

And to that subject, I will turn in the next post.

Is there an answer to be found to the question of how we handle identity? I believe there is. Here’s a clue from a question put to John the Baptist:

“Who are you… what do you say about yourself?”

  • John’s Gospel, chapter 1

Good question.

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