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The Revolution Devours All

Why Andrew Sullivan cannot be Nelson Mandela

Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College, spoke this morning to the Q Ideas conference here in Boston. He, and the college he leads, are under severe attack for holding to orthodox Christian teaching on LGBT. Gordon is Evangelical, but very far from a fundamentalist stronghold. Yet they are seen by many people — many powerful people — as a bastion of bigotry.

Lindsay told the audience about a phone conversation he had with his Congressman when Gordon first got into the news. He said that his Congressman told him straight up that he hated Gordon’s stance, and that he was going to do everything he could to force the college to change it — meaning that he was going to bring the force of federal law, inasmuch as he could, to compel the college to violate its corporate conscience.

This left Lindsay staggered. “There are very few playbooks to tell you what to do when your Congressman shouts at you,” he said.

Lindsay, who is a very soft-spoken man, conceded that Gordon has fallen short of its ideals over the years, “but we are not a place of hate or discrimination.”

How do we as people of faith lead the way, stop being so defensive, and move into the environment in which “we are a real model to the rest of society”? Lindsay asked.

For one, we have to be countercultural, no matter what it costs. On the matter of conformity, he said that social science research shows that people are willing to be wrong if it allows us to get along.

“We’ve traded our desire for moral conviction for a simple desire for relevance,” he said. “We believe in conviction as long as we are liked for that conviction.”

“If we are not willing to [take a stand], it becomes so much harder for everybody else.”

But, he added, it’s hard to know how to do that in the current and fast-changing cultural milieu. It’s hard to know which hill to die on if you can’t see the whole landscape, he said.

Lindsay called Gordon’s travails “the most humiliating experience of my life,” and said that Christians have to keep trying to reach out in love to those with whom they disagree. The church, he says, has demonized plenty of people in the past. We must not fall to that temptation again. He said the following is the most important words he would speak in his talk:

“We have got to show that it’s possible to work shoulder to shoulder with people, even if we don’t see eye to eye.”

Well, I do agree with that, but as his experience, and that of his college, shows, the other side will not give him (us) that chance. Not anymore. Winsomeness is fine — and it’s hard to think of a more winsome person than Michael Lindsay — but it increasingly won’t do any good. We must be loving not because it’s strategically sound, but because Christ commands it of us, and because our opponents are made in the image of God, just as we are. But let us not be under any illusions that this will do us any good anymore, not with most of them.

Andrew Sullivan was next on the stage, and engaged in a conversation with Q leader Gabe Lyons. Andrew — who is far less frantic, and far more serene, than I’ve ever seen him; leaving the Internet was plainly good for his health — was visibly moved by Lindsay’s remarks.

“It’s inimical to me that any religious entity or organization should be compelled by government to compromise any jot or tittle of their doctrine,” Andrew said.

Addressing Lindsay’s case, he said, “Any personal hurt that he experienced, I want to ask his forgiveness for. It really hurts me that people would demonize, stigmatize, and attack people for their religious faith, whatever it is. I think the Gordon College thing is a clear step beyond anything we have seen before.”

Andrew said that there are intolerant people among LGBTs and their allies, “real tendencies to wickedness,” and that he freely acknowledges that.

“I would just ask in return that people understand that for centuries, gay people were thrown out of their own families, thrown out of their own churches, put in jail, hanged in this country, executed around the world. That the gay comm went through an unbelievable trauma in the Eighties and Nineties in which 300,000 young people died.”

Lyons apologized to Andrew on behalf of Christians for vicious treatment of homosexuals. “I know many people did what they thought was right in the name of Jesus,” Lyons said. “I ask for your forgiveness as well.”

“You have it,” said Andrew.

It was a great moment. But there were other things to be discussed. Lyons asked where the lines are to be drawn going forward?

Andrew said that in the early days of marriage debate, when religious freedom would come up, he couldn’t see how gay rights would possibly infringe on it. Who’s going to go around interfering with educational institutions and so on? he asked himself back then. Andrew didn’t see it coming.

His advice to the gay community: quit turning every Christian florist and baker an opportunity for a showdown:

“If you find someone who’s genuinely conflicted about doing something for your wedding, let them be. Find someone else. It’s a free society. Similarly about florists: if you can’t find a gay florist…? It’s not the hardest thing in the world.”

Lots of laughter at that.

Andrew said that we have to be able to get along, to talk to each other, to live in pluralism.

On the matter of Christianity and living a chaste, celibate life, Andrew said that it isn’t possible, that “it’s not happening.”

“It is happening,” Gabe Lyons said.

“Not without psychological damage,” Andrew replied.

He said that sexuality is part of human identity, and his identity. This point is a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between orthodox Christians and their opponents. Christianity teaches that sexuality is part of what it means to be a human person, but it is not the defining quality. Chastity has always, since the beginning of Christianity, been a Christian virtue — chastity meaning the right, ordered channeling of sexual desire, which in some instances requires withholding its expression.

Andrew ended his presentation by saying he was glad to come talk to an Evangelical conference because it’s so much better to see people face to face instead of arguing on the Internet, where it’s easy to dehumanize others.

His parting words were, I believe, a shot at me and my presentation the day before (I consider it friendly fire, just to be clear). He said that we must not think of the conflict between pro-LGBT folks and orthodox Christians as a “war,” because “it really isn’t.” He said it ought not be spoken of as an “apocalypse” — a word I used the day before. Perhaps he didn’t grasp that I used it in reference to “the end of the world,” but in its original meaning, which is “an unveiling.” I called Indiana an “apocalypse” in the sense that it revealed to Christians and others concerned about religious liberty where we actually stood in this culture on that front.

Here’s his key statement: “If you make this subject the linchpin for Christianity’s survival — it misses the Gospel.”

Andrew got lots of cheers for that, but I do strongly — but respectfully — disagree.

Rather than rehash old arguments here, let me simply link to something I wrote in this space a while back. This excerpt is especially relevant:

This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?

Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.

Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.

You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.

Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.

It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.

What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.

Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.

Put simply, the church cannot be the church by being unfaithful to the clear witness of Scripture on the question of sexual behavior (both heterosexual and homosexual), and by deciding that it can jettison the witness and authority of Scripture and Tradition. If you can do this — and many Catholics and Protestants, and even some Orthodox, are doing it and are willing to do it — then what else can we jettison because it’s hard to live by?

As Rieff — again, a visionary social scientist but an unbeliever — recognized, one core thing that makes Christianity different, and that made the early church different from the pagan culture into which it was born, is the way it regarded sexuality and the human person. The church is full of sexual sinners; always has been, and always will be. But if we lose the unambiguous standard of sexual purity, and if we lose the plain understanding within Christianity that holiness depends on submitting our hearts, minds, and bodies to Christ as revealed in Scripture and in the Church — well, then we are lost without a map. A fundamental link is severed.

This is personal to me. As I told the Q audience yesterday, it’s not that I am a scold who resents that others are having more fun than I am. It’s that I was saved in my twenties from the mess I had made of my life by my pursuit of hedonism and sexual individualism. I wanted God, and was determined that I could have him without having to sacrifice my sexual desire, which is to say, order it to what the faith commands. For a short time in college, I attended a church where they gave me no hassle about that. But I knew it wasn’t true. I wanted everything to be okay, I wanted a God who was happy to let me be sexually active outside of marriage. I could not shake the plain fact that this was irreconcilable to Christianity, full stop.

More importantly, it was clear to me that a God I was willing to follow only when the cost of discipleship was something that was easy for me to pay was not a God worth following — indeed, was not God at all. And it was certainly not a God who could save me from my own destructive passions, which, as I point out in How Dante Can Save Your Life, led to a pregnancy scare and the prospect that I would be implicated in the abortion of my own child. Thank God that there was no pregnancy, but the prospect of having to face the nature of my own disordered desires, and the real-world consequences of living them out, pushed me towards conversion.

The church I attended briefly, and which gave me no hassle about my sex life, would never have been an agent of my deliverance from bondage to that particular passion. After I became a Catholic, I got no practical help from any priest or parish in living a chaste life. I was pretty much on my own. But I did have prayer, and I did have the sacraments, and because I had the firm witness of Catholic teaching, rooted in Scripture, about what constitutes a holy use of our gift of sexuality, I had hope that the painful loneliness, and dying to self, that I was undergoing would be for my own salvation. From How Dante Can Save Your Life:

Many Catholics think the Church makes too big a deal about sex; some think the Church should say nothing about sex at all. But practicing chastity after my experience with sex, I understood the Church’s teaching. All the lies I had told myself, and that our culture tells us, about what sex is for left me feeling hollow and unsatisfied.

I didn’t want sex; I wanted love. I mean, yes, I wanted sex, but when it was decoupled from love, that desire was a counterfeit, a false idol. It was destructive to me and to the women I had been with. I realized around this time that by trying to banish that guilty feeling so I could be as free as I wanted to be and thought I had a right to be, I was killing off the most humane part of myself.

When I embraced chastity, I had no idea if I would ever get married. The thought that this might be a lifetime thing filled me with dread. But the prospect of going back to the Egypt from which I’d just been delivered was worse. So on I went, trusting that God knew what was best for me, and that I would rather die to my body with him than live in my body without him.

I was not entirely successful in those first years, but I was a lot better than I had been. Prayer and the confessional helped me with my repentance. Learning to tell myself no was a new thing, and an important one. I learned to steer myself away from getting involved with women who didn’t share my faith and my commitment to chastity before marriage.

My secular friends thought I was a very odd duck because of this. But I didn’t care. I knew what I was being saved from. I knew the kind of man I was and the kind of man I wanted to be. By practicing chastity, I began to understand better the workings of my own heart, and how I had fallen into self-deception (and deceived others) in past relationships.

But here’s the thing: I was still blinded by my habit of exalting romantic love. For my twenty-eighth birthday, my friend Tom Sullivan gave me a copy of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. On a cold February morning, I sat in the living room of my Capitol Hill apartment and cracked open the book. A 1941 letter Tolkien wrote to his son Michael caught my attention. The older Tolkien warned his son to be wary of courtly love, which exalts “imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady.”

“The woman is another fallen human being with a soul in peril,” Tolkien wrote, adding that the courtly ideal “inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love,’ as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose.”

That was an epiphany. I had thought my high view of women and love was something wholly noble, especially when joined to Christian conviction. Tolkien showed me that I was actually engaged in idol worship of “Love and the Lady,” obscuring the truth and making it harder for me to find what I deeply desired: true love and companionship with a woman.

Later that morning, I took the Betty Blue poster down. I was turning away from the vision of romantic love that books and movies told me was true, because now I knew better.

Later that year, I took a journalism job in Florida, where I made great friends, but none who shared my faith. I had no religious community. From a spiritual point of view, this was the desert. I was all alone, and agonizingly lonely. This was when the purifying flame burned the hottest. All I could do was pray, hope, and keep struggling.

 And then I flew to Austin, Texas, one weekend to meet Frederica Mathewes- Green, a friend who was giving a speech. The Texas capital is one of my favorite towns, and I wanted to show her around. On a Friday night, Frederica gave a reading at a bookstore. There I met a University of Texas journalism undergraduate named Julie Harris. The moment I took her hand, I knew that something unusual had just happened.

“Here is a god stronger than I who is coming to rule over me,” said Dante to himself when he first saw Beatrice. That’s how it was with me when I laid eyes on Julie. Nothing like that had ever happened to me—or, as it turned out, to her.

We went to dinner that night, and out for a late coffee on Saturday. We spent Sunday together, and had our first kiss in the parking lot of Waterloo Records. Three days later, me back at my job in Florida and her in Austin, we were emailing, talking about marriage.

It was crazy. But we both knew. Four months later, after only a few weekends spent together but many, many emails and phone calls, I flew to Austin and, kneeling in a chapel in front of an icon, proposed marriage. She accepted. We drank Veuve Clicquot and ate chips and salsa. Late that same year, 1997, we married, and began our life together.

How in the world had that happened, and happened so quickly? Sure, I’m a hopeless romantic, but I am convinced that if my own heart had not been purified by those three years I spent walking through the fire, I would not have recognized that the smile of the beautiful, pure-hearted woman who was my own Beatrice, for whom I had been praying and longing for many years.

So when the pilgrim Dante meets two condemned lovers in the Circle of Lust, they were not strangers to me. I could easily have been one of them. Standing on the edge of the tempest, watching the souls of the lustful whirl by, Dante calls out to a pair physically bound together for eternity to descend and speak to him.

Read the whole thing. The hard, hard teaching of the Church on chastity set me free from my own disordered passions, and purified my heart so that I would be able to give and receive the love of another. I am certain that if not for accepting the ascetic discipline of chastity out of fidelity to Christ, I would not be married today. I would be a much worse mess than I had been in my early 20s. And if it had not been my blessing to marry, I would still rather be wandering in the desert, as hard as that is, rather than mired in the slavery of that particular Egypt.

The churches today that accept an unbiblical and unchristian teaching on sexual morality not only fail to be faithful to what we have been given, they also leave people like I once was stranded in Egypt, and counsel us to see it as the Promised Land.

The irreconcilable difference between my friend Andrew and me on this issue has to do with these issues:

1) What is a person?

2) What is sex and sexuality for?

3) What is the authority of Scripture and Tradition?

But that is a discussion for within the church. Religious liberty is a different, but related, issue.

As much as I would like to say that this is not a “war” we are in, I would point out that the view looks very different from the point of view of men and women who are losing their jobs and their livelihoods, or who are facing that realistic prospect, because of this. An insider at a major US Christian college today sent me a shocking report about some behind-the-scenes activities in which a senior professor is facing the loss of his job for defending his own church’s position on LGBT issues. It’s happening.

The fact that Christians treated gays and lesbians shamefully and unjustly in the past, and some still do today — a sin for which we Christians must repent — does not make this any less of a war. Andrew is not the enemy here. He is not a sore winner, and for that I’m grateful. But a winner he is, and unfortunately, he is not within the LGBT community a Nelson Mandela figure — a personage who fought a long, victorious struggle, and who has the power to lead his winning side to a position of magnanimity and reconciliation. I wish he were able to serve in that role; I have no doubt that he would gladly so so if that role existed. If he and people like him were running the LGBT movement and directing their allies, I would feel much more comfortable about the future of religious liberty in this country.

But the revolution has passed him by now.