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Central Carolina report ignores Non-sexual Attraction

unsplash andy holmes

It is obvious that our brokenness is often most painfully experienced with respect to our sexuality. My own and my friends’ struggles make it clear how central our sexuality is to the way we think and feel about ourselves. Our sexuality reveals to us our enormous yearning for communion. The desires of our body – to be touched, embraced, and safely held – belong to the deepest longings of the heart and are very concrete signs of our search for oneness. It is precisely around this yearning for communion that we experience so much anguish. Our society is so fragmented, our family lives so sundered by physical and emotional distance, our friendships so sporadic, our intimacies so “in-between” things and soften so utilitarian, that there are few places where we can feel truly safe. I notice in myself how often my body is tense, how I usually keep my guard up and how seldom I have a complete feeling of being at home.

Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 73.

Compare this paragraph from Nouwen with these paragraphs from the recent Central Carolina Presbytery Report on Revoice. Just before, the Report has established that the Reformed Tradition disagrees with the distinction between desire for sin and actively doing sin. Quoting Bavinck, Calvin, and the Westminster divines, the report settles that desires for sin are themselves sinful. This is standard within Reformed theology, and I don’t take issue with it. But then, they say this:

At this point, some in the Revoice conversation might argue for a qualitative difference between desire and attraction. Anderson, for example, makes this distinction in his category of “aesthetic vision.” Specifically, he says, “It seems to this observer that one thing which remains after the purification of same-sex sexual desires—besides faith, hope, and charity—is the complex set of noticings and attractions toward members of one’s own sex” (emphasis added). While noticing is not the same as desire, it is hard to imagine how “attraction” does not carry some sense of magnetic pull, arousal, or desire. By a simple dictionary definition, to notice is to observe or perceive, while attraction suggests interest and allurement. A mother may recognize that her teenage son is quite handsome or that her daughter has grown into an objectively beautiful woman. These noticings can take place apart from any sexual longing. But if a mother were to experience any attraction to her son or daughter surely we would describe this kind of noticing as illicit, as a perverse response—however unbidden—that should be mortified at all costs. In short, while we distinguish between noticing and attraction, we do not see how attraction and desire are fundamentally different moral categories.

This does not mean same-sex attracted Christians should be full of morbid self-loathing, any more than Christians who constantly battle unwanted heterosexual desires should be consigned forever to the slough of despond. It does mean, however, that when the heart is drawn after an illegitimate end, we must repent of that sinful desire, longing, or attraction and run to Christ for cleanness of conscience and forgiveness of sin. (pp. 7-8).

While I appreciate the report’s attempt to speak in the voice of “some in the Revoice conversation,” they grossly misrepresent at least Matthew Anderson’s position and, from my reading, the position of everybody else involved with Revoice and Spiritual Friendship. Maybe they would have understood Anderson’s position better if they had imbibed the first two minutes of his talk:

Speaking rightly about the Christian formation of sexual desires requires first speaking about something other than sex. Desires are shaped by our theological and communal practices. To consider sexual desire outside this broader context misconstrues it from the outside. I take this to be the heart of the Augustinian legacy on moral formation. Sexual desires are fundamentally about something deeper and more transcendent sex itself. Because of this, chastity requires the reorientation or transposition of the fires that animate sexual passion, rather than their extinction. Pace C.S. Lewis, it is not that the pornography addict’s desires for sex are too strong, but that his other desires are too weak. The intense longing for an immediate sexual consummation is only the lowest form of what is meant to be a more radiant and flowering enduring love. Chastity in our youth allows us to enjoy the full flowering of fidelity as we age, which often looks like a sexless intimacy founded upon years of life together. This form of love is foreign to many of us younger folks — children as we are of the divorce revolution — but it is a deeper and more powerful love than the intensity of sexual passion that occupies so much of our attention and time while we are young. The appropriate formation of our sexual desires then begins in an explicitly non-sexual key. The emergence of the sexual desire for a particular person is the culmination of a long train of reasoning, the premises of which are mostly invisible to us, and the control over which is largely indirect. The path towards ordering such desires towards God’s love begins, then, with posing the question of whether it is sex and its pleasures that they aim at at all — or whether the sexual desire is an echo or a refection of a deeper, a more profound longing for intimacy and love, that sexual union can only imperfectly anticipate. (Emphasis added).

The report authors give such an unclear “summary” of this talk (p. 2) that I am unsure they grasped any of this opening claim. Certainly from their later remarks, they did not grasp it. Anderson’s point is that sexual desires are not, at base, sexual. When he then goes on to talk about “attractions toward members of one’s own sex” he is not talking about sexual attractions. He is talking about non-sexual attraction. This is the value of his and Nate Collins’s aesthetic argument. We first notice things aesthetically: the person’s truth, beauty and goodness. Then, we are drawn to them by merit of these traits. It is only after observing and being attracted to these transcendent traits, in a sinful reflex of the prideful heart, that we spiral these noticings and attractions into lust.

To counter the report’s own example, Anderson is not arguing that a mother’s “attraction” to her children could be both sexual and sinless. Instead he would argue that a mother notices her child’s truth, beauty, and goodness, and then is drawn to them on those grounds (‘attracted’ to them), and only in a third and sinful step would lust after them. I don’t care that in the words of the report “it is hard to imagine” what Anderson means by this distinction. He explained himself, but the report amounts to an accusation that he endorses sin. Instead, Anderson argues for the existences of “a Christian de-sexulaized eroticism,” meaning the last word in the Greek eros for desire-at-large. How much less sexualized need he be then to use the word “de-sexualized”?

There is another word for this non-sexual desire for what is true, beautiful and good in another: love. But the authors of the Central Carolina Report object to that word, too, because someone else has already used “same-sex love” in an affirming book. Yet when Wesley Hill used the term “same-sex love” in his sermon (42:20 and following), he explicitly distinguishes between what he calls “same-sex love” on the one hand and “sexual sin” to which we say no on the other hand. Does it matter how “how most people understand the phrase”? Anderson himself has dealt with this in a similar context:

For [Al] Mohler, though, this is insufficient: “Same-sex attraction is not limited to sexual attraction,” he writes, “but it strains all credibility to argue that this ‘aesthetic orientation’ can be non-sexual.” Mohler doesn’t supply an argument here so much as simply suggest that it is impossible. But why? It strains all credibility to think that someday we shall neither marry nor be given in marriage, but be like the angels in heaven. What we shall be like in the resurrection is indeed impossible to imagine — and yet, one thing Scripture seems to be relatively explicit about is that the particular complex and cluster of sexual desires that so captivate us now will not then. Mohler knows this — but rather than work out Collins’ position along these lines, and so present it in a fair light, he opts to simply dismiss it as defying imagination.

Christian teaching about the nature of same-sex love would shock listeners who bother to hear longer than the phrase itself.

The report also misrepresents Eve Tushnet’s message and makes the same error as before, summarizing that she believes “homosexual desire, though it should not be fully acted upon, can be embraced, celebrated, and redirected.” But the question is not whether homo-sexual desire can be somewhat, partially, fully, minimally, or maximally good. The question is what level of “desire” we are talking about: sexual, or pre-sexual? Because the authors of the Report have an exclusively sexualized understanding of desire, they cannot see past their own “thoroughgoingly Freudian” (Anderson’s term) presuppositions.

I began this post with the quote from Nouwen because he gives another example of the types of non-sexual longing which (through our “brokenness,” though Nouwen is using that word in a specific way) later can become sinful. Like Anderson, Nouwen points to “the deepest longings of the heart” but in addition to Anderson’s ideas Nouwen characterizes the search for transcendence as a “search for oneness” and a “yearning for communion.” These desires are not uniquely sinful. (They may be sinful in the Total Depravity sense that all desires for good which come from a fallen self are sinful. But they are not desires for sinful ends). Because these are not desires for sin, and it is only from our fallenness that we fulfill them in sinful ways, we should find other ways to fulfill them. This is the heart of the Spiritual Friendship project as I understand it: using friendship to fulfill deeper human desires which, if left unfulfilled, will likely lead to sin.

The Central Carolina report (as opposed to the much more thorough Missouri report) made seemingly no attempt to contact the conference speakers, others of whom they have also misrepresented in weak caricature. When one publishes a critique not just on the authority of their own personal blog, or a conference, or a single church, but the Presbytery itself, the standards are necessarily higher. Unfortunately, this level of engagement fails to be the kind of good faith, valuable pushback that advances the conversation.

 

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

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