The Revoice Conference, Gender, and Desire
Steven Wedgeworth, a PCA pastor in Vancouver, recently published a blog post entitled “A Critical Review of Spiritual Friendship,” in which he critiques Spiritual Friendship writers Wes Hill and Ron Belgau, as well as the Revoice Conference, at which I will be speaking next month. While I appreciate Wedgeworth’s irenic tone and his desire to constructively engage, I believe his critique fails in a number of important respects. Portions of his post are cited below in <<arrows>> with my response following.
<<These Christians all affirm the traditional teaching on the moral permissibility of same-sex sexual relationships and therefore remain celibate, but they very much want to continue to identify as gay.>>
Wedgeworth’s characterization of the speakers of the conference shows that he has not done his due diligence. Speakers are lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, straight, single, married, etc. We are not all celibate—I am a bisexual man married to a woman, and we have a young son. Nor is it fair to say we “very much want to continue to identify as gay.” Many—probably most—of us who are speaking at Revoice have complicated relationships to our sexual orientations. Some don’t identify as gay; some identify as such but do not hold it as a matter of much importance; perhaps some presently wish they could cease to be LGBTQ. A charitable critique must be a careful critique; Wedgeworth wasn’t careful here and elsewhere with his characterization of Revoice.
<<Some of what makes Revoice stand out is surely its branding. It embraces the language of “LGBT Christians” and even “sexual minorities.” Even its verbs have a certain ring to them: “supporting, encouraging, and empowering.” This is very modern language, the sort typically associated with progressive and liberation movements. In the descriptions of its various workshops, Revoice also uses the nomenclature of “LGBT+” and “LGBTQ,” implying an acceptance of a wide range of sexual orientations and identities.>>
This passage exemplifies Wedgeworth’s unfortunate tendency to broadly employ guilt-by-association argumentation. Because we use language “typically associated with progressive liberation movements,” our beliefs and goals must align with theirs. Well, no. That’s neither how language nor how logic works.
For example, it is common in queer thought to hold that gender is merely a social construct. However, I don't hold this. I'm a Christian Neoplatonist and believe that maleness and femaleness are eternal ideas in the mind of God. As you might imagine, this leads to a lot of conclusions "downstream" from this belief that differ from those commonly held by queer theorists. Our common use of LGBTQ/LGBT+ terminology does not entail identity of aims or beliefs, just in the same way early Christians' use of theos and kyrios did not entail their belief in the Greco-Roman pantheon or their participation in pagan ritual worship.
Wedgeworth's point about identity of language implying identity of worldview is just false.
<<Revoice’s basic philosophy comes from the loosely unified set of ideas commonly referred to as “Spiritual Friendship,” as advocated by Ron Belgau, Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, and others.>>
Wedgeworth treats Revoice as if it essentially the brainchild of Wes Hill and Ron Belgau. While their and Eve Tushnet’s writings have been enormously influential on many of us (I often refer affectionately to Wes as my “house mother”), Wedgeworth fails to interact with or even acknowledge the existence of Nate Collins, the founder of Revoice, and the extensive work he’s done in the area—most notably in his book, All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality. (Go buy it.) A critique of Ron and Wes cannot stand as a critique of Revoice.
Further, there are a lot of items on the gay agenda, and spiritual friendship is only one of them. My own talk has little to do with the notion of spiritual friendship, as that notion has been developed by the Spiritual Friendship writers.
<<When Belgau, in another place, gives a more detailed description of his “gay” desires, he includes many features of a stereotypical 20th century marriage: conversation and “understanding,” buying a house and even decorating it together, adopting children, holding hands, and even kissing goodbye. This particular form of friendship clearly has an “erotic” component to it, even if it is more emotional and sentimental than physically copulative, and this is what constitutes the “gay Christian” experience.>>
Ron has already noted that these desires were the desires he had as a teenager and not the desires he supports as part of a healthy spiritual friendship. This was clear in the context of Ron’s essay and as such illustrates a serious and basic reading comprehension error on Wedgeworth’s part. I believe Wedgeworth to have the affections and goals of love in his critique, but he does not demonstrate the acts of love: in this context, taking the time and energy to understand your interlocutors’ positions and to represent them fairly and accurately.
Further, the above selection illustrates the extent to which Wedgeworth uncritically accepts modern, Western—and, I wish to emphasize, straight—conceptions of romance vis-à-vis friendship and other forms of love. Excepting the rearing of children, the relational features Wedgeworth mentions are not exclusive to romantic or marital relationships. Conversation and mutual understanding are necessary for a relationship of literally any kind. Roommates decorate (and sometimes buy) houses together. I hold my son’s hand and kiss him goodbye. Same-sex friends do so in other cultures around the world, and LGBTQ friends do so here in America. Same-sex friends in the West in the not-so-distant past did so, as well.
<<The most basic problem anyone addressing the concept of “gay Christianity” will encounter is the status of concupiscence. … Belgau is essentially arguing that gay desire is like concupiscence. If left to its own, it would terminate in sin. It is a particular sort of lower appetite. But, importantly, it is not sin until it is acted upon by the will. The Spiritual Friendship argument appears to deviate even from the typical Roman Catholic view on this point, however, as Roman Catholicism has never argued that a disordered concupiscence can be ordered. The dilemma would never occur to Magisterial Protestants, however, as they would confess the concupiscence as species of lust in need of repentance. So when the Spiritual Friendship writers say that gay desires are not “morally neutral” they do not necessarily concede that the desires are sinful. They may well become sin, but they are not automatically sin, even as they exist in an identifiably erotic way. This may be possible on Roman Catholic grounds, but it is not possible on Protestant ones, and this will be a point of impasse to all who are attentive to the doctrines of anthropology and hamartiology.>>
Wedgeworth’s treatment of concupiscence in relation to the queer Christian’s experience is the site of his most significant errors. Two crucial things to be aware of whenever one engages in historical theology are: (1) a particular word or term does not necessarily mean the same thing in the history of the development of doctrine, and (2) a particular word or term does not necessarily mean the same thing every time a particular author uses it. Both the Latin concupiscentia and the Greek ἐπιθυμία retained and still retain a semantic range encompassing but not limited to: (1) a desire; (2) a desire for that which is sinful or contrary to reason; (3) a lust. It simply is a gross historical error to say “X condemned concupiscence, and Y did not” without referring to the senses of concupiscence they employed. It simply is not a technical term that had the same meaning for St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin.
I think that the desire for same-sex sexual activity is an example of concupiscence in sense (2) above. I think once one adds the assent of his will to that desire it may become an instance of concupiscence in sense (3) and therefore a species of lust, and, therefore, a sin. I find Wedgeworth’s notion that concupiscence in sense (2) is a sin though it does not involve the will to be entirely incoherent and to express a revisionist and problematic theological anthropology and hamartiology. Sin in the relevant sense simply is a species of action. A desire that does not involve the volitional faculty cannot be a sin; that is a basic category error. Concupiscence in sense (2) may be said to be sinful in that it tends to sin or that it has a sin as its object, but it is not sinful in the sense of being a sin, as concupiscence in sense (3) is.
<<The catholic Christian tradition has understood effeminacy, in the broader sense, to be a vice. In his comments on 1 Cor. 6:9, John Calvin explains effeminacy as those who “do not openly abandon themselves to impurity, discover, nevertheless, their unchastity by blandishments of speech, by lightness of gesture and apparel, and other allurements.” In other words, a great deal of what goes by “gay culture” would be considered effeminate. A man conforming himself to roles or activities characteristic of a woman would certainly qualify. This is a point so unfashionable as to almost be unintelligible to modern readers, but the historical record is clear. … Thomas Aquinas defines effeminacy in a more focused way when he defines the effeminate man as “one who withdraws from good on account of sorrow caused by lack of pleasure, yielding as it were to a weak motion.” Thus while I don’t think we have much reason to doubt whether Thomas would condemn two men cuddling on the couch watching Netflix, the main point of his criticism is not the soft action but the soft motion of the mind or will.>>
How is one to determine what does or does not fall in the category of the “roles or activities characteristic of a woman?” In straight suburbia, nail polish is exclusively in the purview of women. In LGBTQ communities and fashion-forward urban centers, men have worn nail polish for decades. In Calvin’s time, men wore ill-fitting maxi dresses and fabulous hats. Our country was founded by men in makeup, wigs, tights, and heels. Were they effeminate? How is one to decide?
Also, why think that either Calvin or Aquinas is correct on this point? Further, whose definition is to be preferred? Wedgeworth cites each uncritically as if his opinion settles the matter, but much that falls under the one definition does not fall under the other. We also have ample reason to doubt whether Aquinas would share Wedgeworth’s discomfort with male physical affection, as Aquinas was a medieval Italian monk, and discomfort with male physical affection is of quite recent mintage.
Wedgeworth presents himself as an arbiter of the historic Christian tradition, but he manifests time and again the inability to inhabit any other perspective than that of a straight white man raised in the twentieth century.
While I believe Wedgeworth to have had charitable motives in his critiques, his critique did not exhibit the works of charity: to do due diligence in familiarizing yourself with your opponents’ views, to honestly and fairly represent their views, and to employ sound argumentation in disputing those views.