Ted Haggard is completely sexual." Had that been the quote coming out of Colorado recently, it might have inspired a useful conversation. Instead, we're hearing the usual culture war battle cries."
Three months ago, Haggard was removed as pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs amid accusations of a three-year relationship with a male prostitute. Earlier this month, an overseer for New Life told the Denver Post that Haggard had begun counseling and had determined that he is "completely heterosexual."
An Associated Press headline announced "Haggard now 'completely heterosexual'" (italics mine), suggesting that Haggard's orientation had somehow been altered in counseling (neither Haggard nor the overseer said as much). A psychologist quoted in a New York Times story insinuated that Haggard's views on his orientation were not to be trusted because they are rooted in theology, not science. (Perhaps, but no countervailing view was offered.) Other social critics took turns at the plate, slamming Haggard's purported (and, again, misreported) "cure."
The overseer's comment is subject to criticism, but the responses we're seeing are beyond critical. They are reactionary, and unfair—not to Haggard alone, but to all of us who are burdened by the paucity of our culture's received wisdom on sexuality.
Ted Haggard had an affair with a man. He also has a wife. He has five children. Those are all equal, neutral facts, but in our public conversation about Haggard, they are being weighed differently. Since early November, the facts of Haggard's marriage and family life are overwhelmed by the fact of his extra-marital sex life.
According to our cultural logic on sexuality, an affair with a male prostitute is the singular clue to Haggard's orientation; everything else is a coverup. Why? Because of the assumption that when a straight man has gay sex, he must be gay. His orientation, once hidden, is now disclosed. And it is absolute. Call it Hidden Absolute Gayness.
This logic is a problem for both sides of the debate over people like Haggard, because it refuses to acknowledge the paradoxical nature of human experience. As the psychologist quoted in the Times and his colleagues know, humans can act in myriad and inconsistent ways. We can go astray from ourselves. We can experiment with things that we wouldn’t ordinarily consider a part of who we are. A husband who sleeps with another woman is not revealing his inner polygamist. A straight man who experiences gay sex is not necessarily revealing his inner homosexual.
Many people who defer to Hidden Absolute Gayness are not trying to be culture warriors. They are, in fact, expressing compassion for men and women who might be living a lie. But Hidden Absolute Gayness assumes that human sexuality identity is concrete, and that our job is to discover that inner concrete and build our lives upon it.
In this way, Hidden Absolute Gayness privileges sexuality as the essence of identity. In doing so, it denies spirituality. It refuses to see that sexuality, at bottom, is just one aspect of our physical and spiritual selves.
If we could look into our innermost being, we would not discover a switch flipped to Gay or Straight. We'd discover a question—Who am I?—whose answer can only be found in relationship. That's the truth of creation described in Genesis. "Let us make mankind in our image," God says—a relational (three-personed) God creating a man who is, in turn, relational. A few verses later, God declares that it is not good for the man to be alone.
As Andy Crouch wrote a few years ago in the magazine Christianity Today, "Humankind is not divided into 'heterosexuals' and 'homosexuals.' Rather, we are 'sexuals,' people created for union with another, in the image of a relational God." People are not created to be straight or gay—people are created to be in relationship and for relationship.
Sadly, many Christians do not see this. They’ve accepted the view of people as either heterosexual or homosexual with little or nothing in between. Their view of sexuality is just like the view held by advocates of Hidden Absolute Gayness, with the additional step of believing that Gayness must be converted into Straightness. Such Christians exercise no more fairness—no fuller grasp of the truth about sex—than their counterparts on the other side of the cultural divide.
Can people repress desires? Sure, and such repression can be damaging. But people are damaged further by a paradigm for sexuality that sees desire as the single most important clue to true identity, rather than as part of a complex of relational longing.
To put all this a different way: There is a lot about sexuality I do not understand. And neither do you. Our culture-wide conversation about sex isn't getting us anywhere because it is mired in delusional confidence. Some people proclaim "Once gay always gay" while others declare "Gay is a state of mind." The truth is that we know far less than we admit. Sure, many people experience simple sexual desire in one direction or another, but many others experiment, or repress, or clutch at floating possibilities. They remain confused and out of touch with the truth about their sexual selves. And out of touch with a spirituality that would better inform their views on sex.
The truth is that we're sexual. Our sexuality is worked out as we inspect our lives, seek counsel, learn from others, and make an honest effort to grow into sexual expression that satisfies, yes, but also serves. We're sexual. It is a truth that doesn't have the cozy clarity of gay or straight. It is a truth that doesn't deliver pat answers, but provokes questions about the purpose and practice of sex. It is a truth rooted in mystery. But in its ambiguity, we find a better path to understanding sex.