Given the recent Revoice conference, Nate Collins’ 2017 All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender, and Sexuality is now necessary reading for all who are interested in the so-called “Side B” of gay Christianity. In the same vein as writers like Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet, Collins “firmly and unapologetically believe[s]… that Scripture prohibits sexual expression outside the context of a self-giving monogamous marriage of a man and a woman” (20). Nevertheless, he also believes that there is a meaningful and significant gay identity for those who are attracted to members of the same sex, and he believes that faithful Christians can identify as gay while still adhering to the biblical sexual ethic.
All But Invisible is divided into three sections. The first and third sections explore ecclesiology, missiology, psychology, and social anthropology. These show Collins’ specific pastoral motivations for interacting with sexuality, and they contain practical recommendations for how churches who hold to a traditional biblical sexual ethic can nevertheless recognize and encourage gay Christians. Some of these are quite compelling — such as the possibility of gay Christians marrying other Christians of the opposite sex (92) or celibate gay Christians being able to live with other Christian families (99) — while others are controversial and even troubling, such as the suggestion that two or three gay Christians of the same sex could live together in a “celibate partnership” (100-103). Collins also appreciatively interacts with critical social theory, as he warns against “straight privilege” (262) and heteronormativity (259) within the life of the church.
The most important aspect of Collins’ book, however, is found in the second section, where he proposes a new way of defining the gay identity. This thesis is so critical that it ought to have been moved to the front of the book. Indeed, a major conceptual weakness with All But Invisible is that Collins employs key terms for more than a hundred pages which he later redefines dramatically. Readers must reach the midpoint of the book in order to truly understand what Collins means when he says “gay.”
Collins argues that “sexual orientation” is not the proper category for understanding the gay person’s unique experience. Instead, the basic orientation of all humans, gay and straight alike, is an orientation toward beauty (141). But gay people and straight people experience this orientation differently:
…both gay men and straight women are, for example, less aware (in general) of the beauty of feminine personhood than straight men or lesbian women. These general patterns that we discern in the way people experience the beauty of others are now the basis for distinguishing between straight and nonstraight orientations, rather than an impulse toward sexual activity. (150, emphasis original)
This particular way of defining what it means to be gay (or straight) is the key to Collins’ larger project of accepting and redeeming “gay Christians.” It opens up the possibility of connecting contemporary gay philosophy to the older Platonic and Augustinian tradition of aesthetics and contemplation. It also allows Collins to distinguish and even separate homosexuality from sexual desires as such. Being gay does not, in Collins’ view, reduce to possessing a specific sort of sexual desire, and therefore, for Collins, identifying as gay is not in itself sinful.
While allowing Collins to speak of the virtues of gayness and the gifts and vocation of a gay Christian community, this thesis also creates significant challenges, most notably the difficulty of consistent linguistic use, a challenge that Collins himself struggles with. He routinely uses the adjective “sexual” to refer to a desire for the sexual act itself (which in the case of homosexuality would be sinful), while also using the noun forms of “sexuality” to refer to his new proposal of “orientation towards beauty” apart from sex. Collins uses the term “sexuate” to refer to the fact of sex differences, one’s biological or anatomical sex (146). Thus, Collins speaks of a person’s sexuality apart from both their biological sex and their desire to engage in the sexual act. It is a third thing. He even speaks of a “sexuality” that “redeemed humanity will experience… in the new heaven and the new earth” (144), and he holds open the possibility that gay people will still be gay in heaven (303-340).
In order to follow Collins’ argument consistently, we would need to employ redundancies like “homosexual sexuality” or “same-sex sexual attraction.” We might even awkwardly say that a person is “gay” but no longer “homosexual.” And when it comes to heaven, we must speak of sexualities, as distinct from biological sex, that neither desire nor engage in the sex act. As we attempt to maintain consistency within this paradigm, we begin to strain coherency.
There are other important arguments made by All But Invisible which call for scrutiny, namely Collins’ repeated assertion that homosexual sins and heterosexual sins are equally disordered (221, 301). He even says that “in a perfect world, gay people could… experience same-gender attractions…” (195). But this misunderstands the traditional meaning of “order” and “disorder” in Christian theology. Certain sins are excessive and intemperate versions of an otherwise orderly activity, but disordered sins are sins which work against the creation order itself. Even besides this point, it should be obvious that a perfect world would lack all disorder. As such, it would also lack disordered inclinations and desires. Thus, any “same-gender attraction” would not be a sexual attraction at all but rather a friendly or affectionate one. To properly explain these concepts would require a much fuller discussion of the Christian philosophy of nature and the natural order, a conversation that evangelicals would do well to take up with renewed interest.
All But Invisible can serve as a helpful introduction to the current state of gay-Christian literature, and it can help pastors and other leaders better understand the logic and vision of many of the participants of the Revoice Conference. But it also exhibits several theological and philosophical deficiencies and proposes a peculiar and unwieldy innovation for understanding sexual identity. A properly biblical and traditional outlook must instead follow the example of the New Testament, calling on believers to find their ultimate identity in Christ and their worldly identities and vocations in a creational pattern which existed prior to disorder.
Steven Wedgeworth (M.Div, Reformed Theological Seminary) is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Vancouver, British Columbia. He serves on the board of directors for The Davenant Institute, a foundation for Christian Scholarship, and is the founding editor of The Calvinist International, a website for Reformed Irenic theology.
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