In A Conversation Waiting to Begin, his characteristically insightful reflection on gay controversies in the Church of England, Oliver O’Donovan criticizes Rowan Williams’ treatment of homosexual desire. Williams, he notes, treats homosexual desire as if its object were immediately apparent, as if homosexual desire pointed unequivocally towards homosexual relations. O’Donovan cautions that it is unwise to consider the ‘literal enactment’ of our desires to be their ‘true fulfillment’.[1] Rather, desire needs to be interpreted. He writes:

To all desire its appropriate self-questioning: what wider, broader good does this desire serve? How does it spring out of our strengths, and how does it spring out of our weaknesses? Where in relation to this desire does real fulfilment lie? It is in interpreting our desires that we need the wisdom of tradition, which teaches us to beware of the illusory character of immediate emotional data, helping us to sort through our desires and clarify them. The true term of any desire, whether heavily laden or merely banal, is teasingly different from the mental imagination that first aroused it.[2]

The task of interpreting desire is fraught and challenging, the objects of its study are slippery and often treacherous. Our desires will frequently deceive and mislead us, their ostensive ends mirages that doom those pursuing them to disappointment. O’Donovan continues:

Desire is … one aspect of what Christian doctrine used to speak of as “concupiscence,” a brokenness of the world reflected in a confusion of desire that our human society itself instills in us. A recovery of the length, breadth, and depth of the doctrine of original sin would rid us of a lot of misunderstanding at this point.[3]

The modern world, perhaps especially online, can often be experienced as a world of free-floating desires seeking expression, gratification, and recognition, disconnected from orienting realities. Each of the participants in this conversation has recognized in different ways the peculiarly disoriented reality of modern desire. This disorientation does not merely relate to the radical and pervasive disorientation generally characteristic of a fallen species, but also in the more contingent and contextual refractions and intensifications of this within a highly technological and increasingly artificial and virtual society.

Within this conversation, we have all remarked upon and wrestled with the way that modern desire has lost its ‘grounding’ and weight. In discussing the challenge of bringing people ‘back to the ground’, Jim Pocta described the importance of the stubborn reality of the body itself as an invaluable gift of orientation for the difficult task of interpreting confusing desires. Next to the sexed body and the fruitful union between man and woman, transgender bodies and same-sex unions are readily recognized as counterfeits and parodies. Pocta’s refusal to take same-sex desire merely at its face value is a good example of an approach that recognizes the importance of O’Donovan’s counsel.

While O’Donovan’s primary critique in his treatment of the task of interpretation of homosexual desire is directed against those rejecting historic Christian sexual ethics, his critique also needs to be heard by many contemporary supporters of such ethics. I suspect that the term ‘gay’ has become so vexed in part on account of the failure of conservative Christians to undertake this interpretative task carefully and attentively enough. As our interiority is elevated as primary and self-interpretating in our society, it is not merely sexual revolutionaries that neglect the task of interpretation. Too many orthodox Christians have taken the desires of homosexual Christians as self-interpreting and simply pathologized both the desires and, by extension, those who possess them (here I must register my discomfort with an approach that traffics heavily in disgust in such an environment). ‘Gay’ is a very slippery term, but it has always named more than mere sexual desire, being connected with shared sensibilities and the like. If we are to condemn the use of this term, I think it is essential that we equip people to tease apart and interpret the tangled threads of desires, sensibilities, aesthetics, and perceptions that ‘gay’ represents for them. A lot of cruelly inflicted distress can result when this is not done.

As I have remarked elsewhere, contemporary treatments of sex and sexuality routinely contain few if any references to procreation. Detached from any end in nature, the body, sexual desire, and sexual relations can all be thoroughly resituated within the realm of artifice and social construction, determined only by the will of those that possess them, who express themselves through them. Of course, a thoroughgoing detachment of such a kind is impossible. The very demand for absolute and unqualified social recognition for same-sex marriage and the gender identity of trans persons is a claim upon the unrestricted resources of social construction for the purpose of creating and sustaining a shared illusion against the stubborn insistence of natural reality. We should recognize something of the precarious character of these identities in the very vehemence of their demands for complicity. We should also beware of underestimating the power of nature itself in our apologetic. If nature itself were not a powerful and often effective challenge to their arguments, people would be rather more ambivalent about people drawing attention to it.

On the other side of this, Matthew Colvin’s response explores the drive towards the ‘unnatural’ in modernity. While we can recognize the ‘non-natural’ character of many modern social and existential realities, which free us from much of the gravity exerted by the natural world upon our lives and bodies, there is an ‘anti-natural’ impulse too. This impulse is, as I argued in my initial piece, one expressed in the transhumanist drive of the LGBTQ+ movement, which is typically wedded, both aesthetically and practically, to artifice, simulation, parody, and circumvention of nature. The legal and social invention of same-sex ‘marriage’ strives to fuller realization by both a corresponding denaturalizing of the unions of men and women and their natural offspring, and the pursuit of compensatory laws, techniques, and simulation: adoption rights and privileges, IVF, gamete donation, surrogacy, and, in the future, things such as the engineering of gametes and ectogenesis.

Colvin presents the elaborate soaring and airy structure of a Gothic cathedral as an illustration of the highly artificial form of modern sexuality. While a wonderfully articulated metaphor, I wonder whether it is the most fitting one. A Gothic cathedral is an incredible dance with gravity, its beautiful forms eloquent answering to necessary architectural functions. A more fitting architectural comparison might be with buildings made with modern construction materials and methods, where, on account of reinforced and versatile materials and computer-aided design, the constraints of gravity are much less keenly felt and form and function can exist in a much looser relation.

Indeed, one could argue that, just as a Gothic cathedral can marry the lightness of the air and the sun’s rays with the immense weight of stone through its skilful engagement with gravity, so a healthy expression of the weightiness of maleness and femaleness in society should likewise strive for beauty, elevation, and elaboration. Human nature is cultural and is most clearly and beautifully seen, not in the reduction of man to the ground conditions of extreme necessity as evolutionary psychology might have it, but in the elevation of the weight of man’s nature in the greatest steeples of culture.

My preferred analogy for our modern predicament is one Colvin employs later: that of an astronaut in the microgravity of space. In such a context, bodies and senses can easily become disoriented and weakened. Our bodies exist in a natural relationship to our planet and, untethered from its gravity, environments, and rhythms, we would soon feel disoriented and nauseous, our muscles would weaken over time, our circadian rhythm would be disrupted, and a host of elaborate technological provisions would need to be made for our bodies to perform their most basic functions. Viewed in complete detachment from the external realities of our planet, our bodies would be much more mysterious than they need to be.

An existential detachment of such a kind is perhaps peculiarly possible in the vacuum of cyberspace, where bodies and nature are absent and desires and their projections and expressions dominate. It should come as no surprise that modern trans and queer identities have proliferated on social media such as Tumblr. Nor that these identities are much less likely to make the ‘born this way’ gestures towards nature characteristic of the older gay movement.

Such an environment, where desires float free seeking expression, is one where the interpretative approach to desire encouraged by O’Donovan and Pocta will seldom be undertaken. Fantasy and imagination and the desires corresponding to them are normal, healthy, and important dimensions of human existence and engagement with our worlds. However, they are untrustworthy masters and, while promising liberation to those that possess them, frequently lead to bondage. The porn-ridden realms of the Internet, festering with unnatural and antinatural fantasies, for instance, promise much in the way of gratification and sexual liberation, but correspond with profound sexual malaise and dissatisfaction in their users’ lives, hindering their achievement both of the natural goods of marital union and the satisfaction of their sexual desires.

Peter Leithart cautions against the untethering of identity and desire from external resources and forms. Against the privileging of interiority, orientation can be received as a gift from without. As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has argued, the ‘first person’ should not come first: in reality, ‘you’ precedes ‘I’. Before I can enjoy any extensive interiority, I must first be addressed by someone. Feral children, who have been raised by animals in the wild, can lose the ability even to learn language, may struggle to walk upright, and seemingly lack the interiority human beings typically enjoy. Romanticizing the first person starved of proper loving address is a feature of new visions of sexual identity, perhaps most notably in the refusal of some parents to gender their children before they can reveal or choose their gender for themselves.

The gift of orientation from without is also found in social customs, forms, and institutions. Marriage is such an orientation, not merely for those within the institution. Marriage directs our desires for sexual relations to a proper end, ordering them towards an external and public good that relieves both the fickle and misleading power that they can exert over us and the destructive social impact that unchanneled desires can cause.

Leithart speaks of the importance of a ‘theological and ecclesial frame’. I share Colvin’s concern that such a ‘frame’ is impossible without something rather more solid on the level of material culture. A society in which nature is dissembled and effaced and its gravity forgotten through such things as the inhabiting of various spectacles and virtual spaces, extreme fossil fuel dependence, the extensive use of hormone-disrupting chemicals, etc.—a society that we all currently inhabit—is not going to be effectively reoriented by Christian ideas. However, a discovery of the weight of the world and our humanity within it—and a corresponding appreciation of the illusory lightness of the modern technosphere we inhabit—through grounding Christian practices, around which we could reorganize and renegotiate our existence, does hold real promise.

Each of the participants in this conversation has recognized something of the novelty of our cultural preoccupation with sexual identity. This preoccupation seems in large measure to be a product of the peculiar material conditions of modernity. Disorientation around sexual identity is not something from which the church is immune. We largely inhabit the same worlds as our non-Christian neighbours and, despite their measure of Christian formation, numerous Christian children end up leaving the church through such a preoccupation. Colvin describes many Christian responses to our current malaise as ‘brittle and artificial solutions’. Many of these responses could be accused of LARPing (live action role playing), as ‘ossified and performative legal requirements’ take the place of ‘organic norms’. This critique finds ready targets. However, we might temper this legitimate critique with a recognition that, in many immediate situations, ‘LARPing’ may be the most that can be realistically achieved and may prove for some to be a first step towards the development and discovery of something more organic.

Necessary as it is to consider the broader contours of our culture’s disordered relationship with identity, if we are not careful such considerations can foster paralysis (others respond with denial). The dysfunctions seem so pervasive, the obstacles so insurmountable. No proposed solutions, on any scale, truly escape the clutches of our problems. Yet, perhaps tempted to despair, we should re-establish our own bearings. The disorienting technosphere we inhabit for ourselves isn’t the deepest reality. It is ultimately a confection of rare metals, fossil fuels, and other materials. Our forgetfulness of nature and its solidity and gravity doesn’t mean that it has simply gone away. Indeed, while appropriately recognizing the ‘gravity’ of the world, we ought also to recognize its vaporous character. The world didn’t ultimately change with the Sexual Revolution or the invention of same-sex marriage. This also is vapour.

The deepest and only enduring reality is given to us by our Creator, who is sovereign over all. Faced with immense cultural forces, we must practice the remembrance of his sovereignty, seeking his face and aid in prayer and looking towards his future in hope. While recognizing the enormous scale of our problems, we shouldn’t assume that significance and the power to make a difference is only found in messianic callings. Our power to make an impact in the world is almost invariably modest and focused on our immediate lives, contexts, and families. There, however, this power is a real one. Paralyzing preoccupation with the spectacle of the world’s and the Church’s vast problems is an easy trap for us to fall into in the modern world.

Sexual identity has become such a problem for us in large measure because it has become disconnected from its greater ends. Through becoming a problem it has become a preoccupation, a preoccupation that merely intensifies the problem that gave rise to it in a vicious feedback loop, an expression of humanity incurvatus in se. What is needed is a deepening of our apprehension of a reality beyond ourselves, the reality whose gravity, atmosphere, and resources sustain us and give us meaning and our lives weight. Healthy sexuality will only be known when we practically discover what it is about.

[1] Oliver O’Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy (London: SCM Press, 2009) 113.

[2] O’Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin, 112-113.

[3] O’Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin, 113.

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