This week, Eugene Peterson became arguably the most consequential evangelical to endorse same-sex relationships and marriage.* His short interview with Jonathan Merritt isn’t always clear; there is some hedging and “as far as I’m concerned” moral equivalency. But his testimony leaves little doubt, especially since it feels so very familiar. Peterson’s sexual ethic is overwhelmingly anecdotal. His story of embracing same-sex relationships through friendships and pastoral relationships is a reminder of just how natural, intuitive, and authentic heterodoxy can feel in a post-Christian culture.
As one who holds to historic Christian teaching on sex and marriage, I believe that Peterson is very wrong on homosexuality. But I’m gradually coming to understand what a daily burden holding fast on this doctrine can be, particularly for Christians whose gifts and temperaments place them “out there,” in the nexus of city and culture. That’s what I hear in Peterson’s interview: a theological sigh, an admission that the existential toll of living and serving among those to whom he would have to preach repentance is simply too much.
Says Peterson, “I wouldn’t have said this twenty years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” Why is the “debate” over? Because the LGBT people Peterson knows are good, spiritual people. How can that knowledge—not the knowledge of doctrine, but the knowledge of human beings—comport with an antiquated definition of chastity and marriage? What use are theological disputations when it comes to looking real gays and lesbians in the face, living with and loving them, and affirming their humanity and worth?
The question for our generation is increasingly not, “Is this doctrine true or false?” Rather, the question is, “Can I live with it out there?” It’s the same question that the demon Screwtape urged Wormwood to plant deep in the consciousness of his human. “Jargon, not argument,” Screwtape admonished, “is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.” Thwarting the search for truth doesn’t require reasons and examples. It only requires an ominous impression of “real life” and the dreaded sensation that dusty doctrines may cause us to miss it. Screwtape:
I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. …
Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the stairs I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone in his books, a healthy dose of “real life” (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all “that sort of thing” just couldn’t be true.
What I wish people like Eugene Peterson would see is that there is no safe corner of the Christian story that is completely intuitive or unfailingly neighborly. Every element of the Gospel can and will grate against our modern sense of “real life.” If the doctrine of marriage is untenable in “real life,” what doctrines are tenable? “Real life” doesn’t teach us to desire the good of our enemies. It teaches us to shame them, on either Puritan scaffolds or progressive college campuses. “Real life” doesn’t support the notion that justice will ultimately prevail. It reinforces our sense that we must kill or be killed. There’s no intersection of Christ and culture that finally finds both running parallel all the way to glory.
You cannot boil down Christianity to the parts that you are unashamed to speak about in the presence of your intelligent gay neighbor or your prayerful lesbian church member. There will always be someone you love who tells you with their soul in their eyes that that leather-bound book you carry just cannot apply to them. A collision between real life and revelation is guaranteed. What we must figure out is how much of real life we will look at through the lens of truth, and how much we will not.
* Note: Since this piece was published, Peterson has retracted his statements to Jonathan Merritt and declared his support for a biblical definition of marriage. I sincerely hope this retraction is authentic, for all the reasons I've explained here.