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Months ago, working on a forthcoming article on Spiritual Friendship, I read through Nate Collins’ book All But Invisible: Exploring Identity Questions at the Intersection of Faith, Gender & Sexuality. I meant at the time to blog about various passages, but the summer was too busy and then I forgot. Today I thought it might be interesting to launch into a small section called “Oriented to What?” in the chapter called “Oriented to Beauty.” Let’s dive right in on page 149:

If we keep orientation, understood as a particular set of givens, but remove sexuality from its center, what is there to take its place? My hunch is that it has something to do with the perception and admiration of beauty. The nature of beauty is such that it is characterized by the capacity to draw individuals out of themselves and into an aesthetic experience of desire. But the mere appreciation of beauty by itself doesn’t seem to represent the actual center of orientation. When an individual not only apprehends but also responds in passionate admiration of the beauty in someone else, it is often because they have been called out of themselves by the beauty of the other. Sometimes beauty is located in an individual’s outward appearance, but other times it shines through that outward appearance from within. In either case, something about the beauty of that individual draws the subject outside of himself or herself and into an interpersonal encounter.

Before getting to the point Collins is making, I want to say that I don’t think he is successful in attempting to wrest sexuality from the center of what is, in every other space including the book itself, described as a “sexual” orientation. We are constantly being told that orientation is about identity, and that identity is about the kind of people you are attracted to or not attracted to. Collins, all through his work, accepts this definition of identity. In fact, this particular chapter opens with a discussion of Foucault and heteronormativity. Sexual attraction is an essential component for this way of thinking. It feels like a sleight of hand to, in the middle of the chapter, suddenly “wonder” if the “sexual” component isn’t essential to the project when all the time that is literally the point of the whole exercise.

As to a possible “orientation to beauty,” Collins points out that most people “passionately” admire the “beauty in someone else” which is not a controversial idea. But later in the chapter, he asserts that people who are same-sex attracted experience this draw toward beauty in the other more intensely than straight people. Whether or not that is true, I want to know more about the beauty of which he speaks. What is it? What does it make you want to do? How would you know if it was actual beauty, or something only masquerading as beauty? How is the orientation to “beauty” in the case of being drawn intensely to another person different than what happened to Eve when she saw that the fruit was very nice to look at, and would also make her wise, according to the version of reality proffered to her by the serpent? And, given that the Bible says the desire that two men have for each other, or two women, is not so much about beauty but rather idolatry–the narcissistic attraction to the self under the guise of another person who looks very much like you–how would this possible “aesthetic orientation” avoid that pitfall?

My sense over and over reading the book, unhappily, is that Collins is marshaling his considerable intellect and scholarship to find spiritual justification for his own carnal inclinations. His insistence that it is possible to take the sexual attraction out of the equation between men and women and be left with pure “beauty” at the core is something that previous generations of people have attempted to do, including the very first one, but have never successfully accomplished. Saying that, of course, is not to say that when a man is drawn to another man there is no beauty at all to attract him. And no one is saying that beauty is bad. There is such a dearth of beauty in this life. And beauty is necessarily related to goodness and truth. Isn’t it? But let’s look at the next paragraph:

If beauty is at the center of orientation, then perhaps the phrase “aesthetic orientation” is the kind of theological term we need. To confirm this, let’s run through the two diagnostic questions we discussed. First, is it useful? The term aesthetic orientation reflects a category of personhood that encompasses a broad spectrum of concepts and themes that are clustered around the Christian doctrine of anthropology, not just the theme of sexuality. Additionally, the term can be adequately coordinated with each of the major stages of redemptive history (creation, fall, redemption, new creation). In particular, it is capable of illuminating the major paths of obedience we explored in chapter 4 that might characterize the calling of a variety of nonstraight individuals who are committed to a traditional sexual ethic.

Ah, there is that term I so dislike—“traditional sexual ethic.” I resent it because it is a way of confining all that the Bible says about men and women, and the great mystery of who they are, into some narrow sliver bland sexual proclivity, instead of the whole person, which, ironically, is what Collins says he’s trying to do—make it about the whole person.

This is a pretty big project. Where will it lead? Will God eventually be allowed to define the terms? And if he did, how would we know? For example, it isn’t true that there are only six verses that speak explicitly about same-sex sexual activity, as Collins says on page 20. The only way you say that is if you avoid Jesus’ use of the term ‘porneia” in the gospels, and by adopting a hermeneutic of doubt and deconstruction.

Even more, one may throw a spanner into Collins’ project of quietly switching “sexual identity” with an “aesthetic identity” by pointing out that what we want and what we desire is very rarely described by God as “beautiful.” Our attractions to each other—though not exclusively of course—arise out of the darkness of our sin natures. Occasionally human desires are pure and good, but those are rare moments in Biblical history. You have to reject the underlying substrata of that Bible—that people are sinners and their inclinations and desires are bad—and pretend that somehow the “imago dei” is something that hasn’t been shattered on the garden floor and only put back together by Christ himself.

I have to run along, but the verse that always comes flashing into my mind is Psalm 50:21, “These things hast thou done, and I kept silence; thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thine eyes.” God, the speaker, would like us to understand that we were wrong. He is not like us, and we are not like him, and so we cannot impose our categories on his will.

Ok, more later. Pip pip.

Photo by Francesco Alberti on Unsplash

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