09/06/2012 08:57 am ET Updated Nov 06, 2012

Loving Men: Jesus, Homophobia and Male Spirituality

In preparation for winter camping our Boy Scout Troop would do cold weather first aid training. This included the treatment for hypothermia, the condition that occurs when core body temperature becomes dangerously low due to exposure to cold. For Scouts on winter encampment, treatment meant warming the afflicted scout by stripping down naked with the victim in his sleeping bag. In the late 70s, when I was a Scout, boys reacted to this proposal with exaggerated horror, loud protestations of disgust and outbreaks of gay-baiting and homophobic slurs directed at the most vulnerable male in the group.

The mere mention of male to male physical intimacy ignited intense anxiety. The reaction said everything you needed to know about deeply socialized notions of "normal" intimacy and the coincident impulse to force "abnormal" or "uncomfortable" forms of relationship to the margins. As a Scout who did not share the dominant reaction, the message to me was clear; bury those feelings or risk physical and emotional violence.

Homophobia is basic training for many American men. My best friends -- brothers who lived next door -- could think of no more cutting insult than to refer to each other as "my sister." I was raised next door in an explicitly feminist household so I found this "insult" odd and confusing. I did not yet realize that it is common for heterosexual boys to conflate gender identity and sexual orientation, but I did wonder whether it was bad for a man to be like a woman? In retrospect, I realized, male identity depends on clear differentiation from anything feminine. To be a "sissy" is to blur culturally defined roles by being a receptive, sensitive or vulnerable male. Such blurring causes anxiety and forceful attempts to return to the assumed status quo.

So let's examine the following propositions: I love Jesus. Jesus is a man. I am a man who loves a man named Jesus.

How could homophobia not affect that most intimate relationship between my Savior and me? I ask this question because I have discovered that homophobia is an obstacle for me as I attempt to grow in intimacy with Jesus. One day I asked in my prayer for Jesus to love me and be fully present with me, and immediately felt uncomfortable being loved by a man or even being physically close to a man. How could I really absorb the embrace Jesus offered when a man's touch creates intense ambivalence in me?

The simple thesis of this article is that homophobia is an obstacle to spiritual growth for straight men. I write this reflection as a heterosexual man so it is best to qualify my observations and depend on my gay brothers to offer how it might relate to their experience.

Raising the question has provoked fascinating responses which have helped me look deeper into the relationship between desire, intimacy, incarnation and male identity. The loudest response puts Jesus outside the realm of physical presence, intimacy and erotic response. This objection asserts that Jesus is accessed through faith understood as cognitive assent to abstractions about him as Savior, Christ, Lord, etc. The objection seems to follow the well-worn path that makes Divine Love somehow fundamentally different from human love by separating it into agape and eros, where the former is somehow "purified" of any correspondence to desire, satisfaction or pleasure, i.e. disembodied.

An apparent danger of this approach is that it fundamentally ignores the role of the incarnation and the powerful spirituality arising from this teaching. The incarnation proclaims the radical coherence of creator with creation, of spirit and flesh, embodied humanity and the divine that dwells within us. We know the incarnation decisively in a man named Jesus who came to restore the creation to right relationship with the Creator.

Spirituality that separates spirit from body misses a real opportunity to grow in attachment to Jesus through the gift of his body and ours. Incarnate spirituality as taught by Bonaventure or Ignatius or John of the Cross, or today by many evangelical teachers, encourages us to actively imagine ourselves in the presence of Jesus as a person. That personhood is physical and is historically male and may -0 in my experience -- trigger homophobic anxiety in men.

As an Episcopalian my spirituality has been formed by images of the mostly naked Jesus on the Cross and the impossibly handsome Jesus the Good Shepherd depicted in stained glass, sculpture and other art. When I prayed at our Cathedral in Chicago I faced a lithe and sensual wood corpus suspended above the altar where the tortured Jesus is oddly curvy, smooth and somewhat feminine. Of course, the immediate objection is that I am projecting my perverse thoughts on to this innocent artwork. But what if my desires are positive and not perverse? What if the physicality and desire which are present are actually helpful gateways to intimacy with a Savior whose Loving-kindness and nurture made him a transgressive figure in the gender roles of his own time?

The good news for me in the growing acceptance of same-gender love and attraction is that it opens up space for a positive dialogue about male experience in relationship to our Savior who is both male and more than our culturally narrow notions of masculinity. We must remember that Jesus is always "in excess" of the definitions we impose on him and that the space of gender transgression is a place of tremendous spiritual potential. For example, men are traditionally socialized to be aggressive, dominating and active. The spiritual potential of balancing these traits with a growing ability to be receptive, vulnerable, sensitive and passive holds out hope for men to be both more like our Christ and in more loving relationship with each other. Male mentors both gay and straight have taught me to move beyond my defended isolation by responding to my aggression with love. They have helped me to see that these socialized defenses were not my destiny; my identity in Christ held greater hope and balance in store for me.

One largely unspoken cost of traditional male socialization is loneliness among men and chronically unsatisfying male relationships. As a pastor, I know all too well how many men long for relational intimacy with men and women and God. I believe that an honest discussion of homophobia and male socialization in general may give us the resources to advance a more emotionally and spiritually available male identity for our sons and grandsons. In Christ we can be a community with less rigid social roles that finds the graceful middle ground where ambiguity is liberating and transformative.