A heavy grace: fiction, theology and same-sex love

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
20 Nov 2008

"But she loved, and loving groped for the God who had fashioned her, even unto this bitter loving." - The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall, 1928.

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For half a century, theologians have vigorously debated lesbian and gay love and the response of society and the Church. Yet theological reflection on these issues, for instance in literature, dates back further.

Not surprisingly, mention of attraction and physical and emotional intimacy between people of the same sex can be found in literary works of various cultures, some of which have religious associations. For instance the twelfth-century Persian Sufi poet Farid Ud-din Attar portrayed passionate human love (including that of man for man) as an example of the ardour and self-abandonment with which the soul should seek the divine. Among some of the tribes of North America, ‘two-spirit’ people who did not easily fit the usual patterns of male/female identity were called on to take the lead in certain spiritual practices.

But by the late nineteenth century, much of the world had been colonised by European powers promoting versions of Christianity in which the only legitimate place for sexual intimacy was in marriage, where the husband was expected to be dominant. This arrangement was also widely regarded as in keeping with nature, though many were tolerant of heterosexual men’s tendency to ‘stray’.

However, many people found that these supposedly universal truths did not fit their own experience. Most learned to hide their feelings or led double lives, while a few bravely campaigned for greater understanding and acceptance of sexual diversity, or at least an end to persecution by the criminal justice system, to which men in particular were subjected. Women’s freedom tended in any case to be heavily constrained. Their neighbours, meanwhile, were often deeply ignorant.

There was some poetry which explored the relationship between human and divine love without being explicit about the gender of those involved, and which people ‘in the know’ might realise arose from the experience of same-sex love, such as ‘Love’s Justification’ by Michelangelo, translated into English by William Wordsworth, and ‘Love’s Vision’ by Edward Carpenter. Yet much lesbian and gay experience remained secretive, the ‘love that dares not speak its name’ to quote Lord Alfred Douglas.

It was into this world that, in 1880, Radclyffe Hall was born. An upper-class Englishwoman, she was to become a celebrated author, then notorious when her best-known (though not best) work, The Well of Loneliness, published in 1928, was banned for obscenity.

In early modern times and more recently, some of those attracted to the same sex looked back to Graeco-Roman times as offering a framework to make sense of their feelings, and maybe explore what it might mean to lead an ethical life. Some however remained devout Christians, including Hall, some of whose fiction explored religious concerns. While The Well of Loneliness is overlong, very grim and in some ways dated, it is a serious exploration of the challenges of being gay and lesbian in a hostile society, and indeed a human capable of costly love.

Some of the central themes – nature, love, courage and sacrifice – are set out in the first couple of pages, when Sir Philip Gordon marries Anna Molloy, ‘the archetype of the very perfect woman, whom creating God has found good’, and brings her to his home in the beautiful countryside near the Malverns, where she falls pregnant. Their daughter, Stephen, turns out to be different from other girls, unable to fit in with her expected role and make friends with other children. Philip, a scholar, soon recognises that she is innately lesbian and tries to protect her, while Anna finds it difficult to love a daughter so different from what she expected. When Philip dies and Stephen discovers her own identity, she is driven into exile, profoundly isolated except for her faithful ex-tutor, a lesbian herself; and discovers a talent for writing. She also meets others with a similar orientation, many of them also driven out of their communities. Naïve, idealistic Stephen’s capacity for self-giving love makes her even more vulnerable. However she is not portrayed as a mere victim, and much of the book is about her struggle to come to terms with who she is and lead an honourable life.

The notion that all true ‘inverts’ are ‘butch’ if women and ‘effeminate’ if men has long been obsolete, and Stephen’s social background far removed from that of most lesbians and gays today. Yet many will have shared at least some of the experiences vividly portrayed in the novel. Isolation and bullying of children who are not ‘normal’, parental anxieties, societal prejudice, shame and self-hatred, the relief of finding others with similar experiences, the temptation for minorities to retreat into ghettos and the challenge of making ethical sense of one’s body and capacity to love are still current concerns.

Religion sometimes surfaces explicitly in the novel, in which Stephen gradually comes to believe in God. As she visits a church with a self-hating Roman Catholic friend, a priest enters with consecrated bread, and a bell like those once used for lepers ‘rang out the approach of supreme purity, of the Healer of lepers, earthbound through compassion; but compassion so vast, so urgent, that the small, white disc of the Host must contain the whole suffering universe. Thus the Prisoner of love Who could never break free while one spiritual leper remained to be healed, passed by on His patient way, heavy-laden.’ When Stephen is shocked by the self-destructiveness of some around her, a wise Jewish gay man tells her, ‘Many die, many kill their bodies and souls, but they cannot kill the justice of God, even they cannot kill the eternal spirit. From their very degradation that spirit will rise up to demand of the world compassion and justice.’

At the end of the novel Stephen, named after the first martyr, and who has given up her own chance of happiness to protect the woman she loves, is almost overwhelmed by the anguish of those gays and lesbians who feel desperately forsaken by the world and God. ‘Acknowledge us, oh God, before the whole world,’ she urgently prays. ‘Give us also the right to our existence!’

While some of the first readers of the book were angered or disgusted – ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid,’ wrote the editor of the Sunday Express – others were prompted to think more deeply about the universe in which they lived and its Creator.

When James Baldwin became a published novelist in the 1950s, discrimination against gays and lesbians was still widespread. An African-American gay man who had grown up in the church, he later became strongly critical of organised Christianity, but theological (and in particular Biblical) themes remained central to his work.

Much of his fiction explored love of various kinds – for relatives, friends, lovers and neighbours – and how it affected and was affected by social barriers such as racism. Jacques, a character in one of his early novels, Giovanni’s Room, tells the narrator David that ‘not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour – and in the oddest places! – for the lack of it.’

When this short, intense work appeared in 1956, it met with strong reactions, not least because of the frank portrayal of a same-sex relationship. Unlike Stephen Gordon, David is at first skilled at concealing his sexuality, even from himself. He is desperately keen to be a typical American male. But when he arrives in France, in the absence of his girlfriend Hella, he is drawn to the gay scene, where he is befriended by Jacques.

David, disturbed by his growing feelings for another young man, Giovanni, expresses his contempt for what he sees. But Jacques makes the case that ‘There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one’s head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.’ His own sexual encounters are indeed shameful, not because they are with men but ‘Because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact.’ If David thinks of his moments of intimacy as dirty ‘then they will be dirty – they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better – forever – if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.’

Deeply in love, David moves in with Italian barman Giovanni, redeeming him from the God-rejecting despair which has engulfed him following a bereavement. At times they are blissfully happy, yet David struggles to be ‘normal’, at one point seeking out a lonely woman for a one-night stand, described in grim detail. While novels are not sermons, Baldwin like Hall does not celebrate hedonistic excess or sexual irresponsibility.

In David, fear comes to outweigh love. As Giovanni, now deeply vulnerable after being humiliated and dismissed by his employer, and whom he is about to abandon, turns to him for comfort, ‘I smiled and I really felt at that moment that Judas and the Saviour had met in me. “Don’t be frightened. Don’t worry.”’

When David leaves, Giovanni in his despair commits a terrible act of violence, for which he is sentenced to death. David is now engaged to Hella, but the relationship is strained, and in the end the façade crumbles, leaving her shattered. As she plans to return to America, he tells her that ‘if I was lying, I wasn’t lying to you’; instead ‘I was lying to myself,’ but this is small consolation to her. Even today, especially where religious prohibitions or legal penalties prompt many gays to pretend to be heterosexual, many women would be able to identify with Hella’s plight.

Alone on the night of Giovanni’s execution, imagining his lover turning for comfort to the faith he once rejected, David ponders St Paul’s words: as a man ‘I put away childish things’. He himself must acknowledge his body, value ‘that nakedness which I must hold sacred, though it be never so vile, which must be scoured perpetually with the salt of my life’, and believe ‘that the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.’

By the mid-1950s, in much of the West and current or former colonies, gay sex still carried harsh penalties. And attitudes were still largely negative, for instance that homosexuality was a ‘neurotic disease in which extremely severe and unavoidable self-damaging tendencies engulf the whole personality’ (to quote influential psychiatrist Edmund Bergler). However, theologians were beginning to grapple in some depth with the issues. Meanwhile serious theological reflection had already begun, thanks largely to lesbian and gay writers such as Hall and Baldwin who were bold enough to address ‘forbidden’ subjects and skilful enough to prompt their readers to engage imaginatively with their work.

Social attitudes have since changed greatly in many parts of the world. There have been numerous novels involving same-sex relationships, some openly exploring religious themes and many with happy endings. Yet the areas explored in the fiction of Hall and Baldwin, including the moral consequences of despising one’s own and others’ bodies and failing to acknowledge the complexity of God’s creation, the risks of self-deception and exploitative behaviour, the importance of divine and human mercy, and the joys and sorrows which can arise from loving intimacy with someone of the same or opposite sex, are still theologically relevant.

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Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi has contributed several chapters to the recent book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).

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