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Paul Tournier on Homosexuality and the Sublimation of Desire

Paul Tournier 1 was a Swiss physician whose work became particularly regarded across Europe and America for use in pastoral counseling. He was an M.D. but also an orthodox Calvinist, and his writings reflect both medical and theological knowledge. Dr. Tournier was a member of the Oxford Group and published over twenty books.

The selection printed below comes from chapter 13 of his book The Healing of Persons (Harper and Row 1965, 181-184) and has to do with the matter of homosexuality. Some of its statements about societal bias and, particularly, legal sanctions are obviously no longer applicable. It is also no longer the case that secular physicians are willing to speak of homosexuality as an illness or affliction, though it is worth remembering that such sentiments were indeed considered “scientific” until quite recently. Still, even if one were to take exception to those aspects of Dr. Tournier’s writing, the substance of his insights about both the condition and the treatment remains relevant to Christians who wish to think seriously about this matter. Those trained in classical thought will also pick up themes from both Plato and Augustine (among others), and so this essay ought not be dismissed as time-bound or culturally parochial. I plan to post a follow-up with observations of my own, but I felt that Dr. Tournier’s words on this subject deserved to be read first on their own. –SW

From “Questions of Sex” in The Healing of Persons by Dr. Paul Tournier

I have of course been consulted by a large number of men and women whose lives have been completely ruined by the deviation of instinct known as homosexuality, and its repercussions.

In talking to them, one perceives that they suffer much more from the moral and social consequences of their infirmity than from the infirmity itself. In all homosexuals, because of the social prejudices of which they are the object, and also because of the rigid formalism of current religious ideas, which casts the first stone at the sick instead of loving them as Christ did, there are feelings of inferiority, of moral isolation, and of being under a curse, which are much worse than those felt by a one-eyed person or one who is lame.

They feel themselves to be excluded from human society, that everybody guesses their trouble and despises them. This feeling stops their acting naturally and spontaneously. In its turn, lack of naturalness and of human society aggravates the psychological difficulty.

They can experience sexual happiness in liaisons in which they give way to their instinct. But it is a happiness haunted by malaise and guilt, so that they are prevented from fully developing their personalities, for this carnal happiness is not part of God’s purpose. So they break off the association, but are no happier in an emotional separation which they do not really accept.

They are full of self-pity, of rebellion against the fate which forbids their knowing true happiness. Furthermore, they are afraid of their emotions; they can have no normal social relationships, either with the other sex, which is a constant reminder, because of the revulsion it inspires in them, of their infirmity, or with individuals of their own sex, to whom they are afraid of becoming too attached.

The results are a complete inability to behave naturally and aggressive reactions against their families and their colleagues at work, the cause of which they cannot confess, and which are put down to their having an unpleasant nature. All of which increases their moral isolation still further.

They cannot be happy and spontaneous, either in giving way to the impulses of their misdirected instinct or in resisting them.

The following is, I think, the Christian answer to this problem:

  1. Homosexuality is an infirmity. But whereas all other infirmities call forth sympathy, this one is looked upon as a social reproach, because of the conventionalism of society. Christ, who condemned conventionalism with the utmost severity, is always nearest to those who suffer.

  2. Acceptance of one’s nature as it is, with its infirmities and the difficulties they entail, acceptance of them without rebellion, is one of the demands Christianity makes. Christ does not promise us a life exempt from infirmities and difficulties, but he gives us true happiness in the acceptance of them. This particular infirmity is to be regarded in the same way as all the others, which are compatible with happiness insofar as they are not rebelled against.

  3. But the person who gives way to his or her homosexual tendency, even if it be only in thought, commits a sin. For sin is disobedience of God, that is to say, the use of any instinct outside God’s purpose, for one’s own pleasure.

This is why homosexuals are not beings apart from humanity. They have no sex problem essentially different from that of other people, from that of the unmarried, the widowed, or the married. For all, it is the same problem, namely, that of absolute obedience to God’s will, in sex as in all other domains of life. A man who by a look “commits adultery in his heart,” to use Christ’s words, or a man who uses his wife otherwise than as God wills, is as disobedient, as sinful, as a homosexual who gives free play to his abnormal impulses. It can be quite as difficult for a married heterosexual really to obey God’s will for his sexual life and to be absolutely pure in marriage as it is for a bachelor or a homosexual to observe an absolute sexual discipline.

Sexual life guided by God means absolute obedience to God, it means the employment of the prodigious strength of the creative instinct in accordance with his purpose, whether it be in the accomplishment of the normal sex act within the marriage bond, or in the direction of the creative urge to other spheres of the life of the mind, in social life, or in spiritual life.

This is the Christian view of what the psychologists call sublimation, which, for unbelievers, is merely a second-best substitute for sex, whereas for us it is a different incarnation of the creative urge which God has implanted in man’s heart. Through the instinct of sex God has associated man with his creative work. But God’s creative work is not only carnal: It embraces every aspect of life. Heat energy can be converted into mechanical energy. We do not therefore say that the second is really a form of the first, but rather that they are different manifestations of ultraphenomenal energy.

In the same way we must look upon sublimation not as a disguised form of sexual energy, but as a different phenomenal manifestation of the divine creative force.

From the Christian point of view, the homosexual who is prosecuted by law ought to be declared to have absolutely no legal responsibilities for his condition, since an infirmity can hardly be looked upon as a crime. On the other hand, he will be cured only if he feels—on the same grounds as the heterosexual—entirely responsible before God for using his instinct in accordance with God’s will, abandoning to God the direction of his sexual life.

I am reminded here of a teacher who came a long way to see me one day. We shall call him Peter. I could not say, in his case, whether it was the aberrant tendency of his sexual instinct which had unconsciously influenced him in his choice of teaching as a career, or whether it was this career which had arrested his sexual evolution at the infantile stage of homosexuality. It was, however, the case that for him his professional life was one long martyrdom. A prey to terrible temptations, he was wearing himself out in struggles with himself. His spiritual life, which had been awakened, was blocked by this unresolved problem.

He was able to abandon his sexuality to God, and find at once a relief which none of his inner struggles had ever been able to procure for him. A negative struggle only concentrates the mind obsessively on the thing one is fighting against, and makes liberation from it more difficult. But Christianity is a message of good news, of miraculous and freely given liberation accorded by faith to those who are willing really to obey Jesus Christ.

One year later I saw Peter again. He was happily engaged to be married. He had been able to make a full and frank confession to his fiancée of the difficulties he had had, and he was looking forward to his marriage with complete confidence.

  1. The cover image for this essay was taken from Wikipedia media archives and is believed to be fair-use.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

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