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Some Observations on Tournier’s Prescriptions for Homosexuality

I wanted to say a few things about Paul Tournier’s thoughts on sublimation and the relationship between sexual energy and divine creativity. If you haven’t read his essay, then refer to it first. I hope to explain his perspective and then expand it to a more basic understanding of desire and dominion.

The first thing which needs to be said might sound like a bit of credential-boasting, but it is still necessary to fully understand our place in this conversation. Put simply, Dr. Tournier was a legitimate medical authority, and his writings were taken seriously beyond parochial religious communities. For instance, the book from which I quoted an excerpt was not published by P&R or Eerdmans, but Harper and Row. In 1965, Dr. Tournier was not considered weird or exotic. He was giving interesting commentary on otherwise mainstream thinking.

Secondly, it was normal to understand and speak of homosexuality as a disorder and even a disease in 1965. Things began to change with the publication of the DSM-IV, and it wasn’t until 1990 that the World Health Organization finally stopped classifying it as a disorder. Many perspectives went in to this, and the definition of disorder is itself a disputed matter, but it’s still worth remembering. The world in which we currently live is very new. What we assume as “normal” is very W.E.I.R.D.

Third, since this is the case, Dr. Tournier is not opposed to what is now derogatorily called “conversion” therapy. He does not assert that it will work for everyone, but he does assume that it can work for some persons and that it is a sensible goal. He employs a Christian version of “sublimation” towards this end.

Fourthly, it is also precisely because Dr. Tournier sees homosexuality as a disorder that he rejects any particular demonization of it. Dr. Tournier sees persons struggling with homosexual desires as sinners, but as sinners like the rest of humanity. He believes that their particular affliction also brings particular insight and opportunity. About this he says, “Christ, who condemned conventionalism with the utmost severity, is always nearest to those who suffer.” And also, “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.” What he means by rebellion there is not an acceptance which would lead to the sinful action– Dr. Tournier rejects this in a subsequent paragraph– but an acceptance that such an affliction is really present and not to be denied or dismissed. So while persons struggling with homosexuality are “like other sinners” in the sense that we all bear afflictions, they have a particular affliction and thus a particular perspective and experience. Dr. Tournier believes that no healing can occur until this reality is honestly acknowledged. Additionally, and importantly, Dr. Tournier seems to oppose anti-homosexual legislation.

Fifthly, Dr. Tournier does believe that a person can sin by acting upon homosexual desires, including mental activity. He would not want us to approach this from a purely physical and external perspective. “For sin is,” he says, “disobedience of God, that is to say, the use of any instinct outside God’s purpose, for one’s own pleasure.” This is why he brings up sublimation. Sublimation is a way to reorder instincts towards God’s purpose.

So, does Dr. Tournier prescribe “Gay conversion”?

Yes, in a way, but it is important to notice that this sublimation is more than simply a substitution, as Dr. Tournier insists that we must push deeper than sexuality. We must be sure to understand that “sexual life” is itself but one “employment of the prodigious strength of the creative instinct.” This same “creative instinct” can also be employed in other forms, including heterosexual marriage,  “other spheres of the life of the mind, in social life, or in spiritual life.” These are all “different incarnation[s] of the creative urge which God has implanted in man’s heart.”

And so the “conversion” is actually a conversion of one type off energy into another. Dr. Tournier explains this by an analogy:

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.

This is important because it does not call for a mere denial or repression of the homosexual urge. Instead it calls the individual, viewed as an individual in relationship to God, to responsibly acknowledge his current instincts and what God has revealed about His desire for them. “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.” And so this is a disorder which is real but a disorder which is still capable of being managed by the sanctified human will.

It is only after the individual comes to a right understanding of himself and of God that he can then rightly “convert” his sexual energy into another form of creativity.

This explanation will certainly not satisfy most secular thinkers and psychologists today. However, it’s worth understanding why it will not satisfy, namely that the entire conversation rests upon metaphysics. Even before we define “orientation” or “sexuality” we must first define what a human is, as well as his origin and obligations. If the materialist account is true, then Dr. Tournier’s thoughts make no sense at all. However, if we do receive our impulses and desires from an external source– and especially if there is already a history of creation and fall– then we must take his perspective seriously. One need not be a Christian to believe that sexual desires should be regulated and even denied– after all, Socrates, in Plato’s Symposium, prescribes sublimation as a means to correct the ancient-Greek practice of pederasty. But from within Christianity, Dr. Tournier’s explanation is largely sound.

All of Life as Sublime

To truly complete this conversation, we must get beyond “orientation,” or perhaps we must orient all of our life towards the divine. This means we get beyond orientation for the same reason that we get beyond ourselves. All that we have has been given to us, and that means that all we have has a purpose and destination in God’s order. Not all forms of “gay conversion” should be received as equally credible, but the concept itself ought not be dismissed wholesale.

This conversation also goes beyond homosexuality. Though that was the specific occasion of Dr. Tournier’s essay, he is clear that all creative energies are equally responsible before God. Heterosexual desires must likewise be regulated and used for God’s glory, and, it follows, that other manner of aberrant sexual desires could be evaluated along the same line.

Beyond sexuality, this conversation connects to stewardship and dominion. The same principles apply to production, the use of creation, politics, and economics. We must see our potential as potency granted to us by God, and we must see this potency as an energy which is inherently good but always subject to sinful abuse in this life. Thus we must abandon it all to God in order for it to be truly used aright.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. 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 Director for the Davenant Institute.