A couple of years ago, I defended a dissertation in theology, and am struggling to establish a career as a professional theologian. I am also an openly gay man. Of course, many queer folk have vexed or even horrific experiences with religion. And there’s no denying that the strongest voices in the pushback against our full participation in society are religiously motivated. So, why in the world would someone gay bother with religion, much less choose to become a professional theologian? Join me on the flip.
This diary is a reprint of a 2008 contribution to the WGLB TV series, a LGBT (predominantly "G") community forum back in the day. I figure enough new people have joined since then to make it worth reposting.
I was raised by an atheist, so my journey’s an unlikely one in several respects. Little did I know in third grade when I got in playground arguments about the non-existence of God and Santa Claus that I would devote the bulk of my adult life to thinking about God.
The first major change in direction came when I was seven or eight years old, when my mother took me to the Hessian Regional Museum in Darmstadt, Germany. Some of the rooms in the museum were full of medieval altarpieces, and I was completely captivated by them. My mother had dutifully kept me out of Sunday School, but I made up for it by asking my mother in detail about the stories behind the pictures. The stories ended up being mostly from the Bible. Apparently, I kept this up until a guard went and fetched a chair for my mother to sit on, and the next day I asked to go back and see the pictures again. People sometimes say that one can choose one’s religion, whereas one cannot choose one’s sexual orientation. But comparing the experiences of such strong reactions to a specific kind of religious art and to the beauties of male bodies leaves me with a sense that there’s more similarity than difference in that basic gravitational pull toward something.
When I was in fifth grade, a Jewish boarder moved in with us for a couple of years. She would always welcome the Sabbath by lighting candles and singing a song. I talked to her about Judaism and she took me to Passover dinner at her family, and once we went to an interfaith service where Jews, Christians, and Muslims had organized an evening of worship together. While the pictures I saw in the museum were a matter of an aesthetic response, now I experienced first-hand for the first time the practice of religion as part of the fabric of daily life.
In sixth grade, I became especially interested in my family’s Mennonite heritage. My grandfather was a Mennonite, and my mother was raised in that tradition. Once, when I asked my mother why she was a liberal, she answered that she got her values from Mennonite summer church camps. She clearly understands her ethics as coming from that Christian background, though she finds belief kind of ridiculous. This answer has always meant that at the core, the line between what is religion and what’s not religion is more porous for me than for many people. And in none of the examples that formed my earliest experiences of religion was believing that an ancient text was literal and inerrant even close to the radar. Undoing the nonsense of fundamentalism was never a task that slowed me down in exploring the world of religious faith.
Taking the leap
Thinking back on the events of this period has been strange, because I’ve decisively moved on from much of the basic perspective, yet in other respects these events remain foundational.
In adolescence, I became increasingly committed not just to exploring religious ideas as a matter of interest, but to going on my own spiritual quest. I eagerly read Dante, Black Elk, the Tao Te Ching, C. G. Jung, and shamanic narratives. Because of this initial comparative perspective, I’ve never been afflicted with the idea that one religion is "the right one." Rather, the decision to follow a specific religious tradition felt more like the decision to play viola rather than bassoon in an orchestra; a commitment to playing one instrument well is a prerequisite to playing well with other musicians.
A parallel journey in the same period was coming to terms with the realization that I am gay, which hit me full force when hanging out with a shirtless classmate at a slumber party in sixth grade. I had been around enough gay people as a kid for me to be able to sort out my attraction to my classmate as "Oh, I’m gay," immediately. And yet, throughout my teenage years, I grew increasingly conflicted about what that meant, though the reasons for that inner conflict are somewhat fuzzy in retrospect. It’s been long enough since I came out that reconstructing those anxieties would take more effort than I have time for now.
These two journeys coalesced when I read Augustine’s Confessions in high school. Here was a book in which the desire for God soaked every page, and one in which sexual desires were clearly in competition with spiritual desires. I had found, for the time being, a solution to my problem of homosexual panic: deny the body and nourish the soul. I never had a desire to become straight, but pursuing a kind of asexual purity felt liberating at the time. It was in part to follow this liberating feeling that I decided to actually commit to the Christian faith. Augustine also made it clear that theology is largely a matter of making sense of personal experience, and not just making abstract, "objective" statements about the nature of the world or God.
The other major component of the decision to move from mostly "looking at" various religions to practicing one had to do with a desire to deepen my connection to my family heritage. I wanted to continue the religious tradition that had been passed down to me in a broken form from my grandfather through my non-religious mother. So, the first week I got to college, I looked up the local Mennonite church in the phone book and started attending regularly. I found in weekly attendance a source of calm that affected the tone of my entire week – as I found out by noticing how much more disjointed the week felt if I skipped church. I came to have a deep appreciation for the value of some kind of communal ritual or worship, and I’ve found very similar senses of deepening experience in worship or meditation in various traditions, including Jewish and Buddhist rituals.
I was largely content with this state of spiritual quest to the exclusion of sexual expression for a while, but then by the end of my first year of college, I met with three major challenges that I had to deal with.
I came across the name Mary Daly in some writings, and her ideas sounded intriguing. I went to the library a few times, but the only book of hers that wasn’t checked out was titled Pure Lust, which at the time rubbed me the wrong way. Nevertheless, after returning to the library a number of times, that was still the only book that was available, so I went ahead and checked it out. What I got was a radical lesbian-feminist text that I quickly figured out was thoroughly hostile to Christianity. But I couldn’t put her down. There was something that was just too compelling for words there.
Some time after I started reading Mary Daly, I went to church and during sharing a man came out to the congregation. At that point, I felt a lightning bolt hit me. This was my truth as well, and I couldn’t use the church to hide it, after all. I felt a kind of safety zone vanish, and I knew there wasn’t any turning back. Because church was a place that unequivocally denied me the one attempt I made to bury my sexual identity, I can’t say that "Christianity" as such does one thing or the other with regard to homosexuality.
At the same time as all of this, I was starting to do solidarity work with Central American resistance movements. I joined the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador and met many people who advocated armed struggle against oppression. As a Mennonite, I was committed to pacifism as a moral absolute. But I found myself unable to answer the arguments my new friends were making. I struggled very hard with these conflicting moralities, and it was a painful struggle. One night, I had a dream in which I was speaking to a pacifist, and we witnessed a massacre. I asked if those people didn’t have the right to defend themselves, woke up, and realized I wasn’t a pacifist anymore.
So, at this point I had a faith I found immensely satisfying, and three fundamental challenges to it: Radical feminism, coming out, and revolutionary politics.
To my viola teacher’s chagrin, I threw myself into the library and read as much as I could get my hands on. I had to figure out a way to get it all together. And it’s that wrestling with questions for which I had to find answers that ultimately led me to the study of theology and to pursuing it as a vocation.
The clearest answer I found at the time was in the thought of Rosemary Radford Ruether, the crux of whose thought you can learn about by following the link. I later took classes with her, she was a member of my dissertation committee, and I am now co-editing a collection of essays by her former students, Voices of Feminist Liberation.
I also had the privilege of taking Bible classes with John Dominic Crossan, a prominent member of the controversial Jesus Seminar. We approached the text critically and historically, and although I was somewhat familiar with some of the ideas we explored, he brought the Bible to life in a whole new way. His insistence, on the first day of class, that the Bible is not a book but a library was especially freeing. Similarly, coming to understand the Documentary Hypothesis and other aspects of the multiple sources of the Bible permanently changed my sense of what the Bible is – the multiple and conflicting perspectives I can now see there make the Bible a model not for blind submission to an external authority, but a model for democratic deliberation of differing views.
The answers and solutions I was looking for extended far beyond the questions of coming out and what that meant for a life of faith, which I ended up pursuing for the rest of college and seminary in the context of the United Methodist Church. But, these questions pushed me into a deeper engagement with the Bible itself. As I pursued more explicitly liberal views, I had to ask questions about where various ideas came from and whether they were intrinsic to Christianity. There were two particular strands of thought with regard to "Christianity and homosexuality" that were important for sorting out the questions I had.
First, was an insistence by modern theologians and biblical scholars that the division of a person into a body and a soul is a distinctly unbiblical notion. This insight exploded the link I had forged between the closet and spirituality. The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) is supremely unconcerned with life after death – the notion of a soul separate from a body is a fairly late development in the history of Israelite religion. Even Paul’s distinction between flesh and spirit has nothing to do with modern concepts of body and soul. Going back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, one can see a religious vision that sees acceptance of mortality as an inherent part of spiritual maturity. (Of course, no one knows what happens after we die, but I’m betting on oblivion.) Some texts that stand out as having helped me see a historical development over the course of ancient history from a holistic sense of personhood to the division into body and soul are Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, James Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology, and for a close look at what happened after the historical development toward body denial, Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity.
Second was a profound demand for justice at the heart of the biblical tradition, a justice that demanded standing with the oppressed, indeed finding spirituality primarily in the struggle against oppression. And that quest for justice was a theme that applied to me as a gay man in a straight world, just as much as it did for widows and orphans in the past. This was a perspective I learned more from Latin American liberation theologians than from thinking about queer issues directly. Three books stand out as having been particularly helpful in sorting out what it meant to be an openly gay Christian: John McNeil’s The Church and the Homosexual, Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, and John Boswell’s Christianity, Homosexuality, and Social Tolerance: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. My absolute favorite book on the subject is Gary David Comstock's Gay Theology Without Apology, which is the starting point for my dissertation.
After thinking through all these issues, I had one experience that in retrospect I see as the seal on my theological vocation. I’ve hesitated to speak about this experience for some time, because it is so highly personal, but I’ve started speaking about it more freely of late. For one year, I sat next to a conservative evangelical in orchestra. He would try to get on my case about how sinful homosexuality is, and I’d come back with various arguments to the contrary. He also had strong views on the exclusiveness of salvation through Christ, with which I also had issues. In the course of one of those conversations, I said I thought it was a mistake for the Gospel of John to have been included in the Bible. (My impression of it after reading it from front to back the first time was "Oh shit, here’s the blueprint for Jonestown." That initial impression still colors my view of it, though I’ve come to see many more positive aspects of that particular book.) In any case, that got his attention.
So, after orchestra, we proceeded to find a spot on a lawn to talk, and I explained what I’d learned from my teachers about the formation of the Bible, how there were other Christian communities whose texts hadn’t been included, how different books spoke with different theological and ideological agendas. In short, he got the run-down of the historical-critical method, an approach to the Bible that leaves little room for fundamentalist understandings of scriptural inerrancy. I’m not sure what he did with that information, but he listened without being defensive about it.
After that, I left to go home. I was walking through a parking lot, when I glanced up at a lilac bush, and I felt a surge of energy burst from the bush and time stopped altogether. I felt the most unconditional affirmation I’ve felt before or since. In real time, that couldn’t have lasted for more than a couple of seconds, but the moment as such felt as if it contained the totality of the world. One could search for many explanations of such a phenomenon, but the simplest way I know of to put it is in that moment I saw God. Whether "God" is best explained as a supernatural being or an aspect of my unconscious or something else is fairly irrelevant to the impact of the experience itself. It’s an experience that confirms my sense that writers like Isaiah or Mohammad spoke from a profound spiritual core, and not a desire to mystify the masses to consolidate power. And it’s an experience I increasingly find myself turning to when I get bogged down in the minutiae of academic research to get a perspective on why I do what I do.