A Plea for Better Questions, Part 1: Introduction

In recent months a feature in the New York Times, followed by an announcement by certain alumni of Wheaton College, have drawn attention to student groups at Christian colleges dedicated to advocating in behalf of lesbian, gay, and other such students (covered by the ever-lengthening LGBTQIAW* label) at Christian colleges, in churches, and in other places where traditional expectations of married and celibate life might come into conflict with the expectations of those students to be involved in the life of the communities in ways they’re not now involved. Not long after these developments, Believe Out Loud, an organization advocating for Christian groups to become “open and affirming,” made a bid to advertise on the Sojourners website. While the organization has invited editorials on the topic, they declined to run the advertisement, and the fallout of that initial refusal has been significant infighting among self-identified liberal and progressive Christians.

This little series of posts (I’m planning on three, but there might be more) will not spend much time responding to that particular controversy but will rather attempt to think more deliberately about the rhetoric that folks have deployed when questions of policy (rather than abstract discussions of gender theory and sexual essences) come before congregations, denominations, colleges, and other such communities that claim Christ as their warrant. In this little series I will not spend much time at all contesting the answers that the “sides” (one troubling construct, just to begin) offer but noting the narrow range of possibilities that their questions will allow and attempting to point towards some more interesting and perhaps some more promising questions.

Such, I know, is precisely what many will expect from someone affiliated with the so-called Hauerwasian Mafia, and I don’t expect people who want action to the exclusion of inquiry to be impressed. But I do think that readers of The Christian Humanist tend to be people who at least value inquiry and who, more importantly, can point out my own blind spots so that I can approach this inquiry more truthfully. So over the next couple days, I invite you, the readers, to come aboard and help me to find some better questions to ask in the ongoing struggle over LGBTQIAW*.

I should note, since this line of inquiry is one that tends to invite side-taking and position-staking rather than deliberation and question-asking, that the by-line on each post really does mean that Nathan Gilmour and not anybody else wrote the post.  Michial Farmer’s and David Grubbs’s contributions, should they wish to make them, will appear in the comments on each post.

* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Interested, Allies, and Whatever letters they’ve added since I started typing this list.


5 thoughts on “A Plea for Better Questions, Part 1: Introduction

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways the dominant questions surrounding the queer community fall short lately in general, due to my own position as a GLBTQ ally, and I followed that NYT series with much interest. I have two issues to raise:

    1) As both a feminist and a Christian, I’m troubled by the credence given to the “born this way” argument. In the LGBTQ Studies seminar I took in grad school, the queer members of the class seemed offended at the thought that their sexual or gendered self-identifications were merely accidents of hormones or biology rather than also influenced by social messages and norms. To assert that they were gay/bi/queer/trans/whatever just because they were “born that way” was to them, a condescension suggesting a lack of awareness of their individual selves, as well as their consciousness of the way the responded to the world around them. This combo of essentialism and social construction lines up with the way I view gender and sexuality and is one reason I think that we should be suspicious of the easy solution that the “born this way” argument seems to be becoming. Second, that argument is often lobbed at believers by nonbelievers to justify the validity of queer participation in various cultural arenas, as if being created by God means not having any flaws to work through in our Earthly lives. I’m frustrated at the simplicity of the argument on that level as well, but I don’t know where to go from there.

    2. The marriage debate. If marriage is holy (and I’m not saying it’s not), why not just make church ceremonies and government documentation completely separate entities? Why can’t everyone–queer or not–get civil unions if they wish, which would solve legal issues like wills and hospital visitations while also satisfying those members of the queer community who object to the loaded term “marriage” as patriarchal or heteronormative? Then, others who want to marry for reasons of religious recognition could do so in whatever church they were a part of. I know that that still leaves out those raised in or otherwise a part of denominations that do not condone queer marriage, but I’m (perhaps erroneously) assuming that such people would switch affiliations anyway if such recognition were a priority for them.

  2. V, thanks for the feedback. I engage some of these questions tangentially in the second and third parts of the essay, but I do have a couple responses to things that don’t get treated in my own essay:

    1) The fact of the matter is that non-established religion (to paraphrase the Bill of Rights) is still a relatively novel human experiment, and even folks who have been living with it officially for two hundred years and change aren’t quite sure it’s real. And given the quasi-religious and full-on devotional cast of national life in America (for conservatives and liberals alike), I wonder whether anyone but Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses really believe that the government has nothing to do with marriage.

    In other words, knowing a bit about ancient Babylon and Egypt and Athens and Rome, I wonder whether the idea of separating Church and State (to use entirely modern terms) is within the imaginative grasp of most human beings. I know it’s the law, but so are speed limits, and I’ve driven on Georgia highways lately.

    2) You’re right that most genetic arguments are enthymemic and thus poorly argued. The parts of the post that go live today and tomorrow will argue that a more careful look at the analogical character of such arguments and suggest that playing the analogy out might be at least one step towards genuine ethical reasoning and deliberation rather than sloganeering and talking past each other. Just to give an easy example, to say that one is born gay is a statement of scientific theory, having to do with genetics and psychology and such. It might be falsifiable, in which case it’s good science, or it might not be subject to falsification, in which case it’s not good science. But to go anywhere beyond the statement of scientific theory requires analogy: is being born gay analogous to being born with a congenital and heart disease, the sort that a loving neighbor might try to treat medically, or is being born gay more closely analogous to being born Black, a condition that no loving neighbor would want to “cure”? Genetic assertions are the beginnings of arguments, not the end of them. And you can tell Gaga I said so. 🙂

  3. Victoria – a little late to the conversation, but your second point suggests a practical way out of the political question of “gay marriage” that I wish a few more politicians would take up. I can think of no good reason why GLBT individuals should be denied the same legal rights that I have when it comes to having a partner. The only arguments that I’ve heard all come back to one of two things: 1) I personally find being gay disgusting or unnatural, so we shouldn’t allow it, or 2) My religion tells me it is wrong, so we shouldn’t allow it. Neither is a compelling argument to me as to why something should/shouldn’t be legal.

  4. Devon, I think that what you’re suggesting works in terms of Constitutional law, but I wonder whether most folks imagine whatever happens when the divine meets the human as “my religion” and nothing more public than that. My point is that your point is a valid one within a certain thought-system, but I’m not sure whether that thought-system is where most people live (or where people should be living, if I’m honest about it).

  5. One question I have had recently is this: Why are churches, who deal in theology and doctrine, using the terms of a political debate? By that I mean this, LGBT is a political construct created out of necessity. The various subgroups “L”, “G”, “B”, “T” have pooled their resources together because they have similar legal/political disadvantages and pooling together allows them to have more political clout and get results applied to a larger body of people. And I have no beef with that, it seems a sensible way to go about political and legal change.

    But I have to ask: Why had the church has accepted this political construct? Is it possible that a consistent theology might include some subgroups of LGBT and exclude others? I ask because I have thought through what a consistent theology of marriage and sex would be to include something other than heterosexual sex, and it usually ends up excluding some parts of LGBT. Of course reducing theology to personal choice includes everyone, but once you do that, I have to wonder if you are doing theology at that point.

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