Pioneers of Gay & Lesbian Theology: Reversing the Discourse.

Obama’s  officially designated “Pride Month” of June has come and gone, but the season of Pride continues – especially here in the UK, where the major Pride celebrations are in any case held later: in July (London) and August (Brighton). I have no compunction continuing my exploration of pride in church, which was in any case my primary motive in starting here at QTC eighteen months ago. Since then, my concerns have tended to wander, but I now want to return to my primary concern, which I do with a major series,  introducing our notable gay and lesbian theologians

One of the useful developments over the 40 years since Stonewall, has been the emergence of a wide range of writing and scholarship, across many fields, from an explicitly gay, lesbian or trans perspective  – or more generally, a “queer” perspective, or GLBT or GLBTQI , or…. Academics and activists may quibble over terminology, but the bottom line is simple. We no longer have to take all our knowledge straining through a hetero-normative filter.

I still remember the awe, the sense of shock I experienced the first time I saw a range of books displayed which included titles such as “Gay and Lesbian Theology”. The very idea at the time appeared to me welcome, but disorienting. If it was true that “theology” totally disapproved of “homosexuals”, how could it be that there could be “Gay” theology? The simple truth of course is that theology is more than just the official stuff propagated by the Vatican. It is more even, than just the formal, academic material churned out by the professional theologians. At its most basic, “doing theology” is no more than speaking about, and asking questions about, God and God’s place in our lives. This obviously includes consideration of the work that is collectively known as the “Magisterium”, but also a great deal more.

“Formal” (i.e. written by “professionals” ) gay and lesbian theology, queer theology, and even indecent theology has come in many forms, with many emphases and concerns. To guide us through the thicket, I shall begin with a summary of its unfolding by the lesbian Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Stuart, as presented in her book “Gay & Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions With Critical Differences“, which I have been re-reading.  Paradoxically, in spite of her title, Stuart in this book is not promoting but critiquing “gay and lesbian” theology, as she argues that gay and lesbian theology has failed, and needs to give way to queer theology. (Yes, there is a difference). Still, in critiquing the earlier work, she offers a most useful commentary on its historical development and sources, before introducing the newer ideas from queer and indecent theology.

The Pioneers.

It may come as a surprise that books on gay and lesbian theology have been around for over three decades, ever since a trio of titles appeared in the 1970’s. Read the rest of this entry »

St Paul’s Celebration of God’s Gift of Sexuality.

The standard view of sex and the Bible is that sexuality must be reigned in, and restricted to the confines of marriage. The standard view, says Norwegian scholar Reidulf Molvaer (Two Making One : Amor and Eros in Tandem), is wrong.

St Paul (El Greco)

“Dominant views about sex have in most churches been distorted by centuries of negative accretions and become travesties of what we find in the Bible.” – Dr. Reidulf Molvaer In this book Dr. Reidulf Molvaer attempts to recapture the joyful, cheerful abandon in legitimate sexual relationships that we see in the Bible-yes, the Bible! From the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament to Saint Paul’s advice on intimacy in the New Testament, you are presented with the real meanings of these ancient texts and learn why the Church has interpreted the Song as an allegory rather than as a description of the joyous sexual experience it truly is. Could there be any greater glorification of sex than to let ideal love between man and woman illustrate the union between the devout and the divine? Dr. Molvaer demystifies “fairytale images” of the Virgin Mary, compares biblical sexual ethics to various cultures and discusses tales of eccentrics who have been elevated to sainthood. This book rediscovers what has been misrepresented for generations and encourages Christians and others to think afresh about one of the greatest and most disputed acts of devotion found in the Holy Bible. Read the rest of this entry »

The Spiritual Gifts of Gay Sexuality

Spiritual direction is one of the best -kept secrets of the Catholic Church. This is unfortunate- the process needs to better known and used. This is how Jesuit theologian James L’Empereur describes it:

the process in which a Christian accompanies others for an extended period of time for the process of clarifying the psychological and religious issues in the directee so that they may move toward deeper union with God and contribute to ministry within the Christian community.

I have unexpectedly been able to borrow L’Empereur’s “Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person”, which I would now like to prescribe to all my readers as required reading, with a 3 hour examination at the end of the course. I began reading last evening, and have been devouring it with enthusiasm. I am now about half way through, and not yet ready to offer a full and balanced assessment. (That will come later). Still, every page has important insights that I want to share or explore further. As an appetizer before the main course to follow, I offer some snippets today:

Here are the opening sentences:

Homosexuality is on of God’s most significant gifts to humanity. To be gay or lesbian is to have received a special blessing from God. to be gay or lesbian is to have received a special blessing from God. All humans receive their own special graces from their creator, but god has chosen some to be gay and lesbian as a way of revealing something about Godself that heterosexuals do not.

This is a startling, unexpected beginning, but of course he goes on to explain and fully substantiate it, in a chapter that had me engrossed, and anxious to explore also all his references and sources (a task, I fear, which may be well beyond me.) Elsewhere, he makes another startling claim: he calls the gay state a “charism”, exactly comparable to the charism of celibacy embraced by Catholic clergy. Both are charisms granted to just a few, from which the wider church can learn. Here I was reminded of an observation in one of our Soho Mass homilies, that if “homosexuality” is an environmental threat because it cannot lead to procreation, so is celibacy.) The key manner in which we who are gay or lesbian can teach the wider Church is in the manner of our sexuality, which is not exclusively about genital contact (in complete contradiction to the popular stereotypes), nor is it based in patriarchal patterns of domination and submission.

I should stress here that L’Empereur very carefully does not either endorse or condemn any specific form of sexual expression, whether in committed, faithful relationships, in recreational sex, or in voluntary celibacy: those decisions are to be reached by the person being directed, through the process, and not decided a priori. However, he does argue strongly that for all people, gay or otherwise, the historic dichotomy between sex and spirituality has been destructive. Instead of thinking of spirituality OR sexuality, we should be looking for spirituality THROUGH sexuality , possibly (but not necessarily) including genital sexuality. Gay people, he says, may find this easier than heterosexuals, who are often startled during counselling before , when he asks whether they expect to use their sexual union as a form of prayer.

In this book L’Empereur presents with great clarity and authority a number of the themes I have been grasping at on these pages. Another is the view that authentic Catholic teaching fully supports, not condemns, the homosexual and his/her struggle. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. We know from painful experience of course, that approached from the perspective of sexual ethics, standard Catholic teaching is deeply hostile. L’Empereur reminds us that Catholic teaching is far broader than just sexual ethics. Approached from social justice, which is at least as important to the totality of teaching, a completely different picture emerges, one which demands compassion and support for the marginalised and oppressed, and requires that we work towards justice. This latter perspective has been profoundly influential in my own faith as it was formed under South African apartheid, and why I found Cardinal O’Connors instruction to the Soho Masses to present Catholic teaching on sexuality “in full, and without ambiguity”. This is impossible: “in full” implies from a range of approaches, which are self-contradictory. When we think of the structure of Catholic teaching on homosexuality, far too often we see only the dominating monolith of the official Vatican teaching on sexual ethics, and especially the scaled down, reduced travesty that we find in the catechism. Reading this book, I am reminded that the teaching “in full” more closely resembles a crowded, diverse city, with many strands coming from the Vatican centre – and also important subsidiary nodes, such as those presented by theologians like L’Empereur. Historically, cities grew around single, strong centres. During the twentieth century, the development of private transport led to dramatic changes in city morphology, with the major growth occurring on the suburban or exurban fringes and in suburban business nodes. In some cities, it has been suggested, the traditional centre has virtually disappeared.

We may be seeing the same thing in theology. Comparable to private transport, the emergence of lay theologians and secular schools of theology have privatised the construction of new ideas. Instead of the ancient central monolith dominating the skyline, steadfastly preserving and protecting its traditional inheritance, suburban nodes are bubbling away, creating new forms and structures: liberation theology, feminist theology, gay and lesbian theology, queer theology; theology by discerned experience, theology of spirituality through sexuality – and so many more I have not yet encountered. With so much vitality at the suburban fringes, the “margins” lose conceptual significance. Will Vatican City in time become irrelevant, as some physical central cities have done?

Jayden Cameron thinks so, at the Gay Mystic. Read “Life Finds a Way“.

(I will have more on this important book later – probably repeatedly.)

 

See also:

L’Empereur, James: Spiritual Direction and the Gay Person

Nelson, James: Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Faith and Spirituality

 

Previous QTC Posts:

The Intimate Dance of Sexuality and Spirituality

Finding God in Gay Lovemaking

Homoerotic Sexuality

 

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Yet Another Evangelical Conversion

On the Washington Post Faith page, yet another evangelical pastor describes how he came to change his mind on what he calls the “sex question”. What do you suppose was the critical factor in this conversion? Right. Listening to the testimony of real people.

A New Kind of Christianity

Brian MacLaren, described as a leader in the evangelical “Emerging Church” movement, in “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith
“, tells how he no longer sides with the views of his friends and associates of a similar church background:

Most of my good friends sincerely and passionately hold the strict conservative view on homosexuality with which we all were raised. They can’t understand why I don’t stand side by side with them on this issue any more. To some, I’ve become a traitor, to others, a casualty in the culture wars, to others, frankly, a problem and an embarrassment. Read the rest of this entry »

World Books Day*

This post has moved to my new domain at http://queering-the-church.com/blog

Natural Law, Natural Sex.

One of the arguments used by the CDF in “Homosexualitatis Problema” (it’s document condemning “homosexual acts”), and raised again by Pope Benedict in his urging the English and Scottish bishops to oppose the pending amendments to equality legislation, is that these relationships are somehow in conflict with “natural law”.

Reflecting on this claim led me to re-read some reputable scholars who have carefully analysed this argument. Among the rebuttals that I am familiar with, I came up against an argument and quotation in Fr Gareth Moore’s “A Question of Truth” which I have not previously seen presented in quite the same way. It is well known (but conveniently forgotten by the defenders of “traditional” one-man, one-woman marriage, that human societies today and in history, show as astonishing variety of forms of sexual relationship, so that the word “natural”, applied to sexual relationships, means very different things in different times and places.

What put a new spin on this for me, and gave me pause for thought, was Moore’s observation on the reasons for this: that sexual patterns, like speech and other human activities, are learned. Indeed, he points out, any human unfortunate enough to grow up in an exclusively “natural” environment, totally bereft of human company or training, would exhibit patterns of behaviour far removed from what we would normally describe as “natural” – because out understanding of “natural” does not in fact mean free from human training, but rather denotes shaped in the norms of a particular social system.

It is not surprising then, that to a young man growing up in ancient Rome, his “natural” sexual role would have been (f a citizen) to penetrate just about any person of lower status under his control – women, slaves, and even the freed men who may previously have been his slaves. To the Jews, “natural” law resulted in patriarchs with extended households of wives and concubines. Indeed, polygamous societies could justifiably point to several examples from the animal kingdom to show that such patterns were “natural”- but exactly the opposite conclusion could be drawn by societies based on polyandry (in which matriarchs take multiple husbands): bees and termites live in complex societies built around just a single fertile queen.

And for young adolescents in Melanesia, “natural” sex will be, self-evidently, homosexual – because that is what they will grow up accustomed to. In Melanesian societies, adolescent boys are introduced to sex very young. At initiation, they have sex with all the adult males in the group, and thereafter form a long term sexual relationship with an older male from within the family (usually a sister’s husband, or an uncle). Quoting from Greenberg (“The Construction of Homosexuality”), this is the description of the sexual progress of a young boy growing to maturity in one particular Melanesian group:

An Eturo boy’s career in homosexuality starts around age ten, when he acquires an older partner, ideally his sister’s husband or fiancé (so that brother and sister receive semen from the same man). The relationship continues until the boy develops a full beard in his early to mid-twenties. At this point, the now mature young man becomes the older partner of another prepubescent boy, ordinarily his wife or fiancee’s younger brother. This relationship continues until the older partner is about forty. His involvement then ends, except for initiation ceremonies, which include collective homosexual intercourse between the initiates and all the older men, or if he takes a second wife, with her younger brother. Because taboos on heterosexual intercourse are extensive, while there are none on homosexual relations, male sexual outlets are predominantly homosexual between the ages of ten and forty.

– from Greenberg, “The Construction of Homosexuality”, quoted by Gareth Moore OP in “A Question of Truth”.

Suddenly all became clear: of course Aquinas saw heterosexual relationships as “natural”. Over the thousand plus years of Christian history, the leaders of the Church, drawing on misinterpretations of scripture and of the stoic philosophers, gradually replaced the original patterns of what had been natural in the three societies that the early Christians were drawn from – and created a new model which in time came to be seen as the natural order.

My Anti-Vatican Self-Defence Routine.

Whenever, as now, I find myself getting worked up about the Vatican, I find it helps to recall the wisdom of some of the wise friends and writers who have helped to shape my thinking.

For me, my Vatican recovery began a very few words from a very human Jesuit in Johannesburg (now in Cape Town, lucky man), who simply asked why was I fussing about “Vatican bureaucrats”, when the church was so much bigger than they.

Mark Jordan’s book is always a tonic.  It cautions against trying to debate with the Vatican – showing how their rhetorical style is based not on rational argument, but on simple repetition of old statements, until the opposition is silence-of-sodom1bludgeoned into submission.  He also shows up at length the internal contradictions in an institution which is internally irremediably camp and infused with a gay sensibility, yet is nominally vigorously opposed to ‘homosexuality’.  After reading Jordan’s thesis, it is hard to take the bureaucrats quite as seriously again.

Richard Cleaver takes a different tack.  Starting from the perspective of Liberation Theology, he reminds us that know-my-namerevelation is not something that ended in Biblical times, but continues through to our own age.  We can all participate in discerning this revelation  by using prayer and reflection to discern the action of the Holy Spirit  in our lives and experience. The starting point in liberation theology sounds controversial to some, but the basic point is not – I was strongly moved by the same argument in Dick Weston’s Redemptive Intimacy. Benedict XVI himself said something similar in his Christmas address to the Curia – sadly overlooked by much more newsworthy, because controversial, remarks on gender and climate change.

sex-and-sacredDaniel Helminiak, in “Sex and the Sacred”, concentrates on the importance of developing a spiritual life, and shows how a unique take on spirituality is one of the gifts of being gay.  (Among other things, coming out is itself a spiritual experience).

mcneill3But above all, at present, I turn to the writings of John McNeill.  Infused with the Ignatian Spirituality of the Jesuits, McNeill constantly reminds us that “The glory of God is humans fully alive” (St Irenaus), and that bad theology is bad psychology – and vice versa.   He too argues  for the spiritual life, developed with the Holy Spirit, to confer the wisdom that we are not getting from the Vatican.  but he goes further than Helminiak, arguing strongly that the church needs collectively to arm itself with the grace of the Holy Spirit against a sterile, power-hungry Vatican bureaucracy.

Increasingly, I believe he is right.

Books: Where To Begin?

One of the best ways to prepare oneself for the onslaught of religion-based hostility is to read some of the very many books on the subject that have  emerged over the last thirty years or so. But with such a wealth of titles available, and the field constatnly expanding, the obvious question is where to begin? To which the obvious reply is, where are you starting from?

The question matters. You need to be clear on whether you want a simple introduction, a general but comprehensive overview for playpeople, or a scholarly tome filled with notes, sources and all the necessary qualifications, ifs and buts. Are you looking for approaches rooted in scripture, or Church teaching, or both? From a gay male, lesbian, or trans perspective? All these questions, and more, will influence your choice. In my detailed posts for each book, I have attempted to provide answers to these questions. The labels included in each post will help you to find books on a specific topic. With time, I will be building in thematic lists, a search engine, and other means to access exactly what you personally will find helpful – but all these refinements take time, while I am simultaneously trying to expand the number and range of books included. I crave your patience.

In the meantime, I offer some suggestions of what might be the most useful for specific purposes.

For a very simple, introductory overview of Scripture and Church teaching, I was impressed by “The Bible, The Church and Homosexuality”, by Nicholas Coulton. Written from an Anglican perspective, but is also more widely applicable.

Also tackling both Scripture and Church teaching, but going into more detail, former Jesuit John McNeill’s “The Church and the Homosexual”, was one of the very first and is still a classic. “A Question of Truth” by the Dominican priest Gareth Moore covers much the same ground, and is much more recent.

On Scripture specifically, I think the best for the general reader is “Dirt, Greed and Sex” by the Episcopalian L. William Countryman. For a later, more Evangelical approach to the same subject, read Eugene Rogers, …If you are ready to tackle a more academic treatment bristling with footnotes, then read the chapter on Scripture in the landmark “Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality” by John Boswell. (This is also of fundamental importance for gay church history, and the development of theology). If you are put off by the excessive footnotes and Greek & Latin quotations, you will find summaries of his arguments in many of the other books).

The Catholic priest, theologian and psychotherapist Daniel Helminiak has written that McNeill, Countryman and Boswell (noted above) were the three books that nmost influenced his own thinking and understanding. Helminiak’s “What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality“. Helminiak’s book is often listed alongside those three.

It is important though not to get bogged down in biblical studies of homoeroticism by dealing only with fending off the oppressive texts of terror.  There are many ways in which we, like all other Christians, can read scripture for its positive inspiration. “Take Back the Word” (edited by Robert Goss) does just that.

An important set of books “from a perspective Catholic and gay” are more difficult to classify. These are the series by the theologian and former Dominican James Alison. These are undoubtedly works of “theology”, but the word is misleading, with its associations of ancient, scholastic tomes. Alison’s books are tightly reasoned, but presented in an informal, chatty style, as a series of reflections on God, and on what it means to be both gay and Catholic. These are all popular and highly recommended. Start with the first in the series: “Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay.”

Faith is incomplete without prayer. The Presbyterian Chris Glaser has several books on prayer for gay men and lesbians. A good one to begin with is “Coming Out to God” – which is a good way to think of starting our queer faith journey.

Finally, two books by Catholic priests which offer a completely fresh, unfamiliar take on the awkward question of sexual ethics: “Sex and the Sacred” by Daniel Helminiak, and “Sex as God Intended”, by John McNeill.

(Note:

I realise that all the above titles are written by men, and have a clearly male focus, although all do also try to cover lesbian relationships as well as gay male. There are good books by women, but I am not aware of any (yet) that I can reommend at this general level. I will make a point of highlighting books written from lesbian, bi or trans perspectives when I discuss some more specialised topics.)

The full introductory list then, is:

Alison, James: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Coulton, Nicholas: The Bible, The Church and Homosexuality

Countryman, William: Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today

Glaser, Chris: Coming Out to God: Prayers for Lesbians and Gay Men, Their Families and Friends

Goss, Robert (ed): Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible

Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality

Helminiak, Daniel: Sex and the Sacred: Gay Identity and Spiritual Growth

McNeill, John: The Church and the Homosexual

McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Moore, Gareth: A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality

Rogers, Eugene:  Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, Revised and Expanded Edition: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church

Book Club

One of the best ways to prepare oneself for the onslaught of religion-based hostility is to read some of the very many books on the subject that have  emerged over the last thirty years or so. But with such a wealth of titles available, and the field constantly expanding, the obvious question is where to begin? To which the obvious reply is, where are you starting from?

The question matters. You need to be clear on whether you want a simple introduction, a general but comprehensive overview for laypeople, or a scholarly tome filled with notes, sources and all the necessary qualifications, ifs and buts. Are you looking for approaches rooted in scripture, or Church teaching, or both?

Read the rest of this entry »