When I attend two-week academic intensives, I have the almost guilty luxury of only being a student. For most of us, especially those of us that have sought higher education of some capacity, we are always juggling more than one thing. Work and school. Family, work, school. Two jobs and school. Or even folks trying to make ends meet in an economic culture that doesn’t value workers, many find ourselves torn between two or three jobs or responsibilities vying for our full-time attention. This can leave us unable to focus on just one thing at a time. So, when I step onto the plane bound for Indiana, for the most part, if I’ve done my preparation well, the only thing I have to do is read the assigned readings and show up to class prepared for discussion. There are almost always other things on my mind, but in these few weeks they tend to take a back seat and get to marinate in the conversations and content of the course work. Things seem simpler during these weeks. Most of our meals are shared in community where we rattle off big ideas and further discuss and debate our reading for class. I divide my time between living on campus in a shared house with some dear friends and spending the weekends with my grandparents about 45 minutes away. On Friday evening, after that first week of class I get in my Grandpa’s Grand Marquis, a giant boat of a car, and head off down the two-lane state route towards my grandparent’s house where they will have waiting a dinner that always includes Jello salad and a dessert that always includes Cool Whip.
State Route 40, between Richmond Indiana and Englewood Ohio, is about as straight a road as then come. Acers of fields on either side, punctuated by big old farm houses. I will spend the weekend reading my texts for class, visiting with my grandparents, and usually making a trip into my old hometown to go to church on Sunday morning and visit friends. These two weeks always move at a different pace, slower, more intentional, (even the internet is slower!) and in the midst of it I often find a sort of clarity while I’m there. Of course, once I step on that plane headed home the world and work and life back here tends to come flooding back and the clarity I found is often quickly lost.
The readings and discussions this January presented me with a new lens for viewing and understanding life, relationships, power dynamics, doubt, faith, and belief. A lens and way of understanding that deeply resonated and reverberated for me and I think will resonate with our WildWood lens too. To help us make the most sense of this, I want take a step back start with a definition or two. Let’s begin with Theology. Theology, while it seems like a big word, is any thinking or talking that seeks to understand God. It’s the talk of or the study of a higher power. Any time we have a conversation about who God is, what God is, if there is a God, we’re practicing theology. Talking about, thinking about, studding about, the nature of God, the Holy, the Divine, the Creator. My class focused on thinking about and talking about God through two frameworks, the first was a feminist framework. Taking the thinking, study and advocacy of the feminist movement and translating and applying that to how we think about God. This is known as a feminist theology. There are several waves of feminist theology, including womanist theology, which focuses specifically on the experience of women of color, but all seek to understand God and religion through women’s experience currently and historically. Feminist and womanist theology focus a lot on deconstructing and dismantling the patriarchal structure that institutional Christianity is built on. For example, the Bible as the book that we are familiar with was curated, by men. They chose which of the scrolls and oral stories should be included. They decided what the overarching theme and flavor of the Bible would be. Feminist theology seeks to imagine and discover what Christianity, and the Bible, might look like if women hadn’t been excluded from this pivotal moment. Feminist theology isn’t an exclusively Christian thing either, there is Jewish Feminist theology and Muslim feminist theology, any faith’s study and thinking about God through the lens of women’s experience.
The second lens we focused on was Queer Theology, taking the thinkings and ideas developed through queer theory and applying them to how we think about God. Growing out of the feminist and womanist movement, coupled with a healthy dose of Latin American and black liberation theology, a view that God was not neutral in places and times of suffering but instead had a preference for the poor and oppressed. In 1968, H.W. Montefield published an essay, which was controversial at the time, in which he argues that “God’s nature was befriending the friendless and identifying God’s self with the underprivileged.” According to Queer Theologian, Patrick Cheng, queer theology seeks to not only affirm LGBTQ+ folks though the demonstration that “freedom from heterosexism and homophobia, as well as the freedom to be one’s own authentic self-is at the very heart of the gospel message…” In the late 60’s and early 70’s primarily lesbian theologians emerged focusing on relational theology, arguing that queer theology was “not so much on issues of acceptance of liberation, but rather finding God in…mutual relationship with another person.” Queer theology is multifaceted, but is centralized on lifting and centralizing queer experience, liberating queer folks from the oppressions of homophobia and heterosexism, and seeking the Divine in relationships with others, and deconstructing binary systems. We’ve experienced in our community and explored a bit through looking at the gender unicorn, that sexuality and gender are not static and fixed, but instead are fluid and our notions of them are socially and culturally constructed. Queer theology seeks to break down these culturally and socially constructed systems that divide us into opposite silos. Man, woman. Masculine, feminine. Straight, gay. Queer theory seeks to cultivate a culture where we aren’t forced into dichotomous identities, where we can exist beyond them, as the whole and complete individuals God created us to be.
On Sunday morning, I drove down another straight state route headed towards the tiny village where I spent my childhood. Pleasant Hill Ohio, is a village not a town, not even a mile wide, with a surrounding population of just over 1,000. The Pleasant Hill Church of the Brethren was the first church community I really remember and it is the place where I had my early faith formation and cultivation. I joked with them that they are the ones who taught me to be the rabble-rouser I am today, and there is quite a lot of truth to that actually. As I drove out there, passing through small town, followed by smaller town, I found my mind wondering back to the readings and discussions of the week, wondering what has been lost by forcing God into a gender. What is lost in our spiritual communities by forcing people into one of two genders, into one of only two sexualities? What might be gained in our religious and faith understanding if heteronormative patriarchal culture wasn’t forced onto our understanding of the Divine.
In an attempt to give my brain a rest, I scanned through the radio landing on the familiar voice of Krista Tippit, and the On Being Podcast. She was just beginning a conversation with Christian Wiman, a poet and former editor of Poetry magazine. He’s also a professor of religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. Their whole conversation is worth a listen, but as the readings and conversations about queer theology and breaking down binaries bounced around in my head, Wiman said, “…doubt is so woven in with what I think of as faith that it can’t be separated. And I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might call me, at another, to sing of godlessness. And that sometimes, when I think of all of this energy that’s going on — all of this, what we’ve talked about, these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief — I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.”
Queer theology seeks to break down binaries that limit us, that confine us and hold us back. After gender and sexuality, I can’t think of a binary that has held us back more than faith and doubt. It’s so ingrained in culture that I think it just seeps into our head that doubt is the opposite of faith and if you have doubt, if you don’t believe than, then you can’t be a person of faith or have a place in a religious or faith community. Many churches and communities require a “statement of faith”, some of us grew up reciting the Nicene Creed, most churches and Christians I’ve encountered respond to questions of doubt with the admonition to pray more and “trust Jesus”. But really, how is that going to answer any of the questions bouncing around in my head, how is going to do anything to do anything other than shame doubt. I would like us, over the next few Sundays, to expand our thinking about what it means to have doubt. To explore the strength that comes with doubt, and to honor the bravery that it takes to doubt. We’ll explore doubt as we seek to challenge heteronormativity, the gay/straight dichotomy and cis-normativity, cis-gender/trans or gender-queer dichotomy.
I hope you will join us for parts 2 and 3 of this conversation on January 28 and February 4.