On Authority, Cruelty, and Not Listening to my Neighbor

I write this on the heels of teaching an intense weekend course at Phillips Theological Seminary on Christology. By “intense” I refer to the format: two weekends, each spanning Thursday night through Saturday early evening… enough to make everyone involved want to come home and eat a microwave pot pie under a blankie while watching reruns of Murder, She Wrote. (Okay, perhaps that’s just me, but you get the idea.) But by “intense” I also have in mind the pitch of the discussion.

One of the things I tried to convey, in the course, was that none of us – not staunch traditionalists, not eager liberals, nor anyone in between – has access to an unmediated Jesus.

What we do have are representations of Jesus: mediated, culture-bound representations, with long histories. So, for example: on Saturday morning we went to the Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa and looked at medieval and renaissance religious art. The medieval artwork emphasized hierarchy, constancy, and the intercession of layer upon layer of saint: just what you might expect in a feudal economy where the institutional church was the major stabilizing force after the Roman Empire had finally worn out. The renaissance depictions of Jesus showed more dimensionality, realism, and expression… just what you’d expect by an age where the purveyors of high culture were captivated by a kind of nostalgic humanism. Just what you’d expect from a culture well on its way to developing what many of us today take for granted: a rich inner individual authentic self where feelings live.

My point is that we don’t have access to an unmediated Jesus. We don’t typically choose the portrayals of Jesus that are formative for us. Like my name, my parents, my culture of origin, the economic system upon which I depend for food, huge parts of my worldview were bestowed upon me before I was in a position to agree or protest. Indeed, that worldview forms the basic context out of which I agree to things or protest things.

Here’s the thing: Probably everything I’ve just said sounds like some stripe of theological liberalism, right? But there was a time when everything I’ve just said were my reasons being a theological conservative. Not just on LGBT equality, but across the board. In 2002, if Santorum had been a national political player, I might have supported him. Why? Because, lacking any ability to hover above history and determine what is really the case, lacking any ability to pretend to be an impartial observer of reality as such, I felt there needed to be some other authority to tell me what was true. And I was pleased to locate that authority in the Church-with-a-capital-C. Was it a reality whose history was full of harsh and cruel episodes? Sure, but so was my own. Was Church a confused reality, with a confused identity that seemed at times incoherent? Sure, but so is the self-identity of the postmodern subject. At some point, I thought, you just need an authority whose pronouncements you heed… and if I loved Jesus, which I did, then why not the Church? What was the alternative?

And so I viewed LGBT equality as dangerous ground, because it was a departure, so I thought, from the majority opinion of the Christian tradition. I mean, I tried to be nice and all, and mostly I tried to avoid bringing it up… but if you’d asked me point blank, you would have discovered that I thought sex was *for* something and marriage was *for* something, and those somethings lined up more or less with pre-modern Christian pronouncements on same.

Here’s what I have since realized, though: That sort of theological posture pushes you to a place of cruelty. Or at least, it did me. There came a time when my commitment to theological consistency, and my submission to church authority, forced me to say to my neighbors: “Sure, you’ve told me that you are being destroyed by the version of Christianity I espouse, but what you must understand is….”

And I think, now, that such rejoinders are just cruel. When someone tells you, “The religious system you advocate is like a boot on my neck,” the appropriate response is not theological chin-stroking and an abstract “Well, but…” Let me be clear. I say this as someone who loves theological chin-stroking so much I got three degrees in it, and who can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to spend a Saturday reading Augustine’s Confessions. But still: I saw my cruelty, and I saw that I was treating other people’s sufferings as mere theological objections, and when I thought to myself, “What sort of a person treats other people’s suffering as an abstract theological objection?” I was stricken. So I stopped. And I started thinking that maybe the people in the best position to know whether Christianity had a pathological homophobia problem was the people who’d suffered because of it.

And that’s it. I didn’t do a theological 180 because I was persuaded that yes, it’s a very good thing that we in modernity are all isolated individual subjects making isolated individual choices. On a personal level, I don’t actually like having to tend my own selfhood 24/7. If I got to choose a worldview to be born into – which I didn’t – it probably wouldn’t have been modernity. I could conceivably have been quite happy as a 13th century Carmelite nun who did what she was told and never had to worry about her career trajectory, whether she found the mass “personally meaningful,” or whether others thought she was cool and quirky enough to be worth knowing.

Nevertheless, I can’t make the move of taking refuge in a hierarchical, authoritarian model of church where the faithful are simply told what sexuality means, told that God said so, and told those whose sex lives and attractions don’t fit will just have to be shamed into fitting. I can’t make that move anymore — even though there’s a part of me that might find it appealing. Rather, because I’ve seen the suffering it cases, and realized that as a heterosexual person I really don’t know the first thing about what it means to suffer for who you’re attracted to. And since I don’t know the first thing, I should listen to those who do, and take up their cause as best I can.