Queer and Christian?

23 March 2017

When I was twenty-two, I was deciding whether to continue being Christian. I was in England on a fellowship, and, no longer reliant on my Christian parents for tuition, I felt free to try patterns of thought that left God out. I had always vaguely felt that belief in God was a charade, though I didn’t explicitly think in those terms at the time. And I had grown to resent the emotional baggage Christianity saddled me with.

During this time, I found myself at a party one evening, where I got into a conversation with Hans, a international law student from Germany who was questioning in similar ways. The conversation turned, and I recall him asking, “Glaubst du, dass es Widerspruch ist, schwul und Christlich zu sein?” (Do you believe that it’s a contradiction to be gay and Christian?)

Though I had mostly rejected the religion by that time, I still had a fixed idea of what Christianity was. A Christian, in my mind, formed beliefs on the basis of the Old and New Testaments, taking them seriously line for line (though not necessarily literally). So I replied that, although I had nothing against homosexuality, I thought Christianity did. A biblical Christian, it seemed, had to take Leviticus 20 and Romans 1 (among other passages) seriously, which meant condemning homosexuality. This, for me, was just one more thing that was bad about Christianity.

But Hans wasn’t convinced. So we decided to ask our English evangelical friend David, who was studying New Testament and theology. David’s answer was characteristically English in its brevity: “Yes, it is a sin to practice homosexuality. But it’s no worse than divorce!”

I was brought back to this conversation when listening to the March 5 Philosophy Talk episode on Queerness with guest Susan Stryker. The show touched on several excellent themes, such as what “queer” means, whether it makes sense to positively (re-)claim an initially derogatory term, and how opponents of queer rights are fighting to have heteronormativity be the “unmarked case” (Ken’s thesis). But the show didn’t touch on the theme of queerness and religious identity at all, as I hoped it would.

The more general question is this. Is it possible to preserve a traditional religious identity, while maintaining a lifestyle and identity that—ostensibly—the religion’s canonical texts say is wrong?

As we’ve seen, my earlier answer to this question was “no.” But I now think that that view rested on an erroneous conception of what religion is.

Let’s stay focused on Christianity for now, just for specificity, though I think my points will generalize. Let’s also distinguish between what Christianity as a religion is and how its practitioners present it.

My earlier view of Christianity looked something like this. Christians are people who factually believe that the Bible is the word of God and that every declarative sentence of it is true in some sense. On this view of Christianity, practicing homosexuals unrepentantly violate the word of God, even though the relevant portions of the Bible are relatively tiny.

But that way of thinking about Christianity is more a replication of how most Christians present their religion, which is not the same thing as what the religion (or any given variety of it) actually is.

I’ve now come to regard religions as identity-constituting games of make-believe. (You can find longer papers of mine on this here and here.)

That means that religious practitioners themselves don’t have an attitude of factual belief to the propositions expressed in canonical religious texts. Rather—whether they admit it or not and whether they are aware of it or not—they have a more imaginative attitude toward those propositions. That means that the dictates of scriptures form the basis for playing a game of make-believe, and it is the perpetual playing of this game that constitutes one’s religious identity.

In other words, what constitutes one as being a Christian is having attitudes that support engaging in the rituals, ceremonies, liturgies, and prayers of Christianity. The difference from regular-play games of make-believe is that the Christian game forms a much more serious part of one’s identity. And in principle, one must be ready to play one’s part all the time (though practice deviates), unlike the player of a less serious game of make-believe, who is only obligated to be in character as long as playtime lasts.

This view offers a more flexible perspective on whether one can be both gay and Christian—or (more broadly) queer and Christian. Just as one can make-believe fight a dragon without adhering to every bit of dragon lore, one can play the role of Christian—which does involve adhering to the text of the Bible in many ways—without letting every line of the Bible be the basis for a religious credence. This is what most religious people do in any case; my present view thus offers a more realistic theory of what is going on when people have religious identities than my younger view.

One cannot change the script entirely and still consider oneself a Christian. After all, if one makes too many changes to any game, it eventually becomes a different game. But my friend David was right to suggest the non-centrality of proscriptions against homosexual practice in the Bible, though some, of course, disagree.

Still, there may always be tensions between traditional religious identities and modern identities, such as being gay or queer. The reason is that some might jettison a part of the script (Bible) that others adhere to vehemently; in such cases, there will be tensions between sects. For now, at least in many churches, it is entirely possible to be queer and Christian. There is no reason in principle why that possibility shouldn’t continue. Nevertheless, the evolution of the game of make-believe that is Christianity is unpredictable, as it is for any religion. So vigilance will always be needed to protect the measures of inclusiveness that have been won so far.