Tag Archives: identity

Emergent identities: The queer future of the church, too


At the recent CAPS conference in Atlanta, Mark Yarhouse and friends again brought me up-to-date on the quickly developing gender/sexual identity landscape. Their workshop centered on three things: a 2019 book by Rob Cover, the re-examination of their own data, and their practical experience with young people and parents navigating the new queer world on the internet. It was enlightening to explore emergent identities with them.

Emergent identities

Cover’s book, Emergent Identities: New Sexualities, Genders and Relationships in a Digital Era shows how traditional, binary understandings of sexuality and gender are being challenged and overridden by a taxonomy of non-binary, fluid classifications and descriptors.

He explores how and why traditional masculine/feminine and hetero/homo dichotomies are quickly being replaced with identity labels such as heteroflexible, bigender, non-binary, asexual, sapiosexual, demisexual, ciswoman and transcurious. New ways of perceiving relationships, attraction and desire are contesting authorized, institutional knowledge on gender and sexuality. The digital world in which young people have grown up has played a central role in developing new approaches to identity, individuality, creativity, media, healthcare and social belonging.

Two charts from the presentation show how descriptions of gender and sexual identity have changed since the 1990’s. The “residual” are vestiges of the past terms still in use. The “dominant” are terms widely accepted and presently in use. The “emergent” terms are those rapidly replacing the dominant understandings. If you have a teenager in your life, they might be able to teach you a few things about the emergent terms personally, since they are likely being asked (or pressured) to adopt a way to describe who they are using one of many new “micro-minoritized” identity labels. My seatmate suggested “micro-marginalized” might be better. I came away preferring invited to the “queer smorgasbord.”

The Church is notorious for being at least 20 years behind the dominant culture’s debates about the society being constructed. There are some good reasons for this; the best being that the church sees itself as a dominant culture for its members with an historical and eternal worldview. The worst reason being that the church only listens to itself and is defensive of its power to use words to dominate its population.

The church has been having a fight about “homosexual lifestyles” since the 1990’s and churches are still breaking up over it. Christians in Congress are trying to turn the tide back to some imagined past. The pandemic unleashed a wave of division over racial inequity in the Church (which made sense to me), but those concerns were often supplanted by sexual identity issues. My own former church basically dissolved itself over arguments from which the culture was quickly moving away.

I don’t know if I prefer the chaos and hyper-individuality of the new era dawning. I doubt that 14-year olds can adopt an “authentic” identity in order to find themselves. And I am afraid tender hearts and minds may perform gender and sexual identity and end up with even more doubt and a tragic sense of being alone with an overwhelming, over-scrutinized landscape. I texted my son while I was in the session and said, “Right now I am listening about asexual demiboys.” He replied, “People failing to overcome their anxiety and trusting a pornography-filled society.” He might be right.

Regardless, I think I prefer the “queer” worldview that is emerging. It may never become dominant, but it provides a helpful corrective to the “born that way”/this-or-that views of the past. It is a great gift from the LGBTQ community. Even without a queer theory to describe a common sense approach, my acquaintances and clients would show how gender and sexual identity are much more fluid than us older people were taught. We may have felt that in our own souls and accepted it in others, but we would not have talked about it because we’d be in an argument. Nevertheless, I know more than one man with a wife and children who decided he was gay and left it all behind. I know of a twentysomething transwoman who decided, after a few years, she preferred presenting as male after all. I know a man who left his wife to marry a lesbian who left her partner. If they dare, many straight friends can recount their various gay or lesbian experiences. Life has always been a bit “queer.”

Philosophers with a “queer theory” are talking about more than gender and sexual identity, even if that is where they personally begin. The Q in LGBTQ is becoming an umbrella idea under which the dominant and emerging “letters” find shelter. Even more, “queer” is a lens through which academics and others can approach their disciplines with greater imagination, seeing “outside the box” as so many entrepreneurs like to do. Queer is the anti-binary worldview.

Innately queer grace

As I look back on my work in the church, a lot of what I was thinking could be called “queer.” In terms of sexual identity, I resisted forcing people to choose according to  a church policy. I did not win that fight, even though I asked Janelle Paris to introduce us to her book The End of Sexual Identity in 2012. When we finally offered a “policy,” it had a queerness, a both/andness, which did not satisfy everyone, but it allowed for people to find their own ways and stay in grace. I’m not sure we knew what we were talking about, but it was in line with the zeitgeist. That alignment ultimately did not last either, like I mentioned, but I still think it was more about the future than what people fought about.

The church could use a big dose of queering. The biggest reason might be so it can have any hope of listening and speaking to the next generation. Some healthy queering would help theology emerge from its captivity to Eurocentric, Enlightenment/binary, cis-male domination. It would also let the Bible be as honest as it is about humanity, including sexual expression. When it comes to sexual relationships, the Bible is rather queer: there are polygamists, eunuchs for Christ and almost no nuclear families. While there is an assumption a man and woman should covenant and make a family, it seems like there is a lot of room for people who don’t do that (like Jesus!) and lots of room for love that goes beyond whatever the present boundaries might suggest. I wouldn’t put the Bible under the “queer” umbrella, but I do think queer fits easily under the umbrella of grace.


Six soul-killing political pathologies demanding the church’s conformity

Effects of social pathology

Damon Linker of This Week, Penn, and suburban Philly, says “The lies, corruption, graft, racism, xenophobia, hucksterism, and demagoguery of President Trump and leading members of his administration are so brazen and diverge so sharply from the political norms of the recent American past, it’s easy to lapse into misplaced hope that the pathologies swirling around us will dissipate as soon as the man leaves office.”

I was in a house full of grandchildren as I read those lines — their presence made Linker’s prediction even more alarming. Are my grandchildren destined to navigate some terrible pathology? I hope not. But if they are so troubled, it will give Jesus an opportunity to prove, once again, that he is greater than our hearts.

Trump may catalyze the worst in us for his own benefit, but he couldn’t do it without the rest of the country providing him opportunity and giving in when he takes his liberties. We of Circle of Hope mildly talk about our “alternativity,” but how far have you been driven, in truth, into some individual bunker from which you plot your safest route to your personal desires? Our recent dialogue about consolidating two of our congregations, although amazing and encouraging (and alternative!), also highlighted what we are up against these days. We are tempted to conform to the pathology around us either by adopting it or endlessly rebelling against it – either way it dominates us.

Linker lists six features of the United States society that often threaten to become features of our church, as well. I hope commenting on his list contributes to finding a way to avoid the pitfalls of our time.

Skepticism about leaders

  • There’s the spread of skepticism, rooted in radical egalitarianism, about the capacity of any authority to judge fairly among competing truth claims.

If we desert our families and can’t listen to our leaders, can we learn to follow Jesus? Aren’t we tempted to perfect autonomy, thinking that is a good thing? I think our pastors talk about our skepticism all the time — but that doesn’t mean anyone thinks it is right to listen to them, or that they actually do listen. People tend to wake up to “who’s in charge” or “what’s the process” when they discover some change actually impacts their “personal lives.” Otherwise, they assume that everyone in charge is self-interested or corrupt and try to steer clear of any process that might require their responsibility or sacrifice. Skeptics need to be questioned: Are all the region’s police self-interested and corrupt? Is everyone in government out for profit? Are the Cell Leader Coordinators unaware of your reality? Are protesters wasting their time?  What kind of person is your skepticism making you?

Virtual extremism

  • There’s the technological amplification of extreme views, which allows those on the ideological margins (and other bad actors) to spread and organize with unprecedented potency in virtual space.

The Russians would not be able to corrupt the U.S. system if the echo chambers in which citizens are trapped intersected and if they were not all atomized into individual interpreters of the day’s news. Our church, designed as it is to span usually-distinct territories and people groups often has a terrible time getting people to follow Jesus together if their ideological underpinnings are not satisfied. I have convictions I consider elemental to my faith in Jesus and which bind me to prophesy to society, but should they exclude others who don’t know what I’m talking about yet?

Endless entertainment

  • There’s the thoroughgoing transformation of our public life into a forum for mass entertainment aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Last week one of my grandchildren so skillfully lobbied for watching the The Two Towers we spent hours of a cloudy vacation day doing it. Afterwords, we had a long talk (long for elementary attention spans, that is) about what the movie means. One of them questioned my authority to begin such a discussion, of course (back to point one), but we talked anyway. I pointed out that the movies corrupt Tolkien’s story, since the filmmakers use extraordinary, powerful technology to tell the story of the meek inheriting the earth. This thought came to mind after I was informed that the spectacle of Helm’s Deep is much more interesting than the Hobbit scenes, and it is time to hit the bathroom when Gollum is dithering about his soul. They might be children of their age, in danger of spiritual lobotomy by the powerful scenes from the entertainment industry. The news is infotainment and the presidency a reality TV show. It is no wonder people have a tough time taking their faith and their church seriously.

Accepted polarization

  • There’s ideological polarization combined with a regional (urban-rural) split along both cultural and political lines, which is exacerbated by our country’s multiple counter-majoritarian institutions.

We passed around an article a few weeks back about the interesting divides in the country. We could see the cultural stereotypes played out in some of our own dialogue as the church. We don’t have to look hard to find evidence of the country’s division among us. One might say many of us are obsessed with what divides us — condemned by their “identities” to perpetual otherness instead of welcomed into the community we crave. Lately, our email list of covenant members has been the scene of some brilliant practical theology after our leaders called us to a course of practical necessity and creative adaptation – a change. I am glad to see we gravitated toward unity in Christ instead of mere diversity of choice.

Distortion as strategy

  • And there’s the willingness of cynical, power-hungry political functionaries to traffic in outright lies and distortions in order to win and hold office.

The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual BiographyI was in Barnes and Noble with five 7-11 year olds, enough said. While we were buying books I spotted a surprising title: The Faith of Donald J. Trump. I pondered it the day after the news of Cohen’s and Manafort’s legal issues came to a head, both which point to the corruption and brazen immorality of the leader, who the books calls, “the one guiding figure who can return us to the traditional values –hard work, discipline, duty, respect, and faith — that have long been the foundation of American life.” It is small wonder there will be a whole generation of people who assume any leader, including a church leader, is lying. After all, we don’t need Trump, just a few bishops in Pennsylvania will make us wonder.

No love of enemies

  • Justice has been reduced to the friend/enemy distinction: Whatever damage is done to the other side in the name of progress for my own mission is acceptable, even laudable.

Are people, in general, really losing all capacity to have conflicts that result in mutually beneficial outcomes? In our church, people often solve difficult relationships by refusing to ever have the conflict they feel. They kill love to avoid conflict. They neuter their faith in the name of some “acceptance” that masks their fear. They don’t want to be a loser and they have reduced love down to not making anyone else lose. This is politics conducted without any notion of a common good. The interests of the whole community no longer transcend the competing, perpetually clashing, and conflicted parts. Such a “politics” could kill a church, of course.

I felt a lot of these influences tempting us during our dialogue last week; so I was nervous. I wasn’t sure I could trust our trust system. We purposely designed our church so people could wreck it by being unloving or irresponsible (since Christians love and care and share or they should not be called Christians). I was not sure we would be Christians when we felt hurt or threatened or needed to fail and change. I went to prayer. Jesus came through and we came through. We’ll all be fine. But we will still be living in a world that is clearly not fine, these days. It will try to drag us down with it, so we’d better keep praying.

Turn to resilient love: History is bearing the fruit of nominalism

Last week I offered an article to my Facebook friends about the “secret” war the U.S. is helping to sustain in Yemen as the unhinged Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the Defense Minister, causes war crimes out of the view of journalists. Our own unhinged ruler further loosened the  long leash the Obama administration had given the Saudis as the civil war between Shias and Sunnis raged on Yemen, the sides backed by Iranians and Saudis with Al Qaeda in the wings.

A Saudi-led air strike that killed eight of this lone-survivor’s family

I lamented the lack of a moral center in the whole, horrible mess. American wonder out loud how Putin can think the ends justify the means as Russia supports how the Syrian government bombs and starves civilians. Yet the U.S. government is doing the same thing through its ally Saudi Arabia. It is just as unconscionable when the U.S. is complicit in war crimes.

It breaks our hearts to see children starving. But how can anyone decide what to do? It appears that most people are sinking in a philosophical morass that started a long time ago and is bearing the fruit of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and many other horrors. The myth of freedom demands that desire is at the center of everything we do. It is how we decide. Desire defines our “individuality.” Western culture believes an individual must be the author of his or her desire in order to be free. Nothing or no one can tell us what to do. So how could the U.S. tell the Saudis not to starve Yemenis in the name of their country’s desire to be free according to its sense of identity?

Last week’s blog post was about Donald Trump’s lack of moral center, as he pardoned the racist Joe Arpaio. A couple of friends got on my son’s feed after he posted my work and made light of it, mainly because I dared use the tragedy of Congolese slaves as part of my example. I think I violated their sense of ownership of their own experience, co-opted the story of their desire, and appeared to thwart their struggle to be the authors of their own destiny. I was trying to be a Christian with them, but I don’t think I got there. We’ll have to keep trying.

Nominalism degraded goodness

Finding a moral center in a Trumpian world is difficult. People can’t seem to agree on what is good. There are many reasons for this difficulty that Jesus followers should ponder. For one thing, progressives and conservatives alike serve the same god: individuality. They lean toward nominalism, as opposed to realism — the age old Eurocentric philosophical debate. If Christians are to speak the truth in love, we need to get off red or blue bandwagons. We may find some affinity with good-hearted people in either camp, but the world desperately needs the church to get back in God’s camp and provide an alternative to the madness. When will we clearly say, “No, we are not going to ‘follow our hearts’ no matter what society, the church or anyone else says, no matter how many times Disney preaches it to our children”?

I’ve been studying and pondering how we got to the place where Christians can support Trump and the place where identity wars can divide brothers and sisters in faith. Here’s the philosophical/theological trail toward the answer I’ve discovered so far (with help from Rod Dreher).

In the 1300’s “nominalism” took the medieval philosopher’s sense that everything has an inherent, God-given meaning and tweaked it to say that the meaning of objects and actions in the material world depends on what humans assign them. You can see the seeds of our present preoccupation with our individual identities in this thought. How we have been named and how we name ourselves makes all the difference to most of us, and the title “child of God” is not usually our number one sense of self, since that derives from God and not ourselves.

In the 1400’s optimism about human potential shifted Europe’s focus from God to humanity who were seen as “the measure of all things.” We’ve been measuring our progress ever since.

In the 1500’s the Reformation broke any remaining sense of religious authority to shreds and started the infighting that makes Christians hard to trust. Martin Luther said, “Here I stand” and ably expressed the personal conviction that has been individualizing faith ever since.

In the 1600’s The Wars of Religion in Europe further discredited religion and helped usher in the modern nation state. The scientific revolution  replaced the organic sense of the universe with a machine. Descartes applied the mechanistic thinking to the body: “I think therefore I am,” not “I am an organic part of God’s world.” Most Europeans, like Descartes, still thought of themselves as faithful Christians at this time, but the way they thought of themselves and decided what is true began to change.

In the 1700’s the Enlightenment created a framework for existence with reason, not God, at the center. Religion became private, not public. The United States protected an  individual’s right to faith in a faithless state. France created an antifaith democracy.

In the 1800’s The industrial revolution ended the connection most people had with the land. Relationships became defined by money. The romantic movement rebelled by emphasizing individualism and passion.

In the 1900’s The horrible world wars severely damaged faith in the gods of reason and progress as well as faith in Jesus. The growth of technology and consumerism further convinced people to fulfill individual desires and submit to huge corporations which supplied that fulfillment. The sexual revolution elevated the desiring individual as the center of a new social order, deposing enfeebled Christianity and all other religions.

Now in the 2000’s people have almost no moral center outside themselves to rely on, no community that is respected to monitor their behavior, and no sense of covenant that can require their sacrifice. We are reduced to individuals gathering enough power to win an argument about whether our desires will be legalized and our identity protected.

Good is faith working in love

All along the way, the Church has been sustained by the Holy Spirit and has continued to perform miracles and connect people to God, in spite of increasing opposition and a persuasive counter-narrative to the Gospel. Moana’s song, above, sounds fresh, new resonant, while Sunday’s songs are made to seem old and discordant. Christians readily adopt the demands of the new order just so they can stay in business, or at least not have the endless arguments with judgmental people who parse their every word looking for some insidious oppression that would steal away the freedom to be whatever they desire and to do whatever money can buy. Even so, God’s love is resilient.

In the middle of all the turmoil, I think the church has an opportunity to save the world. One of the ways we do it is to resist being co-opted by the arguments that are fragmenting it. If you want to satisfy your nominalist itch, name yourself a “Jesus follower.” If you are drawn by all the Disney propaganda and worry that your desires will not find enough freedom to flourish (or you are worried about the freedom of others)  at least wonder, with James, whether your desires will lead to life, as they promise. And when the constant, conflict-promoting media tempts you to turn a suspicious eye on your loved one or neighbor and require some test of their truth to gain your acceptance, turn to love, which covers a multitude of sin. Trust first, accept first, include first and then sort out the inevitable issues that only faith working out in  resilient love together can solve.

Marriage in the New Creation

[My former church upgraded their teaching many times before they disbanded. This post is more where we began and I think it might have been a good place to say.  Here is the link to their last.]

All year we have been trying to get out of the Congress-type polarization of the Church’s dialogue about sexual expression and get into the grace of staying focused on everyone’s redemption. I think we are doing a good job. The pastors came up with a statement on marriage in March and taught it to the cell leaders. I think it is a good summary of where we have come so far. This post is based on that statement. What follows are three big points about marriage and sexuality and some basic ideas that might help apply them.

We need to keep the love chapter where it belongs

The apostle Paul places his famous “love chapter” in the middle of his teaching about how the Holy Spirit is making the body of Christ out of the Lord’s followers (1 Corinthians 12-14). He does not place it after his chapter on marriage (1 Corinthians 7), which he could have easily done. The placement is important to note. Paul fully respects marriage as part of the order built into creation, but it is not equally important in the new creation.

In Christ, we are all bigger than the traditions that used to make up our identities. For instance, when Paul is talking to the church in Galatia about their temptation to follow the Jewish law he says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” and “what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 5:6, 6:15).

When we are talking about the new traditions people are making and legislating about marriage and sexuality in our era, it is important to remember that what counts is the new creation. How I relate to everyone who is finding their way: relationally, sexually and otherwise, is based on this kind of thought: “From now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).

There is more to you than your marriage or lack of one

Making families is great, but the ultimate in family comes from relating as brothers and sisters in Christ and respecting God as our true parent. That is a reality that takes the work of our Savior and the power of the Spirit to experience.

Jesus affirms the oldest teachings in the scripture about marriage (Matthew 19:5-6). Elsewhere in the New Testament we are taught that marriage is to be honored by all; all the Bible writers assume they are talking about a relationship between a man and a woman, lifelong and exclusive. At the same time, marriage is not considered the ultimate expression of love and commitment; love and commitment come from Jesus and are most fully realized in the body of Christ.  Within that inspired and diverse body, composed of everyone who can name Jesus as Lord, “there are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” Every Jesus-follower is honorable and must be honored because each is given “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:5-7).

Our relationships with God through Jesus Christ are what define us. Our ultimate identity is not about how we are married or how we have sex, just like it is not about where we live or any other labels the world may slap on us.

The Church has slapped some labels on people, too.

Circle of Hope’s way of responding to our era’s new approaches to sexual expression has been based on the spirit of the preceding teaching from the Bible. At the same time, we know that the church has rarely been a safe place, historically, for sexual nonconformity. Many people have been oppressed and injured. One of the reasons people are deserting the church in vast numbers these days is not just because the members of the church do not live in the Spirit or do not express new creation life, it is because the church is even more oppressive than the world!

Because of this reality, we have tried to be even more careful to welcome every person as they are, no matter where they are on their journey, and have been committed to walk with them as they discover the fullness of what God has for them. We don’t do this just because people won’t like us if we don’t; we do it because Jesus is doing the same thing with us! Especially in regard to how people experience marriage, we don’t need that to be a big issue when we first meet someone. After all, we think that the best place to find fullness as one’s true self is as an honored member of the body of Christ, not in a sexual relationship, married or otherwise. So we try to keep our focus where the focus should be.

Some people might prefer a detailed policy statement

Our approach requires a great deal of love and personal commitment, not just careful adjudication or implementation of regulations. As Jesus-followers we need to love real, complex people with an unfolding future, not just organize identities as if we were the Social Security Administration. We want to have faith that requires our best — and loving people as they are will require our best. Being personally gracious and hospitable takes a lot of time and patience, but the  commitment it takes to work out our love in the ways we are directed is worth it.

Here are some basic applications of the scripture that answer questions people have about what we are talking about:

What about the pressure to choose a sexual identity? Sexual arousal is a characteristic of a person, not their identity. How we respond to our arousal and the feelings themselves tend to be fluid and are subject to the same temptations and maturation as are all our ways. Jesus is Lord of all our feelings and ways. We seek to honor each person as they experience their feelings and find their way along their unique journey as a member of the body of Christ.

What about the increasing experience of living together as sexual partners before marriage? Generally, sexual expression should happen within a relationship founded in a marriage covenant. Couples who cohabit as sexual partners without a public commitment should consider themselves married. Likewise, if they break up, they should consider themselves divorced. The rights the nation gives or withholds regarding marriage and other relationships are superseded by our life in faith as part of the new creation.

What about “same sex attraction?” Jesus followers who desire sexual relations with people of their own gender are no less honorable than anyone else. They are going to work out their sexuality in a variety of ways, as they are convicted and gifted.

  • Some will choose celibacy and struggle alongside Jesus and Paul.
  • Some will choose to have a committed relationship that can be a faithful response to their desire.
  • Some will marry a person of the complementary gender and not express their other attractions, as all married couples are called to do.

There does not need to be one approach to marriage and sexual expression that supposedly meets the needs and aspirations of all people. All approaches to marriage do not need to be seen as equal in value or validity. The key to unity in diversity is the work of grace that enables disparate people to manifest the Spirit for the common good.  We all experience brokenness, sin and loneliness in our loves; so we will bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). What counts is the new creation.

Wendell Berry: identity, autonomy, privacy, competition

We had a winter wedding and draped the sterile “sanctuary” in ivy filched from front lawns all over town and made into garlands by loving friends. We thus began our somewhat-ignorant stumble into fidelity. On the occasion of our anniversary this week, my very-deep wife found an essay by Wendell Berry that eloquently summarizes much of what we instinctively discovered and practiced. What she focused on was Berry’s piece of wisdom that we have found to be true:

“No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.” We have practiced that in marriage, family, church and city.

The essay she quoted was written in 1977 as part of his book: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Berry wrote his prophetic book as the American Empire flowered and turned to fruit, and as the society began to democratize and monetize everything. If you are a Christian who longs to be a humble creature, you might like to read it all: [link].

For today I offer you two long quotes from it that seem to go together to me. Berry makes important points about topics we have been exploring for a few years as a Circle of Hope. He is writing at a time when the adoption of the concept of “identity” and other new definitions are beginning to bud. By our time we have eaten the pie.

“The so-called identity crisis, for instance, is a disease that seems to have become prevalent after the disconnection of body and soul and the other piecemealings of the modern period. One’s “identity” is apparently the immaterial part of one’s being–also known as psyche, soul, spirit, self, mind, etc. The dividing of this principle from the body and from any particular worldly locality would seem reason enough for a crisis. Treatment, it might be thought, would logically consist in the restoration of these connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work. But “finding yourself,” the pseudo-ritual by which the identity crisis is supposed to be resolved, makes use of no such immediate references. Leaving aside the obvious, and ancient, realities of doubt and self-doubt, as well as the authentic madness that is often the result of cultural disintegration, it seems likely that the identity crisis has become a sort of social myth, a genre of self-indulgence. It can be an excuse for irresponsibility or a fashionable mode of self-dramatization. It is the easiest form of self-flattery–a way to construe procrastination as a virtue–based on the romantic assumption that “who I really am” is better in some fundamental way than the available evidence proves.

The fashionable cure for this condition, if I understand the lore of it correctly has nothing to do with the assumption of responsibilities or the renewal of connections. The cure is “autonomy,” another mythical condition, suggesting that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences. This seems little more than a jargon term for indifference to the opinions and feelings of other people. There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence. Inevitably failing this impossible standard of autonomy, the modern self-seeker becomes a tourist of cures, submitting his quest to the guidance of one guru after another. The “cure” thus preserves the disease….”

Wendell Berry

Berry goes on to apply his thoughts on identity and autonomy to marriage. He has a lot to say to us in a time when single parenthood or parenthood by less-committed cohabitors is common:

“…Failing, as they cannot help but fail, to be each other’s all, the husband and wife become each other’s only. The sacrament of sexual union, which in the time of the household was a communion of workmates, and afterward tried to be a lovers’ paradise, has now become a kind of marketplace in which husband and wife represent each other as sexual property. Competitiveness and jealousy, imperfectly sweetened and disguised by the illusions of courtship, now become governing principles, and they work to isolate the couple inside their marriage. Marriage becomes a capsule of sexual fate. The man must look on other men, and the woman on other women, as threats. This seems to have become particularly damaging to women; because of the progressive degeneration and isolation of their “role,” their worldly stock in trade has increasingly had to be “their” men. In the isolation of the resulting sexual “privacy,” the disintegration of the community begins. The energy that is the most convivial and unifying loses its communal forms and becomes divisive. This dispersal was nowhere more poignantly exemplified than in the replacement of the old ring dances, in which all couples danced together, by the so-called ballroom dancing, in which each couple dances alone. A significant part of the etiquette of ballroom dancing is, or was, that the exchange of partners was accomplished by a “trade.” It is no accident that this capitalization of love and marriage was followed by a divorce epidemic–and by fashions of dancing in which each one of the dancers moves alone.”

Identity, autonomy, privacy, and competition have come to “encapsulate” most of the people we know. They are concepts that form new sanctuaries and they can’t be disguised by draping the ivy chains of our Christianity over them.

May you have some time this Advent, away from the monetization of our holy-days, to do a ring dance, to spend some time in the wilderness rediscovering how you are a much-loved creature, and to celebrate your responsible dependence

  • on God (who gives you yourself and gives himself to you in Jesus),
  • on your spouse (if you are given one) and
  • on your community (which you have been given).

We are the sanctuary in which God’s Spirit dwells. During Advent, as we remember how God comes in to our creatureliness in Jesus, it is a good time to remember how that same Spirit makes us God’s dwelling place as a people in our own time and place. This is also a good verse for a Christmas card: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.  Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-18).

We’re Getting Schooled to Relate without Jesus

We’re getting schooled — but nicely and in the name of being nice, protecting the rights of others and being inclusive. But are people actually being nice to me? protecting my so-called rights? including me? More important, are they being nice to Jesus? protecting his rights? including the Lord?

I ran across this statement during my research the other day and I feel a bit obsessed with it. It revealed that the discomfort I have been feeling with the way people talk to me about various subjects has a philosophical underpinning. We are being taught to relate in a certain way that may be right in line with Jesus in some ways, but may sell the farm completely in other ways. I think we need to talk back to our teachers.  Check it out:

Only if “you respond to me” in a way sensitive to the “relations” between your and my actions, can “we” act together as a “collective we”; and if I sense you as not being sensitive in that way, then I feel immediately offended, ethically offended. – Shotter & Katz (1999, p.152).

Let’s not run the whole intellectual nine yards with this. Let’s skip right to the popular application.

If you run me over I will be offended.
If you run me over I will be offended.

First of all, there is a relational rule that begins with: “Only if.” For some reason, it just dawned on me that any number of people begin their relationship with me with an “only if.” They have this rule that kicks in when they meet me: I will relate to this person only if they agree with my assumed standards for relating. I have a way of life that must be accepted at any cost — if they don’t “get” that, no relationship. For instance, a young man recently reported he would not be back to our public meeting because we seemed to assume he was a Christian, since the meeting was all about being a Christian. He did not feel accepted for who he was so he was immediately offended (at least in a philosophical way — everyone can still exchange pleasantries). We did not pass the “only if” assessment.

DM_I_Feel_YouSecond, there is a definition of what relating means. Basically, the rule for relating begins with: We need to feel each other out. (Isn’t that why it became popular in the 90’s to say “I feel you?”). I need to sense you being sensitive. In the new school there are no individuals who have innate meaning or value. Any “meaning” is all about how our actions intersect, all about how we are feeling things out. The only meaning we share is what happens in our “collective we.” So sensitivity to how we talk and act is crucial.

Most people don’t get to this step of relating and it is even harder to get through it. There is a lot of wariness and circling around one another, seeing if one can connect. For instance, a man was talking last night about how difficult it was for him to make any relationships within a church whose meetings he had been sporadically attending for years. But he sensed he might fit into Circle of Hope because we dress more like he dresses and talk like he talks. He felt enough shared meaning to let himself connect. Someone else probably sniffed around last night and said, “My kind are not present. I’m out of here.”

Third, there is a consequence for violating the rules and not agreeing on the definitions. People are surprisingly judgmental these days, in spite of saying they hate people who are judgmental! They are surprisingly legalistic for saying they are so accepting! They have seemingly nice conversations that come with a hidden barb, something like:  If you don’t accept my rule and act according to my standards, I have a right to be ethically offended, and I will be so immediately. I was talking to one of the cell leaders yesterday and she was having a problem deciding what to do with certain people who were kind of gumming up the works with their bad behavior. The leader was so sensitive to the possibility that she might “get a time out” for offending the person in question that she was making all sorts of excuses for their bad behavior — pre-excusing before she was asked for grace! She was essentially taking care of the “we” for both sides of the relationship. She was predicting how she would be offensive, even before a person accused her of anything, and adjusting her behavior to keep things smooth, even though she felt personally hurt and frustrated. She was quite afraid she would be judged according to the new standards and get thrown out of the “we.”

We are all getting schooled and most of us did not even go to the class yet. The school turns out people who say (at least this is my application of the quote above): If you don’t respond to me in a way that makes me comfortable I am out of here. Or worse, I have a right to be me no matter how bad that is for you; deal with it or I will make sure you know how condemnable you are. We’re afraid to be sent to the “office” if we don’t get the rules right. It is ironic that in the name of inclusion people have set up a power struggle among all of us for the right to decide who is worthy of inclusion!  I am glad the person who would act in such a way is not God (we’re not, even when we act in god-like ways!). If they were actually God, I would be in outer darkness quickly. I would never really have gotten into light at all! I would not have passed the first “only if” rule!

Like I said, I am clueing in to all this might mean philosophically. And I am lamenting that the society is quickly being reorganized around the core ideas that are rendered in the quote. But I am trying to skip to the application.

We will run into someone this week who is doing their best to fit in and be nice. They have been taught this new school basis for relating. They bump into a Christian and it can be jarring. They meet up with a person who believes they have innate meaning as an individual and are also part of a “we” — not based solely on the meaning created by becoming a “we” but because God has made them a “we.” We’re still creating meaningfully by our process of dialogue, but it is inspired. And we are not assessing one another according to how inoffensively we do that, since we assume we will need to love others who can’t seem to stop sinning, just like God loves us. It has become an odd way to look at things.

I think we should keep being odd and not get schooled. Some of the new narrative is wise. But I don’t think the new nice is all that nice. I really don’t think it protects my rights to follow Jesus very well at all, instead it offers a new narrative that eradicates the possibility of Jesus. Everyone gets included except for Jesus, since his “only-ness” violates the “only if” of the new regime. I don’t want to go there, even if the new conformity police judge me harshly.

It is not enough to just ignore the new schoolmasters. They are making a difference. We’ve all been divided up into mutually offended identities — “being a Christian” is just one more of them. And most Christians seem to believe that about themselves — their faith is another one of the many identities competing for market share among discriminating consumers. Let’s keep telling the truth about Jesus — in love, as ourselves in Christ, in community, even if we get a time out.


Shottner, J. & Katz, A. (1999). Creating relational realities: Responsible responding to poetic “movements” and “moments.” In S. Mcnamee & K. Gergen (Eds.) Relational responsibility: Resources for sustainable dialogue (pp. 151-160). London: Sage.

No endorsements, just curiosity:

More Thoughts on Identity

Living or dead, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). Our identity is in relation to God, not ourselves. This is the wisdom Paul proclaimed to his society (1 Cor. 1:30). These days, the society in which I live is having a similar debate about what is true. Much of the debate centers around the idea of sexual identity.

The well-known sociologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, made a prophetic presentation in Philadelphia in 1973. In it he mused about the policy-makers’ reliance on “evidence” as opposed to wisdom. He complained that in child development studies the science of the child was usually based on the circumstances of the lab, not the natural ecology of the child. The application of the science then created a policy-driven ecology that was bereft of wisdom and even damaging to the child. When people asked him how to speak into such an environment, he had nothing to say because wisdom was not allowed. Policies about sexuality based on “identities” that are supposedly derived from “evidence” encourage a similar lack of wisdom.

These days, many people have learned a philosophy that is bent on finding the identity of things, as if we can reduce things, and even people, down to their essence and understand them. Christians and unbelievers alike all seem to follow this basic thinking; everyone is either “this” or “that.” As a result, most people are very interested in finding out, “What am I?” and being true to that. The modern enthusiasm for science encourages the process, and the post-modern emphasis on radical individual self-determination really encourages it. There is reason behind the development of this thinking, of course, but its application has become an oppressive law, locking people into the specious conclusion called “sexual identity.”  The scientists took our sexual expression into the lab and decided we could be homosexual or heterosexual, and everyone has had to find their place in that binary argument ever since.

I do not think there needs to be a heterosexual or homosexual identity, as if a person could be defined by their sexual desires or practices. It is a too-small way to see a person. God repeatedly tells us that we fallen-away-creations find our true identity, or self, or purpose, or destiny, in relationship to God, not in relation to ourselves or to another person or to our sexual impulses. A person’s primary identity is God-and-person, not merely a self-reflective definition.  DNA structure and brain wave activity are ways to define who we are; but we have a primary source of identity that is outside ourselves. I do not want to reduce a loved one to a “homosexual” or “heterosexual.” As Gore Vidal was fond of saying, “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person. The words are adjectives describing sexual acts, not people.”

I am trying to move with how Jesus teaches us to develop a true self: “Those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will save them. What good is it for you to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very self?” (Luke 9:24-5). The struggle with our bent sexuality, defined as hetero, homo, or however is too deep, too precious, too mysterious to reduce down to an application of a scientific formula, or a rationalistic definition. It is not enough. It must be handled in Christ.

I’ve decided not to bend the knee to the “Baal” of identity labeling in general, but surely with regard to sexual identity. While I may not be able to avoid the scrutiny and condemnation of the “civilization police,” who think equality under the law of the United States is freedom and think that such law must be spread universally, I still long for dialogue in grace that allows people to be on their own journey, facing the issues of intimacy with self-respect and the respect of others. I think Janelle Paris, in her book The End of Sexual Identity, has gone a long way to reframe the discussion so it is not just another divisive political argument, as if political dialogue is the only tool we have for gaining wisdom.  She says, “When disagreements about same-sex sexuality are just differences, not divisions, and when we share mutual affection and bestow honor on those with whom we disagree, we’re already living beyond the end of sexual identity.”

Reframing the question does not immediately make for good relationships with people who have already adopted the identity, of course. Since the seventies some people have achieved some freedom from societal oppression, much of which was based in the church’s teaching. At the same time, the rancor over the new definition caused an upheaval that hurt people and divided families and institutions. There are a lot of feelings being felt that cause a lot of conflict. Just writing this might cause some more conflict.

The other day at our training time, I shared some of my convictions to set the stage for the day’s discussion. I think we need to keep talking, even though it is frightening to do so for many of us. Here are three of the convictions I listed; I mean for them to add to the discussion, not end it:

1)  I want to maintain the complicated position of not having a policy about sexual identity. I don’t think God makes policies about people, or divides people up with labels — especially invented sexual labels. I would rather wait and see how someone’s life works out than be committed to a scientific/political label that became popular in the 20th century.

2) Besides, the labels are not always helpful or accurate. For instance, the UC Davis LGBT Resource Center now calls itself the LGBTQIA Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, and asexual center. The spectrum of how people express themselves sexually is varied and changeable. Our expanded interest in the spectrum is expanding how we see it. The labels are too small and end up being straitjackets.

3) The politics of sexual identity can be oppressive to many LGBT people. It often turns them into an anecdote that so-called heterosexual people tell to justify their righteousness. People are not their sexual ideas or behavior codified in law by the people who dominate society. The politics make so-called minorities pawns of the law, which only permits behavior, not wisdom, these days. We have a deeper law from God to sort out.

I hope we are open and affirming in a way that pleases the Lord, who is extravagantly welcoming. I think Jesus would like us to resist labels that exalt ourselves and diminish our identity in relation to Him (Matthew 23:8-12). Living or dead, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). Our identity is in relation to God, not ourselves. This is a wisdom I want to proclaim, too.

Companion posts:

Identity and What the Idea is doing to Sexuality

The Language of Sexuality

“Identity” and What the Idea is Doing to Sexuality

This may not be my most “entertaining” blog post, but I think it is important to write it.  I hope you will work with me on something I’ve been thinking about a lot for the past couple of months. I don’t think Christians have a cogent, loving response to prevailing ideology about identity, especially sexual identity. We need to find one.

In a volume dedicated to seeking a new “language of liberation,” Linda Martin and Satya Mohanty acknowledge that the critics of the old language make sense: “Theoretical critics of identity politics claim that identities are social constructions rather than natural kinds, that they are indelibly marked by the oppressive conditions that created them in the first place, and therefore should not be given so much weight or importance. They point out, with some justification, that racial categories are specious ways to categorize human beings, that gender differences are overblown, that sexuality should be thought of as a practice rather than an identity, and that disability itself is often a product of social arrangements rather than a natural kind. These and other sorts of arguments are used to suggest that identities are ideological fictions, imposed from above, and used to divide and control populations. Both political and theoretical critics claim that we should be working to eliminate the salience of identity in everyday life, not institutionalize it.” 1 I have been among those critics.

It is nice to see academic types coming back around, as they sometimes do. In this case they sound a lot like they are challenging prevailing thinking using the same basic wisdom Paul used when he pleaded with the church in Galatia to stop dividing themselves up according to the “wisdom” of their latest teachers. He said, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)

Sexual scripts

I think the identity straitjackets imposed by many of society’s latest teachers have been especially damaging to how we think about our sexuality. There is a sexual “script” that gives us all a part to play. If we do not learn our lines, there are social consequences. It goes something like this:

  • One’s sexual attractions signal a naturally occurring or “intended by God” distinction between homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality (and an increasing array of definitions).
  • Discovering one’s sexual attractions is elemental to knowing who you “really are” as a person.
  • Sexual attractions are at the core of who one is as a person.
  • One’s sexual behavior is an extension of that core.
  • Behavior that matches who you “really are” sexually is crucial for your self-actualization and fulfillment.

This script is a compelling invention. Almost everyone who will read this knows it intuitively by now. But it was invented in the 20th century and may already be losing steam in the 21st. Jonathan Katz wrote about how it all got started: “Between the 1890s and the 1960s the terms heterosexual and homosexual moved into American popular culture, constructing in time a sexual solid citizen and a perverted unstable alien, a sensual insider and a lascivious outlaw, a hetero center and a homo margin, a hetero majority and a homo minority. The new, strict boundaries made the new gendered, erotic world less polymorphous. The term heterosexual manufactured a new sex-differentiated ideal of the erotically correct, a norm that worked to affirm the superiority of men over women and heterosexuals over homosexuals.” 2 Now Hilary Clinton is spreading that thinking worldwide. I’m happy for no discrimination. I’m not so happy about the thinking that created the discrimination.

Arbitrary divisions

I think Paul rejected the arbitrary divisions between persons in his day according to what we now call “identity” in favor of one basic division according to allegiance to Jesus Christ. The division between Jews and Gentiles is sorted out when they all become children of God by faithing Jesus. Economic or gender divides are relevant to our relationships, but those elements are integrated into our primary allegiance to God. We are not stuck with who we are as defined by society according to our birth place or biology, we have an “identity” that is more basic than those which is given by God and actualized by Jesus.

As far as sexuality goes, followers of Jesus have an alternative script to the prevailing oppression:

  • Sexual attraction does not signal a categorical distinction among types of persons, but is one of many human experiences.
  • Who one is as a person begins with a restored relationship with God, which is the basis for sorting out the intricacies of desire and sexual expression.
  • Attraction does not require orientation which does not demand identity. Note a similar discussion Paul has about slavery — though you might be born a slave that does not mean you are not God’s freedperson which means you should think of yourself as free and become socially free, if possible.

The sexuality script has been popularized by the media until we are swimming in a sea of sexual messages that preoccupy how we think about ourselves. To even entertain an alternative to the prevailing script is a fear-filled thing to do, since it will generally be seen as unaccepting, unhealthy, unloving and maybe even illegal. I think the prevailing sexuality script is oppressive and leads people to excessive behavior: we are tempted to artificially label ourselves and we are pushed to exaggerate our behavior in a search for self-actualization (which all-too-often leads to various forms of sexual addiction). Most detrimental, we can be deprived of a Christ-centered approach that is more generous about our present sexual condition and more likely to provide a lifelong way to sort out our behavior.

I think Christians should follow the example of Paul as we relate to people consumed by the present-day subjugation to the ideas surrounding the word “identity.” The world is likely to keep labeling people for political or social reasons and the media is likely to promote the categories and advertise to them. And people are likely to emphasize personal characteristics that they consider socially important and relatively unchangeable. As Christians, we will be labeled and we may be tempted to see our faith as just another identity in the pluralistic pot, one that gives us self-respect or dignity. We may even be tempted to trade our “religious identity” for a more compelling “sexual” one that functions according to the prevailing script.

I am going to keep meditating about this. Being one with Christ may be an identity in the world. But it can’t be reduced to that definition. My relationship with God and his people in Christ includes all my sexual attractions and informs all the ways I enjoy them or struggle with them.

A couple of references:

1 This is from Reconsidering Identity Politics. Intro is online

2 Excerpted on the PBS website.

Companion blog posts:

More Thoughts on Identity

The Language of Sexuality

The language of sexuality and your orientation

Depending on how I feel any given day, one of the benefits or banes of doctoral studies is learning a new language. One of my professors calls it part of my “socialization.” The implication is that we are growing up into “doctorhood,” so we’d best learn “doctorese.” The goal reminds me of the Wizard of Oz taking his unexplainable balloon trip to hobnob with the other wizards.

This past week the topic for my socialization was new language about human sexuality. I found myself in an unexpected but helpful “encounter group” for most of the class time. But there was also an interesting lecture on sexual “identity.” The guest lecturer was something of an evangelist for the latest science that defines who we are sexually. I haven’t sorted it all out yet, but I thought I’d let you in on the language, since it is bandied about all the time.

One can start with biological sex. When Solomon Schnapf was born Sunday, the doctors immediately took a look at his parts and announced his sex; they probably tagged him “baby boy Schnapf” and wrapped him in blue. Most of the time knowing one’s sex is easy,  but people do come out with a variation on parts.

Our gender is less obvious. Gender is how we feel, male or female. We all get socialized by our families and others to be men or women, but it is important to feel the part. Now that we have the science, wealth and politics to change, Chastity Bono can become Chaz.

Orientation is the morality hot-button territory these days. Regarding sexual orientation This used to be named preference. Most sexuality scientists insist that who-we-are-attracted-to is a built-in feature, not a choice. However, the Kinsey scale of hetero-homo orientation offers a lot of discussion about the science, since it appears that most of us are sexually attracted to most of us, at least a little. Christians who are solidly on the preference side of the definition often argue that God’s transforming power is greater, no matter how we come equipped. We insist that it is how we are oriented in relationship with God that is the heart of any other orientation problems, sexual or otherwise.

Then there is behavior. Biologically and psychologically, some things are hard-wired. But humans do what they decide to do and can be forced to behave in all sorts of ways. My teacher thought it might be a bit foolish not to act out one’s sexual orientation, and thought it was a Christian duty to help people be themselves. But people can and do act sexually in ways that go against their orientation and their morality all the time. They have seasons of behavior that come and go. They behave how they choose and they often behave according to definitions and roles people require of them.

Orientation is our struggle

I think some Christians get derailed in the discussion of sexuality because they are too hung up about orientation and get it confused with behavior. I think it is safe to say that God thinks everyone’s orientation is a mess. Everyone has sinned; everyone has experienced a broken relationship with God; everyone lives in an environment that is fallen; everyone needs a savior. We have orientation issues.

Obviously, not everyone sees it that way. Scientists and  philosophers from the beginning have tried to normalize a universe that does not include God, certainly one that does not include God-with-us leading us into fullness. They’ve tried to find ways to explain, justify and redirect our orientations. Scientists of sexuality (at least the few I have learned from) can be evangelists for respecting someone’s orientation as good, right, and theirs. If the scientists are Christians, then they can insist that “who you love” should be protected by the great Lover. Orientation meeting sanctioned behavior is their goal. I feel the love. But I don’t think our orientation issues get solved by making them normal.

Upon learning this language there were just a few howls, in our class full of Christians, from the biological side of the identity argument. A sex is a sex. But there was more grumbling from those who did not leap to the same morality as the presenters. An orientation is not a behavior. For one thing, singling out sexual “orientation” for their reasoning seems unfair. There are a lot of “orientations” that can land someone in prison if they are acted upon. For instance, society kills murderous psychopaths (at least in Texas) and has an elaborate system to protect children from pedophiles. This does not mean that homosexuals are the same as murderers; it means that society is passing judgment that might not warrant allegiance.

Even more irritating to some people, perhaps, was our lecturer quoting Sergeant Friday saying, “Just the facts, ma’am.” She claimed to be enumerating the facts; the implication was that the classmates who did not go along with her interpretation of them were wrong — and even more damning to Christians: unloving. But, in fact, the “facts” are a little squishy in the language of sexuality, and the interpretation of the facts is not that clear if one’s commitment to the assumptions of scientific rationalism is squishy.

My one conclusion to share today is this (really, this is all I have, the rest was meant to be open-ended): I don’t think God wants our orientations to define us. Making decisions based on the drives we feel or the feelings that have come to drive us often leads us to sin as much as it does to satisfaction. Our orientation is not God. Our so-called “orientations” in relationship with God, subject to the love and truth in Jesus, become aspects of our character that lead us to our renewed identity. Our sexuality is so deep in us that it might be the most difficult territory of all to explore. But all of us are exploring many territories and many layers of orientation that challenge us. We are all  deciding what to do about the facts of our lives. When people try to socialize us to submit to facts that don’t include God, his people, creation and revelation, the facts aren’t factual enough yet.

Companion posts:

“Identity” and What the Idea Is Doing to Sexuality

More Thoughts on Identity