Conversions: A Common Objects Roundtable, Part III
As I note in the first part of the roundtable, the original occasion was the publication of the piece, “My Trainwreck Conversion,” in Christianity Today, and its subsequent online circulation. It’s a synopsis of the story Rosaria Champagne Butterfield tells about her passage through a certain kind of sexual identity and into a new one, a conversion of sorts. “As a leftist lesbian professor, I despised Christians,” the subtitle reads. “Then I somehow became one.”
Again, The people who sat down, far away from each other, to talk about this are Lisa Arnold Powell, Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Ambrose, Jeanine Thweatt-Bates, who among other scholarly endeavors can be found at Rude Truth, and Scott Lybrand, Program Director of the Julian Year at Episcopal Charities and Services in Chicago. Everyone is brilliant and fascinating and on Twitter—@LisaDawnPowell, @JenTB, @scottlybrand. I am also on Twitter but will make no claims to brilliance (@jehiahdowdy).
Read part I and part II to catch up. Thanks for coming back. CJD
Jeanine Thweatt Bates: I feel like gender/sexuality is one piece, the most visible and possibly the biggest piece, but still one piece of a bigger identity issue. She describes a rejection of all sorts of aspects of her former self… I’d like to hear Scott on this—am I presumptuous in framing gender identity/sexuality as an aspect of a bigger identity crisis here? (speaking as a straight cisgender woman, here, who only counts as queer within certain inherited an extremely narrow gender constructions.)
Frankly, it bothers me just as much that she sacrifices her search for understanding as a basic way of understanding self and world. Maybe because that hits closest to home for me personally. My whole life, my Christian faith, is precisely about this search for understanding that I believe to be God-inspired and utterly necessary for fidelity. I don’t believe God wants us to blindly obey—I don’t believe this is the essence of faithfulness. I think, rather, God would prefer us to stand up and argue and shout and even shake our fists—like we see Abraham and Moses and Job and even Jesus doing (in a perhaps idiosyncratic take on Gethsemane).
I guess for me it comes down to whether or not a conversion is to a God of love, and confidence in that love, as someone who is and always has been a child of God and a creation in God’s image. I love Lisa’s thoughts on in utero Eucharist—I’ve ruminated on this during my pregnancies as well. What if we are all carried in God’s womb, utterly loved and nourished from the tiniest beginnings of us, and loved without reserve throughout…instead of divine love being withheld as conditional on proper understanding, or worse, obedience to arbitrary authority without understanding?
Scott Lybrand: There is a lot here, so I’ll just focus on a few things. I’m also going to steer away from the words ‘nature’ and ‘grace’, since I think those probably have particular theological baggage that I am not comfortable handling (not being a theologian).
I think Jen is right that gender identity/sexuality are part of a bigger identity crisis.
I understand all of these categories, gender, orientation, identity, etc to be all tied up together. I also don’t think there is really anything fixed about any of them. In some basic sense, they may be fixed: I am a sober Christian cisgender gay man, and that is unlikely to change at any elementary level. I am in a constant process of conversion (induction) though, in that I am constantly learning and relearning and relearning what all of those things mean.
I am gay, yes: I have sexual and romantic desire for (some) men. But I am also in a process of becoming gay. I am more queer now than I was 10 years ago, or at least differently queer. I understand my gay-ness differently. I’m being inducted into a way of life by looking at the people around me and seeing them see me, and asking the questions “Who the hell am I, and what does any of this have to do with God and my fellow humans?”
This happens with the other parts of my identity: my male-ness, my Christian-ness, my sobriety. Thankfully, because of the communities by which I am held, I experience all of this development, this learning and relearning, as more and more and more liberating. As media for deeper union with God and other humans.
So, my problem with Dr Butterfield’s conversion narrative isn’t that she chose a different end point than I have (though that’s certainly part of it). My problem with the conversion story is that it presumes to understand the mind of God so well that we can just find the correct (Christian) identity and then stop moving. Stop becoming.
Lisa Arnold Powell: I am inclined to just say Amen to what Jen and Scott have both said. Chris’ question about sexuality and identity and relating these to the conversation about conversion, had me asking the same questions Jen and Scott address: how much is this about sexuality specifically and/or how much of the understanding of identity being described by Butterfield seems limited to sexuality.
I agree with them that the identity crisis includes sexual orientation, but also many other aspects of her identity (those these don’t get as much attention). I almost don’t even want to weigh in on how sexuality relates to identity because I come from a tradition where sexuality and sex got so much attention—the big sins! Repentance-talk (relating to conversion) seemed to always focus in on this, creating such a spirit of fear over sexuality. Part of my “conversion” experience was out of that mindset and toward a concern that my “identity” isn’t rooted in sexual purity (though I could still be chaste), but rooted in work for justice.
Certainly sexuality is part of our identities, but as Scott notes, so are many other things. I also like that Scott is asking these questions of who are we at our core (are these things fixed), but more a concern of who are we becoming—and who are we becoming together, as a community. Of course this kind of fluid understanding of identity could be used to say our sexual orientations and sexual identities aren’t fixed and therefore they can be “converted” to the “straight,” “heteronormative,” “cisgender”, etc. And I suppose that is the danger, but I like that Scott keeps that open, qualifying that he is becoming “differently queer”.
An additional concern I have with the kind of stable identity Scott and Jen both find problematic in this article, is that it does get at this idea of some essence, something abstract that can be pinpointed and even universally applied. This kind of abstraction and essentializing has been shown to be a partner of all kinds of oppressions and supportive of the white, male, western dominance and status quo. But God’s identity is in act.
God isn’t static and abstract, and we as God’s people aren’t called to find a static and stable root for our identity but to participate in God’s activity. So instead of my identity being something I can pinpoint (I am white, liberal, Christian, middle class, cisgender, hetero…) I am active with Christ in love and justice and compassion (or at least I hope—I hope that is who I am becoming).
JTB: I think I’m in love with the phrase “becoming differently queer.”
SL: I do think that mutability only goes so far: regardless of how much my self-understanding of my queerness might shift and evolve, it’s highly unlikely that it is going to shift to the point where I begin to understand myself as desiring sexual relationships with people of the opposite sex. In the same way, it is unlikely that I will begin to identify as female. That doesn’t mean that my understanding of what it means to be a man remains static.
(just my anticipated response to those who would argue that shifting identities mean gay-to-straight conversion is possible or even desirable)
CJD: This image is rooted in a somewhat alien cosmology, but I’m reminded by your last round of comments here (especially Lisa’s) of the contrast between paradise and hell in Dante. The beatific vision is really nearly an apophatic reality, just these three equal/inhering circles that turn and turn, reaching into Dante himself to slowly move even his will and desire into sync. Its opposite is not hellfire, though. At the lowest level of hell, where Satan and Judas are trapped, things are just frozen solid.
S. and I just got back from a walk to the library and I promptly spilled an astonishing amount of yogurt. I’m going to attend to that now, and let you all have the floor to say anything else you think needs saying before we close. I’ll take the opportunity to thank you three for your time and thoughtfulness, and I look forward to drawing on your insights again in the future (which I plan on doing). Again, thanks so much.
SL: I just have to note that we never addressed the a capella music.
LAP: Yes, Scott, when I mentioned you keeping that “open” in your comments on becoming more queer or differently queer, was just that I appreciate that you continue to highlight the dynamic and non-static nature of identity. Becoming more queer or differently queer in that identity of becoming is certainly not the same thing as saying sexuality is malleable and to be manipulated by an ideology!
LAP: Yes—hell is frozen solid, while the beatific vision and many eastern views on theosis, is ever growing, ever moving closer to God for all eternity, unending increasing of intensity of love.
I know we’re supposed to stop commenting now…
SL: Yes! Which is why mysticism is fundamentally queer. It is inherently boundary-blurring.
LAP: Maybe that should be the next conversation: queerness of the mystical tradition! (or maybe you already had that conversation and I need to go look at the blog!)
SAL: I just threw glitter in the air, which is my way of saying yes.
JTB: I think Scott’s negotiation of the mutability issue is really key…and (full circle) gets to why I don’t want to dismiss out of hand someone’s claim to be—I can’t bring myself to say “ex-gay” but maybe post-gay-straight (?)—because, it’s just too complicated. There’s more to sexuality than these binaries and there’s more to identity than sexuality and there’s just more to human experience…
And, I have a Turett’s like impulse to finish with shouting, “cyborgs!”
CJD: Aaand that, Lisa Powell, is how you have an online roundtable.
SL: So I can list this on my CV?
CJD: At the top.
LAP: It sure is nice to end an online discussion with everyone jubilating together in harmony, with glitter!
Again, thanks so much for reading. Follow the tumblr! Join us on twitter! etc.