It may be a week or two late, but we are pleased to offer the third installment of our interview series. Previously we heard from Tripp York, and Wesley Hill. This week’s interview is a bit different. Instead of asking a series of questions, we asked Jen to give us her thoughts on anything related to topics of faith and sexuality. And, give us some thoughts she did! Here are five steps in her journey to new understandings about both.
Jen Thweatt-Bates holds a B.A. in English Literature from Harding University, an M.A. in Theology from Abilene Christian University, and a Ph.D. in Theology and Science from Princeton Theological Seminary. She has experience as a seminary professor, author, mama, resident alien, a G.R.I.T.S. (Girl Raised in the South), an un-domestic-ated goddess, and, of course, a cyborg. Check out her book Cyborg Selves: A Theological Anthropology of the Posthuman.
So Jen, tell us something about faith and sexuality.
Faith and sexuality. Just the phrase itself suggests that we can/should assume that God has a specific intent for the expression of human sexuality. It’s that assumption that lies at the heart of the most repressive Christian convictions about sexual morality—and it’s that assumption that was the key for me in unraveling all of that.
First baby step: Learning to Love My Sexy Body
I grew up absorbing the lessons of “the cult of purity” that gets pushed so hard in conservative youth groups. You know, promise rings and stuff. Questions like, “what’s a more dangerous temptation, holding hands or backrubs? What about friendly tickling?” I sat in a room and answered those questions earnestly—all the while, like many others I suspect—deeply involved in a relationship whose physicality would have stunned those well-meaning adults. I was such a good girl in so many ways…no one, I think, including me, imagined that such a good girl, quick with all the right answers, was also a sexual being to her core and was learning the hard way that this was not something so easily locked away under an imaginary chastity belt and symbolized with a promise ring to Jesus.
So my first tiny baby step out of all of this was coming to acknowledgment the reality of my own body. That was a very long learning curve and truly, didn’t finish until years and years later, when I realized I’d never truly loved my body until pregnancy and the experience of birthing my first daughter. (And now, I suppose, I’m learning to love my post-partum body, which my spouse tells me is still very sexy, so I’m not really finished at all. But I digress.)
Second baby step: Identifying the Misfit
Anyway: the second baby step, for me, was realizing how very much I didn’t fit my church’s definition of a woman. Now, I’m a straight married woman with two kids—and *I* don’t fit? What the hell is wrong with me—or with that? But in a church that has defined preaching and theologizing and teaching as “masculine” activities—as if something about male anatomy is involved in executing these things properly—I don’t fit. I’m a woman who does man things.
So in terms of the categories of gender operating here, I’m “queer.” I haven’t used that word until recently to describe myself—and I used it with some trepidation and gut-checked it with some trusted friends—not because I’m afraid of how straight people will hear that claim but because I was nervous that LGBTQ people might hear it as a hijacking of their perspective, which I very much don’t intend. I don’t know what it feels like to be gay or lesbian or transgender, and I can’t speak to that and don’t mean to; I’m straight and cisgender and at the same time, in my church context, queer. Because of the narrowness and frank falseness of the gender categories at work there.
Third baby step: Questioning the Arbitrariness of God
In grad school for my MA in theology I finally had the time and space to dig into some of the questions about who I believed God to be. And one of those questions that turns out to be key for this discussion is, why is sin, sin? Or to put it another way, what makes something a sin? Just because “God says so” somewhere in the biblical text? I found that this answer was unsatisfactory in its arbitrariness—not to mention that there are plenty of things, as we know, in the Bible called sins or even abominations that we pay absolutely no attention to, so again—what makes some of these things salient and some irrelevant? How are making these distinctions between what still counts as sin and what doesn’t? I wrestled with this for some time, and even ended up writing a thesis on sin and evil, and came out of that process with the conviction that what makes sin a sin is that it harms people—and God is concerned to call out as sin those actions that wound others, because God is love. That’s not novel or anything, but it does mean that sin is sin not *just* because “God says” but assumes that God says something is sin for a reason, and that reason is love of humanity.
Applied to questions of the expression of human sexuality, of course, then this means sexual sin is something that harms others. And for awhile, being basically totally ignorant, I held on to the possibility that, well, same-sex relationships and sexual expressions must be sin because they are somehow harmful to people. Even if I couldn’t identify precisely how they were harmful—I thought there must be some way that they were. Psychologically or something.
Baby step 4: Science is Real
But this crumbled pretty quickly. I’d never held to an evangelical version of the RC stance on sex for procreation only, and thanks to my slow but ongoing process of learning to love my body and appreciate that God also loves material creation, the pleasure of sex seemed to me to be part of God’s intent for human sexuality. So, that was out as a possibility of identifying concrete harm. And I was quickly disabused of the notion that in gay sex someone was having pleasure at the expense of the other—thanks to a remedial lesson in male anatomy in a dinner conversation with a friend. So, that was out. I was left with this fuzzy notion of possible psychological harm, but there were two problems with that. First, as I was finally getting to know that I knew LGBTQ people, they certainly didn’t feel that way about their relationships—of course, I could contend that they were delusional, but that seemed a stretch, especially since what I could see of their relationships seemed often a bit more stable and healthy than my own at times. Second, the notion of psychological harm depended on a complementarian view of gender that I’d already given up, because it didn’t even fit me. And so the final move for me was being willing to grant that basic biology and the facts on the ground didn’t support this contention that somehow being LGBTQ was intrinsically harmful to people.
All of this is probably very familiar as an ally-coming-out narrative. It’s not that exciting. If it were a novel it wouldn’t have a plot (also my problem with writing novels, alas).
Step 5: Turning Cyborg
And, all of this seems to have been covertly at work as I worked my way toward a dissertation topic, researched and wrote and defended and published. The image of the cyborg is an image of hybridity, a constantly moving and shifting and realigning merger of the biological and mechanical. It’s a way, in short, to think about the impermanence and permeability of the boundaries of our categories—human and machine but also human and animal, and also male and female. These pure binaries descriptively miss so much about material reality that they become empirically false. And we spend a lot of time maintaining selective blindness to certain bits of material reality in order to preserve the sanctity of these categories—when, of course, what God is really calling us to do is live in the world that God actually created for us, a world that these pure categories don’t describe very well at all. Men aren’t actually “masculine” in the narrow way that our culture, including our churches which on the topic of gender are absolutely *not* countercultural, defines it and neither are women “feminine.” We’re just more complicated than that. The first step is admitting that. And the second step is to stop assuming that God wants you to somehow reduce complicated self, and other people’s complicatedness, to the simplicity of these categories that don’t describe God’s real creation.
It’s a beautiful and beautifully complex world we’ve been given. Beautiful and complex creatures live in it. We spurn that gift, rather ungratefully, when we turn our backs on reality in favor of a 1950’s cartoon version that lives only in our collectively warped imagination. And worse, we hurt people: by telling them repeatedly that God can’t love them until they become something else, someone other than who they are. And that, remember, is my basic definition of sin. There’s a lot to repent of, but embracing reality and giving thanks to God for this beautiful and complex world isn’t it. It’s the opposite.