“How did you reconcile your sexuality with your Christian faith?”
This is a question I’ve been asked a lot this year, and it’s one I want to try to answer in this post. As you might imagine, this is a summary of a longer, more complex story.
It started with a lot of cognitive dissonance.
Traditionally, Christianity and homosexuality have been at odds. This means that when a person identifies with both, conflict usually results. Whether it’s internal conflict only or also conversations about belief and behaviour, this conflict is uncomfortable and it doesn’t go away. I can only speak authoritatively about my own experience, but chatting and reading have suggested to me that this is what it’s like for many people who identify as homosexual and Christian in various places and at various times.
When a person holds contradictory beliefs or behaves in a manner that contradicts a belief, we call this cognitive dissonance. It’s hard to live with the chaos and incongruity that result from cognitive dissonance, so we generally try to resolve it by bringing beliefs and behaviours into agreement with one another. For me, for many years, this meant blocking out my homosexuality because it was at odds with a firm commitment to conservative Christianity.
I’ve always thought deeply about things. Questions about the authority of the Bible, the plausibility of the resurrection and the way power operated in the Church dogged me for years from the time I was 12. Generally, however, I was (or was encouraged to be) satisfied with answers given by those who had the authority to teach God’s view on the matter — including on the topic of homosexuality.
So total was my self-deception (and I don’t think that’s too strong a term) that I repeatedly denounced homosexual activity as unchristian, and married a man. The whole time, I believed that I believed all I said and did.
A transformative encounter brought me to crisis point.
My whole life, even while I was married, I never stopped having crushes on women. (Unsurprising, really.) Normally I kept them a secret and they weren’t, to my knowledge, reciprocated. Then, at church one day, I met a woman who changed everything.
She too was married to a man — this despite her having been aware since her teens that she’s gay. At first we connected as friends, sharing our enjoyment of music and outdoor adventure. Before long, we shared our ‘struggles’ with same-sex attraction. For a while, this shared burden enabled us to compassionately urge one another towards faithfulness in our marriages. Finally, we admitted we’d fallen in love.
I will never cease to be amazed at the miracle of two hearts in the one place at the same time. To love someone and be loved by them in return is as mind-bending as any collapsed quantum probability. To experience no gap between head and heart gives life and health to body and brain. Loving this woman, letting her love me, was the truest thing I’d ever done. It also made me more sinful than I’d ever been, a liar and an adulteress. A ‘homosexual offender’.
And so it was that I found myself face to face with the cognitive dissonance I’d tried to bury under layers of obedient devotion.
The egg becomes the chicken; the chicken was once the egg.
Sure, I’d questioned things before I reached this crisis point, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was my love for a woman that catalysed my exploration of the academic literature about Christianity and homosexuality. I’m not ashamed of that fact.
Christians tend to disapprove of the influence emotions and experience have on belief, and they’ve been known to claim that there’s no good reason to change one’s mind other than conviction about what the Bible says.
I think studying the Bible can lead one further down the road to truth, but I think there are also other valid reasons to change your mind about something. In fact, I’d speculate that most of the time we don’t adopt new beliefs for purely biblical or academic reasons. One of the books I recommend below is written by a respected Christian ethicist who argues that true change of mind (literally, repentance) is sparked by transformative encounters with people. We humans are social and emotional, as well as logical, creatures.
My point is that it doesn’t matter what prompts the change — study, personal experience, a vision in a dream. The important thing is that we remain open to the questions and keep our assumptions from becoming clad in iron. Even the Bible is full of instances when life interrupts and sets a person’s thinking on a new and different course.
Sometimes the truth can set you free.
More than once, I’ve been on the receiving end of admonitions along the lines of, “You can’t change what the Bible says just because you want something to be true.” I agree: that lacks integrity.
In response, I offer this aphorism: “The fact that I’m thirsty doesn’t negate the existence of water.” It’s a line that’s stayed with me since I heard it in a sermon preached by Rev Dr John Dickson at the church I attended for 13 years. His point was different (because he does not endorse homosexual activity) but the idea applies here too: The fact that I want homosexuality and Christianity to gel doesn’t mean they don’t. Ask questions, seek answers, find out for yourself. Emboldened by my minister’s rhetoric, that’s what I set out to do.
I read a tall pile of books on Christianity, history, ethics, sex and so on, the most helpful of which are listed below. Somewhere along the way I came to the honest-to-God view that it’s OK to be Christian and gay. There’s no longer a gap between head and heart; the dissonance has reached a resolution.
And there it is: full disclosure about the process by which I reconciled my sexuality and my long-held faith. Several important postscripts will constitute the next instalments — but, for now, happy reading!
Scripture, Ethics and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships (2018) by Karen Keen.
If you read only one book on the topic, let it be this one. Karen Keen is an American scholar whose writing strikes the perfect balance between academic rigour and readability. Her approach is clear-eyed without lacking human warmth, and she addresses head-on the issues right at the heart of the apparent rift between the Church and an affirming stance on LGBTQIA+ people and relationships.
A Place At His Table: A Biblical Exploration of Faith, Sexuality and the Kingdom of God (2019) by Joel Hollier.
Joel’s personable communication style makes this an enjoyable as well as informative read. Anecdotes and illustrations abound, giving an accessible overview of the topic — including historical, psychological and textual insights — within an Australian context. Especially recommended for those sympathetic to an evangelical Christian worldview.
Faith Without Fear: Risky Choices Facing Contemporary Christians (2016) by Keith Mascord.
I can’t believe this book isn’t more widely known and read. Keith Mascord used be a Sydney Anglican minister and even lectured at Moore Theological College — that’s to say, he was deeply embedded in Australian conservative Christianity. His adeptness at and love for philosophy combine with his pastoral experience to offer an incisive yet charitable critique of current approaches to authority, truth and inclusion/exclusion.
Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach Between the Church and the LGBT Community (2014) by Kathy Baldock.
A textbook-length work constituting the most comprehensive treatment of the history, politics and theology surrounding this topic that I’ve encountered to date (James V. Brownson’s paradigmatic theological text notwithstanding). I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but the chapters I’ve spent time in have been so incredibly helpful. This is important.
Changing Our Mind (2016) by David P. Gushee.
Gushee’s stature within the world of Christian theology and ethics is enough to commend this book to anyone who takes the Bible seriously. Having said that, I consider this book’s most valuable contribution to be the considered emphasis he places on personal encounters that can change one’s perspective. Gushee provides Bible lovers with sound reasons to give weight to people’s stories.
Leaving Christian Fundamentalism and the Reconstruction of Identity (2017) by Josie McSkimming.
Josie McSkimming was once a member of what she now calls Christian fundamentalism in Sydney. This book is an adaptation of her doctoral thesis about stories of deconversion from that brand of faith. It’s not a light read, but it’s thorough and synthesises a lot of relevant material about approaches to the Bible — truth, authority, interpretation — that are central to why homosexuality has historically been demonised.