On Monday, Jan. 29, the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) led a protest objecting to one of the college’s tentative courses for next fall called “Queering the Bible.” According to its course description, the class will use “methods of queer and trans theoretical approaches” and will “destabilize long held assumptions about what the bible – and religion – says about gender and sexuality.” Protesters stood outside the Benjamin West Entrance holding signs that read, “Swarthmore College: STOP attacking God,” “Defamation is not free speech,” I’m Catholic, STOP Attacking my Faith,” and other similar slogans urging the college to cancel the course. One man protesting even said, “It’s worse than saying two plus two equals five. It’s an error, and it’s blasphemous.” In addition to the protest on Monday, TFP also created a petition with a goal of 20,000 supporters to cancel the course and asks, “Why is God and the Bible singled out for derision by a college that prides itself on so-called tolerance and inclusion? As of right now, more than 14,000 people have pledged their support to the petition. The course also made headlines mostly in right-wing news sources such as Fox News, the Washington Times, and the Daily Caller. Not surprisingly, most people responded disapprovingly. In the midst of all this opposition, however, I (and I am politically conservative and a devout Christian) see no valid reason to disapprove of the course. I don’t think the course is an attack to the Christian faith or to God, and I don’t believe the college is singling out God and the Bible.
One of the men protesting on Monday compared the course to an incorrect math problem. Just like how two plus two equals five is incorrect, so is thinking of the Christian god as anything other than the traditional masculine figure. “It’s error, and it’s blasphemous,” he said. But you can’t approach mathematics the same way you would approach religion. There are ways to prove math right or wrong, but you can’t prove religious beliefs to be true or false. Religious beliefs are just that – beliefs. Religion is inherently based on a faith about some truth that no one can prove or disprove. If we could somehow prove our religious convictions true, then our faith would have no value. Whether they realize it or not, the people protesting “Queering the Bible” have such a great passion in their religion because they believe it without knowing the absolute truth – that is the whole essence of faith. And if we’re talking biblically, humankind will never be able to know the absolute truth about God who is larger than Scripture and unfathomable by our limited and puny understanding.
This might be a little philosophically frustrating, but the beauty in our inability to comprehend God is that it makes it impossible for anyone’s interpretation of God to be right or wrong. Perhaps the traditional interpretations of gender and sexuality in the Bible are true, or maybe the truth lies within more fluid and flexible interpretations of gender and sexuality. Still, maybe the truth has room for both the traditional and the queer. My point is that we’ll never know, and because we’ll never know, it doesn’t hurt anybody – certainly not God – to study and explore the possibilities.
Still, others oppose the course because they believe that the college is purposefully singling out Christianity for what some would call a “left-wing” agenda, but I don’t think Dr. Gwynn Kessler, the professor who will be teaching the course, willingly excludes other religions in her work. If Dr. Kessler were an expert in all major religions but only analyzed Christian texts in the context of gender and sexuality, then I would be more willing to believe that the class singles out the religion. That is how someone would “single out” anything – if someone has the means to choose all but only chooses one. However, that’s not the case for Dr. Kessler. She received her Ph.D. in Rabbinics with a specialization in midrash and focuses her research on rabbinic constructions of gender and identity, so it makes sense that her class focuses on the Bible with an emphasis on gender and sexuality. Moreover one of Bible’s original languages is Hebrew and gender and sexuality studies is a crucial part of her work. Dr. Kessler is not excluding anybody or any religion; she is inclusive in her best capacity by teaching only that which she knows well. Besides, the college offers another similar course called “Gender, Sexuality, and the Body in Islamic Discourses,” which studies the roles of gender and sexuality in the Islamic faith. “Queering God: Feminist and Queer Theology” is another course that analyzes gender and sexuality in both Jewish and Christian texts. So, I fail to see how Swarthmore singles out Christianity when the college literally has multiple courses about gender and sexuality in different religions. It is simply untrue.
Protesters and petitioners believe that through “Queering the Bible,” the college is disrespecting and blaspheming Christianity and their God because it teaches something erroneous and singles out the Christian and Jewish God. None of these are true. It’s impossible to know God fully and consequently the correctness of religious beliefs. The only reason left I can think of why people would be offended with the course is because it simply disagrees with their own beliefs and values. I understand how that could be. For many, including myself, the Bible and religion is at the core of our identity and purpose. Any change to our religious values and beliefs, no matter how small, will dramatically alter the perceptions of ourselves and the world around us. I admit, it’s scary to be introduced to such a change, so scary that people often find offense to a belief solely because it’s different; people who are scared translate differences to attacks and offenses. That’s why “Queering the Bible” is so important, not just in an academic sense but more importantly as an opportunity for personal growth. I think if everyone were to challenge themselves to truly understand and appreciate differing interpretations and viewpoints about literally anything, we could learn to disagree without angrily getting caught up in the tiny details of difference.
I know it’s easier said than done, and inevitably many will choose to the easy path of simply staying offended. Still, simple offense is not a valid justification for the course to be removed. Unless “Queering the Bible” actually breaks moral principles like truth and fairness — and it doesn’t — I stand with the college and with Dr. Kessler fully.