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Some thoughts on “Queering God” and traditional religion

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

A seldom spectacle arose in Ben West parking lot on the afternoon of Jan. 29 to the delight of some and chagrin of many others – a conservative Christian group protesting on our campus. The demonstration seemed to be a mixture of prayer, protest and bagpipes. The latter, I must admit, did not help their cause. I do, however, want to consider the question of whence their indignation comes.

 

Neither I nor the protesters have very much knowledge of “Queering God,” or “Queering the Bible,” besides the title, so I am in poor position to critique the course. Nonetheless, these two words, “Queering God” seem to point to a program of Queer Theology, which many people of traditional faith might find blasphemous by applying to God a term that implies sexual activity that the Bible treats rather disfavorably. But why should some conservative Christians from who-knows-where take issue with a course taught in a small liberal arts college? I could ask why any of us would take issue with a misrepresentation of our own views. I, for example, considerable myself an ardent proponent of the Romanesque style. I completely understand if the cathedral at Bamberg may not enthuse others so thoroughly as it does myself, but to interpret my preference of barrel to rib vaults as an implicit endorsement of fascism would be ridiculous and offensive. Traditional Christians might find a “queering” of their deity equally outlandish, and even make them feel powerless when this interpretation comes from a place of prestige. To traditional Christians any reworking of the faith is, moreover, not only a misrepresentation but an attack on what is held most near and dear, namely their sense of the sacred. All the more so with a course that seems to propose a sexualization of God.

 

This is not the first provocatively titled religion course to be offered in our college. Take “Is God a White Supremacist?” for instance. I do not doubt that these courses present some valuable theological perspectives, but what are we telling students of traditional faith when a course so brazenly undertakes to handle, according to the fads of recent discourse, what some believers reserve for the deepest reverence? I doubt that a course called “Gender depictions of the Divine” would provoke so much ire and indignation as “Queering God.” Consider an intelligent prospective student brought up in and practicing Christianity in the American South, but hoping to expand her horizons and challenge herself at Swarthmore. What if the most she heard about Swarthmore recently was an article about a “Queering God” or “Is God a White Supremacist?” course that her family has recently discussed with contempt. Even if she may be open to consider new opinions about her lifelong faith, the self-presentation of this course does not help to diversify our college with experiences such as hers.

 

To offer a course in queer theology may be utterly inoffensive to the majority of the campus population, but there are also believers whose pious sensibility these courses offend to its very core. Ought we not take care for them as well? The answer is not to suppress the speech of secular (Quakers, forgive me) college professors. On the contrary, it is the academic endeavor to critically evaluate the import of the perspectives presented in every course. Nonetheless, a clickbait course title, which can be taken by believers as irreverent, may do more to perpetuate a sense among them that “this course intends to attack my faith,” than “this course is presenting new and interesting theories that might challenge, but can respectfully engage with my faith.”

 

When I briefly observed the protesters, they were praying the rosary. I, for one, believe that I am in no position to refuse the prayers of anyone. Nay, my spiritual economy will always enjoy a gratuitous deposit. And, however much I regret how these Christians voiced their dissent from the Swarthmore curriculum, prayer is a rather mild manner of resistance. On that note, God bless the protesters for having so great a sense of religious propriety so as to come out and demonstrate. And God bless the academic investigations pursued at Swarthmore.

God, privilege and thankfulness

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The hardest thing for me to grasp in my religious questioning, even today, is the idea of inferiority, smallness and lack of control. As I grew up, I would proudly hoist up my accomplishments with pride. My mother would remind me to say “Alhamdulillah,” or “Praise be to God,” after what I thought was a triumph. In fact, I knew I was supposed to say this, as it has been programmed into me since I was a child. There was a problem. A problem in sheer and intentional ignorance that I consistently feared to even think about. Why was the praise to God? It was my accomplishment. I stayed up. I worked. Why was I supposed to act like I had done nothing? It sounds selfish even writing this, but it was a matter of logic as much as ego. Oddly enough, it was Swarthmore, that made me realize why the praise for me personally is to God.

I am intrigued, I would say troubled, but this implies a sort of judgement that I have no right to pass, by the culture of entitlement that we live in. A culture where awards, credit, grades (more specifically grade inflation) and trophies are the norm (I am thankful for this last one as the YMCA allowed my unathletic self to proudly display a full trophy shelf). A lot of this may be due to our culture of independence: a culture that is, in reality, paradoxical. We clamor for independence yet need the public validation of our peers. This is why I drive around with my Swarthmore bumper sticker hoping someone will stop and tell me that Swarthmore is, indeed, a good school. But unfortunately this culture that I have allowed myself to live in hides me from fully realizing one idea — privilege.

This is one idea commonly, but not thoroughly, used in modern culture. You often hear that you should not waste food because there are children starving in the world, but this is used more as a half-hearted parenting technique than an attempt to grasp privilege. But Swarthmore has allowed me to explore this concept. Despite our ignorance of class issues, Swarthmore has forced me to accept privilege as an important reality. I, both as a student and a friend, am constantly forced to realize that the world has given me inherent advantages that have allowed me to me to achieve what I have. This was a moment of shameful realization for me. Who did I think I was? Why have I allowed myself to worship this culture of hyper self-awareness? Why do I wake up each morning trying to make the world “Remember the Name” when in reality it is my position in life that has been my greatest asset?

But recently, this has led me to a greater realization. This is why for me, Praise is to God. God in Islam is the assigner of roles, or otherwise the assigner of privilege. Why I have the role I have is a question of great mystery for me. Why God can let millions suffer through starvation, homelessness, and hate I do not know and may never understand. However, I do know that my position on earth cannot be about me. It has to be about an “us.” I have to see my position not as a fortunate occurrence but rather a responsibility, as a resource not simply for my future but for others’, the less privileged but also the more privileged. If this is in the form of a smile, I can Alhamdulillah do this. If it something greater, I must try.

No common grief in “Levels of Life”

in Campus Journal/Columns/The Scrivener by

In 2011, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for “The Sense of an Ending.”  It was the first novel he had published since his wife’s death. Only 150 pages long, it is an exercise in brevity and restraint. In part one, the narrator, Tony, retired and unmarried, recounts a singular event in his past: the suicide of his estranged friend Adrian. Together with two other boys, they had made up a group of precocious primary-school youths. Of the four, Adrian was marked by his intellectualism, and when they graduated, Tony went to Bristol, Adrian to Cambridge. They exchanged correspondence and met intermittently, until Tony lost a girlfriend, Veronica, to Adrian in his final year of university. Several months later, he was notified of Adrian’s suicide. In the novel’s second half, set in the present-day, Tony receives a letter informing him that Veronica’s mother has bequeathed to him a sum of money and several letters, leading him to contact Veronica and reflect on his memory of the events. The book is beautifully constructed, but cold. What humor there is is coolly calculated, and the ending is enigmatic, fatalistic in the way frame narratives so often are. Even at its lightest moments the novel hums with a kind of futility.

Barnes’s latest book, “Levels of Life,” something of a meditation on grief in three parts, perhaps accounts for his last novel’s fatalism. A reflection on the loss, or rather, death, of Barnes’ spouse, the book is a sobering read, one leavened slightly by the first two buoyant segments; Barnes himself does not appear until part three. Part one, “The Sins of Height,” is a panoramic look at the 19th century fascination with ballooning and a whirlwind sampling of the dilettantes the pursuit attracted. Of particular interest here is Felix Tournachon, rechristened Tournadar, and then simply Nadar, the founder of aerial photography and a neglected pioneer whose innovations would ultimate over a century later in the astronaut William Anders’s photographic capture of the “Earthrise.” Part two, “On the Level,” imagines a courtship between two characters who appear in section one, Sarah Bernhardt, French actress, and Fred Burnaby, English sergeant, then colonel, finally a major who takes a Madhi’s spear to the neck. The sergeant considers himself a tether-less bohemian, but falls for Sarah; it is Sarah who proves the real bohemian and Fred must admit that, “in life, you might be a bohemian and an adventurer, but you also sought a pattern, an arrangement to help you through, even if — even as — you kicked against it.” He marries an English girl and is killed in the service of his Queen. Finally, in part three, “The Loss of Depth,” we move, or perhaps descend, from the saccharine past to the sobering present; Barnes appears and speaks candidly of his grief.

With large margins and a generous number of paragraph breaks, the book proceeds at a brisk clip. The first two narratives are separated into crisp paragraphs that, under no obligation to plumb the depths of their subjects, pop with the poetic license afforded by summary and breadth. While poignant, they amount to literary-historical bon mots, mood pieces that resonate metaphorically throughout the text. They are a joy to read, but we do so with trepidation: their summary tone makes clear that this is not a book about ballooning or the courtship of a French actress, and in section three, these featherweight poetics give way to paragraphs like this:

“For many years I would occasionally think of an account I read by a woman novelist about the death of her older husband. Amid her grief she admitted there was a small inner voice of truth murmuring to her, “I’m free.” I remembered this when my own time came…but no such voice was heard, no such words. One grief throws no light on another.”

“The Loss of Depth” comprises a number of observations of this sort: on death’s euphemisms (‘“I’m sorry to hear your wife has passed’ (as in ‘passed water’?‘passed blood’?)”), the fallacy that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the nature of grief now that we’ve killed God, and with him, the afterlife. For the most part, these tight paragraphs float free of any petty ballast, buoyed by concision and a certain poetic “rightness.” Some, though, are heavier-than-air vessels, kept aloft only by the weight of Barnes’s project, as when his atheism surfaces, and the tone shifts from melancholic to nihilistically cantankerous, even petulant. Still, in a sense, even the book’s failings are in keeping with his project. If no grief sheds light on another, this holds true for “Levels of Life.” Barnes can tell us of his sudden new-found love for the Opera, his realization that all the shouting is supremely natural, an excision of life’s petty formalities, and we can empathize with this escape from pain into the unreal, but we can’t really know it. No matter how articulate he is, and Barnes is nothing if not articulate, as readers, we always feel one step removed. Not because we haven’t suffered ourselves; I imagine many readers have weathered similar, perhaps the very same, life-inverting tragedies. What Barnes demonstrates is the impossibility of being united by a common grief; the very idea that grief could be “common!” At its best and worst, “Levels of Life,” like all our expressions of grief, is no more than a collection of words. It is a truly sad book for just this reason, because Barnes so nearly communicates the incommunicable grief of tragedy, a grief that neither kills you, nor makes you stronger, a grief that simply leaves you less then you were. It must be said though, that he does communicate the possibility of something after. Like Adrian, Barnes entertained the one truly serious philosophical problem. Thankfully, unlike Adrian, Barnes has chosen life, and, I hope, to continue to write for some time to come.

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