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queering God

Swarthmore isn’t doing anything wrong by Queering the Bible

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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.

Some thoughts on “Queering God” and traditional religion

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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.

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