Talking With vs. Talking About

Last November, Justin Lee and I were invited to Gordon College in Massachusetts to do a presentation like the one we gave at Pepperdine University a couple of years ago. Afterwards, some of the student organizers decided to create a blog to allow them to continue the conversations begun by our presentations, and invited me to write an introductory post. Here’s what I had to say:

Whenever I’m invited to speak at a college campus, I think back to my experiences in my late teens and early twenties. What would I have wanted to hear from a talk like this back then? And, what do I wish my friends had heard?

I was in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship as an undergrad. Not surprisingly, given the audience, we had speakers talking about how to prepare for marriage and choose a good spouse, and about struggles like premarital sex, pornography, etc. When these topics were discussed, they spoke in the first person plural, as questions we were interested in, or some of us struggled with.

But when homosexuality was addressed at all, discussion tended to shift to the third person: what should we Christians say about them?

Although these talks were often addressed to several hundred students at a time, the speakers didn’t acknowledge that homosexuality directly affected some members of the audience. Instead, it was treated as an issue “out there” in the world that the Church has to deal with.

To use Martin Buber’s language, when marriage, pre-marital sex, lust, pornography, etc. were addressed, the speaker framed the issue as an I-Thou relationship: this is a question where I can relate to you, the person I’m talking about. But when homosexuality came up, the discussion was framed in terms of an I-It relationship. Or, to use different terms, the first kind of conversation treated people who were thinking about marriage or struggling with sexual temptations or heterosexual sin as subjects to be addressed personally. But conversations about homosexual temptation or homosexual sin treated LGBT persons as objects to be talked about.

That last paragraph probably makes me sound too much like a philosopher. So let me try to put it in slightly more human terms: speakers spoke to my friends’ struggles the way they would talk to a group of friends with a personal investment in the question they were addressing. But they talked about my struggles the way you’d talk about a stranger.

Unfortunately, as I think back to the various times I’ve heard Christian leaders talk about homosexuality over the years, it’s usually felt more like I’m a fetal pig getting dissected in high school biology class, with my organs neatly cut out and lying on the table, and less like I’m being invited to a friendly conversation about my future.

This makes a big difference to me as an audience member. If the speaker addresses the audience in a way that casts me as an outsider to the conversation, who can only listen as other people decide what they are going to do about me, then I feel little investment in whatever conclusions the speaker reaches.

Sexuality is an important topic for Christians. Genesis tells us that God created human beings in His image, and created us male and female. Sexual sin is used as an image of human infidelity to God in both the Old and New Testaments. On the other hand, marital love is used as an image of God’s faithful love for His people in both the Old and New Testaments.

American Christians, however, live in a culture which often treats sexual intimacy very casually. Movies, music, television, and many of our peers tell us that sex can be treated casually, as an experience to be freely enjoyed in the moment, but without the deep interpersonal and religious significance that the Christian tradition has invested it with.

This blog is an experiment.

It’s a little bit risky to write an introductory post on an experiment. I don’t know exactly what I’m endorsing. And given the diversity of perspectives represented, I expect I’ll disagree with some of what is said as the blog goes forward.

But I think that it is important for Christians like myself, who believe that God created marriage to join a man and a woman, to be willing to do more than just make abstract statements about our beliefs. We need to be willing to listen to and engage respectfully with those who struggle to understand or accept our beliefs.

I wish a discussion forum like this had existed when I was an undergrad. I believe that our conversation about LGBT issues today would be a lot more theologically sophisticated and pastorally relevant if we had begun this kind of listening and engagement twenty years ago.

Yes, there will be frustrations and growing pains. But I hope and pray that this conversation will bear good fruit. It is a real honor to be invited to help get the discussion started.

Ron BelgauRon Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion. He can be followed on Twitter: @RonBelgau.

[Cross-posted from Student Inqueery]

4 thoughts on “Talking With vs. Talking About

  1. fetal pigs don’t feel very much Loving Kindness. the common thread i’ve found in the teachings of jesus is that LK is measured by the recipient, not the giver.

    kudos on an excellent opening to a dialog. seriously.

  2. “Talking with” means that gays in traditional Christian contexts would have to be honest about themselves. I can’t foresee that happening in large numbers. You can be as chaste and celibate as an angel but just the fact that you are gay will forever put a divide between you and traditional Christians. I doubt LGBT people in those kinds of congregations would want to put themselves out there. It would probably help everyone if they did, but it’s just too hard for too many people.

  3. Pingback: Commonplace Holiness Blog

  4. Pingback: Notes for University of Dallas Talk | Spiritual Friendship

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