“The demand for an identity, and the injunction to break that identity, both feel, in the same way, abusive.” — Michel Foucault.
From 1979 to 2000 John Shelby Spong was Bishop of Newark in the Episcopal Church. Spong denied that Jesus is the sole savior of humankind and rejected the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. Rubbishing traditional modes of belief in God’s existence, he once claimed that “theism, as a way of defining God, is dead.” Spong was a noted social liberal who affirmed the equal legitimacy of homosexual relationships, though he was not himself gay.
In 2003, Gene Robinson, who is gay, was consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson’s consecration precipitated a schism in the Episcopal Church. Why, we might ask, was it Robinson’s consecration, and not Spong’s, that precipitated a schism?
Take another case: In Minnesota last year Catholic school teacher Kristen Ostendorf was allegedly asked to resign after she came out to her colleagues as a lesbian. After refusing to resign, Ostendorf was fired for an “unspecified reason.” Ostendorf’s case followed fast on the heels of the resignation of Bill Hudson—President of another Minnesota Catholic school—after he admitted to being in a same-sex relationship. Elsewhere in Minnesota, at least one Catholic parish appears to be celebrating non-Christian rituals, blessing stones which are claimed to be the bones of the “Earth Mother.” I don’t want to start a discussion about the politics of liturgical inculturation. But its worth asking why Catholic authorities in Minnesota appear much more anxious to remove homosexuals from positions of influence than priests who practice what seems to be a form of paganism (since I cannot imagine that the Archdiocese is keen on either).
Cases like these can be multiplied ad nauseam. It would be easy to posit simple hypocrisy as the explanation. Too easy, in fact. Something more insidious and complex is at play.
In an oft-quoted passage from The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault famously outlined how the concept of the homosexual person came into being in the late nineteenth-century:
As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage … Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle … It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature … Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.
Some Christians have recently been having a field day with Foucault-esque ideas. “A-ha!,” the argument runs, “if homosexuality only ‘appeared’ in the 1870s, then we can make it disappear now.”
Yet Foucault’s point in The History of Sexuality is not just about homosexuals, or even “heterosexuals.” It is an observation about the way we (all of us) think in the modern West.
In the nineteenth century, the newly-birthed discipline of psychology wedded the deep urge to “confess” about the self to scientific discourse developed for pursuing allegedly objective truth. Thus, questions about sex—questions which have always interested humankind—were posed in a new form. In Foucault’s words, not only do we “demand that sex speak the truth,” that it confess its secrets. Modern Westerners go further, demanding that sex “tell us our truth … the deeply buried truth of that truth about ourselves which we think we possess in our immediate consciousness.” In other words, from the late nineteenth-century onward, the question of sex ceased to be a question and became the question. Questions about our “sexuality” have become interchangeable with the question, “who are we?”
This is why the cases I described above cannot be written off as mere hypocrisies. Hypocrisy would mean that churches which hold to a traditional sexual ethic still see creedal orthodoxy as being of at least equal importance to sexual ethics, yet fail to practice what they preach. But what if twenty-first-century conservative Christianity in fact preaches something else, something very different from historic Christian orthodoxy? What if the same process Foucault describes as having transformed the modern self has also transformed many modern churches (which are, after all, composed of selves)? What if churches, too, have begun to look to sex in order to answer the question, “who are we as a church?” What if, worst of all, those churches don’t even realize the transformation they have undergone, and think that, because the external behavioral precepts are the same in both systems of thought, the gospel of sexual conservatism they preach simply is historic Christian orthodoxy?
If this happened, we would expect to see something very much like the situation outlined above—discussions within the churches about sexuality would move front and center while discussions about, say, the Resurrection or the Virgin Birth (even where these are widely denied and debated, as they have been during the twentieth century) would fade into the background. Deciphering the truth about “Man” and about our own sexualities would become more urgent than deciphering the truth about God.
Rather than hypocrisy, therefore, it is more accurate to describe the cases above as examples of conservatives trying to be faithful to a set of false first principles. When dissent from beliefs about sex is more of an issue than dissent from beliefs about the nature of God, this is an obvious sign that beliefs about sex have replaced beliefs about God as the focal point of a particular church’s corporate identity.
The problem with the conservative project (in its various guises) to break down the identities of gay people and remake them in the image of straight, cookie-cutter saints, is not so much its undeniably repressive, cult-like quality. The problem is that the conservative is just as deeply embedded within the same regime of discourse that he positions himself as an external critic of. Even the way the critique is posed demonstrates this, for what is the panicked claim that we must urgently set about dismantling our modern idea of sexuality in order to uncover all the truths hidden underneath, if not simply another attempt to seek in the question of sex an answer to the question, “who are we?” Even the conservative attempt to offer a solution to the problem turns out to be another instance of the same problem.
This does not mean that contemporary Christianity must remain hopelessly trapped inside this discursive circle. The error I am criticizing lies not so much in the continuous slew of false solutions to the “problem” of homosexuality but in the continual re-positing of the question of homosexuality specifically—and sexuality more broadly—as if everyone must agree that this question is the question to be answered. It is the question of homosexuality itself, and the continual interrogation of the “identities” of sexual minorities that accompanies it, which constitutes the real problem.
There is a beautiful phrase in the documents of the Second Vatican Council that tells us: “Christ fully reveals man to himself.” And it is true, as far as it goes. Yet the problem with much contemporary theologizing is that in fact it doesn’t go any further. It is the revelation of God—not human nature—which constitutes the overriding purpose for the incarnation. The conservative attempt to appropriate Foucault to deconstruct LGBTQ identities is another example of what I call “anthropological drift” among traditional Christians—a drift marked by an obsession with correctly comprehending, describing, and minutely categorizing “human nature,” a subtle replacement of theology (“discourse about God”) with “theological anthropology.” Yet the question Jesus addresses to us is “who do you say that I am?,” and not “who do you say that you are?”
Aaron Taylor is a Ph.D. student in Ethics at Boston College. He previously studied at the Universities of London and Oxford, and worked for a London-based research institute dedicated to raising the quality of thinking about public policy in civil society.
(Photo credit: Michel Foucault by Thierry Ehrmann)