A Carefully Packed Carry-On

Someone recently forwarded me a link to a blog by Matthew David Morris titled “What It’s Like to Be A Gay Christian.”   As someone who, in my better moments, considers myself aligned with those same identity markers, I was interested to hear this author’s reflections and see if they matched my own experiences. What I read, however, surprised me because it turned out that this author was more interested in refuting the claim that there was anything noteworthy about being a gay Christian.

Morris writes, “I’m also not actively processing my Christian faith through a gay lens. That is, not until a straight person reminds me that I’m a gay Christian.” I think I get what Morris is trying to do in his post by showing readers that his faith is not summed up by his sexuality. He writes that there are deeper questions that guide his faith that have nothing to do with sexuality.

On many levels I say a deep and profound “yes” to these assertions. I, too, recognize that my sexuality is not the totality of my being. But for Morris to deny that he is processing his faith through a “gay lens” seems, first of all, like a disservice to himself and, secondly, like a refusal to recognize the way his own social location inescapably informs his faith.

First, to deny one’s self the ability to process faith through the lens of one’s own experiences of sexuality means missing out on the rich resources that experience can bring in shaping ideas about faith. I will never forget the night I first “came out” and my mentor told me that he was, in some ways, envious of me. He said he recognized that I would be able to understand God in ways that he, as a straight, white male, never could. At first, I did not understand what he meant. I thought he was trying to say that my attraction to other men would give me a deeper understanding of what it meant to “love Jesus.” While this might be an interesting dynamic to think about for gay Christians, I think over time I have come to understand that what he was trying to say was that the process of understanding God is fundamentally different when it is undertaken from a social location outside the dominant notions of society. The “gay lens” that Morris works so hard to deny has been an invaluable resource for helping me understand what it means for the work of God to function liberatively in the world.

Second, the notion that Morris (or anyone for that matter) could escape the various lenses of identity that he claims is an absurd notion. There is no theology that is completely free of contextuality. To claim otherwise is to ignore the realities of how ideologies function within our various communities. Liberation models of theology teach us at all times to ask whose interests are being served by the theologies that are espoused, even when they are our own.

The last few years, I have had the honor of learning from a professor who insists on recognizing that all people have baggage and that the point is not to get rid of our baggage but to become aware of it, to own it. Every once in awhile we need to unpack our baggage and figure out what still fits, what doesn’t, and what things have crept in along the way that we might not be aware of. With this metaphor in mind, I would want to challenge Morris to check his own baggage. Not only does he need to do the work of realizing it is there, but he should also learn to appreciate the resources it can provide him and make it his own.

In the end, a carefully packed carry-on seems preferable to the weight of the often unacknowledged baggage we inevitably bring with us on the journey of life.

Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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3 thoughts on “A Carefully Packed Carry-On

  1. Mark, I found this piece quite powerful, especially your idea that “the process of understanding God is fundamentally different when it is undertaken from a social location outside the dominant notions of society.” This concept certainly applies to religious people with LGBTQ identities—and I can see it extending even further, to people who in all sorts of ways find themselves located outside the centers of power, be it due to race, socioeconomic circumstances, gender, and more. We all too often forget to unpack our “baggage,” whether it’s through failing to recognize our privileges or, as Morris seems to do, refusing to realize our positionality. Our theology is inevitably colored by our life experiences and identities, consciously or not, and it is an important issue to bring to any religious dialogue.

  2. I think the metaphor of a ‘lens’ is a tricky one. Morris seems to mean something like this: if gayness were a ‘lens,’ it would prohibit him from making general claims about Christianity that do not explicitly refer to his gayness. He instead wants to pose general questions; and his examples concern prayer, loving others, Scripture, etc.

    Now I would simply point out that you have framed your arguments in terms that are, if anything, MORE general and context-free than Morris. To take one example, you say, ‘the notion that Morris (or anyone for that matter) could escape the various lenses of identity that he claims is an absurd notion.’ (The same applies to your claims about ‘experience’).

    This is a claim about ‘identity’ in general that you apply to all people regardless of their context. That is, it is exactly the kind of claim that Morris wants to make! Yours differ only in content, not in their universal, context-free ambitions.

    And I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing; indeed, I find it hard to see how we can communicate with others without being able to frame statements in general terms. This does not mean we can deny our contexts, experiences, or interests, but it does mean we can seek the (always only relative) transcendence of these that dialogue and social life makes possible.

    In any case, I don’t think it’s fair to criticize Morris for wanting to make general claims when you want to do the same thing!

  3. Mark, I appreciate your critical reflection on Morris’ blog and the thoughts on the nature of personal engagement with religion that it inspired you to expound on. The baggage metaphor is often used to highlight the negative implications of holding on to past experiences; however, you clarify that we all have baggage and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Denying the many things that inform our religious faith shortchanges us as individuals and limits our ability to contribute meaningfully to our communal experiences as it prevents us from bringing our full selves to the table. In addition to sexual orientation, which is the subject of the Morris blog, this is also true of race, gender, class and other areas of social identity. I think it’s important to point out that even within those broad categories each individual’s “baggage” may be very different and the way they use that baggage as a “lens” to engage their faith may be even more varied. I find that it is easier for people to embrace diversity in spaces that are radically different than their own everyday experiences, such as interfaith or international experiences, than it is for them to acknowledge their own uniqueness and that of those with whom they maintain close relationship.

    I certainly understand the point that Morris is making–being “different” can get old, especially when you are constantly identified and engaged from the perspective of that one segment of your identity as if it is the driving force behind everything that you do. However, I did find it interesting that he used the term “unpacking” to explain the conversation about his Christian faith that he was prepared to have, but with the expectation that the interplay between his sexual orientation and his faith would not be a part of that unpacking. Perhaps the issue for him was the fact that the conversation was framed in a way that targeted that one identity marker as opposed to recognizing the fullness and complexity of his humanity. I certainly understand that. Diversity, dialogue and community are all messy enterprises that require vulnerability, honesty and embracing the reality that healthy conflict can lead to understanding and growth.

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