As a gay man and a person of faith, I have occupied a territory for which Kulturkampf would serve an apt label. Let us set aside the term’s origin (a German chancellor’s efforts to subject the church to state controls) (Spahn, 1910). This loanword – lately, reinterpreted as “culture war” in the pop cultural oeuvre – usually describes a perceived clash of orthodox and progressive views of morality (Hunter, 1991, p. 368); set this aside, also.
Examine, instead, the language used here – “culture war”. “War” implies one will be the clear victor, the other a necessary casualty. The common use, then, of this term to demonstrate differences in the values and practices of gay and Christian identities takes the shape of activist rhetoric (Williams, 1997) and sets both parties, irreconcilably, at odds. The language we use to describe our differences precludes mutual understanding; it is certainly not a language of reconciliation.
Assuming a hermeneutic model that presumes understanding is linguistically mediated and the result of consensus in conversation (Gadamer, 1994), I would like to re-imagine Kulturkampf to allow for a gentler conclusion as I shape a deeper examination of this cultural divide. I suggest we adopt the literal translation: culture struggle. The word “struggle”, more so than “war”, identifies the individual within the mêlée. If conversation is understanding, surely it begins with the individual.
So, through an anecdotal lens, the story of my individual experience will achieve the dual result of highlighting a current, critical issue and describing how this issue (itself, an effect of cultural identity and practice) has shaped my own experience of faith.
Language as part of a cultural system (Duranti, 1997, pp. 23-50) becomes a palpable data for assessing the practice of culture. My story begins in the uncomfortable chasm between two languages, two practices: gay and Christian. These coexisting cultural modes, at points in my story, have formed a dialectic of alienation, a dualistic split of body from spirit. My spiritual self was “for God”, my embodied self “for gay.”
In my individual experience of faith, this disjunction initially resulted in a kind of inverse docetism: my embodied self easily calculable as a series of urges – but my spiritual self undermined – a sham. Bearing testament to the power of language, the Word, transmuted through Christian cultural practice, for me, became words of spiritual estrangement. And, yet, “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14, Aramaic Bible in Plain English); is there a place for the gay Christian to be welcomed in a community of faith whose language acknowledges the embodied self just as it acknowledges the embodied Christ?
Before continuing with a demonstration of how the specific language of each culture has reinforced this disjunction of selves, it will be useful to arrive at the issue at hand. I put forward that the language of Christian identity, Christian descriptive language toward same-sex orientation, and the language of gay identity contribute to an essential schism that prevents wholeheartedness for those who identify as both gay and Christian. In this sense, I am using wholehearted to indicate an individual’s integration along certain dimensions: “the sociohistorical, the embodied, the engaging, and the spiritual” (Kavar, 2012, p. 16).
I want to stress that the following descriptions of language are anecdotal and rely on my own early experiences as a gay Christian from inside a Third Wave Christian culture. Further, this is a not a commentary on the development of faith from within any one denomination or movement, but a general examination of the experience of language. This examination does not presume to implicate any one doctrinal structure or culture of faith. Instead, I aim to provide a series of generative observations that bring to light the role of language as it prohibits an integrative spiritual approach encompassing the embodied and spiritual selves.
However, I do not want to diminish the importance of story as a mechanism for blending experiential and empirical perspectives in pursuit of a broader conversation. In the experiential qualities of story, we provide one half of an exchange, we insert a new meaning into the recursive pattern of language as it “becomes a metaphor of reality”. Then, as “reality becomes a metaphor of language”, we exchange meaning – constructing a new reality (Halliday, 1978, p. 191). In a discussion of language that would deny individual wholeheartedness, the personal experience must have some place in the co-construction of reality.
Now, about language and the Christian identity, even the label itself – as mediated by culture-bound consensuses – often presumes an orientation: moral, sexual, or otherwise. In conversational use, “Christian” has no subtype – it defies naming convention as a means of inferring common attributes based on regularities. The pseudogeneric nature of “Christian” (Maggio, 1997), then, does not account for irregularities; it is often used as a stand-in for specific moral schema or to describe that which is considered the moral right. Irregularity is not a marker of belonging.
To paint an accurate picture of oneself as a person of faith with a same-sex orientation in many avenues of Christian practice (dependent, of course, on denominational position), one must predicate “Christian” with a qualifying “gay”. My own experience of this concatenation in dialogue within specific Christian culture has been that the leading “gay” creates a perceived homonym of “Christian”. A gay Christian, then, remains an irregularity. This different-meaning gay-Christian reinforces the dualistic split of spiritual and embodied self.
This language of gay-Christian finds a diametric correspondence to God-as-spirit and church-as-body. The Father-Bride construct, engendered by the heteronormative metaphor of church as bride, compounds the image of God, the Father, as predominantly capable of heterosexual love. The word “church”, situated as the object of love, implies “heterosexual church”. Does God’s love for the church and the Christian, then, occupy only the extent of heterosexual love? What place does the embodied, gay self have in a heterosexual church?
Within the spectrum of Christian metaphor in common use, there are no markers for same-sex expressions of love. Metaphor as a mechanism for viewing the various aspects of God, when restricted to a classical formulation of His image, has narrow application for those who are gay. Within this language, God’s love is only for the spiritual self; the embodied self, as it cries out for same-sex affection, must remain unloved.
So many times in my own story, I have been the subject of the exhortation “love the sinner, hate the sin” – another dichotomous suggestion that, while the spiritual self is lovable, the embodied, gay self is not. It is precisely this sinful, embodied self that is the subject of certain Christian descriptive vernacular toward same-sex orientation. In the church community in which I was brought up, my orientation was referred to as a “lifestyle.” Lifestyle, here, refers to behaviour not orientation and makes no distinction between culture, practice and identity; it assumes a gay monoculture and suggests gay culture and same-sex orientation are isomorphic. This consolidation presents a unique problem: the language of gay culture (so offensive to many Christians) is not necessarily the language of the gay Christian. In a similar vein, many Christians reject gay self-definitions and instead favour the term homosexual as a description of orientation. The emphasized syllable, here, defines an individual only by sexual behaviour – damning, of course, the embodied self.
So, on one side we have a language of cultural assumption, moral right, prescriptive heteronormativity, and disembodiment. This is a language that says only the spiritual gay self can be loved. On the other side, exists a language of self-definition that relies solely on the embodied expression of love. This language has little room for the spiritual self; no wonder we are individuals in a culture of struggle.
The language of gay culture, of embodied expressions of same-sex love boasts a dictionary of words that define passive and active roles, pornography-informed imagery and fetishization of masculine or feminine traits. These are narrow definitions. As gay Christians, we are faced with irreconcilable language: two conflicting cognitions, two self-states.
One could argue that these examples of language are trivial, that the the mandate to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, Aramaic Bible in Plain English) already provides a belonging for the gay Christian. What I am describing, however, is not a matter of access to community but a matter of allowing the gay Christian to be – and to be perceived as – wholehearted: spiritual and embodied.
Dr. James B. Nelson, a spiritual thinker instrumental in provoking new Christian approaches to homosexuality, beautifully describes what it means to be spiritual and embodied. “In Jesus Christ, God was present in a human being… in a radical way that has created a new definition of who we are” (1992, p. 53). Nelson’s sensitivity towards language and self-definition (1988, p. 20) has been an inspiration in my own course towards wholeheartedness. In wholeheartedness just as in incarnation, language is transcendent – the corporeal body itself becomes “language and a fundamental means of communication. We do not just use words. We are words.” In Christ’s incarnation, the embodied self and spiritual self are in conversation – in understanding. The embodied self, then, is a “radical sign of God’s love for the world and of the divine immediacy in the world” (1992, p. 53).
If, through Christ, we are words, language is not trivial. Derrida says, “I only have one language; it is not mine.” He is suggesting that we obtain language from the other, that language cannot be possessed or controlled (1998, pp. 1, 39). Is the problem of our two languages insoluble? Even if my story has merit, it is heard through the language of the other. Are we helpless against this “monolingualism” and its comprised estrangement?
How to be wholehearted, then, in light of this one-sided language? It is not my work to impose a new language, but it is my work to hope. Earlier on, I suggested that these languages “contribute to an essential schism.” If this schism is the language lost in translation between the speaker and the hearer, perhaps the solution is simple: “he who speaks in languages, let him pray to translate” (1 Corinthians 14:13, Aramaic Bible in Plain English). Perhaps as we follow our individual paths towards an embodied spirituality, we may use the implied story (Van der Bergh, 2012) of scripture as a functional model: “And if any speak in languages, let two speak, or as many as three, and let each one speak and let one translate” (1 Corinthians 14:27, Aramaic Bible in Plain English). Here, each one has their fair turn to speak; our “irreconcilable” differences are set out, translated, then transformed. Let us pray to become skilled interpreters.
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