Monday, November 15, 2010

Faith in America's "Addressing Religious Arguments" Report: Framing the Educational Challenge with the Churches, re: Gay Issues

Last week, when I blogged about Faith in America’s recent report outlining “core messages” that those working to combat religion-based homophobia might use in their interaction with faith communities, Colleen Baker of the Enlightened Catholicism blog commented,

Bill I think most of us who have looked at the gay obsession in our Catholic leadership have connected these dots a long time ago. God's chain of command seems to be rooted in control, dominance and exploitation of the lesser ranks.

I think Colleen’s exactly right with these observations.  They touch on the conclusion to my own posting, and today, I’d like to say a bit more about that conclusion—to elucidate my concern with the educational approach taken by Faith in America and other groups like it.

In my conclusion, I note that the anti-gay attitudes of religious communities aren’t going to change until members of faith communities undertake the task of educating themselves and their constituents.  Though I applaud the Faith in America report and its educational approach—above all, I welcome its frank recognition that hostility to gay people is rooted in religious concepts and attitudes—I have reservations about education as the sole or primary key in unlocking religion-based anti-gay bigotry.  Or, rather, I have reservations about the precise type of eduction Faith in America envisages.

The Faith in America report states,

Religion-based bigotry exists in the mind, not the heart. Most people of faith who hold anti-gay views do not hate gay people but rather have simply internalized religious teachings and beliefs that condemn homosexuality as sinful. Effective messages to the religious movable middle must avoid any suggestion that people with anti-gay attitudes based on religious teaching are motivated by hatred or personal animosity toward gay people.

And this is where my problem with education as the key to dealing with religion-based prejudice against gay people begins.  I seriously doubt that bigotry of any sort “exists in the mind, not the heart.”  The kind of thinking that brings us to a position of prejudice and keeps that prejudice alive is inherently rooted in the heart—in our attitudes, in our affective domains.

And we will not root out that prejudice—either from ourselves or from our communities of faith—until we confront it at that root affective level.   My problem is not with education per se, as a corrective to anti-gay bigotry based in religion.  It’s with an understanding of education that does not see the links between anti-gay ideas within religious communities, and anti-gay feelings, sentiments, and attitudes—which run underneath ideas, give them force, and are the ultimate raison d’être for the bigoted ideas to which they give life.

And so I also doubt that people of faith who cherish bigoted notions about what it means to be gay are not motivated by personal animosity towards those who are gay.  Perhaps, as the Faith in America report notes, it’s an overstatement to call this animosity hatred—in all cases, at least.  Nonetheless it is, indeed, personal animosity, specifically aimed at those who are gay.

And using religion and religious ideas as ammunition to vent its animosity.  And it doesn’t get us far down the path to healing to deny this.

I am convinced that, in an information age in which better information about gay human beings and gay lives, better information than that purveyed by many religious adherents, is easily available, many people of faith know perfectly well what they are doing in slandering, dehumanizing, and attacking their gay brothers and sisters.  They know perfectly well that they are circulating malicious information about those who are gay.

They know perfectly well that the ideas they are promoting in the name of God fly in the face of abundant evidence that calls those ideas into radical question, and exposes them as absurd—and exposes their demonic force and intent.  People of faith cling to hateful notions about their brothers and sisters who are gay deliberately, and offering many people of faith correct or better ideas is not going to budge the dynamic underlying religion-based homophobia.  

Because the homophobia of many people of faith emanates from somewhere else inside human beings than their heads: it emanates from their hearts.  Bigotry is always first and foremost about the heart, and only secondarily about the head.  Dealing with bigotry at the head level alone is like trying to eradicate a particularly noxious and tenacious weed by lopping off the part of the weed that grows above-ground.

Weeds lopped off will inevitably grow again, often with redoubled energy, often replicating themselves and multiplying in the period in which they lie dormant under the earth after their heads have been lopped off.  Effective educational strategies to combat religion-based bigotry against gay and lesbian human beings must deal with the affective level of education.  It must address the heart as well as the mind.  And it must acknowledge frankly that many people of faith simply do not want to learn more, to know better, to correct their mistaken ideas about their gay brothers and sisters.

Once again: we won’t effectively address religion-based homophobia until we do so at the affective level, and not merely the intellectual level.

This is actually far from a novel insight in the area of moral pedagogy.  It’s a routine insight for those who think about or teach ethical theory.  If ethical awareness grows when we increase our consciousness (which is to say, when we develop our consciences), then all ethical learning must necessarily incorporate into itself a deconstructive moment that assaults what we take for granted, calls into question how we have customarily framed an ethical problem, and expands what we imagine we know about the problem we’re considering from an ethical standpoint.

Sound ethical pedagogy always incorporates, at the fundamental level of basic ethical education, some technique of assault to deconstruct what we take for granted, force us to reframe what we imagine we have already known, and force us to see the emotive roots and attitudes that shape our conscience, our awareness of ethical issues.  And for this reason, many people resist good education in the area of ethics: learning to think more carefully about ethical issues, and developing our consciences, is a painful, ongoing process in which we constantly recognize the limitations of our perspective and the inhibiting effect of our emotional and attitudinal life on our ethical knowledge.

In my last unhappy stint of teaching introductory ethics—at Loyola’s (New Orleans) Institute for Ministry—I had a student in the class who bitterly resisted every attempt I made (in conjunction with the course texts, one of which I had written) to open her eyes to what lay beneath her understanding of ethical issues.  A timeworn technique some ethicists use to teach introductory ethics, and one I used in this class, is to incorporate poetry into the teaching process.  Poetry distills breakthrough insights into a manageable, sharply crafted set of words.  It also probes, assaults, lays bare the emotional roots of our ideas.

In this particular course, and in many previous courses in introductory ethics I had taught, I had the class read a carefully chosen poem daily—I had the class read a poem daily as a class, to take the poem apart line by line, to talk together about the way in which the poem subverted their expectations and challenged them to look at an aspect of the world in an entirely unexpected way.  I had the class work together to identify what it is, precisely, in this particular poem that gets under the skin and makes us itch emotionally, so that we become uncomfortable with attitudes, preconceptions, and feelings we have previously taken for granted.

The young woman who resisted this pedagogical technique of assault didn’t, unfortunately, ever do me the courtesy of telling me that she found the daily reading and discussion of a poem, as a preface to the class’s consideration of an aspect of fundamental ethical theory, discomfiting.  Instead, she vented her anger in the final written evaluation of the course and of me as a teacher, though she interacted with me after that at parties before I had read the evaluation, as if she were perfectly content with me and the course.  I learned only later, from her written evaluation of the course and from students who wanted to keep up with me after the course ended, that she had sought to subvert the course throughout the entire summer, by attacking it and me in meetings with other students outside the course, and with faculty members who gave her a hearing but never spoke to me.

And here’s why I tell this story, and what’s particularly interesting about it: this student was among the growing number of self-styled John Paul II Catholics who had begun, by the latter half of the 1990s, to give a very different complexion to this program of lay ministry than it had had when it began after Vatican II.  And she worked for the chaplaincy office at the university.  She was, in fact, closely allied to several Jesuits connected to the chaplaincy office and on the university faculty who, I later discovered, were unhappy with my teaching in the Institute for Ministry program after I had been fired by Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and outed as a gay theologian.

The resistance of this student to what I was teaching in a course in fundamental ethics had everything to do with the resistance of a powerful, growing wing of the American Catholic church to any kind of ethical pedagogy that seeks to deconstruct or assault what they have decided to take for granted, doctrinally and in terms of moral teaching.  It was deliberate, bitter resistance to the pedagogical technique of assault itself, which seeks to overturn what we imagine we know, and to invite us to see beneath the surface of what we take for granted.  It was organized resistance to their catechetical, formulaic, God-says-and-so-I-believe approach to moral thinking.

And it was fueled by the student’s awareness that I was gay and had become public about that fact, and by her ties to the chaplaincy office at Loyola University in New Orleans, and to some of its key players.  Though the topic of homosexuality never once came up during this course, throughout the course, she persistently informed me that there was what I was teaching in this course, and then there was the Catholic position—her position.  The position she owned in a proprietorial way I did not own it, as a dispossessed Catholic theologian who had been given his walking papers.  Because he was gay.

There was her position, the Catholic position, which she did not intend in any shape, form, or fashion to reexamine, certainly not when the professor challenging her to reexamine everything she took for granted happened to be a homosexual.  It was a Catholic “ethical” position that was right because it was Catholic (and I wasn’t; because I was a homosexual).  And it was right because she believed it.

And so for an entire course, this student who represented “the” Catholic position in the course, and who had strong ties to the chaplaincy office of this Jesuit university, deliberately subverted what I was teaching—apparently with the belief that she was doing a right, good, and holy thing because she was holding up Catholic side against the homosexuals.

The homosexuals who call things into question.  Who make us think twice about what we have taken for granted, particularly vis-à-vis gender and gender roles and morality.

What I’m trying to demonstrate here—what I’m trying to describe—is a common dynamic of people of faith as they deal with their brothers and sisters who are gay.  Because many people of faith begin with the presupposition, deeply rooted in unexamined emotion-based attitudes, that gay and lesbian people are dirty and unholy, many people of faith assume that anything they do to their gay brothers and sisters, no matter how dirty and unholy, is done in God’s name.  And is good.

You simply can’t teach morality—you can’t teach ethics at all—if you are not free to subvert people’s expectations about what they imagine they know, about what they take for granted.  About the affective roots of the ideas they take for granted.  And, in the case of anti-gay attitudes of people of faith, until you expose the malicious hidden roots presupposing that dirty, unholy treatment of gay and lesbian people in God’s name is warranted, because gay and lesbian people are dirty and unholy.

One reason the Catholic church is in major trouble today is that it is not teaching people to think ethically at any profound level at all, for the most part—not anymore.  The kind of pedagogy foundational to any course in ethics that seeks to be academically sound went out the window with the restorationist turn in the Catholic church during the papacy of John Paul II, a turn whose impact on Catholic universities became particularly pronounced in the 1990s, with the papal document Ex corde ecclesiae.

It was no accident that I encountered the student about whom I’ve just blogged (and several others like her) in a lay ministry program at a Catholic university in the latter half of the 1990s, as the crack-down in Catholic universities caused by Ex corde ecclesiae got underway.  And it’s no accident that this was the last course Loyola’s Institute for Ministry invited me to teach, that the university chooses to promote students of this sort while shunning faculty who challenge such students to think more carefully and question more critically.

We’re in a different world today—in most of the Christian churches.  We’re in a different world than we were in during the brief, heady period of ecumenical hope and theological ferment in all churches around the period of Vatican II.  The problem, in the moment in which we now find ourselves, is not at all that people don’t know, or don’t have access to information.  It’s that they don’t want to know.  It’s that they don’t want to question the disinformation to which they intend to cling, because it supports a prejudice firmly rooted in their hearts, in the powerful, unexamined emotional sphere from which their ideas about homosexuality arise.

This is the problem today with the churches in general when it comes to anti-gay prejudice.  There is not any strong intent or will to change or call into question homophobic attitudes, because most churches are content with those attitudes.  Nothing will change until the churches themselves—until members of churches themselves—stop putting up with the entirely comfortable homophobia and challenge it from within.

And educational strategies premised on the idea of polite conversation that refuse to recognize how deeply rooted in the emotional lives of people of faith—and how absolutely malicious in intent—homophobia really is won’t do much at all to move the stone from believers’ hearts.  Which is why, I take it, Bishop John Shelby Spong issued his "Time Has Come" manifesto a year ago, leaving behind the fruitless conversations with people of faith intent on resisting but not intent on learning.

The manifesto leaves those fruitless conversations  to the dead who intend to keep talking to others who are dead.  It calls on those who want to build a different future to recognize, whether people of faith intend to recognize this or not, that we have turned a corner in history when it comes to recognizing the full humanity of those who are gay and lesbian.  And to move forward together, around the corner.

Leaving the dead to bury the dead.

The graphic, with its depiction of an empty head, is not intended to be commentary on the Faith in America report, but, instead, commentary on what happens to our heads when they are divorced from our hearts, and when we imagine that head knowledge can be divorced from heart knowledge.

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