Last night the Columbia Queer Alliance gathered in Fayerweather Hall to inaugurate their new Speakers Series, a natural outgrowth an expansion upon their popular Third Thursdays lecture series. Holding no punches, CQA started big, focusing their first discussion on the rocky and contentious topic of Sexuality and Religion. Bwog’s Resident Tantric Sexpert/Peter Awn Enthusiast Mark Hay was in attendance.
Even within the irreverent and probing realm of academia, discussions of religion and sexuality do not occur all that often, and basic questions as to whether or not the two can ever be reconciled remain a constant specter in the life of many devout Americans and curious secular citizens. Assembled to address the increasing clash and intersection of these two issues were Winnie Varghese, a Priest at Saint Mark’s Church in the Bowery and former Episcopal chaplain of the University; Reverend Nicole Schwalbe, the University’s Lutheran chaplain; Reverend Manny Santiago, ordained as a Baptist, but acting through full communion recognition as Columbia’s Methodist chaplain; Justin Rosen, a GS/JTS graduate who works with Jewish nonprofits on issues of social justice; Learned Foote, CC’11’s Class President and member of an evangelical Christian family from Michigan; and GS Dean Peter Awn, a former Jesuit Priest for twenty years and currently a professor of Islam focusing on mystic traditions.
This composition may reflect much of America’s focus on religion, but its blind eye towards non-monotheistic traditions and its focus on Protestant Christianity and mainly American Judaism with mere token references to Diaspora Islam, which Rosen suggests are often read through the lens of America’s Puritan heritage, may have robbed the discussion of fresh and interesting voices on the issue. Likewise, though it was heartening to hear so many respected members of their clerical establishments identify as gay (only Schwalbe did not identify her own preference), and though Awn’s proclamation, “I am very old and very gay and known affectionately to my friends as Queen Dean,” was possibly one of the better lines I have ever heard at a lecture, I could not help but feel disheartened by the lack of dissent.
All, for example, agreed that there is space for the embrace of sexuality in religion. Foote, Rosen and Santiago noted the homoerotic nature of the relationship between Daniel and Jonathan and the love poetry of the Song of Solomon as a scriptural basis for embracing sexuality. They paused, though, to mention some strict rejections of homosexuality by Leviticus and Paul, which Santiago suggested could be overcome by questioning how we should interpret the Bible and apply it in spiritual practice. Awn, who questioned the ability for any religious institution to fully reconcile sex and religion, suggested mysticism as a means for self-reflection and healing reconciliation.
The assembled panel all believed progress was being made in creating space for sexual discussion and gay involvement in the church, but acknowledged that it came at the cost of splintering churches and in many areas was not accepted even when a national church body signed it into law. Perhaps then the tenor of the evening, a hive mind not in debate, but building off of each other in one-sided agreement, was best summed up by Santiago: “Everyone has said all that can be said, but I’m a preacher, so I’m going to talk anyway.”
Foote raised an interesting point though as to the way in which LGBT individuals, spurned by a religious institution, shirk dialogue with religious individuals in total. He suggested that we be wary lest we confuse institutions and individuals.
And then there was the issue of cherry-picking raised by one audience member, who explained his atheism as a result of realizing that he had diluted and deleted pieces of the Bible until it was no longer the Christian holy text, but his own invention. Schwalbe summed up the common panel view, saying, “If we’re really honest, everybody [cherry-picks],” and that whether it is because the spirit moves through us, or because we decide something is obsolete, or whatever the reason, these are valid changes to the Bible. Only Awn defended walking away from the church, maintaining that if one is not comfortable with the institution’s scripture, they should go off and do something more comfortable.
In brief summary of the panel: sex and God can coexist and we’re making progress with increasing speed on seeing that realized institutionally. And to end with the ineffable words of Awn, “Good sex is good religion.”