Transatlantic Crossings and Religion
Religious belief and liturgical practice have been productive as they has traveled across the Atlantic. Belief and practice structure socioeconomic patterns of inclusion and exclusion, networks of political power, and the boundaries of cultural normativity. They also infuse daily practice and moderate the temperament and rhythm of lives in the communities on either side of the pond.
The effects of religion, positive and otherwise, have been long debated in public arenas since the first European arrivals decided to stay on in the Americas. Some viewed transatlantic immigration as an opportunity to live out aspirations of astute, puritan forms of Christianity, thus catalyzing the advent of God’s kingdom on earth. Others viewed Atlantic crossings as a golden opportunity to escape religious zealotry and seek greater liberty of conscience (Godbeer 2002).
The New World presented – and continues to provide – ideal conditions for experiments in faith and non-faith to flourish.
However, even within the New World’s context of religious plurality, Catholic and other branches of Apostolic Christianity have also managed to sustain and establish themselves across the Atlantic. North America, and the Americas in general, are therefore pivotal not only to experiments and sects but to the established religions of the Old World.
The Catholic Church embodies this centrality of the New World to the Old Church and Old World quite aptly at the moment in its choice of Pope. Similarly, the global Anglican communion has been radically animated by the vibrancy of North American Episcopalianism. This has been most visible in discussions in recent decades on the place of sexual and gender minorities in the Anglican Communion.
Bref, Catholicism and Anglicanism have been crucial transatlantic exports that have transformed life and faith in the New World, while being substantially altered themselves through transatlantic exchange.
Transatlantic Religious debates on human sexuality
As religious traditions from the Old World have settled into the New World over the past three centuries (a relatively short time when placed into historical perspective), debates on human sexuality have been persistently present. In Alta, California, Spanish arrivals debated over, and at times deployed, sexuality as part of the larger mechanism of conquest of local native populations (Voss 2000). In Jamestown, debates on the regulation of mores and social practices were frequently fraught as the ambition and morality frequently came into tension (Godbeer 2002). Sexuality, more broadly, was pervasive and infused the language used to describe the New World as ’fertile’ or whose ‘maidenhead’ presented opportunities for the Crown(s) (Goodbeer 2002).
In much more recent years, the discussion has turned to same sex couplings and their morality. The range of actors has considerably expanded with many more voices (evangelical and pentecostal sects and such) weighing in on questions about the regulation of sexual mores and morality. To give some insight into scale, the Religious Congregations and Membership Study (2010) estimates an approximate 334,000 Catholic and Protestant and other Christian Denomination in the United States.
The contours of the debate, notwithstanding the immense diversity of voices, have tended to fall along predictable lines. Support or dissent has largely revolved around whether same sex relationships are scripturally sound and whether there can be evidence of any biblical sanction of such non-conventional arrangements. Religious responses in favor of same sex couplings have tended to appeal instead to the spirit of sacred texts rather than on literalistic approaches to biblical writings.
Liberal, interpretivist views on Sexuality
Interpretivist approaches to sacred texts have been at the core of liberal Christian stances toward sexuality, most notably in the Episcopalian church. This commitment to the spirit of the scriptural text was most dramatically asserted in the appointment of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, his sexuality notwithstanding.
The fallout and backlash within the Anglican communion has been widely publicized. (At the time, the Lexington-Herald Leader dubbed Robinson the most controversial leader within the Anglican Communion since Henry VIII).
In more recent years, Pope Francis in the Roman Catholic Church has been co-opted as a symbol of a more tolerant form of Catholicism, particularly following his now famous ‘Who am I to judge?’ response to a question about gays in the Church. Placed in transnational perspective, Pope Francis may be argued to be a metaphor for the progressive contribution of the Church in the New World to religion in the Old.
These New World attitudes to sexuality follow a longer record of progressive religious movements that have emerged in, or have gained momentum from, the Americas. American nuns, as a case in point, have played a key part in influencing not only their domestic culture through the provision of social services to underserved communities but they have also influenced and transformed the broader Catholic culture (Coburn 1999). The 20th Century liturgical movement, for instance, resonated with (and to some degree reflected) American perspectives on the reform of Catholic ritual and worship (Pecklers 2000).
That the Church in the New World is a key component to progressive views on sexuality within Christianity is coherent and in keeping with precedent.
However, the tendency to limit debate on sexuality to questions of translation of scripture and to contests between literalism and interpretivistic approaches to scripture could be missing an opportunity to delve into foundational questions about the human condition and the body.
Missed Opportunities? Factoring in Incarnational Theology
« ..Christum; quia in ipso inhabitat omnis plenitudo divinitas corporaliter’
De Epistola ad Colossenses
Whether one ascribes to Christianity or not, it has often presented thought-provoking perspectives on the human condition.
At this time of year, one of those intriguing propositions comes into focus (beneath the din of consumerism).
The incarnation posits several assumptions about what it means to be ‘human’ and problematizes the complex relationship between space and time while also forcing a reconsideration of the concepts of ‘divinity’ and transcendence (among other things).
The complexity of the Christian concept of incarnation presents a tantalizing, but arguably underexploited, opportunity to enrich discourse on human sexuality. Barring questions on the historicity of Jesus and those about the merits of assuming that divine intervention in human affairs is plausible – the incarnation presents a potentially rich site upon which to reflect upon what it means to be human.
In the incarnation, a key tension between divinity and the human condition presents itself. On the one hand, it brings to the fore the notion of divinity, and requires a consideration of the parameters of transcendence – an outlining of what it means to be divine. Here, the incarnation challenges the assumptions that divinity consists in ‘ominpotence, omnipresence, and ominiscience’. Indeed, in incarnation, Christ appears as bound by limits to His power, knowledge, and presence. Yet, Orthodox Christological arguments maintain that the incarnation results in Jesus’ nativity as a simultaneously human and divine being. The nativity thus either presents a contradiction, an impossibility, or a clarification of the contours of what being ‘human’ or ‘divine’ are – notably that, perhaps divinity is not necessarily solely about being all-powerful, all-knowing or present everywhere, and that being human is maybe tied to more than questions about our bounded reason, power and presence.
Embedded within the incarnation account, therefore, are questions not only about divinity but also of humanity itself. In asserting that Christ is ‘fully human’ yet ‘fully divine’ some ontological questions arise. Does the Christ figure derive his humanity only by being constrained in presence, power, and knowledge (not being omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresence)? And if so, is this sufficient grounds upon which to define what it means to be human?
There is also the crucial Credal precept that Christ enters time and space, yet is unstained by sin. Yet, on the other hand, orthodox Christology asserts his full humanity. This would then imply that being human is not necessarily only defined by the subject’s propensity to sin. The incarnation challenges us to broaden our conception of the human condition and to define it beyond our capacity to be good or otherwise.
In Rea’s (2009) collection on philosophical theology, Thomas V Morris presents the incarnation as an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the definition of human – distinguishing between individuating factors (« the cluster of properties essential for an individual’s being the particular entity it is ») and factors that unite us all as a human kind (« properties without which… an individual would not belong to the particular natural kind it distinctively exemplifies »). This distinction implies that while we each have characteristics that define us as individuals, there remains the broader question of what then qualifies us as members of the same ‘natural grouping (this has been questioned and addressed by more able minds across the ages).
Bref, the incarnation account presents an opportunity to reflect upon what it means to be human, in light of the Christian mystery of Christ embodying both humanity and divinity..
Debates inspired by the incarnation about the definition of humanity – and more specifically, what it means to be human in relation to space, time, and knowledge are all potentially productive axes for a richer religious discussion on queer bodies.
For, depending on how one responds to these questions – or rather these sub-questions of the larger one of what it means to be human – it becomes possible to rethink what value is attached to bodies and minds that do not conform to heteronormative standards.
It is likely, I suspect, that in seriously attending to the incarnation story and its Christological implications, one would find it difficult to exclude or discriminate against queer bodies and persons. Hopefully, progressive Christian public discourse on sexuality will increasingly reflect on some of the discursive opportunities embedded in the incarnation story and in orthodox Christology. It could be key to liberalizing attitudes toward sexual and gender minorities.
Author: George Katito
Coburn, Carol, and Martha Smith. Spirited lives: How nuns shaped Catholic culture and American life, 1836-1920. Univ of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Godbeer, Richard. Sexual revolution in early America. JHU Press, 2002.
US Religious Congregations and Membership Study, 1952- 2010.
Pecklers, Keith F. The unread vision: the liturgical movement in the United States of America, 1926-1955. Liturgical Press, 1998.
Rea, Michael C., ed. Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology: Trinity, incarnation, and atonement. Vol. I Oxford University Press, 2009.
Voss, Barbara L. “Colonial sex: Archaeology, structured space, and sexuality in Alta California’s Spanish-colonial missions.” Archaeologies of sexuality (2000): 35-61.