Cambridge, MA. As you know, I contribute one of these reflections just about every two weeks. I try to be regular in doing so, and for that purpose, also try to write the reflection, edit it, check it, and post it, all within one hour’s time. (Readers posting comments, mostly kind, are adept at picking up points at which a little more time might have been spent in editing or research. I plead guilty.) In any case, this particular reflection has taken a bit longer, since I decided that I needed to decipher the acronym in this notice posted in the student activities’ section of the Harvard Divinity School website: “Faith for All is the campus BGLTQSI student group. We endeavor to bring together students, staff, and faculty in regard to issues of sex, orientation, and gender by hosting and running events in the HDS and wider Harvard communities, thus raising the comfort and awareness of all, regardless of faith-based background. The steering committee invites all interested members of the community to get involved with campus and Greater Boston community events and to feel free to contact the steering committee members with any questions, concerns, or recommendations for events.”
What does BGLTQSI stand for? I used my own memory (rather out of date, it seems) and consulted several students and staff, and Wikipedia too, to come up with this decipherment: B — bisexual; G — gay; L — lesbian; T — transgender (“Transgender is the state of one’s ‘gender identity’ [self-identification as woman, man, or neither] not matching one’s ‘assigned sex’”); Q — questioning, or queer; S — straight, or searching, or supportive; I — intersex (“a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male”) The inclusion of “supportive” under “S” suggests the hope at least that heterosexuals might come and support their friends and colleagues in conversation and faith sharing.
I have not had any direct involvement in Faith for All, but at least I know that the gathering of BGLTQSI functions on at least two levels: it serves as a support group for students, staff, and faculty of every kind of sexual identity, and for those wishing to support people finding themselves in BGLTQSI; and it marks a way of speaking that is quite common in academic circles today, at least on university campuses, by which traditional categories of sexual identity and gender are called into question as inadequate, too neatly labeling the complex identities people have today, in their own self-experience and in their relationships with others. While the terms “male” and “female,” and “man” and “woman” are not dismissed, there is an acute sense, such as carries over into the classroom occasionally, that humans are most aptly thought about and related to by BGLTQSI than by the simple “male” and “female” categories. Even if I make my own extension by adding “H” (heterosexual), it would still be a thesis that we humans all find ourselves somewhere in the mix of BGLTQSI(H), and rarely neatly as male or female. "Male" and "female," the theory goes, are not subtle enough to capture who we are.
I mention all of this — quite outside my normal expertise, and not exactly an end-of-2008 reflection — because I still have in mind Pope Benedict’s words from his Christmas address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2008: “When the Church speaks of the nature of the human being as man and woman and asks that this order of creation be respected, it is not the result of an outdated metaphysic. It is a question here of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation, the devaluation of which leads to the self-destruction of man and therefore to the destruction of the same work of God. That which is often expressed and understood by the term “gender”, results finally in the self-emancipation of man from creation and the Creator. Man wishes to act alone and to dispose ever and exclusively of that alone which concerns him.” (See the whole address on the web.)
Since I am neither an ethicist nor a scripture scholar, I will not presume to dissect the points Benedict makes here and in the surrounding text. What is of concern to me, I suppose, is how we might receive and hear his words at places like Harvard, as if to make sense of them on campus. On the one hand, of course, papal wisdom receives no special hearing at HDS, and no statement is beyond questioning; on the other, many would listen, since Benedict is speaking directly to an issue on many minds — how do we make sense of our bodily, psychological, sexual, and spiritual experiences, if we are to respect both ourselves as we are and God as we find God?
As far as I understand what Faith for All is about, its members would mostly agree with the idea that this is a matter “of faith in the Creator and of listening to the language of creation” — while disagreeing with the Pope’s expectation that something like BGLTQSI(H) marks a sure step down the path of devaluation, self-destruction of the human, and of God’s work. My guess, from the students I have talked to, is that while some, I am sure, leave HDS finding themselves unmoored from norms of creation and from God too, others actually find God at HDS because there is Faith for All, in a community that thinks of itself as BGLTQSI(H).
I know of course that being at HDS would be for most Catholics something like being in a foreign land, with its own language and customs that have to studied as carefully as a European missionary might have studied Chinese language, rites, and protocols in the 17th century. If we want to speak, we have a lot to learn first. Only if we who are Catholic in places like HDS look in both directions — to what the Pope says, and to what our students and colleagues say — can we begin to bridge the gaps of age, culture, and experience, of philosophy and spirituality, that have often made for deaf ears on both sides. I do not teach courses on sexuality, nor even on metaphysics, but I do know that when I teach, Church teachings are often in my mind, and that when I reflect on items such as the Pope’s address to the Curia, my students are also with me, mind and heart. I do not wish to be a relativist, but thank God I have two ears.
But I close with a tantalizing dream: Knowing the vigorous intelligence of my students and colleagues, and the brilliance of our current Pope, I am sure there is a lot that can be said and argued about the metaphysics of sexual-identity, about how we are to decide when a metaphysics is timely or just out of date, and about how we find God in the bodies we have and are. It would be most interesting, I dream, were it somehow possible for the Pope to sit down with a group of Harvard students, instead of the Roman Curia, to discuss his message on gender and identity. I am very sure he could hold his own in the conversation — and also that in the HDS environment where nothing would be taken for granted, he would be challenged to say more, to explain more fully the link of metaphysics, gender, creation. He would have the opportunity to explain to some very bright and spiritual students whether he really traces humanity’s loss of God to groups like Faith for All, wherein the whole BGLTQSI(H), as if the entire human race, have gathered. If only popes could take sabbaticals…
Are We BGLTQSI?