In recent posts, I’ve called on evangelicals to have a genuine conversation about sexuality, in fitting with their Reformation heritage as Christians who are “reformed and always reforming.” In this guest post, my colleague Mark Bruce explains why it’s especially important — and difficult — to have such conversations at Christian colleges and universities.
When asked for a shorthand definition of Pietism, I’ve sometimes (tongue in my cheek) offered a response like this: “Pietism is a Christian movement that grew out of the experience of Europe’s seventeenth-century ‘Wars of Religion,’ wherein a small group of believers realized that perhaps slaughtering one another by the millions over matters of doctrine really wasn’t, after all, such a hot idea.”
Cringeworthy as such a statement may be for its historical reductiveness, I think it does contain two important grains of truth: Christians, generally, have a historically spotty track record when it comes to having productive conversations about hot button issues. We also tend to be slow learners, especially in a “shoot first, regret our enmity later” sort of way.
Such enmity, I suspect, stems from two entirely reasonable — but nevertheless contradictory — impulses when it comes to matters of doctrine. On the one hand, we’re understandably reluctant to change things we relate to eternal, capital-T truth — reluctant, even, to talk about such change. On the other, we’re aware that, as human beings whose reason is as darkened by the fall as every other aspect of our perception, there may be a difference between the Truth and what we have come to regard as that Truth. When doctrinal controversies arise, both impulses come into play strongly, and we often wind up with stark divisions between those arguing that we have, in fact, been wrong about something, and those who, on the other hand, fear that even raising the possibility of such mistaken-ness might be a sin from which the faith itself may never recover. While ranges of opinion often exist between these two extremes, those at the extremes can and have become so passionate (and so entrenched) that violence, whether real or rhetorical, has seemed the only answer. The warring extremes, rather than considering moderated positions themselves, wind up catching everyone in their crossfire.
One of the most important historical innovations of Pietism, I think, is that its founders — having witnessed the extremes of violence to which extremes of belief in the maintenance of doctrinal purity can lead us — searched successfully for ways out of that impasse. One was simply what’s often referred to as the “turn inward” of Pietism: the valuing of the individual’s relationship with Christ rather than that individual’s adherence to doctrinal abstractions. Another was the idea enshrined in the oft-repeated Pietist motto, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”
The traditional Latin phrase is In necessariis unitas; in dubiis libertas; in omnibus caritas. A fuller translation of the Latin might read “In necessary matters, unity; in uncertain matters, liberty; in all matters, love of God and neighbor.” While the phrase itself likely predates Pietism, it was the early Pietists that made it a foundation of their approach to theological thinking. Their innovation is as stultifyingly simple as it is useful and profound: rather than allow themselves to endanger one another by the natural impasse of doctrinal debate described above, they, via the second clause in that motto, built that brand of debate into the very structure of faithfulness itself.
The Latin terminology is particularly helpful in this regard: in dubiis libertas. Dubius comes from the same root as the English word “double.” It refers to something that goes in two directions at once, that vibrates. By extension, it refers to uncertainty, something in flux. The phrase as a whole, then, suggests that there should be freedom (libertas) where we experience uncertainty. “Liberty in uncertain matters” means that beyond the very few ideas deemed essential by denominations in the Pietist tradition, matters of doctrine are, in essence, there to be debated as much, if not more, than they are there to be resolved. The phrase also suggests that such ongoing debate and inquiry is part and parcel of a life of faith. It may be less important for us to entrench ourselves on one side or the other than to allow such matters to continue being debated openly. To let them vibrate, energizing minds and lives in the process.
I think the idea of libertas in dubiis provides a useful starting point for rethinking how Christian colleges and universities might go about inquiring into matters of sexuality, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision. The first step, I think, is for us to acknowledge, openly, the reality that issues of sexuality fall under the category of dubia rather than necessaria. This is not a progressive position, but rather an essentially conservative one for most denominations: none of Christianity’s historical creeds touch on sexuality one way or the other. The core faith statements of the denomination with which my own institution (Bethel University) is affiliated (Converge Worldwide’s Affirmation of Faith and its Gospel Declaration) do not identify anything about sexuality as a matter of essential doctrine. There is nothing about sexuality in what my institution publicly advertises as its core values. Nor do matters of sexuality arise in its Affirmation of Faith. I suspect something similar is the case for many — if not most — Christian institutions of higher learning. What this suggests to me is that both my institution and denomination have never put questions of sexuality in the category of necessaria, never put them on the level of such matters of doctrine as, for example, the resurrection, the nature of Christ, and the Trinity, etc. To assume that questions of sexuality belong in the category of necessaria is to innovate on tradition, not to maintain it.
Affirming the above gives us space to affirm another important cultural reality: that there is not, currently, consensus about the issue of how Christian colleges should respond to LGBT persons. Not in our culture at large, not within Christianity more broadly, nor even specifically at institutions where “homosexual behavior” has historically been prohibited. The issue of same-sex relationships — regardless of one’s particular position — is currently one for which multiple perspectives are in play. A number of these perspectives have strong (or at least cogent) arguments and proponents whose commitment to the faith itself is difficult if not impossible to question. All of them — like so many difficult questions believers have faced over the millennia — claim scriptural authority.
Why, then, do communities at Christian universities still seem to have such trouble debating matters of sexuality in productive ways?
One answer may lie outside the realm of doctrine per se. While my own institution, for example, does not mention sexuality in its key doctrinal affirmations, it does get more specific about sexuality in another kind of document. Our Covenant for Life Together currently lists “homosexual behavior” among a number of other behaviors that it asserts “should not be present in the lives of believers.” Employed by many Christian colleges and universities, such “community lifestyle agreements” serve a number of positive functions by enforcing standards designed specifically for the communities they help define. They encompass much more than lists of “thou shalt nots.” Bethel’s document, for example, spends much more time and energy on matters such as the cultivation of loving community, the pursuit of truth as a special calling of the institution, and commitments to anti-racism and sexism than it does on matters of sexuality.
For these reasons, I hope the following remarks will not be read as a condemnation of Bethel’s Covenant (or anyone else’s) as such. However, it seems likely to me that prohibitions about same-sex behaviors in such documents may nevertheless play a significant role in forestalling productive debate about sexuality. The problem with such prohibitions is that they force a situation in which, even while questions about sexuality might really be matters of dubia rather than necessaria in a theological sense, those questions are treated as settled in the realm of insitutional identity and policy. If it is inescapable, regardless of what our individual convictions might be, that there is not currently consensus on these issues within Christianity (or even, if we’re honest, within particular institutions), then insisting on what should be one position within a larger debated as fixed in terms of institutional policy causes obvious problems.
We can open up the debate so we can have it freely, or shut it down artificially in the name of maintaining an identity (and simply saying “our way or the highway”). But what we cannot choose to do is both of those things at the same time. We can’t try to debate and inquire into a question freely and openly under an already-institutionally-imposed answer. No institution can debate an issue and treat it as a foregone conclusion simultaneously.
Hence, I think, the kind of frustration many of us who work at Christian universities feel when the matter arises. We sigh, shuffle, hem and haw, and generally wish we were someplace else. We find ourselves trying to be hyper-careful about what we say so as to avoid institutional or social stigma. Those who harbor non-traditional views on the matter look at the official, institutional stance, and hesitate to speak freely for fear of losing employment or other disciplinary action at the institutional level. Those who hew to very traditional evangelical views about sexuality also draw back from speaking as openly as they might for fear of being labeled by more left-leaning colleagues as intolerant or narrow-minded — or even for fear of consequences to their own employment should an open debate lead to policy change.
The result is that we all know we need to talk about this, but we all feel gagged. It’s as though we’re trying to play a soccer match in which the rules forbid Team One from touching the ball at all, and Team Two won’t touch the ball for fear of what Team One might say about them if they do. So the ball just sits there as we all look at each other, horribly uncomfortable, feeling like idiots, as the moments tick loudly. No wonder we’re all frustrated, tired… and stuck.
Meanwhile, we have to wonder how the LGBT students under our care are faring in the midst of our inaction.
So one useful question for traditionally Christian universities might be to ask how, in the case of debates over same-sex relationships, we might more fully allow dubia to be treated as such. One move in the right direction might be to begin to see matters of sexuality for what, in most cases, they already are and have always been: matters of institutional policy and identity rather than matters of essential doctrinal purity. Another important step, though, may be be to determine what to do with policies that may be forestalling truly open and productive debate. What can administrators do to ensure that faculty members need not fear institutional censure for simply advocating non-traditional (or even traditional) positions? What kinds of alterations to institutional policies might faculty members productively advocate? What kinds of forums and guidelines might we be able to set up to make our discussions work better?
The answers matter, because the debates on the ground are only going to intensify, and the question of how we deal with same-sex relationships at Christian universities may even be imposed upon them externally as the public implications of the Supreme Court’s rulings play out over time. If institutional policies are hampering us from being prepared to engage in this debate honestly and fully, such policies could be the death of us. It’d be a little like having a fire start in one’s church and refusing to prevent one’s fellow parishioners from burning to death because the church’s bylaws include a strict water conservation policy. I would suggest that Christian universities can not only do better than this, but go even further to model what real inquiry — and even passionate disagreement — can look like when carried on in full freedom among sincere persons of faith. With libertas in dubiis; caritas in omnibus.
Mark P. Bruce is Associate Professor of English and English Department Chair at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has previously published several articles on the medieval life and modern afterlife of the fourteenth-century document known as the “Declaration of Arbroath,” and edited The Anglo-Scottish Border and the Shaping of Identity: 1300-1600 (Palgrave, 2012) with Katherine Terrell. He is at work on a book concerning chronicles and romances written within the Anglo-Scottish marches in the late Middle Ages.