It is not really that surprising to read an article in the New York Times about tensions on Christian college campuses in relating and responding to their lgbt students. The article highlights a few American schools, most of whom I’m unfamiliar with. But given my relationship with a number of colleges, I well know the challenges of caring for students, dealing with institutional boundaries, managing communication and the inevitable perceptions of the broader constituency, and navigating the concerns of faculty which may range from issues of academic freedom on one hand through to the other extreme of asserting control to limit the conversation. To increase the complexity even more is the reality that none of these areas can be dealt with in a vacuum. That would be challenging enough. But in a college community all of these questions inevitably impact the larger conversation and how each individual question is addressed. Given this reality, I have high degrees of empathy for school provosts and deans of students, for they have a very challenging road to forge.
Perhaps I’ve been lucky – or perhaps I’m only approached by schools who at least have some desire to engage the conversation well – but I have encountered administrators with good hearts and good intentions as they seek my input. They are well aware of the complexities. They are well aware that the lives of real students, and staff and faculty too for that matter, will be affected by the leadership they give in this conversation. I’ve encountered, at least behind closed doors, courage and empathy and generosity and a readiness to acknowledge that they have more to learn in this area.
I suppose, given New Direction’s posturing in a place of generous spaciousness, that the schools who engage with me already know that I will raise with them the reality of diverse perspectives and advance the conversation to address how to experience space and room for authenticity. This means living in the tension. On the one hand, there is a school or larger denominational position that must be honoured. On the other hand, there is a recognition that our college communities are diverse and that learning invites exploration and difference and risking to rethink, deconstruct, and challenge. On one hand, there are codes of conduct and moral expectations on the members of a community. On the other hand, there the needs of individual students to navigate their journey of discovery in a safe, honest and hospitable environment where individual autonomy is respected. And here’s the rub. This is where I think some colleges are missing some critical distinctions and precision in language – and where the NYT article also contributes to the problem.
It comes back to this whole question of identity. I think, in large part due to the assumptions about gay identity perpetuated by the ex-gay movement, there is a lot of confusion regarding how an evangelical-based community ought to respond to an individual coming out as gay. At the risk of sounding very elementary, I think we need to return to some really basic concepts. When someone comes out and says, “I’m gay” they are almost certainly communicating that same-sex attraction is part of their reality. Beyond that, however, no assumptions should be made. Not only do you not know where they are theologically or in terms of sexual activity, you also don’t know where they are at in their own sense of identity. To say, “I’m gay” doesn’t mean they primarily identify with the gay community – maybe they do and maybe they don’t – you won’t know until they tell you. You don’t know about their taste in music, film, literature. You don’t know to what degree they might view themselves as an advocate or activist for lgbt issues – maybe they don’t at all – or maybe it is important and significant to them – but you won’t know unless they tell you. You don’t know what their approach to Scripture is. You don’t know how they feel about ordaining partnered gay clergy. What you do know is that they have come to a place in their life where the need to be honest about their experiences of sexuality have superceded the need to protect themselves by keeping silent. What you do know is that they have felt sufficiently compelled to be authentic to risk the potential rejection and marginalization that can come when one comes out – particularly on a Christian college campus.
What is the connection between honesty, identity and ideology? What we do know is that they are distinct issues for every individual – and when they are lumped together and assumptions are made the ability to foster a generous and spacious environment is compromised. First and foremost, students need an encouraging environment to be honest. Secondly, they need to be protected from the community making assumptions about their core identity and any ideology they may ascribe to. Thirdly, they need the freedom to ask questions, wrestle with what they truly believe and how their beliefs and values will impact the choices they make in how to live their life. Their autonomy needs to be respected.
There is a difference between an environment of generosity and an environment of control. An environment of generosity is one in which students can be educated. An environment of control is where students are indoctrinated. Generosity asks of community members to honour the boundaries and policies of the institution. Control demands of community members to internalize the boundaries and policies of the institution. In a generous environment, students and faculty aren’t anxious when difference is manifested. They recognize that there is value and learning to be had in engaging different thoughts and ideas. There can be a true sense of hospitality – where all are welcome – knowing that such a welcome will bring the complexity and challenge of difference. In a controlled environment, students and faculty are threatened by difference. The priority becomes addressing the difference in such a manner that it gives way to alignment with official position. Difference means being fired. Difference means being expelled.
An environment of generosity is not one without boundaries or policies – though it is sometimes assumed that this is what is being demanded. Rather, generosity works within a given system and its official positions by offering space for honest expression. Practically speaking, it may be the gay student who understands that the school’s official doctrinal position is that same-sex consummated unions are inconsistent with Scripture. That student may have some significant questions they are exploring and wrestling with about that position. Or they may have already determined that they disagree with this position. But because they are part of a community that is governed by such a position they choose to honour it by not engaging in same-sex sexual intercourse while they are a student. Given that a Christian college rooted in an evangelical tradition will hold that all unmarried students should refrain from sexual intercourse, the gay student honours this position just like any other student on campus.
But the idea that the student really shouldn’t come out of the closet – because by so doing they are dishonouring the school’s position on same-sex consummated unions is ridiculous. Coming out of the closet is an honest expression of a reality one is experiencing. It isn’t a statement about a position.
An environment of generosity isn’t fearful about exploring a variety of perspectives on a given matter. In the Christian environment, such fearlessness should be, but rarely is, the norm given that we have the benefit of being able to trust the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit in our deliberations and discernment. In the question of Christian college campuses supporting lgbt students this seems to be a tough concept to live out. It seems that on many campuses the fight over having official student club status given to a group that wants to explore lgbt issues is where a lot of heat (and maybe not too much light) is being generated. To be honest, I get confused about this hesitancy on the part of the administration. Oh I understand, of course, that donors may misread this and accuse the school of getting “soft on gays”. But I just don’t think such a fear ought to have so much power. It ought not be so terribly difficult to explain to the constituency a number of basic realities: First of all, we do have lgbt students at our school and need to serve them. Wake up people – we’ve got gay students and in the Spirit of Christ we need to do our best to support, shepherd and encourage them while they are part of our community. Secondly, not only are our sexual minority students – but all our students – confronted with the questions and challenges that arise for Christ-followers in our gay-positive context. This cannot be avoided or ignored. Students have questions and there need to be forums in which they can participate in conversation about these matters. Thirdly, our students would have no difficulty accessing information on a variety of perspectives in this conversation. We cannot (my opinion, should not) think we can protect or prevent them from hearing about diverse perspectives. Fourthly, given their exposure to diverse perspectives, doesn’t it make more sense to provide honest and open forums in which the conversation can take place with the wisdom and input of mature and seasoned members of the community? A student group inevitably has a faculty advisor who can link students with additional mentors, counselors etc. if needed as well as offering humble, wise input in the conversations as they emerge. Finally, what is a Christian college more concerned with – that a student experience a fully engaged integration of mind, heart and faith with their face turned towards God and the pursuit of a relationship with Jesus Christ - or that a student believe and live consistently with the school’s position on homosexuality? Truly, is our doctrine of justification so weak that it cannot handle the reality that devoted followers of Christ, who care deeply about the Scriptures come to different understandings about the appropriateness of covenanted, consummated same-sex relationships?
When fear and control close down conversation, when doors get bolted from the inside, do we really fool ourselves into thinking that this has no impact on our witness to the wider world? When fear and control crowd out robust trust in the leading of the Holy Spirit, do we fool ourselves into thinking this has no impact on the spiritual vitality of our communities?
Generous spaciousness on a Christian campus that has an official traditional understanding of sexual intimacy being reserved for heterosexual marriage begins by acknowledging the reality of diversity and difference – in our ideas, thinking, experience of sexual identity, and comfort level with the conversation at the intersection of faith and sexuality. It grows and matures when we understand that by making room for some of the inevitable tensions such a conversation produces we are also inviting spiritual formation as we become enlarged in our capacity to extend hospitality, to exercise patience, and to offer respect to those with whom we disagree. Generous spaciousness expects the best from people who willingly make sacrifices to honour boundaries and official positions without enforcing an ethos of indoctrination. Generous spaciousness supports a ‘big tent’ ethos on a Christian campus that draws people from different places and different experiences of the faith. It nurtures an environment that encourages all community members to keep turning their face toward Christ as the primary priority.
It is a difficult season for Christian colleges to open the conversation in this area. But avoiding it is not an option. It is true that not everyone shares the same levels of readiness. It is true that this can trigger conflict and even crisis in a community. But it is also true that this conversation will stimulate growth. Be fearless in love. Be gentle and patient. Be focused on Christ who went to the margins, who broke barriers, who pissed off the powerful constituency, and who welcomed all unconditionally. This is the witness our world needs to see – it is the witness that will catalyze bold faith in your students, revitalized risk-taking in your faculty, and by God’s grace, generosity in our communities-at-large.