Saturday, February 26, 2011

He That Increaseth in Knowledge Increaseth in Sorrow

This is a copy of a paper I delivered at the last conference I attended two years ago.  Reading it now, I have some serious reservations about my thesis and conclusions, but I will save that for a later post.  As it is, it gives an interesting picture of where I was two years ago, not long out of the church or the closet.  While ostensibly a paper about the need for a critical hermeneutic for Mormon scriptures, I have come to the realization that it is really about something else--something bigger.  More on that later.

He That Increaseth in Knowledge Increaseth in Sorrow:
Vexation and Catharsis in Critical Readings of Latter-day Saint Scripture

You may want to listen carefully, because I am about to utter three words that you will never again hear at an academic conference.  “I was wrong.”  Several months ago I crafted what I thought was a sweeping but defensible thesis.  Simply put, it was that a historical-critical engagement with scripture would make you a better Mormon.  And I intended to prove it through my own experiences as a Mormon and formal student of ancient scripture.  I supposed that the rigor of the study and its contradictions with the fundamental tenets of my own religion would serve as a crucible to refine my stalwart defense of Mormon orthodoxy.  But I was wrong.  Indeed, the reality of my experience in my first semester at Yale Divinity proved me so spectacularly wrong that I nearly withdrew from this conference.  Because it is, well, a bit humiliating to make a compelling argument for my own ineptitude. 

I do take some consolation in the fact that my thesis was not totally without merit.  I was right about the fact that the study is rigorous and that the contradictions with Mormonism are vexing.  And it does, in my opinion, serve as a most salubrious, if painful, crucible.  But my error was in supposing that such a critical hermeneutic was compatible with Mormon orthodoxy as it had been taught to me since my youth.  When I say “orthodoxy” I do not speak principally of doctrine but of method—a method of engaging scripture that ensures we always come up with the right answer.  Orthodox methodology has unfortunately become the foundation of religious education in the church.

I would like to show you what I think is a quintessential example of this orthodoxy.  I hold in my hand a certified LDS Scripture Marker.  (It’s engraved to that effect.)  These pencils are the staple of every seminary, institute, and Sunday school class.  And with these certified LDS Scripture Markers, we are told to mark an obtuse four hundred year old translation of the Bible, and indeed we are told which specific scriptures we are to mark and memorize. For Sunday school, the Church produces a lesson manual which tells us which passages we should read and what generic lessons we are to take away from them. And we are warned not to supplement these intellectually unfulfilling lessons with additional materials—unless their from Mormon Doctrine.

This is the hermeneutic designed to produce orthodox Mormons.  But I must wonder whether it makes us very good Saints.  Certainly it doesn’t make us think very hard.  It obviates theological difficulties, smoothes over ethical quandaries, and ignores historical incongruencies.  There is not a particularly high price to be paid for this superficial engagement with the text.  And it should not be surprising that the dividends are equally poor.  Mormons woefully underutilize the full potential of ancient scripture.  Here is a text at times beautiful, empowering, and uplifting.  But, as any serious student of the Bible knows, it is often messy, frustrating, and disturbing.  And, as Joseph Smith famously pointed out, it is not a book that lends itself well to Christian orthodoxy and one dimensional interpretation.  And so, in the name of orthodoxy, we follow the most obvious solution.  We don’t simply read it.  And we certainly don’t ask questions. 

While I do believe this orthodoxy comes out of a sincere desire to protect our testimonies, I do not recall that the avoidance of truth, however difficult, to have ever been a tenet of our faith.  And indeed, as I reflect upon the birth of the church and the guiding principle of its founder, I see critical reading of scripture and theological creativity as the seeds from which sprang the peculiar people. It was Joseph Smith who claimed that the Bible was not translated correctly but was a flawed text.  It was Joseph Smith who searched for the purer truth through the study of Greek, Hebrew, and German.  He was willing to ask of the Bible hard questions and was willing to accept the answers.  And the answers were radical and terrible and neither he nor his people came away from it unscathed.  The price to be paid for this honest and critical appraisal of a sacred text was very high, but so too were the dividends.  For it was a refiner’s fire.  It may have made Joseph Smith a good Mormon, but more importantly, it made him a good saint.

The critical reading of scripture in our day is somewhat different, but no less fraught.  Joseph Smith had the daunting task of deconstructing mainstream Christian notions of the Bible.  But the LDS Biblical scholar today faces the difficult opportunity of deconstructing Mormon notions of the Bible.  Heretofore Biblical exegesis within Mormonism has ascribed to a literalist and, more or less, infallible interpretation of scripture.  It is a perspective fundamentally at odds with historical-critical scholarship, and it comes as no surprise that such academic delving is condemned as unspiritual and even apostate.  And with reason.

The critical scholar can’t even get through the first chapter of Genesis before this literalism, the basis of so many testimonies, is obliterated.  Modern science has shown with incontrovertible evidence that the creation of the earth took a bit longer than six days. Linguists take issue with the Tower of Babel, climatologists rather frown upon the flood narrative, and I frankly have a hard time figuring out how Jonah lived in a fish for three days.  But these are rather insignificant problems that can be easily interpreted as metaphorical and theological treatises rather than actual historical accounts. 

More troubling are the textual issues.  While it is a tenet of Mormon faith that the Bible suffered some manipulation in its transmission, few Mormons are prepared to accept the magnitude of the textual messiness that constitutes the Bible.  The critical scholar soon discovers that the books of the Old Testament were written centuries after the events they ostensibly describe and reflect contemporary issues rather than historical occurrences.  And as much as Isaiah preaches against the evils of Babylon, much of the Old Testament is rather consistent with Babylonian religion.  We find that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people we thought they were written by.   And indeed, if we are to understand the historical Jesus, we must throw out the Gospel of John altogether.  Oddly, the Book of Mormon contains nineteenth century concepts of Christology foreign to the ancient world.  And Nephi seems to have a rather good mastery of King James English.

These are very difficult, perhaps impossible truths, for an orthodox Mormon to accept.  It is no wonder that such a study produces a crisis of faith and is so strenuously discouraged.  The very underpinnings of Mormon theology are at risk of dissolving into fiction when the texts upon which they rely are so brutally contradicted.  But for me, the hard historical realities were not the most troubling issues, nor the most poisonous to my Mormon orthodoxy.  I could accept ahistorical scripture and still remain firm in my faith. For me the questions of historicity were eclipsed by the more important questions of theology. 

Here too was vexation.  For textual problems aside, the Bible is a very disturbing book.  And the orthodox solution is either to ignore these troubling issues or to explain them away as belonging to a different time and a less developed people.  When we study the Book of Joshua, for example, we are happy about the miracle that allows the twelve tribes to cross the Jordan, but forget they are crossing the river to commit genocide.  We proclaim the Christ that said, “Love thy neighbor.”  But brush past the Christ who says we must hate father and mother to follow him.  We herald Nephi as among the most righteous of God’s prophets, while disregarding his deeply racist comments.  That our scriptures contain ethically troubling stories does not particularly bother me—that merely reflects the human hands that made them.

But what does bother me is that Mormon orthodoxy does not allow us to critically examine these passages.  If we cannot, through our study, promote the hagiography of God’s prophets, we must ask no further questions.  We are not permitted to say that sometimes the texts portray an unethical prophet, that sometimes they portray an unethical God.  We cannot say, that here the scriptures propose a course of action that is fundamentally wrong.  We cannot say that the theological implications of this passage or that one are incompatible with Christian morality. We cannot even discuss it and we certainly cannot question it.  I do not believe that these questions threaten our eternal salvation, but they can jeopardize our right to fellowship.  In asking these questions, I violated the guiding principles of orthodox methodology.  And so the crux of my original thesis was wrong.  My study did not make me a stalwart defender of orthodox Mormonism.

But it did increase my faith.  For when the study of Christianity becomes troubling, when it constitutes a mental agony and a spiritual crisis, when it deepens its mysteries even as we deepen our investigation, when we are threatened to be swallowed up in all the complexities and contradictions and absurdities—there is the trial of our faith, our cross of true discipleship. To say we do ourselves a disservice by avoiding this terrible crisis is a profound understatement.  There is little of saintliness in superficiality.  And by avoiding the questions or assuming the answers we waste the true power of these sacred texts. 

And these texts are sacred, which is why a critical and unflinching examination of them is so essential to the journey of faith.  For the unbeliever, such an examination is no more than an evisceration of the text, but for the true Christian, it is an evisceration of self, because the questions are supremely meaningful, because everything depends upon the answers, and because the life and character of the text is inextricably intertwined with our own.  By asking, we risk annihilation.  Here is a sacrifice that requires our heart, might, mind, and strength.   And one that offers no promises in the end.   There is a certain powerful liberation in this kind of awesome faith.

Now, when I speak of the sacrifice and agony attendant to the critical study of sacred scripture, I am not speaking in merely philosophical terms.  Hebrew really is hard. I have spent many an anguished night trying to figure out why in the hell the psalmist decided to put an preposition on the infinitive of a doubly weak verb, attach a pronominal suffix with an energic nun, and throw the whole thing into construct.  That is a trial of my faith.  When I took introductory Hebrew, we read the binding of Isaac as every Hebrew student does.  It is a text that haunts me.  It didn’t the first time I read it in Hebrew—then I was too worried about those damn vowel points.  But since then I have read it many, many times and there is something about reading it in Hebrew that grants it more power and more horror.  Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son he loves, Isaac.

There is perhaps no more eloquent meditation upon this story than that given in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard ascribes to Abraham the kind of awesome, unconditional, and unflinching faith that I am talking about.  He is asked by God to do something not just unethical but anathema to all that is Godly. Abraham is not merely asked to slay his son, but to slay the promise given by God that he would be a father of many nations.  To render God a liar. And there is Abraham’s dilemma.  If he obeys his God, his God becomes false.  Yet if he ignores the command of deity, he loses the promise.  To be faithless or to have faith in a faithless God. We have no reason to believe Abraham knew this was merely a test, that he would not actually have to sacrifice his son.  How then is Abraham to reconcile the irreconcilable, to extricate himself from an ironclad paradox.  By faith.  Faith that he would sacrifice his only son but also receive the then impossible promise. This, Kierkegaard says is faith at its greatest.  Abraham does not resign himself to a loss that might be made up in the eternities, but actively believes in the face of an irresolvable spiritual crisis. It is faith in the absurd.  And this is what makes Abraham the victorious knight of faith.

Honest, unflinching Biblical scholarship for the devout, believing Mormon may produce this kind of faith.  Our testimony is founded in scripture, that it is inspired, that it is true, and that it is the word of God. But what if these texts are complicated?  What if we must say the Old Testament is largely mythological?  What if we must say the New Testament does not accurately portray the historical Jesus?  What if we must say the Book of Mormon cannot be a literal account of an ancient proto-Christian people?  What if we must say the scriptures are often unethical and that the prophets are sometimes wrong? Well, then we say it.  And we believe anyway.  We believe that these scriptures are flawed, inaccurate, even unethical and we also believe that they are inspired, true, the very word of God.  The power in these scriptures lies not in their historical accuracy or theological purity, but in their complexities, contradictions, and failings.  Powerful faith comes of accepting this and believing anyway.  If we struggle with them, if we weep over them, if we are abused, lied to, and crushed under the weight of doubt, and then after this agony and betrayal, we nevertheless confess the name of Christ and the reality of the restoration—there we find the inspiration, the truth, and the divinity of these sacred, terrible books. 

And how refined would be our faith.  How much better would we understand the atonement, that most absurd of all acts when immortality died, when purity became stained, when justice was convicted and all this for a people who would ignore it, scoff at it, and be wholly ignorant of it.  And yet God did it anyway.  Knowing the impossibility, the absurdity, and the infinity, he believed anyway.  Why do we want to superficially engage these texts?  It is sacrilege.  But Christ atoned for that too.

The words of Ecclesiastes are powerful in their unapologetic assessment of this mortal journey.  “I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.  For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”  I find a certain consolation in that statement.  Aristotle would call it catharsis, a purging of sorrow through the experience of grief.  But it’s not the grief I find consoling, it’s the honesty.  And that’s the way I like my scriptures: honest, unapologetic, and messy.  Because it’s a reflection of life and of the human condition.  If we apply no critical hermeneutic but read the scriptures as uncomplicated stories we can hardly expect them to have any wisdom for our very complicated lives.  But if we look deeper and embrace the messiness of the text we learn something of its authors and we glimpse a people yearning for God and sometimes not finding him, a people asking questions and often getting no answers, a people seeking justice in an unjust world, a people begging for relief but suffering all the more—in short we find ourselves.

Growing up as a gay Mormon I was torn between two worlds; I sought for God to ask him why, to plead for justice, to beg for relief.  And I learned that sometimes there are no answers, there will be no justice, and there can be no relief.  Ultimately I could not find a place for myself in Mormonism and I left the church with great agony of soul.  I do not want superficial scriptures; I don’t want ethical scriptures; I don’t want historical scriptures.  I want honest scriptures, true scriptures, messy scriptures.  And they’re right here.  And though I have left the church, I have not lost my faith in my God and in his sacred word.  The critical lens through which I have examined these holy texts has only served to increase my faith and bring me closer to deity.  For the Bible is a book about my relationship with God.

This is the hermeneutic that we need in Mormon culture.  It is the hermeneutic we are starving for.  We need to throw away our certified LDS Scripture Markers, open our eyes, and start reading the book.  No matter how great the price, we need not be afraid of what we shall find.  “For you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” 

I conclude where I began by confessing that I was wrong.  An error for which I paid a heavy price.  The critical hermeneutic did not make me a good Mormon, but I like to think that in some small way it made me a better saint.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What Manner of Mormon Ought Ye to Be?

This post is a promised complement to the paper I recently delivered at a religion conference.  This, however inelegantly, captures the essence of the profound impact participation in that conference had on me.  Possibly more on this later.

As I clearly established in my previous post, Jesus is an ascot-wearing, mimosa-sipping, gay Mormon intellectual.  It follows, then, that to be like Jesus, we’ll all need to get out our ascots and matching capris.  That is the manner of Mormon we ought to be.

Regrettably, I don’t own a pair of capris.  As a gay intellectual, I am not particularly bothered by this lack, but my Mormon-ness is mortified.  Mortified, because it falls short of the gay Mormon intellectual Jesus who embodies and defends my mixed up, messed up identity.  Jesus, in his unlimited grace, lets me be gay, lets me be intellectual, lets me be Mormon.  And since it was as a Mormon that I first encountered that grace, the least I can do is own a damn pair of capris.  The least I can do is accept that grace from the one who has fully accepted me—from the one who has fully accepted me as a capris-clad Mormon, not as a helmet-and-nametag-wearing Mormon.

That was the redeeming and sanctifying revelation of this last conference: Only as a gay intellectual (and heretical) Mormon could I do the will of a Mormon Jesus.  As a closeted, orthodox Mormon, I was only capable of doing my own will—a godless ambition based on lies and self-loathing.  I knew the moment I disassociated myself from the Church that I could no longer do the will of God wearing a suit and tie.  But it was not until I attended this conference that I realized that I could do the will of (a Mormon) God at all.  So obsessed was I by the apparently irreparable rift between me and the Church that I didn’t realize a tie would bring me no closer to deity.  I didn’t know that some of us can only serve God in capris. That a fervent, desperate prayer, whether lisping or not, still somehow makes it to heaven. 

Before coming to the conference, I thought that being gay prevented me from being Mormon.  I left the conference knowing that being non-Mormon made me a much better Mormon. As a gay apostate I was a much better servant of God and the Church than as a lying orthodox.  I left knowing that there was a place for me at the table.  I left knowing that I had something yet to say, something yet to give, something yet to bring to that holy table.

The conference solved my problem of pronouns. “They” or “We”? Though I consider myself to have a competent grasp of the English language, I could not seem to figure out how my subjects and verbs agreed.  Are “They” Mormon or are “We”?  While I affirmed clearly to my associates that I was not Mormon, I found that when actually talking about Mormons, I invariably slipped into “We.” Was I an insider or an outsider?  Was I a double agent or unfaithful to both? Whatever peace I thought I had carved out for myself as a post-Mormon was under constant assault by grammar. 

Pronouns are uncompromising prophets.  I learned from them that I could not stop looking backward because I had failed to collect all the pieces of my broken heart.   But at the conference, I discovered I didn’t need to, I didn’t want to. When I concluded my talk, when I said “All is reconciled in Christ” and lowered the page, when I saw my tears and my hope, my love and my loss reflected in the eyes of this rather eccentric bunch of muddled Momons, then I realized that I was one of them, revoked membership be damned. 

I still don’t know whether to say “We” or “They” but I am delighted by the ambiguity, delighted that I can live in the space between insider and outsider moving fluidly—moving happily—between these worlds. I exult that I am muddled and messy. I have learned that my two identities are not in conflict, are not pulling me apart. That, indeed, there is, as there has always been, only one identity. I just didn’t know what it looked like.  I needed a community to show me what I looked like. I found one.

I think I have found reconciliation.  And I think I will purchase a pair of capris.  Maybe even wear them with a suit and tie, however unfashionable that might be.

What Manner of Mormon Ought Ye to Be? A Muddled Mormon. Even as Christ is Muddled.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Fabulous Jesus: A Heresy of Reconciliation

I recently presented at an amazing conference in which participants were asked, among other things, to address the prospects and problems of the inter-relationship between Mormonism and the intellectual world. I found the conference productive and edifying in profound ways. In many ways, it began a new chapter in my life. Hopefully more on that in a later post.

For the paper I presented, I specifically address the problems inherent in reconciling the often disparate philosophies and demands of faith and the academy.

This paper touches upon many of the other issues that I have examined in the other essays of this blog, so I felt that it was appropriate to post it here. In particular, this paper addresses the relevance of my own experiences as a gay Mormon within the wider context of faith-science relations. This will become clear should you choose to read any of the other essays in this blog. [If you choose to do so, read the very earliest post first (Of Fauns and a Post-Narnian Theology). It give context for all of the others.]

This paper adapts and incorporates the themes of my most recent blog post (Is Jesus Gay?), but frames them differently and arrives at somewhat different conclusions. Indeed, I didn’t know what the conclusions of either the blog post or this paper would be until literally the moment I wrote them. Perhaps this was inspiration or revelation, or maybe I found reconciliation.

Many people asked for copies of the paper. As a general rule, I do not provide written copies of my talks, because I feel that so much is lost going from ear to eye. Speaking and writing are such very different mediums. I considered making a voice recording of the talk—something I still might do. I also considered making extensive changes to translate it into better written style. I decided to keep it as close to the original reading as possible, however, as a new translation would be a different work. So, despite my qualms, I have provided what is basically a written transcript of my talk, with only a few editorial changes to make some parts of it comprehensible to those who were not at the conference.

You are welcome to share my remarks with other. Please just give credit to the keeper of this blog or, if you attended the conference, to the real author of this paper. As always, I welcome comments and discussion.

The Fabulous Jesus: A Heresy of Reconciliation

I start by saying this is not an academic paper; there are no footnotes. It is rather a personal reflection addressing the difficult questions of reconciling faith and the academy—many of which have already been raised today.

I hope that you are amused by the title of my talk. I hope that you are envisioning Jesus brunching by the Sea of Galilee, wearing bejeweled Armani sunglasses and a pashmina ascot, sipping mimosas and flamboyantly expounding the homosexual agenda with an Aramaic lisp. I also hope you are thoroughly baffled, maybe even a little offended. [Although this crowd seems shameless.] Those among you who are New Testament scholars are required to be annoyed by this ludicrous and anachronistic characterization Jesus. Faithful members of the church will be deeply troubled by the mimosas. But however ludicrous, ahistorical, or even heretical a gay Jesus might seem, I submit that he is a highly appropriate metaphor for our unique project. As both practitioners and scientists of religion, we often find ourselves in a rather ludicrous position, at once derided for believing in the absurd and impossible, and distrusted for making irreligious and unspiritual investigations. We balance history and science on the one hand and faith and revelation on the other. We are baffling, and a little offensive. So my fabulous metaphor stands. You (and especially me) are all fabulous Jesuses. And, as I hope to demonstrate, we are all heretics, or, at least, should be.

[Before I continue, I need to make a general disclaimer: I don’t know anything about epistemology, but I’m going to talk about it like I do. And I am likely to make stuff up.]

It is with a certain smugness that every intellectual generation concludes that it has, once and for all, settled the ultimate questions of epistemology over and against the obvious idiocy of its predecessors. We are indebted to the Enlightenment for their offended chastisement of passé religious superstition and for their discovery of pure, rational, and unbiased objectivity. But, we are also relieved that post-structuralism has completely reversed the Enlightenment by clearly demonstrating the instability of meaning. And what a blessed day when Post-Modernists deconstructed the whole damn thing! While, ostensibly, epistemology is concerned with the science of knowledge, it is often more concerned with how out-of-style epistemologists got it wrong. It is, like most intellectual systems, a reactionary science.

The intellectual orientation of the 18th century gave us Immanuel Kant. The 19th century gave us Joseph Smith. Both preached a “coming of age,” but they disagreed considerably about where it was coming from. The Second Great Awakening and American Transcendentalism had very specific targets. They sought to reclaim the soul of humankind from the mechanical and self-congratulatory excesses of Enlightenment philosophy and academic elitism. At the heart of this struggle was the basic question of epistemology: how do we know what we know? And, indeed, what exactly is it that we know and why do we know it? Rejecting the hyper-secularism of the 18th century deists, Transcendentalism sought to restore experiential and spiritual sources of wisdom. The 19th century defined itself by what the 18th century lacked. Mormonism, born at the dawn of the Transcendental movement beautifully and dramatically typified this restoration. Early Mormon theology and culture largely defined itself as a reactionary movement, embracing a posture of antagonism, difference, and peculiarity. It still does.

The players have changed and the debate has evolved in the last two-hundred years, but it is not unfair to say that modern Mormonism still defines itself in opposition to secularism, academic intellectualism, and even mainstream scientific investigation. Its epistemology is revelatory and it is fundamentally suspicious of other sources of knowledge. By contrast, the academy (at least on its face) adheres to the scientific method, rejecting divine revelation as unsuitable evidence for determining historical accuracy. Their epistemologies, their methodologies, even their philosophies are defined by what the other is not.

To demonstrate my point: Bruce R. McConkie, arguably Mormonism’s most influential and widely-read doctrinal authority of the last fifty years wrote book, many of you may have heard of, entitled Mormon Doctrine. While the book was neither authorized by, nor—officially—affiliated with the church, it has, nevertheless, become enshrined as a definitive source for, well, Mormon Doctrine. McConkie has a lot to say about nearly everything, Mormon and non-Mormon. If you look under the heading of “Higher Criticism” in Mormon Doctrine, it says “see also, Apostasy.”

Exhibit B: Before the most recent meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, a former member, Ronald S. Hendel, wrote an excoriating article against SBL, claiming that it had lowered its academic standards by providing too large a space for religious practitioners and faith-based projects at their annual meetings. To quote from his article, “facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts.” Support for Dr. Hendel’s position was considerable, such that SBL revised its oversight procedures to better emphasize and encourage its academic mission. This is not a polite disagreement. The church and the academy impose mutually antagonistic paradigms, or, as I would like to call them, hostile orthodoxies.

Scripture tells us that we cannot serve two masters, but here we are, standing in the sliver of a very angry and ever shrinking Venn diagram. One of the questions posed by this conference, is how do we maintain a place for ourselves? Shifting the pillars of these orthodoxies themselves is likely a task beyond our ability. If, then, institutional change is not a viable option, our prospects are individual. Can our dual identities be reconciled? The simple answer? Maybe. But it’s tricky. In the path toward personal reconciliation, how do you stay faithful to these two mutually antagonistic orthodoxies? You don’t. You can’t. Instead, I suggest you practice heresy, double heresy, to be precise. I suggest this because I am a self-professed heretic and have found, in my heresy, reconciliation. If you would indulge a brief autobiography, I would like to describe a personal heresy that repaired a mortal fissure in my ultra-orthodox soul.

As I am sure it has become clear (by the purple cuff-links if nothing else) I am gay. I was Mormon. Two and a half years ago I began a master’s program in New Testament at Yale Divinity. At the time I was a closeted homosexual, but openly intellectual. And devoutly Mormon. My intellectual interests were well received by my peers and professors, though they were a bit tepid about the whole Mormon thing, questioning whether I would be able to endure challenges to my faith. Since I was card carrying Mormon, the New Haven singles branch was delighted to receive me, though they were troubled about my openly intellectual lifestyle and were, regrettably, distrustful of the mission of the Divinity School altogether.

Both the academy and the church were uneasy places for me, not so much because they so often disagreed, but because they decided to disagree before a disagreement ever came up. Ultimately, it was not the historical Jesus who brought the tension to the breaking point. It was the Fabulous Jesus, or, rather, the Jesus was non-yet-fabulous. Being gay at Yale Divinity School is a lot like being Catholic—in Italy. Our queerness is legendary even for the gay Ivy. Being closeted at Yale is…well, it’s hard. While Mormon theology is met with open hostility, queer theology is happily practiced in our chapel. By contrast, while McConkie may be quoted regularly from the pulpit of my local branch, Oscar Wilde is not.

And so, there were places I could be an intellectual; there were places I could be a Mormon; and there was a place where I could have been gay. But there was really nowhere that I could be all three. Things really began to fall apart for me on October 10th of 2008, the day the Connecticut Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be an inalienable right. For weeks leading up to the decision I was strongly encouraged by church leaders to do whatever was in my power to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state. When the decision was announced at the divinity school, the room erupted into cheers. I wanted to disappear forever.

On that day, a line had been crossed. My church leaders wondered how I could support such an organization that tolerated and championed that kind of moral degradation. To them, the divinity school typified the sort of arrogance, moral bankruptcy, and worldliness that they believe characterizes the liberal movement. My fellow students—my friends—at the divinity school questioned how I could be a part of what they saw as a close-minded, intolerant, and unloving institution. On that day, the Venn diagram was just too small. And so, unable to serve two masters, I clung to one and watched my soul tear apart. I left the church. I came out of the closet.

That is not reconciliation. Choosing one orthodoxy over the other is not reconciliation. In leaving the church I did not find reconciliation—at least, not immediately. I merely became an apostate and a heretic. But I wasn’t a good-enough heretic. Because a good-enough heretic pisses everyone off. A good enough heretic makes mutually exclusive orthodoxies agree at least about one thing (namely, that he’s a heretic). Let me describe to you a good-enough heretic. To Mormonism, the concept of a gay, ascot-wearing, Jesus is thoroughly heretical. But to the academy, particularly in the field of LGBT studies, the ascot is perfectly acceptable. A Mormon Jesus, on the other hand is completely unacceptable and offensive to the academy. But a Mormon Jesus for the Saints? Well, duh. Both a gay Jesus and a Mormon Jesus are heretical, but they are not heretical enough. But a gay Mormon Jesus, maybe even a gay Mormon, intellectual Jesus—there we have something. Something that pisses everyone off. That is a good-enough heresy.

An intellectual gay Mormon Jesus is shocking and offensive to just about everyone. Except, perhaps, to an intellectual gay Mormon who has been scorned by the intellectuals, rejected by the gays, and cast out by the Mormons. But, to me, that resonates with the New Testament characterization of Jesus—the Jesus who was not understood, who offended the orthodox and the powerful, who was abused and cast out by his own people. But also the Jesus who identified with, condescended below, and lifted up the poorest of the poor. Now, I wish to make it clear that, in my melodramatic reference to rejection, I am not claiming to be among the poorest of the poor. Nor am I claiming to be Jesus. (I assure you that I took my medication this morning.) But through this mixed metaphor of this mixed Jesus, I am telling you something you already know—something I wish I had remembered during those dark and lonely days—all is reconciled in Christ. While these two orthodoxies are defined by what the other is not, Christ is only defined by what is. And God is more nuanced, more complicated, and more complete than either of these orthodoxies can circumscribe. God is the infinite Venn diagram. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled into that Venn diagram, or rather, I stumbled out of orthodoxy altogether. For the Jesus I came to know and who knows me is so mixed up that he is something wholly other.

A good-enough heresy offends both orthodoxies because it forces each to see itself melded with the other. It forces each to see itself in the other, reconciled with the other. To see that its identity need not be defined by what the other is not, but rather that its identity can be completed by what only the other has. A double heretic embodies a completed orthodoxy. Our heresies complete us.

I do not consider myself to be a particularly graceful double-heretic. Like I said, sometimes it’s tricky. I did not, nor do I believe ever will, find a place for myself in the church. On the other hand, while there may be a place for me in the academy, it won’t an orthodox place. I hope never to give up heresy completely. As a New Testament scholar I may be quick to dismiss the Gospel of John as fundamentally ahistorical. But I will accept as truth the words of the Johannine Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus didn’t say that, but Christ did. That is a double heresy. And that is good-enough.

I am not suggesting that the answer is to leave the church. Nor am I suggesting it isn’t. But wherever you are—wherever we are—we should not be quiet, feeling obligated to vote along party lines; we should not define ourselves by what the other half of us isn’t; we should not be orthodox. If we wish to reconcile our competing orthodoxies we must practice a healthy dose of heresy. Reconciliation is found by living in the other.

As a student of history I have to admit, however reluctantly, that Jesus didn’t wear pashmina ascots or Armani sunglasses—but nor did he wear white shirts and dark suits and a bicycle helmet. Jesus wasn’t fabulous but nor was Jesus a 21st century Mormon. It’s hard to tell whether he was even an intellectual. Of the historical Jesus we know so very little. But what does seem clear is that he didn’t play by the rules. He caused great offense to official authorities—Roman or Jewish. And he attracted a following of not particularly notable people. We are not particularly notable people. But we are people with issues, people who are complicated, who are torn—people in need or reconciliation. And so, we can follow him. And break the rules. And cause offense. And be made whole. Of course, if you’ve read to the end of the book, you know that it’s a rather risky venture. But as Paul taught, the Cross that offends also gives life. And all is reconciled in Christ.