Religion and LSJ: Reflections from Members of the Lehigh English Department

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This post was collaboratively conceived of by three religiously-engaged graduate students in the department. Each of us has considered how our religious traditions affirm and come in conflict with the values we are espousing through the LSJ program. Here are our thoughts.

Cherise, Christian

Religion has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember. Unlike many others who grew up in the church, I was fortunate enough to have had positive experiences within this community that allowed me to fully embrace my faith throughout my childhood and adolescence. As I’ve developed my academic and political interests after high school, however, I began to realize that they were at odds with the interests evangelical Christians identify and align with. The tensions between my interests and those of my Christian community have caused me to deeply question, though not abandon, the tenets of my faith. Coming into the MA program at Lehigh, I was quite self-conscious about my spiritual and religious practices as a Christian. I understood that to be a politically liberal academic and a devout, Jesus-loving Christian was to inhabit two vastly different, antithetical worlds as they have been construed in modern cultural consciousness and public discourse. The problem was that I felt (and still feel) like they were both equally constitutive of, and essential to, my identity and worldview. And so, I stubbornly keep one foot firmly planted in both worlds despite my frustrations at being boxed in by both sides.

Strange as this may sound, I feel that my support for anti-patriarchal, anti-heteronormative, and anti-White supremacist structures stems from my experience and understanding of God’s grace and love. The fact that all these values continually exert pressure on each other feeds my commitment to them even more because of the coherences and contradictions they offer. The ideas I encountered in Suzanne’s Feminist and Queer Theory class last fall, for example, were not only critical to my intellectual development as a scholar, but allowed me to articulate certain doubts I had regarding the church’s stance on issues of gender and sexuality. In doing so, however, I also found that there were many problematic assumptions regarding how liberal, heterosexual men approach non-platonic relationships with heterosexual women. (I am not speaking to the experiences of other sexual identities here because I identify as a heterosexual woman). Thus, being able to explore both these worldviews in relation to each other has been both frustrating but also productive in allowing me to constantly challenge and question the validity of my beliefs.

Still, there are a few salient questions that recur for me in navigating the conflict produced by the social demands of these two disparate outlooks. To what extent does my involvement with a predominantly White, wealthy, and politically center/right-aligned church perpetuate ideologies of power and oppression? Does my engagement with the English department at Lehigh and at Grace Church Bethlehem diminish my effectiveness as an advocate for the values I hold dear in both spheres? Furthermore, how do I reconcile my embrace of (white) Christian values as a postcolonial subject whose parents were educated in missionary schools that embody the legacy of colonial subjugation?

I don’t have easy answers to any of these questions. The truth is, I don’t think I know how to engage in the kinds of social justice projects envisioned by this department without the spiritual and religious aspects of my identity; likewise, my religious ethos would also be meaningless without the influence of these social justice values.

 

Naashia, Muslim

Growing up Muslim meant that I always had to find a way to reconcile my religious beliefs with my personal and academic beliefs. If you grow up in a country where the majority of the population is Muslim, it isn’t always easy to argue that it is perfectly possible to be a liberal AND be Muslim. Coming to America and knowing that people have misperceptions about a system of values that they do not fully understand is equally difficult. While it is certainly no walk in the park at times to say that I endorse what my religion entails while being liberal at the same time, I believe that I have found a way to tread the cross-roads between passion and logic. I have learnt to separate the two: thus when I pray for instance, I pray as an entirely different person. The mantra is, you are Muslim first then anything else. When I am out of my religious/spiritual zone, I am an individual, a woman, a writer or anything else. It may sound hypocritical but I believe that it is one of those ways in which I have meant to retain two separate identities without having to relinquish one or the other.

Perhaps one of the biggest struggles that I have seen a lot of people deal with is the reconciliation between sexuality and their religious beliefs. I do not just of course, refer to the Islamic tussle; I have met plenty of people from other religious backgrounds who have stated that they do not know how to walk this tightrope.  On the one hand, theological texts state one stance on the issue of heterosexuality; in today’s world however, it has become possible for queer Muslims to go to the mosque for instance and pray without being turned away. When I ask the question how does it work then, I refer to the emotionally draining/ mentally tasking challenge that I believe this must become. We assume of course that because we are living in a world that has grown more accepting, that it must have become easier for people of various faiths where heterosexuality is prescribed as the ONLY mode of sexuality, to reconcile their religious beliefs with their otherness (read queer sexual identity). I’m straight so I cannot say how it must personally feel, but it can’t be easy. It certainly cannot be easy when someone conservative and belonging to a certain faith asks a queer Muslim or Christian or other religious community member about hell when it comes to their otherness. Perhaps the question I should ask is, how is heaven or hell the problem of this conserative? We should all only care for the state of our own souls if we profess to believe in a certain religion. But the fact is that conservatives and intolerant people will always exist – what can we do to understand and convey our empathy for the people who actually face this intolerance? I don’t really have an answer, except try to understand that their otherness does not make them any different from you or I (read fellow worshippers who may not identify as queer). Counseling perhaps might be another answer. I can’t really say but it is something worth thinking about: Heaven and hell should be individual problems, not a metaphorical pitch-fork wielding conservative’s problem.

 

Jimmy, Catholic

I previously recorded an audio blog about my experience as a queer Catholic, so I won’t repeat myself here. What I do want to think through is how my Catholicism and investment in the LSJ program as a queer person align and conflict with one another. What Catholicism has instilled in me, at its core, is an investment in radical responses to injustice. Breaking the story of Christ down goes like this: a person was so effective in mobilizing marginalized communities for revolution and change that he was publicly assassinated by a government entity to quell uprising. What queer theorists, Black feminist thinkers, disabled scholars, and more have taught me through the LSJ program is the necessity for unending scrutiny against structures and systems of oppression. As a white, cis, economically-advantaged, able-bodied, queer, Catholic, educated man, both Catholicism and LSJ have, more than anything, made me accountable for my communities. And this is why, for me, religion has been an integral part of my scholarship and advocacy on campus.

Where I continue to struggle and wrestle with my faith is the immense inheritance of violence the Catholic Church has enacted. Given the explosion of sex abuse cases among Catholic priests and the degradation of women and queer and trans people, how do I commit myself to LSJ and the Church? How do I exist in this space and not support the violence it commits? In some ways, I’m not sure it’s possible to the fullest extent of equity I would want. But what LSJ offers me is the space to imagine, to dream, to consider utopias and alternatives and possibilities for me and my church. Often times, I’ve stifled my own justice work due to a sense that it’s just not possible to do what I hope for. And in some ways, I’m correct. But an investment in my faith and LSJ allows me to keep trying, to keep exploring for new ways to consider justice. I find myself more emboldened than ever to hold my Catholic community accountable for its actions and to continue to work within those spaces to make room for members traditionally excluded; inhabiting both privilege and marginalization within the Church gives me the opportunity to build coalitions that would not have been possible without the texts I’ve encountered through LSJ. In the end, living at the intersection of queerness, Catholicism, and privilege offers me a unique vantage point that I hope through continued education and humility allows me to be a better teacher, a better scholar, and a better advocate.

 

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