Subjectivity and Belief

Kathy Rudy

Because the mountain grass Cannot but keep the form Where the mountain hare has lain. (William Butler Yeats, Memory, 1916)

In the Fall of 1995, I completed the first draft of Sex and the Church (Rudy 1997), a book which argued that sexism and homophobia were inextricably intertwined (especially for the Christian right), that the socially constructed distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality was a poor way to conceptualize Christian ministry, and that progressive Christians should stop encouraging gays and lesbians to take up monogamous relationships and try instead to understand the value of a lifestyle built on community. Although it would be 18 months before the book would be published, I felt happy that Fall to be finished with the first stage, and sent the manuscript to my editor and to several of my colleagues at Duke University At that time, I was just starting my second year of a joint appointment at Duke between the Divinity School and Women's Studies. It was a great job for me because my partner also taught at Duke, we owned a house in Durham (North Carolina), had two dogs and a kid in middle school, and having this Duke job meant no more commuting. I had completed my PhD in the Duke Religion Department several years before getting that job, and most of my teachers knew Jan, and knew that we were together; thus, although my sexual orientation was never discussed during the hiring process, I assumed that all parties knew about me and had tacitly consented to these arrangements. I had convinced myself that even though many of my colleagues were blatantly homophobic in their work or in their casual conversation, I was somehow an exception in their minds.

I was wrong. In the beginning of my second year, I was "outed" by several conservative Faculty members, was accused of theological heresy for my current work on homosexuality as well as for earlier publications on abortion, had my credentials questioned by a group of students, and finally was told that although my initial contract would be fulfilled, I would no longer be able to teach courses on gender, sexuality, or feminism without the written approval of the entire Department. To their credit, university administrators realized that this was not a healthy environment for a junior scholar and stepped in immediately to move my position full-time into Women's Studies.

These events produced a number of professional and personal changes for me that bear on my thinking in this chapter. At one level, I feel that my professional career as a scholar of religion ended that Fall. In pursuing tenure in the emerging field of women's studies, I would now need to attend new conferences, make new contacts, publish in different arenas. I would engage different students, different arguments. I would no longer be speaking and writing within the community called "Church."

The more important changes took place on a deeper level where for the first time since college I began to question the value and coherence of my own faith. For many people, disappointments like the one I experienced that semester often function only to bolster belief; God, after all, can provide solace and assurance that can make such hard times easier. However, for me, these months produced the reverse; the entire world of faith and religion seemed tainted, filled with hurt, unwelcoming. This shift came for me not as a result of reasoned deliberation but rather as one of those life events where your emotions seem to reconfigure themselves, where the meaning of many things is altered, almost without your consent. I think of how these events organized my life into "before" and "after" frames. Before, it never bothered me that my partner and our daughter never liked to go to church; I went by myself when I couldn't convince them to come. After, it seems too hard to leave them relaxing on Sunday morning to go off by myself into hostile territory. Before, it didn't bother me that there was not one gay-affirming Methodist church in Durham or Chapel Hill; most of the people in my home church knew and accepted, right? After, such self-deceptions were unconvincing. Before, on the occasions when I really needed a spiritual high, I went to one of the white or black evangelical churches in Durham; even though I had encountered homophobic sermons there, I was able to ignore these proclamations and enjoy the music and the way the Holy Spirit was present. After, rage consumed me so profoundly that I could hardly bear to drive by these places. Before, I felt thrilled with the handful of religion scholars who knew what I was writing and supported my efforts; I worked through my ideas with them. After, the Christian Church seemed filled only with hateful and homophobic hypocrites, and I simply could not will myself into conversation with them. Before, the world felt driven by the love of God. After, the world seemed to go forward based only on sheer force of my own will.

So, before Sex and the Church even saw print, my connection with the institution called "Church" was troubled. What I attempt to trace out in this chapter are the ways that this shift has affected my work and my thinking; that is, I am interested not in the impact that Sex and the Church has had on readers, but rather the effect the text has had on its own author. Writing several years after these events, I find myself asking a series of questions that potentially shed light not only on matters of faith but also on issues of human subjectivity. How does one cope with a shift in which things that were once "impossible for humans but possible for God" were now just plain impossible? How does one make the transition from a world where "God will provide" and "God knows best" into a world where little is certain except death, taxes, and maybe late capitalism? What happens to the form of belief when the object of faith is questioned, when the controlling institution is revealed to be corrupt? What happens to the meaning that drains out of daily life when you lose your faith? How is that life altered when simple acts that used to function as an intimate connection between the imminent and the transcendent no longer have spiritual value? And, perhaps just as important as any of these questions, in what ways does that life, finally, stay the same?

Over the past several years I have sought answers to these questions in many different forms of scholarship and writing. These investigations have led me to a set of hunches or intuitions about the way that religious belief molds and shapes a human subject, and the various ways that that human subject retains the form or outline of that belief, long after faith has been lost. I would like to review here some of the work that has been most helpful in leading me to these insights; I will conclude by summarizing these ideas in relation to questions of gay and lesbian life in the church.

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