The Violence of a Heartless Theology
By Alicia Johnston
As someone who spent many years closeted in a Christian community that most definitely did not affirm my sexuality, I know more than most what it takes to live life by the principle that your feelings can’t be trusted.
“It’s just a feeling.” These were the words I used to distance myself from the inevitable knowledge that I was in love.
“It’s just a feeling.” I reassured myself when a silent energy passed between me and another woman.
“It’s just a feeling.” I desperately clung to these words when I longed for my friend to rest her arm across my legs, feeling I would crumble inside if she didn’t touch me.
These words are how I taught myself that I don’t matter. They became the mournful refrain that played in the background of my life until I stopped feeling and settled into a resigned depression. I lost myself, but at least I was doing the right thing.
One doubt still haunted me. Where was the abundant life, peace, and joy that I am promised?
Devaluation of feelings is part of a particular approach to theology and religion. Religious rules are taught without reference to their psychological impact. The approach is intellectual and philosophical. It has its roots in modernism, rationality, and science (and even further back to Plato). It’s not rooted in Judaism or scripture. Instead of each religious teaching being part and parcel with Jesus’ commandment to love, the rules are supposed to apply no matter how much harm they cause.
Many times since coming out I’ve been reminded of this viewpoint by people who believe I am required to ignore the suffering of my community and abstractly discuss theological issues. They want to compare love between people of the same gender to pedophilia or bestiality, and don’t think it matters that such comparisons are discriminatory. Or they believe that mental health problems aren’t theologically relevant. It’s common to treat theology like arithmetic and people like CPUs.
But our emotional lives matter. They matter not only to us and to those who love us, they also matter theologically. Theology is a spiritual discipline. If the Holy Spirit is required to understand the scripture, that must mean that compassion and suffering matter.
Am I saying that I should get to do whatever I feel like? Does this mean I don’t have to deny myself or do things that are hard? Absolutely not! It wouldn’t be good or right for me to date women only because I want to. Not by any means.
It is not good to live a life ruled by feelings uninformed by goodness and truth. Taking feelings into account is not the same thing as being ruled by them. We should pay attention when feelings go beyond a simple desire and into the realm of significant mental health problems for a group of people. If our theology is causing depression, shame, and suicide, it’s irresponsible to carry on as if feelings don’t matter.
Jesus said that you can tell whether a tree is good or bad by looking at its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). What is the fruit of theology that says same-sex relationships and transgender identity are sinful? Here is a small sampling:
If you are straight, I ask you to consider what it would be like for you and your friends to experience depression, rejection, and shame every time the church teaches your sexuality is broken. Personally, this was my experience despite the fact that I believed and always followed by what the church taught. I never disobeyed, but that didn’t make the shame go away. Many of my queer friends have told me about being suicidal right after being told their sexuality was sinful. Would you want church leaders to consider these consequences if they happened to you or someone you love?
This is the fruit of a rotten tree. I firmly believe the promises of the Bible still apply to queer people. Fruit like depression, rejection, and suicide are heartbreaking. Those who stay in communities whose theology is a true expression of God should not be 8.4 times more likely to commit suicide than those who are outside these communities.
On the other hand, what are the fruits affirming theology? If LGBT rejecting communities increase harm, affirming communities reduce harm. Supporting same-sex marriage and affirming LGBT people is life giving for us. It’s certainly hard to see who is being harmed by same-sex love. It’s clear many are benefiting from its affirmation.
Elsewhere on this website and through many other resources you will find more sophisticated theology addressing specific texts and theological interpretations, but aren’t these matters of harm, joy, and love the gospel at its core? God loves the world deeply, forgives us for our failures to love, and teaches us how to love completely and fully. The fruits of affirming theology certainly are full of love and life. The fruits of non-affirming theology bring harm and suffering.
If you are non-affirming in your theology, you have a God-given responsibility to resolve this problem. It’s not enough to say, “the church should do a better job of loving people, but we have to follow the Bible,” and move on to other things. Something is seriously wrong. Non-affirming theology does not deliver on the promises of scripture.
If you are straight, and especially if you have a place in an institution that teaches non-affirming theology, it’s easy to theologize about what is right or wrong for people like me who don’t fit traditional theological constructs. It’s easy to avoid getting to know us or to go along with the prevailing culture that does not to respect and believe the things we say about ourselves and our lived experiences. It’s easy not to involve yourself with those whose lives you judge to be unworthy of the blessings of marriage and church membership. It’s easy to dismiss our pain, place our suffering outside the category of worthwhile information for theological study, and ignore the consequences of your theology about sexuality and gender.
It’s easier and feels better to separate theology from its impact on real people, but we can’t wash our hands of responsibility. Scrub until our hands are raw, the stain is apparent. Each of us is responsible for the fruit our theology. If we drive people to the depths of depression and self-hatred, don’t be surprised if God doesn’t care for the excuse, “It’s just a feeling.”
Alicia Johnston was a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, until she announced via a viral video that she is fully inclusive and affirming of LGBT sexuality and gender, and that she is a bisexual Christian. She now speaks and writes about her story, queer insights on faith, and the intersection of Christianity and sexuality. Alicia has a master of divinity from Andrews University and an master of arts in Clinical Psychology from Argosy University. This piece was originally published in her blog at aliciajohnston.com.