On Monday, I shared the turning point of my journey that led me away from a rigid Side B perspective (the belief that gay marriage is not in God’s design for humanity and is therefore sinful.) I wanted to talk more about that journey, in particular how it relates to the heart. I could (and probably will) talk more about the theological/intellectual aspect of my journey, but that will come later.
Earlier this year, Rachel Held Evans wrote a piece on her blog called “The Scandal of The Evangelical Heart” that made me stop dead in my tracks. Her words struck a chord deep inside me and reverberated outward, leaving something of a crisis in their wake. I can’t remember when this event occurred in the timeline of my Irrational Season – if it was before or after the conversation with the Presbyterian minister during which I let go of Side B – but it was another important turning point for me, not only as a gay man but also as a Christian.
At the beginning of the piece, Rachel says that the questions that have challenged her faith the most are not questions of the mind, but questions of the heart. She recalls how the public execution of a woman named Zarmina in Afghanistan was a turning point for her, as she came face to face with challenging questions about God, faith, and salvation. She describes how Christians gave simple, theologically consistent answers that never sat right with her heart, and how the Calvinists could swiftly explain all her questions away by saying that God had preordained everyone to salvation or to eternal damnation; that every single war, rape and earthquake was God’s idea.
She writes that they said all this “without a glimmer of tear, and it scared me to death. It nearly scared me out of the Church.”
For what makes the Church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority? What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?
Perhaps in reaction to the “scandal of the evangelical mind,” evangelicalism of late has developed a general distrust of emotion when it comes to theology. So long as an idea seems logical, so long as it fits consistently with the favored theological paradigm, it seems to matter not whether it is morally reprehensible at an intuitive level.
She then goes on to quote theology blogger Richard Beck, who describes this experience of detached theology as “Orthodox Alexithymia.”
When theology and doctrine become separated from emotion we end up with something dysfunctional and even monstrous.
A theology or doctrinal system that has become decoupled from emotion is going to look emotionally stunted and even inhuman. What I’m describing here might be captured by the tag “orthodox alexithymia.” By “orthodox” I mean the intellectual pursuit of right belief. And by “alexithymia” I mean someone who is, theologically speaking, emotionally and socially deaf and dumb. Even theologically sociopathic.
Alexithymia–etymologically “without words for emotions”–is a symptom characteristic of individuals who have difficulty understanding their own and others’ emotions. You can think of alexithymia as being the opposite of what is called emotional intelligence.
Orthodox alexithymia is produced when the intellectual facets of Christian theology, in the pursuit of correct and right belief, become decoupled from emotion, empathy, and fellow-feeling. Orthodox alexithymics are like patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain damage. Their reasoning may be sophisticated and internally consistent but it is disconnected from human emotion. And without Christ-shaped caring to guide the chain of calculation we wind up with the theological equivalent of preferring to scratch a doctrinal finger over preventing destruction of the whole world. Logically and doctrinally such preferences can be justified. They are not “contrary to reason.” But they are inhuman and monstrous. Emotion, not reason, is what has gone missing. Read the entire post.
This piece struck me so deeply because, as I read it, it was as if mirror had been raised before me and I saw my reflection for the first time. I realized, with a bit of horror, that my commitment to intellectual integrity had been at the expense of emotional integrity – especially with regard to what I believed about sexuality.
Everything came into focus as I read her words. As a Side B person, I ignored what my heart was screaming at me: I ignored the pain, the cries of exhaustion, and the burning fire. I ignored the loneliness; I ignored the questions, and I ignored the uncomfortable yearnings. I didn’t allow myself to entertain the implications of my belief for an entire people group, because my heart might be torn to shreds if I did. Most of all, I ignored the cries of my heart that what I was believing was, in some way, unjust and that it is fundamentally wrong to call committed, adult, mature, and longsuffering love wrong. Every day I hit the mute button on my heart, because what I believed made sense. It was theologically consistent, and was not contrary to reason. My heart, however, was a wild frontier of unquantifiable and powerful voices – voices that challenged the theological arithmetic by which I led my life.
Something inside of me collapsed from exhaustion when I finally realized what I was doing to my heart. I realized that my pursuit of right belief felt, all over again, like being a learning disabled student in the school system – every day having to go contrary to parts of my being to meet a cold, calculated, and distant standard. It was a denial of the here and now, the present and immediate, for the sake of some distant and theoretical demand. Sociopathic theology is ultimately inhumane, and there was no greater victim of its inhumanity than myself. This might be why I have such a raging anger at Side B. That fury may have to do with how I marginalized my own heart in pursuit of right belief.
Something inside of me rebelled. Something inside me said, clearly and resolutely, “No. No more. I can’t. I won’t.”
Like an eruption, my heart demanded to be heard. It demanded that its recognition of injustice must be acknowledged. That does not mean the heart is infallible, that our innate sense of rightness is always right, but simply that refusing to listen and – in some way – respond to its promptings is a form of self deception. People will quote scripture and respond by saying, “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things,” but I do not believe that verse is an invitation to self-deception and compartmentalization.
I knew that, no matter what I believed about my sexuality, I needed to engage both my mind and my heart. As Rachel Held Evans states at the end of her piece,
It’s not enough for me to maintain my intellectual integrity as a Christian; I also want to maintain my emotional integrity as a Christian. And I don’t need answers to all of my questions to do that. I need only the courage to be honest about my questions and doubts, and the patience to keep exploring and trusting in spite of them.
The bravest decision I’ll ever make is the decision to follow Jesus with both my head and heart engaged—no checking out, no pretending.
It’s a decision I make every day, and it’s a decision that’s made my faith journey a heck of a lot more hazardous and a heck of a lot more fun. It means that grinning monster, doubt, is likely to stick around for a while, for I know now that closing my eyes won’t make him go away.
This is the path I am now committed to following – a path of intellectual and emotional integrity as a Christian. No checking out, no pretending. As I pursue truth, I want to encounter it as a whole human being, with both my mind and heart intact.