During my years of reparative (ex-gay) therapy, I remember being told that my same-sex attractions were a result of my emotional dysfunction. Later, in my faith-based men’s “healing” groups, I was told that my attractions were a result of my sin nature. I quickly developed the belief that my feelings were wrong, and that my experience of myself and the world was invalid. In short, I couldn’t trust myself to discover any kind of truth on my own. It’s this lie — that our experience has no place in informing our faith — that makes so many LGBTQ people unable to embrace their sexuality.
Fundamentalist and conservative churches rigidly adhere to the belief that scripture — and only scripture — is the foundation for understanding our faith. That approach is not only flawed, it diverges from many historical approaches to faith. And it stunts our capacity to grow spiritually.
Richard Rohr writes about how our foundation for faith is built not upon scripture alone, but upon three pillars: scripture, tradition, and experience. He describes this as the tricycle of transformation. Like a tricycle, there are two small wheels in back and one large wheel in front — which is to say, one of the three “wheels” is typically the one that is the primary driver in our faith journey. Evangelical churches approach faith more like a unicycle; they say that we must trust the Bible and nothing else. Catholic and mainline churches have relied heavily on the wheel of tradition; they say that we must trust the rituals and customs handed down by church authorities. But what about the wheel of experience? Does it have any place in informing our beliefs?
“The other two wheels, Scripture and Tradition, can be seen as sources of outer authority, while your personal experience is your inner authority,” Rohr writes. “Christianity in most of its history has largely relied upon outer authority. But we must now be honest about the third wheel of inner experience, which of course was at work all the time but was not given credence. In fact, we were told not to trust it!”
The wheel of experience is dangerous to church authorities because the message can’t be controlled or easily interpreted. We all share the same scripture, and our traditions have been handed down to us. But our experiences vary wildly. They are deeply personal, and often inexplicable, which makes it difficult for the church to neatly tie experiences into an easily digestible narrative of our faith. And so it’s much easier for the church to ignore any experience that seems to challenge the two other wheels of scripture or tradition.
While the failure to honor our experience is true for all Christians, those living on the margins of mainstream Christianity are the most likely to receive the message to distrust their experiences. The poor are poor because they aren’t working hard enough; their poverty and hunger aren’t valid experiences. Racial minorities are only targeted because they refuse to assimilate; the discrimination they proclaim isn’t a valid experience. And, of course, LGBTQ people are sinful because they reject what the church alleges to be their true nature; their feelings aren’t valid.
If we’re honest, though, all of us are driven by the wheel of experience. We are shaped more than anything by the people who raise us and the culture that teaches us what is right and what is wrong. We know no other way to live. Those of us who purport to put the wheel of scripture or tradition at the front of the tricycle do so only because we have first been shaped by an experience that tells us to do so.
LGBTQ Christians must reclaim experience as a valid authority for shaping their views on faith and sexuality. If we don’t, we will always live at the mercy of those who shape the narratives on scripture and tradition. Our experiences — our pain, our love, our longings — are all valid. They all come from a place of truth.
After about a decade spent in men’s “healing” groups, I remember one night when I looked about the room and thought, “Look at us! We are all miserable human beings.” All of us were trying so hard to obey what we believed scripture said about our attractions that all of our energy was focused inward. We were white-knuckling our way through life and had nothing to give outwardly. There was no joy in our effort. There was no fruit of the Spirit in what we were doing.
This moment transformed me in ways that years of studying scripture could not. My experience told me that what we were doing was not life-giving. It spoke to me as clearly as law etched into a stone tablet. I’m so glad that, at that moment, I had ears to hear.
If we believe the Spirit resides in us, then we cannot deny the inner voice of experience. It has things to tell us, if only we will trust it.
Photo by Aslak Raanes, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.
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