I suggested last week that missiologists should focus on homosexuality in our research and writing, that missiologists would bring real strengths to the topic, and that such a contribution would benefit the wider church. But I also indicated there would be difficult hurdles to clear for this to happen. The following are three challenges we must address, if this is to happen.

Challenge #1: Inhibiting Forms of Spirituality.

Many of us have been socialized to a form of spirituality that, once embraced, inhibits us from thinking about, talking about, writing about, and researching sexuality. Because we are sexual beings, the shear act of paying attention to sex often has the effect of triggering sexual feelings or arousal. When such feelings are coded as “sinful” in all settings other than the marital bedroom, then naturally many a devout Christian desirous of personal purity will, in all settings except the marital bedroom,  avoid thinking about sex, talking about sex, lecturing about sex, writing about sex, or researching sexuality. I see three problems with this approach to spirituality: First, I question whether it correctly understands Scripture. That is, such an approach would seem to rest on a misinterpretation of Jesus’ words about the sin of “lust,” which many have interpreted to mean that every time anyone feels a sexual feeling, this is sin. In fact the Greek word here, unlike our English word “lust,” was not associated primarily with sex or sexual arousal, but was the specific term the Greek Septuagint used to translate “covet” in the tenth commandment.  And in this passage Jesus is providing commentary on the tenth commandment not to “covet” what belongs to someone else, whether it be their spouse, their house, or their ox. “Covet” does not equate to sexual arousal, although of course sexual feelings often do contribute to such coveting. But we should never have treated this passage as suggesting that every sexual feeling anyone has, other than in the marital bedroom, is sin. Second, a spirituality grounded centrally in a strategy of avoidance does not accomplish even what it intends. We are sexual beings, are surrounded by other sexual beings, and live in cultural worlds that constantly bring sexuality to our attention. This is unavoidable. To take a male-centric example, even in societies that cover women from head to toe, the sexuality of heterosexual men does not thereby become quiescent and completely under control. While certainly many forms of avoidance are appropriate and biblical, a spirituality that elevates avoidance to the single dominant strategy of engagement is not balanced and will not work. All of us, male and female, must learn to manage sexual feelings as they are sometimes felt, in ways that are moral and spiritual. And this will of course be especially true for anyone thinking, writing, or researching in this area. Third, such a spirituality of avoidance results in ignorance – leaving us poorly prepared to minister to people in this part of their lives, and poorly prepared to engage the conversations of our culture in a way that feels credible or persuasive to others. We must develop forms of spirituality that do not hinder us from developing deep and profound knowledge and understanding of sexual realities.

Challenge #2: The Lack of Prior Foundational Work.

The topic of sexuality, and especially homosexuality, has been largely missing from our missiological course offerings, research agendas, professional meetings, and publications. This means that we have not been carefully nurturing the understandings that would position us well to contribute to the public debates of our society and of our churches. Any individual scholar or community of scholars that wishes to engage any new arena of research  must go through a lengthy process of mastering relevant literature and debates, carefully formulating research projects in the new arena, patiently carrying them through, networking and conversing with others having shared commitments to researching and writing in a certain area, presenting the results of research for consideration by peers in professional meetings, and getting one’s work into print in the best academic settings possible.  Researchers and research communities, like ships, take sustained time in order to make a turn in a new direction. In my own professional involvements over years I’ve seen this worked out. In the mid-1990’s I was teaching missiology in South Carolina where the confederate flag still hung over the state capital and where South Carolina was in the national news for racially motivated church burnings. It dawned on me at that time that my ignorance of race dynamics in South Carolina was hindering my ability to be a good missiologist with reference to my own setting. It took several years of intentional reading, carrying out of my own research, networking with other scholars sharing similar interests, before I was well positioned to contribute publically to the conversation (see Priest and Nieves, 2007, This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity, and Christian Faith, Oxford UP).  Or again, when I began to realize around 2002 that neither I nor other mainstream missiologists were fostering sustained research focus on short-term missions, I started networking with others having shared interests, helped organize conferences with this as focus, offered coursework in the area, coached students in their own research on the topic, carried out my own research on the topic, and published numerous articles and edited collections on the topic. Just over ten years later I’m finally pulling together, with my sociologist spouse, Kersten, a book of our own work on the topic. Currently I’ve begun a similar process in collaboration with other scholars on the topic of witchcraft accusations. This too, will take sustained work by many scholars. Any work, in a new vineyard of inquiry, takes time. If we are to engage issues related to homosexuality within missiology, we will need more than a single individual like Sherwood Lingenfelter to speak to it. We need multiple missiologists to embrace this topic as a central arena of scholarly work to receive attention over time. This will require sustained work to master relevant literature, should involve course offerings, professional meetings that create safe spaces for engagement, and of course research and writing. Only if a significant number of missiologists identify this as a strategic arena in which they can and should contribute through patient and sustained work, and only if we can create the institutional supports for this to happen, will missiology be in a position to capitalize on its own strengths to serve the global church in this way.

Challenge #3: The Current Politicized Context.

It is often difficult for scholarship to proceed in the way scholarship should when a topic is highly politicized. There are no topics in 2013 that are more politicized than this one, with simplistic oppositions, labeling, and slander the order of the day – even within academic settings where one might normally expect such power moves to be held in check.  If missiology is to address these realities in a way that is truly helpful, in addition to “intentionality,” it will require at least three things:

1.)    Courage. There is risk to anyone wishing to address these matters. And since the infrastructural supports for missiology are not particularly robust, missiologists naturally tend more towards timidity than courage. Only if a significant number of missiologists can catch a vision for what is needed, and have the stubborn courage to commit to engagement, can this challenge be overcome.

2.)    Patience. In a world asking for immediate top-down pronouncements and alignments, it will be important that we stubbornly insist on patient bottom-up research attention to all the complexities that we need to understand. I am reminded of the missiologist, Rev. Maurice Leenhardt, who decided quite early in his missionary career (New Caledonia, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), that he would not preach against what he did not understand. This commitment drove his passion to understand all cultural institutions of New Caledonia so that he would understand how wisely to translate and preach the biblical message. Out of this commitment he became one of the most respected anthropologists of his day. Late in life, when his own missionary society would not offer him a position teaching at their missionary training school, he took a position replacing Marcel Mauss as anthropology professor at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes, and upon retirement, relinquished his chair to Claude Levi-Strauss (see James Clifford – Person and Myth: Maurice Leenhardt in the Melanesian World, 1992, Duke UP). But his commitment to acquiring deep knowledge as an underpinning for ministry also contributed to his becoming one of the most successful missionary evangelists of all time. It is possible to combine deep knowledge of human realities with faithfulness to Scripture and effectiveness in ministry. The patience to lay the knowledge foundations, and not to give in to political pressures towards premature and simplistic pronouncements and posturings, is what is needed if missiologists are to make an important contribution here.

3.)    Respect. In many current social settings where this topic is discussed, there is a tendency to actively disrespect, and work to exclude, anyone who does not share one’s understandings. We must work to establish safe professional spaces and conversations where research can be reported on and critically evaluated, and where the ground-rules of interaction are oriented towards scholarly criteria of engagement and critique rather than towards attempting to mobilize political processes of silencing and exclusion. Since missiologists bring theological commitments, it will be appropriate that theological commitments be presupposed in such missiological gatherings. This will vary somewhat depending on the missiological society. The forthcoming presentation by Sherwood Lingenfelter that I mentioned in the last blog, will take place at the Evangelical Missiological Society, which will appropriately expect that such safe interactions take place within the framework of commitment to the authority of Scripture, for example.

Doubtless there are many other factors making this a difficult arena for missiology to engage, but these are some of the more challenging.