Scot Sherman: “I Could No Longer Unsee What I Was Seeing, or Unhear What I Was Hearing”

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Scot Sherman: “I Could No Longer Unsee What I Was Seeing, or Unhear What I Was Hearing”

A candidate for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church explains how disruptive empathy and storytelling are required for faith communities to move forward with inclusion and change 

Photos by
 

Catherine C. Sherman

Nov 23, 2020

This blog is part of a series for the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum’s program on LGBT* and Faith. Read more here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/LGBT/blog

A seismic shift in Christian social thinking happened nearly 60 years ago during the Second Vatican Council. Shaped by French “nouvelle” theologians such as Yves Congar, the Roman Catholic church engaged in twin exercises: ressourcement (retrieval of tradition and authoritative sources), and aggiornamento (bringing the church up to date for contemporary culture and its questions and concerns). 

The French theologians wanted to explore how tradition could enlighten present concerns; the Italian Pope, John XXIII, wanted to bring the church up to date, “throw open its doors and let some fresh air in.” Now, while Episcopalians like me don’t think that Vatican II went far enough in its work(!), I think they did identify the right twin moves required for faith communities to move forward with inclusion and change while being true to their tradition. Let’s look at them in reverse order and I’ll tell you a bit about my own experience of change.

Aggiornamento

As a Christian pastor and seminary professor for many years, I find that I live at the crossroads of two powerful stories: that of secular society and that of my faith tradition. I see in myself and in the lives of congregants and students a painful tension that comes with living at those crossroads: we are members of a society with a comprehensive, socially embodied cultural story, but (supposedly) our deepest identity is found in another story, the one rooted in our faith community. Most religious people in the secular West feel this tension. I feel it all the time. 
  
My experience has been that the easing of tension between these two stories begins when one sees the divine at work and present in both stories, both embodiments. What was transformative for me personally was when I began to know and hear the stories of LGBT Christians: The courage of LGBT siblings to share their stories brought about a new engagement with reality that I could no longer ignore. The demand for inclusion could no longer be categorized as an outside “secular” intrusion into the faith community; clearly these were credible internal testimonies. 

The door to inclusion for me was opened by the experience of what René Girard called “disruptive empathy”. As I came to know and care for queer people and hear their stories of rejection from the church, my empathy with them and respect for them became so real that it disrupted my previously constructed reality. I could no longer unsee what I was seeing, or unhear what I was hearing. I could no longer act as though their exclusion had nothing to do with me. I experienced what the poet John Keats called “sympathetic imagination”, the ability to imagine what someone else was feeling and find moral clarity in that experience. As I’ve changed, I’ve come to believe that true aggiornamento in our faith communities begins as we create safe opportunities to nurture empathy and sympathetic imagination.   

This is a quilt called "Molehills”, created by my wife, Catherine C. Sherman, a San Francisco-based quilt artist. Her quilts join vintage fabrics and modern materials together, “treasures old and new, colliding and creating new meaning.” They are meditations on hope and healing, and an artistic embodiment of the beauty of the process of “ressourcement” and “aggiornamento.” (You can find more on her website piecemovement.com).

Ressourcement

Even with all that empathy, that still left the problem of “clobber texts” (biblical passages cited to condemn queer relationships), and the long tradition of condemnation and exclusion in the church. How can we continue in this faith story without declawing the tradition? What I found is that there has been a movement of inclusion happening in Western churches, at first in the Protestant mainline, but also in among younger Evangelicals and Roman Catholics – a movement that began with LBGT folk telling their stories. 

The life-giving disruption of their testimony, the integrity of their struggles with their faith identity and their love of the sacred text, has been shining a new light on the text of scripture. Much like at other turning points (e.g. the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment), new light brings the opportunity to reinterrogate and reframe our understanding of the original context and meaning of the Bible. Queer theologians and biblical scholars are offering fresh and life-giving readings of the Bible and Christian tradition; they are bringing the powerful lens of queer perspective to help the whole church better understand what it means to live faithfully at the crossroads.

I think that these twin movements of contemporary engagement and retrieving/reappropriating the tradition are necessary in almost any religious tradition that successfully moves towards change. The great religions all have the requisite resilience to do this work, else they could not have survived all the changes of the millennia! 

The ecumenical theologian Lesslie Newbigin noted that churches can become petrified fossils, never updating or changing; but they could also become jellyfish, flowing powerlessly with the tide of culture, wherever it drifts. A robust tradition requires faithful leadership that deeply engages with tradition while leaning into deep and respectful listening of those at the margins, those on the inside but at the edge. The twin moves are not a “one-time thing”; rather, they are an ongoing iterative process, a way of discernment and growth where the community continues a dynamic pursuit of deeper wisdom, love and justice. This work simultaneously deepens and broadens the tradition.
 

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The Rev. Dr. Scot Sherman is the executive director of the Newbigin House of Studies, a center for graduate theological education and spiritual formation based in San Francisco, and a candidate for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.
 


As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? 

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.