Matthew Eric Nelson
A comprehensive “testimony” of all that I have underwent with respect to the maturity of my faith and the discerning of my sexuality while at Cedarville University is beyond the scope of this task. In a conversation with the openly gay Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Gene Robinson, over hors d’oeuvres after the “Gays and God” conference at the Kennedy School of Government, I shared a very large portion of this “testimony” with him, to which he responded, “This is truly the stuff of publication.” So when I attempted to write this piece for Cedarville OUT, I encountered difficulty. It is so tempting to want to comment on the ruse that is the “inerrancy” of Scripture, or the relative nature of the institutional claim to “critical thinking,” or the noble Communication Arts professors who prompted me to scrutinize the dogma that the Bible Department was peddling.
As I have said, the issues are many, the story is complicated, and the details are sometimes revelatory. My worst attempts at writing this small testimony are due to an effusion of emotion, experiences, and theoretical ideas that have log-jammed my thinking, and my best attempts have turned into the narrative and analysis that I would one day want to tell the world in whole. Though, what is important about speaking something, however small, about my life in rural Ohio is that you who may be reading this may be helped even in the slightest way. Above all, I hope that my record will be edifying to you, and glorifying to G-d, who is “the Author and Perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
The best metaphor that I have encountered for my experiences while at Cedarville of confronting my sexuality in relationship to my spirituality comes from the Catholic mystic tradition. Saint John of the Cross, a post-Inquisition Spanish saint, spoke of the “Dark Night of the Soul,” which is a lonely, painful process whereby the Soul is brought into mystical union with G-d only after a spell of despair, demoralization, and unknowing. During this treacherous period, everything is questioned, identity is examined, and consciousness is smeared. While I could never claim to have the intimacy with G-d that this Carmelite mystic details in his spiritual classic, I can say that I resonate with the earnestness with which he sought after the Holy, the liminality of gender and sexuality that is exhibited in his writings, and the existential upshot of his faith in Christ.
Though many did not know, because I was often good at compartmentalizing my life, but since the end of my Sophomore year (2002) I was gazing deeply within to know who I was, and I was Descartian in my doubt of everything. The postmodern critique of modernist epistemology was especially influential upon my thinking, which gave rise to my interest in all things heterodox (if only to hear all sides of an argument) and counterpoint (esp. to religious exclusivism, heteronormativity, moral absolutism, and republicanism). In Saint John’s articulation of the process of purification of the Soul in this Dark Night, the Soul responds to G-d by purifying itself, and then submits to G-d’s purification. By the beginning of my junior year, especially after a summer of this Dark Night where I experimented with and tested my identity and consumed as many books as I could in three months, the purging had begun.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who is credited with popularizing mysticism in the 5th to early 6th century and inspiring Christian mystics like Saint John, teaches that such purging of oneself and questioning is to give way to illumination, which is the next step in the process toward mystical union with G-d. It is one of these first instances of illumination that I would like to share with you.
I have always known that I was gay in some sense, but had never been able to align myself entirely with this truth because of the false stereotypes and derogatory generalizations by which the Church characterized these folk. However, for about six months now, in the Dark Night of spiritual self-examination, identity-questioning, and un-learning and learning anew I had begun this process. While at Cedarville, I was so alone. On the one hand, this was ruinous because I did not feel like there was anyone that I could talk to safely about this, because it was never my intention to want to be anything but myself. Though I felt guilt when I had a hidden crush on a guy at Cedarville, I never prayed away my sexual orientation – only the incongruity between my strongly-felt Christian faith and my identity. On the other hand, such a setting proxied the cloister of Saint John of the Cross who was present to G-d inwardly by design of his holy order. In other words, even in the midst of all the students at Cedarville in residence, in chapel, in class, and in ministry, I was utterly alone to dwell upon my beliefs, my worldview, and most secretly my sexual orientation. So, ironically, at college I explored my identity and spirituality in stealth. It must be said that there were many professors with whom I had a close relationship, but none of whom gave me the impression that I would have a “safe space” - absent of any judgment, reprimand, or consequence - to talk through my thoughts and feelings.
Therefore, my dorm rooms in St. Clair and South Hall became “ground zero” of my monastic experience - and I had the freedom to do this because I was the resident assistant in and resident director of both locations respectively. In the closet that was my cloister, I collected all the materials for my journey. I sent away, through Ohio-Link, for all my journal articles about homosexuality vis-à-vis biology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and of course the Bible and Theology. And Amazon.com brought to me a parade of books to study and meditate upon; for example: Robin Scroggs’ The New Testament and Homosexuality; Ed. David Balch’s Homosexuality, Science, and the ‘Plain Sense’ of Scripture; Alistair McGrath’s After Virtue; Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality; and Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian.
Sometimes paranoid that I would be found out “to be contemplating a homosexual lifestyle,” I hid my books in drawers and under my mattress. I remember vividly reading Dirt, Greed, and Sex by L. William Countryman in the main courtyard at Antioch College for fear that the book cover’s large print would catch the eye of a fellow Cedarville student and then the inquisition would commence. I used to do my devotionals from Chris Glaser’s Coming Out to God in a picnic area in downtown Cedarville. As I write this, the picture of the setting sun upon my face and the reading of the following lines was representative of the limited sunshine in this Dark Night of mine:
I lack a certain courage:
To risk abandoning all my closets
To fulfill life’s dreams,
Giving up securities, pretensions,
Fears - especially fears -
To be all you claim I am,
To be all you call me to be,
To be all you hope for me,
For all of this cloister-dwelling, I had really only known the bitter darkness and prayers of purgation as the one above. I had yet to receive illumination as to when or how I would actually begin the process of reconciling what was in my head and in my heart. Saint Theresa, another Carmelite mystic and a contemporary of Saint John, talks in her Interior Castle about the abject pain that comes before the benefits of illumination. It is this decisive, painful experience in my life that I would like to recount to you.
After breakfast at Chuck’s in the Stevens Student Center, I rushed to the bottom of Centennial Library with a used copy of Mel White’s acclaimed memoir, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America. Amidst the stacks of books, with as much discretion as I could hope for without having to enact the ritual of departing from campus, I gripped Mel’s book anticipating a moving read. I had no idea that I was about to open Pandora’s box. Mel writes:
The truth is, from the beginning up to this day, homosexual thoughts and desires have been as much a part of my life as was my heart beating or my lungs taking air… After more than four decades of struggle, I know for certain that my sexuality was a part of God’s creative plan. But in those early years, I thought for certain that my secret longings were a sign that my Creator had abandoned me. (29)
As I quote this to you, I thumb-through tear-stained pages with “me too!” in my hand-writing littering the margins of many pages of the book. The correspondence between Mel’s thoughts and feelings and mine were uncanny and ominous. Truly, the abandonment that he felt was the Dark Night that was my Hell. As I read in the bottom floor of the library, as if I was reading any of the Preexilic prophets who foretold the future of Israel, I saw what my life would be like if I did not start to try to consistently link all that I thought about myself, Christian faith, politics, world view, and my integrity.
Mel White tells the story of how he came to terms with his sexual orientation as an Evangelical. Over a period of twenty-five years Mel was counseled, electric-shocked, exorcised, excoriated, prayed for as he attempted to understand his sexual orientation in relationship to his faith in Jesus. Encountering only hostile opposition to his personhood from the church, Mel was driven to the brink of suicidal ideation. Meanwhile, he ghostwrote for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham, and was married with children. Again, the feeling of self-alienation and hypocrisy that Mel battled, was one that I knew all too well. My theology, politics, and worldview were changing so drastically, yet I was pretending to be what Cedarville wanted me to be - the “orthodox,” republican, heterosexual student.
Mel continues his autobiography detailing his slow, methodical “coming out” experience and how it lead to advocacy for the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) folk. By 2:00 p.m. I had read Mel’s 300-page book. My face was streaked with dried tears, and I was filled with the conflicting emotions of confidence and uncertainty; enlightenment and confusion; and euphoria and frustration. My “Dark Night” was far from over - indeed, the long road only became more treacherous and doleful - but this experience had provided enough illumination for me to determine a course of action to be self-authentically me: Christian, gay, inquisitive, flawed, compassionate, holy, unholy, knowledgeable, etc.
This period of Dark Night made manifest to me the love of G-d, and G-d’s presence in my life. Even though I was alone, G-d brought to me the books that I needed as dialog partners in this journey toward unity with G-d. Saint John is famous for writing “…the endurance of darkness is preparation for great light.” Truly, I can say as I look back that G-d’s providential hand had been present each step of the way, even in the darkness, to prepare me for the work that I do today (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). As a theology teacher in a boarding school in Northern California, a part-time advocate for GLBT individuals, and a consultant on all things religious and social-justice oriented, I believe that my Dark Night and subsequent illumination that the Christian Mystics have spoken so eloquently about is the sustaining force of my vocation. I live each day questing after truth, wherever it may be found, desiring (though failing at many points) for this rapturous unity of which John, Teresa of Avilla, and others speak.
This experience is only one of dozens that are significant in demonstrating what it was like to be gay at Cedarville. I will one day tell the complete story. Surely much of my growth occurred during my time of transition from Cedarville to graduate school at Harvard Divinity School, and this all is also very important to understanding who I am today. My spiritual pilgrimage, the support of a Presbyterian pastor, religious violence, the oldest research University in the country, being disowned by my father and rejected by some in my family, the enduring love of my mother, working for SoulForce, etc. are all part of the whole picture. Again, one day the story will be told in full.
To you, friend, who may be reading this and finding yourself struggling with your sexual orientation or just being a free-thinker or your own person at the ‘Ville, know that you are not the only one. At the very least, G-d is there for you to turn to when no one else is, and right knowledge (to borrow from the Buddhists) is the key to liberation. Be assured that justice will prevail (Isaiah 9:6-7), and strive to be exactly how G-d created you to be, for you cannot be any other.