CLGS sponsors first Boswell Lecture

PSR’s Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) is inaugurating a lectureship on LGBT issues in religion named for pioneering gay historian John Boswell. Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, delivered the first lecture on April 30 at PSR.

Boswell, a Yale historian, wrote two books that revolutionized the study of sexuality, gender, and religion: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (1980) and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1993). The books argued with exhaustive historical evidence that the early Christian and Medieval church was significantly more accepting of gay people than it became in modern times, and that it even had rites of union for same-sex couples. The works set off controversy, critique, and conversation in secular and religious settings and in gay and straight communities. Boswell’s scholarship was a “watershed moment,” according to Jay Johnson, senior director of academic research and resources at CLGS.

Mary Tolbert, professor of biblical studies at PSR and executive director of CLGS, commented that “John Boswell was important and continues to be important, because he was the first major modern scholar to take on the prevailing and often repeated assumption that the entire 2,000-year history of Christianity is uniformly negative about same-sex relationships.” Tolbert said that CLGS founded the Boswell Lectures to encourage contemporary scholars “to raise their own challenges to other similar pernicious assumptions based more on prejudice than on study.”

Dale Martin’s inaugural lecture was “A Gay, Male, Christian, Sexual Ethic.” “Since the publication of my book Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation,” Martin explained, “I have been regularly contacted by people around the country, most often young men who have decided, after reading my book, that it is possible for them to be both Christian and gay. They then ask me all kinds of questions about how actually to live out a gay life as a Christian.

“Part of what I want to say about sexual ethics is that we can’t figure out how to have sex ethically until we figure out what ‘sex’ means for us. The very meaning of sex, and also of sexual ethics, has changed radically over the centuries — from multiple wives in the ancient Near East as reflected in our Bibles, to the extended family, to the asceticism of most early Christianity, to the emphasis on sex within the patriarchal household in puritan New England, to the patriarchal family in the nineteenth century, and to the heterosexual nuclear family in the U.S. since the 1950s. ‘Sex’ may not mean the same thing for gay men as for straight women, or lesbians, or straight men.”

The lectures are a part of CLGS’s continuing mission to preserve and promote groundbreaking scholarship in the study of sexuality, gender, and religion. The Center regularly brings leading scholars to the PSR campus through its Lavender Lunches events. It has also sponsored academic conferences and panels involving top scholars in their fields, including the spring 2007 program Greening the LGBT Faith Movement, which featured Stanford evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden and PSR professor emeritus Rosemary Radford Reuther. The Boswell lectures grew out of a February 2006 symposium that brought together leading academics and activists to discuss Boswell’s legacy. CLGS also hosts the John J. McNeill and Charles Chiarelli Gay and Lesbian Liberation Collection, an archive of the papers and scholarship of significant individuals and organizations in the history of religion and LGBT issues in American society. Included in this collection are the papers of John McNeill, Janie Spahr, and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.