Drew professor gives second annual Boswell Lecture

May 4, 2009

Dr. Virginia Burrus, professor of early Christianity at Drew University Theological School, delivered the second annual John E. Boswell Lecture, entitled "What's Queer about Christian Couples? Engaging Augustine's Theology of Marriage" in the Badè museum on April 29. The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry co-sponsored the event with the GTU Women and Religion program.

Burrus took listeners through a lesson in historical theology, re-examining classic works of Saint Augustine, which are the foundation of the Christian theology of marriage, in ways that have implications for debates over same-sex marriage today. Burrus said that despite the current portrayals of Christian marriage—in which the institution is portrayed as a having a continuous, unchanging theology from the biblical era to the present—early Christianity was, in fact, highly ambivalent about the practice. “The earliest Christians showed spectacularly little interest in developing a theology of marriage: it was, rather, anti-marital asceticism that captured their erotic imaginations,” Burrus said.

Augustine’s treatise “On the Good of Marriage” was an attempt to find a position in contrast to the 5th-century church’s insistence that celibacy was the purest path to God, presenting the novel idea that marriage may serve some positive purpose other than merely providing a sanctioned outlet for sexual desire.

Burrus insisted, however, that the system Augustine created was imperfect and “unstable,” philosophically and theologically, and in many ways could be considered “queer”—that is, not fitting the standard categories of relationships for his historical era. “He is trying to do something really weird in his own [historical] moment,” Burrus said, “which is to make marriage interesting erotically and theologically.”

The John E. Boswell lectureship was named in honor of the Yale historian and watershed figure in the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in church history. Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (1993) argued with exhaustive historical evidence that the early Christian and medieval church was significantly more accepting of gay people than it has been in modern times. The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry initiated the Boswell Lectures to encourage contemporary scholars in the mold of Boswell to continue groundbreaking study that advances the understanding of religion, sexuality, and gender.