The Problem with “If” Questions

A reflection by Sarah

Lindsey and I are always glad to receive questions from readers. We enjoy answering them to the best of our ability through email or directly on the blog. When we respond to a reader’s inquiry, we try to be as candid as possible even if that means the reader is unhappy because our response takes a different direction than was expected. Occasionally, we’ll hear from some disgruntled person who has asked us, “Do you think all LGBTQ people are called to celibacy?” and isn’t satisfied with our answer: “We can’t tell other people what their vocations are. We encourage people to find trusted spiritual directors within their own Christian traditions to help guide them through the discernment process.” Some people consider that a dishonest answer, but it’s the most authentic way I can possibly think of to respond. I’m no priest and don’t consider myself qualified to advise anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, on whether to pursue a married vocation or a celibate vocation. It is because I’m not a member of the clergy (thank God) that I can respond to that question so easily.

Rarely is it difficult to tell someone, “I’m not the person to ask about this. No, really.” It’s much more challenging to respond when a question is very personal and cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” There’s a certain kind of question that bothers me intensely. It’s the hypothetical, “If x were true, would y change?” Here are some examples that I get frequently both on and off the blog:

  • “If you hadn’t grown up in Eastern Kentucky, would visiting rural areas still give you so much anxiety?”
  • “If you had been raised in a wealthy family, would your political views be different?
  • “If you had not been raised Christian from birth, would you still have become interested in theology?”
  • “If you weren’t a lesbian, would you still sense a call to celibacy?”
  • “If you had not experienced sexual abuse as a preteen and teenager, would you still sense a call to celibacy?”

The first three are fairly innocuous; I can’t see anyone reacting harshly to any response I might offer. The last two…not so much. When most people ask these questions, they are looking for certain responses: Yes, I would still be called to celibacy because it’s a personal choice that has nothing to do with my sexual orientation. No, I wouldn’t because my church’s prohibition on gay marriage is the only reason I’m celibate. Yes, I would still be celibate because I had considered celibacy even before my abuse began. No, I wouldn’t because my abuse made me afraid of sexual intimacy. Most people who ask are looking for one of these “right” answers. My answer is always the wrong one, and it’s the same for all five on the list: I don’t know.

The problem with “if” questions where the asker anticipates a yes or no response is that more often than not, these questions can’t be answered authentically in one word. If I had been raised in a wealthy urban or suburban family with non-Christian parents, I have no idea how different my life would look. Certainly I’d have a different set of childhood and young adult experiences, but there’s no way of predicting exactly how different they would be. Maybe I would have developed a sense of anxiety in cities and a preference for life in the foothills of Appalachia. Maybe I’d be a hardcore Republican or Democrat. Maybe I would have decided to work in the corporate world, or abandon civilization and live in a treehouse just because. Maybe I would have experienced conversion to Christianity as a teenager or adult and had a more difficult time coming out as Christian than coming out as a lesbian. Or maybe not. None of these are part of my story, so I don’t know. That’s as authentic a response as I can give.

The same is true for the last two questions. If I weren’t a lesbian, I’d be a different person. God might be calling me to a different vocation, or to an entirely different set of smaller vocations within a broader construct of marriage or celibacy. I would probably interact with the world much differently. My experiences of beauty, friendship, and connectedness likely would not be the same as they are now. I’m sure that my spiritual needs would be different too. My life would also look incredibly different if I were not a survivor of sexual abuse. I might not be as independent or as compassionate as I am now. The ways I understand trust, safety, honesty, repentance, and so many other facets of life would have been formed through entirely different sets of circumstances. Though this has not always been the case historically, Christian vocations in the modern West are ways of life chosen by adults who are responding to callings. During the time of my abuse, I was an adolescent who did not have the spiritual or emotional maturity to make vocational decisions. My entire vocational discernment process has taken place during my adult life. Though I can tell you confidently that my celibacy is not a fear response or an aversion to sex after surviving the worst few years of my life, there is no way I could possibly know all the particulars of how my identity as a survivor has impacted my experience of vocation. I do not know whether I would have discerned a calling to celibacy if this part of my identity did not exist. I don’t think I can ever know in this lifetime.

About half of you are wincing as you read this. Those words have a tendency to make people uncomfortable, especially in conversations related to sexuality and Christianity. They cause discomfort because we want to have a yes or no answer. If we don’t, people who disagree with us can and will use our uncertainty against us. I don’t know means that a person is wishy-washy, straddling the fence, or afraid of making a firm declaration one way or the other. I don’t know means that a person’s voice doesn’t matter in real conversation, and it will not matter until that person makes up his or her mind. I don’t know is understood as a sort of holding tank that is unsustainable long-term. “Commit to a side in the fight against injustice!” people tell me. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  Thanks for informing me that you care about my story only because it either confirms or contradicts your biases.

Why is it that I don’t know is an acceptable answer for the first three questions on my list, but not for the last two? I think it’s because we are told that we have to know, and that knowing is the only way to get any affirmation or validation from other people. It’s also because there’s comfort in knowing. If we know “the truth” about people, we can decide whether or not to give them our trust. A few of you want me to state outright that my decision to pursue celibacy is in no way connected to my sexual orientation. You want to know that if you support Lindsey and me in our blogging about celibacy, we’re not going to burn you someday by announcing that our secret mission is to convince all LGBTQ people to be celibate. A few more of you want me to state that my choice of a celibate vocation is influenced by something negative like sexual abuse so you can write me off as just another example of a broken person who has been hurt and now perpetuates the abuse cycle by using a personal story as a weapon against non-celibate LGBTQ people. Neither of these is going to happen, except maybe the writing off part: whether you take me seriously or not is entirely up to you. I spend most of my life in the grey area but have little tolerance for bullshit. When I tell you that I don’t know something, I mean that. I’m not like a politician who claims publicly to have an “evolving” opinion while holding my actual thoughts back from everyone else.

I have much admiration for people who don’t have black and white responses to everything because I struggle with the temptation to answer questions that way. It’s easier, and it ends difficult discussion much more swiftly. But some questions deserve more than “yes” or “no.” Some questions cannot be answered in this lifetime and it’s foolish to pretend that they can be. This is why I believe that conversations about faith and sexuality would be much more productive if we made space for I don’t know and stopped dismissing those three words as the mark of a weak, indecisive person whose voice is unimportant.

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12 thoughts on “The Problem with “If” Questions

  1. Catholic-married, in the same “I don’t know” boat. 🙂 What if I had been a better-catechized, seriously devout Catholic in my younger days, and not gotten pregnant out of wedlock at 23 – would I have ever married at all? What if everything had been the same, except I never got unexpectedly pregnant – would I have ever needed to learn more about the church I belonged to, and would I have become more serious about it? Who knows? But am I satisfied with my vocation and how I’m trying to live it? You bet! In the end, assuming we know how those hypotheticals would turn out is silly – it’s reducing the complexity of life, and is like jamming people’s lives into ideological play dough-molds.

    • Your comment is an excellent example of why vocation is not simply a choice. It does involve choice, but it’s a calling. Sometimes we are called into things we might not have wanted because of our life circumstances, then eventually we grow into these new ways of being. I’ve had some experiences in life that I would definitely classify in that way.

    • I don’t think they’re always bad, but obsessing over them is problematic. There’s nothing wrong with wondering, but I do think the LGBTQ Christian conversation is a little too obsessed with these kinds of questions.

  2. Love you and love your blogs and bluntness. It’s beautiful and makes my heart sing. Big hug to you.

    Of course we can’t answer the “what if” questions because we are who we are and what life has thrown at us.

    BUT the most amazing awesome thing is that Jesus loves us for who we are not who we might have been if the “what its” had happened. Praise God He loves us, oh how He loves us!

    • Yes, indeed. The what ifs really don’t matter because God uses the things we actually experience to draw us closer to him.

  3. The problem with “if” questions is they try to establish whether or not there is a cause/effect relationship between two things when it’s impossible to know if one exists. Obviously our histories affect our direction, but to ask “did a cause b” is just simply too simplistic.

    A more realistic question is, “if ‘a through y’ caused z (which we can probably never know is true), and ‘a’ was different, would z change?” And the only possible answer is, “I don’t know. Maybe. But ‘a’ isn’t different.”

    The bottom line is, you *are* lesbian and you *are* called to celibacy. Are you doing what Jesus has called you to do given the life he has given to you? If the answer is yes, then the “if” questions, while interesting, are irrelevant

    Thank you for writing! I appreciate you both so much for your level-headed approach.

    • Nice to see you here again, Mike. Yes, I think many people ask these kinds of questions to establish cause and effect. But all of it is speculative because we don’t get to see all possible outcomes of all possible choices in all possible circumstances. I find it much more fulfilling to focus on “what is” than “what if.”

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