Professor challenged by personal research

As an English professor at New York’s Syracuse University specialising in postmodern Queer theory, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield carried all the credentials and ammunition she needed to support her open lesbian relationship and religious scepticism.

Rosaria C. Butterfield
SKEPTIC PROFESSOR: Rosaria C. Butterfield (Neil Boyd Studios)

Wanting to advance her research post, Rosaria began looking into the Religious Right and the root of hatred against queers like herself.

"I cared about morality, justice, and compassion," she says. "Fervent for the worldviews of Freud, Hegel, Marx, and Darwin, I strove to stand with the disempowered."

She knew that in doing so she would need to confront the Bible head-on.

"I launched my first attack on the unholy trinity of Jesus, Republican politics, and patriarchy, in the form of an article in the local newspaper about Promise Keepers," she says.

The article generated such a huge response that she kept two conspicuous boxes on her desk: one for hate mail and one for fan mail. Then one day a letter arrived that seemed to defy her filing system.

As she skimmed through, she was surprised to find a kind and inquiring letter from Ken Smith, the pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Rather than the mocking, taunting or arguing tone she was accustomed to, she recalls that his letter asked her to defend the presuppositions that undergirded it.

At first, she threw the letter away, but his questions continued to plague her mind. Wanting to research his views, she responded to his dinner invitation. That would be the beginning of a deep and unexpected friendship.

They often discussed sexuality and politics but Rosaria says Ken and his wife Floy did not act as if these conversations were polluting them.

"They did not treat me like a blank slate. When we ate together, Ken prayed in a way I had never heard before. His prayers were intimate and vulnerable. He repented of his sin in front of me. He thanked God for all things. Ken's God was holy and firm, yet full of mercy," she says.

She read the Bible from beginning to end numerous times in that first year of meeting Ken but continued to fight the idea that it was inspired by God.

"I tried to toss the Bible and all of its teachings in the trash — I really tried," she says. "But I kept reading it... [for research] to refute the religious right.

"The Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church."

Rosaria
Rosaria

Rosaria remembers feeling awkward and exposed with her butch haircut but she kept reminding herself that she had come to confront God, not fit in.

"The image that came in like waves, of me and everyone I loved suffering in hell, vomited into my consciousness and gripped me in its teeth," she says. "I fought with everything I had. I did not want this. I did not ask for this. I counted the costs. And I did not like the math on the other side of the equal sign."

One Sunday Ken preached a compelling sermon on Jesus' words in John chapter 7, verse 17: "Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own."

"This verse exposed the quicksand in which my feet were stuck," she says. "I was a thinker. I was paid to read books and write about them. I expected that in all areas of life, understanding came before obedience. And I wanted God to show me, on my terms, why homosexuality was a sin. I wanted to be the judge, not the one being judged."

Rosaria wrestled with whether she really wanted to understand or instead argue with God over His view on homosexuality. Praying throughout the night that God would give her the willingness to obey before she understood, she woke up feeling different.

Looking at herself through the lens of the Bible she wondered, "Has this all been a case of mistaken identity?"

"If Jesus could split the world asunder, divide marrow from soul, could He make my true identity prevail? Who am I? Who will God have me to be?"

One Sunday, after years of resistance, Rosaria confessed what she knew was true: she was not responsible to herself alone, but, as she says, "The Bible had authority over my life and therefore had the responsibility and entitlement to interrogate me."

She prayed to accept Jesus as Lord over her life and made a commitment to live a life that would be pleasing to Him.

"I was a broken mess. Conversion was a train wreck. I did not want to lose everything that I loved. But the voice of God sang an optimistic love song in the rubble of my world. I weakly believed that if Jesus could conquer death, He could make right my world."

In the book she later wrote about her story, titled: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor's Journey Into Christian Faith, Rosaria says she "lost everything but the dog."

After the relationship and academic turmoil that resulted from her decision to turn away from the life she had been living, Rosaria has since settled down happily with a loving husband and children.

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