In a culture dominated by sharp opinions, admitting uncertainty comes at a cost. The Christian musician Lauren Daigle just learned that lesson the hard way.
The Grammy-nominated singer’s woes began in late October, when she appeared on Ellen: The Ellen DeGeneres Show to perform her newest single, “Still Rolling Stones.” Many of her conservative religious fans lashed out following the performance, since the show’s host is an openly gay woman. But Daigle, 27, defended her decision in a radio interview:
I think the second we start drawing lines around which people are able to be approached and which aren’t, we’ve already completely missed the heart of God … I don’t have all the answers in life, and I’m definitely not gonna act like I do, but the one thing that I know for sure is I can’t choose who I’m supposed to be kind to and who I’m supposed to show love to and who I’m not, because that’s the mission right?
That silenced the naysayers, but only momentarily. This week, another radio host asked her directly about whether she believed that homosexuality was sinful, and Daigle responded that she wasn’t sure.
“I can’t honestly answer on that,” Daigle said. “In a sense, I have too many people that I love that they are homosexual. I don’t know. I actually had a conversation with someone last night about it. I can’t say one way or the other. I’m not God.”
When the clip of her interview was posted online, it drew condemnation from conservative Christians. A writer at The Christian Post said Daigle had been tested by God and “failed,” choosing instead to “fraternize” with the devil by not condemning homosexuality. A Townhall columnist argued that Daigle had given in to “the temptations that come with fame and influence” and called on Christians to pray for her to change course. The conservative-Christian author John Burton claimed that Daigle’s ambiguity compromised biblical truth and that now “millions are at risk of deception.” Many on Twitter quickly declared that she could no longer be considered a Christian.
Those outside of the conservative-Christian world might be tempted to dismiss all this as the desperate gasps of a shrinking group of fundamentalists. But there is a larger lesson at the center of this fiasco that deserves our collective attention because this sort of reflexive condemnation isn’t restricted to Christian communities. We are living in a moment in which uncertainty is equated with weakness. When it comes to complex and consequential issues, will we offer space and grace for people to make up their mind?
Most of the world’s major religions place immense value on the spiritual discipline of discernment, which is the often tedious practice of seeking what is right, true, and noble. It is not an easy task, nor can it be done hastily. Christianity—the faith that Daigle’s critics claim to practice—has held discernment in especially high regard.
The Bible is packed with stories about priests, prophets, and patriarchs struggling with spiritual matters. In one of the Old Testament’s most renowned tales, for example, Jacob wrestles with an angel of God throughout an entire night and walks away with a limp. Many Christians have interpreted this as a metaphor for a discerning life in which spiritual seekers grapple with divine mysteries and wind up changed. The New Testament speaks of discernment in a more didactic way, encouraging all God-seekers to behave like Jacob intellectually—by thinking carefully about weighty matters, employing prayer, and seeking wise counsel along the way.
Modern American Christians, however, often make little room for wrestling. Christian pastors, authors, college professors, and even musicians are required by their audiences to have clearly defined and articulated positions on every major issue du jour—especially when it comes to culture-war flash points such as gay marriage. Even appearing on a show hosted by a lesbian woman, as Daigle did, was viewed by some conservatives as religious misconduct.
The early Christian church strove to practice discernment with patience. When a contentious issue arose, leaders would be summoned from around the globe, which was quite a time-consuming task. Numerous ecumenical councils were called between the fourth and eighth centuries to resolve disagreements and to consider how Christian teachings should be understood in light of current events. For these early Christians, discernment was a slow process. It could take years of debate and contemplation, and almost always required the participation and input of a broad community before any type of decision was made. Even when a verdict was reached, dissenting opinions were more often heard than stifled.
Today, however, we live in the age of the internet and the age of individualism. Decisions about major issues are made quickly and, too often, in isolation. People may decide their views over the span of seven-minute cable-news segments, even regarding complex topics with far-reaching consequences. Daigle was attacked for admitting that she has been influenced by listening to her many gay friends and is having ongoing conversations about the matter. One might think that having serious dialogue about important theological and political issues—and hearing the testimonies of those directly affected by them—would be laudable. But not in this moment, not on this issue, not for Daigle.
The death of discernment is no small shift in Christian practice. In the fourth century, the celebrated Christian thinker John Cassian called on all Christians to engage in the difficult work of this spiritual discipline. He claimed that the practice served as the “eye” and the “lamp of the body,” helping people to see their way so they may avoid veering off the path of righteousness. It is not just advisable, but necessary, for spiritual formation.
The sixth-century theologian John Climacus was heavily influenced by Cassian’s writings. He argued that discernment requires meekness rather than dogmatism—a notion that would seem foreign to many fundamentalist Christian apologists today. In The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Climacus wrote, “From humility comes discernment, from discernment comes insight, and from insight comes foresight. And who would not run this fine race of obedience when such blessings are there ahead of him?”
Daigle asserted that she is “not God,” and in this moment has only resolved herself to be kind and loving in the way of Jesus. Such an admission seems rooted in the type of humility required for discernment, and stands in contrast to the judgmental jeremiads of her critics who have sought to question the viability of her faith or have even claimed that she is colluding with the devil.
Some conservatives might counter that they value discernment but do not believe it is necessary for this issue. In the tradition of the Protestant Reformation, they say that a discerning Christian eye must always view an issue through the lens of the Bible’s teachings. And for them at least, the Bible’s teachings on homosexual relationships are indisputable.
But recent scholarship conducted by serious theologians, ethicists, and Bible scholars has called into question the half-dozen or so verses that seem to broadly condemn homosexual practices. The assertions of this growing number of notable thinkers cannot be dismissed out of hand. Shouldn’t we allow a person like Daigle to take time to consider them without rushing to draw a conclusion?
In a country embroiled in culture war, many say no. Everyone—especially public figures—is expected to develop a definitive opinion on every issue and then proclaim it for all to hear. Tweet it, post it, blog it, email it, publish it—and quickly. There’s no time for prayer or conversation, much less a global council. Wrestling is for the weak. So when Daigle refused to draw a line in the sand on such an emotional issue, she was summarily tried in the court of public opinion.
Of course, discernment is not a perfect process. At many points in their history, Christians have fallen short of their ideal of discernment in practice. But that ideal remains important.
The Book of Proverbs reads like an instruction manual for discernment, describing wisdom as something that must be carefully searched for over a lifetime. The Book of Hebrews says discernment is developed over time by “practice.” But this critical discipline, rooted in the Christian Bible and practiced throughout the faith’s history, is now vanishing in the face of internet trolls and social-media mobs.
What we think about LGBTQ rights and relationships—and how we speak of them—is serious business. Lives are at stake, including the millions of gay and lesbian teens who are disproportionately at risk of depression, anxiety disorder, and suicide. Conversely, these issues matter deeply to many religious Americans who believe that one’s view on them may even impact one’s postmortem destination. Discernment is a critical tool when the stakes are so high.
In a world that forces an answer on everything, only the mature can utter that holy phrase: I don’t know.