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Q&A with Dr. Rosaria Butterfield

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Amanda Morris | News Editor

On Friday, Jan. 31, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield came to Wheaton College’s campus to speak at chapel, addressing the topic “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.”

Butterfield, who earned her Ph.D. from Ohio State University in English Literature, served in the English Department and Women Studies Program at Syracuse University from 1992 to 2002. Butterfield published a book, as well as scholarly articles, in feminist theory, queer theory and 19th century British literature. Butterfield received tenure in 1999, the same year that she converted to Christianity. Butterfield, who now lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband and children, is author of the book, “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith.”

Butterfield’s visit to Wheaton’s Edman Chapel stirred mixed emotions from the student body, with many emphasizing that her story is one out of many in the realm of dealing with Christianity and personal identity. The Record had the opportunity to talk to Butterfield and get her thoughts on meeting with students and answering questions on identity. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Record: You go to both secular and Christian college campuses to give your speech on conversion. Are you typically met with some kind of opposition, and what is your response?

Butterfield: “Well, there’s nothing typical. … I’m sometimes met with opposition; sometimes it’s much more … vitriolic than what I met with at Wheaton, which really wasn’t a protest; it was a demonstration; and sometimes I am given a standing ovation. Each soul is different, each campus climate is different, and the cultural/biblical knowledge level is different. If I have demonstrators or protesters, I always ask to meet with people, and even if I don’t have people demonstrating, after a chapel message or an open lecture, I make sure that students know what coffee shop I’ll be at, and for how many hours, and I’ve never been alone.”

The Record: You requested to meet with Wheaton’s administration and its students. How did that go?

Butterfield: I think we met for almost two hours. Sometimes, when I go to college campuses, I’m thinking, ‘Lord, why, really, am I here?’ And when I finally met with the demonstrators, I really believe that that meeting was why I was there, for a couple of reasons. The first is, this is a hard topic — it’s a topic filled with shame and vitriol and fear and a lived experience of pain and violence, so it is not an easy topic. And even among believers, it is very important to take the hand of the suffering and put it in the hands of the savior. You cannot do that unless you get close to the people that get hurt. So often, we like to turn the gospel into this sneaky little worldview raid, and it’s not that, it never was that. Part of why I love to meet with people who think differently than I do is because iron sharpens iron. … As an intellectual, it’s delightful to be in the company of people who think differently than I do, but also because, even though, in that room, I think very theologically different than, I’d say, probably most of the people — at least the people speaking there. We all struggle in the same way — we’re all human. So, it was good to do that. Some of the things we talked about were hard things. I come from an orthodox Christian conservative perspective and I believe in the integrity and the authority of the Bible, and the syllogism that we use to describe what is true determines what is valuable and what is ethical. People who come from a revisionist perspective would say what is valuable and ethical determines what is true.

I shared my beliefs that … taking my stance from the inerrancy and the inspiration of the Bible maintains that homosexuality is a sin, but so is homophobia. The sin of homosexuality is really misunderstood. I shared my beliefs that it simply is part of the general package of original sin, that we are all born that way, nobody’s different, and that is a very big cross to bear. In response, students shared with me that they did not feel that way. ... They believe that passages are mistranslated and misunderstood, and they believed firmly that there’s a legitimate Christian position to be held in a gay-affirming way. And so, that’s where we left that. 

Students also had questions about my positions today about feminism, and so we talked about how I do believe that women should have equal pay for equal work … same access to education and the rights and the goods, and then I also believe that feminism was a historical materialist worldview and Christianity a supernatural one, and I do not believe that (male) headship is a post-fall reality; I believe that it was a pre-fall reality and therefore not a sin. Now, is patriarchal abuse a sin? Of course, no question! 

They had a number of suggestions for me on how I could, in many ways, improve my presentation. I was very thankful for them. We talked about whether sexual orientation is fixed or fluid and we disagreed on that. It was intense. We also talked about some issues on campus that desperately and immediately need to be rectified, and while I can’t go into what those issues were, I really hope that the students felt my advocacy for them. So, we probably covered more in an hour and forty-five minutes than I would normally cover in a year.

If I could just tuck in one other thing: This is the world I helped create; I was an activist, I was a professor who authored the university’s policy on domestic partnership, which they still use today. I helped make this world, so I really feel for students. There is nothing about what they’ve said, there’s nothing about anybody’s response to me that was offensive in any way. In my heart, I felt huge solidarity and connection.”

The Record: What advice would you give to Wheaton students who are struggling with their identity? 

Butterfield: “I’m a mom and I believe that when a person comes to me with a specific question, you need to be given a specific answer. Here’s what I would do. If I was a professor and you came to me and said ‘I am really struggling with this issue, and I don’t know who to believe — is sexuality fixed, is it fluid, is it a sin, is it a grace — I don’t know what to do,’ I would take your hand and walk you across the street to College Church and introduce you to pastor Stephen Lee and I would say, ‘Look. You cannot ask yourself these hard questions in the spotlight. You need to get in the church … That is the safest place. Have the courage to go before the Lord himself and take the hand of a godly pastor who is not going to hurt you and not going to shame you and is not going to betray you. But these are big questions. You need — and you deserve, God wants you to have — good discipling.”

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