Pope Francis and Teh Gay: So What?

In the name of all rational, clear, critical thinking, WHY are so many of my liberal friends all ga-ga over the Pope’s recent comments about gay people?*

The Catholic Church, including this Pope, still holds that homosexual acts are always serious sins. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” infuriates us when it comes from the evangelical side; why does the Roman church get a pass?

Moreover, Catholic doctrine still holds that a homosexual orientation, while not a sin, is “disordered.” This from the 1986 official statement of doctrine:**

“Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.”

Some say that, even though Pope Francis’ comments are in line with decades of church teaching, at least they represent progress compared to his predecessor. But to say that Francis is not as bad as Benedict is to damn him with faint praise indeed.

Add to all this the fact that the Catholic church has given no indication that they plan to stop fighting against marriage equality in the civil sphere, and you are left with a nice man fronting a well-executed PR campaign on behalf of an institution that continues its centuries long tradition of preaching the good news of love, while practicing the the ancient evil of hate.

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*  For example: http://believe-out-loud.tumblr.com/post/56787003555/as-reported-by-huffington-post-pope-francis

** http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19861001_homosexual-persons_en.html

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Choice and Queerness

A friend of mine wrote a thought-provoking blog post about the issue of whether being gay is a choice, and whether it matters if it’s a choice or not. Part of what makes her essay so good is that it’s intentionally not from a theoretical viewpoint; it’s based on her own personal experience. When I told her it connected with some thoughts I’d been having recently, she encouraged (urged? demanded?) that I write my own post on the topic. I can’t improve on what she said in her essay, but I can bring my own story to it, a story that’s both similar to and different from hers.

I’m queer. I’m not a lesbian, but rather a bisexual transsexual (which is fun to say out loud, if nothing else). Both my gender transition and my sexual orientation have raised questions of choice for me.

This post will look at my gender transition, which took place during the period mid-’05 to mid-’06. It was in the time preceding that transition that questions of choice came to the fore. One obvious question: did I have a choice about my inner feeling of femaleness? To that I would say no. In the course of counseling, I went back all the way to age 4 in my memories, and that feeling of femaleness, along with the desire to act on it, had been there all along. I won’t hold any 4-year-old accountable for making bad life choices, myself included. So it wasn’t a choice then. As I grew up, and on into adulthood, I tried to make the feelings go away by force of will; that is, I tried to choose not to feel female inside. When I had still not succeeded by the age of 53, I had to admit that it looked a lot more like part of who I was, than a feeling I chose to have; and if that’s what it looked like over the course of half a century, it very likely really was what it looked like.

That was lesson one about choice: sometimes you just are who you are, and you don’t have a choice.

Certainly that realization of powerlessness over something so big contributed to the unprecedented wave of depression that then enveloped me at that time. As sort of a Plan B, since I couldn’t make the feeling just go away, I did my best to research what could cause something that was so resistant to will power. Fortunately, I was working at the University of Michigan at the time, where the graduate library has excellent collections on gender, both from the feminist and from the transgender points of view; there’s also a medical library for the university’s med school. Surely, in all that, I should be able to find an answer to this problem of having no choice about feeling like the wrong sex – maybe a hormonal imbalance, or childhood abuse, or a traumatic brain injury in my past.

Six months, dozens of books, and hundreds of articles later, I surrendered. The answer was simply this: some people just feel like the opposite sex inside, in their hearts, minds, and spirits. Nobody knows why. And when the feeling is strong and persistent, the only relief is found in transitioning to the sex that a person feels like inside.

Having now accepted that I had no choice about feeling this way, I saw that I did have a choice about what to do about it. Neither alternative appealed to me, though: continue to struggle for the rest of my life as I had for the preceding 50 years; or turn my life completely upside down and live the rest of my life as a woman. Choosing gender transition carried the risk of losing relationships with family and friends, and possibly losing my job as well. Choosing not to transition carried the risk of never escaping the clutches of deep depression, and the certainty of never escaping the feeling of being a different sex inside myself than I was on the outside.

Lesson two: having a choice doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the options looks really desirable.

I couldn’t decide. I went for long walks. I got drunk a lot. I prayed. I cursed God. I considered suicide. I joined a gender group, then switched to another. I talked endlessly with my counselor, my wife, my gender groups, and anyone else who would listen. None of those things made the choice for me. At the time, I thought I was deferring making the choice, but I see now that to defer was itself to choose – to make a choice for the status quo.

Let’s call that lesson three: having a choice can free you from one of the alternatives. But it does not free you from having to choose; in fact, it obligates you to choose.

As I said at the beginning, I did end up choosing transition. I felt that I could no longer stand feeling as bleak and as sad as I had for the preceding year. If transition could relieve that depression, I just didn’t have the will to fight it any longer. I took my chances on the consequences of that choice. As it turned out, I lost my marriage and with it, the ability to live in the same house with my then-5-year-old daughter as I watched her grow up. There were also some collateral material losses. By and large, though, none of the other feared consequences came to pass.

But it still didn’t feel like a choice really, not a free choice. You may say that I could’ve chosen to wait one more day; since I’d waited so many days already, what difference would one more make? And the same argument would apply the next day, and the next. Why should I ever have to choose transition? The analogy I’ll use here is holding your breath. If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, surely you can choose to hold it for 11 seconds; what’s one more second? And if you do hold it for 11, then we know you can choose to wait one more second, so it’s your choice whether to hold your breath for 12 seconds. And on and on. But of course, eventually you have to breathe again; at some point, you can’t choose even that one more second. And as I continued to choose not to transition — by deferring making the choice — that one more day and one more day finally reached a point where I could not defer it one more day.

So I guess lesson four is something like this: sometimes logic tries to tell you that you have a choice, while nature is saying that you don’t have a choice. When that happens, nature eventually beats logic, every time.

In wrapping up, I want to touch on one more thing: this is my story, about my struggle with choice and queerness. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything about anyone else’s story. And nobody else’s story can prove or disprove mine. And that brings us to

Lesson five: Your mileage may vary.

Mythic Scripture

 

Minister: The Word of God for the people of God.
People: Thanks be to God.

 

No. The Bible is not the word of God.

There. I said it.

That’s not a remarkable claim, though, until I add this:

I am a Christian.

Gasp! How can that be? Don’t all Christians – evangelical, liberal, orthodox, progressive – believe that the Bible is the word of God? The answer is “no,” and I am Exhibit A.

I’m a Christian, and I know that the Bible is a collection of words written by human beings. Not human beings taking dictation from God, nor even human beings so filled with divine inspiration that the words they wrote are effectively the word of God. Just plain human beings.

In order for these two claims – that I am Christian, and that the Bible is not the word of God – to make sense together, I have to answer two questions: What do I mean when I say I am Christian; and what is the Bible to Christianity if not the word of God?

First, being Christian means believing in God. This is not the place to go into detail of what I mean by “God;” suffice it to say that it means what most people think it means in the general way: God is an “other,” not a human; God is the ground of being, the creative force behind the existence of all that is; God exists spiritually – that is, beyond the constraints of ordinary matter and energy; and finally, people experience God’s existence – and not just with their five senses and their minds, but also by some other means, a means that may be difficult to put into words, but one that is nonetheless real.

Being Christian also means believing that Jesus is Christ – that the man Jesus, described in the Bible, was anointed by God to teach and to lead in God’s name. Jesus is the Christian’s consummate prophet. Even more, a Christian believes that Jesus was himself divine.

Finally, being Christian means believing that God calls people through Jesus Christ to a new way of life. The only rule governing this new way is “love God and love other people.” More specifically, the call is not merely to feeling love, but to acting with love in every part of life.

I call myself a Christian because I believe all of these things.

~ ~ ~

The answer to the second question is more complicated, but can be summarized simply: the Bible is not the word of God; it is an ancient mythology, created and written down by people over thousands of years.

That’s right. I said the Bible is mythology.

Am I saying it’s a fairy tale?
No.

Am I saying it’s pagan in some sense, like Greek or Norse mythology?
No.

Am I saying it’s merely a collection of entertaining stories, with nothing to teach us today?
No.

Am I saying it isn’t true, that it’s not sacred?
No, and absolutely no.

In fact, I’m saying that the Bible is true, it is sacred, and it has much to teach us today.

Myth is deep truth about God and humanity, expressed through story because there’s no more direct way to express it. Other forms of speaking truth are limited to declaration and logic, addressed to the conscious mind. Story offers metaphor, dream, symbol, allegory, and so many other ways of expressing its truth. This is what allows story to communicate directly with the unconscious, the deepest layers of instinct, emotion, and spirit. This deepest communication of deepest truth is what makes mythology sacred.

The Bible is the sacred myth in our cultural heritage.

How could it be otherwise? God is not just a person, in the sense that each of us is a person. God neither exists nor is experienced as a mere logical construct. We can talk about God only in this mythical way, which may seem indirect to our rational, everyday minds, but is in fact a much more direct way to reach the inmost layers of who we know ourselves to be.

Ultimately, to say that the Bible is myth doesn’t diminish it – far from it. This understanding of the Bible as a story created by people at the dawn of human time, passed down through unimaginable generations, across vast distances, and into the deepest levels of the human spirit leads us to see it as more powerful, more meaningful, more sacred than it could ever be if it had been just dropped, immutable and complete, from the sky.

~ ~ ~

The Biblical mythology is the one that speaks to us Christians. It is the primary source that teaches us about the meaning of the beliefs outlined above. Our sacred myth is a way of talking about God and our human selves, about who God is and who we are.

If we pay attention to the mythic story the Bible is telling, rather than how it tells the story, it teaches us about our relationships with God and with one another. The Bible, especially the story of Jesus, teaches us that divine and human can exist together in the same being. The Bible teaches us moral values: awe, honor, respect, love, and more. It teaches us the ethics through which we live out these values: give what you own but don’t need, to those who do need it; keep your promises; give of your heart to comfort those whose hearts are broken; don’t hurt people to get what you want, yet stand up bravely against those who would hurt others. And above all else, our sacred myth teaches us to reciprocate God’s love for us, to trust God, and to deserve God’s trust by actively loving one another.

That’s what it means to be Christian, and that’s what our mythic Scripture means to Christianity.

Selfishness and a Fire Truck

I walked over to the neighborhood drugstore just now to get a couple of necessities like Coke and peanuts. When I came back out, I heard, then saw, a fire engine about a block away on Peachtree Street. Before it got to me, it turned east onto 5th Street, toward where I live. “Oh no,” I thought. “As long as it’s not my place.”

Upon which I immediately asked myself if I was really wishing a house fire on someone else. I still remember, 38 years later, that sinking, sickening feeling I had when my own house burned down. How could I wish that feeling on someone else?

Well, I thought, at least I hope the fire isn’t hitting anyone even less fortunate than me.

What!? Am I playing the poor card, and wishing disaster on “those rich folks”? Because, what?, they can afford it more easily? Really, they have so much more to lose than I would. Someone “more fortunate than me” could be, for example, just a working class family with a couple of kids. No, even if they have insurance, that would too horrible for them, especially for the kids — the fear, the grief.

It’s not the amount of loss, I realized. Someone scraping by, someone with almost nothing, might have less to lose, but would probably be impacted by a fire far harder than I would.

Exasperated, I asked myself if I was being selfish. If I’m saying it’s bad to hope a richer person’s house is on fire, and bad to hope it’s a poorer person’s, does that mean the right thing to do is wish that the fire truck really was headed for my apartment after all? No, I decided, that’s ridiculous. There’s no reasonable morality or ethical system that would require that.

This might have been a good time to stop having this conversation with myself, but I always have trouble telling my brain to shut up once it gets going.

By now I’d walked far enough to see down the next block, and there was the fire truck, with a police car, parked next to what appeared to be a relatively minor traffic accident. Well, good, I thought, that’s a much better outcome than any of the hypothetical scenarios that my over-active imagination had been fretting about.

Back in my apartment, as I settled in to nibble on my peanuts and sip my Coke, I tried to figure out where that whole thought process had gone off the rails. Somehow I’d reached the conclusion that none of my feelings was morally acceptable, and being let off the hook by the discovery that there was no disaster to contemplate after all wasn’t a satisfactory resolution either.

So here’s what I came to. Maybe it’s trivial and obvious, but it felt like insight to me, which is why I’m going on and on about this incident.

The error that I made was in trying to wish away something painful that was already happening. The reality of the fire truck meant that I couldn’t wish it away completely, so the impulse was channeled into wishing it in one direction or another. Children might wish for bad things to happen to anyone but them, but part of growing up is leaving that behind. We learn that when the bad things don’t happen to us, it doesn’t mean they don’t happen at all; it means they happen to some other real, live person. Once we know that, we can never go back and un-know it.

The next time I see a fire truck, I’ll stick to reality. Somewhere, some people are hurting, or scared, or grieving over something that’s been lost. Even a minor traffic accident can scare the bejeebus out of you. If I’m close enough, and I’m able, of course the right response is to try to help. But if I’m not, I’ll think of those people, and pray that they find some kind of comfort, whether from one another, or from God, or from the kindness of strangers who happen to be there with them — which is really just God by another name.