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As Gay As Jesus

December 19, 2011

ImageI am deeply fascinated by myth. The ubiquity of myth in human societies bespeaks its rootedness in human universals, like the brain. (For my treatment of the emergence of myth from the neural system, please see my blog post about neuroanthropology.)

Human beings have always had myths. Throughout pre-civilization and civilization, myth systems have been one in the handful of constants of the human experience.

As religious scholar Joseph Campell has explained, the term “myth” is not derogatory. Some may presume that there is a condescending implication when we refer to a story as a myth, particularly when the word is used to describe stories told by religious groups that are functioning today.

On the contrary, though, Joseph Campbell identified a vital, fourfold purpose for myth: it awakens a sense of awe, explains the shape of the universe, supports social order, and guides the individual through the stages of life. In this context, the myth of Jesus of Nazareth powerfully reflects our story as an LGBT community.

Consider the Christ narrative: divine, transcendent love enters a human body. This love grows—it blesses, heals, and changes those whom it touches. The religious leaders who wield the most political power do not accept the bearer of this love, nor do they approve of him. Instead, they persecute him, citing reasons from their books of scriptures to rationalize their own rejection of him, and to assert an illegitimacy of his practices. Ultimately, they conspire to put this man to death. However, they misjudge his nature and power, and the darkness of their own hearts cannot extinguish the light of his goodness. In fact, it only makes it stronger and enables it to spread further.

This is the story of the queer community. It is the story of love that awakens those who are touched by it, while simultaneously being persecuted by religious elitists. It could not have a more striking metaphor than the story of Jesus. Even as gay marriage—the ultimate symbol of love and devotion that society can offer—suffered a temporary death at the hands of religious conspirators hiding behind the thinly veiled mask of political necessity (Proposition 8), the death was only temporary. And it is the collective love emanating from our community that will empower it to live indefinitely.

The writers of the musical Les Miserables chose to poetically conclude the life of the main character, Jean Valjean, with this poignant message: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” However, more than simple poetics, the author of the letters of John in the New Testament crafts a rich theology of love, explicitly linking the relationship between human love and the presence of Divinity. He writes, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12).

Many of us in the LGBT community have been burned by those who assert that we have no place in the religious communities of our upbringing. This Christmas season, whether we look to Jesus of Nazareth as the Savior of humanity, as a good man and teacher of morals, or as an archetype and a myth—may we each feel our own story celebrated, even as we celebrate the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. And may the resounding message be the one trumpeted by angels real or imagined: “And on earth peace, good will toward men.”

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9 Comments
  1. Thanks for sharing that Michael. Your appeal to God’s love is moving and compelling. I admit that I’m not as close to these issues as some and so my judgement is bound to be somewhat flawed, but I hesitate to accept what seemed to me like an implication that “the queer community” is a homogenous and united group. My own perception of the community is that not everyone is united behind the same agenda and not everyone is using charitable means to promote their respective agendas. While many are, some aren’t. That said, I really enjoyed some of the thoughts and images that this post evoked for me.

    • michael@positiveneuro.com permalink

      Hi, Carl. Thank you for the thoughtful reply. You are very correct, that there is a great diversity within the queer community. If anything, this underscores the absurdity of the term “the gay lifestyle,” as it is often used to disparage any life outcome distinct from a heteronormative interpersonal relationship…as if there is a singular lifestyle typical of every non-heterosexual person.

      That being said, I think that the longings of the human heart DO share tremendous commonalities across all groups–queer or straight. This might seem like a laughable metric, but consider the popularity of the Rihanna song “We All Want Love.” It would not be downloaded in droves from iTunes if it weren’t speaking to something that masses of people feel and seek. And, as confirmed by both scripture and conscience, there is a sacred dimension to human love.

      Perhaps grounding the dialog back toward the overarching theme of this blog–the intersections of human neural systems and human flourishing–I anticipate that future neural research will show that the mechanisms for pair bonding and relational attachment between loving partners are indifferentiable between gay or straight couples. In other words, their love is the same.

      I only mourn that it will likely take empirical research for many people to accept this.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8YxxmFTPdk&ob=av2e

      • Thanks Michael. I agree that we all have a lot in common. In general, I get frustrated whenever a certain faction attempts to marginalize others’ views. I get frustrated when conservatives attempt to deny the influence of biology on sexual orientation, and I also get frustrated when liberals arrogantly dismiss conservative concerns, or when either camp engages in political warfare to try to impose their views on others instead of fostering an environment where collegial debate and dialogue can be engaged in.

  2. Hi Michael, speaking of thinly veiled – wow, you went there. haha! It’s fun seeing you publicly address some of the topics we’ve covered in private. I’m glad to have been a part of your sounding board experience if only a small part. I appreciate your clarification of the term “myth” as you have used it, and wonder a little bit about why you chose to use that word in addition to the more traditionally concrete sounding word, “narrative”, but I recognize that the process of searching that you’ve recently been on is probably more appropriately reflected by the term “myth” as it relates to your religious experience, and I imagine that being able to use the term “myth” when speaking of Christ is somewhat empowering considering your upbringing. It seems you’ve probably arrived at a view more common to the human religious experience in general, which is saying something for someone who was raised LDS. (speaking of acronyms, I believe it’s LGBTQ now)

    I also wanted to comment on your use of the term “love”. While I tend to agree that the physiological range of experiences associated with love are probably very similar, if not exactly the same, between couples in love no matter which gender combination is involved, the definition of what that term means scripturally is not equal to what is meant by the love between spouses. I realize that I’m perhaps looking beyond the scope of your post but I think it’s an essential detail to realize when considering your observations. While scriptural love is certainly necessary in a relationship between spouses, spousal love also implies intimacy and commitment on a level separate from that of all other relationships. Sexuality is a key aspect of that commitment and intimacy. I think you may be one of the most empathetical people I know, you have a gift for loving people. As such, I think it’s only natural for you to easily disregard such a discrepancy in your analogy… ;)

    Continuing – the Christ narrative truly teaches us to love all creatures, but not in a sexual context. Incidentally, there’s an interesting connection between emotional needs and “sexual sin” that seems to beg for more investigation. Why did the woman taken in adultery commit the adultery? Was she in love? Did she simply need to feel loved? We aren’t told why in the scriptural account, Christ didn’t ask, he only told her to “go, and sin no more.” This part of Christ’s comforting admonition keys in on the aspect of the importance of obedience to God’s commandments. Which brings me to my second point.

    Unfortunately, no religious group is immune to harboring bigotry. The LDS community is no exception and I am positive that there are many good LDS people who hold a bigoted opinion toward homosexuality where it’s only by sheer coincidence that it’s considered a sinful behavior as well. That being said, the vast majority of LDS people I know have friends and/or loved ones who are gay and who are considered valuable members of said people’s lives. The wording you chose to use regarding the lack of place for gays within the religious communities of their upbringing seems to take aim at this human element rather than the doctrinal element of their respective situations and yet still seems misdirected somehow. Most religious traditions have defined homosexuality as a sinful behavior for centuries, which is not a justification in and of itself, but rather a contextual reference. You know as well as anyone that the LDS doctrinal position on gays within the church is that of outreach and welcoming toward individuals while considering homo-sexual intimacy as sinful behavior. There is always a place within the church for the individual. The behavior is a different matter. With empiricism as your mantra, can you say with all honesty that the data are conclusive regarding homosexuality and/or eternal salvation? If not, then it’s hardly an elitist religious doctrine that forbids homosexual behavior including gay marriage. Having said that, I don’t judge another’s walk in life, and I’m very uncomfortable legislating religious ideals. Both the gay community and the religious community have changed a lot in the last few decades. One is simply outpacing the other so what I see is an impending collision of definitions of values where the more commonly accepted definition/s will eventually win out (speaking temporally of course). In the mean time your reminder of the seasonal admonition for “peace on Earth, good will toward men” is certainly apropos.

    • michael@positiveneuro.com permalink

      Hi, Laron. As always, you remain a respectful and thoughtful friend, and I invite this dialog.

      While some may cringe (forcefully) at the cross-talk between theology and biology, I don’t think that they are wholly independent. Saint Paul explicitly links biology and theology in his writing, particularly Romans 2:15 and Galatians 5, with various expressions of the idea that the core laws of divinity are written into our very heart and conscience. Conversely, I think that a lot of the mythic exploration of “inner space” that we receive from religious traditions might ultimately be productive guideposts in the eventual scientific explorations of those same spaces. In other words, I think that the relationship between theology and biology is a two-way street, even if not readily seen.

      In the realm of theology specifically, there is no dearth of holy writ in the Jewish, Christian, or LDS traditions wherein an actor was given conflicting laws–by conscience or by external edict–and had to simply do their best to act bravely and honestly in the absence of an obvious best-decision. Eve is probably the purest example from the LDS system–heroized for using her own intuition to override an explicit commandment from the Deity. And the deep irony, of course, is that this is what the Creator in the narrative wanted her to do.

      In the realm of biology, our physical understanding about human nature has forced us to revise some of the assumptions that were made about these topics when they were primarily assigned to the realm of mystery. Creationism is a classic example, but there are a number of other topics that could be productively explored in this domain. It is interesting to me, for instance, that in New Testament literature, the concept of physical handicap was interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure. Today we would likely agree that this would be a cruel interpretation of a physical malady, and it would seem foreign to us to assess biological variation as a marker for divine preference. You are right to observe that the questions of future salvation, etc., that religion tries to address are simply not empirical questions. They are firmly in the realm of mystery. What we can do, though, is examine the long arc of religious history, and the way that it has favorably bent toward an increasingly large radius of inclusion. I don’t pretend that science has answered all of the questions about orientation, and the role of companionate love in the well-being of human life. But science can be credited with helping to shift the dialog to a place where we can engage these questions–even in the domain of theology–in a more honest and thorough way than we have been capable of engaging them in the past. Kendall Wilcox’s upcoming documentary “Far Between” is a wonderful example of this shift in the religious conversation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGdiM-BUl4Y

  3. Brian permalink

    Truly wonderful observations, Michael. Kudos!

  4. “a temporary death at the hands of religious conspirators hiding behind the thinly veiled mask of political necessity (Proposition 8)”

    See, Michael, here you are again refusing to concede good faith to people with sincerely held religious beliefs that you disagree with. If someone supports Prop 8 because they don’t believe that gay marriage should be sanctioned by the government, then they are a “conspirator” like unto the crucifiers of Christ. It couldn’t possibly be the case that people who act with just as much love and kindness as you do might nonetheless reasonably disagree with you about how society ought to be structured. How many people that donated to Prop 8 would in fact be very kind to a gay person if they ever met them? My guess is most of them (your mileage may vary). Judging by the number of Mormons who were boycotted or lost jobs in the aftermath of Prop 8 (not to mention the white powder sent to the Los Angeles Temple), I’m not sure if religious folks can rely on gay marriage proponents to extend the sort of goodwill and understanding that you seem to be demanding from religious people.

    “Many of us in the LGBT community have been burned by those who assert that we have no place in the religious communities of our upbringing.”

    I am very sorry that someone has made you feel unwelcome in the LDS Church. I hope that in the future you are extended every kindness and understanding from your Mormon associates (of which you must have many in Utah). I hope that you will extend the same kindness and understanding to them, even where there is strong disagreement about issues important to you.

    • michael@positiveneuro.com permalink

      Hi, MC. Thanks for taking time to reply. I’m not so sure that conspiring and acting in good faith are mutually exclusive. In the particulars of Proposition 8, it is extraordinarily well-documented that conspiring–definitionally–drove essentially every step of the campaign to legally ban same-sex couples from participating in marriage. Several watchdog sites, notable among them http://MormonsforMarriage.org, have retrospectively chronicled the conversations between religious groups to organize joint coalitions, and to strategically distance themselves from the political action committee frontmen and women. This is to say nothing of private phone calls from leaders to parishioners later documented, requesting massive $25,000 personal donations, and false election filings that were later penalized. I’m sure that many in the system believed whole heartedly that they were doing good and right throughout the process. But, again, sincerity of intent does not manifestly bar conspiracy, in either the Christ narrative or possible modern correlates.

      There is a larger philosophical conversation that could ensue regarding the meaningfulness of kindness within an ideological context that fundamentally pronounces another’s life journey as invalid, or existentially threatening (ref the LDS ‘Proclamation on the Family’ verbiage of “calamities foretold,” etc.). There’s something hollow about being nice to another, while actively preventing them from enjoying full inclusion and holding the mental view that cosmic vengeance is deserved. In this and other comments, you bring up worthwhile challenges to my perspective about the proportions of religious believers who walk around with vindictive interpretations of divine justice actively informing their thoughts. I honestly welcome your refutations to my perspective, and hope that the dialog seems more than sophist.

      You also bring up worthwhile disconnects that plague social justice movements generally, i.e., the asymmetries between expectations for dignified treatment versus the reciprocity in behavior and attitude. In modern cultural myth, the differences in response are archetyped by the variations in ideologies between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. This is, again, a longer and more nuanced conversation point. But I wanted to acknowledge and resonate with the apparent inconsistencies you highlight.

      Lastly (for now), I would assert that my current feelings about religion and religious faith are more textured than I may be conveying in my writing, and your responses are welcomed alerts to possible blind spots. As a case in point, I find hope and meaning in movements like the Mormon Stories/Open Stories Foundation that recognize the inspiration and value in religion and religiosity (Mormon religiosity, in this particular example), and seek to accentuate the transcendent potential for good, while compassionately navigating the human tensions and complexities that may evade mainstream discourse on difficult subjects (http://mormonstories.org/).

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