Friday, March 11, 2016

The Cleric, the Philosopher and the Shadow (Part One)

[part one of two parts]

“How can I get people to understand that I am not homophobic?” the clergyman asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. I honestly didn’t know. To be honest, his preaching, writing and votes on church policy all pretty clearly demonstrated quite the opposite to me and no doubt to most other people as well.

“But I know gay people. I am not afraid of them and I don’t hate them,” he continued.

I didn’t know how to tell him that was a variant of the “Some of my best friends…” racist comment. I also didn’t know how to tell him that his understanding of the concept of homophobia was self-serving and ultimately a form of denial.

“So why do you refuse to allow them to be married in your church," I respond, knowing I’m running right on the edge of civility at this point.

“Tell me what in the Scriptures permits me to approve gay marriage” he demands.

Of course, I knew there had been many theological essays and books printed on the subject. I also knew that he had probably not read any of them and was unlikely to do so. I could also see that he was beginning to get red in the face…

It was pretty clear that this conversation was over.

(Composite dialogue constructed from encounters with various religious leaders over time)

One of the issues with which humanity continues to struggle in the 21st CE is its understandings of gender and sexuality. Nowhere has that struggle been more intense than within the many churches of the Christian tradition.

The primates of the Anglican Communion recently voted to suspend its American church (The Episcopal Church, TEC) for three years over its vote to conduct same sex marriages and provide liturgical rites for the same. Churches in Canada and the UK who had previously indicated plans to follow suit now appear to be backing away from them. A little ecclesial blackmail apparently goes a long way.

While this is a single page in a much longer history of a conflict whose roots lie in antiquity, the dramatic and rapid recent changes in understandings on this subject, religious and otherwise, and the resulting changes in the law among peoples in the post-industrial north suggest the world has reached a turning point in this long conflict.

Correspondingly, the level of energy and heat surrounding responses to these changes in the Global South and among more conservative pockets of the north would seem to suggest the dying gasps of a once unquestioned common social prejudice still deeply held by many. No one fights harder – and nastier - than those who realize they are losing.

Coming to grips with sea changes in international bodies like the Anglican Communion has proven difficult for a number of reasons. National and regional cultures tend to exhibit varying stages of development of moral reasoning. 

Moreover, old habits of thinking die hard, particularly those fraught with theological baggage. This particular issue has identity implications for a humanity whose understandings of what it means to be human have been drawn into question repeatedly over the past century as once self-evident constructions of race, gender and now sexual orientation have all been challenged and found lacking.

Perhaps the most difficult impediment in the process of coming to grips with the new realities that we face as human beings is the need to be honest with ourselves. Stripping away ideological lenses – including the theological variety - to look squarely at the questions we face has never been easy for human beings. It is particularly difficult in a post-modern era in which any truth claim, regardless of how reasonable or well supported, can be simultaneously considered revealed truth by some while others dismiss such claims unconsidered with the assertion of “That’s just your opinion.”

Often the latter response is little more than a defense mechanism whose roots lie in an unstated assumption that everyone’s opinion is of equal value and thus there is no need to critically consider one’s own. 

But is that true?

Shadowy Perceptions of Reality

According to Plato, Socrates wrestled with these questions 2600 years ago in Athens. In the famous Allegory of the Cave, Socrates recounts a tale of denizens of a metaphorical Cave, chained to seats and absorbed by the contests among them to identify shadows on the wall of objects passed in front of the fire which lit the cave interior. Because the actual objects in question were behind them, the contestants were unable to distinguish the objects themselves from the shadow cast by those objects.



When one of their number manages to escape the Cave, after an initial adjustment of his eyes from the darkness, he sees the world outside in the bright sunlight of reason. Ultimately, he feels it his duty to return to the Cave to enlighten his former Cave-mates, freeing them from their delusions.

But the Cave-mates are not interested in enlightenment. The sunlight of reason would require them to leave the comfort of the common sense of the Cave. As Socrates notes, should their liberator persist in his efforts to persuade them of their errors, they would rather kill him to put him out of their misery than do the hard work of growing and changing.

Fast forward 2300 years. A German philosopher who never left his small town of Konigsberg, Immanuel Kant, delineates a similar distinction between things in themselves, the noumena, and perceptions of those things held by human beings, the phenomena. Kant argues that because noumena are not knowable in themselves, by definition human beings must apprehend, interpret and relate their perceptions to previously held knowledge to understand anything they encounter. The well-known example of the multiple witnesses of a traffic accident who provide as many accounts of the event as witnesses, each bearing their own version of the event, is a classic example of the phenomena v. the noumena at work.

Finally, moving into the last century. German philosopher Hans Gadamer observed that every human being is a product of both personal and socio-cultural histories. What any of us brings to any encounter with the world around us shapes what we find there. While we are rarely aware of our hermeneutical lenses, we peer through them much like contact lenses to see and thus interpret what we see with regularity. According to Gadamer, it’s not “just your opinion” that you offer in response to any encounter with the world; at a very basic level it’s what you actually perceive. 

If Socrates, Kant and Gadamer are right that we human beings are inclined to subjectively conditioned encounters with the world around us, we probably see things as they actually are only rarely. That ought to make all of us a little humbler and less quick to make pronouncements about the truth of the world we encounter. And given our inabilities to know with any confidence the more limited truth about the world we inhabit, it ought to make us even more cautious about making any assertions about ultimate truth, much less the mind of a G_d which as humans we do not share. 

But clearly the record of homo religioso suggests a failure to heed the caution such limitations dictate. Humanity’s religious constructions of sexual orientation are a prime case in point.

A Crime Against Nature?

One of the common arguments in favor of laws which have penalized LBGTQ people historically has been that any non-heterosexual inclination and the behaviors which flowed from it somehow ran contrary to nature. Called “the crime against nature” throughout Christian history and much of American jurisprudence, this understanding presumed without question that heterosexual inclinations and behavior were normative for all animals including the human species.

Of course, it is not difficult to understand how such a presumption would arise. The sheer prevalence of heterosexual inclinations and behaviors among human animals - including many who did not innately share those inclinations but bowed to social pressures as a means of survival – insured that the majority’s self-experience could come to be seen as normative for all members of the species. 

Confusing empirical norms (statistical prevalence) with imperative moral constructions of “normal,” the essential assertion was that everyone was like the majority or ought to be. And those who weren’t were readily declared abnormal or deviant by the imperial majority.

This normative understanding came to be known as Natural Law, an understanding emerging from medieval European Christian thought. Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas would argue that nature reveals the divine plan for the world which humans can observe and comprehend through the use of reason. Once the experience of the majority had been conflated with the divine mind, to engage in behaviors which ran contrary to the imperial majority meant one was acting in ways that violated both the natural order as well as the will of the divine creator of that order.

Of course, Aquinas and those who would subsequently cite his Suma Theologica had no way of knowing what the findings of the world of natural science of the 20th CE would bring. Prior to the 1960s, the idea that one might observe homosexual behaviors in the animal kingdom outside the human species was considered unworthy of serious consideration, much less active research.

But representatives of the human animal species who did not fit that supposed divinely ordained pattern began to insist on the diversity of the human sexual experience beginning in the 1960s. About the same time, natural scientists began to observe what was previously unthinkable. In one species after another, they observed same sex behaviors and long term coupling. By 1999, same sex behaviors had been documented among more than 400 different species of animals, particularly among the species most closely related to the human animal in the evolutionary chain, primates.



In all cases, the same-sex behaviors were the subordinate expression of sexuality. Heterosexual behaviors were required to insure survival of the species and thus remained the dominant expression of sexuality. But, contrary to the implications of Natural Law that same-sex behavior was somehow unnatural, scientists found it to be a statistically consistent though subordinate expression of animal sexuality. Nature was more complex than the simplistic black and white dualisms of the middle ages had previously presumed.

Houston, we have a problem….

Once this construction of Natural Law began to break down, the implications for religiously based teachings against same-sex inclinations and behaviors were immediately apparent. While religion is commonly used as a means of legitimating social constructions, when those constructions are themselves deconstructed, their religious legitimations necessarily come into question.

If the good Creation of G_d evidences a consistent subordinate expression of sexuality throughout the animal kingdom, then clearly homosexual behaviors were hardly unnatural, they were simply less frequently observable than heterosexual behaviors. As Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence pronounced this matter at National Coming Out Day in Berkeley in 1992, “Instead of calling heterosexuality normal, call it what is really is: common.”


Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch, Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence 

As the reality of a subordinate sexual expression began to be documented, the realization began to dawn on many that continued deference to constructions of heterosexuality as natural (meaning normal) and same-sex inclinations and behaviors as unnatural (meaning deviant) was no longer possible in good faith. As more and more LBGTQ people came forward to speak the truth of their own lives, refuting the assertions of their straight counterparts that they had somehow chosen to be other than heterosexual – thereby choosing to be deviant in the eyes of a dying paradigm of science, sinful in the eyes of normative religious constructions and criminal in the eyes of the law - notions of naturally occurring diverse sexual orientations became harder and harder to refute.

Some of the weight behind retaining the increasingly brittle constructions of heterosexuality as normative for all human beings was historical in nature. Such understandings are  ancient in origins and are reflected in the writings of a number of ancient cultures including Hebrew and Christian scriptures. At the same time, a minority report on this normative understanding has always been observable in a wide range of cultures from the Hellenistic Roman world to a number of indigenous cultures. But by the 20th CE, the hegemony of European and US imperial forces around the world and the cultural understandings that arrived in the wake of the gunboats had resulted in a fairly universal understanding of heterosexuality as the normative – and thus moral -  expression of human sexuality worldwide.

With the rise of post-modern critique, this default understanding of heterosexuality as the norm against which any other expressions of sexuality must be considered deviant came to be called heterosexism. Understandings arising out of heterosexism were called heteronormative suggesting the widespread acceptance of heterosexuality as normative for all human beings.

But as the studies began to pile up demonstrating homosexual behaviors in the non-human realms of the animal kingdom, heterosexist presumptions became more difficult to maintain. Coupled with increasing self-reports of non-heterosexual men and women who swore they had never made any choices other than to be honest with themselves and others, that their sexuality was always a part of their self-understandings, the common sense nature of heterosexism had been mortally wounded.

Confronted with strong indications to the contrary, those who had previously held the heterosexist presumptions they had largely inherited without a second thought from trusted authorities and absorbed like sponges from heterosexist cultures around them no long had the luxury of naïveté in continuing to believe them in good faith.

This knowledge would prove painful for many now required to reconsider their understandings of what it means to be human from the perspective of diverse sexualities. But once they had become aware of the same, those who once operated out of heteronormative presumptions could no longer in good faith claim ignorance about those presumptions. 

They knew better.

[Concluded in part two]

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Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida



If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

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2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well thought out and explained. But, I tend to agree with Aquinas. G_d's brain is the equivalent of all brains in existence.

Antoinette Griffin said...

The Allegory of the Cave is a powerful tale. I ran across what may be an adaptation titled “The Old Lady in the Cave”. It tells of a man who seeks Truth and finds in a cave, Truth in the form of a haggard, old woman. He spends time with her and learns so much that his life is changed. When he feels ready to leave and return to his life, he asks Truth what she would advise him to tell others about her. Her answer,“Tell them that I am beautiful.”
Perhaps, the moral of the story is that in order to grow and understand the beauty of embracing truth, we must first make room to grow by facing the ugly truths about ourselves and getting beyond it.
With regards to natural law, in my opinion, what is natural to each person is as unique as what is spiritual to each person.
Thank you for sharing your blog, Harry.