Thursday, March 13, 2014

Evangelical fundamentalists are guilty of the sin of homosexuality


Even as they rail against the so-called gay agenda and wring their hands over what they perceive to be the legitimization of immorality, homosexuality remains a source of sin of which for which many who identify as Christians are guilty and for which they have yet to repent. But the gay community and its allies may yet set them free.

I say this for good reason, but there are some reasons that I do not claim. I don't claim to speak for anyone other than myself. Nor do I have any desire to pass judgment over any particular person or set myself up an official arbiter of religious righteousness or holiness, whether for Christianity or any other tradition.

But I do choose to emply the language some Christians use in passing judgment and condemning others for their sexual orientation (and we can expand that to their hangups over gender identity as well) in describing some observations about their perspective and behavior that I find objectionable.

A few words on sin

I find it interesting that sin and salvation can be understood in terms of spaciousness. The Jewish conception of salvation has a direct connection to the imagery of spaciousness, of being in a broad and fruitful place. This imagery can be taken in many ways, including phenomenologically, literally, metaphorically, imaginally, practically, and so on. Similarly, sin is connected to being confined, of being in a pit, or bound in chains, or in a desolate place.

As an offshoot of one of the first century sects of Judaism, Christianity has appropriated much of the imagery of its cultural forebears, at times keeping its original sense and at times modifying it. Dante Alighieri used this same imagery of constriction, for example, for depicting Hell as a place that gradually becomes narrower and more sparsely populated until it reaches Satan stuck in a small, dark, isolated space at the bottom.

Taking in this imagery, it suggests that the more deeply one becomes lost in such limiting and stale space, the more one descends into a barren, joyless, and fruitless existence. Shallow diversions and intense emotional distractions may temporarily seem to liven up this space, but their effects wear off more quickly after each use. A sense of hollowness and a deep malaise lurks when the noise stops. When silence is heard once more in the heart and mind.

The more time one spends in such a space, the more it changes a person. While the effects may not be perfectly consistent or universal, they involve a deep insecurity and sense of being unfulfilled. How these effects are expressed also varies. Some respond to this by denial, oddly enough by trying to fill their lives with noise that gives at least the appearance if not the sensation of being confident and successful. This becomes transmuted into arrogance and greed.

Other coveted virtues yield similar results, with condescension and cheapness masquerading as charity, manipulation, coercion, and gossip as concern, and so on. Unable to experience or express the genuine article, the counterfeits are tainted or corrupted. This perversion isn't necessarily intentional, and may in fact be the result of better intentions. Outwardly things may appear pleasant if not a little artificial or overdone.

Based on my own experiences and the reported experiences of others, this kind of sugar coated hypocrisy has become a stereotype of the evangelical fundamentalist Christian. They are by no means exclusive in having members that fit this mold. It does seem to be related, though, to seeking the kind of noise that covers the unease and gives the desired appearance and sense of self. A kind of noise that betrays a sense of not knowing or being comfortable with what it is they claim to possess.

This noise is manifest as an externalizing desire that transforms that hidden need to possess, to control, what they claim to already have by turning it into concrete expressions. Expressions based on loose perceptions of something they understand only in words and gestures. Thus "Jesus", "Christ", "The Cross", "God", "Salvation", "Heaven", and others are sold as books, music, decorations, and knick-knacks in circular, self-referential theology and diluted liturgy.

Some may end up resembling this stereotype based on imitation and inherited cultural patterns, so the underlying dynamics described aren't meant to reflect everyone who in someway resemble this stereotype. Nor is this stereotype the only outcome of those who find themselves in such a stifling, suffocating space. Rather it seems to be an outcome for those who are trying to convince themselves and others that they really do have the "fruits of the Spirit" (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) when they lack sufficient inner spaciousness, springs, and light to bear them to the degree that they wish to present.

For those who are unfamiliar with or who have an aversion to religious language, as well as for those who recognize it but want to see how it works into the observation I started with, allow me to briefly unpack that imagery a little as I show why this relates to fundamentalist attitudes toward issues such as sexuality and gender identification.

The Divine as growth and freedom

Understand, this language is poetic, meaning it is imaginal and metaphorical. No active religious commitment is required to use or understand it. The spaciousness of the heart is a commentary on how much of reality it can take. How many triumphs and disappointments? How much excitement and tediousness? How many people and which kinds? In other words, how much patience, gratitude, and acceptance is your emotional center able to handle? The inner springs are the sources of what emerge in the heart as hope, creativity, faith, spontaneity, and vitality. Light represents compassion, wisdom, insight, and the like.

So, a spacious heart that is bright and filled with active springs is able to channel or generate, and thus able to increase the reality and magnify experience of, that which we call love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the ultimate source of these things is Spirit, hence they are referred to by the Apostle Paul as the fruits of the Spirit. Those in other religious traditions or adhering to non-religious philosophies or ideologies can readily understand this imagery whether they agree that the Spirit of God, as represented by Christianity, is in fact the source of these things.

This is an important point. Whether the Abrahamic, and specifically Christian, view of God is ultimately useful or meaningful to anyone in particular, this imagery of spaciousness and fruitfulness is describing the nature of a person who is open to reality as it comes and who is able and willing to live in it. A person who doesn't need a cloud of noise composed of words, concepts, emotions, and general busyness to keep the revelations of silence at bay. A person who doesn't use such a cloud to avoid exploring existential depth, and who explores such depth directly and without obfuscation; that is, without pretending that clever arguments about doctrine and philosophy are the sum if such exploration. Who is comfortable dwelling in a place beyond the reach of her intellect, physical strength, political influence, and other sources of human power and security.

You can well imagine then what the opposite of this would be like. And, sadly, you don't have to imagine. There are people of every political, social, and religious identity and affiliation who match that description. Some who knowingly dwell in such a dark, claustrophobic space and those who only sense a kind of unease when confronted with the limits of their familiar expectations and sense of control. Who grow restless when silence begins to reassert itself from the margins of their lives.

A popular theological construction of this experience of a lack of spaciousness and of increasing limitation is that it is the result of sin, wherein sin is that which causes separation from God or the Divine. What this might mean is related to how one perceives God; that is, what one understands as the meaning and value behind the word God. But if we consider the concept of freedom and spaciousness given, we have some clue to the meaning implied. As one Christian prayer states, to know God is perfect freedom. The gist of it all is that moving toward wholeness and growth is both the nature and the will of the Divine, while becoming and remaining stuck and stunted is not.

I can hear many of you sarcastically or bitterly retorting, "Knowing God is freedom?!?"

That's the idea. Or should I say the ideal? Yet you wouldn't know it by looking at the stated beliefs and recorded activities of many professing Christians. Which brings us back to the what happens when people get stuck in their smallness and try to emulate the feelings, thoughts, and actions of those who actually know the pain and joy of spaciousness. In turn that takes us back to the Christian evangelical fundamentalists and their attitudes and actions regarding sexuality and gender.

Repentance and salvation

"OK", you may say, "so some aspects of various major religions at least talk about growth and liberation. But what about those who are determined to turn their religion into a rigid, unchanging set of rules, attitudes along with strict interpretations of key stories and images? A tradition wherein there is a a narrowly pre-formatted path for growth? Similarly pre-patterned sets of behaviors? Lists of approved music, reading, and movies?  Where keeping up the proper appearances is a demonstration of your loyalty as well as spiritual wellness?"

Ask those who have left such forms of religion. You can see it in their eyes when they talk about their experiences. Some are very bitter. Some shake their head and laugh. Many abandon the entire religion for another, or for some loose form of spirituality, or become non-religious. They talk about the strange mentality one had to maintain, the cognitive and emotional dissonance involved. And they talk about how liberated they felt to leave, whether it was for another religious tradition or for atheism. They feel they can finally deal with reality rather than the artificial sets of expectations and filters that everything previously needed to pass through. They talk about how they have grown and expanded.

To put it bluntly, to use Judeo-Christian imagery and language, they have been brought into a more spacious, fruitful place. To repent means to turn away, to change direction. It isn't an easy thing, as it means going a new way, entering places that seem uncomfortable or unfamiliar. At least at first. Again, the imagery of salvation is tied to moving toward spaciousness. So to leave that which is familiar, and to strike out in a different direction is, for those trapped in fundamentalist religion, a form of repentance. And the eventual relief they feel, a measure of salvation.

I am sure that if those who are into rigid evangelicalism/fundamentalism, whether it is the more common non-Mainline Protestant variety or not, were to read that, there would be an  impulse to defend their form of inflexible narrowness by quoting something about the narrow way leading to life, but if the kind of narrowness they impose is so amazing and life affirming, why do so many people leave it behind? Why is it that people experience such affirmation of life and a sense of growth after abandoning such a religious outlook? The point here isn't to convince such people of this, as there is always another response, and another, and endless debate. No doubt it would involve a notion of the elect, and predestination, and the temptations of evil, and so on.

Rather, the point is that if we take the Judeo-Christian imagery of sin and salvation seriously (if not every theological claim and spin that has been attached to them), it would seem that in fact many fundamentalists, especially those of the saccharine hypocrisy and the spoiled spiritual fruits, are in fact trapped in their own dark pits. And those who have left those pits give some grim depictions of what they are like. Yet no less grim than similar accounts found, appropriately enough, in places like the Bible.

If we were to ask if fundamentalist religion is the only such pit, or whether people who escape from one kind of pit sometimes end up in another, we would be on a good and healthy track. Whether or not you practice Christianity or any other religion, the imagery it offers of sin and salvation is worth pondering. (Assuming you can get past all of the baggage.) Ones life is regularly in need of examining. By now, having followed along to this point, you might already see how we get to my initial observation. Still, let's finish it up.

Trapped in the sin of homosexuality (and other pits)

Using our spaciousness/growth versus confined/stunted imagery, with one leading to what we are calling here salvation and the other to damnation, we can see that imagery playing out in a number of ways.

On the LGBQT* side, we have the pain, guilt, and frustration of being "in the closet". Of having to hide or disguise who they are because of fear of the judgment of others as well as their own condemnation and dissatisfaction with themselves. That is a form of Hell, and it leads many to self-harm and suicide. Surely then, having encouragement and support to repent of such self-loathing and fear and come out of the closet is a form of salvation. Again, no commitment to Christianity or its theology is required to appreciate the use of this imagery.

On the flip side, trying to keep people in such spaces -- spaces that suffocate their souls -- would be a form of evil. That's the thing about sin. Again using Judeo-Christian imagery, it wounds in both directions. It binds you in a set of chains and drops you in a dark place. In trying to use outdated sexual mores and misinterpreted scriptural passages to justify inherited cultural norms of bigotry, those same Christians are walling themselves off from reality and preferring the darkness of their ignorance. And it isn't just about sexuality and gender. They are doing it with religious xenophobia, science denial, economic denial, and so many other things.

The rotten fruits of such a spirit allow hatred or exclusion to be preached and practiced as love, with ignorance and denial accepted as wisdom. (And for those who would suggest that Divine wisdom appears foolish to wordly wisdom, keep in mind that "the world" in such a context isn't simply material/physical reality is the realm of the dark pit).

At the end of the day, we are all bound and we are all free in ways that are good for us and bad for us in relative terms. Some restrictions are helpful and beneficial at particular times in life, and some options and choices can be overwhelming and cause problems. But when it comes to what we can call a spiritual perspective, a perspective rooted in our common potential and aspiration as human beings, a perspective that transcends where and who we are at any given moment, being limited by fear, anger, aggression, self-doubt, callousness, hopelessness, and similar chains is always lamentable. Setting people free from such chains and helping them into a more spacious and fruitful place is always commendable.

Currently, many people who identify as Christians are trapped by chains in which they have bound themselves in through their ignorance, fear, or loathing with regard to the LGBQT* community. Homosexuality, or at least their understanding of it, has become pit into which they have fallen. It is a sin in which they trapped.

Those who have been hurt by the impact of such discriminatory rhetoric and activity may have little sympathy for those trapped in such a place, and I'm not sure what I could say to those too wounded to have mercy on those who persecute them and to forgive those who sin against them. I could say that, ironically, it's the "Christian thing to do". But I would like to believe that it's more than that. That maybe we can decide that it's the human thing to do.

So go on, take action to help someone get past their assumptions and their limitations today. Help grant a measure of salvation for their soul. Those in the most constricting forms of fundamentalism are not "bad" or "evil" people, and they often can only assume that others reject their views because of the temptations of Satan and the culture of permissiveness that he inspires. But harm can come from decent but misguided people as much as from those who lash out in pain, disregard the welfare of others, or intentionally seek to inflict harm. Help show them that there is nothing to fear or despise in accepting basic rights and dignity for the LGBQT* community.

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