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God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality: My (Unofficial) Review of Part Three

Do LGBT people, as Jung said, have a “special receptivity?” Do gay people experience (or transcend) the balance between masculine and feminine, at the heart of so many mystical and religious traditions, in different ways that may enrich all our experiences of gender? Are there special perspectives on the key questions of religion that are afforded to sexual and gender minorities? Already, scholars in the discipline known as “queer theology” have begun opening exciting lines of investigation in religious thought, while outside traditional structures the “gay spirituality” and women’s spirituality movements have explored similar avenues.

-Jay Michaelson
Chapter 17: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God…to devise subtle works in gold, silver, and brass,” p.155
God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality

As the title of today’s “meditation” indicates, this is an “unofficial” review of Part Three of Michaelson’s book. I’m focusing exclusively on the last two chapters because they illustrate the author’s ultimate point in writing this book. As I said in my review of Part One, Michaelson is a gifted writer and extremely convincing. If I were willing to take him at face value and not investigate the alternative explanations and interpretations to what he presents, I could see myself following him down the path he builds. But I would have to be utterly convinced by him up to this point to willingly absorb what he says next.

A lot of Part Three of the book is an inventory of the ways the LGBTQ community is beneficial, not only to society in general, but to the religious world in particular. In the quote above, we find the suggestion that gay people may actually bring special insights into the church and, as in some other cultures (generally ancient cultures), may have a particular and unique role to play within the Christian Church and Jewish Synagogue.

I’ve never heard of queer theology before and I was actually a little hesitant to “Google” the term (I eventually did). According to Michaelson, there is a long list of scholars (he lists them in this chapter) investigating and writing on this “queer theology.” That’s news to me, but then again, I don’t recognize the names of most of the famous Evangelical and Fundamentalist Pastors writing and preaching in the Church today.

The following paragraph is what inspired me to write about Part Three. I hadn’t intended to do so, but I was so astonished by the implications, that I felt I had to respond. I can see why Michaelson saved this information for the very end of his book. If you aren’t totally “hooked” by Michaelson at this point, then your reaction will probably be similar to mine:

Episcopal lesbian theologian Carter Heyward, whose work we briefly noted in part I, has described her project this way: “I am attempting to give voice to an embodied — sensual — relational movement among women and men who experience our sexualities as a liberating resource and who, at least in part through this experience, have been strengthened in the struggle for justice for all.” Heyward and others…are attempting nothing less than a recovery of the physical, embodied, and erotic within Christian traditions that have traditionally suppressed them. Building a theology of relationality that is reminiscent of the work of Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, Heyward has proposed a spiritual valuation of eros — which she defines as “our embodied yearning for mutuality.” Openness to embodied love opens us to other people, the biological processes of the universe, and to God. Thus, Heyward writes, “my eroticism is my participation in the universe” and “we are the womb in which God is born.”

-ibid, p.156

Now compare all that to the following:

But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.”

Acts 24:24-25 (NASB)

Jay Michaelson
Jay Michaelson

In the many areas Michaelson visited in the Bible, I think he missed Paul’s association of self-control and righteousness with one possible consequence being judgment. In fact, his quote which relies heavily on Heyward seems so antithetical to how I (and many others) read the Bible, that I don’t recognize Christianity and Judaism in it at all. Michaelson’s and Heyward’s description of this “project” seems more like how Dennis Prager describes the pagan religious landscape before Judaism (and subsequently Christianity) “revolutionized” sexuality to come within the scope of God’s purpose for human beings.

The startling conclusion I’m forced to draw from this is that one of Michaelson’s points in writing his book is to redefine Christianity and Judaism in a radical manner such that it actually reverses the “sexual revolution” God introduced to the ancient Israelites at Sinai, a revolution that has been a hallmark of the covenant community of God…at least until now. I hate to put it this way, but it’s as if Michaelson is advocating for a restoration in how human sexuality was incorporated into pagan worship…and he, or at least Heyward, wants it in the Church (or some churches).

When Michaelson says the “erotic within Christian traditions,” what eroticism has a valid place in Christian tradition? Both Christian and Jewish tradition confine eroticism to the bedroom of the (male and female) married couple, and to the best of my knowledge, that hasn’t changed in the history of both religions…that is, until now.

Here’s the other major point I think Michaelson wants to bring home to his readers and I believe it connects to the first:

At this moment, there are people who are contemplating ending their lives because they believe their sexuality to be a sin, a flaw in the fabric of their soul, or perhaps a curse from God. Misled by a cruel misreading of a handful of biblical verses, they miss the much more important messages of many others: that love is sacred, that God does not want us to be alone. That justice and compassion are Divine mandates. That every human being is created in the image of God, and that the way we love is one of the paramount expressions of that likeness.

While you come to the last pages of this book, they may be coming to the last hours of their lives. That is why, if we are religious, we cannot consider the words of a sacred text dispassionately, or fall back on familiar teachings we’ve heard. There is death around us, and even when there is not physical death, there is unconscionable spiritual suffering. It is present in your church pews, when a friend of yours feels excluded or marginalized. It is a your family table, in the hearts of the uncle who never married, or the girl who prefers boys’ clothes to dresses.

-Michaelson
Chapter 18: “For nothing in creation can separate you from the love of God”

Hopefully, I won’t be guilty of using a cheap shot in what I’m about to say, but the bare bones of this message seems to be that if we religious people won’t support, normalize, and sanctify homosexuality in the Church and Synagogue by interpreting the Bible as Michaelson does, we are directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of any gay people who feel excluded or marginalized from religious community. From Michaelson’s point of view, we really have no choice. Either we comply or we have the blood of who knows how many gay Christians and religious Jews on our hands. We are powerless to disagree unless we don’t care about whether gay people live or die.

Except, as I’ve said in my reviews of Parts One and Two of the Michaelson book, I don’t believe this author has successfully made the point that the Bible actually supports inclusion of same-sex romantic/erotic relationships on par with opposite-sex marriages. To repeat myself (yet again) the Bible does not presuppose such relationships. The only thing Michaelson has to stand on is his assertion in Part One that the Bible describes broad general principles of love, justice, and compassion, but as we dig into the specifics of the Bible, that doesn’t mean permissiveness to the extreme that there are no moral standards and, as they used to say in the 1960s, “if it feels good, do it.”

depressionConnecting the latter point to the former, if we don’t provide absolute inclusiveness of the LGBTQ community into the body of faith up to and including accepting the sort of philosophy and practice advocated by Heyward and others by eroticizing Christian (and Jewish) tradition, the consequence is the suicide or extreme spiritual and psychological trauma of LGBTQ people who strongly desire to function as devout members of Christianity and Judaism.

Gee, not much of a choice, there. Sorry if that sounds snarky, but Michaelson really does know how to paint his readers into a corner.

I wouldn’t react this way if Michaelson’s central message was simply to be treated as an equal participant in the Church or Synagogue, but in citing and praising Heyward, he reveals (apparently) that what he actually is seeking is something much more

So we either concent to eroticize the church by agreeing that a lesbian’s “eroticism is [her] participation in the universe” and “[lesbians or women in general] are the womb in which God is born”, spinning the clock backward thousands of years in the process and not in a good way, or we face the accusation that we are heartless, cold-blooded, and guilty of causing harm and even death to other human beings.

Except there are liberal Christian denominations and branches of Judaism that already accept gays with open arms. Religious gays are denied nothing as far as a venue for worship and communities of faith go. Such churches and synagogues (well, one synagogue) exist even in my own little corner of Idaho. Marriage equality was recently legalized here by Federal court order, so gay couples can be both legally and religiously married in my community.

Looking at it from a civil and secular point of view, if two adult people want to enter into what amounts to a contractual and legal relationship such that they acquire certain privileges, rights, and responsibilities to each other, that’s fine with me and it’s probably a good idea. I’m not completely heartless or unmindful of a man who wants to visit his spouse – partner – significant other of the same-sex who is hospitalized, or the requirement to put your partner on your medical insurance, or to make them a beneficiary of your life insurance policy. It shouldn’t matter if two adults want to legally acknowledge each other as family and have the same legal definition of what we consider “traditional marriage”.

But that’s the law of the land. America isn’t a “Christian nation” in that the government doesn’t have an “official religion” it supports or requires its citizens to join. Thus, as a wholly secular nation, it can make whatever laws it sees fit for the benefit of its citizens, even if those laws conflict with the moral and ethical structures of the various religions that operate within our nation. I’d start objecting if the government started making laws that directed said-religions to violate their morals and ethics in order to serve secular progressive social priorities, but I guess that’s what they mean when they say “separation of church and state”.

If the judiciary and the legislative branches of the government want to legalize such same-sex relationships, I can hardly complain from a religious standpoint (though I suppose I could complain from the perspective of “taxation without representation” if I’m expected to financially support such legislation, though I don’t see how that would actually take place so far) even if some part of me feels uncomfortable at the imposition of the priorities of various social and political groups.

But I don’t know what to do about the gay people who experience exclusion by their religious communities. I could say (as I suggested above) that they could join more accepting and affirming churches and synagogues, but some people are born into families who are Evangelical or Orthodox and a lot of their identity flows from those communities and traditions. If those traditions do not support gay inclusiveness and you happen to be a gay person who is also a Fundamentalist Christian or Orthodox Jew, what do you do? You don’t want to give up your particular religious orientation and you believe you can’t change or give up your sexual orientation.

flagI don’t have a pat answer for that one, but I do think there are alternatives to either suicide or the forcing all churches and all synagogues everywhere to accept an interpretation of the Bible they find morally and exegetically unsustainable. I don’t experience myself as heartless or cruel, but I cannot accept responsibility for someone’s depression or suicidal feelings (or suicides) simply because I don’t accept Michaelson’s interpretation of the Bible and Heyward’s sexualization of the Church via “Queer Theology.”

I’ve made numerous attempts at understanding the Bible in a way that accepts the normalization and inclusiveness of gays in the community of faith, but regardless of the books, websites, blogs, and discussion boards I’ve sampled, the arguments are all the same and sadly, they are all wanting. I do believe we should respond to the gays in our communities by treating them with dignity and compassion, as we would treat any other person, but that doesn’t change what the Bible says (and doesn’t say), and that doesn’t change God.

I’ll be publishing an “extra meditation” as a sort of “aftermath” to this series of reviews later today.

Addendum: To learn more about Queer Theology including how it is radically different from normative Christian (and Jewish) theologies, see the Vice.com article Queer Christ: A Primer on LGBT Theology or visit QueerTheology.com.

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