Wednesday, June 2, 2004

I Believe...

This is a long one, kids... I've been working on it since yesterday morning. Get yourself a fresh cup of coffee and make yourself comfortable. You might even want to link back to this post and read it later when you have more time. And so, warnings given, here we go...

I like to think. I like to solve puzzles, figure out riddles, play logic and trivia games, learn new words and ideas, ponder possibilities, and discuss philosophical problems. Sometimes, though, I get into a train of thought that, while enormously satisfying as a problem, involves far too many other parts of me. A challenging idea will come along that challenges more than my intellect: it also challenges my beliefs.

In the last few days, two different things have come up that challenge, or threaten to challenge, my spiritual and personal beliefs... what I believe about God and what I believe about myself. This is a good thing, because it is by constantly challenging our beliefs that we come to truly understand what we do believe and why we believe it; and so I have grown in the exercise as I research questions and ponder premises.

But it is also a tiring thing because beliefs involve our emotions as well as our intellects: our beliefs call on us to defend them; our beliefs are ingrained in our personalities, and we are liable to cling to them out of stubbornness despite intellectual evidence; and our beliefs (at least my beliefs) are hard-won and cost a great deal of effort and pain to arrive at, and so resent the challenges that are offered.

It is wearying to challenge one's own beliefs, but it is required when we find ourselves challenged by the beliefs of others, and one grows from these challenges. Like a muscle, belief grows from resistance. Sad but true, nothing worthwhile was ever easy.

So to the challenges: on Sunday, at our usual after-church brunch, my father and Grandmother were talking about my sister and her rabid hatred of religion; she has a lot of resentment about Christianity (a resentment I once shared), and that resentment is creating a stumbling-block in her spiritual development and therefore her recovery from addiction.

Their train of thought naturally turned to their own "failure" to raise Christian children and grandchildren. For while I suppose my aunt and uncle and cousins and step-sisters all think of themselves as Christians, in fact only two of my cousins and one of my stepsisters are actual practicing Christians who attend church; and those two cousins don't belong to the Church of Christ, they attend other sects. So from an evangelical standpoint, Daddy and Grandmother are both washouts.

Then my Daddy turns and looks at me, the oddball who actually attends Church of Christ with them but is nevertheless on record as a devout non-Christian, and ever the master of subtlety says "You and I should have a talk sometime soon. A father-son talk."

Oh great, I think, he's going to try to convert me. How dreary.

We changed the subject, but I started thinking about what kind of discussion Daddy and I can have about Christianity. In all that fun thinking I like to do, chief among my favorite mental exercises is to prepare for future conversations.

I have written here in my blog on a few occasions about my belief system and its movement away from Christianity, and I have had lengthy conversations with Grandmother in the past about why I don't believe in Christianity (but she is the Queen of Self-Delusion and probably still thinks that if she keeps dragging me into the church-house I will one day suddenly See the Light); but I have never discussed this with my father, working under the assumption that he respects my decisions and would never try to force his own beliefs on me.

Unfortunately, one of the chief features of Christianity is that it calls its believers to evangelism, to liberally spread the Word and the salvation to others. And I think Daddy is starting to consider it remiss of himself to not share his belief system with his children and try to bring us to that belief... it says somewhere in the New Testament (or several somewheres, I'm not sure) that a man should raise his children in the Faith, and somebody must have mentioned that to Daddy sometime recently.

So I have been preparing my arguments and counterarguments, revisiting previous writings on my beliefs and anticipating potential tracks of dialogue that might come up in any discussion of spirituality and belief with my father.

One of the problems I have encountered is that I cannot cut off possibilities of belief. Intellectually, I have to consider it completely possible that Christianity is actually the true religion, that the Will of God is written down in the Bible, and that nonbelievers will go to Hell. I don't believe it's true, but I have to allow the possibility.

I have to allow this possibility because there was a time, not so long ago, that I believed God didn't exist at all; but upon further study and meditation, I have revised that belief. It is therefore scientifically possible that my current structure of belief is a way-station on a path to an entirely different belief-system, that continuous study and meditation might lead me to something that, from where I stand now, seems wildly unlikely.

You see, I once believed that I would never give up alcohol or smoking or coffee; nevertheless I have given up alcohol and smoking... and might someday even give up coffee; and if I gave up alcohol and smoking and coffee, it also follows that it's possible to give up other behaviors that I consider necessary or inherent, such as (for example) masturbation to pornography, if I came to believe that it was destroying me in some way, as I came to believe that alcohol and smoking were destroying me.

Again, I don't believe these things: I believe that there's nothing wrong with masturbation or pornography per se, though (like coffee and alcohol and even religion) these can be abused and through abuse become evil; and this belief system differs from my previous belief system in that I actually worked very hard to come to these beliefs through study and prayer and meditation, testing them by intellect and emotion, with scientific method and faith in God's guidance, rather than as a reaction to something else, some hurt or struggle or misunderstanding.

So what, exactly, do I believe, as far as Christianity is concerned? Well, I believe that the religion of Christianity is a path to God, but that it is not a straight path nor is it immune from corruption and misdirection. All religions that seek God are a path to God, and all religion is liable to corruption and misdirection. No path open to the human heart is without the possibility of corruption and misdirection.

I believe that The Holy Bible was written by human beings for human reasons; as a document of humans striving toward God, it has value, but it is not law and it is not divine. I believe that direct divine dictation (by which method the Bible claims to have been written and compiled) is not real, that God does not communicate with us in so straightforward and human a manner. I do not believe that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, or divine, or that incarnate divinity is even part of God's universe. I believe that human beings are not the last word in God's design, that there are yet newer heights for Creation to reach.

I believe in the eternity of the soul, that spiritual essence which makes us individual and which experiences and comprehends God; I believe in the goodness of the body, the wisdom to be found in our animal nature; and I believe that the task of humanity is to seek the balanced integration of body and soul... because the needs of the body and the needs of the spirit can be entangled and become mutually exclusive, and we must find a way to harmonize those needs in order to achieve happiness.

I believe that God can be comprehended through studying the nature of the world around us, through Science; and that our souls are part of that nature, and that we study our souls through art and literature. I believe in Scientific Method, and I believe that there is such a thing as an Absolute Truth that we already know and need only subtract the misconceptions and misinformation we pick up as we grow in order to grasp it... but that our animal brains have only a finite ability to understand the infinite Truth that our spiritual souls perceive.

But to return to Christianity, I perceive a sort of spiritual test in the existence of the Bible... there is so much wisdom in there, and yet it has been corrupted. And I think God allows this corruption in His name as a test to us, as the existence of evil is a test to us.

It is the spiritual task of the Christian to discover God's spiritual truths amongst the posthumous memoirs of the Gospels and the legalistic dictates set down by the apostle Paul and his followers in the Acts and Epistles; it is the task of the Christian and the Jew alike to discover the spiritual truths in the Old Testament among all the poetry and history and law.

It is also the task of the Buddhist and the Hindu and the Muslim and the Pagan and the [whatever other religion you can name] to discover the Truth of God along the pathways set down in religious texts and traditions... for in each religion, there is a path of truth set about on all sides by hazards and temptations to distract the soul on its journey.

These hazards and temptations are the animal in us, the seeking toward the protections of law and social construct, the seeking for power and dominion over each other, the physical grappling with the world around us that all animals must undertake; but the true seeker will continue on the spiritual path, perhaps accepting the trappings of the religion, perhaps using them as a tool to get to the Truth, perhaps ignoring them altogether, perhaps remaining within the religion as a beacon to those who have become lost on the way.

Some of us have rejected the religious traditions that came before and found a path that is purely personal, or based in the traditions of philosophy or science, which are also set about on all sides by human constructs — because no human can exist without human constructs. No matter how spiritually pure we become, we will still have to rely on our physical selves — our bodies and our language and our media — to nurture our spirits and to communicate what we have learned to others.

So having come to an understanding of my own beliefs, I have to put those beliefs to the challenge of other people's beliefs. When my father and I discuss this, we will come up against a major chasm in our different understandings: the divinity of Christ and the veracity of the Bible. I cannot believe those things; he cannot believe otherwise. And it becomes very difficult to find places of agreement from which to discuss our disagreement, when our very bases of discussion are mutually exclusive.

Though I have to admit, as an intellectual, the possibility that my father is right and that Christianity as he practices it is the Only Way, I nevertheless do not believe that this is so; and therefore I must believe that he is wrong. I believe his path is a valid path, but he believes that his path is the only path... in this much, at least, for either of us to be right, the other has to be wrong.

And knowing how I feel when someone tells me I am wrong (especially if I am wrong), I hesitate to say such a thing to someone I love and respect the way I do my Daddy. So it's a bit uncomfortable to come up with the arguments and counterarguments that will be required of me when Daddy has his "come to Jesus" talk with me.

While I was engaged in this tortuous train of thought, another challenge popped up: I was futzing about on the computer Sunday evening, after writing the previous post and before being able to commit myself to my laundry, I followed a BlogSnob link that had a strange tag-line and discovered this guy.

Ben is a Christian and is trying to stop being gay. Now, ordinarily I would just shrug him off as another poor deluded soul, another casualty of the Christian Right, another unhappy camper looking for answers in the wrong place. But the seed of his trouble fell on the recently upturned soil of my mind, opened by my thoughts on Christianity and my recent advice to a kid who wrote to "Dear Prudence" about not being gay anymore (see here).

And there was something else that interested me in his journal, a tone of reasonable exploration, a flavor of the spiritual path that differed much from the irrational ex-gay and Christian rantings I have encountered before. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, open-minded and searching for Truth, trying to find a balance between his spiritual beliefs and his physical reality.

I added the blog to my favorites so I could come back and read some more; I probably would have forgotten, though, if Ben hadn't left a comment to one of my posts (he must have some powerful track-back software, I can't imagine how else he would have happened across my blog).

Having been "properly introduced," as it were, I felt more of a connection to this young man and started thinking about his words, his problems, his beliefs, and his worries in a way that might lead to some advice I could give him, trying to find what I could learn from him and what I might be able to teach.

But then I had to ask myself why I wanted to advise him... on the one hand, I could see his struggle and would like to help; but on the other hand, how much of my desire to help him stemmed from my desire to be right? As a gay man, I consider it an indirect insult that someone else would strive to not be gay... and it is more than an implication, it is an actual insult to my belief system to be told that I am wrong.

So I cannot be considered a completely impartial witness. But then, those of his correspondents (and the boy is getting advice from all corners) who speak from the conservative or fundamental Christian standpoint are not impartial, either. In fact, there is no such thing as an impartial witness... we are all trammeled by our own experiences and perceptions.

While the jury was still out on my motivations, I started studying Ben's influences in an attempt to better understand his struggle. First, I read his entire blog from beginning to present; I read a lot of the comments, and followed a lot of the links in order to find out more about where he was coming from. I did a few web searches on my own seeking the textual references by which arguments for and against homosexuality in Christianity were discussed, and I looked up Bible passages that were referenced in such articles (including cross-references, as I was using my Grandmother's Harper Study Bible).

It was all very interesting, but it still boiled down to the problem that I experience with my father: one either believes in the veracity of the Bible, and believes in particular interpretations of it, or one doesn't. Ben believes in a particular interpretation of the Bible that says that homosexuality is wrong; and I can't challenge him on that front because it is belief and for him to decide.

Also of interest is the unhappy lack of scientific knowledge we possess in the realm of sexuality. Psychology is still essentially an infant science, and it seeks to understand something wildly complicated and infinitely diverse, the human mind. While it is the generally-accepted theory that homosexuality is inborn, not everyone accepts that theory, and it is not yet proven one way or another... it is still largely theoretical, and if you choose to interpret the few findings of science in a different way, you certainly can.

Now, I believe that sexual orientation is inborn, and that sexual behavior is the result of environment and experience... Nature and Nurture work together to create sexuality (as well as the other aspects of our characters). I base this belief on years of study and observation, reading scientific studies and literary meditations on the topic as well as observing myself and others; but I can't prove it, I am not aware of any definitive studies that aren't flawed in their samples or set up to reveal preconceived conclusions. So once again we find ourselves swimming about in the murkier waters of Belief.

Since Ben believes that homosexuality is a sin, and I can't disprove such a belief, and he believes that you can alter your sexuality, which I can't definitively disprove, there go two possible bases for discussion. And since I do not want to change his beliefs (because you cannot demand the right to your own beliefs if you don't allow other people theirs) but rather help him in his struggle, I have to find a different way to approach the problems that he has so movingly described in his blog.

When I find myself disagreeing with his ideas or conclusions, I have to ask myself why I disagree. Do I disagree with his idea that homosexual behavior is a willful choice because it undermines my own belief that my homosexuality is inborn and therefore not my responsibility, a belief I require to make myself feel better about myself (as one of his correspondents suggested)? Is my disagreement a reaction to a challenge to my beliefs about myself, an indignant exclamation over a slap to my own hard-won self-respect?

Or is it something more than that, seeing a number of logical steps missing in his decisions? Is it because I see the hand of Man in his system, a complex of denial and will, rather than the hand of God?

Either way, how is it my responsibility to poke holes in his arguments and point out places I feel he might be in error? What do I have in my life that I can point to and say "Wouldn't you rather have this?" I am not in a loving homosexual relationship myself (though I know a lot of people who are), I don't have the secret to my own happiness, much less anybody else's. Still, I think I have something to offer.

I think it's possible to be celibate, in the truest sense of the word, eschewing all sexual behavior; it's a terribly difficult row to hoe, and I don't think it's very healthy, but it can be done. I think that if you believe that gay sex is a sin, then you will participate in gay sex in a sinful manner; I see that kind of behavior in Ben's descriptions of the sex-life he is trying to escape. It is better to be completely celibate than to act in a way you believe sinful... the guilt of the act will rob you of all possible redemption in the act. You cannot love and sin at the same time, so if you are convinced of the sin you can only act unlovingly; it is always better to not act at all than to act unlovingly.

It is also possible for a homosexual to find comfort, and even a kind of happiness, in a heterosexual relationship. People have been doing it for millennia... when your only choices are to be alone or to be with an opposite-sex partner, many will opt for the companionship and social support of marriage. But I don't think that you can be cured of your same-sex attractions, any more than a heterosexual is cured by marriage of extramarital attractions.

I also believe that being homosexual and being gay are different things. You can be an "ex-gay" if you really, really want to, in your deepest heart of hearts, simply by not taking part in the gay lifestyle. You can choose to dress differently, to subdue any fey mannerisms you've picked up, to avoid pornography and sexual fantasy, to abstain from masturbation and casual sex, to remove yourself from the more obvious areas of temptation... you can do it if you believe in it enough. It is argued that we all have in us the potentiality for murder and theft and fraud, but we don't have to indulge in behaviors inspired by those temptations; if you really believe that homosexual behavior is as sinful as murderous and larcenous and fraudulent behavior, you can and perhaps should resist that temptation.

But changing homosexuality? I don't think it can be done, any more than you can change alcoholism (though you can recover from it) and you can't change the color of your hair (though you can temporarily alter it) and you can't change your past (but you can change your future). I would be interested in hearing how someone did it and if he or she is really happy... or is just trying terribly hard to convince him- or herself of some faked happiness.

People who disagree with my beliefs will suggest that the reason I don't believe in Christ and the Bible is because I don't want to believe in Christ and the Bible, because to follow that belief would require me to give up sinful behaviors to which I am very much attached... namely my homosexual and autoerotic behaviors. And the reason I wish to believe that sexual orientation is inborn and natural is so that I won't have to think of myself as defective, and so that I won't have to do the loads of hard work that would be required to be healed.

And I agree that this is possible. My will is very strong, and I have in the past refused to believe things that I knew to be true, or later discovered were true, because I didn't want to give up the behavior that such a belief would require me to give up (like drinking). And so this argument carries a great deal of weight, and it is in preparation for such an argument that I have spent so much time and energy thinking through my belief system, testing the ropes and knots in my net (as it were) one by one.

And this is my response: if I am willfully turning away from God and towards homosexual sin, then I am willing to take the consequences. Because I don't believe, in my heart of hearts, that the laws set down in the Bible and interpreted to mean that homosexuality is indeed a sin are fair. Just as I can't believe that all of the people who lived and died on this planet without ever having the opportunity to find salvation through Jesus Christ, most of the world in fact, are damned.

I have been told that God's justice is not Man's justice... but from where do we receive our concept of justice if not from God? No other animal has a concept of justice, so the very idea of something being fair or unfair is a purely spiritual construct. It creates our need for society, to protect the interests of the weak instead of encouraging the survival-of-the-fittest paradigm of the plant and animal kingdoms; and if you posit that the other thing that makes us different from the animals is our souls, our ability to comprehend God, then it follows that the sense of justice is part of our souls and therefore given by God. So why would God's justice be different from ours? That doesn't make sense. I would expect God's justice to be more far-reaching and comprehensive than anything a human being with interests to protect could ever manage.

Furthermore, the life of Christ and the Apostles, and thereby the creation of the Bible and the Christian religion, defies any form of logic. I can't believe that God would, for a limited time only, and in a select portion of the world, exclusive of the rest of the vast planet, directly intervene in human affairs to the extent that the Bible claims... and then just as suddenly clam up completely for the next two thousand years.

The whole idea just doesn't sit right with me. And again, animals don't have the capacity to reason, to work things out logically and in the abstract. From where does such a power come, then, if not from God? If God wanted us to accept such folly without the benefit of logic, why did He give it to us? That just doesn't make sense.

Finally, in the question of sexuality, I think when a person discovers a truth about him- or herself, that truth rings. We can tell the truth from a lie if we listen to them side-by-side, without prejudice and with an open acceptance of possible outcomes. And I have done that. I have tested what I have read in the Bible and what I have read in a number of spiritual writings (Christian and non-Christian), and I have heard which things are true and which things are false. God gave me (and you, and you, and him, and those guys over there) the ability to know Truth. We only have to listen.

By that method, I know what my sexuality is about. I know that a homosexual orientation was born with me; I know that my experiences with male and female role-models led to the effeminacy of my mannerisms; I know that early experiences of pornography (at the age of five) led me to my subsequent affinity for pornography; I know that a lot of my sexual relationship issues stem from gender-confusion and the early exposure to pornography; and I know that I can overcome those issues if I choose, but that these issues are not unhealthy in and of themselves. I feel no guilt, ergo I have no sin. I further know that if I do overcome those and the many other "issues" that do make me unhappy, it does not mean I will find and experience a happy homosexual relationship, any more than I can be guaranteed any kind of happiness in the world.

Happiness happens when we learn to be happy, not from the things we get in life. This I know. God told me this through the medium of the spirit He gave me that resides in the body I grew up with. At least, I believe He did. I could be wrong. But I challenge you to prove it. I could be right, too, just as easily.

I am going to write Ben an email because I think I have something to offer him... a perspective, if nothing else, on his addiction that might ease his path a little. And I am going to have a talk with my father about our differences of belief, so that perhaps he will understand me better and I will understand him better. Isn't that what we're all here for? To help each other, to understand ourselves, and to seek God in each other and the rest of nature? I think it is, anyway.

Thinking and believing come from the same place.

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