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Human Sexuality is a Continuum

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Recently over at the blog of America Magazine, there was a rich variety of comments on a post by Fr. Jim Martin about how gay and lesbian Catholics are to live their lives. Much of the comment from the right was what you might expect: a determined insistence to see the world in black and white, us v. them.

However, the lived experience of humanity demonstrates that there is not just gay and straight, but a spectrum of sexuality between the two, and we all fall somewhere along this spectrum. This is the same as in every aspect of human experience: there is not just A and Z as polar opposites, but A, B, C, D, E, F and so on through Z.

The following chart contrasts the black-and-white fundamentalist view of sexuality to how the spectrum of human sexuality is actually lived (to an approximate degree, because I do not pretend to assign actual percentages to the bell curve).

sexuality

Certainly this graph is nothing new to anyone who has taken human biology in college. Kinsey explained it all back in the 1950s. But my point in presenting it in a blog on religion is to call your attention to the small slice which I have called the “Crisis Zone.”

Here’s my theory: The Crisis Zone represents those who are predominately heterosexual, but who may have experienced some episode where they realized they had some slight attraction to the same sex. And I propose that it is the people in this Crisis Zone who have made our public and ecclesiastical discourse on homosexuality so divisive and polarized.

Why? Because these are the people who insist–beyond all lived experience of gays and lesbians and all scientific studies to date–that homosexuality is a choice. They maintain the fundamentalist choice theory because they actually believe, based on a high school crush, a glance, a visit to some website, that the terror they felt at experiencing some fleeting same-sex attraction was a “choice” to be heterosexual.

So they are convinced that those on the other end of the spectrum have “made” the same “choice,” and those who are predominately homosexual merely do not have the same “strength of will” they believe they demonstrated in this momentary panic. They become vocal advocates of “change therapy” because they think that if they resisted the charms of Bobby Jones amid the churning adolescent hormones of their sophomore year of high school and are now happily married, then gays need only do the same thing. What they do not take into account is that emotional and sexual attachment to the same sex increases as you progress to the left of the spectrum. Their momentary crisis, which looms so large in their psyche, was an entirely normal, insignificant phenomenon. But to them it takes on epic proportions.

Naturally, the Crisis Zone obsessives would never admit this, because they are so ashamed of such a momentary experience that they could not say it out loud. By nature, they are not prone to sharing intimate feelings.

Of course, those to the right of the Crisis Zone are well-adjusted heterosexuals who, if they ever had some fleeting attraction at some point, make no big deal about it. They think, “Hmmm…,” or “Wow, that was kind of weird,” or they joke about it and move on. They are confident in their sexuality in a way the Crisis Zone people can never be. So those on the right of the spectrum typically are at ease with gay people, have gay friends and support equal rights for gays, because they don’t feel threatened. Their fleeting experience, if they even had any at all, does not traumatize them as it does the Crisis Zone people. My boss, for example, recently got a new haircut. He proudly announced that a “gay guy” had “checked him out” at the store. He is happily married, secure in his sexuality, and merely took it as compliment and went on about his day. He did not feel a need to beat the gay guy with a baseball bat.

Some of those who fall to the right of the Crisis Zone may also intellectually accept the idea of choice in sexuality, but they do not exhibit the same obsessive preoccupation with the theory as those who are in the Crisis Zone; they simply do not have the same personal investment. They may agree with the Crisis Zone fanatics, but they don’t fixate on the issue.

The Crisis Zone people are the gay-bashers, those who invoke the “gay panic” defense in criminal trials, and who exhibit an unhealthy and vicious obsession with the supposed threats of gay people in society. By attacking gay people, they think they are deflecting any suspicion that they may be gay, a suspicion only they feel towards themselves. They overcompensate, for example, by tattooing passages from the Book of Leviticus on their bodies (ignoring the fact that Leviticus also prohibits tattoos).

It’s tragic, really. Just because as a teenager they realized the high-school quarterback was kind of handsome they have tortured themselves for years and become obsessed with gay people, adopting homophobia as a defense against their darkest fears. And it’s a shame, because they are predominately heterosexual.

But they can never forget that moment of terror, and the rest of their lives is spent in proving their heterosexuality, even if they must tear society apart to do so.

The Secularized Cross

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

This week the United States Supreme Court has been hearing arguments in the case of Salazar v. Buono. And it’s a useful example of how attitudes toward religious symbols are not always what you might expect.

The case involves a cross that was erected in 1934 on public land in the Mojave National Preserve in California. Those who erected the cross, a local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, intended it to serve as a memorial to military who died in World War I.

Now let’s pause for a moment before we get to the current situation to reflect on the intentions of the VFW folks. Certainly their desire to erect a memorial to military who died is praiseworthy. This is an extension of one of the works of mercy: to bury the dead.

Now the form their memorial took is something that we might find difficult to understand today. Why choose a cross to represent all those who died, many of whom were not Christian? At the time, there was little awareness of people who were not Christian. It’s entirely possible that the members of a VFW chapter in some small town out in the middle of the California desert had never even met a Jew. Remember, this was a monument to the war dead of World War I, and the Second World War with its Shoah that would heighten sensitivity toward Jews had not yet occurred (in fact Adolf Hitler consolidated his power as chancellor the same year the cross was erected). Most likely to those who erected it, the cross was a naive and theologically unsophisticated but sincere way to honor their fallen comrades.

However, times change, and the inference of symbols changes.

From the early centuries of the Church, the cross has been considered a symbol of the triumph of Jesus Christ. We even have a celebration in its honor: September 14 is the Feast of the Holy Cross for almost all Christians. It has become perhaps the most recognizable symbol in the world, and it represents Christianity.

Unfortunately, to the members of the UFW, the cross had become merely a grave ornament. And that’s why they erected it. That was their intention. But the movement to preserve the cross has a different motivation: to advance the ridiculous notion of a “Christian nation.”

Justice Antonin Scalia indicated an attitude similar to what the original erectors of the cross must have been: he expressed astonishment that a cross could not memorialize non-Christians. To him the cross is just a generic symbol that means “rest in peace.” And that may be indicative of a generational rift; Scalia is closer in age and outlook to the VFW members who set up the cross in 1934  than he is to those of us who understand such issues in a pluralistic society. When an attorney pointed out to Scalia that crosses are not found in Jewish cemeteries, he became flustered and annoyed.

What Christian would want the cross to become merely a generic secular symbol? Yet that appears to be a possible legal fiction that fundamentalists would embrace in order to advance their cause. Liberty Legal Institute, a fundamentalist group, filed an amicus brief with the court stating that “the cross is commonly known as a symbol of the courage and sacrifice of veterans.” Not! To a true Christian, the cross has deep meaning. It is not a symbol that means “in your face, we own you,” nor is it, as the fundamentalists disingenuously argue, a mere military ornament.  It is a mysterious symbol rich in meaning that is a profound symbol of the Christian faith. It should not become a political football that one faction can use to exclude others.

Of course, trying to make the cross into a nonsectarian memorial symbol is merely a legal tactic. One supposes that Justice Scalia might embrace such a notion from the bench, yet still attend Mass on September 14 and profess his belief that it is a symbol of faith. And the fundamentalists who take up such a legal argument are using the time-honored extremist approach of the end justifying the means: to lift up the cross as a sign of (their own superior) faith, they must first publicly deny it has any religious meaning. That’s just creepy. People who are so ruthlessly cynical do not have real faith and can in no way be trusted. Their argument reminds me of Vietnam-era logic: “We had to destroy the village to save it.” But the fact remains: the cross is not a generic death symbol; it is a symbol of life for Christians.

Should the cross in the Mojave be taken down? That’s a difficult question. When the inference of a symbol changes (and in this case I would say the change has been for the better), there is probably no perfect decision on what to do, as the original intent can become obscured or even be unknown to those who see the physical object.

In my neighborhood there is a lovely Episcopal church built in the 1920s. Its elaborate terra cotta floor tiles are interspersed with different variations of the cross. One of the variations in the tiles is a swastika, which at the time was merely a kind of cross and had not yet been appropriated and corrupted by Hitler for his movement. Should the congregation rip out and replace their floor because the meaning of the symbol has changed since their church was built?

Some may say yes, but here’s a similar situation: Scientologists have appropriated the cross as a symbol to represent their “religion.” Most likely they did this to gain some kind of religious cred, since they have no central place for Jesus Christ in their belief system. So if Scientologists hijack the cross as their symbol, does that mean that Christians must abandon it?

The cross belongs to the People of God who are baptized. Period. It is for us a profound symbol of love conquering hate, of faith overcoming fear, of God’s solidarity with humanity. To use it in any other way, whether for marketing a new “religion,” advancing a political cause or creating division, is using the sacred for profane purposes, which we call desecration. So let us lift high the cross, put it on our towers, on hills we own, in our homes, around our necks, and especially in our hearts. But let’s not use it to push some sort of tribal superiority in a multicultural nation. That just cheapens it.

“Nothing dollarable is safe.”

Monday, September 28th, 2009

If you haven’t been following the latest Ken Burns series on PBS, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” you really should. Tonight PBS aired the second of six episodes that promise to equal Burns’ epic stories of the Civil War, New York City, baseball, jazz, World War II and other aspects of our common heritage.

Burns, the great biographer of the American people, has created a wondrous testament to one of America’s unique contributions to the world: the concept of a national park, which was born in fiery controversy in California and has since spread throughout the world, from Australia to Africa.

While today the idea of the National Parks is a treasured value of the United States, it was not always so. In an early form, the idea of the National Parks was born to prevent industrialization of the great Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone. Today it is the stuff of lyrics we sing, “America the Beautiful,” but at the time many conservatives felt it was a dangerous idea that inhibited commercial advancement and industrial freedom to destroy the land for the enrichment of the few. In fact, for 30 years the United States Army had to occupy Yellowstone and Yosemite to protect the parks from rapacious capitalists who sought to enrich themselves off the National Parks at the expense of the American people.

The comparison of the struggle to preserve our greatest national natural treasures with the current struggle to provide health care  to all Americans is unavoidable. As we see the huge lobbying power of the health care industry arrayed against any reform, we are reminded of the warning John Muir gave in regard to the National Parks: “Nothing dollarable is safe.”

Conservatives opposed the creation of the National Parks as they opposed anything valuable in our history. Here is a list of just a few ideas of the top of my head that we have had to fight conservatives to establish:

Election of senators, allowing Catholics to own property, religious freedom for Catholics, abolition of slavery, allowing Catholics to vote, allowing African-Americans to own property, allowing African-Americans to vote, allowing women to vote, allowing African-Americans to marry, religious freedom for Mormons, honoring treaties with Native Americans, sanctuary for Jewish immigrants, Catholic immigration, Chinese immigration, abolition of Jim Crow laws, integration of schools and universities, interracial marriage, establishment of the National Parks and National Monuments, Social Security, bank regulation, anti-trust regulation, interstate highways, anti-pollution measures, wildlife conservation, anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, protection of endangered species, seat belts, airbags, integration of the military, Medicare, accessibility for the handicapped, immigration reform, minimum-wage legislation, HIV research, civil rights for Mexican-Americans, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and oh, I don’t know, give me another 10 minutes and I could come up with more.

In each of the above cases, conservatives argued against the proposed reform with one or more of the following arguments:

a. It was against the law of God,
b. It would cause the collapse of civilization,
c. It would lead to economic ruin, and or
d. It would destroy the United States

It is important to note that in no instance did these dire conservative warnings ever prove true.

In these past struggles, there was an element that is missing today. A powerful example of that missing element was the meeting in 1903 of the Republican president Theodore Roosevelt and the progressive activist John Muir. Roosevelt wrote Muir and told him that he would like to spend time with Muir in Yosemite. Roosevelt rode out with Muir into the Yosemite Valley, accompanied by a great cavalcade of dignitaries. At the end of the day, the dignitaries turned around and went to a hotel to fete the president on his noble mission with an elaborate banquet. But the president never showed up at the hotel. Instead, Roosevelt spent three days and three nights with Muir hiking and sleeping under the stars in Yosemite. They debated and shared intimate stories, discussing with each other what the experience of nature meant for them as they stood awestruck together before the majestic vistas of Yosemite. Today we would call that dialogue, and it’s missing from our national conversation.

The Republican Roosevelt emerged from his retreat with the progressive immigrant to become the nation’s greatest conservationist president. As the PBS website for the Burns series notes:

As president, Roosevelt created five national parks (doubling the previously existing number); signed the landmark Antiquities Act and used its special provisions to unilaterally create 18 national monuments, including the Grand Canyon; set aside 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, and more than 100 million acres’ worth of national forests.

For over 100 years, the American people have been engaged in a struggle to provide health care to all our citizens. That struggle was begun by the very same Theodore Roosevelt who made conservationism an American virtue. Today, our century-long struggle has reached a fevered pitch. Conservatives have trotted out the same four arguments they have to every social advancement since the beginning of our republic, along with the new accusation of socialism. That would be the same evil concept of socialized nature (National Parks), socialized protection against crime (police), socialized communication (the Postal Service), socialized fire protection (fire departments), socialized education (our public schools and universities), socialized culture (our great public museums), socialized transportation (the interstate highway system) and so on.

The irony, of course, is that as in every struggle toward social improvement, the children and grandchildren of today’s opponents of progress will embrace the progressive values that will triumph, just as the descendants of those who fought the establishment of the national parks enjoy those same parks today.

John Muir lamented the greed that caused the dynamiting of the Grand Canyon, the near-extinction of the buffalo, the destruction of the Petrified Forest, the mining of Yosemite’s forests and other such crimes against our stewardship of the environment because he saw these places as cathedrals for the worship of God. Today we are engaged in a similar battle, for the powerful are arrayed against us as they seek to perpetuate the commercialization of the human body, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, for corporate profit.

But unlike the era of Roosevelt and Muir, there are no nights spent talking into the early morning under the stars of Yosemite; there is only ugly demagoguery, lies spread to fuel the fears of the ignorant. Our society has lost the value of civil discourse and mutual concern for the common good. It has entirely vanished. Who will rise up to be the advocate of the people against the greed of the health care industry? So far, our prospects are bleak.

What would Roosevelt and Muir say about our current crisis? I suspect the Republican president and the immigrant activist would agree: “Nothing dollarable is safe.” And sadly today in the United States that includes human lives.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? 150 Years of Papal Insights

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Each pope has a different way of approaching things. So as an illustration, we can imagine how each of the popes over the past 150 years might have offered an answer to the question of why the chicken crossed the road.

Pius IX (1846-1878): “If anyone should assert that the chicken has a right to cross the road, in direct disobedience the the Decrees of the Supreme Roman Pontiff which specify the divinely ordained place and roles of chickens, let him be anathema. And by the way, We are never wrong.”

Leo XIII (1878-1903): “The right of the chicken to cross the road, especially because all chickens are empowered to organize collectively for the right of crossing the road, must not be infringed. Unless the chicken is Anglican.”

Pius X (1903-1914): “Among the propositions to be condemned is the subversive Modernist doctrine that a chicken, without full knowledge of what lies on the other side of the road, may freely cross such a road. And you will swear an oath to that effect.”

Benedict XV (1914-1922): “The chicken has a right to cross the road in peace. Please don’t bomb the chicken.”

Pius XI (1922-1939): “You cannot prevent a chicken from crossing the road simply because it is Jewish. Stop that! No, stop it right now!”

Pius XII (1939-1958): “Herr Ambassador, if I let the chicken cross the road, will you also put me in one of your concentration camps?”

John XXIII (1958-1963): “Oh, just let the chicken cross the damn road already.”

Paul VI (1963-1978): “On the one hand, the chicken feels a need to cross the road. On the other hand, one wonders if the chicken really must cross the road.”

John Paul I (1978-1978): “The chicken crossed the road because…”

John Paul II (1978-2005): “The chicken crosses the road as an eschatological prefigurement of the parousia, when Christ will be all in all.”

Benedict XVI (2005-present): “The Byzantine emperor Paleologus Constantinius Optimus Prime once engaged in a colloquy with a devout and scholarly cooper in which his imperial majesty observed that chickens often engage in the non-teleological practice of crossing the road for seemingly mystagogical purposes. The cooper was recorded to have opined that the learned emperor’s discourse was ‘as the corporeal remnants of an ox which effuses its bad humours upon the wayside.’”

Open-Source Christianity

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009
Cover of Ascend: The Catholic Faith for a New Generation

Cover of Ascend: The Catholic Faith for a New Generation

In the next couple of days the final touches will be made to the design and layout of Ascend and it should then be shortly off to the printer.

One aspect of the book I think is interesting is that it could not have been done without the Internet and especially the open-source movement. As a result, Ascend is more than the product of Vince and me, it is really the product of literally thousands of people around the world, most of whom will probably never even see the book or know that their work contributed to it.

There are more than a hundred images in the book. Many of them are images we negotiated traditional licenses for through photographers and rights-managed agencies like Corbis and Getty Images. For example, that iconic image of Mychal Judge being carried from the wreckage of the World Trade Center is one we found through searching online databases and obtained permission via email. Permission for other images were obtained from The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the Los Angeles Public Library, individual artists, and the Shrine of St. Therese in Lisieux, France, to name just a few.

But most of the images are from an innovative online community of photographers called iStockphoto.com, where photographers and illustrators upload their work and receive a part of the license fee. It’s a vast cooperative of millions of images by thousands of talented artists.

Other images were obtained from Wikimedia Commons. They are either public-domain images or images graciously released by individuals under Creative Commons or GNU licenses. These are copyright solutions developed within the spirit of the open-source ethic, where individuals share their hard work for the benefit of all. This blog you are reading is an excellent example of the wonders of open-source technology; WordPress is free and is widely considered the best blog solution available. Thousands of people work on WordPress without charge to make it an outstanding platform. WordPress is a shining example of the benefits of the open-source movement.

The book (and this blog post, if you are using the latest versions of Safari or Firefox, the wonderful open-source web browser) uses as its text font Gentium, “a typeface for the nations,” which was developed as an open-source free font to bring better typography to thousands of languages, including many ethnic groups which had no font that accommodated their languages. It is distributed by SIL International, a faith-based group which has as its mission the preservation of the world’s lesser-known languages. Our psalm citations that begin every chapter are in a font developed by a talented Filipino typographer, James Fajardo, who has made his creations widely available at no cost.

Only 10 years ago, Ascend would have been impossible to produce, or at least so prohibitively expensive as to make it practically impossible. Our book is a product of the Internet age, from conception through writing to design and production. Without the ideals of the open-source movement, it would be only a shadow of the work you will soon see. Without the ethos of the hyperlinked Web, we could not have imagined the innovative approach this book takes to proclaiming the Good News.

Of course, this causes us to wonder if perhaps the Church is the original open-source community. In our own low-tech way, we have been sharing ideas and customs and formulations for thousands of years. Is there, for example, any better example of the open-source ideal than the liturgy?

And this brings us to wonder how we as Church will respond to the Internet age. Ah, but that’s a big issue, worth several posts at least. For now, let’s see what impact is made by Ascend, the first Internet-age exploration of Christianity.