Wednesday, January 31, 2007


It hasn't been that long since I transitioned into a Stage Four mode of faith, but it might as well be a lifetime for all the changes it's made in the way I view the world. Life certainly becomes more complicated when one begins acknowledging that the universe can't be neatly packaged in black-and-white categories, but at the same time I couldn't imagine ever going back to that earlier way of thinking.

Andrew Sullivan, in his book The Conservative Soul, gives an insightful look into the fundamentalist mindset and why it has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Although he doesn't reference James Fowler's Stages of Faith, the worldview he describes is that of most Stage Three individuals.

The appeal of fundamentalism is quite simple: seeking stability in an uncertain, ever-changing world, many Stage Three individuals naturally gravitate toward those who offer Answers (with a capital A) and who prescribe the security of a regimented life that's immune to the ambiguities of modern life. The fundamentalist mindset, so understood, is not merely the domain of certain Christian and Muslim sects, but can manifest in just about any religion, as well as in secular ideologies like Marxism.

For the fundamentalist, doctrine is supreme. Whether it comes from the Bible, the Koran or the Communist Manifesto, everything necessary for life has been spelled out in black and white and it is the duty of the individual to submit unquestioningly to that supreme authority. Realignment of one's life according to the dictates of doctrine is the individual's highest priority in life, whatever the cost.

If following the commands of that doctrine fails to produce positive results, then it is the individual who is at fault, without exception. If science presents evidence that appears to contradict some point of doctrine, then science is wrong, again without exception and without need to examine the matter further. Nonbelievers who live seemingly full and productive lives in contradiction to the warnings of doctrine are clearly liars and tools of the devil (or whatever the antithesis of good is according to doctrine), and are secretly quite miserable.

Freedom in a fundamentalist system is defined as freedom to do "the right thing;" one can never be free to do that which has been forbidden by doctrine. As Orwellian as that may sound to an outside observer (and even to fundamentalists of a belief system different than the one being examined at the moment), there is liberation of a sort to be found in the acceptance of strict boundaries.

The more that life can be reduced to a simple list of dos and don'ts, the less energy one has to spend wrestling over complex issues or worrying about how one's actions will impact others. "I'm only following orders" (which is what it boils down to) may not hold up as a defense in a court of law, but it nonetheless goes a long way toward assuaging the conscience when an action taken in obedience to God (or God's equivalent) causes harm to another person.

The "tough love" approach stems from the same mentality; any suffering that results from the administration of "tough love" is for the good of the recipient. Whatever means are necessary to force the "sinner" to repentance (and thereby save his eternal soul) are fully justified. Even death is preferable to living in a state of disobedience.

Not that it's enough for us to simply speak of fundamentalism in negative terms. Some individuals simply cannot thrive without a rigid structure to guide them, and some fundamentalists are genuinely kind people whose commitment to their faith drives them to make a positive impact on the world around them. At its best, fundamentalist religion motivates its adherents to give self-sacrificially for the benefit of others.

Unfortunately, the fundamentalist mindset all too frequently drives the faithful to seek ways to impose authoritarian controls on others, by whatever force necessary. Historically this has been no less true of Christians than it has been of Muslims or Marxists, generally speaking - and even today, some Christian sects advocate the death penalty for a laundry list of sins.

Perhaps it's inevitable that a majority of Stage Three individuals will see a moral imperative in forcing others to submit to the commands of whatever doctrine they hold sacred. Although the Christian Right is the most visible evidence of that mindset in the United States at the moment, one can see the same attitude among members of many left wing groups as well. In fact, it's safe to say that most causes are going to attract at least a few supporters who think in authoritarian terms.

All of that is not to say that Stage Three individuals should be viewed condescendingly by those who move on to Stage Four (and beyond); many such individuals are highly talented and successful, and many are actively involved in working improve the lives of those around them. And transitioning to Stage Four does not automatically make one a better person.

But the lure of fundamentalism is a strong (and sometimes irresistible) pull for those who view the world exclusively through the filter of whichever group they most strongly identify with. Escaping the fundamentalist mindset requires undertaking a difficult journey that cannot be forced upon any individual. Some are simply not ready for that journey, and others will opt to remain within their comfort zones.

However strong the temptation may be to try to push those in the latter group to "grow up," we risk causing more harm than good when we try to impose our agenda (however enlightened we may think ourselves) on others. In effect, we become the very fundamentalists we speak out against.

That doesn't seem to leave much in terms of solutions, but then again, if the world really was that black and white, fundamentalism would be the solution.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


One thing I've found very interesting as I've begun to broaden my studies is just how unusual (and relatively recent) Western Christianity's emphasis on doctrine and "right" belief is in the broader picture of world history. Other monotheistic faiths (including Eastern forms of Christianity and even a few Protestant traditions) have always, to varying degrees, depicted God as being beyond human definition - which doesn't necessarily mean that God is completely unknowable, just that any terms we could come up with to describe God would be so wholly inadequate as to paint a false image of who God really is.

Western thought acknowledges that to some extent, while simultaneously advocating the importance of believing the right things about God, which in turn necessitates defining him. Thus we have entire libraries discussing and debating the various attributes we believe God to possess, and churches that routinely split over the finest points of doctrine. The end result of all of that effort seems to almost inevitably be a God that looks remarkably like us, whose priorities match whatever happens to be important to us, and who hates (in a loving way, presumably) whoever we happen to hate.

Not many Christians would admit as much, of course, and few are actively trying to make God in their image, but issues of control do lie at the heart of the problem. Once we have defined something, after all, we are well on our way to being able to harness it toward our own ends. If we can create a box that encompasses what God is like and what he can and cannot do according to his nature, then we can learn how to push God's buttons, as it were, to get what we want from him. Hence the many believers who live as though God is their personal Santa Claus, or the ultimate weapon in their crusade against the heathens of the world.

At some point we do need to be able to talk about God in human terms. To merely say that God is beyond our ability to describe is to make him completely inaccessible, at which point he becomes effectively irrelevant to our daily lives. Somewhere in between the mystic and the intellectual there needs to be a balance, a point at which we can simultaneously talk about God while acknowledging the inadequacy of our words.

One possible solution might be a return to the practice of describing God through paradoxical language. The Bible contains a starting point for such an endeavor: most Christians have traditionally agreed that God is simultaneously three and one, to name the one paradox that everyone is familiar with. Some theologians have advocated speaking about God exclusively in paradoxes, as a way of reminding both speaker and hearer that God is more than just another person or thing.

Such an approach has its pitfalls, too. Most Christians (including myself) would instinctively recoil at referring to God as both "good" and "not good," even though the intent of that formulation is to remind us that our concept of "good" is flawed and finite and therefore a wholly inadequate label for God. The same would apply to any attribute we might ascribe to God.

At the very least, we need a way of reminding ourselves that God's goodness is good beyond our ability to comprehend goodness, and that therefore we should be careful about placing expectations on God based on our limited perspective. That's a point that theologians are quick enough to remind their audience of when arguing against an opposing viewpoint, yet largely blind to when it comes to their own assertions.

Some gay Christians make the error of assuming that what seems good to them must seem equally good to God, but their critics are no less at fault for assuming that God is somehow obligated to give us direct and universal commands through the Bible regarding what they consider to be an issue of vital importance. To leave such matters entirely to conscience is to risk creating a church that doesn't have much to say about anything, but to place believers back under a system of dos and don'ts is to return them to slavery.

And so we come to a paradox of our own: we cannot be absolutely certain of anything, but practically speaking we cannot know nothing, either. We could go in circles indefinitely without ever decisively resolving that dilemma, so the solution is clearly not to try to come up with a final, "right" answer.

An examination of church history will reveal that people of faith have been trying to answer these same questions for millennia, and that each generation has reached a different set of conclusions concerning them. And perhaps that's the best answer we can come up with: to set aside being "right" in favor of ongoing dialogue, and to give the seekers of truth in each time and culture the space they need to view the paradoxes of God and existence from their own unique perspectives.

Humility isn't a term I'd associate with many of the theologians whose ideas I've encountered over the course of my life, but few virtues strike me as being comparable in importance when it comes to the study of God. There are certain things I believe with great conviction, but no amount of study or prayer or earnestness can immunize me from the possibility that I could be wrong.

Of course, I could be wrong about that, too, but let's not get started again.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Pick and Choose

Brought to my attention via this post at Gay Spirituality & Culture, here's a very engaging essay on the Christian Right's selective use of scripture to justify its political agenda:

How Biblical is the Christian Right?

Although the article is a lengthy read, it's well worth the effort. The author (University of Chicago professor Margaret Mitchell) takes an in-depth look at how Christian Right organizations fall short of being the biblical literalists that everyone assumes them to be. Instead, they cherry-pick whatever verses they can find that seem to support their agenda, usually with little regard for context, for an array of issues ranging from gambling to homosexuality to war.

Not that this is particularly shocking news for those familiar with the methods and tactics of groups like Focus on the Family, but Dr. Mitchell demonstrates just how far these organizations fall short of anything resembling serious biblical scholarship.

So refill your cup of tea, get settled into a comfortable position, and click on the link.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Recently I've been reflecting back on my story, particularly the earlier parts of my life that I haven't written as much about. I don't remember what prompted those reflections, but it's interesting to look back now and to realize that my life doesn't fit the standard Exodus stereotypes quite as neatly as I once thought.

It's true that I was always a little bit afraid of my father growing up, due to his temper (which he never took out on me directly). He was also a workaholic and frequently gone for days at a time. As such, it was always easy for me to accept ex-gay theories about the origins of homosexuality without question. But regardless of whatever validity they may hold, the full story is more complex than that.

Despite having good reason to distance myself from my father, I still looked up to him and did more to pattern myself after him than after my mom, even though she and I had the closer relationship. In terms of personality I'm a pretty even mixture of both of my parents, but unlike the common Exodus stereotype, there was never a time when I was at all interested in being (or acting like) a girl.

I never developed an interest in sports, but then again nobody in our immediate family was interested in sports, so it's not as though anything athletic was present in my day-to-day life for me to reject. Academic achievement (which came easily enough to me) was what earned me affirmation from my father (an engineer) anyway, so a strong interest in sports would just as likely have created more distance between us than it bridged.

My major interests in elementary school couldn't be considered 'butch,' but they weren't particularly 'feminine' either (speaking still in terms of stereotypes): math, astronomy, music, board and card games and science fiction commanded most of my attention. My dad taught me to play chess when I was six, and we spent a good deal of time playing games prior to the divorce. When I got a little older political science moved ahead of astronomy on my list of interests, and eventually history supplanted math (calculus being the final straw).

There was a period of a couple years when I was into creating homemade Christmas ornaments with my mom, but aside from an off-and-on interest in cooking that didn't survive into adulthood, that's about the farthest that I ventured into stereotypically female pursuits. I had a stuffed animal collection until about the age of twelve, but they spent most of their time playing superheroes.

Although I've probably had an above average number of female friends throughout my life compared to your average American male, it wasn't because I was hiding from the other boys. On the occasions when my female friends outnumbered my male friends, it was due more to circumstance than conscious choice. Despite the barrier of having little interest in (or aptitude for) sports, it was never long before I would gravitate back toward being one of the guys.

In short, my childhood more closely matches the stereotypes of those given the label 'geek' or 'nerd' than it does the stories presented by Exodus as the universal experience of all gay men. Granted, there's still plenty that ex-gay advocates could use as ammunition to 'prove' that I'm gay because of my family environment, but there are many more gay men and women whose childhoods contained fewer (if any) of the so-called warning signs. Once the vast spectrum of human experience in the real world is fully taken into account, any strictly psychological theory would need to be so broad and generalized that it would predict a 50-70% rate of homosexuality in the general population instead of 5-7%.

In truth, nobody knows for certain what causes homosexuality (or, for that matter, heterosexuality). The evidence would suggest that biology plays a significant role, whether that be through genetic markers, prenatal hormones or some combination of the two. At the local level many ex-gay leaders would acknowledge that Moberly's theory doesn't tell the whole story, but at the national level it's apparently still more politically expedient to pretend that it's all psychological and entirely 'curable.'

Psychology probably does play a role in sexual development, at least for some; life isn't as simple as many on both sides of the issue would like it to be. But in the end, the debate over cause is a secondary issue, as either side would ultimately assert if they were ever decisively proven wrong.

To borrow another quote from The Lord of the Rings, "...that is not for [us] to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." We may not choose our circumstances or our personalities, but we can choose whether we will make the most of what we do have to be active participants in the ever-unfolding story of God's creation, or whether we will fixate to the point of paralysis on what we think we ought to be and consequently never truly live. I've already wasted too many years doing the latter.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


As some of you may have noticed, I've taken the plunge and updated to the new version of Blogger. Hopefully that won't cause any complications for anybody. I'm in the process of retroactively applying labels to my posts (the lack of labels was my biggest disappointment with the old Blogger), so in the coming days the list will be growing.

I'm not going to change the look for now, as I still like this template, but if anyone is just dying to create a logo for me, let me know. I've always envisioned something Escheresque...

Thursday, January 11, 2007


You've been having trouble staying asleep
You've been waking up at 4:12
You roll the voices over in your head
Then you try to put them neatly on the shelf

You watch the sun rise
You saw the darkness had no choice before the dawn
With your own eyes
And then you broke out laughing from a yawn

You said, "I'm so sorry I've been so down.
I started doubting things could ever turn around.
And I began to believe that all we are is material.
It's nonsensical."

So you walk outside and everything's new
You're looking at the world with new eyes
As if you'd never seen a sky before that's blue
As if you've never seen the sky in your whole life

And then the phone rings
As it turns out you're already late
And now you're wondering
Was peace just a temporary state?

You're waiting tables and parking cars
You've been selling cell phones at the shopping mall
And you begin to believe that all you are is material
It's nonsensical

I'm so sorry I've been so down
I started doubting things could ever turn around
But I still can't believe that all we are
And that all of our dreams are nothing more than material
Souls aren't built of stone,
Sticks and bones

-Switchfoot, 4:12

Last weekend I attended the third annual conference in Seattle. GCN (and the people I've met through it) has been one of my lifelines throughout the current leg of my journey, so I was very much looking forward to renewing old friendships and building new ones.

And the conference lived up to my expectations. I spent more time in meaningful face-to-face interaction with more people in four days than I normally do in a given month. At the same time, though, it was a bit overwhelming being around that many people, and by halfway through the second day I found that my 'batteries' were already depleted (yet one more disadvantage to being a strong introvert). As a result there were many people I never got around to meeting, as sticking largely to those I already knew became a matter of survival.

Setting aside the dilemma of being constantly exhausted yet wanting it to never end, the conference was exactly what I needed. Although my core faith in the God who has brought me through so many difficult times over the years has remained intact, I've become increasingly cynical about the people who call themselves his followers, and about the value in even bothering with playing church when those who seem to be genuinely striving to follow the example of Christ seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule.

Not that there were any 'parting of the clouds' moments, or that my skepticism was all washed away, but just spending time among so many genuine and, quite frankly, beautiful people (which is not a reference to physical appearance) was enough to restore just a little bit of feeling to parts of me that I'd nearly forgotten about.

From the numerous stories of God's work in other attendees' lives that demonstrated over and over again that 'gay Christian' is not an oxymoron, to the love and acceptance shown to those who feel like outcasts even among other outcasts, to the friendship and unity modeled continually by individuals who disagree on just about everything, to the heterosexual woman who, having recently heard about GCN, came to the conference at the last minute to show her support for those she believes the church has treated unjustly, I was drawn back to Sam Gamgee's conclusion in the movie version of The Two Towers:

That there is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for.

In the lower moments of my post-mountaintop funk, the entire experience has reminded me just what a lousy Christian I am even by my own standards, and caused me to question what business I think I have considering myself a member of this group, but ultimately I know that to listen to those old insecurities is to miss the point. It's not about me, and God can use even the least of us to accomplish amazing things.

That may be a lesson that much of the church has forgotten, but no matter how dark things seem there's always hope. The body of Christ has been amputating its less seemly members for so long that it's come to interpret the resulting pain and debilitation as validation of its exclusionary policies, but that can change. It must change. The church needs our gifts just as much as we need the church, and with God's help that day of reconciliation may yet come.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


I recently began reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God, which a friend lent to me. Since Armstrong's own beliefs fall outside of the bounds of orthodox Christianity, I'm not surprised that she hasn't gotten a wider audience in evangelical circles, though perhaps that's to our detriment. Although there's much opinion that Christians of most stripes will disagree with, the book also contains a wealth of historical details and the broader context that they fit into.

One point I've gotten from the book so far, which in retrospect seems like it should have been obvious, is that the ancient Israelites were polytheists in their belief system, just as all the peoples of that time period were. Not that they didn't believe in Yahweh and in their covenant with him, but they continued to believe in the existence of other gods as well.

Seen in this light, it becomes more clear why the people of Israel repeatedly returned to worshiping foreign idols. In their own minds they weren't rejecting the God of Abraham, they were merely paying respect to all of the gods that they saw as relevant to their daily lives. Yahweh had his temple, just as other gods did, but his expertise was limited to certain domains.

Hence, when God sent the prophets to turn the people away from worshiping those other gods, the hostile reaction the prophets received was due, at least in part, to what most people saw as heresy. Yahweh was a powerful deity and Israel's primary god, to be sure, but the notion that there was only one God failed to penetrate the popular psyche all the way up to the time of the exile. God had to gradually transform the worldview of his chosen people over the course of centuries before it truly sank in.

Understanding a little more about the mindset of the people who lived in Old Testament times helps to shed light on its writings. It also exposes, with greater clarity, just how much bias we read back into those ancient texts. Theologians labor to extract a "moral law" from select Old Testament passages that seem to support what they think we ought to be able to find there, with little regard for the fact that the original authors (and their audience) had a very different outlook on life. Even when those theologians pay lip service to contextual concerns, they insist (at least implicitly) that God would have inserted our concept of "moral law" in there for our benefit, as if God is obligated to share our priorities.

Appeals to church tradition as support for our biases are of limited value, since the early church was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy and by their own Roman culture. By the time of Christ, the Jews were solidly monotheistic and had spent several centuries interacting with Greek culture. Today our 'Christian' worldview is colored by Enlightenment philosophy and scientific rationalism, which if anything makes us even less objective in the expectations and assumptions we read back into the Bible.

Experience teaches us that God understands our limitations (far better than we do) and works with us where we're at, just as he did with the ancient Israelites and the early Christians. The danger lies in assuming that, because God meets us within contexts we can understand, our assumptions about him and the universe he created must be essentially complete and all others' ideas about him wrong. Such pride has inevitably led to 'holy' wars and to the murder of countless heretics throughout history.

It's not enough to pay lip service to how limited our finite knowledge of the infinite truly is, if we continue to live as though we know it all. Epistemological humility no doubt seems like a theological death sentence to many people of faith, but the only thing it kills is the notion that the universe revolves around us. And isn't dying to self supposed to be part of the Christian walk?

Monday, January 01, 2007

What If

Over the holiday I spent some time with an old friend and his family. It was a rather noisy weekend with seven small children underfoot (his two plus his sister's five kids), but we were still able to catch up over a few rounds of Catan, among other games.

I've never had a strong desire to have children of my own. For a long time I assumed that I eventually would, but in my mind I usually skipped over the first sixteen years or so of my hypothetical children's lives. As cute as kids can be, I prefer them in small doses. True, there's something endearing about having a four-year-old suddenly decide that you're her new favorite playmate, but it's also nice to be able to pass her back to mommy when it's bedtime.

I've learned to be content with who I am and where I'm at in life, but all the same I sometimes wonder what my life might have been like under other circumstances. There's something very compelling about having a "normal" life (wife, 2.5 kids, two minivans and a house in the suburbs), which is no doubt part of the appeal of ex-gay ministries, but where in the Bible does God really call us to a life of normalcy?

Just because the evangelical church has put marriage and family on an idolatrously high pedestal that leaves anyone who's unmarried and/or childless feeling deficient doesn't mean that their priorities are in the right order. Just because many Exodus spokespersons imply that marriage to an opposite-sex partner is the epitome of 'healing' and 'holiness' doesn't mean that the married ex-gay has necessarily achieved any significant degree of either. Just because some Christians have conflated Genesis 2:24 with the discipleship that Christ calls his followers to doesn't mean that they have any idea what true discipleship looks like.

To whatever extent God may actually have any of our lives planned out for us, he has a unique path for each of us to follow, specially tailored to account for the millions of factors that differentiate each of us from everyone else. No church, no pastor, no ministry leader can chart that path for us or dictate what our lives should look like. However invaluable their counsel may be, as soon as their advice turns to ultimatums it's time to take a step back and take a closer look at that relationship.

And if I did suddenly find myself genuinely attracted to a woman? I'd approach the situation with caution and more than a little prayer, but I wouldn't dismiss it any more than I'd rule out what good could come from a relationship with another man.

But at the end of the day, there's only so much to be gained from dwelling on what might or might not someday be. The most that I can do today is to make the best use of what I presently have while making an effort to listen to that still, small voice. The more time I spend worrying about what I don't have or how I wish things were different, the less use I actually am to God or anyone else.