I Can’t Change, Can I?

This last month has been an exciting one for the LGBT community. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (signed into law by President Clinton) was ruled unconstitutional and the appeal to overturn the overturning of the Prop 8 ban—just as confusing now as it was when Californians voted on it—was rejected. Additionally, the long-standing Christian organization Exodus International, which sought to make gays “ex-gays” through prayer and a stronger relationship with God, has shut down, or at least decided to do a major reboot.

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 9.50.59 PMAs I was reading through the responses to these events, though, I was reminded of an argument that has bothered me as a defense of non-heterosexual orientation. Lately, it has been popularized in the Macklemore song, “Same Love.” As the refrain goes: “I can’t change, even if I try, even if I wanted to.” It echoes the argument that sexual orientation or gender identity are not choices  but…something else. What this something else is varies from an explicit genetic predisposition to just “who I am.”

I think that I understand the motivation behind this approach. Choice seems casual, something that can be changed on a whim, while a biological root, core identity trait, or divine origin seems to be a more substantial and immovable foundation. Surely society cannot and should not blame gays for being the way they are if they did not choose their sexual orientation? Given that the most consistent voices against non-“normative” sexuality are Christians, I’m not convinced that the “I can’t help it” strategy is the most effective response .

The nature/nurture dichotomy fights the battle for equality on religion’s terms. If one is in the position of being both Christian and gay, I can see some merit to this argument. After all, conservative Christians will argue against LGBT rights using a whole host of hypothetical outcomes ranging from disease to decline of values to destruction of traditional families, but the root motivation is a conviction that according to God, homosexuality or any non-traditional sexual orientation is wrong. (To be charitable, we’ll set aside for the moment instances of polygamy, rape, and incest in the Bible). The conflict between LGBT identity and the normative sexuality of the Christian tradition obviously creates existential dissonance for gay Christians, many of whom would rather conclude, considering that their sexual orientation is “who they are,” that God made them that way. Whoever gets God on their side wins the battle.

Yet the rest of us outside religious communities are caught in the same dichotomous thinking. Made that way (legitimate) or choice (illegitimate)? Many substitute science for religion and make the same argument. All sides seem to agree that if root sexual orientation is rooted in something completely or partly out of our conscious control, we should accept it. This does have the effect of neatly circumscribing the argument, but I think it unfairly denigrates the effect and importance of choice. (It also cannot account for those whose sexual identity changes in different stages of life without marginalizing one of their choices.)

It’s difficult to argue that campaigns such as that of Exodus International never work. Against the backdrop of a historically hetero-normative culture, organizations like it have obviously succeeded in “curing” many people. Proponents of the “way I am” argument must contend that these people are acting against their true selves, and were thus unhappy. This is likely often correct. But the church and culture has helped keep thousands of couples in unhappy monogamous relationships as well, and popular culture helps much of society feel unhappy with their bodies. The happiness of each individual is not the primary goal in social organization. (I’d argue that a consistent feeling of happiness as life-goal misses the mark anyway, but we operate as if that is what we want.)

Existentialism explains some of why I’d rather have the element of choice play a stronger role in the argument. We are ultimately responsible for our choices, no matter how limited they are; in fact, we cannot not be responsible for our choices. However, the “way I am” approach cedes the discourse of choice to the conservative side. For the Christian, choice is often a euphemism for sin, since it boils down to God’s way or the wrong way, particularly with sexual orientation. But for those not beholden to a religious tradition, why not embrace the element of choice? Limiting our own choices is a way to palliate our anxiety over the innumerable decisions we have about out existence. The more I can attribute or cede to someone else, the less I have to actively evaluate myself. “It’s the law” or “the Bible says so” become causes themselves, and I don’t have to evaluate their effects on others or the innumerable possibilities for change.

I’m not suggesting that we have sole control over all aspects of our lives. From the perspective of social enculturation, I am certainly born with my choices very limited. As a Christian, I grew up homophobic, not in the macho kind of way, but in the way that you fear what you don’t understand and attribute to sin what might actually be a legitimate way of living. Despite all the changes in my beliefs, I still feel “gut” hetero-normative reactions to situations and people that I’d like to think all my education has overcome. My choices are in that way limited by my past, but I don’t expect anyone to take that as an excuse for homophobic behavior.

Neither am I saying there is no biological aspect to sexual orientation; I’m certain that there is, but that doesn’t negate the element of choice either. Ignoring this element is a way to ignore the relative arbitrariness of our moral values. Yet recognizing that nearly all the elements of our society are “chosen” and not “given” would change the nature of this debate.

Two things would have to take place for this to work. First, choice would need to stop being equated with happiness. Choices are often painful, and needing to make choices in the first place is painful. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t or shouldn’t take part in them. I’m wagering that consciousness and acceptance of as many of our choices as possible is better than shifting responsibility elsewhere. The lines aren’t easy to draw, but we should continue to try. If that can happen, then choice/responsibility can be turned against other institutional norms, such as the Christian element that bears much of the burden of stigmatizing sexuality in the first place. The intolerance and violence that has often accompanied “God’s plan” throughout history must be wrestled with more seriously if it is seen as intolerance and violence based on the choices of humanity and not God. If all we have are choices, then no one has a moral high ground and we have to work together to resolve our issues.

For what it’s worth (and it’s worth very little), I voted against Prop 8 and I believe that non-traditional partners should have the same legal and civil rights as heterosexual couples. Will it open the door to other legal challenges and further dilution of traditional marriage? Maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s certainly not a reason in and of itself to hinder steps toward legal equality.

I’d love to hear other perspectives on this issue.


Atheism for Lent

should-we-give-up-god-for-lentAlthough I’d like to take credit for this, the idea belongs to Peter Rollins, a theologian and philosopher who has been associated with the Emerging Church. Rollins recently posted a link on his Facebook page to an extended critique of his work on Red Letter Christians. Since Micah Bales, the writer of the post, critiques Rollins in a way that appeals directly to the habitus of liberal evangelical Christians, I wanted to respond to his points from my perspective. Given the choice, I would quickly and easily choose the theology of Rollins over Bales’ critiques.

The critique comes out of the context of Atheism for Lent, an idea Rollins has promoted for several years, which suggests that rather than giving up something like chocolate or TV for Lent, we give up God instead. Why? To experience the sense of abandonment by God that Jesus felt on the cross. To fully embody the doubt that Rollins contends is the hallmark of Christianity. It is only by giving up our preconceived ideas about God that we can experience the love that fills the hole left by their absence. I’ll talk more about this in the future, because there is much to like about Rollins’ approach, which draws on Nietzsche, Slavoj Žižek, John Caputo, and others. Bales’ critique here is not directly about Rollins’ theology, though, but his approach.

His first critique is that Rollins is toying with Gnosticism. Bales doesn’t use the term, but suggests that Rollins’ appeal lies in the draw of some special knowledge that others don’t know about or don’t grasp. He asks, “But how does this special knowledge affect how you look at your fellow Christians who do not share your radical doubt? Do you see their lack of doubt as ignorant? Weak?” The questions are irrelevant to the legitimacy of Rollins’ approach. I agree with Bales that Rollins’ approach is crafted toward a more intellectual crowd, but that has no bearing on the authenticity of its content. Gnosticism was a blanket term used against Christians in the early Church who saw the key to Jesus, not necessarily in his bloody death, but in the knowledge he imparted before death. While the term is often used in a pejorative sense now, before the triumph of orthodox Christianity, it was just one among many legitimate strands of Christian thought and practice. In short, the accusation of Gnosticism is a polemical approach that can only be made from the standpoint of the majority. Because a particular version of Christianity holds sway today, if someone like Rollins promotes an understanding that requires rethinking the traditional means and symbols we use to think about Christianity, it is easy to claim that its appeal lies in its elitism. It was the same charge leveled against early Christians by Rome.

Bales’ second point is that Rollins doesn’t talk about social justice enough. He only talks about the personal aspects of Christianity, the ways in which the individual responds (or not) to God. Bales is right that Rollins does not give an extensive summary of ways for Christians to enact social justice, but I couldn’t disagree more with the heart of this point. A great part of Rollins’ appeal for me as I was jettisoning mainstream Christianity was the way in which Rollins tears down the hypocrisy inherent in typical Christian responses to social justice, responses that have little more to recommend them than participating in social justice by buying your latte at Starbucks and knowing that 1% goes back to the coffee farmers. (This is a classic example of Žižek.) Rollins suggests that Christian attempts at social justice are largely playing a role, gesturing at the actions that we think Christians ought to perform through singing songs, putting bumper stickers on our vehicles, and putting an extra $5 in the collection plate for overseas missions. It is true that Rollins’ work is focused on deconstructing Christian norms than outlining a social justice platform. I don’t know that Rollins would argue this, but I think the bigger problem is that Christians believe that theological propositions (God died for me, etc.) are the foundation of social change when they have no necessary connection. In other words, Christianity as it is practiced institutionally does not require social change. It requires maintenance of the status quo.

Bales’ third point is a variant of the first; namely, that Rollins’ message only appeals to those in a relatively comfortable social class, those that have the freedom to play with their beliefs. There is a sociological point here, in that those with other structural supports are less likely to rely as heavily on theological truths to secure their wellbeing. Bales writes that his friend who works with individuals with severe disabilities said, “I would just like to see Peter Rollins come to L’Arche and talk about this stuff. Let him explain to people suffering from schizophrenia and learning disabilities why they need to stop believing in God.” This critique is misleading. If Rollins is correct, then Bales is blaming him for trying to give people a better understanding of Christianity when they have been given misinformation. This paradigm says, “Well, they’re happy now, so don’t bother them.” Which approach values these people as individuals more? It’s also a fallacy to believe that these people need to have the theological crutch they have to survive. Much of the world survives without such a message, a a good portion dies with it. I would argue that this approach is precisely what prevents the social change Bales deplores is missing. Atheism may not the answer for those in need right now, but Christianity may not be either. The answer could be, without touting a theological message, to show the divine to the person in need with love, empowering them to thrive in the world by extending, as much as possible, the structural supports that we casually suggest are our rights.

We could put this another way. The reason Christianity is more appealing to those who are young and to those who are in dire straits is that allows them a simple way to distance themselves from their circumstances. These populations have the lowest intellectual resistance to the institution because they are weak and vulnerable. Is that a point to objectively recommend Christianity? Or would it be more valuable to give people the tools to understand their own circumstances in a different way and explore different ways to relate to them?

In short, Bales’ critique serves as a reaffirmation of the status quo. While it looks to me as if he does comparatively more than the average Christian (whatever that means) to practice his beliefs, his message here allows Christians to remain happily static, instead of challenging the dependency of their theology upon social and cultural norms. My critique of Rollins, essentially, is that he is a closet atheist who continues to use the Christian message for political purposes. He thinks he can make greater change within Christianity than abandoning the narrative all together. Or perhaps he does think that the Christian story is an appropriate narrative to understand our existential relationship with the world. Part of me thinks that he may be right. But the greater part thinks that the tradition has done too much damage in the past to be trusted with our existential future.


Religious Planner

I was struck yesterday with the thought that part of the reason I’m such a bad planner may have to do with my religious background. (I do tend to think that everything has to do with religion, both because of my background and because of graduate school, which tends to make you think that everything in the world has something to do with the très interéssant topic you happen to be studying. “Global warming? That reminds me of my research on…!”) I admire people who are decisive, who assess a situation, commit, and don’t look back. I don’t know if those people actually exist or not, but it looks like it from the outside. I have usually made decisions by waiting for options to limit themselves so my job is made easier. Of course, I don’t think that way at the time, but I always find some reason to delay. There was a time when I filled that space (or thought I should) with prayer.

I remember being both amused and a little freaked out by those Christians I knew who seemed to pray about everything. “Should I do the dishes right now, or mop the floor?” Then there are those who bring it up in conversation. I’ll admit, it’s a good way to put someone off if you don’t want to do something. “Uh, yeah, I’m gonna need to pray about that first.” Doesn’t work as well with your boss, but in Christian circles, it’s a conversation stopper. “Who am I to interfere with the voice of God?” the asker thinks. To most, the command to pray without ceasing is taken allegorically, but it does raise the question of where one should draw the line in terms of listening to God and making decisions on your own.

Since I no longer hear from God, I bear the weight of every decision I make and its consequences, anticipated and unanticipated. I never would have been able to predict how existentially different the normal process of decision making is with no divine safety system in place. As a Christian, I of course believed I was fully capable of making wrong decisions, but even if I did, it was comforting to know there was someone looking out for me. In my more self-assured moments (fairly rare for me), I could step out with confidence knowing I had prayed and made the right decision. Now there is no fallback. Heidegger calls this our anxiety at “being-in-the-world.” In other words, the simple fact of our having been born into this existence that we have little control over and faced with having to make our way, we get nervous, especially when we have to take an active role.

There are different ways, better or worse, to respond. We can confront decisions with the knowledge that we will bear their consequences, right or wrong, or we can construct a variety of systems that lessen some of the burden of our responsibility. This might be a religious system that says it doesn’t ultimately matter because this is not our real home, or that we will get a chance to correct ourselves in another life. It might be a legal or a social system that encourages us to blame our actions on society, or parents, etc. Any combination of these factors shape our choices and distribute the burden of our decisions. You will notice, for example, how we feel we deserve more individual credit for good decisions or circumstances, such as financial or social success, fame, etc. (People use God in this respect too. Just think of any awards ceremony or sports victory. The winners obviously had God on their side, and I guess no one else did.) Yet when bad circumstances or bad choices visit us, we tend dilute our accountability with other people, environmental factors, or…God. “Well, I guess God must not have wanted me to have…” or, “I guess God had other plans.” Does that really help in making decisions, or does it help you deal with the consequences of choices and the reality that you have little control over the things around you, and yet you are responsible for your choices?

So, my suggestion is that with the notion that there is a God who is interested in our individual lives and to a certain extent directs them (Proverbs 16:9), our sense of the significance of our daily decisions is skewed. We may overanalyze and never pull the trigger, so to speak, for fear of a catastrophic mistake; on the other hand, we may act before thinking because of some notion that God has our backs and sanctions our actions. Both of these can produce disastrous results. As for me, I am in the retraining process of how to most accurately measure the weight of my decisions in the world.