Saturday, February 26, 2011

He That Increaseth in Knowledge Increaseth in Sorrow

This is a copy of a paper I delivered at the last conference I attended two years ago.  Reading it now, I have some serious reservations about my thesis and conclusions, but I will save that for a later post.  As it is, it gives an interesting picture of where I was two years ago, not long out of the church or the closet.  While ostensibly a paper about the need for a critical hermeneutic for Mormon scriptures, I have come to the realization that it is really about something else--something bigger.  More on that later.

He That Increaseth in Knowledge Increaseth in Sorrow:
Vexation and Catharsis in Critical Readings of Latter-day Saint Scripture

You may want to listen carefully, because I am about to utter three words that you will never again hear at an academic conference.  “I was wrong.”  Several months ago I crafted what I thought was a sweeping but defensible thesis.  Simply put, it was that a historical-critical engagement with scripture would make you a better Mormon.  And I intended to prove it through my own experiences as a Mormon and formal student of ancient scripture.  I supposed that the rigor of the study and its contradictions with the fundamental tenets of my own religion would serve as a crucible to refine my stalwart defense of Mormon orthodoxy.  But I was wrong.  Indeed, the reality of my experience in my first semester at Yale Divinity proved me so spectacularly wrong that I nearly withdrew from this conference.  Because it is, well, a bit humiliating to make a compelling argument for my own ineptitude. 

I do take some consolation in the fact that my thesis was not totally without merit.  I was right about the fact that the study is rigorous and that the contradictions with Mormonism are vexing.  And it does, in my opinion, serve as a most salubrious, if painful, crucible.  But my error was in supposing that such a critical hermeneutic was compatible with Mormon orthodoxy as it had been taught to me since my youth.  When I say “orthodoxy” I do not speak principally of doctrine but of method—a method of engaging scripture that ensures we always come up with the right answer.  Orthodox methodology has unfortunately become the foundation of religious education in the church.

I would like to show you what I think is a quintessential example of this orthodoxy.  I hold in my hand a certified LDS Scripture Marker.  (It’s engraved to that effect.)  These pencils are the staple of every seminary, institute, and Sunday school class.  And with these certified LDS Scripture Markers, we are told to mark an obtuse four hundred year old translation of the Bible, and indeed we are told which specific scriptures we are to mark and memorize. For Sunday school, the Church produces a lesson manual which tells us which passages we should read and what generic lessons we are to take away from them. And we are warned not to supplement these intellectually unfulfilling lessons with additional materials—unless their from Mormon Doctrine.

This is the hermeneutic designed to produce orthodox Mormons.  But I must wonder whether it makes us very good Saints.  Certainly it doesn’t make us think very hard.  It obviates theological difficulties, smoothes over ethical quandaries, and ignores historical incongruencies.  There is not a particularly high price to be paid for this superficial engagement with the text.  And it should not be surprising that the dividends are equally poor.  Mormons woefully underutilize the full potential of ancient scripture.  Here is a text at times beautiful, empowering, and uplifting.  But, as any serious student of the Bible knows, it is often messy, frustrating, and disturbing.  And, as Joseph Smith famously pointed out, it is not a book that lends itself well to Christian orthodoxy and one dimensional interpretation.  And so, in the name of orthodoxy, we follow the most obvious solution.  We don’t simply read it.  And we certainly don’t ask questions. 

While I do believe this orthodoxy comes out of a sincere desire to protect our testimonies, I do not recall that the avoidance of truth, however difficult, to have ever been a tenet of our faith.  And indeed, as I reflect upon the birth of the church and the guiding principle of its founder, I see critical reading of scripture and theological creativity as the seeds from which sprang the peculiar people. It was Joseph Smith who claimed that the Bible was not translated correctly but was a flawed text.  It was Joseph Smith who searched for the purer truth through the study of Greek, Hebrew, and German.  He was willing to ask of the Bible hard questions and was willing to accept the answers.  And the answers were radical and terrible and neither he nor his people came away from it unscathed.  The price to be paid for this honest and critical appraisal of a sacred text was very high, but so too were the dividends.  For it was a refiner’s fire.  It may have made Joseph Smith a good Mormon, but more importantly, it made him a good saint.

The critical reading of scripture in our day is somewhat different, but no less fraught.  Joseph Smith had the daunting task of deconstructing mainstream Christian notions of the Bible.  But the LDS Biblical scholar today faces the difficult opportunity of deconstructing Mormon notions of the Bible.  Heretofore Biblical exegesis within Mormonism has ascribed to a literalist and, more or less, infallible interpretation of scripture.  It is a perspective fundamentally at odds with historical-critical scholarship, and it comes as no surprise that such academic delving is condemned as unspiritual and even apostate.  And with reason.

The critical scholar can’t even get through the first chapter of Genesis before this literalism, the basis of so many testimonies, is obliterated.  Modern science has shown with incontrovertible evidence that the creation of the earth took a bit longer than six days. Linguists take issue with the Tower of Babel, climatologists rather frown upon the flood narrative, and I frankly have a hard time figuring out how Jonah lived in a fish for three days.  But these are rather insignificant problems that can be easily interpreted as metaphorical and theological treatises rather than actual historical accounts. 

More troubling are the textual issues.  While it is a tenet of Mormon faith that the Bible suffered some manipulation in its transmission, few Mormons are prepared to accept the magnitude of the textual messiness that constitutes the Bible.  The critical scholar soon discovers that the books of the Old Testament were written centuries after the events they ostensibly describe and reflect contemporary issues rather than historical occurrences.  And as much as Isaiah preaches against the evils of Babylon, much of the Old Testament is rather consistent with Babylonian religion.  We find that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people we thought they were written by.   And indeed, if we are to understand the historical Jesus, we must throw out the Gospel of John altogether.  Oddly, the Book of Mormon contains nineteenth century concepts of Christology foreign to the ancient world.  And Nephi seems to have a rather good mastery of King James English.

These are very difficult, perhaps impossible truths, for an orthodox Mormon to accept.  It is no wonder that such a study produces a crisis of faith and is so strenuously discouraged.  The very underpinnings of Mormon theology are at risk of dissolving into fiction when the texts upon which they rely are so brutally contradicted.  But for me, the hard historical realities were not the most troubling issues, nor the most poisonous to my Mormon orthodoxy.  I could accept ahistorical scripture and still remain firm in my faith. For me the questions of historicity were eclipsed by the more important questions of theology. 

Here too was vexation.  For textual problems aside, the Bible is a very disturbing book.  And the orthodox solution is either to ignore these troubling issues or to explain them away as belonging to a different time and a less developed people.  When we study the Book of Joshua, for example, we are happy about the miracle that allows the twelve tribes to cross the Jordan, but forget they are crossing the river to commit genocide.  We proclaim the Christ that said, “Love thy neighbor.”  But brush past the Christ who says we must hate father and mother to follow him.  We herald Nephi as among the most righteous of God’s prophets, while disregarding his deeply racist comments.  That our scriptures contain ethically troubling stories does not particularly bother me—that merely reflects the human hands that made them.

But what does bother me is that Mormon orthodoxy does not allow us to critically examine these passages.  If we cannot, through our study, promote the hagiography of God’s prophets, we must ask no further questions.  We are not permitted to say that sometimes the texts portray an unethical prophet, that sometimes they portray an unethical God.  We cannot say, that here the scriptures propose a course of action that is fundamentally wrong.  We cannot say that the theological implications of this passage or that one are incompatible with Christian morality. We cannot even discuss it and we certainly cannot question it.  I do not believe that these questions threaten our eternal salvation, but they can jeopardize our right to fellowship.  In asking these questions, I violated the guiding principles of orthodox methodology.  And so the crux of my original thesis was wrong.  My study did not make me a stalwart defender of orthodox Mormonism.

But it did increase my faith.  For when the study of Christianity becomes troubling, when it constitutes a mental agony and a spiritual crisis, when it deepens its mysteries even as we deepen our investigation, when we are threatened to be swallowed up in all the complexities and contradictions and absurdities—there is the trial of our faith, our cross of true discipleship. To say we do ourselves a disservice by avoiding this terrible crisis is a profound understatement.  There is little of saintliness in superficiality.  And by avoiding the questions or assuming the answers we waste the true power of these sacred texts. 

And these texts are sacred, which is why a critical and unflinching examination of them is so essential to the journey of faith.  For the unbeliever, such an examination is no more than an evisceration of the text, but for the true Christian, it is an evisceration of self, because the questions are supremely meaningful, because everything depends upon the answers, and because the life and character of the text is inextricably intertwined with our own.  By asking, we risk annihilation.  Here is a sacrifice that requires our heart, might, mind, and strength.   And one that offers no promises in the end.   There is a certain powerful liberation in this kind of awesome faith.

Now, when I speak of the sacrifice and agony attendant to the critical study of sacred scripture, I am not speaking in merely philosophical terms.  Hebrew really is hard. I have spent many an anguished night trying to figure out why in the hell the psalmist decided to put an preposition on the infinitive of a doubly weak verb, attach a pronominal suffix with an energic nun, and throw the whole thing into construct.  That is a trial of my faith.  When I took introductory Hebrew, we read the binding of Isaac as every Hebrew student does.  It is a text that haunts me.  It didn’t the first time I read it in Hebrew—then I was too worried about those damn vowel points.  But since then I have read it many, many times and there is something about reading it in Hebrew that grants it more power and more horror.  Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son he loves, Isaac.

There is perhaps no more eloquent meditation upon this story than that given in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard ascribes to Abraham the kind of awesome, unconditional, and unflinching faith that I am talking about.  He is asked by God to do something not just unethical but anathema to all that is Godly. Abraham is not merely asked to slay his son, but to slay the promise given by God that he would be a father of many nations.  To render God a liar. And there is Abraham’s dilemma.  If he obeys his God, his God becomes false.  Yet if he ignores the command of deity, he loses the promise.  To be faithless or to have faith in a faithless God. We have no reason to believe Abraham knew this was merely a test, that he would not actually have to sacrifice his son.  How then is Abraham to reconcile the irreconcilable, to extricate himself from an ironclad paradox.  By faith.  Faith that he would sacrifice his only son but also receive the then impossible promise. This, Kierkegaard says is faith at its greatest.  Abraham does not resign himself to a loss that might be made up in the eternities, but actively believes in the face of an irresolvable spiritual crisis. It is faith in the absurd.  And this is what makes Abraham the victorious knight of faith.

Honest, unflinching Biblical scholarship for the devout, believing Mormon may produce this kind of faith.  Our testimony is founded in scripture, that it is inspired, that it is true, and that it is the word of God. But what if these texts are complicated?  What if we must say the Old Testament is largely mythological?  What if we must say the New Testament does not accurately portray the historical Jesus?  What if we must say the Book of Mormon cannot be a literal account of an ancient proto-Christian people?  What if we must say the scriptures are often unethical and that the prophets are sometimes wrong? Well, then we say it.  And we believe anyway.  We believe that these scriptures are flawed, inaccurate, even unethical and we also believe that they are inspired, true, the very word of God.  The power in these scriptures lies not in their historical accuracy or theological purity, but in their complexities, contradictions, and failings.  Powerful faith comes of accepting this and believing anyway.  If we struggle with them, if we weep over them, if we are abused, lied to, and crushed under the weight of doubt, and then after this agony and betrayal, we nevertheless confess the name of Christ and the reality of the restoration—there we find the inspiration, the truth, and the divinity of these sacred, terrible books. 

And how refined would be our faith.  How much better would we understand the atonement, that most absurd of all acts when immortality died, when purity became stained, when justice was convicted and all this for a people who would ignore it, scoff at it, and be wholly ignorant of it.  And yet God did it anyway.  Knowing the impossibility, the absurdity, and the infinity, he believed anyway.  Why do we want to superficially engage these texts?  It is sacrilege.  But Christ atoned for that too.

The words of Ecclesiastes are powerful in their unapologetic assessment of this mortal journey.  “I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.  For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”  I find a certain consolation in that statement.  Aristotle would call it catharsis, a purging of sorrow through the experience of grief.  But it’s not the grief I find consoling, it’s the honesty.  And that’s the way I like my scriptures: honest, unapologetic, and messy.  Because it’s a reflection of life and of the human condition.  If we apply no critical hermeneutic but read the scriptures as uncomplicated stories we can hardly expect them to have any wisdom for our very complicated lives.  But if we look deeper and embrace the messiness of the text we learn something of its authors and we glimpse a people yearning for God and sometimes not finding him, a people asking questions and often getting no answers, a people seeking justice in an unjust world, a people begging for relief but suffering all the more—in short we find ourselves.

Growing up as a gay Mormon I was torn between two worlds; I sought for God to ask him why, to plead for justice, to beg for relief.  And I learned that sometimes there are no answers, there will be no justice, and there can be no relief.  Ultimately I could not find a place for myself in Mormonism and I left the church with great agony of soul.  I do not want superficial scriptures; I don’t want ethical scriptures; I don’t want historical scriptures.  I want honest scriptures, true scriptures, messy scriptures.  And they’re right here.  And though I have left the church, I have not lost my faith in my God and in his sacred word.  The critical lens through which I have examined these holy texts has only served to increase my faith and bring me closer to deity.  For the Bible is a book about my relationship with God.

This is the hermeneutic that we need in Mormon culture.  It is the hermeneutic we are starving for.  We need to throw away our certified LDS Scripture Markers, open our eyes, and start reading the book.  No matter how great the price, we need not be afraid of what we shall find.  “For you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” 

I conclude where I began by confessing that I was wrong.  An error for which I paid a heavy price.  The critical hermeneutic did not make me a good Mormon, but I like to think that in some small way it made me a better saint.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What Manner of Mormon Ought Ye to Be?

This post is a promised complement to the paper I recently delivered at a religion conference.  This, however inelegantly, captures the essence of the profound impact participation in that conference had on me.  Possibly more on this later.

As I clearly established in my previous post, Jesus is an ascot-wearing, mimosa-sipping, gay Mormon intellectual.  It follows, then, that to be like Jesus, we’ll all need to get out our ascots and matching capris.  That is the manner of Mormon we ought to be.

Regrettably, I don’t own a pair of capris.  As a gay intellectual, I am not particularly bothered by this lack, but my Mormon-ness is mortified.  Mortified, because it falls short of the gay Mormon intellectual Jesus who embodies and defends my mixed up, messed up identity.  Jesus, in his unlimited grace, lets me be gay, lets me be intellectual, lets me be Mormon.  And since it was as a Mormon that I first encountered that grace, the least I can do is own a damn pair of capris.  The least I can do is accept that grace from the one who has fully accepted me—from the one who has fully accepted me as a capris-clad Mormon, not as a helmet-and-nametag-wearing Mormon.

That was the redeeming and sanctifying revelation of this last conference: Only as a gay intellectual (and heretical) Mormon could I do the will of a Mormon Jesus.  As a closeted, orthodox Mormon, I was only capable of doing my own will—a godless ambition based on lies and self-loathing.  I knew the moment I disassociated myself from the Church that I could no longer do the will of God wearing a suit and tie.  But it was not until I attended this conference that I realized that I could do the will of (a Mormon) God at all.  So obsessed was I by the apparently irreparable rift between me and the Church that I didn’t realize a tie would bring me no closer to deity.  I didn’t know that some of us can only serve God in capris. That a fervent, desperate prayer, whether lisping or not, still somehow makes it to heaven. 

Before coming to the conference, I thought that being gay prevented me from being Mormon.  I left the conference knowing that being non-Mormon made me a much better Mormon. As a gay apostate I was a much better servant of God and the Church than as a lying orthodox.  I left knowing that there was a place for me at the table.  I left knowing that I had something yet to say, something yet to give, something yet to bring to that holy table.

The conference solved my problem of pronouns. “They” or “We”? Though I consider myself to have a competent grasp of the English language, I could not seem to figure out how my subjects and verbs agreed.  Are “They” Mormon or are “We”?  While I affirmed clearly to my associates that I was not Mormon, I found that when actually talking about Mormons, I invariably slipped into “We.” Was I an insider or an outsider?  Was I a double agent or unfaithful to both? Whatever peace I thought I had carved out for myself as a post-Mormon was under constant assault by grammar. 

Pronouns are uncompromising prophets.  I learned from them that I could not stop looking backward because I had failed to collect all the pieces of my broken heart.   But at the conference, I discovered I didn’t need to, I didn’t want to. When I concluded my talk, when I said “All is reconciled in Christ” and lowered the page, when I saw my tears and my hope, my love and my loss reflected in the eyes of this rather eccentric bunch of muddled Momons, then I realized that I was one of them, revoked membership be damned. 

I still don’t know whether to say “We” or “They” but I am delighted by the ambiguity, delighted that I can live in the space between insider and outsider moving fluidly—moving happily—between these worlds. I exult that I am muddled and messy. I have learned that my two identities are not in conflict, are not pulling me apart. That, indeed, there is, as there has always been, only one identity. I just didn’t know what it looked like.  I needed a community to show me what I looked like. I found one.

I think I have found reconciliation.  And I think I will purchase a pair of capris.  Maybe even wear them with a suit and tie, however unfashionable that might be.

What Manner of Mormon Ought Ye to Be? A Muddled Mormon. Even as Christ is Muddled.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Fabulous Jesus: A Heresy of Reconciliation

I recently presented at an amazing conference in which participants were asked, among other things, to address the prospects and problems of the inter-relationship between Mormonism and the intellectual world. I found the conference productive and edifying in profound ways. In many ways, it began a new chapter in my life. Hopefully more on that in a later post.

For the paper I presented, I specifically address the problems inherent in reconciling the often disparate philosophies and demands of faith and the academy.

This paper touches upon many of the other issues that I have examined in the other essays of this blog, so I felt that it was appropriate to post it here. In particular, this paper addresses the relevance of my own experiences as a gay Mormon within the wider context of faith-science relations. This will become clear should you choose to read any of the other essays in this blog. [If you choose to do so, read the very earliest post first (Of Fauns and a Post-Narnian Theology). It give context for all of the others.]

This paper adapts and incorporates the themes of my most recent blog post (Is Jesus Gay?), but frames them differently and arrives at somewhat different conclusions. Indeed, I didn’t know what the conclusions of either the blog post or this paper would be until literally the moment I wrote them. Perhaps this was inspiration or revelation, or maybe I found reconciliation.

Many people asked for copies of the paper. As a general rule, I do not provide written copies of my talks, because I feel that so much is lost going from ear to eye. Speaking and writing are such very different mediums. I considered making a voice recording of the talk—something I still might do. I also considered making extensive changes to translate it into better written style. I decided to keep it as close to the original reading as possible, however, as a new translation would be a different work. So, despite my qualms, I have provided what is basically a written transcript of my talk, with only a few editorial changes to make some parts of it comprehensible to those who were not at the conference.

You are welcome to share my remarks with other. Please just give credit to the keeper of this blog or, if you attended the conference, to the real author of this paper. As always, I welcome comments and discussion.

The Fabulous Jesus: A Heresy of Reconciliation

I start by saying this is not an academic paper; there are no footnotes. It is rather a personal reflection addressing the difficult questions of reconciling faith and the academy—many of which have already been raised today.

I hope that you are amused by the title of my talk. I hope that you are envisioning Jesus brunching by the Sea of Galilee, wearing bejeweled Armani sunglasses and a pashmina ascot, sipping mimosas and flamboyantly expounding the homosexual agenda with an Aramaic lisp. I also hope you are thoroughly baffled, maybe even a little offended. [Although this crowd seems shameless.] Those among you who are New Testament scholars are required to be annoyed by this ludicrous and anachronistic characterization Jesus. Faithful members of the church will be deeply troubled by the mimosas. But however ludicrous, ahistorical, or even heretical a gay Jesus might seem, I submit that he is a highly appropriate metaphor for our unique project. As both practitioners and scientists of religion, we often find ourselves in a rather ludicrous position, at once derided for believing in the absurd and impossible, and distrusted for making irreligious and unspiritual investigations. We balance history and science on the one hand and faith and revelation on the other. We are baffling, and a little offensive. So my fabulous metaphor stands. You (and especially me) are all fabulous Jesuses. And, as I hope to demonstrate, we are all heretics, or, at least, should be.

[Before I continue, I need to make a general disclaimer: I don’t know anything about epistemology, but I’m going to talk about it like I do. And I am likely to make stuff up.]

It is with a certain smugness that every intellectual generation concludes that it has, once and for all, settled the ultimate questions of epistemology over and against the obvious idiocy of its predecessors. We are indebted to the Enlightenment for their offended chastisement of passé religious superstition and for their discovery of pure, rational, and unbiased objectivity. But, we are also relieved that post-structuralism has completely reversed the Enlightenment by clearly demonstrating the instability of meaning. And what a blessed day when Post-Modernists deconstructed the whole damn thing! While, ostensibly, epistemology is concerned with the science of knowledge, it is often more concerned with how out-of-style epistemologists got it wrong. It is, like most intellectual systems, a reactionary science.

The intellectual orientation of the 18th century gave us Immanuel Kant. The 19th century gave us Joseph Smith. Both preached a “coming of age,” but they disagreed considerably about where it was coming from. The Second Great Awakening and American Transcendentalism had very specific targets. They sought to reclaim the soul of humankind from the mechanical and self-congratulatory excesses of Enlightenment philosophy and academic elitism. At the heart of this struggle was the basic question of epistemology: how do we know what we know? And, indeed, what exactly is it that we know and why do we know it? Rejecting the hyper-secularism of the 18th century deists, Transcendentalism sought to restore experiential and spiritual sources of wisdom. The 19th century defined itself by what the 18th century lacked. Mormonism, born at the dawn of the Transcendental movement beautifully and dramatically typified this restoration. Early Mormon theology and culture largely defined itself as a reactionary movement, embracing a posture of antagonism, difference, and peculiarity. It still does.

The players have changed and the debate has evolved in the last two-hundred years, but it is not unfair to say that modern Mormonism still defines itself in opposition to secularism, academic intellectualism, and even mainstream scientific investigation. Its epistemology is revelatory and it is fundamentally suspicious of other sources of knowledge. By contrast, the academy (at least on its face) adheres to the scientific method, rejecting divine revelation as unsuitable evidence for determining historical accuracy. Their epistemologies, their methodologies, even their philosophies are defined by what the other is not.

To demonstrate my point: Bruce R. McConkie, arguably Mormonism’s most influential and widely-read doctrinal authority of the last fifty years wrote book, many of you may have heard of, entitled Mormon Doctrine. While the book was neither authorized by, nor—officially—affiliated with the church, it has, nevertheless, become enshrined as a definitive source for, well, Mormon Doctrine. McConkie has a lot to say about nearly everything, Mormon and non-Mormon. If you look under the heading of “Higher Criticism” in Mormon Doctrine, it says “see also, Apostasy.”

Exhibit B: Before the most recent meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, a former member, Ronald S. Hendel, wrote an excoriating article against SBL, claiming that it had lowered its academic standards by providing too large a space for religious practitioners and faith-based projects at their annual meetings. To quote from his article, “facts are facts, and faith has no business dealing in the world of facts.” Support for Dr. Hendel’s position was considerable, such that SBL revised its oversight procedures to better emphasize and encourage its academic mission. This is not a polite disagreement. The church and the academy impose mutually antagonistic paradigms, or, as I would like to call them, hostile orthodoxies.

Scripture tells us that we cannot serve two masters, but here we are, standing in the sliver of a very angry and ever shrinking Venn diagram. One of the questions posed by this conference, is how do we maintain a place for ourselves? Shifting the pillars of these orthodoxies themselves is likely a task beyond our ability. If, then, institutional change is not a viable option, our prospects are individual. Can our dual identities be reconciled? The simple answer? Maybe. But it’s tricky. In the path toward personal reconciliation, how do you stay faithful to these two mutually antagonistic orthodoxies? You don’t. You can’t. Instead, I suggest you practice heresy, double heresy, to be precise. I suggest this because I am a self-professed heretic and have found, in my heresy, reconciliation. If you would indulge a brief autobiography, I would like to describe a personal heresy that repaired a mortal fissure in my ultra-orthodox soul.

As I am sure it has become clear (by the purple cuff-links if nothing else) I am gay. I was Mormon. Two and a half years ago I began a master’s program in New Testament at Yale Divinity. At the time I was a closeted homosexual, but openly intellectual. And devoutly Mormon. My intellectual interests were well received by my peers and professors, though they were a bit tepid about the whole Mormon thing, questioning whether I would be able to endure challenges to my faith. Since I was card carrying Mormon, the New Haven singles branch was delighted to receive me, though they were troubled about my openly intellectual lifestyle and were, regrettably, distrustful of the mission of the Divinity School altogether.

Both the academy and the church were uneasy places for me, not so much because they so often disagreed, but because they decided to disagree before a disagreement ever came up. Ultimately, it was not the historical Jesus who brought the tension to the breaking point. It was the Fabulous Jesus, or, rather, the Jesus was non-yet-fabulous. Being gay at Yale Divinity School is a lot like being Catholic—in Italy. Our queerness is legendary even for the gay Ivy. Being closeted at Yale is…well, it’s hard. While Mormon theology is met with open hostility, queer theology is happily practiced in our chapel. By contrast, while McConkie may be quoted regularly from the pulpit of my local branch, Oscar Wilde is not.

And so, there were places I could be an intellectual; there were places I could be a Mormon; and there was a place where I could have been gay. But there was really nowhere that I could be all three. Things really began to fall apart for me on October 10th of 2008, the day the Connecticut Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage to be an inalienable right. For weeks leading up to the decision I was strongly encouraged by church leaders to do whatever was in my power to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state. When the decision was announced at the divinity school, the room erupted into cheers. I wanted to disappear forever.

On that day, a line had been crossed. My church leaders wondered how I could support such an organization that tolerated and championed that kind of moral degradation. To them, the divinity school typified the sort of arrogance, moral bankruptcy, and worldliness that they believe characterizes the liberal movement. My fellow students—my friends—at the divinity school questioned how I could be a part of what they saw as a close-minded, intolerant, and unloving institution. On that day, the Venn diagram was just too small. And so, unable to serve two masters, I clung to one and watched my soul tear apart. I left the church. I came out of the closet.

That is not reconciliation. Choosing one orthodoxy over the other is not reconciliation. In leaving the church I did not find reconciliation—at least, not immediately. I merely became an apostate and a heretic. But I wasn’t a good-enough heretic. Because a good-enough heretic pisses everyone off. A good enough heretic makes mutually exclusive orthodoxies agree at least about one thing (namely, that he’s a heretic). Let me describe to you a good-enough heretic. To Mormonism, the concept of a gay, ascot-wearing, Jesus is thoroughly heretical. But to the academy, particularly in the field of LGBT studies, the ascot is perfectly acceptable. A Mormon Jesus, on the other hand is completely unacceptable and offensive to the academy. But a Mormon Jesus for the Saints? Well, duh. Both a gay Jesus and a Mormon Jesus are heretical, but they are not heretical enough. But a gay Mormon Jesus, maybe even a gay Mormon, intellectual Jesus—there we have something. Something that pisses everyone off. That is a good-enough heresy.

An intellectual gay Mormon Jesus is shocking and offensive to just about everyone. Except, perhaps, to an intellectual gay Mormon who has been scorned by the intellectuals, rejected by the gays, and cast out by the Mormons. But, to me, that resonates with the New Testament characterization of Jesus—the Jesus who was not understood, who offended the orthodox and the powerful, who was abused and cast out by his own people. But also the Jesus who identified with, condescended below, and lifted up the poorest of the poor. Now, I wish to make it clear that, in my melodramatic reference to rejection, I am not claiming to be among the poorest of the poor. Nor am I claiming to be Jesus. (I assure you that I took my medication this morning.) But through this mixed metaphor of this mixed Jesus, I am telling you something you already know—something I wish I had remembered during those dark and lonely days—all is reconciled in Christ. While these two orthodoxies are defined by what the other is not, Christ is only defined by what is. And God is more nuanced, more complicated, and more complete than either of these orthodoxies can circumscribe. God is the infinite Venn diagram. Somewhere along the way, I stumbled into that Venn diagram, or rather, I stumbled out of orthodoxy altogether. For the Jesus I came to know and who knows me is so mixed up that he is something wholly other.

A good-enough heresy offends both orthodoxies because it forces each to see itself melded with the other. It forces each to see itself in the other, reconciled with the other. To see that its identity need not be defined by what the other is not, but rather that its identity can be completed by what only the other has. A double heretic embodies a completed orthodoxy. Our heresies complete us.

I do not consider myself to be a particularly graceful double-heretic. Like I said, sometimes it’s tricky. I did not, nor do I believe ever will, find a place for myself in the church. On the other hand, while there may be a place for me in the academy, it won’t an orthodox place. I hope never to give up heresy completely. As a New Testament scholar I may be quick to dismiss the Gospel of John as fundamentally ahistorical. But I will accept as truth the words of the Johannine Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus didn’t say that, but Christ did. That is a double heresy. And that is good-enough.

I am not suggesting that the answer is to leave the church. Nor am I suggesting it isn’t. But wherever you are—wherever we are—we should not be quiet, feeling obligated to vote along party lines; we should not define ourselves by what the other half of us isn’t; we should not be orthodox. If we wish to reconcile our competing orthodoxies we must practice a healthy dose of heresy. Reconciliation is found by living in the other.

As a student of history I have to admit, however reluctantly, that Jesus didn’t wear pashmina ascots or Armani sunglasses—but nor did he wear white shirts and dark suits and a bicycle helmet. Jesus wasn’t fabulous but nor was Jesus a 21st century Mormon. It’s hard to tell whether he was even an intellectual. Of the historical Jesus we know so very little. But what does seem clear is that he didn’t play by the rules. He caused great offense to official authorities—Roman or Jewish. And he attracted a following of not particularly notable people. We are not particularly notable people. But we are people with issues, people who are complicated, who are torn—people in need or reconciliation. And so, we can follow him. And break the rules. And cause offense. And be made whole. Of course, if you’ve read to the end of the book, you know that it’s a rather risky venture. But as Paul taught, the Cross that offends also gives life. And all is reconciled in Christ.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is Jesus gay?

“I was suicidal again last night.” At least I was last January back when I was bearing fardels. The last year has seen a steady diminishment of suicide-worthy fardels, but I realize now that an abrupt year-long silence following an ominous contemplation of the bare bodkin leaves a rather different impression. I regret that and ask your forgiveness.

Enthusiasm writes the first chapter; boredom murders the book. Thus the unhappy fate of Mr. Irving’s enthusiastic meditations. I begin afresh, but with no promise of an epilogue.

After more than a year outside the closet I have come to terms with the fact that I will probably never see Mr. Tumnus again; nor do I wish to. I no longer ask myself why I am gay because I asked another question that settled the first: Is Jesus gay?

Conservative (and even moderate) Christians are doubtless enraged at the question’s very genesis to say nothing of its contemplation—and its answer. Academics disregard it with annoyance and contempt. Some, acidly scornful of the entirety of Christianity, may greet it with delight—but that’s just homophobia. Only the wacky fringe actually takes it seriously—and dares to believe that it might be true. I am the fringe.

Now I wish to be clear that I do not speak with the authority of my academic training in the New Testament. Indeed, I say nothing here of the Historical Jesus. (I’ve never even met him.) I did not ask whether Jesus was gay, but whether he is gay. My subject then is not so much the Evangelists’ Jesus Christ as it is Paul’s Christ Jesus. I speak of the living Jesus and the consummated Christ. And I say, unabashedly, that Jesus Christ is gay. He’s also Mormon, or at least used to be.

Nobody saw his crucifixion, because he was in the closet the whole time.

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

His parents taught him where to find God. Their faith became his faith; their church, his church; their example, his misunderstanding. He wore a white shirt and a tie every Sunday. He got pretty good at tying ties. They taught him to pray and to read from the Book. He got pretty good at praying and reading too. But sometimes he prayed too hard and read too much. He was taught not to sin, but he never got very good at that.

My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.

He did try, but sometimes he forgot to pray; sometimes he lied; sometimes he was mean to others; sometimes he used foul language; once he even stole something. By the age of ten he was making lists and scheduling all the things he needed to do to be perfect, to fulfill the commandments of God. But he never managed to cross everything off of the list. Guilt crept in.

Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.

And then puberty hit and things got real weird. Instinctively he knew that lust and fantasy and…well…we don’t need to go into details—anyway, they were sins of unimaginable consequences. They were added to the list. Sometimes he managed to follow the List, but not for very long. Childhood guilt became adolescent paranoia.

Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

Then he discovered something that gave him hope: Miraculously he was free of the carnal inclinations—fierce and ubiquitous in his male friends—toward the female sex. But there was something puzzling in that fortuitous restraint, because the lust and the fantasy and the…umm…well, they didn’t go away. Then he thought more and more about those male friends… Disconcerting confusion was followed by sickening realization: Jesus was gay. Prayer would not cure it; tears would not kill it. And there didn’t seem much point adding it to the List.

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.

Yet perhaps in this there was opportunity; perhaps in this the List could be done away with. To give himself fully to God, to live in self-effacing agony, to be crucified in the flesh—there at last was expiation!

It is finished.

And then he walked out of the Closet and it was empty. That is the life of Jesus Christ.

But that is not my Jesus, for that is my life and I am not Jesus. We humans, it seems, are so flattered to have been created in God’s image that we have returned the favor by creating God in ours—an act of supreme, self-congratulatory idolatry. And so I must reiterate that I do not worship that Jesus, for he is not my God. But he is your Jesus.

As for my Jesus, he is not necessarily gay; he is not necessarily he. My Jesus is a mother and grandmother, aged 62. She has four children; the youngest is gay. She has never ceased praying for him, weeping for him, and loving him more than self.

Christ is, individually, none of us, and none of us is Christ. But we are all in Christ and Christ is in us. Rather, Christ is in the Other. Certainly, Jesus is that angst-filled gay boy. But is not in him that I find Christ; it is in the Other, in my mother and my father, in my brothers and my sister, in my friends and my enemies. There is Christ. You are my Christ and I am yours. I am content, knowing Jesus is gay, knowing that Jesus knows, knowing that Jesus’ life is the totality of my own, but I look outward to the Christ in others, to the other lives of Jesus. They too are filled with angst and fear and suffering, and they—above my own—command my love.

I return, then, to the question that is, itself, the answer to all others. Is Jesus gay? Is he Mormon, or did he used to be? The answer, of course, is yes, but for me, that answer is irrelevant. That answer is only important for you. For me, it is the question: Is Jesus the Other?

Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Who Would Fardels Bear

I was suicidal again last night.

I suppose its kind of a shocking statement, but I don’t find it so. If anything, I find it irritating. For me, the most troubling part is not that I was suicidal, but that I was suicidal again. It’s easier now to calmly contemplate death, to form a plan with indifferent detachment, to let the shock and horror of suicide slide off me like misspent tears, and to stare into the chasm of my own mortality and not flinch. That is what troubles me. It comes too easy, too often. And I am not afraid.

The heroic figure in his moment of death was once my idol. I idolized him because he did not fear death, because he was willing to die. He didn’t flinch; embraced it Death. He embraced his heroism. And now I embody that aesthetic, or rather a perversion of it. I do fear Death. I am willing to die, unflinching and unmoved. But I’m not a hero—a false idol, perhaps, but not a hero. Because in Death I do not give Life. Because even if I saved a dying world with my death, I would be no savior. It would be no loss or sacrifice. Death would be my crown of glory, my vestments of splendor, my feast of kings. How little I would care for those I “saved.” How little I would care if they starved while I supped with Death.

I don’t fear Death. I’m not sure I’ve ever feared it. For I had a theology that declared in concrete terms a glorious post-mortal Life. And so Death had no sting, the Grave no victory. In Christ was the Resurrection and the Life and Death was but the painless doorway into his presence. But well do I now know, there are not painless doorways. Through pain was I born and through pain will I die, and the interim is filled with thresholds of agony and horror. And you can’t go back; the Door snaps shut behind you.

There was the precipice: The Closet Door. Within, I was a devout, orthodox Mormon, without, I was a homosexual and a heretic. The horror and the agony. To choose heaven or hell, hope or despair, life or death, glory or ignominy, crucifixion or condemnation. And I could not tell which held what. A storm raged in my soul, at once freezing and searing, a tempest tearing at my flesh, pulling me apart, twin voices roaring, screaming, demanding that I go one way, that I go another, that I be tortured within, that I suffer without, that I choose, that I choose, THAT I CHOOSE! And I chose. I stepped out of the Closet. And the Door snapped shut behind me.

And the Door is locked. I have lost my theology, my teleology, my hope for that glorious post-mortal Life. Death is restored its sting, the Grave its victory. And yet I still do not fear Death. In fact, I fear it less. It is Death’s cruel trick. In the days before and after I came out of the Closet I came closer to Death than ever before. I had a plan; I had the means; I had the will to do it. The storm was still raging and it seemed the fastest means to quietus, it seemed the “third” choice, the unchoice, a place of silence, a place without suffering, a place where I could rest, where I could sleep. To sleep perchance to dream? No. No dream in Death could rival the horror of the living nightmare.

And so I approached Death. I stared it in the face and did not flinch. But I didn’t manage to kill myself either. I returned from the edge, exulting in the knowledge that I had conquered Death because I had faced it and was not afraid. And yet I was uneasy, for as the ambulance carried me away, I saw the faintest of smiles on Death’s face.

Twenty days. Twenty days in a psychiatric hospital. Locked doors and strip searches. Nurses busily administering psychotropic drugs so that we would be quiet, so that we would sleep our problems away and stop bothering them. Doctors watching us, playing mind games, taking private notes and saying very little, hedging around our questions, holding our lives in their hands, walking out the door without a backward glance. All around me was mental illness, pain and anguish, psychoses and neuroses, depression and mania. Crying, screaming, pacing, fighting, sleeping. Eyes glazed over, food dribbling out of the mouth, jerking muscles and facial ticks, raging and ranting and quiet sobbing. Hearing voices, and talking to the air. Fear. Broken minds, broken lives, broken souls. We wore hospital gowns and ate hospital food. Fifteen minutes outside each day. One hour a day for visitors. If they came. A broken chess set in the corner. A bucket of crayons and recycled paper. An out of tune piano without music. White walls, white floors, white beds. Everyone sitting in vinyl covered chairs, staring at nothing, waiting for nothing. Everyday the same. Wakeup, breakfast, medication, lunch, doctors, dinner, bedtime. Twenty days I waited for nothing, huddled on my chair with the others. We did not fear Death.

And now I know why Death was smiling. Because I do not fear Death. Because I should fear Death. Fear is the one boundary that staves it off, that silences its seductive call in the nighttime, that sicklies o’er the native hue of resolution. And now that I don’t fear it, it calls often. Suicide is readily there when all other thoughts grow quiet. Always in the back of my mind. Not because I want to die, necessarily, but because I no longer have a healthy fear of Death. In hubris, I thought myself its victor and now it haunts me, taunting and grinning. Waiting. And, I suppose, it shall always wait for me and shall at last claim me. Either, God willing, by the course of nature, or—most terrible thought—by my own agency. Now that there is no fear of Death within me, I must come to love Life, to fully embrace it, to engage it as my protection from the Nighttime. I must find a theology not of the post-mortal world, but of this one. Not a theology that preaches Death and Resurrection, but one that preaches Life. Here. Now. A theology that loves me in return for my Love. A Life that loves me fully, a Life I can fully love. A Life, a Theology, a Love on this side of the Closet.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Whosoever will save his life shall lose it...

God is paradox. Or rather, paradox is the closest approximation we have to a comprehension of Deity. And that is how God works with us, bending reality and straining thought to make contradictions collide into a unity of meaning, of meta-meaning. Paradox cannot be grasped, cannot be touched, cannot even be thought, for the second we think of it, it disappears into infinite nothingness. It is only possibly because it isn’t. And thus is God: infinite, incomprehensible, fathomless, slippery. We say Deity is a mystery, but that’s only because we don’t understand what mystery means, and so it suffices to express our willful ignorance.

Theologians say that Christ taught in parables, but really, he taught in paradoxes. His life was a paradox, fully divine while fully human, perhaps divine because he was human. Infinite and yet clothed in a bonded tabernacle. Sinless and yet the bearer of the sins of the world. An immortal God who suffered death to live again that the dead might rise from the grave. He taught of two births and two deaths—a birth that brought death, a death that brought life, a death that was a rebirth, and a birth that was a crucifixion. Christ taught paradox because he is paradox, because he stands at the edge of infinity, the gate of absurdity, the portal to heaven. I’m not sure we are expected to understand, but we follow him, knowing that in him is reconciled the irreconcilable.

Perhaps being both Gay and Mormon, having my life split into two mutually hostile components has left me more sensitive to irony and paradox. And thus more sensitive to Divinity. I always felt that I had a secret fast-track ticket into Gethsemane. Here, I thought, was a very real crucifixion, a mortification of the flesh that would glorify the spirit. Life through death. I thought the irony would save me. But I failed to realize the most obvious point: paradoxes are only true because they are false; they are slippery things. The moment I thought I had found my reconciliation with Deity, it evaporated oblivion, because the whole point is the reconciliation of the irreconcilable. I had created a finite God, and that God rules hell, not heaven.

Now, on the outside of the Closet and of Mormonism, there is a higher, more complicated wisdom that informs my theology. Now, I seek an infinite God and I seek it paradoxically. I have come to understand that God allows competing theologies to exist, mutually hostile theologies, but theologies that are, ultimately, salvific. But that is not entirely right. Neither theology is salvific, but rather the tension between them is. Salvation is in the contradiction. They are salvific only because they are irreconcilable, because they each claim a monopoly on truth, and because they claim the other has no salvation. I find myself in that in between space. It is uncomfortable, agonizing, and alienating. It is true because it is false; it is real because it doesn’t exist. And here I have found a life because I lost it; here I am reborn because I committed suicide.

I leave Mormonism not claiming that the Church is untrue. Indeed, it must be true, or I am damned. I declare it to be true in every detail and declare also that I was right to leave it. And they must damn me; it’s the only way I’ll get to heaven. I believe the Church is absolutely true in every detail, even in its blanket condemnation of homosexuality. And, at the same time, I believe I am absolutely right in my embrace of homosexuality. The Church is right to claim a monopoly on truth, and I am right to proclaim a different, contradictory path. Indeed, my path only makes sense if the Church really is true. It is the competition of these absolute truths that can only be subsumed in the Deity that makes for an infinite God and an infinite Atonement. And it is the tension, the grinding of two millstones, the irreconcilable, that I must present unto Christ for reconciliation. But it is only irreconcilable if the Church really is true and if I really am right at the same time. Only then is God truly infinite. The ontologies of the competing theologies mean much less than that they conflict and yet are both true; the contradiction. For there is paradox; there is God.

And dear God, is that not a refiner’s fire? Is it not a crucifixion? But it isn’t my old conception, my false conception of deity. It is a much harder crucifixion, an infinite crucifixion. It is living with the impossible, enduring an endless night, trembling in the darkness and waiting for a dawn you do not expect to see. It is being drawn apart, having your very atoms torn and twisted and recomposed into something else. It is faith that breathes fire and freezes the soul, as though you suddenly have to fill the immensity of space with the smallness of your mortal frame. It is passing again through the birth canal, drawn fine, drawn into an infinitesimal thread. It is bearing the crushing weight of everlasting consciousness in a single moment of horrific lucidity. It is gasping your last and breathing your first, being born and dying, passing out of existence because suddenly you are all of existence.

That is Christ in Gethsemane. And I tremble as I follow him. For now, I begin to understand what awaits me. I understand because, finally, I acknowledge that I do not understand. I bow my head and say, “It is a mystery.” And I am grateful that I don’t comprehend the meaning of the word. I give my life that Christ may save it. And I enter into infinity to be subsumed into the Deity. Glory be to God.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Blessed are they which are persecuted...

Mormons like Martyrs. The core of Mormonism both preached and practiced is in this aesthetic of persecution and victimhood. While not precisely masochistic, still there is a certain longing for pain, for unjust assault and unfair reviling, a lust for the refiner’s fire. With longing we look back to the pioneers, the ones who were falsely accused, driven from their homes, beaten, and murdered. Those were the glory days of the Church, when the True Saints sought to establish Zion in the city of Babylon.

The terrible plight of the Mormons in the early to mid nineteenth century finds its mirror in the Mormon construction of ancient history and their fundamental doctrine of the Great Apostasy. Mormons hold that Jesus Christ personally established the pure form of His Church while on the earth. The apostles and early bishops valiantly defended the church against the aggression of the Romans and against internal corruption and dissent. They gave their lives; they suffered for the testimony of Christ. And then the Church fell. With the death of the apostles, it became corrupt; false Christians usurped authority, preached false doctrines, and transformed the Church into a Den of Thieves.

Then in 1820, God appeared to Joseph Smith, revealing that all Christian churches preached untrue doctrines and that their sacraments held no salvific power. Joseph Smith was to establish the True Church. And thus the story of Mormonism begins. And a pattern emerges.

The Mormons were persecuted; they fought strenuously for the right to worship according to their own doctrines and were scourged, murdered, and driven into the western desert. They embodied the same suffering aesthetic that characterized their own telling of Christian history. They became the martyrs, valiantly fighting for Christ against the legions of Satan. And there was internal dissent, rampant apostasy, and the usurpation of power. And Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood. All according to plan. This was proof that here were God’s chosen people. This was proof that Christ’s Church had returned.

But eventually, perhaps unfortunately, the persecution stopped. And that is the dilemma of modern Mormonism. Are they still God’s chosen people if they cannot give their very lives to the cause of Christ? There too is a parallel in the ancient church, but an uncomfortable one. Eventually Christianity became legal and the persecution stopped and there were no more martyrs. How then did Christians define themselves if they could not suffer as Christ suffered? There were solutions proposed: asceticism, monasticism, mysticism, self-mortification, self-imposed poverty—all intent on the imitatio Christi. Self-martyrdom became the new aesthetic of the truly saintly, and those who endured the greatest (albeit self-imposed) suffering became the new saints, the new martyrs, the new soldiers for Christ. But these were on the fringe, and most Christians contented themselves by declaring that the kingdom of God had been established and there was no more need for martyrdom.

And so Mormons find themselves in a similar position. The kingdom of God has been established by the blood of the pioneers and there is no more need for martyrs. But when this happened anciently, the Mormons called it the Great Apostasy, the founding of the Church of the Devil, the Whore of Babylon. And the irony is not entirely lost on Mormons. They too crave the suffering of the early pioneers, seeing it as an imitatio Christi. The celebration of the pioneers is central to Mormon teachings and they seek desperately to turn modern struggles into metaphors of the physical hardships of the early saints. But sometimes it is hard to construct metaphors that don’t take on the form of parody.

So the Mormons celebrate tribulation, they glory in trials and pains and hardships, for it brings them closer to those ancient Martyrs, closer to Christ. Like the mystics, they seek for that dark night, for the stigmata to appear in the hands and feet, to suffer all that the name of Christ might be glorified in them, that they might be transformed into True Saints. In many ways they crave persecution. They divide the world into Us and Them, proudly wearing the name “Peculiar People.” They await the day with eager anticipation when Babylon shall descend upon the Saints of God and there will be new martyrs. And any who dare leave Mormonism are instantly labeled apostates, traitors, revilers and persecutors of the children of God. It is a grim irony that Mormon cosmology demands these very apostates, and thus is so eager to create them.

Hence the lust for the refiner’s fire. And I lusted after it, seeking pain, seeking glory in pain. I saw my “burden” of homosexuality as a gift from God to allow me to become one of His suffering saints. I spoke of it always in terms of the Crucifixion or of the Bleeding Savior in Gethsemane. Here was my bitter cup, my bloody cross. I would die for Christ and be taken up in Him. I would crucify the flesh and ascend unto the Father. I would be a martyr.

But somewhere along the way it stopped making sense, or perhaps the pain outpaced my ability to bear it. Perhaps I simply felt I could not drink that Bitter Cup, that I was unworthy to be crucified in imitation of my God. I think the crux was when I realized the impossibility of the task. I could not burn out the “gay” part of me without killing myself. For I was gay, and gay was me. It was and is an integral part of my identity, my way of conceiving the cosmos. It was my identity. And when I had realized that, I realized that I don’t want to be, I cannot be any different than I am. I want to take this with me into the next life, I must take it with me, if any part of me is to live beyond the grave. Without it, I am not.

I stand back in horror now. For I stood on the brink of martyrdom, not comprehending that it was really suicide, that the nails were real, that the cross was real, that death was real, that my soul would die. And that was when I gave up my dream of martyrdom, and without that I wasn’t truly Mormon anymore. But I suppose I make a good apostate.