Saturday, June 18, 2011

It's What We Can't Know that Gets Us

I've been thinking a lot lately about one of Andrew's posts. I also read this on-line NY Times article about fervidly ex-gay Michael Glatze. What struck me most in thinking about both posts is the ways in which we seem to be driven by our uncertainty.

Andrew was commenting on a debate over at Wheat and Tares about the nature of the Spirit -- how believers tend to emphasize the experience of the Spirit as something totally unique and ineffable, while unbelievers tend to write it off as emotion and wish-fulfillment.

But here's the thing about the Spirit. When someone tells me they "feel the Spirit," I of course can't possibly know exactly what it is they are feeling. They can describe it to me. I can try to compare my own feelings to their descriptions. But ultimately I can never know if what I am feeling is exactly what they are feeling or not. Ultimately, I'm left having to figure it out for myself. I have to make my own judgment call as to whether what I am experiencing in a particular situation is "just another feeling," or whether it is something transcendent, the result of divine Presence and activity.

Now, I do believe there are some objective criteria by which we can judge the presence of the Spirit. I have received revelations that have been objectively validated. I also believe that we can tell a life is being worked on by the Spirit when we see signs of moral amelioration; when we see growing patience, courage, honesty, and selflessness; in a word, when we see the blossoming of Love. So I look to other criteria as proof that the Spirit is at work besides just externally unverifiable feelings. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that one "chooses" criteria. Whatever criteria we accept as proof of the Spirit's presence, the fact that we can and do choose to be persuaded by certain criteria and not others does seem to point to the possibility that we experience the presence of the Spirit because we choose to experience it. There's really no getting around that.

OK, now let's consider another seemingly totally unrelated concept of "gay identity." When I was first starting to deal with my own feelings of "same-sex attraction," I experienced a similar dilemma. Yes, I had certain feelings -- very powerful feelings! -- but did those feelings make me "gay"? Were my feelings the same as the feelings of someone else who identifies as gay, or were my feelings something of an entirely different order? Am I really gay, or am I mistaken? This is why so many of us find "coming out" narratives so compelling. We study these narratives for clues about our own internal states. It is part of a critical process of figuring out who and what we are.

The question posed by the "ex-gay" movement really is, Can anyone have gay feelings? It actually denies that anyone can. It calls the belief that anyone can be gay or have gay feelings a delusion. So we've got a similar divide here to the divide between people who say that the Spirit is something unique and true and totally ineffable, and those who say the Spirit does not exist, that it can be explained away as "just" emotion or psychology or wish fulfillment. We have people denying the reality of gayness, and then we have people who insist that there is something distinct, something unique, that gay people are fundamentally different from heterosexuals in some basic way.

And interestingly, when individuals who once identified as gay cross that dividing line and insist that they are not and never were gay, many folks in the gay community respond by wondering if those people in fact were never gay. Maybe they were bisexual. Maybe they were experimenting or confused or something else besides gay.

But it's a question we will never/can never answer. Because we simply can't know what's going on inside of somebody else. Our personal, individual experiences are ultimately incomparable to the experiences of others. We can listen to all the testimonies we want on Fast and Testimony Sunday. We can read all the coming out stories we want in XY magazine. Or we can read all the secular humanist explanations of the psychology of religion. We can read all the ex-gay literature on the psychology of homosexuality we want. Ultimately, we are left in ourselves to decide what it all means to us, to figure out which narrative makes the most sense in terms of explaining our own experiences, our own feelings.

One reason I love the Gospel of Thomas is because of its nuanced analysis of interiority. The Jesus of Thomas makes the case through parable and paradox that the only things we truly can learn are the things we learn from no one else. It is the ultimate tract on pneumatic Christianity. It shows us how to honor that process within ourselves, and how to respect it in others.

I read the militancy of a Michael Glatze as an inability to cope with the fundamental, existential insecurity that is at the root of any human identity or choice. We are better served by the humility that acknowledges an ultimate lack of knowledge. In religious terms, we call it "faith."

Without that humility, it is impossible, I think, to achieve the compassion that needs to be at the heart of whatever it is we as a human species are about. Without that humility, our faith devolves into intolerance and tyranny.

Acknowledging our uncertainty, on the other hand, frees us in the only way that any truth can be capable of freeing us. It frees us to receive and to love.


Andrew S said...

Nevertheless, I acknowledge that one "chooses" criteria. Whatever criteria we accept as proof of the Spirit's presence, the fact that we can and do choose to be persuaded by certain criteria and not others does seem to point to the possibility that we experience the presence of the Spirit because we choose to experience it. There's really no getting around that.

Wait, whoa, what.


You haven't established that one "chooses" criteria. That people have different criteria does not in any way suggest that they chose those criteria (or could simply choose alternative criteria). You haven't shown that we choose what persuades us. And thus, while I won't deny the *possibility* that despite your dearth of data, we nevertheless choose these things, you certainly haven't shown that people experience the presence of the Spirit because they choose to.

For whatever it's worth, I don't think the ex-gay movement does what you say it does either. It's not saying that it's anyone can have gay feelings. It's denying that one should identify with and by those feelings. I actually want to address the NY Times article later today, because I think it provides some interesting thoughts about that -- for Glatze to use Buddhist meditation to recognize that his gay feelings were "not self" is a pretty interesting concept. While in the west we talk about sexuality as being core to who we are, perhaps in another system (e.g., Buddhism, which teaches that most attachments and desires are fleeting, not self, etc.,) we wouldn't be so likely to attach to these things.

The interesting thing about the Glatze case -- the thing that shows existential failure -- is his clear cut jump to the other side. Not only is he ex-gay, but he's so polarized in that direction. So, from an existential perspective, he is living just as inauthentic of a lifestyle as he was when he was gay (!) because he is a being-for-others identifying with a false and limiting idea.

there was another article in the NY Times about a therapist who helps people stay in the closet (to navigate both their homosexuality and their faith -- where, unlike you, they just can't come to view their sexuality as faith-affirming)...while this seems tragic for the LGBT rights perspective, the interesting thing about this is at least if offers an authentic existential perspective. One is not "limited" by an identity (e.g., "gay") and forges his identity in spite of it.

The interesting thing is the original existentialists probably wouldn't have looked at sexuality as inauthentic.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I think the Glatze case does in fact prove that we choose criteria. Same data, same experience. But "joy living" gay rights activist on one side; dour, militant ex-gay on the other...

At one point, Glatze decided that gay identity was the best explanation for what he was experiencing. The next thing we know, he's decided all that was a delusion.

I'm not saying we consciously choose. I think there is a process where we try to fit data to narratives/explanations. We feel driven by the data.

But I think that unless we acknowledge that there are other ways to interpret or understand these experiences and that we could choose to interpret them another way, we end up repressing whatever uncertainty there is in this process, and it comes up in ugly ways as rigidity and intolerance.

Trev said...

This is such an enlightening and well-stated observation. For me and my personality, this uncertainty is the single-greatest challenge I face knowing how to deal with my homosexual feelings.

I feel like that if I knew I was "gay" I would definitely stop fighting with it and just try to pursue a way of life something like yours (which I sincerely admire you for following)--what other people and even "the Church" thought be damned. But then I feel some sort of an attraction (maybe?) to some woman and think, "Well, what do I do with this?" If I were sure that seeking a heterosexual relationship were "right" for me then I would go do that, but for ME--again, other people's and the Church's opinions be damned.

As it stands now, I just don't know what to do with myself. I haven't come to grips with that uncertainty. The "missionaries" on either "side" (as I perceive it) will tell me that one or another feeling is "the spirit" and that I need to be "baptized," but I just don't know what to think. And until I do--until I choose what to make of what I feel--I will just be "living for other people" and feeling my "tyrannical and intolerant," against my self most of all.

*Sigh* Well, great post, seriously. This has given me a lot to think about.