Somewhere Over the Rainbow

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Bob Ryder

READINGS
Mark 12:28-31 One of the scribes came near and heard Jesus debating with the Pharisees. Noting that he answered them well, he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the most important?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ The next most important is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment more important than these.”

Galatians 3:26-28 In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Preface – This reflection is about how we, as people of faith, ought to understand the diversity of human experience in sexual orientation and gender identity – a simple topic that ought to take only a few minutes of our time.  It’s worth mentioning that I share my thoughts this morning in response to a sermon offered at Eastview Christian Church here in Normal, IL on August 27th of this year.  In the manuscript of this reflection on our website, there is a link where you can access to a youTube video of that sermon.  (http://eastview.church/resources/sermons/archive/2017-08)  Eastview extended a public invitation for that service and message, advertising it weeks in advance on large commercial billboards along Veteran’s Parkway.  Very rarely do I retort to conflicting views of other ministers or congregations – the likelihood of persuading someone whose mind is made up to a different viewpoint being small.  I do so this morning only because of the deliberate efforts by that congregation to broadcast the message.  I’m speaking and writing for the benefit of those who were wounded by the condemnation of someone claiming to speak on behalf of God.  I offer the disagreements I’ll express with due respect, intending no aspersions upon the character of Eastview’s staff or congregants.  Please refrain from inferring such.  I speak with the intent to heal, not to harm or provoke.

REFLECTION
Changing our minds can be difficult, whether it’s a political opinion or a religious belief or learning to do something with your non-dominant hand.  I read recently the observation of an evolutionary biologist who noted that the brain is a very expensive organ for a living creature to develop and maintain.  It takes a lot of calories to process information and make decisions.  So, we have a natural reluctance to give up on habits and ideas once we’ve found them useful or comforting, even when we sense they might not be so accurate, or that trying things another way might be useful.  As senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.”  Yet it’s never been clearer than in the past year or so that people can very selective in what they’re willing to acknowledge as true.  We often hold onto obsolete ideas that make us feel good as if believing in them intensely enough can them make them true, or despising alternatives intensely enough can make them false.  We don’t change our minds easily, even when resisting costs us or others dearly.

That Eastview sermon to which I am responding stated as fact that in God’s view, the only acceptable expression of human sexuality is one man and one woman in an exclusive and lifelong married relationship.  Any sex outside that narrow definition is to be thought of as ‘counterfeit’ in his words.  As evidence, the preacher cited as historical fact the original man and woman coupled in the garden of Eden.  I quote, “The very first time in human history that two humans had sex [ ] was the Genesis story of creation.”  He concludes from anatomical evidence that heterosexuality was the obvious and only possible appropriate sexuality for humans. He went on referring to some aspects of our biochemistry as God’s technique for helping couples bond together permanently.  He referred to a biologist who dismisses the notion that sexual orientation is influenced by genetics.  He made a few assertions that most people would probably agree with, such as the importance of teaching our own children about sexuality rather than letting them pick up what they will from television and the internet.  Then the presentation concluded with an interview in which a gay man talked about his conversion experience, expressing gratitude for having chosen heterosexuality because had he settled for his previous homosexual life, he’d not have the current relationships he deeply appreciates with his wife and children.  He compared his conversion from gay to strait with the metamorphosis experience of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

That sermon helped me remember the day I chose to be straight.  I was about 12, and there was this little red-haired girl in my 6th grade class, Sibaun.  I said to myself, “I’m ready to manufacture a crazy, frustrating, embarrassing, consuming infatuation with a girl, and make an idiot of myself trying to get her attention.”  Obviously, I jest, because had I any say in the matter I’d have “chosen” a much less bizarre path through puberty, consisting mostly of stickball and listening to rock music.  But of course, I didn’t choose my sexual orientation or gender experience, any more than I chose to be white.  Who I am as a straight, masculine male person is just how I seem to have developed.  Is it likely that people who experience themselves differently had any more choice in the matter than I?

To interpret the bible as if it’s intended to be a biology textbook or sex instruction manual, you have to make some gigantic and stretches of logic.  Being unaware of factors such as evolution and genetics, or that sexual behavior and gender experience manifest variably for any individual as a range of possibilities on a spectrum rather than as merely one thing or another, authors of biblical passages could not meaningfully have condemned homosexuality because they did not understand it for what it is.  But never mind nuanced interpretation.  Let us assume for a moment that the bible does indeed intend to convey that human sexuality is only appropriate in heterosexual marriage, and that homosexual experience is sinful.  Let’s assume that the authors of various passages referred to in modern times as clearly sanctioning strait sex and condemning gay people were writing with an informed perspective of human sexuality in all its beautiful, confusing complexity.  Let’s assume they meant that sex between anyone except one man and one woman in marriage, regardless of whatever love and devotion and interdependence they might share, is “counterfeit” as the preacher of that Eastview sermon puts it.  The only possible conclusion is that the bible is just wrong about that, just as it is wrong in insisting that disobedient children ought to be stoned.  To be sure, the bible is a magnificent collection of writings reflecting ideas and misunderstandings and insights and prejudices and aspirations and struggles and triumphs and failings of ancient people over thousands of years trying to understand and relate to the sacred.  It expresses some of the most glorious and some of the most hideous thinking humans are capable of, and it is absolutely worth reading and thinking about very carefully.  But it does not qualify as a biology textbook or a moral treatise on gender identity or sexual orientation. Attempting to use the bible that way is ignorant and ludicrous.  We would no more expect the bible to have one consistent relevant authoritative perspective about human sexuality than we would expect it to help us program a DVR or get directions from Chicago to New York City.

But as I said, changing one’s mind can be hard, especially for the church.  We get used to thinking about things a certain way.  We get comfortable and resist new information and new perspectives.  The church once championed the theory that earth is at the center of creation, and the sun and moon and planets and stars all orbited around us.  This was not merely an academic idea, mind you.  The church was adamant about this.  A universe understood to showcase humans as the pinnacle of creation with the rest of the universe orbiting us at the center lends obvious legitimacy to the church.  Then Copernicus came along, and Galileo after him, with an alternative theory that had the sun at the center of things, not earth.  Well the church didn’t want to hear that.  They said, “We prefer to think that the earth is at the center of things because God made it that way, so shut up or we’ll kill you.”  Changing one’s own mind is hard.  Changing the church’s mind is dangerous.

Here’s something else about changing our minds.  We often use that word theory incorrectly.  We say, “that’s only a theory” to dismiss one idea in favor of another.  The word is actually better understood as a description of reality.  Yes, some descriptions are more accurate than others, but not more so or less so because they are “theoretical.” Gravity is a theory – it explains how masses are attracted to one another.  Whether one acknowledges the accuracy of gravity theory, or prefers to think “I might be able to fly if I really believe it” changes nothing.  Step out of n 8th story window, and as you evaluate your situation, reassure yourself that gravity is only a theory.  You’ll feel better – if only for a couple of seconds.

Well, the universe isn’t what it used to be.  The sun and stars don’t orbit the earth like we thought they did in the good old days.  Theories that describe reality better, descriptions that make more accurate and predictions about how things work replace those that don’t describe reality as well in a never-ending process of scientific discovery.  Once we see something in a way that makes better sense than the old way, it’s hard to ignore, it’s hard to suppress, no matter how invested we were in the old way of thinking.  Copernicus’ and Galileo’s ideas got out despite the church’s threats.  Generations of intelligent and curious people began looking, measuring, thinking, and calculating.  Now, roughly 400 years since Galileo, we continue to discover the immense complexity of a universe so big and organized in ways so strange and subtle and completely unrelated to human arrogance that some scientists are persuaded we still have much more to discover than we have yet figured out.  On the smallest of scales, quantum physics has discovered that the distinction between mass and energy becomes blurry.  On the largest of scales the fabric of time and space is expands faster and faster, driven by forces we can’t yet identify.  And on the scale you and I experience with our senses, the distinction between distance and time itself is only partially accurate, which is to say we can even never know exactly when it is and where we’re going simultaneously.  The more we dare to look, the more complex the universe turns out to be, so that we can’t even be certain of how or even if it began or will end.

Now all that can rightly make you wonder about your place in the grand scheme of things.  But the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Back in 2002, now Vice President Mike Pence is on record for having advocated legislation requiring creationism be taught in public schools as a theory on equal terms with evolution.  As far as I’m aware he still believes in creationism as the theory that accurately describes the means by which the universe and humanity’s place within it came to be as it is.  Now, no less than in Galileo’s time, institutions still seek to gain and preserve power falling all over themselves confusing the purposes of mythology and science and clinging to outdated ideas that hold back the progress of human thought, and at the expense of citizens who don’t conform to their obsolete and privileged way of thinking.

Sex isn’t what it used to be, either.  The more we dare to look, the more complex the sex and gender turns out to be.  The lines between masculinity and femininity are sometime blurry.  Patterns of attraction don’t always conform with the anatomy of procreation.  Gender can manifest independent physiology. A person with a male body might experience themselves as female, without making any choice in the matter.  People with male bodies can experience sexual attraction to other people with male bodies, or to people with female bodies, or both, and vice versa.  People with male bodies and a female persona can experience attraction to people with female bodies and male persona.  Some people don’t much experience themselves as either male or female. Human sexuality and gender identity not always binary, any more than matter and energy.  It’s complicated, and perhaps unsettling, but that does not make it less true.  We need a quantum shift in our ability to understand the human experiences of gender and sex.  As the preacher at Eastview summarized the mechanics of male and female genitalia fitting together, he declared, “This is not rocket science, people!” And he’s right, it’s not rocket science.  It’s biological science, and much more complicated that launching a rocket.  As with the universe, human sexuality is much more complex and unsettling than the church might prefer to think.  But as with the universe, believing as hard as it one can an antiquated theory that just happens to protect a dearly cherished status quo doesn’t change reality.  A more educated view of human sexuality may be “only a theory” – but it certainly describes reality better than the notion that Adam and Eve are the original and only examples for who we are as sexual beings.

There’s a feature on most computers by which you can select a customized color to print typeface, and probably there are a bunch of other things you can do with it, getting the perfect shade and intensity for whatever color you’re trying to match.  From left to right the shades get darker, from top to bottom the colors blend from red to violet, and as you move your cursor over the field, there is simply no way to tell where one color or shade ends and the next begins.  It is a continuum of diversity.  This is probably a good way for us to think about the diversity of human traits, sexual and every other category.  There’s no way to tell whether something is entirely blue, or partly green or partly indigo, and there’s no need to.  As an example of the most enlightened thinking to be found in scripture, Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”  Humanity must outgrow its insecure need to categorize one another by race and religion, nationality and income, gender and sexuality to determine who is acceptable and who is not.  What is important is not who we love or how we love, but that we love, freeing ourselves from the need to compartmentalize one another for the sake of our static comfort zones.

I’ll conclude with one more observation about that Eastview sermon. The preacher prefaced his message with an admonition to his congregation not to interpret his assertions as license to hate those whose sexuality he was about to criticize.  He indicated that their intention must not be about hate but about wanting the best for everyone, including those who engaged in counterfeit sexuality.  I take him at his word, choosing to believe he sincerely did not intend to cause suffering.  But whatever one’s intentions, preaching in the name of God that humans of diverse sexual and gender experience are counterfeit in God’s assessment is a violent thing to say.  Quoting an article by Tim Stevens from The Guardian magazine, “Few have spoken on this issue as unequivocally as archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said in 2010… “All over the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are persecuted. They face violence, torture and criminal sanctions because of how they live and who they love. We make them doubt that they too are children of God – and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy.” The Guardian 10/29/12 (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/oct/29/no-place-homophobia-church)

If there is a “God” – a sacred intention – a divine will giving rise to the reality in which we find ourselves, that entity is surely not a strait white man who insists on a simple and orderly, homogenous approach to life by the human race, including our sexuality.  If we can infer anything about the sacred from an honest and brave exploration of the world, it must be that we are to delight in creativity and courage, gratitude and kindness, to love what is sacred with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.