Scary! Tomorrow is Halloween. Will you be choosing the trick? Or the treat?

Life is such a treat – yet sometimes we choose the trick. We choose to trick ourselves into allowing the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid instead of letting them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what is scary.

Ah, Halloween! Ghosts, goblins, spiders, haunted houses. It’s a strange holiday, isn’t it? Every culture has its celebrations, festivals, holidays, but modern Halloween in the United States is just bizarre – celebrating, as it does, a roughly equal mix of fear and chocolate.

Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy!
Dressing in costume and going door-to-door begging!
Pumpkins, candied apples!
The day of the dead! Samhain! The evening before all saints’ day, or all hallows’ day.

Through the accidents of history, a lot of very different things are all cobbled together and called “Halloween.” If there is a center, it’s: Being Scary. For the children, it may be a way for helping them cope with their fears. By dressing up as something that scares them, they move toward accepting their own fears. Dress up as a monster, get a bag of candy, and monsters aren’t so frightening anymore.

It works for children. Maybe it would work for us, too. What is that you’re afraid of? What bogeymen haunt your dreams? Maybe it would help grown-ups to dress up as the things that we are scared of. We worry about our health. We worry about our finances. Disease, and running out of money take the place of zombies and werewolves as the things that scare us. It might seem self-indulgent, or in bad taste, or insensitive, maybe, to dress up as a cancer cell, put on the costume of a osteoporotic bone. Or maybe we could dress up as a bank statement with a zero balance. If we had a costume party and dressed up as the things that scare us, it would not make the fears go away – but it might help the fear weigh a little more lightly. Or maybe we could go door to door dressed up as the thing that most scares us, and instead of candy, at each house, have a little wine. What we can bring right out in the open and laugh about we can live with more comfortably, don’t you think?

Go to the places that scare you. That was the advice of a Tibetan spiritual teacher. He said:
“Confess your hidden faults. Approach what you find repulsive. Help those you think you cannot help. Anything you are attached to, let it go. Go to the places that scare you.”
 Go to the places that scare you – that’s kind of what children do at Halloween, dressing up in scary costumes. They’re plunging into the places that frighten. So maybe us adults should try it. Maybe the thing that scares us most is loss. How could there be a costume for that? Loss has touched each of us – and it was no fun – and we are afraid of losses to come. We have lost, and will lose again. Living means losing. Out of our very loss, we are able to turn to each other, reach out, take hands and enter into covenantal relation of community.

The Rev. John Corrado, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Michigan, writes:
In a culture that worships winners,
Some people say the church is a place for losers –
And they are right!
This is a place for losers!
This is a place for people who have
Lost their hair,
Lost their teeth,
Lost their memories,
Lost their savings,
Lost their jobs.
It is a place for people who have
Lost their parents,
Lost the love of their life,
And even lost their children.
It’s a place for people who have
Lost their way,
Lost their faith,
And, worst of all, lost all hope.
This is a place for losers – us!
Let’s see who we are
And how we are
And how much we need and can help one another.
We are the losers.
God bless us, every one!
"This is a place for losers!" So "Let’s see who we are And how we are. And how much we need and can help one another." From the very loss we fear emerges the community we need.

We’re also afraid of failure. Yet failure is a good thing. I don’t mean that failure is good because we learn from it, and pave the way for success. I suppose that failure does pave the way for success, but it’s equally true that success paves the way for failure. A character in Tom Robbins’ novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, put it this way:
“…if you have any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. Embrace failure! Seek it out! Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free.”
Paving the way for success is not the point of failure, any more than paving the way for failure is the point of success. The point of failure is to set you free. Its message, if we will but hear it, is that what you are is enough. You don’t need more. As the losses come: hair, memory, health – at each step, what we are left with is somehow also enough. Yet fear constricts our lives, shuts out the beauty that is all around us right now by filling our consciousness with a future in which we’ve lost something we cling to, or have gained something we really didn’t want.

More precisely, it isn't fear that constricts our lives, it is we ourselves who do that in an attempt to make the fear go away. "If I stay within my protected cocoon, then I won't experience fear," we think. The genius of Halloween is its encouragement to go toward our fear rather than pull back from it -- for the pulling back is what constricts our lives. When we simply experience fear just as it is -- without wanting it to go away, without fighting it, without the judgments and opinions and reactions that we throw up to protect ourselves from it -- then fear isn't nearly so frightening.

Let’s look again to the children. The lessons we try to impart to them, are the lessons we still need. You remember Robert Fulghum’s 1988 book: All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten? It’s so true. Be kind. Say please and thank you. Remember to flush. The seed in the paper cup – the shoot goes up and the roots go down. Hold hands when you cross the street. Stick together. Take naps. Play some and work some everyday. Share your toys. As grown-ups, we so often forget the very lessons that we teach our children.

So let me share with you a children’s story about fear.
Let’s remember together the lessons simple enough for children.
Scaredy Squirrel, by Melanie Watt.
Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his nut tree.
He’d rather stay in his safe and familiar tree than risk venturing out into the unknown.
The unknown can be a scary place for a squirrel.
A few things Scaredy Squirrel is afraid of: Tarantulas. Poison Ivy. Green martians. Killer bees. Germs. Sharks.
So he’s perfectly happy to stay right where he is.
Advantages of never leaving the nut tree: Great view. Plenty of nuts. Safe place. No tarantulas, poison ivy, green martians, killer bees, germs, or sharks.
Disadvantages of never leaving the nut tree: Same old view. Same old nuts. Same old place.
In Scaredy Squirrel's nut tree, every day is the same. Everything is predictable. All is under control.
Scaredy Squirrel’s daily routine:
6:45am: Wake up.
7:00am: Eat a nut.
7:15am: Look at view.
Noon: Eat a nut.
12:30pm: Look at view.
5:00pm: Eat a nut.
5:31pm: Look at view.
8:00pm: Go to sleep.
But let’s just say, for example, that something unexpected did happen. You can rest assured that this squirrel is prepared.
A few items in Scaredy Squirrel’s emergency kit: Parachute. Bug spray. Mask and rubber gloves. Hard hat. Antibacterial soap. Calamine lotion. Net. Band aid. Sardines.
What to do in case of an emergency, according to Scaredy Squirrel:
Step 1: Panic.
Step 2: Run.
Step 3: Get kit.
Step 4: Put on kit.
Step 5: Consult exit plan.
Step 6: Exit tree (if there is absolutely, definitely, truly no other option).
Exit plan: Top Secret
Exit 1: Parachute. Note to self: Watch out for green martians and killer bees in the sky.
Exit 2: Note to self: Do not land in river. If unavoidable, use sardines to distract sharks.
Exit 3: Note to self: Look out for poison ivy and for tarantulas roaming the ground.
Exit 4: Note to self: Keep in mind that germs are everywhere.
Remember: If all else fails, playing dead is always a good option.
With his emergency kit in hand, Scaredy Squirrel watches. Day after day, he watches, until one day… Thursday. 9:37am. A killer bee appears.
Scaredy Squirrel jumps in panic, knocking the emergency kit out of the tree. This was NOT part of the plan. Scaredy Squirrel jumps to catch his kit. He quickly regrets this idea. The parachute is in the kit. But something incredible happens. He starts to glide. Scaredy Squirrel is a flying squirrel. Scaredy Squirrel forgets all about the killer bee, not to mention the tarantulas, poison ivy, green martians, germs, and sharks. He feels overjoyed, adventurous, carefree, alive. Until he lands in a bush, and plays dead. 30 minutes, 1 hour, two hours.
Finally, Scaredy Squirrel realizes that nothing horrible is happening in the unknown today.
So he returns to his nut tree.
All this excitement has inspired Scaredy Squirrel to make drastic changes to his life.
Scaredy Squirrel new and improved daily routine.
6:45am Wake up.
7:00am Eat a nut.
7:15am Look at view.
9:37am Jump into the unknown.
9:45am: Play dead.
11:45am: Return home.
Noon: Eat a nut.
12:30pm: Look at view.
5:00pm: Eat a nut.
5:31pm: Look at view.
8:00pm: Go to sleep.
P.S. As for the emergency kit, Scaredy Squirrel is in no hurry to pick it up just yet. (It fell into a patch of poison ivy.)
That's a helpful story for kids -- and for grown-ups. All we really need to know, we learned as kids -- or we could have learned, had we had stories like Scaredy Squirrel.

"Scaredy Squirrel never leaves his nut tree. He’d rather stay in his safe and familiar tree than risk venturing out into the unknown." The unknown is filled with scary things. Maybe the fears of your life lately have not included tarantulas, poison ivy, green martians, killer bees, germs, or sharks. Whatever it is, the fear, or your attempt to avoid fear, keeps you from life.

What do children learn from the Scaredy Squirrel story?

One. Plans are silly. The glory of life is most present when we stop pretending to be in control, stop trying to control everything, jump into the unknown. That’s what faith is about. Faith is not about believing without evidence. Faith is the act of opening our hearts to the unknown. Faith is about taking that leap. So faith is the antidote of fear.

Two: Fearlessness is our unfinished project. Scaredy squirrel has learned to jump into the unknown. At exactly 9:37am. And then he plays dead for two hours. He has let some of his fear fall away, but he is not yet living in each moment, present to what is there without trying to control it, creatively open to engaging in joy with what’s there, whether it be killer bees, poison ivy, or green martians. Scaredy squirrel has more work to do. I know. Because I'm Scaredy Squirrel. And I know I have more work to do. I can tell myself: live life as an experiment. Inquisitive. Open. Curious about everything. Flexible. But telling myself that reminder quickly fades. It takes doing the work to build the habit of openness into our lives.

What’s scary is THE UNKNOWN. Learning more about whatever you are afraid of can help, but that’s not real liberation. Real liberation is in our attitude to the unknown. Liberation comes from having a heart of faith -- that is, a heart that is ready to open to the unknown.

The Zen monastic, Fayan, lived from 885 to 958. He studied under Dizang. After a number of years with Dizang, one day Fayan went to tell Dizang that he was leaving.

“Where are you going?” asked Dizang.

“Around on pilgrimage,” said Fayan.

“What is the purpose of pilgrimage,” said Dizang.

“I don’t know,” said Fayan.

“Not knowing is most intimate.”

Intimacy. Leaping into the unknown might help you learn some things about that world out there that had previously been unknown. You don’t know: go out and learn. Sure, that’s valuable. That’s great. It is not, however, the intimacy that Dizang was talking about. It’s not about, "go get one more bit of knowledge and add it to the stockpile so as to diminish the realm of unknown." It’s about bringing an openness to every moment.

Every moment is filled with the unknown – even when all we do is cower in our nut tree. In fact, knowing about something can get in the way of learning about it. Oh, that’s a pine tree. I know about pine trees. Evergreen. Pine needles. Flaky bark. And then you’re not open to what that particular experience of a pine tree might offer. There’s a saying, attributed to Lao Tzu, the founder of Daoism.
"For knowledge, add. For wisdom, subtract." 
To grow truly wise is an ongoing project of paring away your conceptions, peeling back what you’ve learned before, so as to more closely – more intimately – approach what’s right here now. Not knowing is most intimate. In the space of not knowing is the liberation.

Loss and sadness come – and we can take them in as one more experience of life.

Pema Chodron tells the story of being a child herself. Six years old, walking in her neighborhood one day feeling lonely and unloved. A neighbor woman saw her and laughed and said, “Little girl, don’t you go letting life harden your heart.”

So Pema writes years later:
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” 
And I think each of us have known people who made each of those choices. I think you know people who experienced a deep loss or failure, and it hardened them. They became the disillusioned cynic. Nothing in life was ever again beautiful or good enough for them.

If you are lucky, you have also known people who were able to go the other way – like my friend I'll call "Clare" [Mentioned in previous post, "The Upsides and Downsides of Spirituality."] Clare had one daughter, Zoe, a love of her life and shining light of her heart. Zoe grew up, went away to college. Clare and Zoe remained close, spoke often by phone. Zoe was 20, still in college, living in an apartment, when an intruder broke in and murdered her. Clare felt that loss as deeply as a human heart can feel. She lost her child! She wept, wailed, and cried curses to the heavens. She also knew how to do her work. She knew how to go to the places that scare. She understood grieving, and was able to be with her feelings instead of wanting to push them away. There was no denying that rebuilding a life of meaning and hope for Clare was hard and slow work that, at some level will never end, yet Clare had a deliberate plan for doing that work – various spiritual practices. I first met Clare two years after the tragedy. I know her as a woman of remarkable joy, a ready laugh, and a lovely friend.
“We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.” 
What do you choose?
Trick or treat?


Upsides and Downsides of Spirituality

In Roland Merullo’s recent novel, Breakfast with Buddha, the first-person protaganist is Otto Ringling, age 44, upper-middle-class, intelligent, and devoted to his family, a wife and two teenagers. The Ringlings live in a suburb of New York.

Otto is an editor for a publisher of food books – and, not coincidentally, is himself a foodie. Otto is competent at his job, common-sensical, no-nonsense, straightforward, and upbeat. Otto has one sibling, a sister, Cecelia, four years younger, who lives in New Jersey. While Otto makes a comfortable living, Cecelia barely scrapes by in her line of work. Her line of work is indicated by the lavender and cream sign in front of her house: “Cecelia Ringling, Tarot and palm readings, Past-life regressions, Spiritual journeyings” (23). 

“’Journeyings,’” mutters Otto. “What kind of word is that?” Otto describes his sister as: “a nice enough woman who is as flaky as a good spanakopita crust” (6). Otto has little interest in “the types of things my sister was always talking about: synchronicity, psychic wavelengths, auras, healing energies, all the frizz-frazz of people who couldn’t deal with solid reality” (54). Cecelia has a penchant for “floppy, too colorful dresses” and “sandals that were supposed to massage your acupuncture points and keep you free of illness” (318). 

You recognize these types, don’t you? These characters are archetypes of the contemporary scene. People with the same backgrounds, siblings in fact, can end up so different in their basic sense of the way life works. Perhaps Cecelia represents what you think of as spirituality: séances and reiki and healing touch, and that sort of thing. Cecelia is certainly interested in spirituality. While it is true that many people with a highly developed spirituality have no interest in those things that Otto calls “the frizz-frazz of people who couldn’t deal with solid reality,” it’s also true that Cecelia represents one form that spirituality does sometimes take.

We Unitarian Universalists have our Otto types: we think of ourselves as oriented toward dealing with solid reality and not escaping into magical thinking and woo-woo, new agey stuff. We also have our Cecelia types here. What seems to Otto to be dealing with solid reality seems to our Cecelia-types to be limiting oneself to a very narrow, restricted portion of reality. The congregational president of one UU church I was part of was, owned a couple of dogs she loved very much, and, concerned to relate to their inner life, she was, I learned, regularly on the phone with a pet psychic.

And we have a lot of folks who are kinda in-between, I guess you could say. These are the folks who would never pay good money for an astrological forecast, but in their medicine chest is a bottle of herbal pills that claim certain benefits that, the asterisk explains, “have not been verified by the FDA.”

I just love being a Unitarian Universalist. We’ve got a very full spectrum here – and the chance to be a part of a community of such diversity is an enormous joy, blessing, and grace.

 In the interest of full disclosure, I will let you know, that while I honor and support every Unitarian Universalist on her or his path – I love you all -- I am myself, personally, mostly toward the skeptical-rationalist-materialist end of the spectrum when it comes to psychic powers or astral projection or crystals or pyramids or channeling or reincarnation. Still, many, many years ago I did own a pair of Earth shoes. And a couple or so years ago, when I was preparing for my trip to Japan, 13 hours ahead of Florida-time, I was down at the health-food store looking at those bottles with claims not verified by the FDA and asking which ones might help re-set my circadian rhythms so as to minimize the effects of jet lag. Some of you will be disappointed in me for that and others of you are like “yeah, of course, that’s what you do.”

I’m also a meditator, though I think of meditation as a way to strengthen certain neural pathways. I believe that our neurons can be trained in the habit of nonanxious presence – that is, attention and engagement along with equanimity and inner peace – and that compassion and wisdom flow more freely when this habit is developed. Meditation as an exercise to strengthen, stretch, or relax certain parts of the brain is no more mystical than push-ups and yoga as an exercise to strengthen, stretch, or relax certain muscles.

There is work being done that aims to be scientific, yet crack what some call “the materialistic bias” that many scientists have. Robert Cloninger, MD, is professor of psychiatry and professor of psychology and genetics at Washington University School of Medicine. His 2004 book, Feeling Good is subtitled The Science of Well-Being. The book is full of analysis of empirical findings, statistical tests establishing validity and reliability of surveys measuring temperament and character, and reports of brain scans that show what areas of the brain are active during what experiences and activities. Lots of charts and graphs and tables. Yet Cloninger identifies himself as a transcendentalist, in opposition to what he calls materialism. Cloninger writes:
According to transcendentalists, a mind fully aware of itself is unbounded spirit, nonlocal, and aware of participation in the universal unity of being. . . . Appropriate psychological conditions for nonlocal consciousness have been described as loving union with goodness (Plato) or loving union in nature (Thoreau, Krishnamurti). Materialists regard all claims of nonlocal consciousness as illusory. Transcendentalists, on the other hand, say the individual mind is like a node in a universal Internet of consciousness and that these individual nodes vary in the speed and depth of their access to the whole web. . . . Materialists assume a human being is only matter. 
Materialism cannot be right, argues Cloninger, because “if consciousness is an attribute or product of matter, it is necessarily finite, determined by antecedent causes, and local.”

Do you feel – ever – that you participate in the universal unity of being? Having such an awareness, it seems to me, does not require nonscientific beliefs. Modern physics describes for us a world in which there are no truly separate discrete objects, just clouds of probability, constantly shifting wave packets, and gravitational and electro-magnetic fields. Matter itself is congealed energy, and the universe is one big flowing, swirling energy field – a.k.a., a universal unity of being. This is one point where Otto Ringling, if he remembers his college physics, and his sister Cecelia would be in agreement, I think. It turns out that the “solid reality” that Otto so prides himself on dealing with isn’t really so solid.

For myself, I don’t see why we can’t cultivate self-awareness in the transcendentalist way that Cloninger describes it, and also say a human being is only matter. I remember the verse of William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
The whole universe is in each grain of sand. In my previous forays into describing a physiological basis for spiritual experience, I have been accused of reducing people to mere matter, nothing but meat. I don’t think of it so much as reducing people to matter, but as heightening my awareness of matter so that it fills me with awe, and beauty. This meat – and yours and yours – makes my heart sing.

 Cloninger says that “if consciousness is an attribute or product of matter, it is necessarily finite, determined by antecedent causes, and local.” But this inference holds only if we view matter itself as “finite, determined by antecedent causes, and local.” Matter-energy is, in effect, boundless. Fields of gravitation and the weak force and the strong force reach across light years. Matter is nonlocal. And given what physicists know about quantum indeterminacy, matter-energy is not fully determined by antecedent causes either.

So I may be disappointing those of you toward the Cecelia end of the spectrum, but I have no problem with the idea that consciousness is an attribute or product of matter. I’m both a materialist and a transcendentalist. I’m a materialist in that I think of consciousness – including the experiences we might call “spiritual” – as an attribute or product of matter, and I don’t think there’s any problem of “materialist bias” in the sciences. I’m a transcendentalist in that I feel matter itself as transcendently significant – as evocative of deep awe and wonder. For me, matter itself is a constantly unfolding wonder.

The question isn’t, “Is there more than matter?” Rather, the question is: “What more is there to matter – what riches of mystery -- are available to open myself to in this present moment?”

I have heard people speak of deep experiences of what they feel sure is a depth or a force much greater than matter. I think I’ve had those feelings, too. The difference is only that they like to talk about connectedness and oneness beyond matter, and I prefer to talk about connectedness and oneness of matter. If you can’t imagine that mere matter could manifest the wondrousness of your experience, maybe this reflects the limitations of your imagination.

In the end, perhaps the materialism versus transcendentalism contrast is just semantics – not a real contrast at all. Perhaps these labels, materialist and transcendentalist, are not be very helpful. Cloninger’s work in developing a survey – the Temperament and Character Inventory, TCI – may be more interesting. One of the seven scales the TCI measures is what Cloninger calls “self-transcendence” – or what he also calls spirituality. Of course, like any survey, there is inevitably some slippage around words – your interpretation of what the question is trying to get at may differ from how the baseline population would interpret it – and when it comes to a concept like spirituality, issues of question-interpretation would seem especially big. Yet I’m impressed with levels of validity and reliability that Cloninger is able to report. According to Cloninger’s research, spirituality, i.e. self-transcendence, is the sum of three subscales: self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and spiritual acceptance.

First, self-forgetfulness. This has to do with experiences of “flow” – with being immersed in an activity, being “in the zone”, and you’re
performing at peak efficiency while having no sense of boundary between yourself and others. Most people have had this type of experience at least a few times in their lives. Spiritual people tend to have them more frequently . . . People often experience flashes of insight or understanding when they are in this frame of mind. Creativity is maximized, originality is fostered. Even the most ordinary things seem fresh and new. (Cloninger)
Second, transpersonal identification.
The hallmark of this trait is a feeling of connectedness to the universe and everything in it – animate and inanimate, human and nonhuman, anything and everything that can be seen, heard, smelled, or otherwise sensed. People who score high for transpersonal identification . . . sometimes feel that everything is part of one living organism.... Love of nature is a recurring theme in spirituality, from the beginnings of civilization up to the present. (Cloninger)
Third, spiritual acceptance. This measure has to do with the sense that underneath, or behind, or in the midst of all the pain, and the tragedy, the suffering and the anguish, there is a fundamental joy of being.

As a professor at predominantly African-American Fisk University, and later, as a divinity student for a couple terms at a predominantly African-American divinity school, I’ve had repeated exposure to Black Church worship and culture. One of the things I often heard, like a mantra of affirmation and hope, was: “God is good all the time; all the time god is good.” These were people that were not oblivious to, nor in denial about the very real pain, suffering, injustice and oppression in life. They or their families had often directly seen and felt the worst effects of prejudice and bigotry. They were not retreating into escapism from that reality, nor were they complacent about the need for the very hard ongoing work for social justice. When they greeted each other, and me, with a bounce in their step, a broad smile on their face, and an outstretched hand if not two outstretched arms, and the buoyant words, “God is good all the time; all the time, God is good,” they were expressing a deep sense of the joy of possibility and hope back behind or underneath the tragedy they were keenly aware of. It’s true that, if you had the chance, as I did on a few occasions, for a longer conversation, and you pressed them on questions of theodicy – why do bad things happen to good people if God is so good – in my experience, it was always pretty easy to pick holes in the logic. But it isn’t about logic, or lining up all your concepts so that they cohere. In the end, I felt, it wasn’t even about whether there was anything in this wide reality that can appropriately be called “God.” It was about context. It was about the felt sense, more than words can say, that the tragedy and unfairness and pain exists always within a wider context, a context deeply affirmable. Indeed, only within a context that ultimately felt holy, sacred, could tragedy be fully seen as tragedy instead of random pain. From this kind of acceptance comes equanimity but not complacency. And without the calm, abiding equanimity to leaven the energy of anger that so often arises when working for social justice, activists burn out.

So that’s spirituality. Spirituality is self-transcendence, and self-transcendence consists of self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and a fundamental, underlying acceptance. One advantage of this account of spirituality is that it avoids the materialism question. You can be spiritual whether or not you’re also materialist.

Dr. Cloninger finds that individuals with low scores on self-transcendence “inevitably confront problems and obstacles for which they are not prepared, which leads to a downward spiral.” On the other hand, high self-transcendence is a vital contributor to the type of character that is “unlikely to develop psychiatric disturbance, even after a severe disaster.” Coherent attitudes, like hope and kindness, come more naturally, and these traits correlate strongly with a resilient psyche that can weather personal catastrophe. People like Otto are often reasonably kind and hopeful, though it comes more naturally and easily to people like Cecelia, for all her flakiness.

Almost a decade ago, when LoraKim and I were living in North Carolina, we knew there a woman, about our age, a few years older. Call her ““Clare.” She was every bit as flaky as Otto thinks that his sister Cecelia is. She regularly consulted her spirit guides, and she’d consult yours too, if you asked her to. Clare had one daughter, a love of her life, the shining light of her heart. The daughter grew up, went away to college. Clare and her daughter remained close, spoke often by phone. The daughter was 20, still in college, living in an apartment, when an intruder broke in and murdered her. Clare felt that loss as deeply as a human heart can feel. She wept, wailed, and cried curses to the heavens. Because she was also self-aware, she knew what she was doing. She never imagined her world as narrow and rational, and when the emotions came, they were not surprises. She grieved deeply, and she knew that she was. Self-awareness made the difference between having her grief, and the grief having her. There was no denying that rebuilding a life of meaning and hope for Clare was hard and slow work that, at some level would never end, yet Clare knew how to do that work. I first met Clare two years after the tragedy. I knew her as a woman of remarkable joy, a ready laugh, and a lovely friend.

Thus, in Merullo’s novel, when Otto and Cecelia’s parents are suddenly killed by a drunk driver, the loss throws Otto’s world for a much bigger loop than it does Cecelia.

Studies on identical twins indicate a person’s spirituality level, high or low, is about fifty-percent inherited and fifty percent from experience and training that cultivates spirituality. We can’t do anything about the genetic half, but if we wanted to, we could work on the other half.

If we wanted to.

There is an upside to spirituality: it provides resilience in the face of life’s vicissitudes. And there’s also a downside. One might wish to be careful about just what one undertakes to do with one’s brain. Brains that are wired and primed for self-forgetfulness and transpersonal identification are more inclined to see significance in the events of life, even if those events are actually random. It’s good to be adept at finding meaning in the events of your life. A life that is open to meaning-making possibilities at each moment is a life that is creatively engaged with everything that happens. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe the fact that the pattern on your grilled cheese sandwich kinda looks like the face of Jesus is just a coincidence. It could be that the fact that your heart line on your palm ends just under your index finger, and you’re a Leo with Jupiter rising in Scorpio means neither that you will have problems in your fourth chakra, nor that you’re going to have good luck finding a parking place downtown. The downside of spirituality is that meaning-making and sensing connections in the world can sometimes get a bit goofy.

On the other hand, palm reading and tarot cards and astrology might be approached as kind of practice exercises – like a creative writing exercise or a piano drill or a sketch exercise: just a fun way to sharpen up skills at making connections and meaning, a way to strengthen up your creative meaning-making muscles for a time when you'll seriously need them.

Dean Hamer writes,
The fact that spirituality has a genetic component implies that it evolved for a purpose. No matter how selfish a gene is, it still needs a human being as a carrier to perpetuate itself. There is now reasonable evidence that spirituality is in fact beneficial to our physical as well as mental health. Faith may not only make people feel better, it may actually make them better people. 
OK. But the research shows that genetic proclivity to spirituality is widely variable. If it’s really so good, then don’t we all need it? I think it turns out variable, because human societies need people like Otto, who are good at what he calls “dealing with solid reality,” even if that reality is rather narrow and constricted and they don’t have the broader meaning-making resources to cope very well when tragedy turns their world upside-down and turns their solid reality liquid. We also need people like Cecelia with a proclivity to be creative, to construct wider meanings from events – even if that proclivity also predisposes them to interpret bumps in the night as a special communication from the netherworld, see auras, and practice nontraditional medicine.

In Merullo’s novel, Otto is set to drive out to North Dakota to settle his parent’s estate. Cecelia talks him into giving a lift to her new friend: Volya Rinpoche, a Mongolian spiritual master. So the bulk of the novel is a road trip story. Along the way, Otto shows the Rinpoche American restaurants and bowling and miniature golf, and the Rinpoche slowly and gently helps Otto become a little more self-aware. By the end, Otto is a bit more awake to meaning-making possibilities – though he will never be the sort of character who would go in for past life regressions. 

Can we get the up-side of spirituality without falling prey to some version of the down-side? Can we become more self-aware without having to believe in astrology, angels, or astral projection? Of course we can.
A mind fully aware of itself is unbounded spirit, nonlocal, and aware of participation in the universal unity of being (Cloninger). 
Such a mind has a heightened capacity for meaning-making, and is, statistically, more likely to be attracted to making meaning out of, say, an arrangement of Tarot cards – but that is a resistible attraction. It’s possible to train ourselves in both scientific rationality and creative connection-making and participation in universal unity. Indeed, the best scientists – as well as many of the best artists and spiritual leaders – are good at both.

The trick, always, is to pay attention to when the meaning-making may be running away with us – while also listening to what interesting or helpful metaphors it may be offering.


This Man's Thealogy

What is holy for me? What evokes in my heart the feeling of being in the presence of the sacred?

These words “holy,” “sacred”: I don’t know what they mean. I only know that people speaking of these things are feeling something that humans can feel. Their faces show a calmness and an awe. The speak in hushed tones, and allow long pauses.

I have been there. And sometimes – not always – it feels like a person. Do you feel that, too?

Maybe you talk to trees. “Hello Mr. Pine, Ms. Oak, and how are you? You’re looking…tall today.”

It does the heart good.

A couple months ago I was sitting at a retreat and a black cloud of fear enveloped me. It had no object – no particular thing I was afraid of – just generalized fear. After a moment of panic, I took a breath and greeted it, as I would a person. “Hello, fear. So you have come to visit me. Welcome to my heart. Can I show you around?” Fear was silent. “I guess you already know your way around the interiors of my heart,” I said internally. “Let me just sit here, then, and keep you company.” As I did that, there slowly emerged a sense of surrender: liberating surrender.

Gladness – and fear – together. I have had that feeling before...

It was on my wedding day to LoraKim.

I was scared then, too – and passed through to surrender and freedom. On that occasion, over 11 and a half years ago, I wrote:
The owl has special wing feathers that quiet its flight,
So the prey never detects the predator.
One noiseless flap, two, and the small mammal is caught.
As out of the soul’s dark night, love is suddenly there, upon us:
Talons and beak.
We succumb,
And turn our bodies over to the nourishment of a grander thing.
So eleven years later, there I was: fear, and yet out of it a kind of freeing peace. On this occasion, too, when I got up from the cushion and had a chance to get to my journal, it was metaphors of predation that presented themselves as expressions of my heart. What came out of me this time was this allegory of evolution
Prayer to the Rabbit God.

the night is dark and this I know:
the rabbit god herself made the foxes.

she put bunnies all over
gave them a green planet to eat
made them love to hump
like rabbits
and love their babies.

bunnies make bunnies faster than plants grow, she noticed.
so the rabbit god made foxes.

predation is kinder than starvation, she said.
and foxes will give my lovelies sharp ears
beautiful speed
a touch of cleverness.
let them be grateful for the red fur death
and the fear that makes them bright alert.

thus the rabbit god became the fox god too.
bodies are made of nutrients,
there being no other way to make them,
how could there not be carnivores?

dear god of hunter and of hunted
I, too, a body of walking food, pray
to be eaten rather than starve
to love
the beauty of this fear.
So it is that sometimes – not always – it feels like a person. The world that brought forth trees and rabbits and foxes and you and me seems to want to present itself to me as person-like – a rabbit god, this time. When the world is ready to tell, or when I am ready to hear, the holy, the sacred, then the world (sometimes) dons the robes of personhood. In that presence, fear – anything that I might fear – transforms, and I am not afraid. By, "I am not afraid," I mean, of course, that I am afraid, but that underneath, or behind, or within, the fear I find a  fearlessness. To give over my flesh to service – to a grander thing – to, as it were, die into life, to perish into this world, is scary. And at the center of that fear is fearless peace.

Strange talk, is this not?

These words, “holy,” “sacred”: I have to say, I don’t know what they mean – only what they feel like. When I feel the holy, sometimes it feels like the presence of a person. It seemed that way to our forebears from time immemorial. It’s what our brains do.

What, you may be wondering, has this to do with thealogy-with-an-A as opposed to theology-with-an-O? What has this to do with the feminine divine? With Goddess worship? I’m getting there. And at the same time, what I’ve been saying is already there.

When our spiritual imaginations find it satisfying to relate to the wonder of reality as if it were person-like, we may conceive of the divine aspect either as male or as female. Gender is so integral to our experience of persons that imagining something as person-like so readily includes imagining it either as female or as male.

Experiences of transcending wonder can transform our lives, reorient us to a more full, fun, whole and healed way of living, so naturally our ancestors who had such experiences wanted to share them – to join with others in spreading, maintaining, and deepening the sense of connection and the fearless peace now recognized as our true self of giving buried in the middle of all our protections and defenses. So we made stories – stories to evoke awe, to show us “the beauty of this fear.” For a long time in human history polytheism was the norm – in other words, any given society would have many such stories for the many different aspects of reality any of which might evoke awe, mystery, and wonder. Polytheist cultures had both female and male gods – to use the Greek, both Theos and Thea. As monotheism came to predominate, and there was only one person-like representation of the holy, that one was Theos. Thea was shut out.

Limiting our spiritual imagination to a male god privileges the styles of thinking slightly more common among men. We know that lots of women are linear thinkers, abstract, lead with their head, incline to dominate, and orient toward control – but the frequency of those characteristics has been slightly higher among men. We know that lots of men are highly relational and nurturant, lead with their heart, are in touch with their feelings, and have a deep emotive connection with the natural environment around them – but the frequency of those characteristics has been slightly higher among women. And the effect of having god stories about only one gender was to push the genders further apart. Privileging men made the men try to be manlier – whatever that might be.

So the style of doing theology – study of Theos – has been abstract, impersonal. Theology books read as if their authors have never been lonely or hurt, never surprised by joy, never fallen in love, or out of it. In the attempt to present universal reasoning, they leave out the unique experiences that made them care about Theos in the first place.

So here we are. We have inherited certain central texts: the Torah, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, the Quran. And we have inherited not only the texts but longstanding habits of interpreting them – cultural understandings of what they mean. Women, as represented by Eve, are the source of sin. Women, as indicated by their scant representation in the Hebrew Scriptures, are appropriately invisible, passive, insignificant, subservient. Then the Apostle Paul, in his First Corinthians letter, wrote:
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.
For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (14:33-36)
In the centuries after Paul, with Christianity spread across Europe, the male-dominated Christian church, in fear of losing its power, tortured and executed millions of women identified as pagan witches, many of them healers, herbalists, keepers of ancient customs and lores. The only approved medical practices were taught in medical schools that did not admit women.

Theology – study of God-as-male, Theos – aims to systematically develop the implications of scriptural interpretation. Theologians have too often exacerbated rather than mitigated the patriarchal biases of Western religion. Two of the most renowned theologians of the 20th century were Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr. Karl Barth once wrote:
Properly speaking, the business of woman, her task and function, is to actualize the fellowship in which man can only precede her, stimulating, leading, and inspiring . . .
To wish to replace him in this, or to do it with him, would be to wish not to be a woman.
And Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote:
A rationalistic feminism is undoubtedly inclined to transgress inexorable bounds set by nature.
Theos without Thea made our religion patriarchal – which reflected and reinforced patriarchy throughout society.

Mary Daly, circa 1970
Mary Daly’s 1973 book, Beyond God the Father, was a groundbreaking rebuke of patriarchy – and a profound eye-opener for many women -- and men, too.

In claiming or reclaiming stories of the feminine divine, writers such as Marija Gimbutas, Charlene Spretnak, Riane Eisler and others have given us variations on the Prehistoric Matriarchy thesis. This thesis is that, before there were written records, society was centered around women, with their mysterious life-giving powers. Goddesses were the primary objects of worship, and women were honored as incarnations and priestesses of the Great Goddess. In these halcyon days, people were nonviolent, never had war, and, in particular, peace reigned between the sexes. Then, about 5,000 years ago, warring, dominance-based tribes arose and began conquering the peaceful matriarchal people. Patriarchy arose and ruined everything ever since.

The Prehistoric Matriarchy thesis was such a powerfully attractive idea. I wanted to believe it – and I did for a while. If that kind of society could have existed once, then we could hope it might again. If Patriarchy can be seen as a 5,000-year aberration from the natural order of things, then prospects for a return to that order look much better.

Most anthropologists, though, saw the matriarchy thesis as long on wishful thinking and short on unambiguous evidence. Cynthia Eller particularly took the matriarchy thesis to task. Her book, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will not Give Women a Future, argued:
The evidence available to us regarding gender relations in prehistory is sketchy and ambiguous, and always subject to the interpretation of biased individuals. But even with these limitations what evidence we do have from prehistory cannot support the weight laid upon it by the matriarchal thesis. Theoretically, prehistory could have been matriarchal, but it probably wasn’t, and nothing offered up in support of the matriarchal thesis is particularly persuasive. (Eller 6)
I believe that, ultimately, this does not matter. I believe that what the goddess can teach us – what it does to us when we address the deep awe of reality as if it were a person, and that person is conceived as a woman – does not depend on what sorts of societies and forms of worship humans had or did not have 5,000 years ago. As we face our world today – highly urbanized, highly technological – we (humans as a whole) are slowly becoming less violent. Yet this progress is painfully slow, and our world remains dominated by dominance: by hierarchy, control, war, and greed.

On some accounts, traditional Theocentric western religion is the root cause this problem. On other accounts, traditional Theocentric religion has merely been co-opted by the tendencies toward greed and violent domination, so that Theocentric religion is now powerless to offer a counter-cultural peaceful, egalitarian vision. Either way, we needed an alternative.

In the last 40 years, women’s spirituality groups, and the writers informed by those groups, have explored the idea of the feminine divine as an alternative to the hierarchy, control, dominance, war, and greed that traditional Theocentric western religion has caused or been co-opted by. They have developed practices of Goddess worship that explicitly celebrate and revere equality, peace, care and nurturing of one another – men as well as women – empowerment through power-with rather than power-over, and relationships of nurturing care with our earth itself.

Many women – and men -- have found a powerful healing and wholeness in Goddess spirituality. As one of woman put it:
There's a worthiness that I've found through the Goddess....You're already worthy. Your spirit is whole. It's OK to be worthy, powerful, spiritual and sexual, a fully integrated woman.
Men, too, have found Goddess practices helpful. On one level, they’ve helped us men learn the strengths of nurturance, patience, and even passivity. On another level, it’s helped us see that these traits traditionally held up as feminine actually belong equally to us all. Said one man:
On a soul level...we're not men or women, we're souls, and let's get beyond the matriarchy/patriarchy discussion....We're programmed into men being masculine and women being feminine, and it's so limiting.
While Goddess spirituality celebrates the personal, the intuitive, the embodied, the experiential and is therefore less centered in what can be written down, it has also spawned a lot of books. Thealogy, the study of thea, the Goddess, entails a different sort of literature.

Brock, left, and Parker
One striking and powerful example of Thealogy, I would say, is Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock’s 2001 book, Proverbs of Ashes. It’s not about Goddess at all, but it represents a very different way of engaging the theological questions – highly personal rather than dispassionately analytical, yet as thoughtful and rigorous as any theological writing ever has been. Parker and Brock give us a thorough-going critique of the theology of atonement, and show how an emphasis on Christ’s obedience to God and sacrifice on the cross sanctions violence, exacerbates its effects, blesses silence about the abuse of human beings, and hinders recovery and healing. Parker and Brock tell their own personal stories of dealing with male violence and the ways they found that violence abetted by theologies of redemptive suffering. They weave those stories together with careful historical and scriptural analysis to produce what I found to be a powerful and moving critique of traditional Christian atonement.

I read Proverbs of Ashes in Divinity School and it was a revelation – very different from the kind of theology I’d gotten used to from reading St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Schleiermacher, Barth, Niebuhr, and Tillich.

So, you see, when I spoke earlier about my experience with disturbing fear and fearless peace, and how that expressed itself in a parable of the person-like and female rabbit god, I wasn’t just leading up to thealogy, I was demonstrating it.

What is holy for you? What evokes in your heart the feeling of being in the presence of the sacred?

These words “holy,” “sacred”: you don’t have to know what they mean. But enter into creative playful relation with the people and animals and trees and rivers and sky of your world. What sense of personality can you let yourself detect or imagine in things and tasks? Do they seem male or female? What lessen might they have to teach? What funny jokes might they tell?

It’s a free, and creative, flowing, often laughing, way of being.
"Hello, tree."
"Hello, engine failure in my car, you wily goddess, you."

Hello, dear you.

It does my heart good.

When I enter that flow, or it enters me, I feel myself again dying into life, perishing into love for you.


Deportations: Getting Our Money's Worth?

In this morning's news, I learned that 396,906 people were deported during the year that ended September 30, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This is the highest single-year total for deportations in ICE's history -- 3.4 times the 117,000 total deportations in 2000. Fifty-five percent -- the highest proportion in a decade -- of last year's deportees had felony or misdemeanor convictions. More than 180,000 were deported without any conviction.

These record-breaking deportation rates cost US taxpayers last year over $9 billion: $23,000 per individual for a complete deportation process. What are we getting for our money?

1. Pointlessness. Undocumented immigration rates have plummeted since 2007, the undocumented population is down substantially, and violent crimes are at their lowest levels in 40 years. If deportation was ever necessary, it is less so now.

2. Destruction of families. Deportations wreak devastation on Latino communities across the US. Millions live with the prospect that a simple traffic stop could lead to the breakup of their families.

3. Harm to our economy. Undocumented immigrants purchase goods and services, contribute labor, and pay taxes. Our country is spending over $ 9 billion just to be able to shoot itself in the foot.

4. It makes us meaner and sadder people. Compassion, however, brings joy to those who give as well as receive it. As Bob Hope once said, "If you haven't any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble."


The Unbearable Tediousness of Denial

Denial is so tedious, isn't it?

I know, I know: there are times when someone says something outrageously false, and it's important to point out that it's false. If someone says that tax rates reached their highest under Clinton, it may very well be worthwhile to point out that during 1944-45, income tax ranged from 23% to a top rate of 94%. OK, that was war-time. But under Eisenhower, income taxes were close to that -- ranging from 22% to a top bracket at 92%. Nixon, Ford, and Carter maintained the same tax brackets from 1971 to 1981: from a low of 14% to a top bracket taxed at 70%. Under Clinton, the top tax rate was 39.6%.

I can see how correcting factual inaccuracies has a place.

At other times, though, it works better to embrace the language rather than keep on tediously denying it. For instance, who wants to put energy into denying the claim that homosexuals are possessed by demons? It's ever so much more effective (and fun) to embrace the claim -- and give it new spin. Like these folks do:


The name "Unitarian" was originally a pejorative term hurled at those who read the Bible with thoughtful attention and didn't find the doctrine of the "trinity" supported. When we decided to go ahead and embrace the term, we took the sting out of it.

The cross, as used in crucifixion, was a symbol of disgrace in Roman-occupied Palestine. The early Christians embraced the cross and turned it into the symbol of the identity they were proud of -- thereby rendering it unavailable as an insult.

You might be concerned about the way that evangelical, fundamentalist religion uses claims about God to promote exclusion, hate, violence, and injustice. So what's the best way to resist?

Strategy 1: Take the stand that there is no God.

Strategy 2: Take the stand that God calls us to love and justice.

Notice that the guy with the sign isn't locked in to a commitment to the independent objective existence of demons. He's just going with the metaphor. You may think that God is a fictional character. Fine. Fictional characters say and do a number of things: Oliver Twist asked for more gruel, Scarlet O'Hara coped with the Civil War, and Beowulf fought Grendel. Those are all true. Maybe you want to say that "God calls us to love and justice" is true in the same way, and maybe you want to say it's true is some other way. Either way, it's true.

Moreover, consider the set of things that are all fairly close to the center of what "God" has meant in Western religious traditions:

  • a source of beauty and mystery;
  • a power inspiring gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe;
  • an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value;
  • the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed;
  • a basis of ethics.
  • a person-like entity (person-like insofar as having knowledge and desires);
  • an entity with supernatural powers

Even if we were to dispense with the last two items, we may still want to refer to the source and context from which we experience beauty, mystery, gratitude, humility, wonder, awe, meaning and value. "God" is the traditional word for so referring. We don't all have to have exactly the same conceptions of "cat" or "water" in order to say things to each other about cats and water.

Better to take the language that's out there and go with it. It's more rational, more effective, more creative and fun.
(Isn't "Demons of awesomeness" a lot more alive than "Humbug. There are no such things as demons"?)

Sometimes Identity gets in the way of rational and effective. Some folks have built an identity for themselves as "a person who denies the existence of God." Strategy 2 would feel like a betrayal of the identity in which they are so heavily invested -- no matter how ineffective and even irrational that identity may be. I understand that identity isn't about rationality. The very tediousness of denial can become a point of pride. It may be creatively stultifying, but it offers a kind of security in identity.

I don't mean to disparage strategies of identity. I, too, need to know who -- and whose -- I am. I'm not suggesting pretending to be identity-less. I'm suggesting that we take on the identity as "those who affirm that the ultimate context and basis of meaning and value inclines toward love and justice" instead of the identity as deniers.


What Has Queer Theory Done For You Lately?

We are standing on the side of love. (Read up at the "Standing on the Side of Love" website: here, and see previous blog entry on "Knoxville's Legacy" here.) Standing on the side of love. So simple. So…basic. The heart leads us, and the heart yearns for connection in love. That's clear, that's basic. Who needs theory? Do we not simply need love?
Smaller print above LOVE: "Standing on
the Side of".
Below: "www.StandingontheSideofLove.org"

Actually, I’m going to say the Beatles had it right: yes, "All You Need is Love." (Wikipedia entry: here. Video: here.) Let the heart be our guide. The thing is, the head is all the time cooking up one idea or another, and the ideas sometimes get in the way. Who needs theory? Sometimes we need good theory just to clear the obstructions of bad theory so we can get back to the untheorectical core: stand on the side of love.

I propose today to lead you on a journey – a quick tour through a landscape of ideas and concepts. What we will find is that we are led back to where we started – back to a trust in the heart, back to love. It is an Eliot-esque journey, for T.S. Eliot said:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
We’ll look at some concepts, theory, ideas that might help knock out certain other ideas that have been getting in your way. When we come back again to no side but the side of love, perhaps, we’ll find that our journey has helped us understand our original stance a little better. Perhaps we will, in some sense, know the place for the first time.

Concept Number One: (Try to) Ignore It

Concept number one: Let’s ignore it. What consenting people do in private is irrelevant – it has nothing to do with our shared life. Don’t ask, don’t tell. We don’t need to ask about people’s sexual orientation, and we don’t need to tell anyone about ours. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with character, reliability, competence, trustworthiness – nothing to do with whether a person has inherent worth and dignity. So let’s ignore it. Let’s dispense with labels like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and treat all people as just people. In race relations, this attitude was called being – or trying to be – color-blind.

Concept Number Two: Honoring Identity

The problem with concept number one is that people want to be seen and honored, acknowledged and respected for all of who they are. During the four years in the early 90s that I was a professor of philosophy at Fisk University – a school with a predominantly African American student body – I saw every day how important African American identity was to my students. Once I was a visiting faculty at Ripon College in Wisconsin. I remember being at a reception and chatting with one woman who professed such colorblindness. She didn’t understand why there would be a school where 99 to 100 percent of the students were African American. What difference does race make? Let us judge people, just as Martin Luther King himself said, by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Who wants to argue with Martin Luther King? But after a few years at Fisk, that perspective had become so distant for me, that I couldn’t even think of how to explain why I didn’t share it.

In that moment, adrift on a sea of white, from the faces in the room, to the thick cover of Wisconsin snow outside, I was stymied. It wasn’t until later that I thought: hey, wait a minute. What about our gender identity? If someone were to say to that woman, "I can’t tell whether you’re a man or a woman," I don’t think she would have been re-assured. More likely, she’d have been insulted.

When my name, Meredith, preceeds me, people sometimes assume I’m a woman. That’s OK – not a problem for me. If, however, they were to continue to regard me as a woman after we had met face to face, I imagine I’d find that disconcerting. Further, if I were to enter some situation where a number of people were doing that, I’d be a bit spooked, wondering what sort of Twilight Zone I had fallen into. Many of you, too, would find it disorienting if the people around you couldn’t -- or earnestly pretended they couldn’t – tell whether you were male or female. It’s not that we think there’s anything wrong with being the opposite sex – it’s just that we like to be recognized for who we are.

Similarly, for many people of color, racial identity may be important. It’s a part of who they are, and they don’t want that socially erased. We want to be proud of who we are, not told that a key part of our experience is meaningless.

Similarly, many LGBT folk want to be recognized and accepted for all of who they are. We are all entitled to equal concern and respect. But we don’t have to pretend that we’re all the same. We shouldn't have to hide our identity.


Indeed, color-blindness, or gender-blindness, or sexual-orientation-blindness, in its pretense that we are all the same, has the effect of projecting the majority’s norms. That’s how it plays out. Pretending that there’s no difference between black and white has the effect of pretending that we are all white. Color-blindness allows the norms and assumptions of white culture to hold unchallenged sway. In the same way, sexual-orientation-blindness amounts to projecting heteronormativity.

Can you spot the heteronormativity here?
Heteronormativity is the privileging of heterosexuality as normal and natural. When straight office workers have photos on their desks of themselves and their spouses, that’s regarded as positive or benign, while gay workers with photos of themselves and their partners are “rubbing our noses in it” – that’s heteronormativity. When a person who goes through a series of different opposite-sex partners is judged less harshly than a person who goes through an equally long series of same-sex partners – that’s heteronormativity.

If your gym offers a family membership, do you know whether or not that that perk is available to same-sex couples? If it didn’t occur to you to find out because that doesn’t affect you, then you are unthinkingly accepting heteronormative privilege.

Then we start getting into areas that are going to be for many of us a bit more challenging. You see, while many in the LGBT community have worked hard for recognition of same-sex marriage, not all LGBT folk have unalloyed enthusiasm for the spread of acceptance of same-sex marriage. Marriage itself is heteronormative, they point out. Marriage takes the heterosexual model as the norm: one partner, living together and running a household together, for life – or at least starting out with the intention that it be for life. But maybe that model should be challenged rather than pursued. Some queer theorists criticize the traditional family as a deeply problematic institution that ought to challenged and called into question. (See Wikipedia, "Queer Theory" and "Heteronormativity".)

Concept Number Three: Identity (and Everything) Are Shifting Cultural Constructs

Some queer theorists also challenge the very idea of identity. Concept one was let’s ignore it. Concept two is let’s recognize identity as a way to respect who a person is. Now we get to concept three: identity is a problematic notion.

Starting with gender, let us acknowledge that the clear black-and-white categories “male” and “female” aren’t really so clear. Some people are born intersex, where the biological sex cannot be clearly classified as either male or female. The practice of forcibly resolving the ambiguity, forcing the child into one box or the other, sometimes using surgery to help resolve the ambiguity on one side or the other, has been harmful and traumatic. Let us learn to accept ambiguity. In fact, suggest some queer theorists, more gender ambiguity might be good for us all. We might all dress and style ourselves in ways designed to make it harder instead of easier for others to categorize our gender at a glance.

Cultural studies professor Nikki Sullivan writes in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003):
Sexuality…is constructed, experienced, and understood in culturally and historically specific ways. Thus, we could say that there could be no true or correct account of heterosexuality, of homosexuality, of bisexuality… Contemporary views of particular relationships and practices are not necessarily any more enlightened or any less symptomatic of the times than those held by previous generations. (Portions on Googlebooks.)
Queer theorist David Halperin describes three very different cultures in which sexual contact between older men and boys has been acceptable: the ancient Greeks, some Native American tribes, and New Guinea tribesmen. He asks: Is this the same sexuality? Such contact has some superficial similarities, including acceptability, in all three cultures, yet the social contexts and meanings of that contact was so varied, the cultural understanding of what was going on so diverse, that we can’t call it the same sexuality.

The brilliant French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault (1926-1984), pioneered new ways to think about and understand ourselves. Foucault is a founding figure for a number of kinds of study, including queer theory. His three volume History of Sexuality revealed how sexuality has been culturally constructed in Western civilization. In Britain, and much of Europe, prior to the 1880s, Foucault points out, “sodomy” meant any form of sexuality that did not have procreation as its aim. Using birth control counted as sodomy – and penalties against sodomy were severe.

Analysis of the time reveals that the laws were directed against acts, not against a particular type of person. There was no understanding of sexual orientation as an identity – any more than we have an understanding of adulterer as an identity -- or, say, “person who parks in a no parking zone.” It wasn’t until the later 1800s that “particular acts came to be seen as an expression of an individual’s psyche, or as evidence of inclinations of a certain type of subject” (Sullivan 3). Certain forms of sexuality moved from being seen as horrible acts to which anyone might succumb to being seen as the expression of a particular type of person. As Sigmund Freud expressed and magnified the new way of thinking, sex was at the root of everything about us. Thus, “the homosexual” became a personage – a life form, a certain type of degenerate whose entire character, everything about him, was corrupted by his sexuality. (Wikipedia, "Michel Foucault" here; Foucault's "History of Sexuality" here; SparkNotes on "History of Sexuality" here.)

That hardly seems to us like progress.

Yet, as traumatic and disastrous as that cultural phase was for many, it paved the way for our later attitudes. Once we saw sexual orientation as an identity – subject to treatment rather than criminal or moral judgment -- the ground was laid for the next step. Only then could culture move to seeing that identity as not harming anyone else. From there to: not harming themselves either. And then: to being tolerated, to being accepted, to being welcomed and celebrated as a worthy and beautiful part of the diverse spectrum of human expression.

That’s a huge change – a series of huge changes – all within the last 130 years or so. The field of queer theory, then, examining the vastly different ways that sexuality manifests and is understood in different cultures and times, raises for us the possibility that our cultural changes in the last 130 years might not be a matter of finally seeing the truth that has been there all along. Rather, they might be a matter of the contingent, accidental evolution of concepts – evolving in ways outside of anyone’s explicit control or intention, yet not dictated by something called "objective reality" either.

The evolution metaphor here is helpful. In species evolution, the objective environment establishes conditions in which many species will fail – will never appear or will quickly die out – yet the objective environment does not guide and direct evolution toward one true species. Rather, the objective environment is one in which increasingly diverse species emerge and find ways to be successful. By analogy, we might say that the reality of our biology establishes conditions in which many concepts of sexuality would never appear or would quickly die out – yet biological reality does not guide or direct our understanding toward the one truth. Rather, the array of possible ways of thinking about sexuality, while constrained by facts of biology, remains as infinite as the array of possible species.

OK. Where are we? This is all very heady – and unless you’ve spent a few of the last 25 years hanging out in university English departments, it might be strange and disorienting. What have we got? Let’s review.


First level: forget about labels, categories. Just love people.

Second level: it’s not so simple: people want to be recognized and respected for who they are. We have an identity as a man or a woman – or as intersex or transgender; we have an identity as a person of color, or not; and we have an identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight.

My identity in these areas is not relevant to my rights, not relevant to whether or not I may be oppressed or discriminated against, not relevant to my claim to equal concern and respect. My identity is relevant to my sense of who I am, and I want my society to recognize and honor and respect who I am. A "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy requires me to hide who I am. (Actually, it doesn’t require straight white men like me to hide who we are because under white heteronormativity my particular identity happens to be the one that is assumed rather than hidden – which is why recognizing and respecting alternative identities matters.)

Then comes a third level: the notion of identity itself is challenged. Not only are the categories fuzzy and unreliable, with people falling along continua rather than into one neat box or another, but the continua themselves are contingent social constructs subject to deconstruction and reconstruction into something different. Sexuality is plastic, and the ways we make meaning of it are even more plastic.

Making Peace With Ambiguity

It’s confusing, it’s changing, we can’t really get a handle on the right way to think about it – because any way to think about it is one more temporary product of culture and language and power.

Queer theory helps us let go of our assumptions and not replace them with new ones. Queer theory itself is not so much a "theory," as an understanding that no theory can be the one right theory. Therefore, theory itself is less important. Queer theory helps us resist the temptation to resolve ambiguity, for in that space of ambiguity, we come back to where we started: simply standing on the side of love.

Tell me what’s important to you. It might be your sexual identity, your gender identity, your racial identity, or it might not be. Tell, or don’t tell. It's up to you. And I might ask, or not ask. If I do ask, you can answer, or not answer, or say it’s not important to you, or tell me that you really don’t know what category you’re in.

This is what standing on the side of love looks like: the courage to stand in ambiguity and shine a warm embracing light.

Our journey through queer theory has led us back to “arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” What we know about this place now is just how indefinite and undefined everything is.

Our stand on the side of love is grounded neither in a rejection of, nor an insistence on, any notion of identity.

Our stand on the side of love is grounded in courage: the courage to take each ambiguous moment as it is; the courage to love each ambiguous person as that person is.


Knoxville's Legacy

Our Unitarian Universalist Story has unfolded through the centuries. Today I tell a very recent chapter of our history. Many readers will remember it well. Let us never forget.

Just over three years ago, in July 2008, Jim David Atkisson walked into a Sunday service at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and began shooting. Two were killed, six others injured. Adkisson said he was motivated by hatred of liberals, African Americans, and homosexuals. (Wikipedia entry: here.)

Unitarian Universalists responded with an outpouring of support, and strengthening of resolve. The full-page ad in the New York Times, taken out by the Unitarian Universalist Association, appeared two weeks after the shooting. It said: "Our doors and our hearts will remain open." (PDF of the ad: here.)

We drew on our heritage that has for 200 years de-emphasized Jesus’ superhuman powers, de-emphasized the idea that his death atoned for us, and instead emphasized what he taught us and showed us about how to live: loving our neighbor as our self, recognizing our neighbor in the despised, in the least of these. We became and remain determined to answer Adkisson’s hate with love.

Therefore, our Unitarian Universalist Association launched the "Standing on the Side of Love" campaign: a public advocacy campaign to harness love’s power to stop oppression. ("Standing on the Side of Love" website: here.)

Seeing our communities threatened by fear and hate, seeing how fear and hate leads to exclusion, oppression, and violence, we resolve to levy compassion to influence public attitudes and policy.

The "Standing on the Side of Love" campaign focuses on public issues where hatred most exerts its distortions.

Fear and hatred distort the national discourse about LGBT people (here).

Fear and hatred distort the discourse about immigration (here).

On those two issues, and others, our "Standing on the Side of Love" campaign brings together people of faith to call for respect and inclusion. It's a relatively young campaign, yet it captures the essence of our Unitarian Universalist story through the centuries.