Queers seem to be quite a pain in the ass in church these days. Increasing numbers of us are actually participating, on the outrageous assumption that we have every right to do so. Worse yet, we just can’t be polite and tasteful about it. We are openly affectionate with our partners, we, expect the churches to bless our unions and even expect them to ordain openly gay ministers. Once even conservative churches were willing to let us in, as long as we were closeted or guilt-ridden penitents struggling with our sinful natures. But most don’t have a clue what to do with gay people who refuse to be ashamed of themselves.
Gays and lesbians in increasing numbers are claiming their right to spiritual life, but opinion is split as to the value of it. Critics remind us that the churches, more than any other social institutions, have reviled and oppressed us. Isn’t it self-destructive and homophobic, they ask,for us to keep returning, like moths to the flame, to organizations which despise us?
There’s an analogous split within psychology about the value of spirituality. In the “scientific” camp are those who think it’s a relic of our prescientific past. The most well-known proponent of this point of view was Freud, who argued that religion is a neurotic symptom — a projection of infantile fantasies of an all-protecting parent onto the cosmos. He believed that maturity was only possible for those who renounce such delusions and face their essential aloneness in a meaningless universe.
The dissenters in psychology argue that the need for spiritual life isn’t pathology, but an innate human need, and that true maturity involves developing it. The most articulate proponent of this point of view was William James, whose classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, attempted to study spiritual experience empirically.
James’ studies convinced him that the “sense of presence” of a spiritual reality beyond what the five senses reveal is a common human experience. Experiences of personal revelation, communion, sense of meaning and oneness with a larger whole are common among all peoples. And he believed that these events have powerful effects. They unify the personality, create a sense of safety and peace, lift people out of despair, and confer a capacity for zest and for heroic action. James concludes that the need for spiritual fulfillment is as biologically fundamental as sex and hunger. Philosophically, he argues that where there’s smoke there’s fire. That is, something which exerts such a potent influence on us must itself be real and potent. He saw the power of spiritual experience as evidence for the reality of a spiritual dimension in the universe. Prayer and meditation, he believed, aren’t empty rituals but “a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces real effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world.” If there is merit to this point of view (and I believe there is), then queer people cannot simply dismiss the spiritual dimension of life because religious institutions have oppressed us in its name.
The dangers of spirituality are real and well-known: the danger of intellectual suicide in the name of faith; destructive dependency and sacrifice of individuality; and the dangers of bigotry; and intolerance that identification with a self-righteous in-group fosters.
But the benefits are also real. Spiritual life can be an antidote to despair and meaninglessness, iIt can unify the personality, provide direction and coherence to life, and nourish high ethical ideals. It cannot banish suffering and loss, but it can help us bear them with maturity and courage. Spirituality encourages us to look below the surface of things, and points to an abiding reality unaffected by the flux of life and death.
There are some who believe that being gay itself involves having unique spiritual gifts. In his book Gay Spirit, Mark Thompson wrote: “I would define gay people as possessing a luminous quality of being, a differentness that accentuates the gifts of compassion, empathy, healing, interpretation, and enabling. I see gay people as the in-between ones; those who can entertain irreconcilable differences, who are capable of uniting opposing forces as one; bridge builders who intuit the light and dark in all things.”
Whether or not this is correct, it must surely be closer to the truth than the idea that we’re freaks who were never meant to be and who have no natural place in the family of life. Too many gay people have lived lives of spiritual weightlessness, as if they really were outsiders not only in relation to their own culture but to the whole universe. The flowering of gay spirituality puts an end to centuries of that kind of alienation. Gay people are returning to our places of worship, not as beggars at the door, but as self-respecting men and women who are coming home to claim what has always belonged to us.
Next: Sex and Spirit