Aaron has a dilemma. He was raised as a member of a religious sect whose founder is revered by the faithful as a prophet and a saint, and whose every word is regarded as Absolute Truth. Aaron grew up feeling deeply connected to the sect. He had a sense of belonging to a community, and felt inspired to live a better life by the example of the founder. The dilemma for Aaron, who is gay, is that this founder categorically condemned homosexuality.
Two solutions immediately present themselves. The first is to deny his sexuality. Aaron tried that. He kept his attraction to men a secret into his early twenties, while he tried to pray and meditate it away. But in his last year of college, he finally had sex with another guy, and took to it like a duck to water. Now, ten years later, everyone who knows him knows he’s gay, and he lives with a partner of three years. The toothpaste is not going back into that tube.
The second obvious solution would be to deny his spirituality. Aaron tried that, too. Throughout his rebellious twenties, as he was finding himself sexually, his motto was “Fuck religion!” Rejection may have been a necessary step in his development, but It not longer works for him. Today he feels the pull of something transcendental, longs for deeper meaning in his life, and misses aspects of the sect he left as a younger man. So far, spiritually, he’s been an obedient child and a defiant adolescent. Now he’s trying to find a spiritual life appropriate for a mature and self-respecting gay adult. He wrestles with a question that probably most in our community who follow a spiritual path eventually ask themselves: “How do I respond to claims of spiritual authority?”
As a student of Buddhism, I’ve long followed the life and work of the Dalai Lama. His steadfast, nonviolent resistance to the Chinese oppression of his people inspires me, and I find valuable guidance for the conduct of my own life in his teachings. But I do have areas of disagreement. I believe, for instance, that his acceptance of reincarnation, solely on the authority of the Buddha, is weak and unconvincing. Worse, he represents and supports a Tibetan moral tradition in which every form of homosexual behavior is considered “sexual misconduct.” I see him as wise and heroic in many ways, but like all human beings, he embodies the limitations and flaws of his own culture and conditioning, and as a gay man, I can only deplore his allegiance to a sexual morality that I regard as unrealistic and harmful. I have no problem holding these differing assesments of the Dalai Lama because I feel free to see him as a human being (if a remarkable one). But if I thought I was supposed to believe he has some special pipeline to the truth that is denied to the rest of us, then I’d have a dilemma just like Aaron’s.
All of the five major world spiritual traditions (as well as all of the minor ones that I’m aware of)—contain much nonsense, much that contradicts science, and much that offends, or should offend, our moral sense. Can any reasonably educated person today doubt the truth of that statement? All five traditions emerged when most people were illiterate, and weren’t citizens, but “subjects” who were expected to obey religious authorities without question. And these religious authorities were usually allied with or indistinguishable from, the secular powers. Their “authority” was buttressed with claims of Absolute, Eternal, and Unerring Truth. All the traditions have over-sold themselves in making these inflated claims; and all have in one way or another fostered oppression – the subjugation of women, for instance, and slavery—and homophobia. Clearly, religious traditions don’t descend, perfectly formed, from on high. They are human creations, and bear the imperfections of all things human.
Any gay person who feels an inward spiritual pull and is drawn to investigate one of the received traditions for guidance is well advised to remember this shadow side of religion, and to approach the spiritual quest as a mature and discriminating adult, not as a credulous child. It’s crucial that we never relinquish our right to think for ourselves, or allow our doubts and skepticism to be treated as sin or disloyalty. There is a little wisdom in the world, and a few wise human beings who embody it; and learning from them can elevate and enrich our lives. But any “truth” that isn’t congruent with what we know in our own minds, feel in our own hearts, and experience in our own bodies, is no truth at all. We surrender personal autonomy at our own peril. At the end of the day, each of us has to be our own final spiritual authority.