Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A response to a gay Baha'i

Back before the Internet's widespread use, when people were using electronic bulletin boards and e-mail lists to discuss various things, I was often engaged in groups that discussed the Baha'i Faith.  Back then, a common topic was the fact that our religion, the Baha'i Faith, teaches that people ought not express love through homosexual behaviors.  The sources of that teaching, the actual teaching, how that teaching is interpreted, what was actually intended, how the teaching is implemented in Baha'i community life... all these things were regularly discussed.  And then, in the later 1990s more people became involved in internet discussions of these things.  It seemed to me the same things kept getting discussed, and the same ideas were repeated so often that I became very bored with the whole topic.  It's been over ten years since I've ever posted on this topic, but a recent blog post inspired me to write about it again.  I think I offer a few insights that are not often repeated in these discussions.

I've never actually cared much about this issue.  For a while, perhaps for several months when I was in my late teens or early 20s, I did think that homosexuality was probably unhealthy or wrong, but I never felt any emotional negativity about gay people. I've had very close friends, whom I loved very much, admit that they felt homosexual attraction to me, and I have felt some slight regret that I was never able to reciprocate those feelings in any way, and I have sometimes felt that my non-sexual or non-erotic love for other men has been devalued because, in general, American culture devalues non-sexualized love.  But, anyway, gay behaviors don't strike me as worth much attention, outside of the social context that makes them important (because of the persecution of gay people). I understand that because many people feel extremely prejudiced against gay people, and society inflicts harm on gay persons, therefore we have a need to protect the rights of gay people, and defend them, and so forth, and that appeals to me.  But, having never had strong emotions about it, I sometimes don't understand the fuss at an emotional level.  Some people enjoy playing chess, and some don't, but who cares?  If there was no persecution and discrimination against homosexuality, people's sexual orientation would be, for me, of about the same importance as people's orientation toward enjoying a game of chess.

I am, however, very thankful for the social critique that gay activists have brought to us, because in my opinion, heterosexual behaviors are generally quite problematic in this world; and I think gay theorists give us some very useful insights into the problems of sexism, homophobia, machismo, and so forth.

Anyway, I'll share my response to the blog post here on my own blog.  The original post to which I was responding was at this link, and may still be there.


Thanks for sharing a lovely essay with the world. Your heart seems pure and loving, and your faith seems strong.  I agree with your friend, the Baha'i Faith needs famous gay Baha'is who stick with the Faith.

A few points to consider:

Homosexuality and homosexual behaviors, and the experiences of homosexual behavior or identity, will be extremely diverse. In different times and places, with various cultures, such behaviors have been quite frequent or extremely rare. Evidently, the social context matters for how people express their sexuality.

There is always a biological (emerging from our biochemistry and evolution quite independently of the family and cultural environment we grow up in) element to everything in human behavior. Obviously.  What else could there be? Even supernatural or spiritual aspects will be manifested in actual body changes and chemistry, which will exist because of biological evolution.

Homosexual behavior and feelings, or sexual orientation, in general, speaking about populations of humans, seems to exist along a continuum, which is sometimes measured by the Kinsey scale.  If you are at an extreme end of the Kinsey scale, your orientation may be purely homosexual or heterosexual, but some sexuality researchers believe most people exist along the continuum, and it is our language (which divides us into pure categories) which pushes us into "homosexual" or "heterosexual" categories (although, if you are at extreme end of the scale, you would presumably be purely homosexual or heterosexual, and so, from that point of view, it might be appropriate to think of the issue in dichotomous--homosexual or not homosexual--terms).

All speech is, to some degree, political.  After all, Baha'u'llah pointed out that "utterance is an essence which aspires to exert an influence".  When we use language, we are attempting to influence others.  "Politics" (broadly defined) is the effort to influence others.  So, suggesting someone's work is "politically motivated" rarely tells us much that is useful.  What work isn't?

The Baha'i Faith and the "Cause of God" can be understood in many ways.  In one sense, the Baha'i Cause is the general cause of God for this age and for all ages: people ought to create societies that maximize human flourishing and happiness; people ought to be ethical and treat each other well; men and women ought to be equal; prejudices should be eliminated; peace should replace war; justice should dominate, while tyranny and injustice should be diminished; people should cultivate their spiritual natures and seek to worship and respect the Divine, etc. In such a general sense, many people who have never heard of the Baha'i Faith are already "Baha'is".  In another sense, Baha'is are members of the organized religion of the Baha'i Faith.  To what extent that organized religion is an imperfect but honest attempt by flawed human beings to create a system and organization that reflects the intentions of Will of the Creator of the Universe, and to what extent it is an actual incarnation of the Will of that Creator, is somewhat mysterious, and it may be impossible to distinguish those two aspects of religion (its existence as a creation of humans and their societies, and its existence as a supernatural embodiment of Providence).  In another sense, the "Baha'is" are persons who actually live up to the teachings and ideals promoted and revealed by Baha'u'llah, and in that ideal sense, everyone can strive to be a Baha'i, but no one should expect to actually be one, just as no one can realistically expect to be "perfect" in some absolute moral sense.

Baha'i individuals and Baha'i communities vary tremendously in regards to their strengths and weaknesses, their failures and successes. Gay Baha'is might be able to find complete acceptance and love in some Baha'i communities, and certainly in some loving friendships with Baha'i individuals, whereas in other communities the homosexual Baha'is might suffer cruel persecution and ostracism.

Religions must offer guidance to persons in many different cultures, in many different times. On one hand, they need to stand above historical trends, so they can condemn what is wrong, even in times when what is wrong becomes widely accepted.  On the other hand, they must also be flexible, embracing moral thinking and new insights about reality as civilization advances and humanity matures.

When it comes to moral laws and truth, we must consider what is absolutely true, and what is true in particular contexts.  As a thought experiment, imagine that homosexual identities and behaviors are objectively morally correct and favored by God in 0.5% of humanity, discouraged but tolerated in 1.5% of humanity, and spiritually harmful in 98% of humanity.  Suppose that human nature being what it is, if a religion is entirely supportive of homosexual behaviors and identities, 5% of the population would identify as homosexual, and 20% would sometimes engage in homosexual behaviors; whereas if a religion is mildly unaccepting and discouraging, only about 0.5% of its believers will take on the homosexual identity and perhaps fewer than 2% will ever engage in homosexual behaviors.  From a utilitarian point of view, if that was the objective situation, which position would be more spiritually healthy for the religion to take?  But, I'm not a strict utilitarian, and the psychological and social suffering of the small minority who would persist in following their core nature in their homosexuality while worrying about their rejection of the guidance offered by their religion concerns me.  And, by the way, I'm not at all certain the scenario I've suggested bears any resemblance to the actual situation. Perhaps homosexuality in the modern North American sense is objectively morally neutral, and what Shoghi Effendi was describing was the homosexual behaviors he knew from the Middle East and upper-class 1920s England, which may differ substantially (in terms of morality) from what 21st century North Americans do. Or, perhaps homosexuality really is a spiritual sickness or distortion of the spiritual nature of humans in all its forms and manifestations. I don't know, and I don't even have an opinion, it just doesn't matter to me, as there are so many other problems in the world that are very clearly wrong.

God doesn't seem overly concerned with our psychological suffering or physical suffering.  After all, this universe relies on natural selection, with all the death and misery that includes, and uses predation, competition for scarce resources, mutations, diseases, and death, as the process that forms atoms and molecules into bodies capable of manifesting the human spirit. Also, natural evil, like the disasters that kills thousands, millions, or possibly somewhere in the universe, billions of lives, seem fairly regular.  God seems mostly concerned with our spiritual well-being, and supposedly, when we understand that, the emotional, mental, and physical suffering we sometimes endure may seem more acceptable, since such suffering offers us opportunities for spiritual growth.

It is possible that the "homosexuality" condemned by Shoghi Effendi and forbidden to Baha'is is general homosexuality, even the sort of modern North American homosexual behaviors and identities.  It's also plausible that it is not, and the situation we have now in modern homosexuality is not the sort of thing that was condemned, and therefore we should allow it without any concerns.  It's possible that Shoghi Effendi's interpretation was right for his time, but the Faith should be able to evolve and change its legislation to reflect a new consensus, but it's also possible that Shoghi Effendi's interpretation is still the best one, even now, and the faith should not ever change its rules about homosexuality.  It's possible that the law exists to protect many people from doing spiritual harm to themselves, even though it imposes great hardships on a few persons for whom homosexuality is spiritually harmless or beneficial, but it's also possible the law is beneficial for everyone, and it's also possible that the law is just God giving us more hardship in this mortal world to build up our spiritual abilities, and it doesn't really protect anyone from spiritual harm because homosexuality isn't necessarily spiritually harmful.  It's possible God doesn't care at all about homosexuality, and this rule about homosexuality is just an artifact of culture and history that has been inflicted on the religion through the religion's human failings, but it's also possible God really does not want humans to express their homosexual tendencies. All of these are possibilities, and Baha'is (and other people who believe that religious truth comes from Revelation and authoritative Sources such as Manifestations of God) must each consider these approaches and use both their independent search for truth and rational faculties along with their respect for authority and attraction to ideals of purity to figure out what they believe.

The Baha'i Faith as a social institution is either "stuck" or "blessed" with specific interpretation from the last Guardian that will put it "behind" the progressive morality that accepts and celebrates various sexual orientations and new conceptions of marriage.  For Baha'is or potential Baha'is (in the sense of being official members of the organized religion) who are gay, this is going to be a big challenge. For people who think that religions ought to be perfect and also think that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, this will also be a problem.  For people who think homosexual behaviors and identities are wrong or misguided, it won't be a problem.  For people who expect even good religions to have imperfections, who also think that modern homosexuality in North America is no more problematic than modern heterosexuality in our culture, it's still a problem, but maybe not enough of a problem to keep them out of the Baha'i Faith.  It's up to individuals to decide for themselves what this aspect of the Baha'i Faith means to them in terms of whether they want to join the organized religion or just be a Baha'i in the broader sense of desiring the core Baha'i goals of unity and peace and so forth.

I hope some of these ideas or observations are useful in our mutual search for truth and "whatever is pleasing to God".  Please remember that I write with no more authority than anyone else on this subject.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tolkien: Archetype and Word

I have just enjoyed reading a fine essay published in October of 2013 examining the Lord of the Rings in terms of Jungian archetypes.  The review essay is by Patrick Grant (of the University of Victoria in British Columbia), and it is entitled: "Tolkien: Archetype and Word" (published on the Jung Page).  It's quite long, but if you are seriously into Tolkien and have some interest in Carl Jung, I think you'll enjoy every paragraph of it.

Why do so many people still admire Osho?

Osho is quite popular here in Taiwan.  Some of my friends share quotations from him, and some of his ideas seem quite inspiring to people here.

I know Osho as Rajneesh, and my main knowledge of him came from reading magazine and newspaper articles back in the 1980s when he and his followers created an intentional community in Oregon (Antelope, Oregon). I’ve had a life-long interest in alternative lifestyles, intentional communities, communes, and spiritual teachers, both those within the mainstream religious traditions and those outside those traditions. But, I haven’t really read or studied Rajneesh, and haven’t been interested in him.  

When evaluating the teachings of someone, or judging whether their insights and wisdom are actually wise or accurate, it’s important to do independent investigation.  The essence of justice is using our own eyes and ears, instead of just relying on what we hear second-hand, and I realize most of what I know about Osho (Rajneesh) is second-hand.  I’ve read some of his materials, and watched some old videos with him, and I have some observations.

There are plenty of hostile writings about Osho available on the internet.  Some people seem to think he belongs in a category with other mind-control cult leaders such as Jim Jones, David Koresh, or Shoko Asahara. Others seem to think he was a great New Age spiritual leader like Emanuel Swedenborg, Paramahansa Yogananda, or Rudolf Steiner. I’d put him more in a category with people who offered a mix of wisdom and silliness, who meant well, but didn’t always live up to their potential, and associate Osho with people such as G. I. Gurdjieff, Helena Blavatsky, Jidda Krishnamurti, or Edgar Cayce (although to be fair to Cayce, he was never a teacher or leader of anything when in a waking state, but the things he revealed when in a trance offer a similar mix of profound and inspirational wisdom combined with baffling pronouncements that are obviously ridiculous). 

By the way, my personal favorite guru was ‘Abdu’l-Baha, although I am fond of some of the works of Abū al-Faḍl Gulpāyigānī, Thomas Merton, Loren Eiseley, Rene Dubos, Buckminster Fuller, Philip K. Dick, Edgar Cayce, P. D. Ouspensky, Charles Fort, Edmund Gurney, William James, Frederick W. H. Myers, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frank Podmore, Carl Jung, and sometimes for intellectual entertainment I like engaging with the ideas of persons such as Graham Hancock, Rupert Sheldrake, Stuart Hameroff, John Polkinghorne, Werner Heisenberg, Stanislav Grof, Bertrand Russell, and William R. Corliss.  Recent and contemporary gurus who I think are better than Osho would include: David Deida, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shih Cheng Yen, Jack Kornfield, Thomas Moore, the 14th Dalai Lama, and Pope Francis. However, I strongly recommend anyone who admires gurus and spiritual leaders to give a few hours to “The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power” by Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer, which should provide an engaging intellectual and spiritual challenge.

There are many things I don’t like about Osho.  I’ll describe a few. 

His community and followers seem very much centered on him, his person.  I prefer communities centered on ideas or ideals, teachings and principles. When I see a community with too much emphasis on a leader or guru, this repels me. This probably comes from my Protestant and Baha’i spiritual background, as I was brought up in a liberal United Methodist tradition that emphasized a direct relationship between the individual and the Divine, and I have been a practicing Baha’i for over thirty years, and the Baha’i Faith forbids clergy, teaching that in this age people are enlightened and wise enough to read for themselves and think for themselves. I also know enough about psychology to be cautious about the unhealthy dynamic between gurus and their followers. I’m too egalitarian for that.   

Osho seemed to have too many psychological problems.  Some people suggest he had narcissistic personality disorder, but I don’t know if that is accurate. He also supposedly had issues with addictions to medications. Again, these allegations may not be true.  There are worse allegations about his problems, but I don't know if those are true, either. But, all in all, I sense that he was more psychologically troubled and damaged than most people I know, and when I admire the writings and ideas of someone, I like also knowing that the person whose ideas I’m admiring was also a throughly psychologically healthy and well-adjusted person.

He allowed people with horrible agendas to do horrible things on his behalf.  When he lived in Oregon, the person he put in control of his affairs attempted to murder people and attempted to poison the food supply of a town in Oregon.  Osho claimed he knew nothing about what was done, and I think there was no evidence that he was guilty of anything, but still, it shows his poor judgement that he promoted a person so deeply flawed into a position of trust under him, and allowed that person to amass such power while he was still alive.

Some of his teachings about sex were, I think, not especially healthy or helpful to his followers. I think the women who experimented with working in pornography or prostitution to get over sexual hangups, based on advice from Rajneesh, were probably not helped much by following his advice.  This is just my intuitive sense of things, as I don’t think anyone researched this. 

I don’t like how he collected luxury cars and insisted that material things were no barrier to spirituality. It may be true that for some enlightened persons, the material things and luxuries could be meaningless, and perhaps Rajneesh was trying to show that he didn’t care about material things by having so much luxury around himself. But, I think for most people wealth and material luxury is a barrier to spirituality, and I think science will probably confirm this, and therefore, I think Rajneesh was wrong.  

His spirituality seems to me very much centered on personal growth and personal spirituality, but I think better spirituality combines in approximately equal measure the teachings for personal spiritual cultivation with commitment to others through the charitable love, empathy, and compassion that lead to solidarity, self-sacrifice, activism, volunteering, and philanthropy. There is nothing wrong with helping individuals autonomously reach personal wisdom and spiritual insight, but if that aspect is emphasized and the commitment to community is neglected, I am dissatisfied.

In his rhetoric, he was given to hyperbole. I object to some things he said, but I don't know if those things I object to were intended as literal truth or as exaggerated positions he used to shock and alert his audience.  For example, he said that he rejected all religion, or all human history. He wanted new people to arise, new people who were free from the mental shackles of the past and of traditions. I don't think he could have been serious in some literal sense when he said that. Human nature has potential for good and evil, and rejecting all religion or all past conventions of humanity is to reject all the good that is already present in human nature and achievement, simply because it is associated with all the bad we have also committed or suffered. Radical rejections of everything seems to indicate to me a discomfort with the facts of human nature, and a rejection of reality.

For an example of the type of foolishness or folly I find mixed in with his wisdom, I will take two claims from “Understanding the Nature and Nurture of Love” from “Being in Love: How to Love with Awareness”.  First, Osho wrote: “Love cannot be learned, it cannot be cultivated. The cultivated love will not be love at all. It will not be a real rose, it will be a plastic flower.”  This sets up a false dichotomy between “learning and cultivating” something and having something occur naturally and spontaneously. It is natural for people to learn things, to cultivate things, and to practice behaviors or thoughts until they improve. There is nothing artificial about people improving themselves or improving their feelings and behaviors. Intuition and spontaneity may sometimes be preferable as a means for achieving something, but even so, achieving the same thing through effort and struggle doesn't mean the end result is false or diminished. If I find a gold nugget lying in a stream, I’m luckier than the miner who had to blast and dig through hard rock to find a similar quantity of gold, but in the end, the gold is the same. 

Osho also wrote: “When you learn something, it means something comes from the outside; it is not an inner growth.”  I think here Osho is forgetting that we exist partly as individuals inside bodies, but also as relationships and interactions in environments. My “self” includes, to some degree, the people with whom I interact. I express myself and exist partly by what I say and do with others. Learning is simply taking knowledge and behavior from the environment and internalizing it and incorporating it into our own individuality. Inner growth usually comes from our interactions and responses to external stimulation. Learning (from outside) is to great extent the process by which we experience inner existence and inner growth. 

On the other hand, Osho was quite correct to say that love could be our natural, spontaneous being. I think we have within us the spark of the divine, or the clear mirror capable of brightly reflecting the splendor of the holy. As “love” (compassion, altruism, affection, devotion, intimacy, mutual aid, altruism, kindness, attraction, benevolence, joy, and caring) seems to be a very fundamental aspect of human nature (and a tendency in the universe, and a force I associate with God), I think Osho is correct to suggest it is natural for us to love, and much of our inability to love correctly arises from bad information and unpleasant experiences we’ve learned from our environments. So, while I think love can be learned and cultivated, and learning and cultivating something good (such as love) is often admirable or necessary, the other insight (that acquired knowledge or experience may be blocking a natural love) is probably quite useful and accurate in some cases.
Osho is too proud.  He compares himself to Messengers of God such as Jesus or the Buddha. Osho is not a Messenger of God, and it’s a marker of his folly that he would compare himself to those Messengers. But, on the other hand, Truth is Truth, whether it comes from the mouth of a Messenger of God, or a modern guru, or a friend having a nice conversation with you, so in that sense, as we are all sometimes vehicles for expressing Truth, Osho can compare himself to Jesus or Buddha, but so can anyone else. 

I can see why people are attracted to Osho’s teachings. I admire some of what he says.

Osho had an admirable ability to use humor and ridicule in his teachings. 

In the communities of Osho followers, people tried to make spirituality fun.

Osho was strongly against nationalism.

Many of Osho’s teachings are quite reasonable and wise. Looking through some of his books, I can see that he does have some deep insights, some clever ways of putting the problems of life into a healthy perspective. Although I find within his books of wisdom some utter foolishness and ignorance, there is nothing unusual about that. Most of us are capable of some deep wisdom and some folly and foolishness. Osho is like all of us. 

Osho has a playful way of presenting his ideas.  His lack of seriousness is refreshing.

I like how Osho knows enough about religion and philosophy to bring together ideas from many sources. I’m a scholar, so I’m concerned that he doesn’t usually refer to his sources or inspirations, and I as I read his ideas and find ideas I’ve encountered before, I do note that he frequently is not giving credit to earlier thinkers who have said essentially what he is repeating.  However, he is a teacher giving sermons and lessons to followers, and not an academic presenting theories at a conference or in an academic speech, so I guess his approach is appropriate for what he is doing. I do find that many of the things he brings in from philosophy or religion are the same sorts of ideas that I found attractive, so in most of what I’ve read, I find Osho’s ideas generally to be a pleasant mix of the sort of ideas I find attractive.

A guru or autocratic leader may have some brilliant ideas worthy of admiration, and some bad ideas as well. Even the worst doctrines had at least some reasonable and good teachings, otherwise they would never be able to hold on to followers and supporters.  The Nazis supposedly had good animal welfare policies and taught reasonable things about nutrition and public health. Transcending selfishness and egoism is a worthy spiritual goal, but taken to excess and used by gurus or political leaders, this noble tendency can be distorted. The North Korean regime survives by forcing North Koreans to leave behind egoism and devote themselves to the adoration of the Kim family, and the Nazi Party in Germany attracted people by visions of self-sacrifice for the “greater good” and surrendering of personal interest to the complete devotion to Hitler. The group called “Daesh” or “ISIL” asks sincere Muslims to give loyalty to God (as understood by the Daesh theologians), which would be all fine and good, except that their understanding of God is horribly wrong. Jim Jones of the People’s Temple taught many progressive spiritual critiques of modern racism and capitalist excesses, but he was always a bit crazy, and finally forced or convinced hundreds of his followers to commit suicide with him (much as Hitler convinced so many Germans to engage in hopeless wars that led to the destruction of Germany).  Osho seems to have been far less dangerous or toxic than these mind-control cultists like the Nazi leadership or the People’s Temple or the current regime in North Korea. On the contrary, in many respects he seems benign or harmless, and perhaps even quite helpful or useful to persons exploring spirituality and critiques of mainstream mindlessness in conventional society or religion.  

However, I do wish people would explore a wide variety of gurus and spiritual teachings, mix in a bit of serious scientific or philosophical work with their new age spirituality reading, and keep an open mind about some of the wisdom to be found in conventional and mainstream religious traditions and organized religions. The Western and Eastern traditions have precious insights to offer everyone, but they also have imperfections.  People ought to keep this in mind, and even if you give yourself over to certitude and faith and devotion, it’s wise to preserve some detachment from one’s own passionate belief and faith.  Love can be a sort of attachment that leads us astray just as much as hatred, and the constructs we hold in our mind, whether they seem fair or foul, might be wrong. As long as people retain this bit of doubt and maintain a seeking or critical attitude, at least in respect to their personal understanding of what it is they believe, I think people can enthusiastically embrace faith and devotion to religions and spiritual leaders.  But people must maintain their common sense ethical compass, and look out for religions and spiritual leaders transforming the religious experience into mind-control cults. When our gurus or religious leaders become promoters of violence and hatred, or turn their followers into zealous loyalty-based groups defining the world in terms of “us versus them” where only the in-group of true believers are treated with the decency and respect that everyone deserves, then it's time to leave. Osho didn’t teach violence or hatred. He didn’t get extreme in the “in-group versus out-group” loyalty game with his followers.  Although in certain times and places some of his followers seem to have attempted to set up a mind-control cult in his name, it doesn’t seem Osho was directly doing that.   

But it is remarkable that, despite the serious flaws in his life, teachings, and his community of followers, his lectures and teachings have been gaining popularity, and many people today find them quite inspirational.