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.


Anonymous said...

excellent points made.

I think homosexual Baha'is should model their behavior on that of the Guardian, who in spite of being a homosexual, valiantly fought his baser urges all his life.

Eric Hadley-Ives said...

I have been told by somewhat reliable sources that at least one of the Hands of the Cause of God was actively behaving as a homosexual, but I am unaware of any reliable anecdotes that would suggest that Shoghi Effendi had homosexual tendencies. I believe the fact that he never had any children was likely a consequence of a health problem his wife had when she was young, and some sources suggest that Shoghi Effendi married Rúhíyyih Khanum despite being warned that he would not be able to produce an heir with her (although I haven't much to go on in evaluating the accuracy of those sources).

I think it's always a good suggestion to fight against base urges. Whether lust or anger or petulance or whatever. Abu'l-Baha may have been a perfect example, but Shoghi Effendi also shone brightly in some of his many character strengths and virtues. I'll admit he must have had his flaws as well, as he himself pointed out to those who suggested he was at the same spiritual level as his grandfather, but in general, he does offer a life of example. If he was somewhere along that Kinsey scale other than at the heterosexual extreme, that would be entirely "normal" for any human. He evidently was a righteous person who tried his best in her personal life to be a good person while doing all he could to administer the Baha'i Faith in the way he thought would be best for its survival and eventual flourishing.