Have you ever been in a long, drawn out conversation with someone close to you that just gets uglier and more tense…until you realize what your disagreement was really about? Underneath ‘all those things’ you thought you were at odds about, it turns out there was something else – something that finally got uncovered when you talked enough to discover it?
And after a drag-down, knock-out argument with a spouse or roommate or friend you reach that moment of clarity: “AHA– so that’s what we really disagree about…that’s what was driving this whole big mess with all that other stuff!!”
And just like that, things suddenly get lighter and clearer. And easier.
What if the same breakthrough could happen in the chronically-tense-and-often-ugly conversation between LGBT and conservative religious communities? What if we could find the ‘fundamental difference’ underlying the rest…wouldn’t that make things easier – or at least clearer?
Authority as the Mother of all Fault Lines underlying the Culture War Earthquakes?
In the previous chapter, we explored one of the issues that Jacob has typically seen as a fundamental question underlying all the rest: identity.
While Arthur does not dispute the importance of identity narratives, he has pointed out in our conversations that part of the reason these differences in how we see ourselves even matter (or seem to matter) in the first place is due to the fact that at least some of our beliefs about what is “OK” and “not-OK” in terms of identity are tied to our faith/trust in a certain Authority – or Authorities – that we look to for guidance.
Our judgments about what is “good/right/loving/rational” and what is “bad/wrong/unloving/irrational” are inevitably informed by our understanding of what these Authorities in our lives have taught us.
What’s more, those Authorities generally have done much more than merely inform our judgments about whether not being gay is “good” or “bad”. Those Authorities also generally represent a central pillar of the faith/paradigm/worldview which gives meaning to and makes sense of our lives.
Shake that pillar…and the entire edifice of our lives can seem to tremble.
If we think our holy scriptures say “Gay is Bad,” for example, what happens to our sense of spiritual orientation if, through dialogue with liberal folks, we begin to wonder if “gay” might not be so “bad” after all? What happens to us if we start to doubt the reliability of the Authority we have come to rely on for guidance and our sense of purpose and meaning?
Or, conversely, if we grew up in a liberal religious tradition, and, through dialogue with conservatives, we begin to question some of our liberal assumptions about sexuality, would we really be willing to peer over the edge of any crack thus opened up in our worldview? If our liberal religious tradition could be wrong about X, then what about Y and Z?
And, above all: if we are ourselves gay-identified and liberal, how willing are we, really, to entertain the possibility that the conservative world view of our very own sexuality might have some truth to it? Or if we are SSA-identified and conservative, how willing are we to entertain doubts about the peace we have made with our religious tradition?
Our Authorities are a major centers of gravity – kind of like different topographical “maps” – each of which portray quite different landscapes on the battlefield of contradictory truth claims. They point us in different directions. They say different things about which of us is going in the right direction, which of us is going up, and which going down.
Which “North” is “true”? Yours, or mine?
Whether we are liberal or conservative, if we are not really willing to scrutinize the foundations of our faith, our worldview, our sense of identity, does it really make sense to even start down the road of dialogue? And if the place we find ourselves on the journey of discernment is in large part a function of the Authorities we look to for our spiritual road-map, can we really have a meaningful dialogue unless we take a closer look at the different Maps each of us is holding in our hands?
If your Book says “Gay is Bad” and my Book says “Gay is Good,” can we really engage in meaningful dialogue unless we say to each other, “Let’s take a good hard look at these Books in each of our hands”?
But: Is any of us, deep down, really willing to engage in dialogue that has the potential to unsettle the core of our being, to shake the foundation of our moral and intellectual and spiritual and political life?
Jacob and Arthur accept the Challenge. Since so much of the LGBTQ / religious conservative divide hinges on the different communities’ attitudes towards traditional religious authority, the remainder of this chapter will focus on that conflict.
Jacob and Arthur’s conversation about this started one day when Arthur wrote Jacob this:
You and I still have not really had the direct conversation about spiritual authority yet (which, since you are a Mormon, necessarily means primarily LDS authority, though, since I grew up a Christian, it also includes alleged Biblical authority as well). We have talked about it in the abstract, but I don’t think that’s the level that’s needed. I think we need to talk concretely, about specific religious authority claims, in specific historical circumstances….The question, in other words, is not whether the LDS Church (or the Bible, or the Q’uran, etc.) might be, or could be, “true”…. The question, rather, is this: is it true? This is not a conversation I will force on you, but I’m not sure there is really any other conversation to be had. Everything else just skirts around the issue [because so many of our opinions are based on our religions’ teachings]. So, I guess I’m asking you: is this a conversation you either are drawn to, or feel is necessary, and are willing to have?
Jacob said, “bring it on, baby!” (or something like that).
In work on this book, Arthur warned against, “trying to create conversations around one topic [like identity] which leave the true dichotomy relatively untouched: religious authority, specifically, superhuman religious authority.” He argued, “without it, any of the other topics [in the book we are writing together] just don’t make sense.”
Taking identity as an example, Arthur argued, “The difference is not around whether or not SSA is ‘core’ to identity, but, rather, whether or not the individuals agree with church teaching on whether or not it is ever right to act on those feelings.” Elaborating on this elsewhere he said:
In other words, two people (one liberal, one conservative) who are romantically or sexually attracted to their same sex might both see their religious faith as equally ‘core’ to their identity, and might both see their sexuality as relatively unimportant in the larger scope of who they are as people; but one might call himself “gay” because he rejects traditional church authority teaching on homosexuality (embracing instead a more liberal theology) and believes acting on his sexual feelings is “OK with God”, while the other might call himself “SSA” because he accepts traditional church authority teaching on homosexuality (and its conservative theology) and believes that acting on his sexual feelings is “Not OK with God”.
Arthur continued his argument, “The watershed continental divide here is not necessarily their sense of the relative importance of their sexual identity (how ‘core’ they consider sexuality to be) but rather their relationship to traditional religious authority (and that authority’s teaching).” He then went on to say:
Listening to some (conservative) people, for example, it is clear that religious authority is the central issue, the primary lens, through which they are viewing their life experiences, and making their choices. It is the determining context which gives meaning to all of their choices [e.g. the choice to remain celibate]. The [liberal-leaning] people, on the other hand, pretty much have to leave the LDS church in order to pursue a gay-affirming path, not because they are making their sexual identity their ‘core’ identity, but, rather, because there is no place in the “authoritative” LDS church for them to affirm that aspect of themselves/their experience.
The discussion that is missing, therefore, is not the discussion about the validity of the specific [religious conservative] truth claims about sexuality, but rather the discussion about the validity of the Authority which is alleged to back those more specific truth claims. The same holds true for any allegedly Authoritative sources brought to the table by liberals to support the validity of specific gay activist truth claims. That’s the discussion I (Arthur) want to see. I don’t want temporary “compromise” without clarity of principle, or perhaps even without clarity on the impossibility of compromise in the long run….
These things, these two paths, are irreconcilable – and the only real question, the only pertinent question, therefore, is this: are conservative religious authorities “truer” in some sense than liberal religious authorities (or “science”, or individuals’ authority on their own experience), or not? Or, even more to the point: are religious authorities even relevant to the discussion? And, if they are relevant, then must not their claims to “authoritative-ness” be examined closely, just as we examine the reliability of any other sources or witnesses in other kinds of discussions and debates?
Although I (Jacob) disagreed that this is the “only real question,” I found Arthur’s argument here about authority underlying and influencing everything else quite compelling. It drew me into a fascinating exploration that went deeper (read on!)
Scrutinizing religious authority (generally).
In our previous exchanges, Arthur has previously argued the following – all of which opens the conversation about authority more deeply:
Gay “OK-ness” cannot peacefully co-exist with claims that being gay is “Not OK” – not even as a matter of doctrine, and not even as a matter of personal opinion. “OK” and “not OK” (whether either position is held privately or shouted from the rooftops) will inevitably have social and personal consequences. Real people will really be hurt, no matter which opinion comes to dominate, or even if neither comes to dominate and they continue to do battle forever.
However, when the gay-rejecting claims are made by religious authorities, then the battle goes far beyond a question of any particular doctrine – that is, about whether or not gayness is, in fact, OK, or whether it is not, in fact, OK.
Instead, the question now becomes whether the religion is itself, in fact, “true” or not; or at least whether or not the religion in question is “authoritative” in the way claimed by its adherents.
Let me put it this way. Let us assume that we are with same sex attracted (SSA) Dorothy, in Oz. We have just entered the hall of the Great Wizard (Religious Authority), and we seem to meet him face to face. This Wizard tells us that he loves us, and that, though it will be difficult, he wants us to “set aside” (or transcend) our SSA. Now, Dorothy is overwhelmed at the prospect of having to struggle with her SSA, and the Tin Man’s heart breaks for her, and he says he’ll see her through it, and the Scarecrow starts trying to think their way out of the dilemma, and the Lion declares himself ready to fight for Dorothy no matter what. Lots of love. Lots of compassion. Lot’s of intellectual clarity (though not necessarily about the central question).
The essential question, it seems to me, is this: is the Wizard really what he appears to be, and is his message to be trusted (and obeyed)? Shouldn’t that be what Dorothy and her three friends try to determine first? Why have empathy circles and dialogue conferences that skirt this issue?
The question, in other words: is there, or is there not, a man – an entirely human man – “behind the curtain” that needs to be exposed? In the movie, of course, the Great Oz is a phony, a fake. Toto pulls the curtain back, and the smoke and mirror game of Authority is revealed. We lose the Great Oz. But we gain a good, kindly (entirely human) man, who teaches the people that what they are looking for is already inside.
Now, that is where the Oz analogy fails us, because I want the possibility that the Great Oz is really who he says he is, and that there is, in fact, no man behind the curtain – that is, I don’t want that possibility to be discounted. I want the question discussed, scrutinized. Great Oz-for-Real? or Man behind the curtain?
Arthur went on to admit, “I don’t rule out genuine revelation from beings or dimensions ‘higher’ than human, and because I am always seeking knowledge and light from whatever is beyond me”) – then adding:
Since it is access to God’s mind – the source of all Truth – that is at stake here, the question of “authoritative” sources and “authoritative” interpretations of those sources is almost always of paramount importance. What’s more, the traditional hope is that God has somehow “revealed” his mind to humans in some way – in some authoritative way. This is, I would argue, the very essence of conservative religion (eastern or western), and of all traditional Christian sects.
After musing about the positive potential of belief in a higher power – even if it turned out to be false, Arthur went on to argue:
Better, it seems to me, to “wake up” from the dream of religious authority, and seek hope and love and faith in a rather different way.
Still….I tremble when I think of all that is entailed in this “waking up” (if indeed it is waking up – and not delusion): the Rock of so many people’s lives will be shaken. But that same Rock, for other people, seems to be crushing them.
Better, then, to aim for the whole truth – and let the pieces fall where they may. Some people will be hurt no matter what we do. Better to hurt while seeking truth, than to shrink from the battle. Yes? No? (I really wish I knew!)
It is not so much a question of any particular doctrine (not even a fundamental doctrine) so much as the question of the validity of a religious authority that claims to back the doctrine with the weight of its, well, its authority!
Rather than deliberating some particular doctrine, then, (e.g. on same-sex marriage), Arthur here called attention to what he calls “the more fundamental question”: how, exactly, do human beings come to know the truth, or “the mind of God”?
Scrutinizing conservative religious authority. Arthur has written extensively about the absolute claims of biblical authority – with little or nothing said about issues in the Bible that raise serious concern. For instance, God commanding people to commit what might be considered mass atrocities.
Disagreements among prominent religious leaders – including in their interpretation of Bible’s fundamental questions also raise questions about their authorities.
[More here coming soon]
To read more about Arthur’s critiques in this regard, check out these two pieces published elsewhere by Arthur:
Debating the proper role of the Bible By Arthur Pena May 22, 2009, Napa Valley Register
Questioning authority, in the spirit of truth-seeking By Arthur Pena Jun 25, 2009, Napa Valley Register
Scrutinizing liberal religious authority. Arthur is, as Kendall Wilcox once described himself, an “equal opportunity challenger.” And at times I can’t tell whether his critiques of liberal or conservative authority are more intense! This in response to claims of liberal religious authority:
As a gay person who has sought out (and certainly not found) a liberal way of reconciling homosexuality with anything even remotely resembling traditional Christianity, let me simply repeat what I said at the Parliament: am I to trust a community that bows its head to (presumably) the same God to whom it has been bowing its head for centuries, seeking guidance from that God, only to discover that the understanding the community has received through prayer (and discussion) for centuries was (oops!) mistaken? Can I trust a community who claims that their own Bible (their own canon – not the canon of some of other Christian groups) is the “Word of God”, but that (oops!) it has been universally misinterpreted for about 2000 years?!?!
This is where I lose patience (to put it mildly) with liberal religion that still maintains the trappings of “authority”. I don’t think I’m stretching things too far if I compare it to how a black person might feel if invited to a “reformed” KKK meeting, by “reformed” KKK adherents who have suddenly realized that their “tradition” is “really” all about “inclusion.”
At the very least, I think liberal religionists owe gay people (whom they profess to support) a far clearer and explicit statement on just how far, exactly, liberal religionists have chosen to distance themselves from the doctrines and alleged sources of authority of their own tradition’s Christian past.
I know there are liberally-religious ways to very selectively interpret the Bibles in this way, but such interpretations are the product of decades of higher biblical criticism and tectonic shifts in the way liberal religion perceives the “authority” of the Bible.. an “evolution” in liberal exegesis which I think makes a cruel mockery of continuing to call it “the word of God”….rather like trying to adapt the swastika as the symbol of the Parliament of (Liberal Factions of ) the World Religions!
I’ve seen the ways gay-affirming “Word of God” Bible-believers have tried to reconcile the two – and I think they are on a path that is not only misguided and wildly irrational, but profoundly cruel. Liberal religious leaders have also failed to unambiguously stand up for the gay-affirming folk they claim to support, and thus leave everyone more or less floundering. They leave conservative congregants (quite naturally) confused as to how “holy scripture” can be reconciled with the pro-gay message they hear being preached from the pulpit, and they leave gay congregants sitting next to those Bible-believing conservatives without a robust pro-gay theology being preached that truly challenges the anti-gay conservatives and their notion of Biblical authority. It’s rather like Jews and Nazis being preached to by a pro-Jewish leader of a Mein Kampf book club, where the leader doesn’t quite openly reject the authority of the book or its author, but, rather, insists that we read it through the lens of tolerance and love. The Jews might be forgiven for wishing that the leader take a clearer stand against the book’s authority, and the Nazis might be forgiven for wondering what the heck the leader is talking about!
Once you’ve thrown Biblical authority (real authority – not some watered down mockery of the meaning of the word) out the window – and I think gay affirming people must do this – and once you’ve decided that the mind of God is known through more mystical, artistic, interpersonal, and democratic means, then a very real chasm must yawn wide between the conservatives in the pews and the liberals in the pews. They may be sitting under the same roof, but I truly believe they are no longer members of the same church (if “church” includes the concept of “common belief,” and, if it does not, then why all the creeds and professions of faith?).
Deliberation towards determination (vs. subtle liberalization). As part of this discussion, Arthur has also made some astute points about a real space of deliberation that is completely dedicated to revealing the whole truth – all while avoiding a subtle and secrete campaign of (hidden) proselyting:
I’d rather the truth about them stand out clear, and that people then make decisions about whether or not to continue to support them….I don’t want to see such institutions merely liberalized – I want to seem them destroyed. Or victorious.
But I don’t want the essential thing – the issue of truth – to be covered in the smokescreen of gradual liberalization. If conservative institutions have true authority, then I want that to become more clearly known. But if whatever power they wield which is merely human, I want its humanness to be completely exposed. I don’t want it to simply “morph” and become power-in-a-more-liberal-guise.
Again, to use the example of Catholics, many go on believing their church to be the “one true church” – no matter how much it changes. I want, rather, to see that kind of waking up which ensues when people realize the humanness (and hence the fallibility) of their institutions, and then begin to deal with each other as one human to another, instead of through the veil of assumed super-human authority.
The real heat behind the polemical fire here is the quite obvious fact that, if the LDS authorities have been wrong about SSA, then their authority is called into question (just as no matter how much “charity” the present Pope may wish to bring to the debate, he cannot and will not ever admit the Church has been wrong in its Magisterial pronouncements….just as he cannot at any time take back the doctrine of Papal infallibility – not without shaking the Vatican’s authority down to its very foundation).
But make no mistake: Questioning a doctrine backed by religious authority is tantamount to questioning the authority itself. If the Authority (Elders and Book of Mormon, Bible, Pope, Q’uran, Vedas) says that homosexuality is “not OK”, then anyone who says it is OK inevitably and directly (even if sometimes unwittingly) profoundly challenges the credibility of the alleged Authority.
Since most people who are against homosexuality make explicit use of religious Authority in their arguments against it, the credibility of the religious Authority itself should be open to scrutiny (since it is an essential part of the argument). Since it is the very authoritativeness of the Authority that is part of the argument (i.e. the argument is claimed to be true because the argument is from God), it is not just the truth value of any particular statement made by the Authority that must be scrutinized, but rather the truth value of the claim of superhuman authority itself that must be scrutinized.
Even while saying all this, Arthur adds some interesting stipulations to guard against certain tendencies in the conversation:
You can’t (rationally or meaningfully) try to make Unitarian Universalists more authoritarian, and you can’t try to make the Mormon Church (much much) less so…not unless you are prepared to change the core of what they are.
In this country, in the long run, I think conservatives are doomed. (In Syria and some other places, perhaps, it is the liberals who are doomed). But the allegedly “liberal” paradigm that will then reign in this country will only serve the same old power elites (just as the Catholic Church reigning today is not the same Church in power decades ago….but the same power remains in power), and will be bereft of the contributions true conservatives could have made to a fuller truth being made known.
This is not a question of difficulty in (as you say) “managing” a fundamental doctrinal difficulty. This is, rather, a fight to the death on the part of that “meme” called “religious authority”.
To misconceive the nature of this fight is, as I have argued, to invite a kind of “blurriness” that only ensures great suffering on all sides. Yes, suffering will happen anyway. But I’d rather suffer fighting a fight that I understand than suffer from a war that has no clear battle lines.
What I am arguing is that the battle lines are, in fact, clear – if we are willing to look. The battle is, above all, a battle over “religious authority”. I therefore urge us all to cease and desist from pretending otherwise.
Unless, of course, I’ve got it all wrong….and the situation is not as I have portrayed it. (In which case, as once I begged before, may I be allowed to eat my words with a chocolate shake to wash them down.)
There you have it! It’s true that some religious conservatives would feel hesitant to accept Arthur’s invitation to such a searching dialogue – especially since it’s easier when anything is just accepted without question. But others might welcome the conversation…after all, if you stand on truth, then further scrutiny should only confirm that, right?
What would it mean (for all of us) to insist on having a more searching and intense conversation?
Challenge from the left: Stop wasting your time considering religious explanation.
The biggest objections to Arthur’s contention may not arise from religious conservatives – but instead from those on the left. Indeed, it’s become common to hear what sounds almost like an opposite insistence from the left when it comes to attention in relation to religious authority.
Over the last decade, it’s become increasingly common to hear assertions that religious conviction should not receive any attention in the public conversation. One person, for instance, wrote, “people need to stop looking at this issue as a religious issue, and start looking at it as a civil rights issue.” Another person said, “The entire nature of this argument needs to change. This is a matter of human rights, not religion.”
As reflected in these quotes, there is an ongoing “framing conflict between” a frame of civil rights and another of religious explanation. On this basis, increasing numbers seem to be pushing any sort of religious explanation away. Conservatives have seen a growing hostility to any sort of religious explanation:
The idea seems to be that religious explanation is out-of-bounds – aka frequent objections like “not another religious argument!”
While Arthur would agree at the concern shown in the influence of religious authority, his answer is not to banish it, but to scrutinize it. Rather than ignore and write-off the arguments, his is a call to create space for a more searching conversation….one that would, in his mind, expose the fraud of that authority (or in my mind, confirm God’s hand somewhere in these claims).
In other words: If the authority is indeed a fraud, let it be known. If it is as true, then scrutiny will not hurt.
Response from the right: We cannot escape our religious lenses. In summary, Jacob would respond and raise to our secular and liberal audience a request to please understand that religion is central enough to the lives of religious conservatives that it cannot simply be excised from our understanding. When you ask (or suggest) that we need to attempt that, what it feels like is you’re just pushing us (and our beliefs) away from any public relevance.
We cannot separate ourselves from our beliefs – because they form who we are. And our religious beliefs in many instances ARE the arguments that hold up our understanding. For instance, what happens in the next life, who God is, what God’s will is…if that context is stripped away, the place where we stand in this conversation begins to make no sense (And maybe that’s your point?) Devoid of any of that (or required to shelf it), we are left looking quite silly, foolish, and without a case.
As best we can, we’ll continue trying to “translate” where we’re coming from. But in the end, please understand that what we’re saying won’t and can’t make sense if you don’t appreciate the larger context of beliefs. To the degree you can not only allow us that – but try to understand where we are coming from, we appreciate that!
The same thing, of course, might be said of those coming from the civil rights stance. The conclusions they have reached make sense within the larger context of other beliefs. If you believe that sexuality is a central characteristic of self rooted in a largely unchanging biology, then it makes all kinds of sense you would channel energies towards championing rights and justice for people of all (fundamental, underlying, enduring) sexual identities.
This seems harder than you promised? We began with a suggestion that sometimes digging down to underlying issues – ‘the real question’ at heart – can make things easier (especially if everyone agrees that we’ve discovered ‘the real question’).
Obviously that is not the case here. Not only will the ‘real question’ remain a point of divergence and debate – but as we’ve illustrated, sometimes the process of going deeper can widen rather than narrow the disagreement – and even exacerbate and heighten the tension and division at play.
Despite all this, we believe it a valuable, crucial and transformative exercise to work together to at least try to discern underlying fundamental questions – truth, identity, authority, God – and then grapple with them!
How else are we to figure out what is really happening?
 Or not! (adds Arthur).Unlike Jacob “The Peacemaker”, Arthur “The Truth Cop” can’t help point out that while discovering what is really at stake in a conversation might sometimes be a cause for celebration, it might also very well be so terrifying as to call into question any further willingness on our part to engage in dialogue with “them.”
 Arthur adds: I’m not sure the Authority Question (AQ) is necessarily even more “fundamental” than the “identity” issue. What’s “really at stake” for each person will probably vary from person to person. But the AQ does seem to deserve more attention than it gets, and “scrutinizing” it will, I think, have far greater consequences than people realize. I don’t think many liberals really “get” how much is truly at stake for conservatives when (if) their conservative Authorities are truly scrutinized.
 It is important to point out that by “Authority” (capital A) we mean any trusted source of guidance upon which we, at least in part, depend to give shape to our lives. Thus, “Authority” for one person may be the Bible; for another it may be The Book of Mormon; for another it may be the Vedas; and for yet another it may be Science; or one’s Higher Self; or one’s mother, one’s father…But whatever that Authority may be for us, when it is shaken, the very foundation of our world shakes.
 Jacob and Arthur weren’t sure whether to say “that aspect of themselves” or “that aspect of their experience”. Using the word “themselves” seemed to Jacob to “take for granted the progressive narrative of identity”. To Arthur, Jacob’s suggestion of using the phrase “their experience” seemed to accommodate certain (though by no means all) conservative views of homosexuality which deny its “naturalness” (i.e. it’s being a “part” – big or small – of “who someone is”).
 Arthur adds, “I do not intend to imply that the Jews are to be understood as the gays and Nazis as the conservatives – I just want to impress upon you how absurd it can feel when people are not being clear on the question of Biblical authority, and the way this lack of clarity leaves open room for a great deal of fear and loathing and confusion.