24 February 2011

God is like music


Since my nine-month depression last year, I've been struggling with belief. I've pretty much always been a theist - even when I was a Buddhist; it just seemed natural to me. But since last year, I've been wavering between atheism, agnosticism, and a rather vague theism. This has been a bit distressing, given that the Church is so central to my life.

For the last few weeks, since they've resumed publication, I've been listening to the podcasts of the 2009 Emergent Village Theological Conversation with the great J├╝rgen Moltmann, while running on the indoor track at the Y. (Go away, winter. You bother me. I want to run outside instead.)

I've been ruminating about something Moltmann said in the bit I listened to the other evening. He was asked to comment on the New Atheists, and he said something about how, sure, people can live without God. People can live without music, too....

So on the drive in this morning, suddenly I really wanted to hear the song "Popular", sing by the great (in a different way then Moltmann) Kristen Chenoweth in the Broadway musical Wicked. (Yes, as a matter of fact I do believe that my sexual identity is more secure than my theological identity at the moment...but why do you ask?)

And while listening to Chenoweth's soaring vocals and thinking about Moltmann's well-grounded theology, I had one of those moments of (what felt like) clarity that immediately had me sobbing and almost needing to to pull over: God is like music.

Think about it.

The atheists are right. We can be said to have invented God...just as we can be said to have invented music. (It wouldn't exist on earth if we hadn't invented it...shut up, whales; you're not important right now.)

The agnostics are right...even though they don't really claim anything. (They're always right.)

Any given believer is not wrong, just as any given composer is not "wrong". But music is not arbitrary, and is not simply a matter of taste. Though we may be said to have invented it, at the same time it seems, in some sense, to be built into the fabric of the universe. There's a difference between music and noise. We don't know everything about that difference, and opinions will differ about what's good vs. bad music, and people are always inventing (or discovering?) surprising and unprecedented facets of music...but in a very real sense, music exists. "Music" is real; "musical" and "unmusical" are real; and all of this is not entirely up to us.

Maybe it's just me, but suddenly this seems like a profound metaphor for understanding God, who (I'm given to understand) is Love.

The major difference, it seems to me, is in consequences. Ideas about God (good and bad), it seems, are much more likely to cause people to love or hurt other people, and to change their lives for the better or for the worse, than are ideas about music. (Though of course music is hardly without power in these regards.) I'm not going to quibble about whether consequences are eternal or temporal - our lives go on for as long as they do, and we either turn them toward love, forgiveness, and grace, or we don't. All of our choices affect us for the rest of our lives, or until we choose differently...whichever comes first.

But anyway, thanks are in order to the professor and the prima donna, for giving me something to chew on.

image by Michael Yarish, AP/Fox

18 February 2011

Dude-fanciers and chick-fanciers


I'm convinced that if we weren't so concerned, as a culture, with making sure we can stigmatize The Gays, we would be looking at a rectification of our language around sexual orientation. A word like "homosexual" is great for building a linguistic fence around a group of people and defining them as "the other", but for practical purposes it's shit. So someone is "homosexual"; therefore they are attracted to people who share their gender. And which gender would that be? See, it doesn't provide you with enough information to actually tell you squat. You also need to find out their own gender before you know what the word "homosexual" is trying, and failing, to tell you: that is, what gender they might be attracted to. A word like "lesbian", chock full of both gender and sexual orientation data, is more useful, but it's also rather limited by the fact that most people are not attracted exclusively to only one gender. So is this so-called "lesbian" a 6 on the Kinsey Scale, or a 4? Or perhaps even a 1 who's currently in a (theoretically atypical) relationship with a woman?

Another problem with "homosexual": it lumps together people who have very little in common apart from a shared history of oppression. I'm not trying to minimize that - that shared history (which is still here in the present) is HUGE - and of course lesbians and gay men should band together to resist that oppression - along with folks who identify as bisexual, transsexual, intersex folk, queer, questioning, allies - heck, anybody who wants to join the struggle. But when you think about it, if you could somehow magically remove that shared history of oppression, a lesbian would have a lot more in common with a straight woman (female gender and its cultural accompaniments) or a straight man (attraction to women) than she does with a gay man with whom she shares neither gender nor sexual orientation. So what use is a term like "homosexual", really?

What would really be useful, from the standpoint of linguistic practicality, are words that describe the group of people who are typically attracted to men, and the group of people who are typically attracted to women. You know, "dude-fanciers" and "chick-fanciers". So, for example, "chick-fanciers" would include heterosexual men, bisexual men, bisexual women, and lesbians. Instead of the rather inaccurate, "Oh Patrick, you look scrumptious in that leisure suit - you'll drive the ladies wild!" we'd have a truer alternative. I say inaccurate, of course, because while some "ladies" might indeed find Patrick irresistible in his leisure suit, it's unlikely that many lesbians (at least those of the Kinsey Scale 6 variety) will be swooning over him. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that Patrick will turn the head of a gay man or two. Saying that he will impress "dude-fanciers" covers all the appropriate bases without overstepping. (Of course, real human behavior is still not that simple: an individual straight woman or gay man might find Patrick an insufferable bore despite his spiffy duds; an individual lesbian or straight man may well be moved to reward his hotness with a wolf whistle. But that's not important right now.)

Who cares if someone is attracted to members of their own gender or members of the opposite gender? Those categories were interesting from a clinical point of view back when homosexuality was labeled as a pathology by the medical community. Those days are long behind us (thank God!) and a label like "homosexual", it seems to me, is chiefly useful nowadays if you're interested in perpetuating the bigotry that led to that clinical diagnosis. But it is useful in everyday speech to talk about whether somebody (of whatever gender) digs lads and/or lasses. Especially if they're single, and you're an aspiring matchmaker. (Probably it would be handy to have a term for folks near the middle of the Kinsey Scale. "Equal-opportunity-fancier"?)

You may not like my choice of labels (me neither), but you've got to agree that words like this would be more practically useful than words like "homosexual", if we weren't so keen to delineate "homosexuals" as deviant. Well, OK, you don't have to agree, and if you think I'm full of crap, that's what the comment box is for. :-)