One of John McNeill’s most significant contributions to Christian theology in Sex As God Intended (which builds on his previous works, including his classic study The Church and the Homosexual ) is his carefully worked-out insistence that gay and lesbian human beings fit into God’s plan for the world. McNeill not merely asserts this: he demonstrates why it is the case, and he does so using unimpeachably traditional building blocks of Christian theology to make his case.
McNeill situates the lives of gay persons—he situates our existence in the world, an existence willed by the Creator—within the longstanding Christian tradition that through Christ, God has caught the entire cosmos up into a grand drama of divine salvation, in which all that has been created has a role to play in moving the created world to liberation. Echoing the Pauline insistence that the whole universe groans for salvation, and the declaration of patristic thinkers such as Irenaeus that the Spirit moves within all creation to make it (including human beings) fully alive, John McNeill asks what particular gifts gay and lesbian persons bring to the human community, to assist it in its movement to full life.
To ask this is also to ask precisely what it is that makes the human community fully alive. To ask about the particular gifts that gay and lesbian persons offer the human community is to ask about the eschatological goal towards which we move, as a human community. What is it to be liberated, to be saved? What does this mean, concretely? From what exactly do we seek salvation?
John McNeill’s thought is incisive on this point. In his view, the Western mind (and the mind of the human community in general) has, throughout history, been involved in a constant dialectic interplay between the masculine and the feminine (Sex As God Intended, p. 100). McNeill notes that great religious founders including Jesus and Ignatius of Loyola were, in cultures and historic periods heavily dominated by a masculine mind, “extraordinarily open to the feminine” (ibid.). He attributes the fruitfulness of such religious founders’ vision to their ability to draw on the creative energies of the feminine in cultures and periods resistant to the feminine.
In McNeill’s view, the human community is currently undergoing deep crisis as it attempts to move beyond the crippling strictures of a masculine mindset imbued with heterosexism and driven by feminophobia (pp. 98, 114). McNeill sees inbuilt in modernity itself “an essentially masculine crisis” (p. 105). The modern period joined the fate of the human race—and of the world itself—to men’s domination of women, to the subjugation of the feminine to the masculine, to the denigration of gay and lesbian human beings by heterosexual ones. In doing so, it has brought the human community (and the world itself) to a perilous point, at which we face the annihilation of everything by nuclear war and unbridled ecological destruction (p. 105).
The salvation of the world depends, then, on the ability of the human race to move beyond the intransigent, stubborn defense of masculine domination of everything, in our current postmodern moment. Unfortunately, at this point of peril, some churches, including the Roman Catholic church, have chosen to make the defense of masculine domination of everything so central to their definition of what it means to be a believer in the world today, that many churches view the attempt to correct the exclusively masculine worldview we have inherited as apocalyptic: to question the right of males to dominate is to court the destruction of the world (p. 110). Churches are impeding a necessary movement forward by the human community, by clinging to outmoded, unjust patriarchal ideas and structures, at a point in which those ideas and structures are revealed as increasingly toxic wherever they prevail.
What do gays and lesbians, who are increasingly the human fallout of the churches’ adamantine resistance to the feminine, have to offer in this dialectical struggle for the future of the world? In McNeill’s view, gays and lesbians have a providential opportunity to “model the ideal goal of humanity’s present evolution,” by demonstrating what it might mean to live with a balance of masculine and feminine principles inside oneself and in the culture at large (p. 115). Gays and lesbians can offer, simply by living our lives with unapologetic integrity, an example of “balanced synthesis” that a culture heavily dominated by fear of the feminine and unjust power of the masculine sorely needs, if it is to remain a viable culture.
John McNeill follows his sketch of the dialectic evolutionary process through which humanity is now moving—or, rather, has to move, if it hopes to overcome forces with the perilous ability to destroy the entire world—with a reminder of the special gifts that gay and lesbian persons bring to church and society. This Jungian-oriented analysis of the contributions of gays and lesbians to humanity is one that runs through everything McNeill has written. It sustains his thought, and is one of his most valuable contributions to Christian theology.
Following Jung, McNeill notes that gays and lesbians bring these gifts to the human community and the churches:
- Deep bonds of love, which bear an often unacknowledged fruit in many social institutions that transcend the gay community itself;
- A sensitivity to beauty;
- Supreme gifts of compassionate service evident in the contributions of gay and lesbian teachers, ministers, medical workers and healers, workers in the fields of human service that serve the blind, those with mental and physical challenges, and so on, and many other service-oriented fields;
- An interest in and commitment to preserving the best of traditions, aspects of tradition that remain viable and are often overlooked by mainstream culture;
- And the gift of spiritual leadership.
One cannot read John McNeill’s work without concluding that the church’s decision at this moment of its history to reject—even to seek to destroy—such gifts is tragically short-sighted. One cannot read John McNeill’s work while struggling, as an unapologetic gay person, to live in some connection to the church without feeling the tremendous weight of the tragedy that the churches are choosing to write today for themselves, the human community, and the earth itself by repudiating and undermining the gifts of gay and lesbian persons to the churches and the human community.
The unfinished question with which John McNeill’s theology leaves me, as a gay believer, is the question of what to do about that tragedy. For anyone who is unabashedly gay and who continues to believe that it is important to connect to the churches—for anyone who sees her or his sexual orientation as a gift of the same God whom the churches worship—the tragedy the churches are manufacturing by their cruel rejection of gay and lesbian believers produces existential, vocational crisis today.
How to live with any connection to an institution capable of such anti-Christian malevolence, an institution that not only has the capability to twist the souls of gay human beings, but which all too often gleefully uses that capability to do precisely that—to assault the very personhood of gay human beings in the name of a God who is Love? How to live with any connection to an institution that practices and foments violence against oneself and others like oneself, while preaching a commitment to peace and love? What to do about an institution that transmits rich spiritual resources of which one wishes to avail oneself, but which also introduces a stream of toxins into one’s life and into society, through its malevolence towards queer human beings? How to forgive an institution which tells one that it is the way to salvation, and at the same time closes that way to any gay person who refuses to curse God for the gift of his or her nature?
I don’t know the answer to these questions—not fully. I continue struggling to pursue answer to these soul-searching questions in my own life, and in my life as it is lived in solidarity with others who share this struggle. As a Catholic layperson, I sense that I sometimes have to look for answers in a different place than the place in which John McNeill (and James Alison, whose theology I also admire and find extremely helpful) find them, as former cleric.s My experience of the church has been different, and the language I speak out of that experience is different. I am connected to the church institutionally in a different way than are my fellow theologians who are gay and who are ordained. The experiences that have shaped them vis-a-vis the church are different, and so they sometimes come up with different answers to the questions I have just listed than the answers for which I search as a layperson.
This I can say, however: John McNeill’s prophetic theology opens up for me and for others a way that would never have been opened to us, had he not written books such as Sex As God Intended. For what he has accomplished, and for who he is, John McNeill deserves high honor and gratitude—and not only from the gay community. From the entire church.
(Crossposted from Bilgrimage, 29 March 2009.)
Filed under: church teaching, sexuality and gender, Theologians | Tagged: changing church, gay theology, gender roles, heterosexism, homophobia, homosexuality, John McNeill, patriarchy, Progressive theologians, sexual theology |