AND ZORBA AS BROTHERS by
Rev. Chris Glaser
“Abound” suggests excitement, fulfillment, ecstasy, abundance. “Gather” connotes a voluntary and even spontaneous assembly of those who truly want to be together. “Around” gives the feeling of an egalitarian circle where no one is elevated above another and in which everyone belongs and can share. “Cosmic” suggests that what we are doing has sacred implications that run deeper and larger and beyond the ordinary. And “campfire” gives us a warm feeling, like that of the hearth of the soul Vincent van Gogh wrote about as he describes his inner loneliness in one of his letters to his brother Theo:
Vincent, as he signed his paintings, began as many of us did, in a traditional faith. He became a Calvinist minister, serving the coal miners of the Borinage. But, unlike his Christian counterparts, he took seriously the current catch phrase of youth, “What would Jesus do?” Instead of staying in his manse, keeping an intimidating distance, and preaching from on high in an imposing pulpit, he walked with the workers, went down into the dangerous and unhealthy mines with the miners, hung out with them in their kitchens, and gave away everything he had to the poor, including his own bed to a sick woman. The higher church authorities were scandalized, and removed him from his pastoral post. He went through an idle period which he described to his only patron, his brother Theo, as like that of a caged bird that, with the seasons, wanted to move, wanted to migrate, wanted to fly. He pondered long and hard about what he wanted to do, what his true vocation was.
Vocation is rooted in the word “voice.” We get our English word vocation from a Latin word meaning “a calling, an invitation, a summons.” Those of us who grew up Roman Catholic heard the word “vocation” applied to religious orders. But Protestants came to see that there were many more callings, vocations, than those in religion. These callings, too, could be sacred, of the divine, of God. The thought was in much of Christianity that this calling, that a vocation, comes from the outside in. But those of us who have listened to our inner voice know our true vocation comes from the inside out. This concept is manifested among Quakers in the spiritual advice to “Let your life speak.” In Parker Palmer’s book by that title, Let Your Life Speak, Parker tells the Hasidic story about Rabbi Zusya: “Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, ‘In the coming world, they will not say to me: “Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya.”’”
And, as Andrew Harvey writes, “What links Ramakrishna to Jesus to Chaung-Zu to Mother Teresa is that each was completely truthful to his or her own deepest nature, and would not betray it under any circumstances.” This concept of becoming oneself, explored in your gathering last fall, subtitled, “Abound As You Are...You Are Self!” is why Joseph Campbell adjures us to “follow our bliss,” and that’s why it was so very appropriate to have my friend Toby Johnson, a student of Campbell’s, give your keynote address. But to take bliss a little further, I paraphrase another writer, Frederick Buechner: vocation is where our deepest bliss and the world’s deepest needs meet.
Vocation, our voice, not only does not come from the outside in, it also does not come from the top down. Letting your life speak does not come simply from the mind, from the head, from reason. Letting your life speak is about our whole body’s language, a language that comes from all the chakras; a language that comes from the gut, from our genitals, from our hearts, the very center of our being, as well as our heads.
Much woman’s spirituality and theology has acknowledged the central role the body plays in experiencing what’s holy. Women’s monthly cycles and ability to give birth put many women in touch with sacred rhythms and interior possibilities of their bodies that men miss. Nature’s miracle in their bodies prompts many women to look inside for the holy, to look within for God or the gods. Zen Buddhism and the practices of Yoga acknowledge that meditation has bodily requirements, and that the mind must be stilled in order to be mindful.
One of the blessings of being a gay or bisexual man is that we have an opportunity to experience God within as well as outside ourselves. There is a whole contemporary school of thought known collectively as “body theology.” Just like the “liberation theology” of the 1960's and 1970's, the body theology that emerged in the 1980's takes earthly experience seriously as a locus for the holy, the sacred. Liberation theology emphasizes the need to work for equality, rights, and justice as our spiritual goal. Body theology, which includes Creation Spirituality, such as that of Matthew Fox, emphasizes the need to value our bodies and our bodily experience in any kind of spiritual equation.
Body spirituality encourages us to take into account our experiences derived by our color, our gender, our sexuality, our abilities, and so forth. As I’ve always liked to say, not knowing James B. Nelson once wrote this, “We know God through our bodies or we do not know God at all.” To translate that in nontheistic terms, “We know Spirit through our bodies, or we do not know Spirit at all.” Body theologian James B. Nelson likes to say, “Pleasure is the strongest argument for the existence of God.” I knew a gay church member in California who would always include in his grace over meals a thanksgiving to God for placing nerve endings in all the right places.
I introduce body theology at this point to reference something else Jim Nelson has said. He believes that men most often look for God externally because their sex organs are largely external. Women most often look for God internally because their sex organs are largely internal. In the traditional “missionary position,” men penetrate, women receive. Now, it strikes me that as gay men we are sexually ambidextrous, both able to give and receive in sexual intercourse. (Admittedly some of us believe it’s more blessed to give than receive, while others believe it’s more blessed to receive than to give.)
But it occurs to me that if we are at least capable of being sexually ambidextrous, we are capable of being spiritually ambidextrous, able to understand the divine as within us as well as outside of us. Even aside from the sex act, we more often than the general population value our female as well as male characteristics. Most of us know that some Native American traditions valued such “two-spirited” people, viewing gay men as berdache or shamans, holy men who were more spiritual because they incorporated—a word that means “embodied”—both male and female spirits. When I first heard a presentation by Walter Williams, the researcher who wrote of this in his book The Spirit and the Flesh, I had one of those experience like those people in the old commercials, snapping their fingers as they realized “I could’ve had a V-8!” I got goose bumps as the sudden realization came to me that I could’ve lived in a society and a spiritual community that valued me as a gay man, rather than disparaged me socially and spiritually, as our culture does.
When his religion failed him, when he quieted his soul long enough to listen, Vincent van Gogh decided to take up drawing, to begin painting. He wrote that paintings would become his sermons, hoping that his paintings would have the same consoling effect on people that the Christian religion used to give. He painted everyday people engaged in everyday activities, and the vividness with which he did so give them an iconic value, a realization that what is holy happens in everyday life. When I was researching my book, Coming Out as Sacrament, in which I argued that coming at as gay person had sacramental meaning, I discovered that the early church observed as many as 300 sacraments, suggesting that all of life was holy. The sacraments were narrowed to seven because seven was symbolic number for completeness. Those of you familiar with Jewish tradition or Native American traditions will recognize the similarity with those attitudes toward life.
Vincent van Gogh wanted to put religious feeling in his paintings, but he had a disdain for specifically religious content. In response to the painter Bernard’s depiction of the nativity, van Gogh wrote Bernard of the exquisite natural background of the painting, then asked the painter why he had stuck the nativity scene in the foreground. His own version of Lazarus rising from the dead showed no body coming to life, but rather, a sun rising, suggesting resurrection is to be had every morning. He criticized Gauguin’s “yellow Christ,” a painting of Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane, complaining that the olive trees didn’t really look like olive trees. Van Gogh painted his own version of Jesus in Gethsemane, where there is no human figure, but rather, the agony of Christ’s suffering is depicted in the gnarly, twisted sinews of the olive trees themselves, suggesting the anguish of the whole creation reaching beyond itself.
Even so, you who have created and participated in Gay Spirit Visions have listened to your inner voice, to your calling, and have begun to paint, to create your own experiences of the sacred, to become the artists of a new spirituality. You have “let your lives speak.” Rather than be held back and held down by the millstones of tradition, you have opted for the better part— the anima within you. In his book “Care of the Soul,” Thomas Moore asserts that imagination is one of the most under-utilized spiritual gifts. You have used your imagination to discern and to discover your spiritual paths.
A number of years ago, an ecumenical group of Christian women got together for a conference to re-imagine God. The Re-Imagining Conference stirred up the animosities of traditionalists who, as Joseph Campbell describes the phenomenon, have gotten stuck in their metaphor for God, for what is holy, for what is divine. There was an enormous controversy about it, as women—many of them feminists, womanists, or mujeristas—imagined God as mother, as Sophia, Wisdom, and deplored the concept of a wrathful God that demanded a bloody sacrifice for sin, and closed with a ritual using milk and honey instead of wine and bread. More recently gays and lesbians have been “queering theology,” which means to critique a given spiritual tradition as an outsider—again, exactly what you are doing as Gay Spirit Visions.
Joseph Campbell said we get into trouble spiritually when we confuse our metaphors for God or the holy with the thing itself, as if we could possibly name God or the holy with a single name, or image, or metaphor, such as Father. One of the gifts of Judaism to Western culture is that the God who met Moses in the burning bush could not be named, declaring enigmatically, “I will be what I will be.” This “catch me if you can” divinity told Moses later on the same mountain that his people were not to make any graven images to worship, and they were not to misuse the holy name.
All of this is practical spiritual advice: naming a god was a means of control, as if humans could actually control the divine, and having a fixed image in mind proved and proves unfaithful to divine mystery, the unknowability of the holy. Lao-tsu, the 7th century B.C.E. Chinese philosopher who is believed the founder of Taoism said, “The name that can be named is not the true name.” We can’t even know one another completely—we each hold divine mystery. Early twentieth century theologian Karl Barth described the theologian’s task as that of an artist trying to capture a bird in flight in a painting: the moment the depiction of the bird was fixed on canvas, the bird was somewhere else. In my view, this makes the whole theological task in traditional religions suspect, and I long for the day when we return to the original understanding of “theologia” as the highest form of prayer, simply communing with God, simple communion with the holy.
One writer has put the problem this way:
“The central trouble in the religious thinking of many people lies here: the new knowledge of the universe has made their childish thoughts of God inadequate, and instead of getting a worthier and larger idea of God to meet the new need, they give up all vital thought about God whatsoever.” (Emphasis is the author’s.)
Who said this? Was it some New Age guru? Was the publisher some outlet for radical thought? Is it something written post 9/11? No, it was written by Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick in a book on The Meaning of Prayer published by the YMCA in the year 1915. And in this context, Fosdick, one of the great conversational preachers of his day for whom Rockefeller built Riverside Cathedral in New York City, quotes this poem from Sam Foss. Two boys are contrasted, one conventional, one more like us, able to imagine a bigger and better God or spirituality.
I see Gay Spirit Visions and the many of expressions of the radical fairy movement throughout the world as that second boy, who “gathered lore in woodland ways, and from the glory of the morn.” Not all of us believe in God, so what has been enlarged for us is not merely the concept of God, but the concept of divinity itself, or the concept of humanity itself. Our greater dreams have led many of us to a greater spirituality, not just a greater God.
In the 1970s C. A. Trip wrote a book entitled, “Homosexualities.” He used the plural because his thesis was that there were multiple etiologies and expressions of homosexuality; that it should not be thought of as a single phenomenon. In the same way, instead of thinking of spirituality as a single phenomenon, we might think in terms of spiritualities, with diverse origins and experiences and expressions. I would say that there are as many spiritualities in this gathering as there are people, because even those of us who share the same spiritual language, texts, and community have our own take on divinity, on the holy. What this says to me is we need one another to get the fuller picture, like the proverbial ten blind men examining an elephant, getting a different “feel” for the being from its various parts. We need spiritual community to talk amongst ourselves about spirituality. “Abound As I Am...I Am Community,” is the subtitle of our gathering this weekend. We need one another to enjoy our full spiritual abundance.
For the past two years I have been the Spiritual Leader of a very small interfaith group called Midtown Spiritual Community, a one-time Unity congregation that left that denomination because it was “too Christian.” I’d invite any of you to visit our website at www.msc-atlanta.org and our 4 p.m. Sunday gathering in a small room at the rear of the historical landmark known as the Academy of Medicine Building on the corner of 7th and West Peachtree. Bill Whitlock, who has been on your planning team for GSV events, is President of the board of MSC. This is not just a shameless plug, I think many of you would find our experiment in spirituality interesting. Our slogan is “Spirituality Without Dogma.” We have readings and silence, music and chants, and I often give a talk on what I call “generic” spirituality. It’s a good stretch for me. For most of my adult life, I’ve been eclectic in my spiritual reading during my morning prayer time. But to interpret such diverse material has become a productive challenge.
Yet our backgrounds are all Christian: half Catholic, half Protestant. But most of have felt spiritually abused at the hands of our respective churches, and we resist the notion that the divine can only be found in traditional religion, whether Eastern or Western. As a result, some of us believe in God, others do not. I define spiritual abuse as anything that treats you as less than the beloved child of God that you are; any treatment that questions your sacred worth. As welcoming as we are, however, are own mixed feelings about Christianity makes it difficult to talk about. I did a series on Jesus, and one member who primarily follows a spiritual path said to me conspiratorially, “I think we welcome any spirituality here except Christian.” Christianity is the elephant in the room we prefer to avoid. I understand that that is an experience not unknown to some of you.
Exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, explains that when Westerners want to learn about Buddhism, he encourages them first to know their own religious roots. He writes:
In Buddhism the image of spiritual growth is that of a ladder: as we climb higher, we have to let go of the lower rungs of the ladder. Even so, we have to let go of earlier understandings of Buddha or Christ or any of our spiritual guides.
Right now, in my own pursuit of a Christian spiritual path, I believe it’s less important what I believe about Jesus than that I follow Jesus. Somehow, I believe, he got it right, just as Buddha did, just as many of our spiritual guides have gotten it right. But if I had gotten stuck on the Jesus presented by the Baptist church in which I was raised, or even the more progressive Presbyterian church that I joined in college, I could not imagine Jesus joining us here around our cosmic campfire. As the pundit Elliot Mintz said when the musical Jesus Christ Superstar hit the stage, “If Jesus Christ is the world’s greatest superstar, then the church is the world’s crummiest agent.” Jesus suffers from a lot of bad press. Just last week, walking my dogs, I saw a new bumper sticker on someone’s car in my Atlanta neighborhood of Ormewood Park. It read, “I like your Christ. I don’t like your Christians. They are not like your Christ.” It was a quote from Mahatma Gandhi that I had never read before.
Carl Jung said that humankind created religion as a kind of defense against God, against divine mystery. Similarly, I believe too much of the church has as little to do with Jesus as possible.
When I was in college in the early 70's, having been raised on a Christian fundamentalist spirituality that regarded with suspicion the body, sexuality, and pleasure, I took a Religious Studies course that traced so-called “neo-pagan” themes in relatively modern literature. Neo-pagan was not intended as a pejorative term, rather as a positive one, such as gay pagans use it today. We read Nietszhe, Camus, and Kazantzakis. As one who described myself as “an experience gatherer,” as one who was awakening to my body and sexuality, I embraced the sensual affirmations of this new understanding of spirituality. Kazantzakis’ novel, Zorba the Greek, based on a real person in the author’s life, became my second Bible. I read and re-read it so much, my copy is falling apart, in worse shape than my Bible.
Zorba said “Life is to undo one’s belt and look for trouble!” He saw everything as a child or as an artist and, I would add, as a mystic sees things: as if for the first time. Life is what was happening in this moment. You either believe or don’t believe, you don’t torture yourself with doubt. You embrace life to its fullest.
Zorba became a “second Messiah” as I experienced Zorba and Jesus dancing together on the shores of my soul. It is not an unlikely pairing. After all, Jesus told his followers, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”
I went on to seminary to discover a Jesus who enjoyed eating and drinking with those kept out of the temple, a Jesus accused himself of being a glutton and drunkard, a Jesus who was not afraid of touch as many holy men of his day were, a Jesus unafraid to touch and to be touched, a Jesus far more sensual and earthly and human than I had imagined. I also discovered those who killed Christ in a literal way were the political leaders; those who excommunicated him from his spiritual community, a kind of death, were the religious leaders—and so we have much in common with him. And I discovered that the early followers of Jesus, those who actually knew him, behaved much differently than those to follow in the centuries since. They held their possessions in common, they were egalitarian, women as well as men served as leaders, they welcomed those excluded by traditional religion, they loved each other so well and did so many good works for their neighbors that others wanted to be a part of them.
That’s why I say that Jesus would rather be among us, sitting around the cosmic campfire with his beloved disciple leaning on his breast, than in any church. He’d enjoy talking about things that matter with Buddha and Krishna and Mohammed, with Daniel Helminiak and John Ballew, with all the GSV Council Elders, with you and me. Jesus would enjoy being part of the community that you have formed here through Gay Spirit Visions. And he and Zorba would join us in dancing around the cosmic campfire, celebrating self, community, and Spirit that unites us with one another and the world.
Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion, date and venue. Other rights reserved.
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