Monday, August 31, 2009

JOHN MCNEILL & GAY LIBERATION THEOLOGY

By coincidence, one of the books I was reading at the time of Luciani's election, was John McNeill's pioneering study, The Church and the Homosexual. It formed an essential part of my own acceptance as a lovable, worthwhile gay man within the Church. Hard to believe that this was so long ago and that such books were then so rare, and the appearance of this book so 'shocking', like spring water in the desert. Since then, John went on to fashion the most profound theological support for our vocation as spiritual and worthwhile gay persons, loved by God as sexual beings, with works such as Taking a Chance on God, Freedom Glorious Freedom, and Both Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air, (such wonderful evocative titles). Below is a reference to his latest work, Sex as God Intended, with an eloquent review by theologian (and Bilgrimage blogger) William D. Lindsey. William's review makes clear why John McNeill's pioneering theology is relevant to everything I am trying to express and reflect on, however clumsily, in this blog. Without him, we would still be wandering in the desert.



William D. Lindsey: The Prophetic Gay Theology of John McNeill: Sex As God Intended
(Little Rock, AR USA, March 29, 2009 )

Sex As God Intended gathers a lifetime of prophetic thought by therapist-theologian John McNeill about the vocation of gay persons in church and society. At a point at which a theological discourse by and about the gay experience was almost non-existent in Christian churches, John McNeill crafted such a discourse--in part, out of his own joyous, painful experience as a gay believer, in part, out of his experience working with other gay believers as a therapist. In doing so, he opened a path for many of us who continue to think it important to try to hold our gay experience together with our experience of faith.

One of John McNeill's most significant contributions to Christian theology 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 (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, the 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 their 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:

1. Deep bonds of love, which bear an often unacknowledged fruit in many social institutions that transcend the gay community itself;
2. A sensitivity to beauty;
3. 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;
4. An interest in and commitment to preserving the best of traditions, aspects of tradition that remain viable and are often overlooked by mainstream culture;
5. And the gift of spiritual leadership.

One cannot read John McNeill's work and not conclude 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 and struggle, 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.
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. William D. Lindsey

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