September 22, 2004
The real you

The comments to yesterday's post turned into a discussion of individualism, and how it relates to Christian life. The subject came up again over at Hugo's blog, where he pondered whether even his own church is too interfering:

If a gay man showed up at All Saints Pasadena and said he was uncomfortable being a gay man and wanted to change his sexual identity, we would not be prepared to support him in that. Indeed, our Vestry issued a statement several years ago condemning reparative therapy in fairly strong terms, and urging the diocese not to have anything to do with organizations like Exodus and Love Won Out. The judgment we have made at All Saints is, I think, ultimately the right one: gays and lesbians who want to change their sexual orientation are, to one degree or another, in need of reassurance that they are good and loved just as they are. Our focus is on enabling GLBTQ folk to find self-acceptance, not transformation into heterosexuality or celibacy.

Is that wrong? In an earlier comment on Jenell's blog, I compared reparative therapy to plastic surgery. If one of my teenagers at All Saints says she wants liposuction or breast implants in order to feel better about herself, what is my job? Do I encourage her to pursue that goal, or do I work -- with others, of course -- towards helping her to love herself as she is now? If she saves her money and works overtime to pay for a boob job, should we be cheerleaders, blithely saying "you go, girl!?" I don't think so!

In the comments, Jonathan Dresner wondered:
I was struck by the converse of your discussion. Another question to consider is: what happens when a person says "I'm heterosexual, but I'm not terribly happy. I think I'd like to explore alternatives"?

In that case, a GLBT-friendly congregation might well support their 'coming out' quite consistently.

It seems to me that the major criterion here has to do with the idea of discovering one's true self. And the major criterion for trueness seems to be social approval. Wanting to become heterosexual and physically attractive seems like something you'd do for other people's approval. Wanting to become homosexual does not.

The search for the authentic self is a common quest in people lives, including that of yours truly. But the recent discussions made me think about how we assume the true self is found. It's pretty common in modern America for the search to look backwards -- to how you were born, how you would be if you were uncorrupted by others' influences. So the way to help someone find their true self is largely to get out of the way, to let them introspect, and approve of whatever turns up.

The problem, as I mentioned to Joe in my earlier post, is that people often seem to feel that their true self wants to fit in. In fact, in an earlier post on plastic surgery that I'm not going to try to dig up now, Hugo mentioned that some women who get it insist that they only look like their "true selves" after the surgery. Also, over at Joe's blog the Quaker Ranter wrote:

When I'm in business meeting, I'm in prayer, trying to discern divine guidance--yes, Christ right there on the facing bench. Glory, Hallelujah! But if no one else is doing this, then what does that mean? I want to be part of a people, a people gathered into one, not just another quirky character in a Meeting.

Inevitably, homo sapiens is a social animal. The occasional feral children who grow up with little or no human contact turn out mentally stunted. So as much as social influence can be toxic, to ask who you would be without it is in a large sense a meaningless question.

In the Bible, the theme of the true self also occurs, but in a different way. "For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like," says James 1:23-4. The apostles repeatedly admonish their brethren to act like who they now know they are: sons and heirs of the kingdom, temples of God, etc. The true self is found not by stripping off the negative social influences and seeing what's left, but by looking to Jesus.

The difficulty of this is precisely that it seems so unnatural. It's natural to be selfish, to want revenge, to be attracted to people other than your spouse, to fear death. It's not natural to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, give away your possessions, and submit to martyrdom. Or to the extent that it is natural, there are strong countervailing forces that are equally natural. But it's an image of self that looks forward rather than back. It's not you as the "uncarved block," as Lao-tzu put it, but you fully carved into God's image.

I still don't know what this means for homosexuality, but this seems like bad news for conservatives arguing from natural law as much as for liberals arguing from genetics. Heterosexuality makes nature run, but it is a nature groaning for redemption like the rest of us.

Posted by Camassia at September 22, 2004 05:40 PM | TrackBack

Dang, Camassia, that's good. Splendid final sentence. Thanks.

Posted by: Hugo on September 23, 2004 08:03 AM

That was extremely well said. I think I may "borrow" your example concerning cosmetic surgery.

Thank you.

Rick, a new visitor

Posted by: rick on September 24, 2004 02:06 PM
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