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Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
EnlightenmentYou're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
Gay Identity and The Nature of Religious Truth: Gay Spirituality Summit Issues Statement of Spirituality
by Toby Johnson
An historic Gay Spirituality Summit convocation was called by an ad hoc committee known as the Gay Spirit Culture Project in spring 2004. At this gathering, sponsored by White Crane Journal, Gay Spirit Visions, Easton Mountain, Manifest Love, Body Electric and Gay Spirit Journeys, and held at Garrison Institute, a retreat center across the Hudson River from West Point Military Academy, gay thinkers and writers, yoga and meditation teachers, radical faeries, spiritual-erotic activists, Body Electric trainers, psychotherapists, pastors, and preachers met to bring more self-awareness to the developing, but loosely identified, "Gay Spirituality Movement."
As part of the Summit's process, a small work group (including Daniel Helminiak, Toby Johnson, Kip Dollar, and Cami Delgado) struggled to describe the nature of spirituality--and to draw the obvious and necessary conclusion about the morality and spiritual worth of homosexuality--whether as an "essential" element of human nature or as a construction of contemporary social realities. They have issued a "Statement of Spirituality."
The Statement in full (though without the signatures, which are now being sought through a yahoo group dedicated to intercommunication between participants at the Summit) appears at the end of this article.
What they came up with has a very Buddhist ring to it, though it is consistent with almost all religious teachings. As Helminiak, who was the convenor of the work group to create the statement, commented: "I think the statement is also very Christian: 'If I speak with the tongues of angel but have not charity.... Whatever you do to the least of my brethren.... How can you say you love God whom you do not see if you do not love your brothers whom you do see...? And I will show you my faith through my works....' The insistence on down-to-earth good living is all through the New Testament (now what the churches did with this teaching may be another matter, but they did open hospitals and schools; Christianity has had some good days and still does have many good pockets of charity and genuine good will and good sense). And Incarnation is to be the heart of Christianity. The statement is also Taoist: living with the flow. And it's Jewish: love and service and concern for fellow humans. I think we did a pretty good job of saying something that really does lie at the heart of all the religious traditions."
The Buddhist perspective on the nature of religion is particularly instructive. It was surprisingly precocious it has turned out. For Buddhistic perspectives, though thousands of years old, sound just like contemporary, post-modern, comparative-religionist analyses.
The Buddha likened religion and spiritual practice to a boat. You use a boat to cross a river, he said. When you get to the other side, you don't pick up the boat and carry it with you. The important thing about a vehicle is where it gets you to, not what the vehicle itself is. And the value of a vehicle is assessed by how well it gets you to your destination, not by the inherent excellence of the vehicle (TV ads for Lexus, BMW, etc. notwithstanding).
According to this "spiritual" way of thinking, the truth of religion is how it transforms the personalities, behaviors, and consciousnesses of believers, not how well it maps with Absolute Reality. (In this model--both ancient Buddhism and post-modern, "new paradigm" physics, epistemology, and social theory--there is no such thing as "absolute reality," or if it is there it doesn't matter because by definition it's unknowable because it is impossible to achieve a high enough perspective to ever perceive of it properly and contextually. This is the implication of both Godel's Theorem in mathematics and Heisenberg's Uncertainly Principle in high-energy physics.)
Religious "truths" are techniques, just like meditating, doing prostrations or yoga postures, breathing in rhythmic patterns, chanting a mantra, singing hymns, or performing complex rituals. Such techniques are designed to create certain consciousness states and to transform personality and experience. The constellation of ideas, symbols, and metaphors through which the techniques of religious doctrines work, in comparative religions' lingo, is called myth. Believing myths, believing religious doctrines changes how one thinks.
The story of the Fours Signs by which Buddha was called to seek enlightenment is an example. It's partly historical--there was a human being named Prince Gautama who renounced his royal status to become a spiritual seeker and developed a "spiritual" explanation of life and a practice to achieve peace of mind and spiritual bliss. It's also mostly symbolical--the story tells of how the gods appeared to him as a beggar, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk to pique his curiosity and about the nature of suffering and then spirited him and his faithful flying horse into the night to devote himself to finding enlightenment--and, ultimately, to sit beneath the Bodhi tree and perceive the nature of reality. The gods, the apparitions, and the horse, even the Bodhi Tree, are all symbols for enriching meditation. The story really isn't about the acts of Gautama (which all likely happened more mundanely and prosaically than the myths describe) as much as about the excellence of the wisdom he preached. (Just like the myth of the divinity of Jesus is less about the personhood of the Nazarean preacher and healer and more about the excellence of his teaching that love trumps ritual purity as the goal of religious living.)
The "truth" of a myth is its power to help other people achieve the consciousness state the myth is about, to give one insight into the nature of reality--in the case of the Four Signs, into the nature of suffering-- or to grasp the religious quest, to "make the light break." All myths are "false" as history, and all are true as metaphors for perceiving life from higher perspectives. Indeed, one might say--using one of the most pervasive and compulsive mythic images--that all myth (and spiritual practice) is intended to give one the experience of heaven now.
Christianity takes a different view to the nature of religion and religious truth. In the Christian--fundamentally materialistic and realistic--worldview, truth is found in history and is totally knowable to the same degree as any other events in history. God (and His "Absolute Reality") is an element of history and is just as real and just as knowable as, say, the story of Napoleon Bonaparte. Jesus and Napoleon are historical figures and, though the tools and methods of historical research have changed, the events of their lives can be known by simple historical/realistic investigation.
In this view, religion and religious practice arise out of logical respect for and response to the reality of God, just like a certain respect and reverence--though in his case tinged with cynicism and irony--is due Napoleon and his near achievement of world emperorhood. In the Christian worldview, God (along with his son and heir-apparent Jesus) is Ruler of the Universe. He's personal and can be communicated with as a person can be talked with (at least through intermediaries, if not directly, just like the Queen of England or the President of the United States). Like any beneficent Ruler, He can be rationally appealed to for justice and mercy. As Ruler of the Universe, He deserves and expects--and enjoys--obedience, respect, and honor (i.e. "worship"). This is what religion is about.
Jesus himself seemed a little more sympathetic to the Buddhist vision. In the various sayings attributed to him in the Christian Scriptures, he was much more concerned with how human beings treated one another than how they obeyed religious rules and worshipped God. Jesus ridiculed and intentionally disobeyed religious rules--like that against healing on the Sabbath or, to cite the example he gave, getting your donkey out of a hole in the ground it had fallen into on a holy day of rest. Jesus especially dismissed the rules and taboos of his culture about sex roles, portraying them as oppressive to women and inherently hypocritical, to wit his comment: "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
The Buddhistic view makes more sense according to contemporary scientific worldviews and the perspectives of comparative religions. Given the multiplicity of descriptions of God and His histories in different cultures around the Earth, it's hard to determine that any one (or all) of the histories is correct (and the others thereby necessarily wrong).
And, as observed above with the citations of these great, but esoteric, rubrics of math and physics, not to mention the social sciences-based critiques of Michael Foucault and the French "de-constructionists," the idea of an unchanging, external, knowable "Absolute Reality" has faded into history and become now just a quaint and erroneously simplistic notion of the ancients, like the luminiferous ether and phlogiston.
This difference in worldviews parallels the epistemological puzzle posed in the familiar question: "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" I.e., is there a "real world" that exists independently of human consciousness? And can be know it, especially if we're not present to it?
Foucault and the de-constructionists apply such a critique to the nature of homosexuality and end up arguing that sexual orientation is "social construction" rather than an "essential" quality of human nature.
Another--more whimsical--way of asking that question about the role of human consciousness to define reality then is whether same-sexed dinosaurs who rubbed cloacas together were essentially homosexuals. In 150 million years of dinosaur life on Earth, that's bound to have happened, isn't it? (One wonders if that insight might inspire some homophobe to hypothetize that what killed the dinosaurs was really homosexuality!)
"All reality lies in the mind." Here's a Hindu/Buddhist idea that certainly makes sense in terms of modern science and psychological awareness. It's never possible for a human being to "know" anything outside his or her mind since the "knowing" itself takes place with the capabilities of the mind and can only be experienced in the mind. And the act of knowing interacts with and changes the reality that is known. (We might need to expand the notion of "mind" here, so that it's not just logical thinking, but also sensing, feeling, evaluating, intuiting--all the various aspects of "experiencing.")
The truth of God, then, isn't found in history, but in current experience. And the "principle of verification" isn't in external reality, but in the transforming power of the religious myth to positively improve--and evolve--experience and personal behavior.
The work group at the Spirituality Summit issued a Statement of Spirituality. It declares:
The Christian realistic worldview--strongly tinged with polarization of good vs evil, right vs wrong, male vs female, correct majority vs dissident minority, normal vs abnormal--condemns homosexual behavior, denies the reality of homosexuals' personal experience, and rejects homosexuals' pleas for justice and mercy, recognition and fair treatment. And zealous believers in that worldview think the respect and honor they rightly owe God, Ruler of the Universe, calls for them to righteously oppose homosexuals' political struggles. (Some extremists even cite the Bible's instructions about stoning sexual taboo offenders and call for the death penalty for homosexuality. The Fundamentalist (and still virtually medieval) Muslim societies that are the avowed enemies of Western liberal democracies, indeed, behave just that way. It's an irony that some Fundamentalist Christians find themselves sympathetic with the "terrorist" cultures they are waging Crusade against.)
Countering such ideas, the
To claim a place for gay people's experience and to seek a definition of spirituality that includes gay people's (seemingly inherent) religiousness and moral sensibilities, "leaders, luminaries, and change agents" at the Gay Spirituality Summit issued their Statement of Spirituality.
To many of the men in attendance at this gathering, spirituality, sensitivity to others, and fascination with matters of meaning and the "Secret of Life," are natural reverberations within individual personalities of homosexual orientation and gay identity. Gay (or, for a politicized/radicalized/academized segment of younger generations, queer) consciousness bequeaths a certain spiritual and moral sensibility and a detached enlightenment to the nature of religion and myth.
That gay consciousness and sexual experience (especially of intense, transcendent altered states achieved through sexual arousal and techniques of spiritual practice) can provide homosexually-oriented individuals a sense of purpose, meaning in life, transpersonal goal, and relationship with "God" (understood with those quotation marks as as reverential as they are derogatory) is the needed message of gay spirituality.
Because so many young gay people, in their struggle to discover and be true to their authentic experience of sexual and affectional attraction to and relationship with others, renounce conventional religion because of its anti-gay stance and judgment and sometimes "throw the baby out with the bathwater," an effort of the loosely identified "Gay Spirituality Movement" is to bring the good news to these burgeoning homosexuals that a rich, mythically-infused, spiritually-layered, gay-affirmative life potentially awaits them on the other side of religion and condemnation.
Too many wonderful gay lives are ruined by despair, self-loathing, and consequent irresponsible behavior (like crystal methaddiction and carelessness about sexual hygiene) because all religious and moral advice is rejected in reaction to the intolerance of the very vocal and seemingly hateful religious zealots.
This so-called "Gay Spirituality Movement" strives to save those lives and offer those individuals deep and fulfilling experiences of meaning and transcendence by discovering a higher perspective on religion, myth, and the nature of life itself.
This modern, psychologically-sophisticated, essentially Buddhistic perspective witnessed to by the Gay Spirituality Movement--through a veritable rainbow of variations--is needed by all human beings, because it's consistent with contemporary worldviews and scientific discoveries about the nature of the universe. All people are called to wake up.
And articulating and proclaiming it is certainly in keeping with the queer historical role of those people (many, maybe most, of whom we today would likely call "gay") who down through time have created and guided the development of the great religious traditions.
We gay people have been the progenitors of religion and transcendent consciousness. It is one of our roles in culture to give birth to the gods and to teach human beings how to speak appropriately about transpersonal reality and the secrets of what consciousness really is.
Garrison Institute where the Gay Spirituality Summit was held is a former Catholic monastery, now transformed to a sort of New Age retreat center with a strong Buddhist flavor. At the front of the main meeting room sat a bigger than life, gold statue of the Buddha. It portrayed him in one of his classic poses, reaching down with the middle finger of his right hand to touch the earth. In Buddhist mythology, after achieving his enlightenment, Buddha was assaulted by the "god" (the consciousness) of lust and death who challenged his right to sit beneath the Bodhi Tree and to see through the illusion of reality. To rebuke the assault, Buddha reached down and touched the earth to call upon the earth to proclaim the legitimacy of his enlightenment: "I have a right to be here," he said. The meaning of that gesture is precisely applicable to the role of the Gay Spirit leaders assembled before that statue. We are here. And we have a right to be here. Indeed, we have a reason to be here.
A Personal Note
I was proud to be a member of the Core Group of Gay Spirit Culture Project which called and organized the Summit (along with Patrick McNamara of the Appreciative Inquiry Consulting, who was the originator of the idea of the Summit; Craig Harwood, producer of the current award wining film Paternal Instinct; David Nimmons, creator of the Manifest Love movement; and Duncan Teague from Atlanta's Gay Spirit Visions). The event was truly ground-breaking.
Going into the Summit, I'd imagined that we'd likely conclude the Summit with some sort of ceremony of signing a collective statement about the spiritual component inherent to what's commonly known today as "gay identity." I'd fantasized something like the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And so when Daniel Helminiak announced he was convening a work group (called an "infinity session" in the lingo of the Summit) to devise a statement about the difference between spirituality and religion, I jumped at the chance to join that work group. This has been the subject matter of my two most recent books: how the perspective on life that comes with being gender variant (what's referred to in the pop and polite, but very inexact, nomenclature as "gay") offers an incisive insight into the nature of religion.
I'd hoped we'd talk about this topic in plenary session throughout the Summit. As it happened, though, there was little opportunity for discussion in plenary sessions. The agenda for the Summit placed almost all the working discussion into the small groups (called "affinity" and "infinity" groups), and limited the plenary sessions to reports on the work groups, deeply personal heart circles, and collective rituals.
During the reporting on the infinity groups, Helminiak, a former Roman Catholic theologian and popularizer of contemporary Scriptural analysis, now a professor of psychology and theorist of spirituality as a human consciousness state, announced that his work group had devised a tentative "definition of spirituality." I chimed in myself to remind the whole assembly that we'd written a statement we wanted to make in the name of all of them, the discussion shifted to questioning the wisdom and the legitimacy of making a collective statement. Several participants raised the concern of racism, observing that one of the ongoing crimes of European culture has been to speak for--and thereby erase the diversity of--all other cultures, especially cultures of non-white races. Perceptive and sensitive as that discussion was--and salient to the topic--because of schedule constraints, it precluded a reading of the statement. So lots of objection was provoked to a statement nobody had yet heard.
During an informal follow-up session (in lingo called "the marketplace"), the statement was posted and numerous participants made suggestions for changes, and Helminiak who stood by as representative for the statement diligently revised the wording to accommodate the various reactions. And then in the weeks following, Daniel and I refined and reorganized the statement even more.
Following my fantasy of a signing ceremony--like that for Thomas Jefferson's world-changing document 228 years before, I'd hoped the Summit would agree on a statement about homosexuals' perceptions of life and spiritual consciousness. That was not what the statement was about. It was simply about the nature of spirituality and about the legitimacy of any system of spirituality/religion being proved by the lovingkindness in produces--or doesn't--in those who believe in it.
I think we could have made an even more provocative declaration that down through time people whom today we'd generally recognize to have been homosexuals and might, very imprecisely, call "gay" have been at the center of humanity's development of religious ideas and myths and that we--"leaders, luminaries, and change agents in the gay spirituality movement"--reclaim that ancient identity. I think it needs to be said that gay people are not mockers of religion and goodness and flagrant sinners seeking to destroy the institutions of society out of meanness and in retaliation for religion's negative judgment. "We" were in some ways the originators of religion and mystical awareness; we have a certain responsibility for being "on the cutting edge of evolution" and guiding the direction of religion; our current conflict with the institutions of traditional religion is part of "pushing the envelope" and forcing the continued evolution of religious ideas and images.
Indeed, I think it needs to be said that gay consciousness creates certain alternative patterns in thinking that call for alternative metaphors and myths for communicating subtle states of spiritual consciousness and positive social behavior, so that there are appropriate myths and symbols for gay people that are different from those helpful and meaningful for straight people, i.e., that there are specifically gay--and specifically lesbian--spiritual paths and spiritualities to communicate these myths and guide these journeys.
And I think the whole world needs to hear that contemporary gay people's perspective on religion--colored by our outsider status, our flair for transcending and violating strict gender roles, and our tendency to perceive the world as less polarized, contentious, and competitive--is consistent with modern perspectives on the nature of religion flowing from simple awareness of the diversity of religious images and myths, i.e., the comparative religions stance championed by my own teacher (and the Wise Old Man of my personal spiritual journey) Joseph Campbell (famous for his maxim "Follow Your Bliss").
But the Summit's "infinity group" on spirituality didn't choose to make that statement. But the statement it made is still important. And there was no signing ceremony, and there was no agreement about a collective statement.
Aren't we all sort of saying something similar -- that religion is about guiding our paths thru life, and staying open to the various influences that come our way (including our homosexual feelings) AND not about declaring the Moral Absolutes about how things are, what God's rules are about human behavior, and what is natural and what is unnatural.
I'd have liked the Summit to come forth with a statement about gay people's inherent spiritual/mystical bent (in contrast to the image of us as hateful sinners and corrupters of youth that Dr. Dobson et al wants to popularize) and that there are symbols and myths that speak to us better than those of "family values Christianity."
That we were all there as representatives of various groups that are trying to offer those more appropriately "gay" paths is the evidence we all sort of think there are more suitable paths for gay people and that traditional Christianity (i.e. mainstream American religion) doesn't really support us.
Disappointed though I was that the statement wasn't read and widely embraced, I think it consistent with the patterns of what I will gay consciousness (and that others might call, with equally rich and multi-layered terms, queer, LGBTQ, men-loving-men), that the assembly would be sensitive to issues of elitism, class dominance, and racism. After all, as outsiders and sympathizers with other oppressed peoples, we want to champion diversity, and we chafe at anything that seems reductionistic. As fiercely individual, because we've all had to create our own religious understandings--since those of inherited traditions didn't include us--we naturally resist generalization and collectivization.
As disappointing as it was that the Summit didn't conclude with a signing ceremony, that there wasn't easy agreement with a statement on the nature of gay spirituality was itself a sign of the mindset that is gay spirituality. Ironic. Paradoxical. And absolutely consistent.
There is no one answer to the "Great Secret" that is the nature of consciousness, God, the universe, and the meaning of life. That is to say, "God" is not a thing out there in heaven (like Napoleon was ruler of France in Paris). Religion isn't about the way things are. It's about how to transform consciousness and see the world differently, to see the world and other people with sensitivity to difference and always with loving kindness. And that, of course, is the Buddhistic perspective that all human beings are called to discover in these days of global awareness and that gay people are naturals for understanding because it's in our very world- and self-perception.
The statement is still being
Here's the latest version
A Statement of Spirituality
A small workgroup of participants at the first Gay Spirituality Summit at Garrison Institute, Garrison, NY, USA, May 1, 2004, prepared the following statement about spirituality and offer it for discussion to help clarify the nature of “spirituality” in the gay community and beyond. This version was simplified with advice from a group at Gay Spirit Visions Fall Conference, September 2004.
Spirituality is the out-working of the human capacity for self-transcendence, variously called spirit, consciousness, Buddha Nature, and higher self. Spirituality is increasingly aware and deliberately chosen participation in the positive unfolding of the universe. Beliefs and behaviors that are hurtful and destructive shut down this unfolding; those that are helpful and up-building further it.
An earlier version (the one cited in the article above)--which Daniel Helminiak has been showing around the country at various retreats and conferences--reads:
"My religion is kindness," says
current Dalai Lama. And Jesus said, "By their fruits you will know
them." Therein lies wisdom about true spirituality.
True spirituality is about
love, truth, gratitude, growth, give and take, and the unity of all
things. Spirituality has no truck with the hateful, destructive,
intolerant, and divisive. Nonetheless, loving attention to negative
tendencies, forces, occurrences, and persons fosters the personal and
collective wholeness that allows the human spirit to flow freely and to
bring something positive from the negative.
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
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