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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
A White Crane Conversation with Ronald Long and Toby Johnson
This interview appeared in White Crane Journal #69, Summer 2006
Ron Long is a teacher of religion at Hunter College of the City University of New York. He was a long-time active member of the Steering Committee (and past Chair) of the Gay Men’s Issues in Religion Group of the American Academy of Religion.
His recent book, Men, Homosexuality, and the Gods: An Exploration into the Religious Significance of Male Homosexuality in World Perspective, is a survey of variations in the way religion has treated homosexuality through the years. He deals with a rich (though, he acknowledges, intentionally not exhaustive) variety of traditions: primitive Papua New Guinean, ancient Taoist Chinese, Classical Greek, Islamic Sufi, Biblical era Hebrew, Early Christian, Native American, Buddhist, down to modern gay political and cultural movements, including antidiscrimination laws, gays in the military, and gay marriage.
He argues that “the revolutionary importance of the contemporary gay rights movement lies in its—by no means clearly articulated as yet—revolutionary idea of gender, that male sexual receptivity is part of the repertoire of a normal, adult, fully masculine male.”
At last fall’s Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Long was honored with a seminar on his book held as an appreciation of his contribution to the field. The seminar, titled Sacred Tops and Manly Bottoms, included presentations by fellow academic theologians and gay community voices Paul J. Gorrell, Robert E. Goss, Jay E. Johnson, and Kathleen M. Sands.
I reviewed Men, Homosexuality, and the Gods in White Crane last year (issue #64). I liked the book and the boldness of Long’s defense and praise of homosexual male sexuality. I noted that I’d just missed meeting him last year when the AAR held its convention in San Antonio and I was invited by Mark Jordan to attend the final evening wine and cheese reception for the LGBT Caucus. Feeling a little beat up, Long had left before the closing reception. He’d taken part in a panel discussion on same sex marriage and Biblical perspective that was supposed to have been a dignified discussion of gay positive interpretations of Christian teaching, but turned into a rude and disrespectful attack on the gay members of the panel by Religious Right opponents of any legitimacy for gay perspectives. It was a courageous thing to try to talk to those right wing religious leaders, and a kind of emotional martyrdom to get attacked by them and have one’s most heartfelt religious convictions dismissed.
In what I conceived of as a digital, “virtual wine and cheese”—with a toast, it turned out, to the Nordic god Baldr—I communicated with Ron Long a few weeks after this year’s AAR event in his honor. “How did it feel to be the guest of honor instead of the victim of homophobic attack?” I asked. When he told me it was great fun being honored, but that it had not been all fun and frolic, I knew there was more to talk about.
~ ~ ~
Ron: It was nice—exhilarating—to have one’s ideas be discussed in a professional, academic setting like that. But it’s also really exhausting and emotionally draining. I had to address all these observations, comments, and criticisms about what I’d written in my book. And, you know, I had to work hard to take the high road! (laughing).
Toby: These things can be contentious.
Ron: There was a lesbian feminist presenter who offered some strong criticisms of my affirmative approach to gay male sexuality. She objected to my claiming fullness of masculinity for gay men, arguing that thereby I was simply trying to assure them a place in the patriarchal palace built on the backs of the oppression of women. Well, I confessed to being phallocentric in arguing that gay men represent a new understanding of masculinity. But I am also saying that, at their best, they likewise represent a new (non-patriarchal) way of understanding masculine power.
Toby: Right, homosexuality is about love and affection between equals. The phallic worship is about honoring the flesh and blood incarnation of the beloved, not about establishing dominance.
Ron: Funny, she said she found that my account of male on male sex missed the "push-pull" of “real sex” by focusing on phallos worship instead! I am not sure how seriously she meant her own description of sex. But an off-hand, knee-jerk characterization is all the more telling. I’d say, on the contrary, it’s insisting that sex is a matter of pushing into someone else's body that reinscribes the very patriarchal understanding of sex that I’m seeking to supplant.
What I argued in the book is that homosexuality challenges the notion that sex is about penetrating other bodies, doing something to someone else who has been rendered passive, that is, that sex is a kind of war. By its insistence on the masculinity of the penetrated party, the bottom, the male homosexual movement is a movement for the spiritual liberation of all men. Getting over the fear of homosexuality and passivity would allow all men to discover they can be lovers as well as soldiers. Indeed, that they can stop seeing sex as war and war as sexy.
Toby: The dominance behavior of some straight men is really unattractive. It’s certainly not sexy to gay sensibilities.
Ron: Males are visually keyed. We enjoy seeing the beauty of other bodies. Sex is a form of seeing through touch. Appearance matters. I think there’s a kind of manhood that’s grounded in a desire to “look good” and to avoid being seen by others as a “brutta figura.” This indeed anchors a sense of male honor—what I am coming to call 'chivalric manhood.'
Toby: I’m interested in your idea of religion as creating “a mytho-poetic world to dwell in which encourages living boldly, lustily, and honorably?”
Ron: There are a number of themes that my thinking continues to circle round, although how I see them fitting together keeps changing over time.
Male on male sex for me is all about delighting in, “worshipping,” one another's maleness. And while sex may be an expression of love and a matter of pleasure, it is at the same time a repeated “initiation” into manhood, in which each is reassured of his manhood.
Toby: I think a lot of gay sexual connecting, especially when one’s young, is about developing your own sexual self-image and sense of self-worth as demonstrated by how other gay men respond to you. One of the potent images for the mystery of life is wondering what you look like to other people. You can never know that except indirectly. And so it’s also telling other men how you see them. I always thought “coming on” to another man was such a generous act. That’s different from how heterosexuals see it.
Ron: I am fascinated by male beauty and I know—and I think this may be generally true— I want to be as well as to have a beautiful male. Physical beauties do not necessarily embody moral beauty, but I think their physical beauty symbolizes the moral. I tend expect a good-looking guy to be a good person but, if I find he's not, he begins to look less good. By the same token, moral goodness has a way of transfiguring the flesh.
Toby: There’s more to beauty than just good looks.
Ron: Right. What of nobility of character—another phrase for what we sometimes call beauty of soul? Santayana, one of our gay forbears, once said that religion is poetry that is believed, images become a guide to life. The kind of literature that most speaks to me is the literature of "heroic resistance" in the defense of lives—Camus' The Plague, Unamuno's Tragic Sense of Life, and, of course, Beowulf.
Ron: I think I always used to see Christ as a kind of Beowulf! The basic calling being, to adapt a passage from Unamuno: “to live as if to merit an eternal kingdom of life and light, but if it not be enough to ward off the darkness, let us live so as to make of our deaths an injustice and our memory serve as a weapon in the defense of life.”
Ron: I also like the good-natured conviviality of Fielding's Tom Jones.. The noble character? One with the courageous heart of a lusty warrior poet who doesn't mind lifting a glass.
Toby: A toast then.
Ron: Part of this means that I cherish living things, and “protest” any system—whether that be the system of nature, the plan of a creator god who does not despise using death as a tool, or whatever—that vandalizes and ultimately kills them. It also means that I resist any kind of “nature-based” religion—or the Buddhist injunction to be realistic and "get over it"—in the interest of graceful living as a changeling in an ever-changing world.
Toby (laughing): I thought we were going to toast the lusty way things are…
Ron: Well, okay. But let me say my spirituality is anchored in a devotedness to what should be rather than what is, ideality rather than reality. I have made a line of thinking of Albert Schweitzer my own: that honoring the will to live and the will to live well in me entails that I honor the will to live in all beings, however impossible in practice—in token of which I have become a vegetarian.
Toby: I’d call that realization: compassion. And I think that makes it very Buddhist, at least very Mahayana Buddhist.
Ron: Okay, but no na´ve resignation to fate or karma. We have to exert will. And the ideal looms before us, as a kind of beacon.
Toby: The “perfectibility of man?” I’d certainly agree that we have a responsibility to strive for that. I think that’s part of the longing for a perfect world that goes with being gay. Is it possible?
Ron: If we're talking about moral character, I think we have to admit its theoretical possibility. Whether we can actually expect it, about that I am less sanguine.
Toby: Isn't this what religion and mythology are about? Imagining and facilitating moral perfection?
Ron: A large part, certainly. I think it is its image of the hero that makes Nordic tradition so attractive. I am thinking in part about the cluster of virtues it holds up, of course. But, in addition, I like to imagine that Odin, Thor, and Freyr—all friends and family of Baldr—stand for, respectively, the courageous heart of the warrior poet, the ready and resolute defense of living things, and that lusty sexuality which perhaps the beauty of Baldr might be taken to imply. The ideal hero is Baldr-Odin-Thor-Freyr all rolled into one. But the gods are individuals as well. The tradition is not a devotional one, but invocatory (is that a word?) What is the spiritual aspiration? To be the kind of guy the gods might want to hang with—this thought is not mine, but I like it! I can't see the gods enjoying the company of the Stoic warrior. The Stoic warrior steels himself for the sacrifice he knows life and duty will require of him. What is so vibrant about the Nordic hero is that he looks death in the face and refuses to find in suffering and death an excuse to play the victim, remaining exuberantly adventurous and defiantly convivial. Both the Stoic and the Nordic warrior show grit and determination. But where the Stoic keeps a stiff upper lip, the Nordic hero laughs, refusing to let knowledge of the sadness and tragedy of life impair his appreciation of life—or his enjoyment of it.
Toby: Learning how to move on in the face of trial and tribulation is at the heart of many spiritual traditions, is it not?
Ron: To be sure, all of what we call the great religions traditions have developed strategies for dealing with the painfulness of life. But the question is, how? Buddhists are taught to transcend the pain of life by denying the substantiality of the self. Many Hindus are taught to identify with the Absolute rather than their petty individual self. From the perspective of the Nordic hero, these strategies try to solve the problem by redescribing it. He prefers to call it like it seems and refuses to be demoralized.
But this means that, while religion and mythology define and celebrate certain ethical persona, they are not simply roundabout moral psychologies. They are tied to world views, ways of thinking about the world. The human ideal is the fitting way to respond to the world as it is pictured. In Norse tradition, life needs heroes. One holds one's friends tightly and stands up for them in part to keep the outer darkness at bay. Nordic heroism is played out against the background of a world in which the "slow sure doom falls pitiless" and heroic action is, like eating and drinking, but a postponement of the inevitable. In Norse mythology, the order of the world as we know it eventually comes to an end, and even the gods themselves are destined to die.
I have always found such a take on the world largely compelling. And the haunting presence of AIDS cannot but argue its plausibility. This means that, although human nature might be theoretically perfectible, nature never can be. The food chain is a failure of ideal creaturely conviviality. And nature vandalizes and kills us all. I can imagine a perfect human, but a perfect world? That would be another world to live in.
However, in the presence of youthful male beauty, I discern the promise of something other than disease, senescence, and death. Perhaps the promise is but a tease. However, what if Schweitzer's reverence for life is something more than an ethical stance, but is allowed a kind of cosmic efficacy? Given the facts, it would have to be something like, if not will-to-spare from death, then will-to-salvage from death? Then we might have grounds for hope. Or perhaps,—and I would argue this is the better path—instead of thinking along the lines of a cosmic will, we think in terms of matter and ideality. While we can think of matter trying to emulate the ideal, we can also think of the ideal at the same time not resting until it materializes itself fully in us. On that basis too we might allow ourselves to hope, however counter intuitive it might seem, for some sort of apocatastasis of all things, animal and human, but now as eternally living icons of beauty dwelling in beauty. Of course, this would be a kind of "hope against hope”—in Nordic terms, a hope that Baldr somehow survives Ragnarok, that the beauty of life somehow makes good on its promise of somehow transcending death.
Toby: Eternal life?
Ron: It all begins to sound so very Christian. This is the place I keep coming back to. If so, I guess my quarrel with Christianity is not its hope …
Toby: … But?
Ron: I have been thinking about this a lot of late. I really think the problem of evil within a monotheistic universe is insoluble. Beyond that, Christianity's theology and cultus tends to make humans but beneficiaries. For example, its prayer tradition casts the believer in the role of a suppliant, a beggar, a nothing without divine favor and grace. I am also troubled by its relative indifference to bodily strength and beauty and its deeply embedded anti-erotic asceticism, despite its theme of incarnation, divine em-bodi-ment. Even its more liberal wing is today talking about eros as justice-love, something Camille Paglia satirized in her essay "The Joy of Presbyterian Sex."
Toby: Not very lusty!
Ron (laughing): No. Not at all.
In addition, one can easily grow tired of Christian biblicism. I remember my befuddlement when, at a political meeting at Union Theological Seminary where I was taking classes years ago, students were debating the biblical—not the right—thing to do. And I do think it somewhat disingenuous to claim to be following an historical personage, when—as Schweitzer pointed out 100 years ago now—what each age finds in Jesus is less the Jesus of history than the projection of its own ideals.
Santayana divides the religious sensibility into two parts, piety and spirituality. Piety is attachment to the sources of one's being and power, spirituality to what is worshipful. The objects of piety do not have to be wholly good. Nature, ancestors, mentors, can all count as objects of piety. The object of worship, however, should be nothing less than the absolute good, the full actualization of the ideal. I have derived the thought that religiousness lies in the art of so negotiating with necessity (and the sources of one's being) that one’s life gives testimony to the authoritativeness of the truly ideal.
Toby: And gay sexual attraction to male beauty testifies to the striving of life for its ideal?
Ron: Exactly. And for its lusty experience. Life strives for perfection through the evolution of its incarnation in flesh and blood. And that’s pleasurable. Beauty exemplifies the goal. Maybe that’s what “the love of God” is.
Toby: I’ll toast that! You know, Daniel Helminiak has written that eternal life—heaven—might be a timeless, never-ending orgasm. How’s that for the love of God.
Ron: The thought has crossed my mind as well. Heaven as the fulfillment of the ideal of sex—the intensity of the one on one, the scope of the orgy. Ah, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. And I’ll definitely lift a glass to that!
Link to a review of Daniel Helminiak's Sex and the Sacred where that quote about heaven comes from.
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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