Cover image for Gay spirituality : the role of gay identity in the transformation of human consciousness
Gay spirituality : the role of gay identity in the transformation of human consciousness
Johnson, Edwin Clark.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Los Angeles, CA : Alyson Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
276 pages ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
1140 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BL65.H64 J64 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness This bold declaration of the place of gay consciousness in the modernisation of religious and spiritual thinking argues that religion is undergoing a dramatic transformation because of the recent recognition of the metaphorical nature of myth and religion. Johnson contends that familiarity with being an outsider allows gay men to see things from different perspectives that give them added insights into our cultures, traditions, and our metaphysical assumptions.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

We postmoderns are developing a whole new approach to religion, argues former Catholic monk Johnson, thinking of it as mythic and metaphorical, not literal and legalistic. He contends that this is due in large part to the infusion of a gay sensibility into contemporary religious life. Gay people, writes Johnson, are in a good position to rescue the "life-enhancing, mystical-consciousness-inspiring, all-loving spiritual core of the religious instinct" from evil, oppressive churches because many gays "feel the loving, religious sentiments deeply," but "do not fit into the Church." Some parts of gay spirituality (like a positive sex ethic) are new, says Johnson, and some of gay spirituality consists of putting a gay spin on many traditionally religious themes. That Johnson apparently believes metaphor is a new ingredient in religious life is just one of this book's many flaws: scholars from Karen Armstrong to Janet Martin Soskice have shown conclusively that thinking metaphorically is actually a very old way of doing religion, trumped by empiricism and literalism only since the Enlightenment. A second flaw is Johnson's caricature of Christianity. He assumes, for example, that the handful of Christians who believe AIDS to be God's punishment for homosexuals represents all of Christendom. But perhaps most disturbing is Johnson's assumption that he speaks for all gay people. Some homosexuals and lesbians may be inspired by the vague spirituality Johnson sketches, but most gay members of established faith traditions will find little here that is of use. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Johnson (Getting Life in Perspective), a comparative religions scholar, psychotherapist, and former Catholic monk, here synthesizes Jungian psychoanalysis and the mythic hero journey studies of Joseph Campbell with Gaia Theory and Morphogenic Fields in a discussion of gay contributions to the changing nature of spirituality. Rather than a mere issue of sexual orientation, homosexuality is regarded by the author as the vanguard of a new age in spiritual transformation incorporating world religions, modern mythology, and social change. Seeing the world from the perspective of outsiders, he argues, homosexuals observe, if not actually create, positive changes in world culture. In an attempt to overcome issues of overpopulation and environmental degradation with the changing nature of religious belief, the author uses the new paradigm of the homosexual to mirror the images of a world transformed by that paradigm. Challenging but worthwhile reading, this book is recommended for most collections.DJeff Ingram, Newport Lib., OR (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Perspective: Queer Victory On a walking journey, when you come to a rise in the road, the horizon opens up. The world gets bigger and patterns in the lay of the land become apparent. From the summit of even a small hill, you can see more of the world than you could on the plain.     If there happens to be a wall alongside the road, especially if it is high and blocks the view, you might be able to climb to the top of it and then see both sides of the wall. Though you must be careful to keep your balance, if you are daring, you can see what other people cannot see. You can see where you have come from and where you are going. You can see things in relation to one another. From this higher perspective, your journey makes more sense. A Higher Perspective     As a consequence of technology and science and the acceleration of the evolution of consciousness on Earth, human beings today are forced to look at the world from a higher perspective than ever before. People are asked to think outside the immediate confines of their own placement in the historical process of the universe, to see "the big picture." Whether they want to or not, they are expected to analyze the forces that construct the popular perception of the world and to understand from over and above the various explanations of reality that have come down to us.     This is especially true and world-shaking in religion. Looking at religions from over and above changes the way their truth is perceived. We see that the wise advice of the ages comes to us through a complex tangle of myths, stories, old wives' tales, legends, and religious doctrines. We recognize the metaphorical nature of religious ideas. We see that out of these metaphors we put together explanations for ourselves of what our lives are about. Such visions are the meat of both religion and spirituality. That is all the mystics and seers who spun the myths were talking about.     All too often, though, driven by practical organizational concerns, the bureaucrats and functionaries of the churches focus on the smaller picture. They inadvertently end up trying to keep people obedient and submissive in order to maintain the status quo.     The human world is full of different myths and explanations for what life is about. Some are contradictory. Most claim to be exclusively true in explicit distinction from all others. How can this be? There is a story that most of us learned in childhood that explains it wisely.     Five blind men are walking down a road in single file. They come upon an obstacle in their path.     "What's this in the way?" the first man asks. The blind men swarm around the obstacle and feel with their hands to determine what it is.     "It is a snake hanging from a tree branch," says the first.     Another calls out, "No, it's just a rope."     Another, alongside, says, "No, no. It's a rock-solid wall."     "I don't understand what you fools are saying," responds the fourth. "It feels just like a thick tree to me."     "Wait a minute, wait a minute," the last man declares, "You don't know what you're talking about. It's waving like the Sultan's fan."     "Get out of the way, get out of the way," shouts a man from atop the obstacle, "Elephant coming through."     Every perception was correct, but not one of the blind men understood what he had encountered. And, notice, the men got angry with one another because they disagreed. Religion and the nature of God are like that. Every myth is true from its own cultural and historical perspective. But no single one actually describes the reality. For that you need to rise to a higher perspective.     While many people today still practice the religions of old, they necessarily adjust the meaning of the doctrines to fit modern reality. That people do this routinely as part of constructing a modern worldview is evidence--and the mechanism--of a transformation of religion. The old myths are passing; a "new myth" is at hand. The New Myth     Based in an understanding of human psychology and a view of myth and symbol from over and above any particular tradition, this new and developing myth about ultimate truth is characterized by a self-reflexive awareness of the myth-making process.     Inevitably, the development of this new myth is going to change popular religious consciousness. It is likely to result in a sort of rational, demythologized blend of Christianity, Buddhism, and local nature religion--all embraced with reverence as expressions of wisdom and clues to the nature of consciousness, but none accorded dogmatic dominance. It would be true also to say "remythologized," for, with our new perspective, we can understand and enjoy the mythological presentation of psychological and spiritual wisdom without getting caught up in the strife, confusion, competition, and hostility that come when adherents claim their myth to be right exclusively and demand that others accede to their particular doctrines.     There is a transformation, too, of our planetary ecology. After struggling for millennia just to survive, the human race is now multiplying exponentially and rapidly exceeding the planet's ability to sustain it. The rules of sexual and reproductive behavior, which have been tied to the mystical experience of deeper reality and to the practical concerns of governing society through religious belief, have to change. Part of the "new myth" needs to be a broader understanding of sex and the ecology of reproduction.     Thus the development of gay identification plays an important role in creating the new myth. The very existence of homosexuality in human sexual behavior and the evolution of self-identified gay people in society demand a larger view of things. Any explanation of the nature of sexuality must now include same-sex orientation. A theory of sexuality has to explain all observable phenomena; it cannot dismiss data as irrelevant or distasteful to the majority. So homosexuality expands the view of human nature. From a perspective outside "normal" sexuality, the larger nature of sex becomes more apparent. Likewise, gay experience helps us understand the larger nature of religion and spirituality. Earthrise     Human beings today are able to look at history from a broader perspective than ever before. We are able to observe the dynamics of consciousness. This is symbolized by the now familiar image of Earth seen from the surface of the moon--earthrise. For the first time, human beings were able to look at their planet from over and above. Consciousness stepped outside and saw itself.     Such a perspective allows us to see what myth and religion are really about. Gay people are naturals for this perspective. Being homosexual--and specifically identifying as gay--forces us into a higher perspective on life. Because of our homosexual orientation we have available to us insights into the nature of consciousness. We are able to step outside the assumptions and conventions of our culture to see things from a different point of view. In the jargon of management consulting, being gay trains us to think outside the box.     As stated in the introduction, there is a certain kind of enlightenment that goes with being gay, a familiarity with being an outsider and an understanding from over and above of the world in which we live. We naturally see that if the conventions of society are wrong about something as basic as sex, they are probably wrong about a lot of other things as well. With this insight, we can reevaluate what the world says is so. We can see through the metaphors. We can reevaluate what human life is about.     Indeed, many gay men and lesbians have created their own models for the good life and thereby recreated themselves and their world. Every story of "coming out" represents a call to adventure, a profound discovery that many of the important things one was taught are patently wrong. Every story represents a dramatic incident of accepting things as they really are without resistance and disapproval, an heroic effort at transforming negative into positive. Metaphorically, every self-respecting, proud homosexual is an alchemist transforming dross into precious metal, a fairy-tale maiden spinning straw into gold, or an aboriginal medicine man divining the pollen path laid out by the way of nature. The Challenge     Unfortunately, the offices of psychotherapists and chemical dependency counselors are packed with homosexually oriented people who have not successfully accomplished this alchemical transformation. Managing to reject social norms and prejudices and then to recreate a whole new interpretation of the world based on personal experience is an enormous task. The function of spiritual wisdom is to assist with such a task.     The deeply personal and idiosyncratic challenge of developing a positive, self-confident, socially contributing homosexuality parallels the struggle of the whole human race to transform the myths and doctrines of the old religions to fit modern, scientifically modulated realities. Philosophically, religiously, all people are being called upon to achieve the perspective on the meaning of life that homosexuals are forced into willy-nilly by not fitting into traditional models. In that sense, modern-day homosexuals are living at the edge of history, and some are helping humanity into the future by setting styles, challenging outmoded cultural assumptions, demonstrating adaptive lifestyles, and participating in a new approach to spirituality--that is to say, by helping devise a new myth.     This new myth is the vision from a higher perspective which modern science and fact-based culture demand. Ideally, achieving perspective does not mean abandoning the past and its models--some of the metaphors and stories are exquisite--as much as learning to include them with the spiritual equanimity called for by critical distance.     Today, we don't look to the past to discover truth. We no longer find the so-called "argument from authority" very convincing. We wouldn't want to go to a doctor or dentist, or even a building contractor or architect, who looked up what to do for us in a tome from the Middle Ages. We look to the future for truth. We naturally assume modern experimental methods have discovered how things work better than the ancients' guesses, and we expect that what has not been discovered yet will be discovered in time. Why would we look in ancient texts to find out about God? If the ancients were wrong about everything else, why would we think their notions of cosmic reality authoritative?     The rise of gay identity in the last hundred years or so, and particularly in the last 30 years, is an important aspect in the formation of the new myth. Gay people--and our struggle for acceptance and our enterprise of creating gay community--are key players in the transformation. This is so if only because the population imperatives that call for compulsory heterosexuality have been turned upside down and attitudes about sex and reproduction need to change. Having more children, perpetuating one's genes, cannot be the reason for living. There are too many children already. Gay people represent this shift. This transformation in consciousness, this "waking up from history," is what gay spirituality is about. An Aristocracy of the Considerate and the Plucky     Homosexuals--either practicing or repressed--have been running the institutions of religion for ages on end. The earliest "religious leaders" were medicine men and shamans, many of whom cross-dressed and behaved homosexually in pursuit of their mystical calling. Homosexual artists, like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, helped define religious imagery. Over the centuries, priests, monks, and nuns joined the church to avoid being forced into marriage, family, and the heterosexual lifestyle. This may be why celibate priesthood has been championed by church prelates who, while having no sexual life themselves, could easily dismiss men's need for women because they did not really understand heterosexual drive.     Homosexual orientation and gay identification manifest sensibilities and attitudes that can clearly be thought of as religious: sensitivity to others, desire to be loving, the sense of feeling part of a cause for justice and righteousness, fascination with ritual and history, art and style, and honesty. The point of a gay spirituality is to find and then proclaim the meaning of being homosexual, to answer the question: "What is the message from the Universe, from `God,' conveyed by my queer nature?"     Some self-identified gay men prefer the term "queer" to "gay." "Queer" was chosen to break with the "gay culture" of the 1980s. Some activists, especially young and academically involved Gen-Xers, understandably felt "gay" had become so mainstreamed and so dominated by consumerism that it had lost its revolutionary edge. More importantly, queer was chosen to be inclusive of all sexual minorities, i.e., gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and transvestites.     The notion that there is a need for an all-inclusive term has generally come from gay men and has, at various times, been resisted by the other sexual minorities, who recognize they have issues different from those of male homosexuals. It is a gay vision that we are all one and that all sexual minorities should be included in the gay movement's calls for justice, liberation, and respect. And it is a men's blindness that, once included, the other minorities tend to be dismissed.     The message that queer identification contributes to the overall gay movement is that sexuality is much more fluid than previously thought. Queer identification is an embrace of deviance and countercultural values and a rejection of conventional normalcy. Independent of the Foucaultian debate about essence versus construction that founds it philosophically, queer identification is just as much a repudiation of normal heterosexuality as it is of gayness, declaring both as limiting categories.     One of the loveliest uses of the emotionally charged word, queer, with all the spiritual meaning and none of the organizational implications, appears in a quote from early twentieth century novelist E.M. Forster: "An aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky ... are to be found in all nations and classes, and through all the ages. And there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one queer victory of our race over cruelty and chaos." Queer Generalizations     Of course, not all of us fit this queer idealization. Terms like "queers" and "gay men" are necessarily generalizations. In a way, anything we say about them can be disproved by a single contrary example. Nonetheless, it makes sense to talk about gay men without having to include each and every gay man and each and every exception to our prototype. The generalizations in this book about the meaning of sexuality or even "human nature" do not apply to everybody. But they do apply to a culturally constructed image of what gay men are like--the myth of the modern gay man.     This myth is a constructed image that helps homosexuals explain their experience to themselves. This image has changed dramatically in the last few decades. The myth of the gay man in the 1940s was of a lonely, tormented, self-hating pervert. The mythical gay man in the mid 1970s was an outlaw and sexual athlete of amazing prowess. In the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS scare, he was a hapless, but self-responsible, victim. By the mid 1990s, he had become a committed spouse clamoring for marriage rights. Overall, in the last half-century, the transformation has been tremendous. We no longer think of ourselves as perverts; we have stopped being victims and become survivors. We have changed our myth.     As soon as we notice these transformations over time, we can see that the generalizations are just images and stereotypes. When we rise to a higher perspective, we are freed from the momentary appearance of things. Within the gay world, of course, we have always known the realities were much more complicated than the stereotypes. But it was precisely by changing these generalizations of what a gay man was that the liberation of modern times was achieved. Gay men changed how they thought about themselves, and the world around them changed, too.     Some of us think of ourselves as spiritual men struggling to create good lives, struggling to "save the world" or, at least, the world of our own experience. As we embrace this new spiritual identity, we transform our interior worlds and the world at large. Copyright © 2000 TOBY JOHNSON. All rights reserved.