Thursday, July 24, 2014

I Miss You, Margaret

For me, reading theology -- or any "deep" topic in general -- is often quite frustrating. I am a visual learner, in the sense that when I read words my mind "films" them. Sometimes I film the words very concretely, like when reading the Bible my mind actually tries to picture the events. What does manna actually look like when it fell from Heaven? What did the Apostle Paul actually see in Corinth that so-enraged him? (Did he see back-alley orgies? Did he see human sacrifice?) Just what did Jesus see when He found those moneychangers in the Temple, and for that matter what did the average worshipper see when this upstart young Jew went ape-shit crazy and beat the crap out of some moneychangers while throwing their tables around? (I'm particularly enamored of the image of my Personal Lord & Savior kicking the crap out of some capitalists, but I digress...)

Where my visual mind gets confounded is when I read abstract text. For me, then, reading theology can be very frustrating. As much as I seek that wordless presence of the Divine, I find it frustrating when it tells me to be still and simply know that it is God. What does God look like? How does God's voice actually sound to human ears? Or does God have no hands, no feet, no face, beyond that which was incarnated in Jesus and which is now resident in all humans since the Day of Pentecost?

I am also fascinated with one of the most curious conclusions the empirical world has given us regarding physics, and how it might apply to my interactions with the Divine Presence. Quantum entanglement. Put simply, quantum entanglement is when particles become linked and remain linked regardless of how many miles apart they travel. When one particle changes, the other particle responds -- despite no measurable evidence of a link -- and the transmission of the information from one particle to the other occurs INSTANTANEOUSLY. This, of course, violates Einstein's fundamental conclusion that the speed of light is an "absolute limit" which cannot be exceeded. Einstein himself, when confronted with the concept of entanglement, called it "spooky action at a distance."

And this is where quantum mechanics and theology become one. For me, quantum entanglement provides evidence of "intelligent design" in the Universe. Before you roll your eyes and think OMG Philip has just lost his mind, keep reading: I most emphatically do not use the term to connote anything like Creationism. For me, "intelligent design" means precisely that -- that God designed the Universe. For me, the idea that God designed the Universe (Multiverse, actually) does not in any way conflict with the scientific empirical method nor any of its conclusions. It's just that for me, things that appear mysterious in physics are only mysterious because we are not God and therefore we cannot know everything all at once.

So you might remember that this post started like it was going to be about reading, particularly "deep" texts, right? Let's return to that now.

For me the reading of words about God is exactly that -- words about God. I can never fully know God until/unless I become God. Therefore, even the most moving words about God are, at best, a crude approximation of the infinite majesty of God. I can certainly "move closer to God" by reading about God, contemplating the words I read, and experiencing the truth of those words in the so-called "real" world. But there is nontheless a limit to what I can do in my head. Sure we use less than 10% of the brain's capabilities -- on a good day -- but even if we used all 100% we would still be "less than infinite" in existence. For me, then, as a person who believes that God is the effect-without-a-cause, the alpha-omega, and a truly infinite being in a way I cannot even conceive, the very suggesting of "knowing God fully" is preposterous. Given that assumption, then, what am I left with?

I am left with embodied experience. For me, it is much more powerful to experience God. And now we step into the concept of panentheism (as distinguished from pantheism). I do experience the presence of God when I listen to the purring of my cats as they sleep on my stomach at night. I feel God in the jaw-dropping beauty I see when I drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. And I felt God's presence in my church community when we sang for two hours in the hospital at the bedside of our beloved parishioner Margaret who died this week (Wednesday, 24 July 2014 at 0815).

And yet, there is still a limitation: because my corporeal senses are finite, and the beings and objects with which I directly interact (cats, Pacific Coast Highway, and my church community from the examples above), I still am experiencing just an "approximation" of God. The magnificent works of God are not in themselves God; they are merely the immanent effects of a transcendent entity that has chosen to enter my physical reality. I will always remain fundamentally unsatisfied by such majesty when I think of what it is in comparison with God's true nature. Perhaps Tillich said it best when he wrote of the Ultimate Concern. Or maybe it was Yoda in The Empire Strikes back.

Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

I believe that. I must believe it. It must be true in order for me to make sense of the losses I have experienced in the past 7 months. I am mourning the loss of school -- there is definitely a profound loss since graduation. But the loss of which I speak in this post is due to the deaths of several people in my two church communities.

This week I am lamenting the passing from this life of my dear parishioner Margaret at Grace North. She was a mother of our congregation, demure and yet so amazingly fierce. She was a good friend. She was a fellow philologist. She loved us all so subtly and yet so palpably. I do not fear for her -- she is no longer in pain, no longer suffering. She is dancing with the angels in Heaven. She is having an eternal afternoon tea with Princess Diana. She is loving us from Heaven along with Mother Teresa. She is now part of that chorus of maternal figures that includes BobbieJean Baker. She has been promoted to the status recently given to Alexis Dolleman. She watches over us now, with my dear Grandmother Lillian Tanner. And my faith tells me that we will -- all of us -- meet again.

But it still hurts, and makes me so very sad.

And it makes me wonder: if two particles are entangled, and one particle pops out of the Universe, what becomes of the other particle? How does it continue to exist? Does it feel the loss of the other particle like how I feel the loss of Margaret so acutely? Or is there another layer of quantum reality that I cannot (yet) perceive, where the Margaret-particle did not cease to exist in this Universe but merely transitioned into a new state? If this is true then what impact does the change in that particle have on all the other particles with which it is entangled? It follows logically that there has been some sort of change in all the remaining particles. What is the nature of that change? Is it on a level I cannot (yet) perceive? Does the use of quantum mechanics as a unifying theological construct break down at this point? And will I ever know the answers to these questions?

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying "the tabernacle of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God's people and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."
- Revelation 21:1-4 (NRSVA)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Military, Transfolk, and Hypocrisy

Trigger Warnings
Moral Values

As I often do with postings that I know will be controversial, I respectfully remind the reader that this is my blog and it shows my opinions. One of the many blessings under the "doctrine of free-speech" is that you are absolutely free to disagree vehemently with my opinions -- and you have every right to do so on your own blog. Please respect my right to speak freely by not rendering my Comments feature useless. If you want to respond at-length to this post, do so. On your own blog. Thank you.

Recently on a Facebook forum connected to my seminary, Pacific School of Religion (PSR), there was a discussion thread about military recruiters being allowed -- or prohibited -- from doing their work on our campus. Anyone who has been around any educational institution for any length of time will know that this kind of issue arises regularly and repeatedly, and has for many years. Certainly since the Vietnam Era, the populace has been willing to critically examine what messages an institution sends to its students -- intended or not -- when it permits or denies military access to recruitment efforts within the particular institution's context.

In the Spring of 2014, this issue arose again at PSR. What I found particularly interesting about how the campus-wide dialogue proceeded this time was that it focused on the military's discrimination against transfolk. As a trans ally, a military "brat" who grew up on Air Force bases until I was in high school, and as a Christian, I certainly supported the right of my community to engage critically with the issues. But I quickly realized that I was having a rather strong negative reaction to the tone that the dialogue took.

I have sat with that reaction and discerned thoughtfully about why I felt the way I felt, whether my feelings have changed, and -- at its most basic level -- just what my feelings actually were.

There is no doubt that this particular issue raises a host of other complex issues and, in true Max Weber-ian fashion, I represent a difficultly layered set of identities, priorities, and moral beliefs in response. Now that I have some distance from the community, I feel that I am able to more clearly state my thoughts on the matter. I respectfully request that you extend the same hermeneutic of generosity that you would expect from me as you read the following text. Golden-rule yaknow.


There is no doubt that the military still has a long way to go with regard to transfolk. And it makes perfect sense that the PSR community would take a stand against allowing military recruitment on campus given the fact that the military has made great forward strides with regard to the LGB part of the alphabet soup while -- like so many others (I'm lookin' at you HRC) -- continuing to throw the T letter under the proverbial bus. But, as so often whenever I swim through the political fishbowl known as Berkeley, I found myself sensing something else.

It is no great logical leap to conclude what I was sensing, because there is no doubt in my mind that there was a strong undercurrent which I have felt ever since moving out west for college at Cal-Berkeley in 1989: the community is inherently anti-military. Here is the first cliff I will jump off in this post: anyone who says that they are not anti-military but who opposes what this nation's military stands for, appears to be trying to have it both ways. It is the same logic as "hate the sin, love the sinner" ... and when someone uses that logic on us regarding our affectional orientation or gender identity, how does that make us feel?

To be absolutely clear, I am not accusing the community of intentional anti-military bias -- at least not broadly. Honestly I feel that many of the folks in the larger hybridized Berkeley community (meaning: the Cal campus + the GTU campuses + the privileged people living in the 'nice' parts of town + everyone else who is either homeless, at-risk, or both) are not actively or intentionally anti-military. In fact, my opinion is that it is even worse: the larger community is indifferent. It is so quick to protest any discussion of any action by the American military in any location for any reason, but on a day-to-day basis the community remains absolutely silent on other related moral issues... racial disparity in the services, the impact on people of color from educational aid offered in return for indentured military servitude, the entire concept of moral injury, the ravages of PTSD, the rape-culture found in many military training environments, etc.

Personally, I see this as the worst form of hypocrisy. If I could challenge the community in one area and one area only I would go right for this. If you say that you don't want a military-industrial complex to exist then what are you actually doing to create equally lucrative alternatives for young adults, particularly those without racial/economic/sociological privilege, so that they can overcome the shitty hand they were dealt in the poker-game of American life without going into the military? And furthermore, if you believe that your protests are the right thing then have you noticed that for four decades now you have not changed government orders and you have not helped the innocent victims of American military aggression abroad and you have not prevented the tremendous damage (mental and physical) that American soldiers suffer?

But lest I digress impossibly far from my topic, let me return to it: why did the events around military recruitment at PSR in the Spring of 2014 bother me so much?

What I found particularly vexing, confusing, and downright hypocritical at PSR this past spring was the stated reason that PSR prohibited a military recruiter on our campus. The stated reason was because the military continues to marginalize, stigmatize, discriminate against, and permit open hostility toward transfolk.

To clarify, yet again, I do not dispute this fact. I personally find the treatment of transfolk by my country's military nothing short of abhorrent and evil. I absolutely agree that this is the truth and I find it deeply troubling on levels I cannot even put into words. I will add, though, that Chelsea Manning now receives hormones from the military at taxpayer expense with no copay to her personally. One right-move for a prisoner, weighed against the thousands of folks who have been victimized at the hands of that same government, still does not begin to address the problem. Nevertheless, Chelsea is receiving hormones and is being permitted to live her true identity while in prison for the crimes she committed before her transition.

You may already be able to see where my logic is going. This past Spring at PSR, many of us were quick to speak out against the military recruiter coming to campus -- and yet continued to remain silent with regard to the United Methodist Church (UMC). For those who do not know, the UMC is the second-largest denomination on the PSR campus and to this day it maintains formal policies that explicitly discriminate against LGBT Christians with regard to spiritual support, church community support, and ordination to the priesthood.

Folks, I'm going to call it as I see it: this is hypocrisy.
Taking a strong moral stand is great and I support it one-hundred percent, but if we take a stand then we must be willing to critically examine ourselves and we must be willing to dive into the deep end of the pool of moral conundra. With regard to what happened at PSR last Spring: do we actually believe what we are standing up for, as a rule-of-life moral commitment, or was our response actually a situationally opportunistic smoke-screen for something else? [Or both?]

Let's review the basic facts:

1) PSR has deep ties to the UMC
2) The UMC discriminates against LGBT communities
3) The American military discriminates against one of the LGBT communities, specifically the "T"
4) The PSR community prohibited a military recruiter from appearing on campus
5) The PSR community cited #3 to justify #4
6) The PSR community continues to engage with the UMC despite #2

PSR's institutional position was to reject the military because of its history of discrimination and its specific continued discrimination against one group, while at the same time continuing to keep full covenantal ties with the UMC as it continues to discriminate against multiple groups floating in the LGBTQQIA alphabet soup. Again, I call it as I see it: this is hypocrisy. Why is it acceptable to say that we want to work "within the system" to change the Methodists while denying our students access to do work "within the system" of the military? Is it because the military overall represents values we reject? If so then why are we not saying that? If our true motivation is actually that we are anti-military and looking for a reason to deny military recruitment access to PSR then why don't we just have the guts to speak that truth?


Pause for a minute and let that question sink in. If we actually have "bigger" reasons for opposing a military presence on our campus but we cite the transfolk as "the issue" then we are not only hypocrites. We are also abusing the trans community in the same way that anti-trans activists do.

I realize that this is an inflammatory accusation, and I do not make it lightly. But I stand by it. This is the trouble, the frustration, and the extreme danger of liberal fundamentalism of the sort so common in the San Francisco region in general, and particularly within the progressive Christian communities. Yes, that's what I said. Far too many of us in the progressive Christian communities are actually fundamentalists. LIBERAL fundamentalists, yes. But still fundamentalists.

I challenge us to ask ourselves: is that what we want to be?

The most evil things that come from fundamentalism are denial of other viewpoints and denial of responsibility for one's behavior (or denial of the behavior itself). When we use one marginalized group -- in this case transfolk -- to forward our own separate agenda that includes issues far beyond just one community, we are appropriating the narrative of that marginalized group. We are using that marginalized group for our own agenda.

This is exactly what conservatives -- and specifically conservative fundamentalists -- do. Look at the current situation on the US-México border. The conservative response has been "stop illegal immigration" despite the fact that almost all these children are refugees from violence in Central America. Most of them are not even Mexican! Or, if I dare, let's talk about the situation in Gaza. Many conservatives in this country state unwavering support for Israel... but why? Do they really want the world's Jews to have a homeland per the moral teachings of the Torah? NO! The far-right conservatives in this country support Israel for two reasons: 1) they believe that they can use the Jewish state to control the Arabs and 2) they believe that the return of the Israelite tribe to Jerusalem is prophetically tied into the so-called Christian so-called Rapture. Note that in neither case is there actually any desire to help the actual people in the actual scenario. The desire of the agitator-group is to move forward with a completely different moral agenda and that agenda is not the agenda of the group being helped.

To put it more concisely:

The "illegal" kids on the border want safety from unceasing political violence in their home countries. The conservatives are using those kids in order to forward the anti-immigrant agenda.

The Palestinians want to live free from the apartheid of the Israeli nation-state. Hamas is going about it the wrong way, I agree. The conservatives are using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to forward the fundamentalist Rapture agenda.

And now, here we go:

Transfolk want to live without targeted violence, hatred, rape, and brutal murder -- not to mention living with basic things like unfettered access to bathrooms and compassionate medical care. The PSR community used the trans community to forward its anti-military agenda.

Perhaps the thing which upset me the most -- and broke my heart the deepest -- was that I observed more than one trans person doing this on the hill. And again, to clarify yet again, I do not take issue with opposing military recruitment on campus per se, and I remain absolutely open to an ongoing discussion of this issue that may result in an outcome that I cannot personally control. My personal opinion on the matter is actually irrelevant within the logical framework of the argument I make here. I support, without reservation, the right of the campus to take such a stand, but to take a stand with regard to the military but then look the other way with regard to the UMC? Really? How is that morally justifiable? How is that ethically sound? How is that not morally hypocritical?

I urge everyone in the PSR community to take a step back and actually think about the logical inconsistency in the moral stand that we took. Who are we to decide which groups we will hold accountable for their beliefs and why is it acceptable to hold one group -- the military -- to a different standard than another group -- the UMC?

I further respectfully request that we consider why we have taken this bifurcated, inconsistent moral stand at PSR. Could it have something to do with money? Would PSR suffer financially if it broke ties with the UMC over the UMC's doctrine of marginalization and discrimination against the LGBT communities? And if that is the reason why -- money -- then I strongly believe that we need to take a much deeper and painful look at ourselves, our values, our motives. Because if we hold morally inconsistent positions because of money, then we are in much bigger trouble.

In closing, let me be clear once again: I am not opposed to the UMC on the PSR campus. I am not opposed to denying the military access to recruit on campus. I am opposed to using the trans community to forward agendas that are separate from the issues that the trans community faces. So many groups have co-opted the trans narrative throughout history. We must resist doing so, even if we are motivated by a desire for a greater good. The narratives of the trans community are just as majestic, unique, and powerful as anyone else's narratives.

Let trans folk have their narrative. Stop using it for your own purposes.