Gnosticism and My Experiences with Mysticism

Marcus Borg
Scores of widely accepted Gnostic works were excluded from the New Testament's canonization in 397 A.D. because they contradicted the beliefs of the Catholic hierarchy. Before and after the canonization, many such scriptures were destroyed, although one or more occasionally turns up in a cave or monastery. In 1945, a treasure trove of such documents was found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and, thirty years later, the Gospel of Judas was discovered nearby. Although Gnostic beliefs were diverse, the following suggest how different Gnostic thinking was from what became orthodoxy:

There is only one "true God," but there are numerous lower deities, three of which created the universe as we know it. Those three were: Jehovah, the god of the Hebrew Bible who behaved like a jilted lover; Saklas, the fool who created humanity; and Nebro, a blood-drenched rebel. 

Judas was hated by the other apostles because he alone understood Jesus' message. He turned Jesus over to the Romans at Jesus' command. 

Jesus didn't die as an atonement for sin but to escape earth. We're not saved by faith but by secret knowledge, and we can only obtain that knowledge if we're among the few people who are immortal. 

Jesus laughed easily, often at things that appalled his apostles. For example, he laughed at their piety; at their inability to understand him; at the heroes of the Hebrew Bible; and at the conceit of Jehovah. During his crucifixion, the essence of Jesus comforted his frightened followers in their hiding places.

In some Gnostic stories, Jesus occupied the body of a grown man after expelling its previous occupant. In others, he was born a baby, and his supernatural powers made him into a bad-tempered brat who killed, blinded, or paralyzed anyone who angered him. 

The Gnostic writings are so filled with absurdities that I assume their writers were either trying to be funny or else their intention escapes me. For instance, in one part of the Acts of John, the Apostle John successfully commanded bed bugs to leave his bed and stand outside the door; in another he raised from the dead a celibate married woman with whose corpse a man had tried to have sex, his attempt being thwarted by a guardian snake that encircled his ankles and scared him to death. Then, a few pages later, I came across one of the most hypnotic passages of Scripture. In it, the apostles joined hands and danced ecstatically around Jesus while responding Amen to his chanting. I will share but a few lines...

The number Eight singeth praise with us. Amen
The number Twelve danceth above us. Amen
The Whole on High taketh part in the dancing. Amen
He who doth not dance, knoweth not what is being done. Amen

A lamp am I to thee that beholdest me. Amen
A mirror am I to thee that perceivest me. Amen
A door am I to thee that knockest at me.
A way am I to thee, a wayfarer. Amen

As I read those words just before dawn, my bedroom began to spin; I became unable to judge distance; and my plants beneath their grow-light shone with glory. It wasn't the first time I experienced a euphoric hallucination, the early ones dating from childhood. I especially remember my inability to judge distance and the extreme clarity of objects, experiences that were like being in Oregon's High Desert on a sunny day when all things seem alive and it seems that I can reach out and touch mountains that are two miles high and eighty miles away. Although some of my later hallucinations involved drugs, they were all more real and memorable than most of life. 

A recent help to me in making sense of my experiences are the writings of theologian, Marcus Borg, who also loved the remote clarity of the Oregon High Desert and died there in 2015. Only upon reading about his experiences did I stop interpreting my own to mean that I am too sensitive, too suggestible, overly impressionable, or borderline insane, possibilities that worried my mother, although she didn't know the half of it. The word that Borg gave me was mystical, which seemed to leap off the page and with it, years of striving, of wondering, of challenging, of drawing demarcations, all fell away or, perhaps, came to fruition.

Do I mean to say that I have been in contact with something from without? No, but then I don't consider the distinction meaningful. I'll try to explain myself with an example. In 1978, after a night that started with waking nightmares during which I became too scared to speak as a succession of chimeras leaped toward my face, and that ended with a heaven of kaleidoscopic colors playing before my closed eyes in a darkened room, I sat atop a farm truck to watch the sunrise. As I looked across cotton fields at a row of large oaks that stretched along the bank of the Mississippi River, the trees began to sway, even to dance, and I knew that I was one with the universe, which, I believe, was what Jesus felt as the apostles danced. The fact that I had taken a chemical the night before in no way lessened the profundity of the experience because the drug was but a key to a place that had been there all along.

I've surely forgotten entire years of events that occurred during the intervening decades, but I'll never forget what I felt that Louisiana morning. Church is a little like that, its truth being in something other than consenting to dogmatic absurdities, something that is the result of many things, among them tradition, antiquity, community, sanctuarial beauty, liturgical elegance, the transition from sitting to standing to bowing to kneeling to making the signum crucis and back again, and to something else that I can't name anymore than I can name what happened as I sat atop that farm truck. After receiving the Eucharist, I watch as others proceed slowly and quietly down the center aisle and kneel before the altar, some of them so old and frail that they can't kneel. As I observe the poignant solemnity of a procession that started in Eugene 164 years ago and that always ends in death, tears sometimes come, and I don't know why. I just know that they come from the best part of me, the part in which trees dance, and rooms spin, and I experience compassion, and I love my wife as myself. 

"Neither shall they say, 'Lo here! or, Lo there!' for, behold, the kingdom of God is within."

Peggy's narrow escape

Peggy has been attending a hobbyist convention (she collects clothing buttons) in Jacksonville, Florida, with her friend, Sandie. Peggy and Sandie were taking a walk today when they escaped being shot by a matter of seconds. Twelve people were not so lucky, and four of the twelve are dead. Among the panicked survivors who ran past Peggy and Sandie was a man with a bloody leg.

It is Republicans who are to blame for making our country into a war zone, and it is evangelical Christians who dominate the Republican Party. How do these good Christians (the same people who claim that I can't be moral because I don't believe in hell) justify forcing the rest of us to live in constant fear of being murdered simply because we chose to attend school, go on vacation, drive down the street, sit in front of an open window, or take a walk? They say that:

(1) Gun violence is the price of freedom.
(2) Gun violence can be greatly reduced by putting more guns in the hands of more people, thereby making all of us afraid to start shooting.

My tolerance for those who vote Republican has been going downhill for years, but the hill steepened dramatically after Trump was elected because it was then that I lost my final vestige of hope that these people even mean well. 

The last time I spoke to Peggy's father, he said that he and his fellow Baptist deacons were considering whether to start bringing guns to church simply because one never knows when a gun might come in handy. After I received Peggy's call, I wanted to phone him and ask him if his position about gun ownership would have changed had his daughter been murdered. I didn't do it because I didn't want to hurt Peggy.

If you vote Republican, blood is on your hands, and while, in my present state of outrage, I don't really care one whole hell of a lot what happens to you, my anger would know no bounds if my wife had been murdered because of you.

Shabbat: an epiphany

I had long planned to someday visit Temple Beth Israel. The website calendar listed a class with the rabbi on Thursday followed by Shabbat on Friday, so I emailed to say that I would like to attend both. I arrived at the synagogue behind another man. The door was locked, so he rang the bell, told a disembodied voice why he had come, and was buzzed in. After the door closed behind him, I went through the same procedure. I thought my bookpack might invite inquiry, but it didn't.

At the start of class, the young female rabbi asked me pointedly why I had come, and a kindly woman named Gail said, "Nothing like being put on the spot." I said that I enjoy interesting religion classes. I added that I last attended a synagogue in 1969, and that despite both the synagogue and the rabbi's home being bombed by the KKK two years earlier, I received a warm welcome. I told about my grandfather having arrived in Mississippi with a wife, two kids, and no money in 1908, and how Samuel Abrams of Abrams' Mercantile extended him credit when no one else would. I told of a dream I had as a teenager in which I entered my town's synagogue and found it beautiful beyond imagining.

The rabbi said that I was welcome to come to any of the synagogue's events without giving prior notice, and Gail offered to sit with me at Shabbat. The class was over my head, but I participated as much as I could. When it ended, the rabbi said that there was nothing on the handouts that couldn't be recycled. I asked her what would have happened if there were, and she said they would have to be buried.

I was so tired on Friday evening that I wouldn't have attended the two hour service had Gail not expected me. This time the door was unlocked, but a man was sitting just inside. As is my habit for most things, I arrived early, so upon seeing a courtyard adjacent to the sanctuary, I went in and immediately spotted a large and distressed jade plant. Upon finding that the soil was bone dry, I went looking for something to carry water in. The man at the door found a bucket. I thought that the plight of that plant cast the synagogue in a bad light.

On my way into the sanctuary, I donned a yamulke and was handed a hymnal. There was a box of tzitzis, but the service didn't require one. I  took a seat in the back, but Gail, who was down front, looked for me and motioned for me to sit with her. When the rabbi walked over, I stood-up, thinking she would welcome me, but she ignored me entirely while speaking to Gail. Gail told me as much about the service as she could as fast as she could, but I was too busy soaking in the atmosphere to listen.

Nearly all of the service consisted of singing joyously in Hebrew to the music of banjos, guitars, and mandolins. Some people danced. I knew that Hebrew was read from right to left, but I was momentarily thrown by the hymnal's page numbers running from what is normally the back of the book toward the front. Alongside the Hebrew text, the hymnal contained English translations and an English guide to Hebrew pronunciation. Christian songs tend to focus upon sucking up to God, but these were love songs of trust, tenderness, and longing, and I was unprepared for how beautiful they were. My tears started to fall with the first song, and they kept falling throughout the service. Because I sitting in the middle of a row in the front of the sanctuary with the pews being arranged in a semi-circle, I was in view of many eyes, and because I had no handkerchief, the tears ran down my face and onto my shirt. I wiped my nose on my fingers and wiped my fingers on my pants. When I noticed that my pants were glistening, I asked Gail if it was an appropriate part of the service to excuse myself to the bathroom.

When I returned, I sat in the back, in a chair that was at the end of a row. I thought I had regained my composure, but I was wrong. When I leaned my hymnal against my chair leg to wipe my eyes, a woman crossed the aisle and handed it to me, saying that putting a hymnal on the floor was not permitted. I later thanked her, and she said that it had been hard for her to say anything. When I got home, I learned that, while I was at synagogue, a man 300 miles to the north had intentionally crashed a plane onto an island after telling air traffic control, "I'm just a messed up guy." I found it harder than usual to grasp the fact that such extremes of happiness and misery can co-exist. 

Why did I cry? I cried because I have never experienced a more beautiful service. I cried because the seemingly ancient music was filled with romance rather than abasement and supplication. I cried because Gail was alive with love for her religion. I cried because those with whom I stood retain the courage to be happy despite the suffering of their people. I cried because Jews live under an increasing threat of violence, and I cannot protect them. I cried because I grew up being told that, unlike Christianity, Judaism is coldly legalistic, yet I had never experienced such passion and adoration.

The next evening, Saturday, I attended an Episcopal "circle communion" for the first time since December 15, 2012 (I remember the date because the Connecticut school shooting occurred the day before, and the group was consumed by grief). In an ordinary Episcopal mass, the priest and one or more attendees serve the elements. In a circle service, each person serves the bread and wine to the next person in the circle. It's the kind of small group atmosphere in which I thrive, and I only stopped going because I was expected, while serving communion, to say a single sentence in which I didn't believe. I shared my dilemma with someone I trusted and, in her outrage, she told others, the result being anger on their part and a feeling of betrayal on mine. For years, I wanted to return, but I knew I would be unwelcome. Now, I think of the words that I objected to as a gift rather than a statement of faith.

The group recited, "When I searched for Love, the Beloved answered within my heart. Look to the Beloved, and your face will radiate love," and I was again overwhelmed by emotion. The songs of the previous night, the words of that night's circle service, and the writings of Anglican bishops John Robinson, James Pike, and John Spong, all emphasize the concept of the God-Within to the point that the God-Without disappears. It's theology made poetry. It does not believe; it awaits. It does not fear external hell; it fears internal emptiness. It does not obey dogma; it obeys conscience.

As I cried, the woman to my right, a stranger to me, laid a comforting hand on my leg, but I couldn't return her touch because I was in the latest throes of a struggle that has lasted for over fifty years. On the one hand, I need church, which is to say that I need the Episcopal Church, but on the other, I feel that I have to renounce my integrity to attend. 

During the Shabbat celebration, and then the circle communion, I realized that I simply must find a middle ground between being true to my intellect and being true to my heart because this internal war is becoming unbearable. The mere fact that I can be so moved by the beauty of worship that my life doesn't work well without it, suggests that I have an unalterable need to attend, and that no compassionate person, including myself, can deny me that right.

Check Your Brain at the Church Door

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

This anonymous prayer depicts religion as it can be but seldom is. The fundamentalist Church of Christ of my childhood neared a worst-case scenario of hatred and intolerance. I was raised to believe that:

1) The Bible was dictated word for word by God. The Bible is true historically and scientifically, and it outlines God’s plan for salvation so simply that “even a child can understand it.”

2) Salvation is by a combination of faith and works. Anyone who deviates in any way from New Testament teachings does so out of pride, and is doomed to an eternal fiery hell. Teaching the gospel meant warning people of hell in almost every sermon.

3) The Church of Christ is the only church that Christ instituted, although it was driven underground by persecution soon after Christ’s death until the 1830s when two former Presbyterian preachers brought it back above ground.

4) God will guide those who sincerely seek him to the Church of Christ even if they live thousands of miles from the nearest Church of Christ and have never heard of its existence. With the exception of children who have yet to reach an unspecified age of accountability, only members of the Church of Christ will go to heaven. The fate of someone who dies on his way to join the church (by being baptized) is unknown.

Some examples of what all this looked like in practice is that the Church of Christ doesn’t have instrumental music because the Bible doesn’t say that the early church had instrumental music; the Church of Christ practices baptism by immersion because Jesus “went down into the water”; the Church of Christ has weekly communion because the first Christians “broke bread upon the first day of the week”; and Church of Christ buildings are unadorned because the Bible doesn’t say that the early churches were adorned. The Church of Christ belief is that if the Bible doesn’t overtly approve of something, it is a sin to want it.

Despite insisting that God’s will is so clear that “even a child can understand it,” and that everyone outside its ranks is bound for an eternal lake of fire, the Church of Christ is divided into three branches, each of which insists that the other two are going to hell. The most conservative branch only uses one “cup” to serve communion wine because Christ said “take this cup in memory of me.” It doesn’t allow women to preach, teach Sunday school, or make announcements in church because the Bible says, “For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

The middle of the road branch (which was my branch) serves communion wine in little glasses that nest in stackable trays, but it doesn’t allow women to preach, teach Sunday school, or make announcements in church. 

The most nearly liberal branch serves communion wine in little glasses, and although it doesn’t allow women to preach, it does permit them to teach Sunday school and make announcements in church. None of these churches existed in my area.

Despite having a grandfather and a great grandfather who were Church of Christ preachers, I was the most religious person in my four person family. When I was eleven, I improvised a pulpit in my backyard, decorated it with wisteria, and preached to the neighborhood kids. I was the only person in my family who went to every one of the church’s four weekly services, and I never missed a revival at any of the area churches that were a part of my branch of the Church of Christ. I led singing, served communion, collected donations, preached short sermons, and went with preachers on out of state revivals. Despite all of this activity, I began to question the justice of the Biblical deity during the same year that I built my pulpit. At age eighteen, I optimistically tried to liberalize the church by writing articles for the newsletter. None of my articles were published, and, seemingly overnight, I became a persona non grata. When I left the church for good at age nineteen, no one inquired after me.

I hadn’t gone far, my town’s Episcopal Church being only three blocks away. Before I settled on the Episcopal Church, I went through a period of church shopping during which I visited fifty Christian denominations and a synagogue. Because my town didn’t have fifty denominations, I had to drive the sixty miles to Jackson (Mississippi) to find some of them. It was a period of great joy during which I had every confidence that I would find a church I could love. The Episcopal Church proved to be that church. My first experience with it occurred when my girlfriend, Sherry, and I were walking past my towns Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and, upon discovering that the door was unlocked, went inside. While sitting in silence admiring the beauty of the sanctuary, we heard the door open and the priest walk in. He greeted us warmly, performed whatever task that had brought him there, and left. 

A few weeks earlier, we had in the same manner walked into one of the area’s most conservative Churches of Christ. Because the different Churches of Christ have nothing to do with one another, we didn’t know anyone who attended that church, yet because we too were members of the Church of Christ, we anticipated a friendly welcome when we heard the door open, but the preacher was livid, accusing us of using the building to “gratify our lusts,” and threatening to call the police if we didn’t leave immediately. I interpreted his behavior versus the behavior of the Episcopal clergyman to symbolize the difference between the intolerant close-mindedness of conservative Christianity versus the openness and welcoming of liberal Christianity.

The biggest difference between myself and those who flourish in environments like the Church of Christ is that, while they feel threatened by differences, differences pique my curiosity. It is also true that, no matter where I go, I never truly feel that I belong because I am always the odd man out. Another difference is that I have a strong need for ritual and physical beauty, and the Church of Christ is largely devoid of both.

When I was a small boy, my family attended the Catholic wedding of my first cousin, and upon comparing the beauty of that church with its bright colors, saints’ statues, stained-glass windows, confessional booths, and fount of Holy Water, to the plainness of my own church, I began to yearn for the ornamentation that the Church of Christ says is sinful Having a rich history also matters to me, and although the Church of Christ claims that it had simply “gone underground” for 1,900 years, I don’t know if anyone really believed it, there being no record of the church having existed prior to the 1830s. The Episcopal Church used to run ads that proclaimed, “You Don’t Have to Check Your Brain at the Door,” and while the claim is debatable when made by any religious institution (all of which require belief in the unsubstantiated), checking one’s brain at the door is exactly what one must do to find contentment as a fundamentalist. Despite what many of their detractors claim, all churches are not alike.

Rightly or Wrongly... is my belief that I spend a lot of time agonizing over decisions that come easily to others. An example would be my last post about homosexuality, something that I struggled with for years before coming down on the side of gay rights. More recently, I have been agonizing over what is a proper attitude toward Trump supporters, my problem being that Trump doesn't just represent a different vision for America than I, Trump represents blatant and unbridled arrogance, narcissism, dishonesty, moral turpitude, and appalling stupidity. How then, am I to respect those who support Trump? The fact is that I can't.

I am so outraged by everything (and I do mean everything) that Donald Trump says and does that there are days when I am too disgusted to even turn on the radio, but I did turn it on earlier this week, only to learn that Trump was in Europe criticizing Britain's prime minister and London's mayor. Such is the man's ego. Then I heard him, yet again, favoring the denial of Russia's murderous and election stealing dictator, Vladimir Putin (with Trump took the unparalleled step of meeting in private for a two-and-a-half hours), concerning American election tampering despite the combined testimony of America's Federal Bureau of Investigation, its Central Intelligence Agency, its Division of Homeland Security, and fourteen other intelligence agencies, and I thought, ENOUGH! From the day he took office, Trump has done everything he can to undermine this nation's trust in ITS OWN GOVERNMENT in favor of a cult of personality, HIS personality. If you can look at this man and think that he represents anything but depraved psychopathy, you are a different cat than I, and I have nothing more to say to you. You might argue, "Let us discuss our differences, and perhaps we will discover that we're more similar than dissimilar." I would respond that you if you can defend Donald Trump, you can defend bestiality, child abuse, dog fighting, raping the elderly, and mugging blind people.

I have tried to hang in there with you; I really have, but if you can honestly believe that Donald Trump is an honorable man who has his country's best interest at heart despite what he has already said and done, you can support Trump no matter what he says and does. During his 2016 campaign, he boasted that he could walk up to a stranger on a crowded Manhattan street and blow the person's brains out without losing the support of the faithful, and he was right. I didn't believe it at the time, but I believe it now. Trusting Donald Trump is a degeneracy, and I feel sorry for you and sorry for our country because you and Trump are doing everything you to stuff us into the sewer.

It's not about sex

"I increasingly began to feel like I was living behind an invisible wall. The inner secrecy of holding that inside was divorcing me from reality–I was living in my own head. Anybody I was in a friendship with, or anything I was doing in the church, was accompanied by an internal mantra: 'What if they knew?' It felt like all of my relationships were built on this ice that would break if I stepped out on to it.

"I felt like it was ripping me in half. I knew I couldn't carry on. I was trying to align the loving God I knew and believed in with this horrendous reality of what was going on inside me. I remember kneeling down and absolutely sobbing into the carpet. I said to God, 'You have to either take my life or take this attraction away because I cannot do both.'"*

These words described Vicky Beeching's life at age 13. She carried the secret of her lesbianism for several more years before confessing it before a religious gathering of 4,000 people, Her fellow Christians gathered around her and prayed that God would cast out her "demon of homosexuality." She soon lost her career as a Christian singer and song writer, and the hate mail and death threats started rolling in. What she experienced was reminiscent of what I went through on the road to atheism. First I prayed for faith. When my prayers failed, I railed against God. When I finally expressed my doubts to my fellow Christians, they ostracized me. Religion is a system by which people feel justified in treating others hatefully in the name of a God of Love; and it is the only means by which they can legally violate the rights of others despite the fact that their institutions are taxpayer supported. Yet the Bible can be understood in various ways. 

The faith tradition that Vicky Beeching and I grew up in believed the Bible to be the literal word of God as dictated to men. The Episcopal Church that I gravitated to in my upper teens, regarded it as a fallible collection of documents that contain the Word of God as understood by primitive men over a 1,500 year period, hence what the Bible held to be true changed even during its writing. I have also seen most Christians' interpretation of it change during my lifetime. For instance, the Southern Baptist denomination that dominated the Mississippi of my childhood held that drinking, gambling, gluttony, and divorce were sins, and my own prominent denomination made Southern Baptists seem almost liberal. While the hold of evangelical Christianity is no less in Mississippi now as it was then, Mississippi has long since legalized gambling and ended prohibition. Because it's the most obese state in the Union, preachers are unlikely to rail against gluttony, and because its divorce rate has increased dramatically, churches no longer deny communion to divorced people who remarry (they were formerly regarded as adulterers). Although the values of religion are everchanging, yet it's a rare day when religious people institute those changes or even admit to them.

I struggled for years with my own thoughts about homosexuality, my primary objection being that since sex is nature's way of reproduction, sex in which reproduction is a physical impossibility is unnatural and therefore aberrant. The fact that Peggy and I did our best to thwart our own reproduction or that she eventually had a hysterectomy seemed irrelevant because our desires were at least natural. I later learned that homosexual sex is found in other species, and I became increasingly struck by the irony of heterosexual teenagers being able to marry while the same right was denied to homosexuals who had lived together for decades. I concluded that it doesn't matter what causes homosexuality, because it's just how some people are and there is no way they can change it, so to deny them the right to marry is wrong, wrong, and wrong.

It is one of the few political positions about which Peggy and I differ, her argument being that since marriage has always been exclusively for heterosexuals it would be wrong to change it now (she favors "civil contracts" that would give gay people the same right as married people without calling it marriage). My response is so what if marriage has been for heterosexuals only? Instead of seeing this as reason to continue the tradition, I see it as high time that society corrects a longstanding error. I also believe that civil contracts would further institutionalize the notion that homosexuals are unworthy of the same legal protections as straight people. As with school integration, separate but equal never was and never could be anything but separate in fact and equal in fantasy. 

Another difference between Peggy and me is that I am greatly interested in the experiences of homosexuals within the context of the larger society (I learned of Vicky Beeching from a radio interview), while Peggy is so averse to wanting to know that it seems to bother her than I do. She is very much of the Don't ask, Don't tell philosophy that became the Law of the Land in 1994 under Bill Clinton (it was overturned in 2011). What Don't ask, Don't tell meant was that, unlike straights, gays in the military had to hide their sexual orientation, which continued the tradition of keeping gays in the closet by telling them that their "dirty little secret" was shameful. Under Don't ask, Don't tell it was considered so shameful that it represented a threat to military cohesiveness and hence to national security.

I cried while reading the interview I quoted from, and if I hadn't been running power tools and ten feet up a ladder when I heard the radio interview, I would have cried then too, possibly because I know so well what it feels like to be hated by people who claim to guided by love for something that I deplored within myself and did everything I could to rid myself of, only to conclude that being a nonbeliever was just the way I am. I also related to Vicky Beeching in that the things we're hated for are not things that harm others.

Vicky Beeching's own childhood church at least recognized that homosexuality wasn't something that people simply pray their way out of, although it continued to regard homosexual sex as sinful. Where is the humility, the willingness to say, Our understanding of God is limited, so maybe the parts of the Bible that condone hatred for homosexuals is simply a tragic legacy from an ancient culture. Nearly all Christians finally came around to admitting that slavery was wrong, so doesn't it make sense to at least remain open to the idea that the condemnation of homosexuals might be wrong too? As the Apostle Paul wrote, "...the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life."

I am sometimes tempted to say to Peggy, "Consider Raymond Burr, this actor who you so respect and enjoy, the one who loved and shared a home with the same man from 1960 until Burr's death in 1993, how can you deny people like that the same right that another actor, Elizabeth Taylor, exercised on the eight occasions that she stood before a minister and said, "I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband...from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part'?"

As with heterosexual marriage, if homosexual marriage is to mean anything, it is about love and commitment rather than sex and frivolity, about a man being able to pull out his wallet and pass around a photo of his husband to his friends at work without the fear of being fired, ridiculed, ostracized, beaten, or even killed. It's about a teenage girl being able to introduce her female date to her parents without fearing that she will be driven from her home or shamed in church. It's about compassion, about equality, about society saying to its citizens that it only asks that they live honorably. There is no half way, no room for civil contracts, no way to hate the sin but love the sinner because homosexuality isn't what people do, it's who they are.

As with much that I write about, I very much doubt that I can reach those who disagree with me. Perhaps this is somewhat due to my inadequacy, but I'm going to share something that I think also plays a part. The numbers differ a little from year to year and from poll to poll, but for several years now the one group in America that is primarily responsible for persecuting all the others, by which I refer to theologically conservative Christians, identify themselves as America's most persecuted group. But consider this: 70% of Americans claim to be Christians along with 100% of America's presidents and nearly 100% of its Congressman, Senators, and other elected officials. Even so, America's Christians say that it's not gays, Jews, blacks, Moslems, Hispanics, atheists, refugees, or women, who constitute this country's most persecuted group; it's themselves. Does this not suggest an almost pathological absence of compassion and empathy? 

I think the source for their imagined persecution rests in theologically conservative Christianity's black-versus-white worldview according to which they believe it is God's will that those who are lost in sin deserve to suffer, but that their own suffering is due to the machinations of Satan. In other words, if others are persecuted, it's because they are evil, but when Christians are persecuted, it's because they are good. But in what ways do people who control the legislative and executive branches of government regard themselves as oppressed? As a group, all it takes for theologically conservative Christians to feel oppressed is for them not to get their way. 

For example, they feel oppressed because the Supreme Court upheld the legality of gay marriage. They feel oppressed every time they pass a Planned Parenthood clinic; every time their children learn about evolution in a science class; and every time a gay couple adopts a child or a gay person gets a teaching job. Christian teachers, coaches, and school administrators feel oppressed when they're sued for trying to force their religion upon public school children. Christian pastry chefs and florists feel oppressed by having to provide equal services to Muslims, atheists, and gay people; Christian government officials feel oppressed by their inability to deny the right of other religions to erect displays in public parks alongside manger scenes. Christians who are prevented from forcing the values, ceremonies, and representations of their religion onto others always conclude that it is they who are being oppressed. Small wonder, then, that they are devoid of compassion for others.


Dog Tales and a Reflection on Cats

Baxter with his white woman, 2009
He is your friend, your defender, your partner, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion. 

I’ve never been worthy of “such devotion,” but it wasnt for a lack of trying. I thought it would be easier with cats. Some stories...

Peggy and I went to a Christmas crafts’ fair, and behind one of the tables stood a psychic” who, for a price, would go to people's houses, read their pets' minds, and share what she learned. I decided to test her ability: “My wife and I have a black schnauzer named Baxter who likes to sit in my wife's lap and stare adoringly into her eyes while she pets him. When she stops petting him, he slaps her.” (All of this was true except that it was a touch rather than a slap). Do you think it could be a racial thing?” The psychic patiently explained that black fur on a dog doesnt imply African ancestry, and that schnauzers dont think of race in the same way people do. I thanked her for the information.

Bonnie Blue, 1999
When Bonnie was half-grown, she and I would pick Peggy up after work. One night I saw Peggy before Bonnie did, so I said to Bonnie, Bonnie, where’s Peggy!? expecting her to look toward the building, but she instead jumped to the floorboard and looked under the seat. This isn't to say that Bonnie wasnt smart. One day, Peggy was alternating between throwing a Frisbee and a tennis ball to Bonnie, when she decided to throw them both in rapid succession to see which one Bonnie would retrieve first. Bonnie put the tennis ball onto the cupped side of the Frisbee and brought them back together. Another time, she was playing fetch with an eight-foot limb by holding it midway so the weight was balanced. When she ran between two closely-spaced trees, the limb knocked her on her butt. After regaining her composure, she grabbed one end of the limb and continued on her way.

Bonnie loved to swim, and one day she got caught in a strong current. Peggy was upstream of me, and yelled for me to swim out and grab Bonnie when she passed, but Im a weak swimmer, and I had complete confidence that Bonnie could make it out on her own. I later had Peggy promise me that she would never, ever try to save a dog from drowning, lest she end up like a local woman who died in the Willamette near a downtown park when she tried to save not just one but three dogs, all of whom made it to shore. 

Wendy, 1988
When Peggy and I lived in the country, I would sometimes sneak off into the woods and climb a tree while Wendy was napping on the porch. I would then call her, and she would track me to the tree, although she never once thought to look up. She would instead circle the tree repeatedly before returning to the yard and starting out again. When I tired of the game, I would climb down when she wasn’t looking and call her. 

I took Wendy everywhere I went. When I was a roofer, she spent her days on roofs. When I traveled the country visiting communes, she visited communes. Peggy, Wendy, and I, were at a Paul Winter concert at a Sufi retreat center in New York state when he invited the audience to join him in a howl. When he signaled an end to the howl, Wendy didnt get the message, and people looked around angrily trying to locate the jerk who wouldn't shut-up. I considered stopping her, but since it was her species that had inspired the howl, I let er rip.

I left another concert with Wendy flat on her back in my arms. She often lay that way, but the day being hot, and Wendys limbs flopping loosely (schnauzers joints are unusually flexible), a lady asked, Is your dog okay? Shes dead, I answered, but its okay because she was old anyway. When people complimented me on what a neat dog she was, I would say, Im glad you like her. Give me $50, and she's yours. When they declined, I would drop the price until they either caught on or went away mad. My mother said that I had an inappropriate sense of humor.

Twice, I left Wendy with other people while I ran an errand, and both times I met her on the road looking for me when I returned. The second time, I felt sure she would stay put because Peggy was there too, but no, she came after me. Despite her devotion, she never liked to be petted. She would endure a pat or two, but then she would walk away.

Wendy and I used to hitchhike. One cold winter's day, we got only one ride between Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Tallulah, Louisiana, and that ride was a short one. We surely walked fifteen miles on asphalt that day, which was far enough that Wendys footpads became blistered, and I had to carry her.

I used to bike all over Eugene with Bonnie and Baxter, and, unless there was a lot of traffic, I didn't leash them. One cold day when I walked to the heart of downtown, I leashed them, but my hands were in mitts with the mitts in my coat pockets. I was too lazy to loop the leashes around my wrists before putting on my mitts, so I didn't know that the end of Bonnies leash had fallen to the sidewalk until I got to where I was going, and she was nowhere to be seen. I soon found her standing on the far side of a busy intersection. Two women were with her, but she snarled at them when they tried to pick up her leash. Both women thought I was a complete moron, and I was in no position to argue.

Scully and Ollie, 2016

I have many dog stories but few cat stories. Our four cats miss us when we're gone, rejoice when we return, and are devoted both to us and to one another, but nothing can beat a dog for sharing adventures. One reason we got cats was that we thought their lack of interest in going places would protect us from a surfeit of grief when they died. We were wrong. 

Scully, our tuxedo girl, tends toward timidity, but she would have to be a block of wood to not realize how much I love her. Two weeks ago, I was writing a post when she ran into the room crying insistently. I stupidly surmised that she wanted to be petted, but when I got up to pet her, she ran from the room, and I returned to my post. Two minutes later, she came again, and this time I followed her to the far end of the house where Sage had accidentally been locked in the laundry room and was crying to get out. 

The next day I was in bed when Scully got tangled in a string, one end of which was tied to a stick and the other to a toy. I didn’t know of her trouble until she jumped into bed so I could free her. Free her? FREE HER!? Oh presage of death! I will never be able to free Scully, the weight of my love equaling the weight of my bondage. She’s only a cat, some might say, but what an empty saying it would be to a heart on fire with adoration. 

“What greater gift than the love of a cat.”
—Charles Dickens

In Response to Tom Sightings

Tom (in the comment section to yesterday's post): "I'm no Trump supporter, but while I cannot speak for your Uncle Earl, I do not believe that everyone who voted for him is an evil hateful person. My brother-in-law, for example. He voted for Trump.... I don't agree with him on a lot of things. But I know he's a popular teacher; he's volunteered to help a lot of disadvantaged kids; and yes, he also volunteers at his church. Anyway, I suggest you read 'Liberals, You're Not as Smart as You Think' from May 12 NY Times for another perspective. And even so, I don't think the proper response to hate ... is to hate back."

Just to be clear... First off, Earl is my father-in-law. Secondly, Trump is not a conservative by any common measure of conservatism that existed pre-Trump, yet Trump has so dominated the Republican Party (the same party that deplored him a mere two years ago) that it only recognizes two kinds of people, those who support Trump (who Republicans euphemistically refer to as conservatives) and everyone else, who they call liberals. While I might lean more toward the liberal end of the spectrum than what used to be called the conservative end, I am not a liberal. For example, I want strong borders; I deplore political correctness; I favor the death penalty; I'm appalled by "Black Lives Matter;" and where its feasible, I think that long-term welfare recipients should be required to work. I also agree with yesterday's definition of conservatism inasmuch as it upheld the importance of a balanced budget.

"And even so, I don't think the proper response to hate ... is to hate back."

You previously expressed the same sentiment in regard to another of my posts, and I didn't know what you meant then or what you mean now, or what you would suggest in lieu of what you call hatred. That said, I think that fear and hatred are understandable responses to being attacked, and to the extent that they inspire a productive counterattack, I even think they're admirable. Of course, one can split hairs, such as many Christians do when they claim to hate the sin but love the sinner, this despite the fact that their love sure can look like hatred. Do I hate Earl? No. What I see in Earl is a formerly good man who keeps Fox TV on all day, and when you expose yourself to hours of lying and ad hominem attacks, day in and day out, you can't help but be affected. The day that Earl told me of his admiration for Trump was actually the first time I had ever seen him angry in the 47 years that I've known him, and, although old age itself often changes people, the main influence I saw in his anger was Fox, without which we surely wouldn't have Trump.

I know whereof I speak because I used to listen to Fox radio (Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Lars Larson, and even Michael Savage) for hours everyday, but after several years I gave it up, the turning point being when I undertook a serious effort to verify what these men were telling me. What I found was that Fox would take some story about, let's say, a condo owners' association telling some aged war veteran that he couldn't fly his boxcar size American fly all day everyday, and then people like O'Reilly would omit such details as the size of the flag, and the fact that it obscured other residents' view of nearby scenery. Finally, he would spend hours and hours waging personal attacks against the members of the condo association. He would constantly refer to them as "America haters," and his staff would uncover every potentially embarrassing thing they had ever done and twist it to cause maximum humiliation, after which these poor schmucks would be besieged by insults and death threats.

After I stopped listening to Fox, I came to feel as if some violence-inducing drug was working its way out of my system, and the Fox of today is far more virulent than the Fox I used to listen to. In fact, Fox has gotten so bad that, on the rare occasions that I turn it on, I can't listen for more than five minutes before I become too disgusted to continue. I have a blog reader who told me that he listens to Fox so that he can get "both sides of the story," but Fox doesn't give both sides. Fox doesn't even give one side. Fox only gives a fictionalized version that is calculated to provoke maximum outrage. Like Fox, Trump is beside himself with anger every waking moment, and I see Earl going in the same direction.

Say what you will about hatred, Tom, there is no longer room in the Republican Party for anyone who doesn't support Trump, and who could be more hateful than Trump himself or more cowardly than the Congresspeople who stand behind him for fear of losing their jobs? My problem is this: when someone voices support for a man who exhibits continual depravity, I can't see in that person a good heart or even an intelligent mind, no matter how mild-mannered he might seem. Think back to Hitler, do you really believe that all those people who supported Hitler went about yelling and assaulting people like so many frothing-at-the-mouth mad dogs? No, no, no. While the Brown Shirts were spittle-flecked, most Nazis seemed like ordinary people, people like Earl, at least until the conversation turned in a direction that set them off.

Supporting a man like Trump is not something you do if you're good at heart because Trump's mean-spirtedness and ignobility are so appallingly obvious. Take his policy of separating immigrant kids from their families and insisting that he had no choice but to do it because the Democrats made a law that forces him to do it, yet the Obama administration didn't do it; no new laws have been passed since Trump took office; and Trump's OWN PARTY controls both houses of Congress. When public outrage became overwhelming, Trump signed an executive order banning the practice of separating children from their families, saying that he did so because he cares deeply about children. What can any reasonable person conclude from this other than that he was lying when he said he could do nothing about the problem?

Sadly, another bizarre twist to the story is that the executive order by which Trump claims to have solved the problem is so lame that all but one of the 2,500 children are still separated from their parents (that one sued). Even before he signed the order, Trump was told that it wasn't a problem that an executive order could remedy because the only way to keep the children with their parents would be to do what Obama did which was to release the parents from custody prior to their hearing date (it being unlawful to keep families in prison, and there being no other place to put them). Trump was unwilling to do that, and wouldn't have needed an executive order to do it if he had been willing. He has therefore knowingly left the people who are enforcing America's immigration laws with no way to carry out his executive order. As the days go by, and the kids are still living in detention centers, he will no doubt do what he always does when something doesn't go his way: he'll blame the Democrats and some imaginary "Deep State."

No one who isn't brainwashed by Fox is likely to be fooled by Trump, and even then, it would require willful ignorance because Trump's lies are as unsophisticated as those of a five year old and there are new ones everyday, often at a rate of several a day (CNN puts the average lies per day at 6.5*). Trump lies so often that I feel nauseous just trying to remember the ones from a week ago. So, Tom, you deplore my "hatred," but what would you suggest that I replace it with given that I truly don't believe that anyone can support Trump from a position of innocence? While I recognize the necessity of compromise when it comes to electing a president; in order to support Trump, one has to go beyond mere compromise and into taking the position that "the ends justify the means," which is the very thing that conservatives used to condemn Communists for doing. 


What do Romans 13 and Melania's Jacket Have in Common?

In the last six weeks, the Trump administration has separated over 2,500 immigrant children from their parents in an attempt to discourage other parents from applying for refugee status. Many of these children have become so lost within the system that the system itself doesn't know where they are.

Last week, Trump's attorney general quoted the Biblical book of Romans to justify the administration's position that it is immoral for people, even people who are in fear for their children's lives, to bring those children into America illegally: “Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers... for the powers that be are ordained of God.” The passage was previously used by British loyalists to proclaim the sinfulness of America's secessionist movement, and later by American slave holders to insist upon obedience to a law requiring all Americans, abolitionists included, to return escaped slaves to their masters. 

Yesterday, Donald Trump's wife put the frosting on the cake of the latest insanity when she traveled to one of the hundred or so child detention centers to show how much she cared about the welfare of immigrant children. Her jacket read, “I REALLY DON'T CARE, DO U?”* Her spokeswoman defended Melania's apparel by saying, “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message. After today’s important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn’t going to choose to focus on her wardrobe.” The president disagreed, saying that Melania meant to convey that she didn't care what the "Fake News Media" says. I will spare you additional details, but suffice it to say that it was a fairly ordinary week in the Trump administration, with the country becoming even more angry and even more divided between the pro-Trumps and the anti-Trumps. Many wonder if we'll even have a country by the time Trump leaves office.

Peggy's father, Earl (who I knew for 40-years before I started calling him Dad), voted for Trump, and every time we've talked for the last two years, I wanted to ask him how he likes his choice, but I didn't because Peggy objected. Yesterday, he volunteered that Trump is just what America needs, a claim that he underscored by comparing The Donald to Teddy Roosevelt, a pre-WWI president whose racist imperialism spread senseless death around the world and who is best remembered for saying, "Walk softly but carry a big stick." 

I was so appalled by Earl's claim that the loudly bullying and ever boastful Trump "walks softy," that I seriously wondered if my 88-year-old Baptist deacon father-in-law is becoming senile. When I remembered that he watches Fox TV for hours a day, I surmised that a steady diet of hate speech in combination with old age must have rattled his brain, this being the most kindly interpretation that I could make. He and I have often disagreed, but until yesterday I at least respected his goodwill and intelligence. How though, am I to respect a man who believes that the fascistic callousness and brutality of the Trump Administration is born of strength, even Godliness? When I hung up the phone, I felt as if something within me had died. Scant though it is, my only comfort is that the same experience is being repeated all over America. Like Jesus before him, Trump  can truthfully claim: "I came not to bring peace, but a sword... to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household.”

The pacifistic Quakers surely give more thought to morality than other churches. One of their guidelines is based upon the belief that we can only bring peace into the world to the extent that we rid ourselves of the animosity that causes war. I am failing miserably in this because I no longer regard our nation's political divide as representing a difference of opinion between well-meaning groups with neither group having a monopoly on truth, but rather as a war between the flawed good of the Democratic Party and the limitless evil of the Republican. To illustrate the enormity of this change, until well into this century, I consistently voted for Gordon Smith, a Republican senator, and I'll never forgive his Democrat rival, Jeff Merkely, for the dirty campaign that he waged in the election in which he defeated Smith. Now I don't know if I will ever again so much as consider voting for a Republican.

Democracy rests upon the high-minded belief that the best form of government is one in which issues are debated thoroughly, after which the people decide. Sadly, I can no longer accept the people's decision if their decision is in favor of a political party that I regard as distilled evil, a party exemplified by a man who starts his every day with a predawn resumption of the lying, bigotry, bullying, boastfulness, ignobility, and seamless asininity, of the day before. There is a huge chasm between being mistaken but acting honorably, and knowing exactly what manner of man you're voting for and electing him anyway. This is the essence of my disillusionment with Earl. When he voted for Trump in 2016, I thought he must surely be acting in ignorance, but now I see that I was the one who was ignorant, ignorant in my high esteem for Earl. It is said that time heals all wounds, so I can but hope that the future will find me thinking better of him than I do today.


Is This Funny?

The following joke was forwarded to me by a Christian who was dismayed that I took offense: 

"An atheist was seated next to a little girl on a plane when he turned to her and said, 'Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker when you do.'
"The little girl replied,
 'Okay, what would you like to talk about?'
"'Oh, I don't know,' said the man, smiling smugly at her sweet, trusting innocence, 'maybe how we know that God, heaven, and hell are all imaginary.'
"'Okay,' she said. 'Those could be interesting topics, but let me ask you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, a cow turns out flat patties, and a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?'
"The atheist, visibly surprised by the little girl's intelligence, says,
"'Hmm, I have no idea.'
"The little girl replies, 'Do you really feel qualified to deny the existence of God, heaven, and hell, when you don't know shit?'"

I asked Peggy what she thought. "Christians might like it," she said, "unless, of course, the roles were reversed." I reversed the roles: 

"A Christian was seated next to a little girl on a plane when he turned to her and said, 'Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker when you do.'
"The little girl replied,
 'Okay, what would you like to talk about?'
"'Oh, I don't know,' said the man, smiling smugly at her sweet, trusting innocence, 'maybe how we know that God, heaven, and  hell are all real.'
"'Okay,' she said. 'Those could be interesting topics, but let me ask you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, a cow turns out flat patties, and a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?'
"The Christian, visibly surprised by the little girl's intelligence, says,
"'Hmm, I have no idea.'
"The little girl replies, 'Do you really feel qualified to affirm the existence of God, heaven, and hell, when you don't know shit?'"

Turning the joke around is like remaking a silent film so that a fair-skinned maiden with golden curls laughs dementedly while tying a swarthy man in a black cape to a railroad track. Jokes about Jews, gays, black men, blonde women, atheists, and other groups, usually rely upon unflattering stereotypes, so by reversing the roles of the characters, a joke simply becomes a head-scratcher. But in the case of atheists, what stereotypes? That atheists are conceited, embittered, condescending, unethical, white, and male*. 

I think it possible that the creator of this particular joke was inspired by the story of David and Goliath and by Matthew 18: 2-6:

"And He [Jesus] called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, '... Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven... but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.'" 

Although the child in the joke failed the humility test, the predatory desire
of the atheist to use his imagined superiority to vanguish her belief in Jesus put me in mind of a documentary about the life of Bill Nye. In one cringe-worthy incident, Ken Ham was giving Nye a tour of Ham's creationist theme park in Kentucky when Nye inexplicably tried to persuade a little girl (of six or so) to study up on evolution. In the minds of creationist Christians he surely assumed the unflattering role of the atheist in the joke, the same role for which Jesus thought drowning was too good. The downside of being a member of a despised minority is that your detractors are eager for any excuse to justify hating you all the more--and encouraging others to do likewise. 

Do you regard this joke as innocent humor?

*Although 78% of American atheists are white (, women atheists outnumber men atheists in the under-65 category: