Right and wrong, black and white, male and female, salt and pepper.
If you’re like me, you grew up thinking in binary; something was either one thing or the other.
My liberal arts education, even at a Christian college, helped rattle that notion, that things like morality were black and white, but the binary thinking is largely still there. I suppose another part of the reason it lingers is my hatred for ambiguity. Whatever the case I propose that we think more along a spectrum than we seem to about many things : politics, gender, race, etc. Here I want to consider sexual orientation, mental health, and belief.
I owe my housemate on this one. One night I was talking with a friend and my housemate at a bar about sexual orientation and my housemate offered up that he thought of sexual orientation as on a spectrum. This was some time ago, and initially I balked against this; my knee-jerk reaction was to think “No – what’s natural is for men to be attracted to women and women to men. Our society is pulling up its own anchors in the name of freedom and confusing its citizens by giving them the freedom to choose to be attracted to something unnatural. There is no spectrum; only the choice of affirming the natural heterosexual desire or denying it.” But, since then I have come more to agree with my housemate. The things we observe seem to support him: there are people who are attracted to people of the opposite sex, same sex, both sexes, neither, etc. And he used a helpful analogy. He said though he had a low score on the Kinsey scale he knew if he had to have sex with a man he would pick a man he thought was attractive (in this case, Brad Pitt). That he has an idea of who are and are not attractive men does not support his spectrum view of sexuality but that we can conjecture about the strength of our own attraction to men and/or women with something like the Kinsey scale does.
Thinking about sexual orientation in terms of a spectrum makes more sense out of human experience than the traditional binary I was raised with. Adopting this view raises many questions but it can also help someone (in this case a man) with an upbringing like mine (conservative Christian) to be at peace with a thought like “Wow — that is a handsome guy” and not worry that I have become homosexual or been abandoned to sin by God or something like that. I don’t think many conservative Christians intentionally push those messages, but they don’t try to eliminate them either. And, of course, “homosexual/gay” do not have to be bad words or be equivalent with “abandoned to sin” either. The American church, especially the conservative church, absolutely needs to abolish moral judgments made on others solely based on their orientations.
Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. All these are words we attach to certain sets of symptoms. We then typically define ourselves or others by them. People become “depressed” or “OCD”. Using labels we or others become the illnesses we have. And then, through Baconian-inspired evaluations of human bodies and minds, those with mental illnesses become inferior, lesser, worse, even more wicked than those “without”.
I talk with others about “my depression” to the point that I hate the sound of the words as they pass my lips. I think its helpful to call things what they are and speak frankly, but I say “depression” as if I am lumped in some category setting me apart from anyone without clinical depression and putting me in with everyone with it. Is my story as boring and simple as that? No, in fact I experience life in ways that could be common to anyone from Rasputin to Norman Rockwell and particular to no one but me. It seems the truth is that we all have ways we think or feel which are not ideal, which are harmful or debilitating to some extent. Because of this, I probably shouldn’t even use the word “depression” to define my own experience: I must be defined by something else. (That’s for another post.)
Lastly I wanted to address belief. Again, “my agnosticism” are words I have come to hate the sound of (the way I pronounce them is particularly grating to the ear any way, and I’m particular about sounds). But besides being discordant, perhaps such terminology is wrongheaded. Sexuality, emotions, thoughts, beliefs — these things are so personal and individuated. Rather than thinking in terms of either belief or disbelief/unbelief, would it not be better to think across a range? We would have to agree on the content first; the easiest example is god, or god’s omni-benevolence. But then rather than asking “Do you believe?” we could ask “How do you believe? What do you believe less? What do you believe more?” And talking about belief, or any of these matters, as if it’s something static, unchanging seems puerile too. We each have our own individual paths of belief and who can say where they’ll take us?
We’ve discussed the “spectra”; now for the “spectrum”. (This is where it gets meta.) I don’t want to get nominalistic or abuse our entire language of abstract ideas. But I want to consider some linkages. Sexuality, mental health and belief. Could these things not be each other? More than merely affecting one another, can I talk about sexuality as mental health and belief, and mental health as sexuality and belief, and belief as sexuality and mental health? Rob Bell talks such in SexGod, and better still, Rowan Williams writes beautifully about sexuality and faith in “The Body’s Grace.” We could tease these ideas out further but a benefit of this view is the integrating factor it bears on the individual.
These are just some thoughts I’m exploring. Feedback welcome.