Two men love each other romantically and sexually. It’s organic. Their hearts, bodies and minds just connected. There was no planning, no discussion, no debate, no negotiation, no choice. It just happened. The two are happy. They exist in an ecosystem of many other humans.
Do they need other people’s permission to continue? Do they need the approval of someone beyond, the one who created all that exists – God? Would these feelings exist if God had not created them? Why then does one need God’s approval? Or maybe this is a test, a trap laid by Devil, so that we are drawn to a path not approved by God?
These are questions asked by many gay men, who happen also to be Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Similar questions are also asked by gay men who happen to be Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh – or Daoist, Confucianist, agnostic or even atheist.
Not only gay men, these questions are also asked by lesbians and bisexuals and transgenders, by everyone queer, by everyone who is unable to conform to the conventional ideas of gender and sexuality where men are men, women are women, and they are supposed to come together only to breed children.
Role of Culture
Before we seek permission from culture, or religion, or priests, or God, let us understand the role of culture.
Culture is humanity’s reaction to nature. Nature terrifies us – it makes us feel we do not matter, as though we are only food for the predator, nothing else. Culture is created, based on stories, to give our lives meaning, to make us feel valuable, like we matter. Loving cultures find stories to accommodate the unfamiliar, the accidental, the shocking, the rare. Insecure cultures find stories to avoid all unfamiliarity, the unpredictable, the discomforting and the outlier.
Religion is a rich source of stories that informs culture, with the power to make culture more nourishing, more comforting, more loving. Unfortunately, it fails to achieve that, especially in matters queer.
Many people get offended when religion is called a set of stories. This is because stories are seen as false, as myth. This understanding of stories dates back to the nineteenth century, when there was the assumption that truth is out there, and the rest is stories. This truth was initially known only to priests, the custodians of religion. Those who believed in the stories of one God mocked those who believed in the stories of many gods. Later, scientists claimed to know the truth, and so mocked even those who believed in one God.
Today, in the twenty-first century, with wider appreciation of human psychology and diversity, we know that ideas such as many gods, one God, no god are all stories told to make sense of the world and give meaning to life. We cannot live without stories. Religion provides us stories with deep roots to our soul. That makes us better humans. It enters the territory that science cannot understand – of fears and yearnings that defy measurement.
This book focuses on stories that come from religions that speak of one true God. And how they give meaning to those whose desire does not align with dominant heterosexual patterns. The title, Behold, I Make All Things New, comes from the Bible, from the Book of Revelation, where Christ says he will destroy the old world and create a new world, for he is the alpha and the omega! As the title states, this book seeks to refresh the relationship between the lore of one God and the lives of queer people. For this relationship is a fractured one.
The conventional and popular understanding is that God wants humans to be heterosexuals. That makes non- heterosexual behaviour a sin, or “haram’. However, this has been challenged by the authors of this book, who have a deep understanding of the scriptures themselves and of the world around them. They show that people have misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise, the scriptures and that there is no dissonance between scriptures and the queer life.
The Karmic Burden
The subcontinent of India gave birth to stories where the idea of one God does not play a prominent role. Greater value is placed on diversity – and this is rooted in the idea of rebirth, and karma. Karma is action as well as reaction – what we do and its repercussions. We are obliged by nature to experience the repercussions of our actions. This obligation is called the karmic burden. Each one of us carries a different karmic burden based on the deeds of our past lives. This shapes our body, our mind, and the circumstances in our life.
Depending on how we respond in this life, a new set of karmic burdens is created that shapes our next life. Since each one of us has a different karmic burden, we look different, we feel different, we think different, and we experience different challenges and encounter different opportunities. No one is the same and so there cannot be a common god or a common path.
Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism offer paths to shed the karmic burden through meditation, austerity and devotion. Hinduism alone speaks of one god: this god, however, manifests in myriad ways to satisfy myriad needs. So, Hinduism is monotheistic as well as polytheistic, and the two terms are fluid so that one is many and many is one.
When the lore of one God came into India in the form of Islam first and then Christianity (except in some coastal pockets that traded with the Middle East), it was baffled by the myriad gods of India. The followers of these religions viewed the stories of the gods as falsehood and used the word “myth” for them. For they believed in one God, one message, one path for all of humanity – a very different model for meaning.
In ancient India – in fact, around the world – religious folks were primarily monks and priests who spent every waking moment immersed in the idea of God. The common folk revered them. They revered different kinds of holy people. The idea of becoming a member of a religious order and ignoring, tolerating or rejecting all other religions emerged as part of tribal politics: no god but the tribal God.
It is first seen in the idea of the jealous God in Judaism, then in the idea of the true son of the loving God in Christianity, and in the final prophet in Islam. Here, the one God tells you how to live life. You don’t need another god. In fact, there is no other god. Infidelity and disobedience are frowned upon. This God, we are told, wanted men to be men – which means, be attracted only to women – and women to be women – which means, be attracted only to men. But that is not entirely true.
Different Interpretations of the Word
Just as many gods and many paths and many karmic burdens create many different doctrines, the word of one God (and the stories around Him) is open to many different interpretations. And some interpretations, based on deep study, are considered authoritative and others are not. And the difference in interpretation has meant divisions in communities.
So, the believers in one God – who descend from Adam and Eve, and who see Abraham as the first prophet – are divided into the followers of Judaism, which believes the final prophet is yet to come; the followers of Christianity, which believes the final prophet was Jesus, who was in fact the son of God; and the followers of Islam, which believes the final prophet was Muhammad.
Further, the followers of Judaism are sub-divided into various groups, each with a different reading of how God wants us to live our life. Thus, nearly all Israeli Jews self-identify with one of four sub-groups: Haredi (ultra-orthodox), Dati (religious), Masorti (traditional) and Hiloni (secular). The same is true of Christians: Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Ultra-orthodox. And the same is true of Islam: Sunni, Shia, Sufi. Each group claims that its interpretation is most informed and most correct.
Despite this diversity, the communities do not embrace diversity. Hence, capital letters are used for god: God, indicating it is absolute and true. God’s word is spelt ‘Word” This use of capitals is found only in the Latin script, not in the Hebrew or Arabic scripts. But the idea of one absolute, external, non- human-dependent truth – ontological truth – permeates the major religions of the world. Scholars are, therefore, constantly seeking the approval of God in all matters, including queer.
This stands in contrast to karmic faiths, where all truth is epistemic, born in the human mind. Breaking free of the mind leads to complete loss of individual self-identity. This is liberation: nirvana (oblivion) of Buddhism, kaivalya (omniscience) of Jainism, and moksha (union of the one with the infinite) of Hinduism. Scholars here paid attention to the queer, not as something inherently wrong, but merely to ensure it did not disrupt the life of the householder or hermit.
In karmic faiths, the queer is natural, but may not be accommodated culturally, depending on the level of wisdom (pragnya, in Buddhism) and empathy (karuna) of the individuals involved. In faiths based on the idea of one God, the question is whether the queer is God’s creation or the Devil’s. And if part of God’s creation, how it must be accommodated in culture.
In many Islamic traditions, those “men who do not function as they are designed to” are allowed to serve as passive sexual partners to men and serve in women’s quarters with the freedom to step into the men’s space too. But what does “men who do not function as they are designed to” mean? The feminine and submissive male homosexual or the cross-dressing transgender? Here scholars are divided.
Excerpted with permission from “Introduction: God In Capitals”, by Devdutt Pattanaik, from Behold, I Make All Things New: How Judaism, Christianity and Islam Affirm The Dignity Of Queer Identities And Sexualities, edited by Rev’d JP Mokgethi-Heath and Rev’d Loraine Tulleken.