Visions of Daniel

The Nature of Spirituality and Its Connection with Sexuality
An Offering for Clergy (and Others)
Pondering the Ethics of Homosexuality


Papers link

I presented this brief paper on March 30, 2009, at Saint Mark Methodist Church, Peachtree Street, Atlanta, GA, for a private gathering of clergy, sponsored by the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus, in inticipation of their spring, 2009, production Shaken, Not Broken, a choral experience of the spiritual journey of gay men.


Homosexuality is a matter of concern to religion because of its ethical implications. With the clumsy separation of religion and government in the United States and increasingly around the globe, religion has been deemed the curator of ethics. To know what is right and wrong, we generally consult our clergy and our religious tradition. Until only a few years ago, most religions shared a consensus that homosexual relationships were wrong or, said religiously, sinful. And the question was settled.

That consensus controlled my thinking when I exercised an official ministry as a Roman Catholic priest, and that emphasis on religion led me to study the Bible and produce my book What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality. I had to be sure in all honesty that my shifting understanding of homosexuality did not violate my religious tradition.

The emergence of new information had begun to challenge the religious consensus in significant ways. I take it for granted that the biblical argument is already well known: read in its original historical context, the Bible does not condemn same-sex relationships. The one indisputable condemnation of a particular male-male sex act in Leviticus 18:22 was a matter of Jewish identity, not a matter of the nature of sex and its inherent ethical requirements. In Romans 1:26-27, this matter of Jewish "impurity" (1:24) was at stake, and following Jesus, Paul deemed it irrelevant (14:14).

Beyond biblical studies, historical and anthropological research shows that other societies have been far less preoccupied with sexual diversity than is ours. Most left respectful room for homosexual practices alongside standard heterosexual marriage and family. Even Christian Europe, until the late 12th Century, was strikingly indifferent to homosexuality. The uniqueness of current gay liberation is the civil-rights-inspired and human-dignity-required demand for the outright legitimation of same-sex relationships.

More importantly from the perspective of spirituality, the human sciences have shown that sexual diversity pervades the animal kingdom and increasingly so among the higher species, especially humankind, and that homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexuality are fully healthy natural variations. At this point in history, this conclusion stands as solidly as any scientific finding.

Thus, we arrived at a point where religion and science are in significant disagreement: religious faith generally condemns, and research results support, homosexuality. This same state of affairs pertains to other topics as well: cosmogenesis, geology, evolution, abortion, and comas, for example. Moreover, the shrinking of our planet and the meeting of diverse cultures raise uncomfortable questions about the absolute legitimacy of any one religion. We all know too much about other religions and other cultures today; we can no longer rest secure and complacent in our own way of thinking and acting. In a word, the postmodern era is upon us. Its pressing challenge is to find commonality among the pluralism of our species.

One pertinent development of this historical process was that spirituality differentiated from religion. Few have a clear idea of what the difference is, and the term spirituality has already become merely a generic and politically correct way of referring to someone's religious commitment. Even among the non-religiously-affiliated, spirituality almost inevitably includes some version of reference to God, so it continues to look like Western religion.

Most commonly, spirituality refers to one's relationship with God apart from whatever affiliation with organized religion one might maintain. People assert that they are "spiritual, but not religious." Thus, the topic before us is gay spirituality.

In many ways, my own life's course followed that historical unfolding. Early on, as a priest and systematic theologian, I taught graduate courses to seminary students and was fully identified with religion. Subsequently, I earned a second doctorate, in human development, and as a professor of psychology, I have been treating spirituality. I am convinced that, without prejudice to its theological dimensions, spirituality is first and foremost a matter of human nature and psychological integration, not a matter of explicit relationship with God.

Let me explain. I was indeed taught, and I agree, that the spiritual path is about one's relationship with God, but that relationship has two sides. The divine side has to do with grace, favors, or special gifts and God's work of sanctification; the human side has to with our response and shows as spiritual growth, personal goodness, or increasing holiness.

My conviction is that for us the more important facet is the human side; it is under our control to a large extent. Surely, we can safely leave God's part to God, for God certainly knows what God is doing, and we do not: we have no hold on the mystery of life into which we have been thrown. On the other hand, we have great understanding about the human side of the matter.

Modern psychology provides us with explanation and even with techniques for human healing, growth, and integration. Today, we have massive knowledge about the makings of human wellbeing and flourishing. We have effective treatments for many issues that used to be left to naked good will, self-control, and prayer. Said religiously, we more and more understand God's creation, and from our side we are able to nurture—or destroy—it.

Here, then, is where ethics comes in. In the first place, it is not a religious matter, but an unavoidable human matter. As human beings, believers or not, we must attend to what is right, good, wholesome, life-giving. Otherwise, we perish. This requirement is built-in. Its criteria abide in the human spirit.

Attention to the human mind reveals a self-transcending dimension. In wonder, marvel, awe, we humans are geared to the universe. We are inherently social beings. We belong to the whole, and the whole expresses itself through us. Our penchant for incessant questioning provides one easy example. In the ideal, given full rein, we would not stop wondering and questioning until we understood everything about everything. If we did, of course, we would enjoy a quality proper only to God: omniscience. We would encompass the universe.

Here's another example. If you are baffled and still wondering what this mental dimension is, attend to your own wondering, for right now you are experiencing that about which I speak, and its range is boundless.

My point is this: starting from the bottom up, we encounter the same boundlessness that we would when starting with God, from the top down. But we can channel the human whereas God remains mystery. From the human side we know what makes for open-ended self-transcendence. We can influence the structures, mechanisms, and processes that hamper and facilitate human unfolding. A thrust toward health, life, community, and growth is built into our very being. It is our most accessible and surest guide to personal and social expansion, to human fulfillment, or, said religiously, to salvation.

That self-transcending capacity of the mind has perennially been called spiritual, so the unleashing of this capacity is nothing other than spiritual growth. Such, in summary, is my thesis.

Spirituality is first and foremost a matter of deliberate pursuit of inner personal harmony, integration, growth, unfolding—in Abraham Maslow's word, self-actualization. This process does indeed lead to concern for God. But concern for God is not the telling factor in spiritual growth; personal integration is. We humans are made to unfurl; to be human is to become. An increasing harmony of inner growth allows the release of our God-given capacity for self-transcendence. This is the work of spirituality.

Understood in this way, spirituality is obviously related to homosexuality—or to any sexuality, for that matter. Unlike barnyard-animal sex, human sexuality is not primarily about the occasional biological function of reproduction. Rather, human sexuality uses biological processes to open onto emotional bonding and then spiritual communion: sharing sex seduces lovers into weaving dreams and making promises. Dreams and promises, meanings and values, ideas and ideals—these are openings to reality yet to be. Situated at the core of human nature, sexuality necessarily opens onto the spiritual.

If so, conflict between one's sexuality and one's self cannot be good. The human path of spiritual growth entails the harmonization of all facets of one's being. To remain at odds with one's sexuality, to demean one's own affections, to avoid passionate care for another person—and religion has often expected all of this from homosexual people—this sex-negativity is spiritually destructive: it suppresses the human person. Perforce, it cannot be healthy; it cannot be good; it must be immoral, unethical; it cannot be of God.

In their countercultural struggle to be more fully human, many lesbian and gay people have achieved some such understanding of the core human nature of spiritual growth. They have moved beyond the strictures of uncomprehending religion and have pursued a personal integration that opened a richer life to them—even as Jesus came "that they might have life, and have it to the fullest." Celebrating life, giving thanks for love, overflowing with service to others, they have become noble human beings: saints. They have claimed their spiritual heritage in the face of religious condemnation, and many have explicitly grasped what religion is really supposed to be about: spirituality, the enhancement of personal integration, the opening of the human heart and mind to transcendence.

This discovery of spirituality is what the Atlanta Gay Men's Chorus celebrates in song this spring, 2009, this Easter season. We invite all, whose concern is to facilitate spiritual advance in its individual and communal expressions, to ponder this development within the LGBT community. Then, understanding the work of the Eternal Creative Spirit among us in our day, we pray that you would be supportive of the spirituality we have discovered.