Saturday, May 24, 2014

Evil and Suffering in the Context of Same-Gender Attraction

This past semester at BYU I wrote a paper for my Philosophy of Religion class. The topic was "The problem of evil and suffering," and we were to make an argument either for or against the evidence for the existence of a god. My professor left the following comment after grading it:
Thanks for this Dan. It is one of about four papers written for my philosophy courses over the years in which a student uses personal experiences to help make arguments. These are always deeply personal, for the writer uses the paper as a forum for discussing critical issues they are facing.

The paper is well written and defended, and it has a good logical flow. You bring up critical elements and add essential scholarly input, making the paper a good philosophy paper as a result. Your use of logic, particularly the fallacies, is very impressive.
One that does not face Auschwitz in some form during one’s life effectively cannot grow in the same way that one that has can...the personal insight and growth from it ends up being priceless. God wants us to face both the real Auschwitz, the ultimate product of human evil, and our own personal trials, for he wants us to be absolutely convinced of what the correct life must be in the eternities. Not everyone has to live in Auschwitz to understand its horror, and not everyone has to experience every Auschwitz for oneself—thank goodness—for we can and do learn from others. Thanks for your willingness to share your personal insight with me. 
 He was very kind, but I'd like to know what you of the mohosphere think, if you're so inclined to read this long paper. I apologize beforehand for mixing MLA and APA citation formats. Anyway, the paper:

PHIL 215
1 April 2014
The Problem of Evil and Suffering in the Context of Same-Gender Attraction
            Victor E. Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and a pioneering psychiatrist, wrote Mans Search for Meaning to explain his views of the typical characteristics of an inmate of the concentration camps: the hope and hopelessness, and the choice to become more than the external situation. His autobiography and explanation of Logotherapy provide insight into:
1.        a unique perspective on human psychology,
2.        the relevance of that perspective to psychological topics of import to people of faith, and
3.        potential therapeutic usefulness of that perspective.
We will review these three areas based on Frankls Mans Search for Meaning and discuss how they relate to the topic of evil and suffering in same-gender attraction.
            Some have vehemently expressed the opinion that comparing todays homosexuals to holocaust victims is a false analogy: that civil and social persecution currently faced by many homosexuals is not comparable to the mass genocide effected by Nazism; however, in so doing they risk committing the fallacy of relative privation and trivializing the real persecutions and internal psychological struggles that do take place. My purpose here is not to assess the strengths of these opposing arguments, but rather I will relate some personal experiences and experiences of others in coming to terms with same-gender attraction and examine how Frankls Logotherapy techniques can help one reconcile faith and feelings. This necessarily invites discussion on the evidence of the existence of a God and whether evil and suffering are necessary, and we will examine what influential philosophers have to say about the subject.
A Unique Perspective on Human Psychology
            Frankls unique perspective is marked by the idea that life is not an entity that starts whole and complete, examining what one has lost, but rather an entity that begins with nothing, examining what one has that keeps one going; essentially, it is filled with and revolves about a will to meaning, as opposed to Freuds proposed will to pleasure and Adlers will to power (Frankl 99). This is reminiscent of British theologian John Hicks argument that suffering exists in order that human beings, as free responsible agents, may use this world as a place of soul making, which involves the spiritual perfection of our character and persons (Pojman 74).
            Frankl illustrates this will to meaning by recounting his experience in the Nazi concentration camps, where prisoners psychological reactions occurred in three stages: shock, apathy, and post-liberation doubt (Frankl 8). Frankls analysis is given with a disclaimer: that it is difficult for an analyst as a prisoner to remain an outsider, objective, detached, and to refrain from giving personal bias when going through the personal challenges he did (6). Thus his perspective is truly unique: he had the very opportunity to live the theory that he taught to others, having been a psychologist before his internment. Frankl relates that various defense mechanisms were created to survive; for example: humor was a weapon in self-preservation (43); striking out ones whole former life was necessary (14), for one could have been a president of a large bank before and assigned as camp police during his imprisonmenta complete loss of the sense of self (63); and depersonalization was required (88)being desensitized, with emotional detachment and being past feeling due to exposure (22)to press on. Thus those prisoners who found a meaning of lifenot concluding that they expected nothing more out of life, but rather pondering what life yet expects from them, through right actions and conduct (77)those prisoners were more likely to survive. Those that did survive reached the third stage: the psychology of liberation (84). They faced both bitterness and disillusionment (91) in their attempt to return to a normal life. Amidst all of these troubles and suffering, Frankl explains, everyones behavior was oriented toward survival; nothing was done if it did not aid in survival chances. As we see in his narrative, religion and spiritualitycall it luck or miracles (6)were highly prevalent.
            My own experience of same-gender attraction and those of some of my friends are similar to this process: shock that our feelings are the definition of same-gender attraction and the associated label gay, loss of sense-of-self, and a sense of liberation accompanied by some disillusionment after coming out. Until recently, society continuously painted an image of those who are gay: lustful, sexually deviant, speedo-wearing, rainbow-flag-waving, pride-parade-marching men. I certainly am not like that, so it made identifying as gay very difficult. It creates in mind the false dilemma described in the suicide note left by Stuart Matis, a gay member of the LDS church:
I was convinced that my desire to change my sexual identity was a divinely inspired desire. As it turns out, God never intended my orientation to change in this lifetime. I had engaged my mind in a false dilemma: either one is gay or one is Christian. As I believed that I was a Christian, I believed that I could never be gay. (Matis 378)
            After the shock, I began dealing with this false dilemma; I was confused about myself. Clearly God allowed this to happenwhether it occurred by his action or his inaction wasnt important to me: I had to deal with it, and it wasnt going away. Like many, I went through a phase of trying to pray the gay away through excellence in church service and increased piety. When that didnt work, I had doubts of my purpose in lifemuch like those prisoners that lost their purpose to live. If God sent us here to multiply and replenish the earthgiving humans sexual urges and desires as a motive for the responsibility for parenthoodthen what purpose do my sexual desires serve? Love is an expression of commitment and altruism, of concern for another person. Am I capable of loving someone of my same gender that way? Clearly societys portrayed image of promiscuous, noncommittal gay men suggests that gays are not capable of this love, but I have felt a non-sexual, emotional connection to other men before, and it was healthier than remaining in a cyclic, depressive, and anxious state of mind. Even those of Christian faith concede that it is not good that the man should be alone (The Holy Bible, Gen. 2:18). One might validly argue, then, that while homosexual activity is immoral, there can be a healthy element to a same-gender, non-sexual relationship that is more than friendship.
            As I reconciled this false dilemma, I decided to come out publicly, as a statement of principle and a voice of hope. One can be a Christian and gay. I soon enjoyed the feeling of liberation; however, it was accompanied by hostility from both the non-religious gay community and the uninformed Mormon community. The argument of the gay community was that I should be true to who I am, that I should live what William James calls Pragmatism: having a set of beliefs that are only usefuland if not useful, then they are not true (Cook 6). The argument of the uninformed Mormon community was that same-gender attraction was a sin and could be changed, that I should change, and, if not, then I should be quiet about it and keep it inside. I was even released from my calling as Executive Secretary for having come out publicly; although Im temple-worthy and hold and use a recommend, some people just dont want to talk about it or get informed, and theyd rather not have me in a position that could be mistaken as a spokesman for an LDS bishopric.
            While this was a mild expression of suppression, the attitudes of many other people today toward gays echo the attitudes of many who participated in the execution of the holocaust: no matter the cause of the people being Jewish, they should be treated as a minority, ostracized, humiliated, and silenced. This makes it difficult for many gays to try and live a normal and emotionally healthy life after coming out, as it was difficult for many internment camp survivors to readjust to a normal life after liberation.
The Relevance of Frankls Perspective to Psychological Topics of Import
for People of Faith
            Despite peoples only behavior being that which aided in survival, religious services were still held privately among the prisoners (Frankl 34). This suggests that, in suffering, man together with God yields greater chances of survival: thus many prisoners developed a deeper sense of spirituality (36). Possibly the greatest point of Frankls perspective that has relevance to people of faith is that, no matter the circumstances, a human always has the right to overcome apathy and suppress irritability (65). Life is not complete without suffering and deathfor those difficult circumstances provide an opportunity for choice. Often, it was futile for the prisoners to imagine a future goal to live fortheir chances of survival were very low; Frankl thus proclaims that when the end is uncertain, we cease living for future goals, and life rather becomes a test of principles, of morals (70): we can always choose to rise above current sufferings and view them as if already in the past (73). The agency is always present: it may not be in the form of choosing circumstances, but it is always inherently present in the form of choosing how to respond to those circumstanceschoosing the right conduct and actions based on correct principles.
            My testimony of the Mormon doctrine of salvation and becoming like God through earthly trials and experiences has pulled me through this difficult experience of same-gender attraction. If God knows what trials are going to make me stretch and grow toward godhood the most, I will trust Him. Like the internment camp prisoners, I have gained a deepened spirituality and a closer relationship with God. I have had personal experiences so sacred that they are sufficient evidence to me for the existence of a loving, caring God. He doesnt always hold my hand through trials, but he does work to set up safety nets all around, even ones that Im not aware of until much later. I have used techniques that Frankl describes to get through my difficult days. One such technique is Logotherapy, which Frankl developed as a potential therapeutic tool.
Potential Therapeutic Usefulness of Logotherapy
            Frankls Logotherapy focuses on the reorientation of a patient toward a meaning of life (98) and the future to be fulfilled by the patient (98)not by telling the patient what to do but by helping them find their own purpose in life (103). Frankl defines tension as a necessary component of mental health: the tension that is between what one is and what one is to become (104). Problems with depression, addiction, and mental status many times come from the boredom that results from a lack of this tension, a lack called an existential vacuum (107-8). Logotherapy aims to help a patient see that his actions now are a second chance, and the first time he did the wrong thingthe past is correctable, the present a chance to do it right (109). It is therefore up to the patient to decide whether to be responsible to society or to his own conscience (110).
            Frankls unique view of suffering is also of therapeutic importance. He claims that each moment of suffering is a chance to turn personal tragedy into triumph (112) and that suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning (113). How can suffering provide meaning? Once again, when life circumstances have taken away the vision of the future, living in the very moment becomes a test of decisions of right versus wrong actionsa test of personal integrity and meaning in ones own life. Logotherapy aids the patient in viewing his life from a different perspective, say, as if from the deathbed (117); such viewpoint provides relief (120). Another tool in Logotherapy is called paradoxical intentioneffective in treating obsessive compulsive and phobic conditions (127). It helps patients understand that the human being has not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward conditions (130). It hones in on the human capacity to creatively turn lifes negative aspects into something positive or constructive (137).
            Frankl conclusively states that if suffering is unavoidable, it can provide meaning, hastily adding that suffering is not necessary for meaning, but it can provide meaning (147). His therapy is useful because it helps people focus on both the possibilities of the futurethus providing hopeand the realities of the pastthus providing solace in a life fulfilled (151). This technique has helped me in the moments of heartache; there are days when I want companionship incredibly. There is often an internal tension caused by the difference in what I know to be correct based on my religious beliefs and what I so deeply desire.
            Tension also exists in the idea that procreative powers are God-given and that the attractions we as humans are given are inherently good for the execution of the Plan of Salvation, but what about my same-gender attraction? Should I consider it a good, God-given blessing when it goes directly against the goal of the Plan of Salvation? When a young man and a young woman fall in love in the church, they are admired by all around them but told not yet; go get married, and once they are married, they are looked upon proudly. When a young man and another young man fall in love in the church, it is generally and immediately looked upon as sinful, lustful, and non-committal; they are told to separate, and they are often reported for church discipline, even if they have abided by the same law of chastity and the same commandments as everyone else in the church. The fact is that sexuality is a difficult topic for everyone, but for most people sexual expression and activity is permitted after a period of waiting for marriage. For gays in the church, it is expected that we never, ever give heed to those feelingsno hope exists for some future day where we fully express our love to a significant other that we are attracted to in this life. The Mormon argument is that there is hope for the life after thisthat no blessings, including an eternal companion, will be denied those who remain faithful until the end, however uncomfortable the experience may be. This discomfort is not specific to homosexuality, for sexuality is a difficult topic for everyone.
            Evil and suffering are rarely a trivial, black-and-white issue. Most people would agree that the holocaust was wrong, but good things came out of it too, such as Frankls life work. If we attribute this good to God, must we necessarily attribute the associated evil and suffering to God as well? If I could choose to live my life a second time, would I choose to be gay again? No. Would I choose to not have passed through this experience in this first life? No, for I have learned many valuable lessons about myself, about God, and about my willingness to follow Him. In my experience, Frankls unique perspective on human psychology and the relevance of that perspective to people of faith do help us surmount the evil and suffering present in the world. His technique of Logotherapy helps me reconcile my faith and feelings. For me, the evidence for the existence of a God is overwhelmingnot despite my experience of same-gender attraction but because of it.

Works Cited
Cook, Roger. James and Pragmatism Winter 2011. Unpublished PowerPoint Presentation.
Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning : An Introduction to Logotherapy. 4th ed.
            Cutchogue, N.Y.: Buccaneer Books, 1992. Print.
Matis, Fred, Marilyn Matis, and Ty Mansfield. In Quiet Desperation: Understanding the
            Challenge of Same-gender Attraction. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2004. 
            Kindle file.
Pojman, Louis P. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. 
            Co., 1987. Print.
The Holy Bible. Authorized King James Version, Translated out of the Original Greek, and 
            with the Former Translations Diligently Compared and Revised, by His 
            Majesty's Special Command. American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 
            2006. Print.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

First Impressions of USGA at BYU

I had been stalking the BYU USGA - Understanding Same-Gender Attraction facebook group for a few months when I decided to attend one of its meetings. For months before starting my coming-out journey, I had secretly longed to attend, just to see what other gay mormons were like. Unfortunately, nobody actively posts to that group, so I got the impression that it was secretive and exclusive for those who are already out. 

After coming out and being comfortable with my friends knowing, I concluded that I was now eligible to attend a USGA meeting without fear. 

By this time I had made lots of good friends—gay and straight allies—that mostly went to BYU and UVU. None of them were active USGA attenders, and I had been told that USGA was too liberal and bitter toward the church. Depending on who you talk to, every gay support group is too something—liberal, conservative, bitter, depressed, apostate, sketchy, dramatic. I decided to check out a lot of these groups for myself to get a clearer vision. A good friend told me that if you think a group is too something, you should go be the change to bring it back into balance. I thought I should give USGA a chance.

The night I attended, the meeting was held just a few blocks from my apartment—actually it was close to some of my gay friends' apartments. I wondered if my friends even knew about it. I walked those few blocks and across the parking lot. Just as I rounded a corner, I ran into two of my friends walking away from where the meeting was to be held. I blurted out "Change of location?" They gave me a puzzled look. Quickly changing the topic, I asked what they were up to. They invited me to go running with them. I'm not a runner so we parted ways. Luckily they didn't know about the meeting being held just a few doors away—I wanted to attend alone this time, just for an unbiased experience. 

I found the place and made my way to a seat along the wall—I didn't want to be in the way. 

Tonight's meeting was to be a panel of straight allies sharing their experiences. As I watched the interactions among the people there, I typed out some notes on my phone:
  • USGA looks like a tight group of friends
  • The sensitivity to privacy concerns is impressive. They are videoing the panel and set aside couches that wouldn't be filmed. They do a great job of accommodating everyone.
  • They started with a prayer and recited the mission statement. This is excellent for first goers that have scoped out the facebook group and are scared. They are reminding everyone of the purpose of the group:

USGA is an unofficial group of Brigham Young University students, faculty and guests who wish to strengthen families and the BYU community by providing a place for open, respectful discussions on the topic of same-gender attraction. We also invite LDS Institute students from across the Wasatch front.
USGA is a safe place for all, not an appropriate forum for angry, vulgar, or profane remarks of any kind, nor for expressions of antagonism against any person or organization. In order to foster an environment of respect and understanding, we ask all participants to be mindful of USGA’s political neutrality, and we also ask all participants to be respectful of BYU, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the beliefs and experiences of others. Above all, we support BYU students in upholding the Honor Code, and invite guests to do so as well while in attendance of USGA events.
Please note that USGA meets outside of any sponsorship, endorsement, or support by BYU.
  • It's a lot more light-hearted than other meetings I've been to. You can feel free to speak and be who you are. They are comfortable talking about sexuality and its implications—good and bad. Other groups tend to focus on it as a challenge or struggle. Many here seem be positive about life.

Overall, it was a great meeting! A couple of people come up and met me, and they were friendly. At the end of the meeting I got up and looked around behind me. There were a lot of people there! Then I saw somebody I knew (not too well, but I knew his name)! I went up and officially met him. He introduced me to a few people, and we became pretty good friends. My first USGA friends!

We then went for pizza—the whole group typically gets food after the meeting. I seemed to have found a group of people that have a broad range of opinions and ideals, but there was broad unconditional acceptance as well. Some other groups I had been to seemed to have a sense of conditional acceptance—only if you had the same goals as the group were you brought in to the camaraderie. Here, there seemed to be different sets of goals, but everyone was tied together through the feelings and experiences they've had. Getting through and enjoying life seemed to be the ultimate goal of USGA—an incredibly valuable experience for me.

Dan Bunker

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Six Months Out! What next?

I read the 7th paragraph of my patriarchal blessing (what's that?) a third time as I sit in my car late at night in the driveway, pondering how the next six months will differ from the first six since I came out on November 4th.

So this means I'm supposed to get married and be a good husband and a good dad, and everything will be swell, right?

This paragraph is the one that mentions eternal marriage and the future. I lean back the driver's seat and open the moon roof to gain a clear view of the stars in the expansive sky. There can't possibly be another paragraph more applicable to my concerns with same-sex attraction and how the future is supposed to work out, so I lightly skim the rest of the blessing.

The second time through, my eye catches the end of the 3rd paragraph: 
"...that you might choose a path in accordance with the lessons of life which you shall experience..."
I sit up straight. Wait...what? I can choose my path? There's more than one path? Doesn't everything in my blessing mark THE ONE path I'm supposed to take? I continue reading:

"You are admonished to be faithful unto the Lord Jesus Christ throughout your life, to honor and sustain the holy priesthood, to heed the words of the living prophet that you might avoid the sadness and misery of this earth life..."
So...maybe I am free to choose a single path of several possible ones that please God, with the caveat that I heed the mentioned principles. 

I lean back again and ponder some more. What if my path conforms to the doctrine but not to traditions? Can I carve my own way through this? Is a non-sexual but emotionally close same-sex friendship or relationship that conforms to the For the Strength of Youth standards acceptable? 

Do not participate in passionate kissing, lie on top of another person, or touch the private, sacred parts of another person’s body, with or without clothing. -For the Strength of Youth

Is it acceptable to me? To God? To those who think highly of me? Even if it doesn't conform to some of the social and cultural traditions in the church?

Why am I afraid to explore this question? Am I afraid I'll be judged by others according to cultural traditions instead of doctrine? Will others think I am a less faithful child of God if I don't pursue marriage? 

What if I just want to be an awesome uncle to all of my nieces and nephew for the rest of my life?

I shiver as the cool breeze flows through one car window and out the other. I glance at the clock on the hour and a half—it's enough pondering for one night. After all, being gay is on my mind every single day. I sigh, sit up, close up the car, and put away my pondering face as I walk up the steps to the house. My family is supportive but doesn't talk about this much, and I don't want to overwhelm them with gay stuff. I won't bother them about it tonight...I'm old news.

Two days from now will be my 6-month coming-out mark, so I'll write a blog post about it then and annoy all my facebook friends with another gay post. May the fourth be with me :)

Dan Bunker