Going to Heaven

In my family, shopping for Christmas and birthdays is virtually synonymous with buying books. I suspect a number of Via Negativa readers are that way, too, so I’d like to put in a pitch for Elizabeth Adams’ new book, Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Books, 2006). Gene Robinson, as most of you will recall, garnered considerable press attention three years ago when he was elected at the Episcopalian convention as the first openly gay bishop in Christendom. What many people may not realize is that Gene is also a very inspiring, charismatic-yet-humble minister and leader. And since his election, he has become to gay Christians what Bishop Desmond Tutu was to blacks under Apartheid, or what the Dalai Lama is to Tibetan Buddhists. (I can hear Gene protesting that he is not worthy of the comparison, but in fact I doubt that either Tutu or the Dalai Lama are the perfect saints that their more ardent followers imagine, either. What they have in common is an ethic of humility, boundless compassion, and leadership-through-service.)

The author is a good friend and my co-editor at qarrtsiluni, and I even read the book in manuscript for her, so I didn’t think a standard book review from me would have a whole lot of credibility. Moreover, Going to Heaven has already been ably reviewed at Velveteen Rabbi, The Middlewesterner, The Tao of Jeremy, Exigency in Specie, mole, and Even the Devils Believe, among others.

As some of those reviews demonstrate, you don’t have to be gay, Episcopalian or even Christian to enjoy this book. When I lent my copy to my mother, she said she found it difficult to put down, and Mom is hardly what you’d call a conventional believer. Of course, she knows some gay and lesbian couples — who doesn’t? — and so was partly interested in reading it in order to see what light it might shed on their situation. But what makes the book compelling, I think, is the storyline and the characters who animate it, just like a good novel. It’s amply illustrated with black-and-white photos, and at just $14.95 (currently $10.17 through Amazon), it’s a heck of a bargain, too.

The central drama, of course, is the ordination and its aftermath. The struggle pits Gene and his supporters against the so-called traditionalists who, in their zealousness to prevent gays (and sometimes also women) from being ordained, are willing to do away with all democratic processes and turn the Episcopalian church into an authoritarian copy of the most regressive member churches of the Anglican communion. In essence, this is the same struggle that we see going on in Sunni Islam, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Catholic church, and many other religious traditions and institutions striving to keep their most fearful followers from turning the church, synagogue or mosque into a fortress against an increasingly scary and materialistic world.

As a good librarian’s son, I generally refrain from marking up my books in any way. But when I re-read Going to Heaven, I found myself reaching for the pencil to mark numerous passages that struck me as quotable. Here are a few of them.

“It’s such a different world we live in today,” [Gene] remarked at a meeting with students at Dartmouth College before his consecration as bishop. […] The students were shocked when he described how many homosexuals used to commit suicide, or become alcoholics or drug addicts after being told repeatedly by society, family and religious leaders that they were unacceptable and disgusting in the eyes of God.

“Homosexuality was so abhorred that those who understood how condemned it was by God just did the logical thing and did themselves in. Suicide was something we thought the good homosexuals did.”

Gene expressed understanding with the plight of bishops like Paul Moore, who were certainly in favor or the ordination of women [in 1974] but were unwilling to go outside the rules of the church. “It’s a fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Gene said. “You start dealing loosely with the canons, and I don’t know where it ends. When it came time for my own consecration, all these years later, I was approached about the fact that there were at least three bishops who were willing to consecrate me anyway if my election was not consented to at convention. And I would just have none of it. I felt that my election and consecration had to be absolutely by the book — and of course that’s what makes the opposition so angry is that it was absolutely legal, and they have no leg to stand on about that.”

“But in terms of women’s ordination . . . I’ve thought about it a lot. If I had to do it over again knowing what I know now, I don’t know what I would say, I might be tempted to do it. I don’t know how women’s ordination would have come, legally, had they not done what they did.”

On the phone David [Jones] had described himself as an evangelical from a conservative theological background, and he had sounded eager to tell me his story. […] “I didn’t really come to this from the same point of view as many of the progressives. […]

“This whole adventure, the search process and its outcome, has really been an interesting spiritual journey for me. It’s not that I’ve changed my basic theological position at all, but it’s forced me to think about how, if you consistently and accurately apply what you say you believe, you might come out in a place you didn’t expect. And having had the experience of going through what happened over these more than two years, I realize, from my perspective, that the hand of God and the power of the Spirit is so clearly in charge of that, that I can’t say, ‘God, you’re not allowed to do that, it doesn’t fit in with my understanding, stop that!'”

“The thing about the election that I don’t expect anyone outside of New Hampshire to understand is that Gene was not elected because he was gay and because he was going to be the first elected openly gay bishop.” [Former New Hampshire Bishop] Doug [Theuner] rubbed his hands together gleefully, faking a malicious grin, and leaned closer, whispering conspiratorially, “It’s not like the people here were just salivating, waiting to elect the first gay bishop.” Then he waved his hand back over his shoulder in a dismissive gesture. “First of all, New Hampshire people aren’t that way, for the most part. They’re — unpretentious. They have their quirks and idiosyncrasies that they love — the ‘Live Free or Die’ thing, no income taxes — but they’re not out there trying to win the world to their point of view. That’s part of the ‘Live Free or Die’ thing: I’ll do my thing, you do yours. There might have been a few people who were all excited” — he rubbed his hands together again — “about the idea that we might elect the first gay bishop, but most people never even thought about that.” The former bishop sat back and straightened up, and his voice boomed out, large enough to fill any cathedral. “They elected someone they knew and trusted! And knew was competent! And, oh yeah, he happened to be gay.”

In almost every audience, someone rose to ask Gene about how he interpreted Biblical passages that seemed to clearly denounce homosexual behavior. Gene […] usually began by saying that, as Christians, we take Scripture very seriously — and then adding that Episcopalians have always taken Scripture seriously, and never literally. “Some of the critics are calling themselves traditionalists,” he said, “and yet are trying to take us to a place that has never been our tradition. Ever. We’ve never been a denomination that that literally read and believed every word of the Bible. On the other hand, we take it all seriously. But what I’m going to tell you is that I don’t think the Bible addresses what we are addressing today, which are faithful, life-long, monogamous relationships between people of the same gender. The Bible doesn’t talk about that.” [See Father Jake Stops the World for an extended quotation from this passage.]

Gene says he likes to think of the Episcopal Church as “advanced placement religion” and explains, “It’s hard work if you start by saying, ‘We have to use our minds and prayerfully engage one another as a community of people, using the best scholarship we have among us, to figure out what those writings [in the Bible] meant to the person who wrote them, and then ask the question, “Are they eternally binding?” But that’s what we, as Episcopalians, try to do.'”

Gene Robinson has said bluntly that organized religion in the Western world is at a crossroads. “Unless the church recovers its sense of what Jesus meant when he spoke of ‘restoring sight to the blind and setting the captives free,’ it runs the risk of either actually dying, or becoming hopelessly irrelevant.”
“It’s the thing you’ve heard me say ten thousand times, which is that God loves us beyond our wildest imagining. That’s why I use a passage from Isaiah so often, about ‘proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.’ There are so many people, including people in the church, who have no idea how favored they are by God.

“But for oppressed people, that message is harder to believe. I think for people of color, for women, for gay and lesbian folk, they’ve been told that they’re ‘less than’ for so long that it comes as especially good news to them, but it’s also harder for them to believe. They have been shamed, and if they had faith, it has been battered and eroded and picked at, which is why Jesus was always preaching to those types of people, bending over backwards to let them know.

“We’ve had some gay people who have done very well — Martina Navratilova, arguably the best tennis player ever, Ellen DeGeneres, Greg Louganis — people who have accomplished a lot. But maybe why there has been so much furor over me and what I’ve accomplished, or whatever God has accomplished within me, is because it goes beyond saying, ‘I think I’m all right.’ It says, ‘I think God thinks I’m all right.’ […]

“It goes back to what I said in my investiture sermon: nobody will get on your case if you preach a judgmental, narrow, punishing God, but if you start preaching a God that is too loving, too merciful, and too forgiving, people will be all over you like a duck on a junebug. It makes people crazy. I think that is fascinating, that so many people would not see the idea of a loving, forgiving God as ‘good news.’ That’s exactly what happened to Jesus. The people who didn’t see God that way were the ones who crucified him.”

7 Replies to “Going to Heaven”

  1. Wonderful review of an excellent book, Dave. I’ve been reading it for a while and am close to finishing. Yes, it reads like a novel. Robinson’s election for bishop was high drama! These are memorable quotes.

  2. “There are so many people, including people in the church, who have no idea how favored they are by God.”

    That is nice, here, this morning.

    Sunday mornings an NPR show on faith in on the air, which is a great way to go to church with the likes of E. O. Wilson or Richard Dawkins. One morning I was making my way through the dikes of southeastern Missouri, lost and not wanting to go through Cairo, which I did end up doing. By the time I came out upon the raised pastures of Paducah I had heard an extraordinary story of a mega-church founder who was driven out of the Southern Baptist League for preaching that non-believers are not condemned to hell. In the ashes of finacial ruin he established a small congregation in a shabby part of Oakland ministering, largely, to gays.

    Over this Thanksgiving weekend I walked in an area of outcrops of dark, glacially-smoothed stone in Central Park where geology erupts, tilted and wild, from mown lawns and the blaze of buildings. Men strolled arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand, loving as they have in all times.

    One of my heroes is Thomas Aikenhead, who at age eighteen, was the last man in Scotland put to death for blasphmemy. He recanted, perhaps quite earnestly, but to no avail. However pentinent he may have been, he had enough outrage to speak out at his execution, declaring that man and government are responible for moral law. Some say that statement announced the Scottish Enlightenment and became the seed from which our own American, atheistic state grew.* When I read Gene Robinson speaking of a loving god I try to transpose that loving god into a loving society, thinking as Aikenhead might have, that god and society are really synonymous, but it does not quite work. I just don’t think we are capable of all that responsiblity. The love Gene Robinson is speaking of transcends anything man or society could be capable of. I think, as I go about my day as an atheist, that I really come up short on the full potentiallity of the god thing. Thank you Dave and Beth for bringing this man to my godless inattention. I didn’t even have to go to church!

    Dave, did the Senecas have a loving god? Or were they all Stone Coats?

    Is there any use for a tolerant god where there is no possiblity of a tolerant society? Is nature tolerant, society notwithstanding? Do you see love in the decomposition of a once living organism? Is death itself a hungry loving ghost?

    Though I’ve been a reader, though sometimes awfully quick, I’ve been away from your comment box and it’s nice to be back. Silly nice. I have a new hard drive, or have just been away to long, and when commenting without identifying myself properly, have been through down from your palisade like any other spam. Loved and commented on Bartok! And that was me, “anonymous” on your “One Shot” post.

    Westward I flew just north of Plummer’s Hollow while necessarily looking north due to seating, looking for white of quartzite on that last, westernmost ridge.

    ” On the scaffold, Aikenhead declared that he had come to doubt the objectivity of good and evil, and that he believed moral laws to be the work of governments or men.”

  3. Bill, I came by and was happy to read your comment and thought I’d jump in with an answer – hope Dave does too. I think God is Love, basically, and that it is a human choice to love or not. Society seems to me to be incapable of love or tolerance on a sustained basis, but individuals are capable of loving one another. If there is a God, this is the image He/She gives us to emulate – of loving one another, no matter what. As human beings of course we fall down and fail over and over, but by turning back to that ideal, we do grow more and more into a likeness of that perfectly-loving being I think we’re meant to be. The only hope for a tolerant society is to have people in it who keep trying to do this, or so it seems to me. As for legislated “morality”- well, that can go in many directions, can’t it? I need to read more about Aikenhead. Did you know that the American Episcopal Church is actually directly descended from the Scottish one, not the British church?

  4. Dave, did the Senecas have a loving god?

    Bill, I don’t know enough about native relgion to answer this effectively. The longhouse religion (re-)established by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake (late 18th-early 19th centuries) does have a supreme deity, I think. For pre-contact tribal religion generally, see prairiemary’s recent post (excerpted in Smorgasblog).

    I think your other questions are better left unanswered, at least by me.

    To reiterate what i said via email, thanks for the comment, and please let me know if any of your comments go missing in the future.

    Beth – Thanks for weighing in.

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