Thoughts on Homophobia and Toxic Masculinity from a Straight Father of Bisexual Children

I was recently asked to give a talk at my Unitarian church on National Coming Out Day.*

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Questions for the End of the World

I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.

If you know despair or can see it in others.

I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you.

If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.

I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living, falling toward the center of your longing.

I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

— excerpt from David Whyte, “Self Portrait” from Fire in the Earth

A Critique of Octavia Butler’s “Destiny”

“The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.”

Parable of the Sower (1993) by Octavia Butler
Cover art for Parable of the Sower by John Jude Palencar

Editor’s Note: This is a shortened version of a longer essay titled “The Most Dangerous Story Ever Told: Ecological Collapse, Progress, and Human Destiny”, which includes a review of Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar. You can read the complete essay here.

One of my favorite works of science fiction is the Parable series by Octavia Butler. Butler is credited as both the first African-American and the first woman science fiction writer. The two published books which make up this series are Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998).

Octavia Butler’s Parable books are set in the near future when the United States has all but collapsed due to economic, environmental, and political pressures. Corporations hold people in virtual slavery. People live in walled neighborhoods. Hunger, theft, rape, and murder are normal outside of the walls. Again, it is the resemblances to the present day that are most disturbing—including an ethno-nationalist president who promises to “Make America Great Again”.

Butler’s heroine, a precocious teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, creates a new religion, which she calls “Earthseed”, that is adopted by a small community of refugees who gather around her. The main tenets of Earthseed are: “God is Change.” and “Shape God.” Essentially, this means that change is the one unavoidable thing in life, but that we can shape that change (to a limited extent) with forethought and work.

But there is a third tenet of Earthseed: “The destiny of Earthseed (humankind) is to take root among the stars.” (“the Destiny” for short). Olamina teaches that humankind must leave the earth and settle on other planets in order to survive. She believes the Destiny can give humankind something to strive towards and to change us:

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The Most Dangerous Story Ever Told: Environmental Collapse, Progress, and Human Destiny

What is our destiny as humans? From dust we come, and to dust we return. Yes, but what kind of dust is the question. The dust of the earth, life-giving humus (which shares its etymological origin with the word “human”)? Or star dust, the stuff of cosmic ovens? Of course, both are true, in a literal sense. But symbolically speaking, which one we choose to focus on has profound impacts on the course of human history.

Interstellar is actually just the latest version of a very old story, the most dangerous story ever told, the story of progress. Except in the older versions, instead of the stars (i.e., the “heavens”) being our destination, it was heaven. From ancient times to the present day, the dominant myth of civilization has taught us that our home is not the earth, that our destiny is to transcend our physical limitations, that those who would be heroes must reach beyond the here and now.

As time goes on, more and more of my daily news feed consists of reports of ecological collapse: fires, hurricanes, floods, droughts. It’s increasingly easy to believe the earth is telling us to leave. It’s increasingly tempting to believe that there might be hope among the stars. Especially when the same scientists who have warned us about climate change are also promoting missions to space. But this is just an extension of the pipe dream of progress which has brought us to this place. …


Growing is Asking Different Questions

When I left the Mormon church in 2000, I had to figure out a short way to explain to people why I left. I learned quickly that nobody wanted to hear my Mormon version of Luther’s 95 Theses. I think the most succinct, if perhaps not the most satisfactory, explanation I came up with was this:

I started asking different questions.

As I started to move away from Mormonism, I realized that Mormonism didn’t just claim to tell you what the right answers are—it claimed to know what the right questions are. I think this is true of almost all of Christianity, and maybe all of Western religion.

Maybe that’s what being a part of religious community means—not necessarily having the same answers, but having the same questions.

When I was Mormon, my questions were typical Christian ones: How do I get closer to God? How do I remove the feeling of guilt my sins? How do I get into heaven? And also questions specific to Mormonism: Is the Mormon church “true”? Is the Book of Mormon historical? Does the Mormon prophet speak for God?

Mormons claim to know the answers to all these questions. And every Sunday at the Mormon church is an exercise in affirming collectively what the answers to those questions are. Some people may doubt the answers, but no one ever seems to doubt the questions.

Within a few years after my formal departure from the Mormon church, I could no longer muster up the energy to even argue about the question of whether the Mormon church was “true”. Similarly, after experiencing a saving moment of grace, I longer found questions about Jesus to be interesting in anything other than an academic sense. I continue to have a passing interest in all things Mormon. But I rarely look beyond the headlines.

My departure from the Mormon church started with my doubting the answers, but it ended with me rejecting the questions. Over a period of several years, the questions Mormonism asked became less and less relevant to me, and I started to ask new ones:

How do I reconcile the beauty and violence I see in nature? How do I avoid creating divinity in my own image (as I had done with Mormonism)? What does the body have to do with spirituality and what should I be learning from my embodiment? What does it mean to say we are all connected? When (and how) should I stop thinking and just start feeling? How can I reap the benefits of spiritual community while avoiding the dangers?

Eventually I found Paganism, which helped me to start to answer some of these questions for myself. In the course of my interaction with the Pagan community in general, the humanistic/naturalistic Pagan community specifically, and the Unitarian Universalist community, I also became interested in the question: How might we reject the literalism, dogmatism, and purity culture of theistic religions without losing the enthusiasm which sustains religious movements?

Over the next 15 years or so, however, my relationship with the Pagan community grew increasingly conflicted. I came to realize that my questions weren’t really at the center of contemporary Paganism, but more on the periphery. Instead, I found the center of Paganism was dominated by questions about literal, anthropomorphic deities and practical magic. These were never my questions.

So, eventually, I found myself leaving the Pagan community behind too. It is disappointing to have lost a connection to yet another religious community. I continue to be “Pagan-adjacent” and call myself a “small-p” pagan, but I don’t belong anywhere near the cultural center of contemporary Paganism.

Along the way, I’ve developed new questions:

• I’m interested in what a truly spiritual activism looks like, and the corresponding question of what an activist spirituality looks like. I want to find a way to integrate ritual praxis and political action in way that retains the power of religious ritual without alienating those who are put off by traditional religion.

• I am interested how the in the multiple kyriarchies–patriarchy, capitalism, racism, anthropocentrism–overlap and weave their way insidiously into our individual and collective psyches, and how we deconstruct those hierarchies, both individually and collectively.

• I am interested in navigating a path between the Scylla and Charybdis of a reductive materialism and an alienated supernaturalism. I am interesting in figuring out how to recognize and honor the agency of the more-than-human world without anthropomorphizing or projecting my own imaginings onto it.

• I am interested in in developing practices for cultivating an immediate and sensual relationship with the land I stand on and the other-than-human beings (as well as the human beings) that fill the world around me.

• I am interested in learning how to live a meaningful, joyful, and socially-responsible life in light of an awareness of impending civilizational collapse. I am especially interested in what an effective activism looks like at the “end of the world as we know it”.

I haven’t yet found a single community–religious or otherwise–that is asking all of these questions, but I have found different communities that are asking one or more of them. If you are interested in these questions and have found a community to explore them with, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

What I Left on the Road

Note: This is a work of fiction. It was inspired by news stories about migrant caravans from Central America and photographs of personal belongings that were left along the way, especially the photo above of the abandoned stroller. This is a dark take, so be forewarned. It is intended as a creative way to explore the stages by which our civilized identity may be shed during a period of civilizational collapse.

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We won’t be the first civilization to collapse — but we may well be the last

The following is an excerpt of an article published at Salon last week. You can read the entire article here.

“Civilizations die in familiar patterns. They exhaust natural resources. They spawn parasitic elites who plunder and loot the institutions and systems that make a complex society possible. They engage in futile and self-defeating wars. And then the rot sets in. The great urban centers die first, falling into irreversible decay. Central authority unravels. Artistic expression and intellectual inquiry are replaced by a new dark age, the triumph of tawdry spectacle and the celebration of crowd-pleasing imbecility. …

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Collapse and the Stages of Grief

by Collapsosaurus Rex

This is the second of a 3-part series.

The stages of grief are different for everyone, but they commonly include Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Acceptance. Other common stages include Maniacal Laughter at Inappropriate Times, Irritating Your Coworkers, and Bumming Out All Your Friends.

For many people, finding out about the inevitable collapse of civilization is like getting diagnosed with a terminal illness. It feels as though the wind has been knocked out of you, and all of your dreams and hopes for the future begin to evaporate as you realize you’ve been living in a fantasy world that never really existed.

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