The Owls Nest

Taking A Chance On GodTaking A Chance On God

Liberating Theology For Gays, Lesbians,
and Their Lovers, Families and Friends

Prepared by his many years of intensive study and teaching of psychodynamics at the Institutes of Religion and Health in New York City, as well as his own years of analysis, John McNeill deals with homosexuality from both the spiritual and psychotherapeutic dimensions. Because of his years of training and experience as a psychotherapist with hundreds of gay and lesbian clients, he has combined insights from psychotherapy and spirituality to help the reader overcome any interiorized homophobia, shame, guilt, and fear resulting from their religious training, and cultural and family prejudices.

Taking A Chance On God clearly distinguishes pathological religion from healthy religion, applying the principle that whatever is good theology must also be good psychology, and vice versa. This book opens the door to a new ethical understanding and acceptance of homosexual relationships as morally good, and gay love as a deeper sharing in divine love.

McNeill demonstrates that those who practice pathological religion base their relationship with God as a relationship to a god of fear. Further, homophobic fundamentalist preachers demand that all must worship their god of fear; they compel all gays and lesbians to sacrifice any hope of a life fulfilled with sexual love and intimacy in order to escape their fearful god's wrath. McNeill admonishes that... "Such a service of fear would blaspheme the Christian God of love."

Taking A Chance On God reflects McNeill's own lifelong struggle to accept his gayness with gratitude as a gift from God. "It should be stressed, in opposition to certain current views," McNeill states, "that human beings do not choose their sexual orientation; they discover it as something given. Furthermore, there is no healthy way to reverse or change sexual orientation once it is established." It brings a gay perspective to fundamental Christian questions:

Although the book Taking A Chance On God speaks most directly to lesbian and gay Christians, their lovers, families and friends, McNeill addresses universal questions, and, as with all good theology, transcends the boundaries of its target audience. All Christians will find his reflections helpful.

He has received countless letters from parents of lesbians and gays, telling him how helpful the book has been in freeing them from pathological religious beliefs based on fear and in helping them to find a faith in the God of love and, consequently, joyfully enabling them to accept their gay and lesbian children.

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The following passages from Taking A Chance On God will provide further insights into the major theses and purpose of the book.

Introduction to Part 1

Lesbians and gays have always been people of exceptional religious sensitivity. After many years of work as a psychoanalyst, Carl Jung made this observation concerning the spiritual life of his gay clients: "Often [gay people] are endowed with a wealth of religious feelings, which help [them] to bring the ecclesia spirtualis into reality, and a spiritual receptivity which makes them responsive to revelation."
It is my experience as well, after working with hundreds of gay clients, that most lesbian and gay people are extraordinarily open to developing spiritual values. Mark Thompson's book, Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning explores this spiritual aspect of the gay and lesbian community. Very often the spiritual leadership of the human community as a whole comes from its lesbian and gay members. Yet this very openness leaves gay people particularly vulnerable to the pathological aspects of religion.
In part 1, I shall discuss the mature and immature forms that faith can take in gay spiritual life. Next, I examine the phenomenon of gay atheism and the frequently healthy spiritual role that gay atheism can play. Finally, I focus on one of the main challenges faced by most of my lesbian and gay clients who are trying to develop a spiritual life, namely, the importance of discerning the difference between pathological and healthy systems of belief. Continuing to hold on to a pathological belief system that has been deeply embedded in the unconscious results in feelings of fear, guilt, and shame, and in many cases has been both the primary source of resistance to psychological healing and the principal obstacle to spiritual maturity.

Part 1, Chapter 1

Developing a Mature Faith Life

God's gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the
Spirit of power and love and self-control.
	                      2 Timothy 1.7  

The painful experience of being an exile takes myriad forms for a gay or lesbian person. One that I experienced myself was being a gay soldier and veteran. Lesbians and gay men who loved and served their country courageously in the armed forces have suffered a special injustice because they faced the awful threat of being court-martialed and dishonorably discharged if their sexual orientation ever became known, in spite of their loyal and courageous service.

Recently, an incident occurred that reminded me once again of the pain of our exiled state. A few years ago a local court refused gay veterans permission to march under their banner in a veterans' parade. That decision was later reversed by a higher court, but the first time gay veterans marched a fanatic attacked their banner with a knife.

Shortly after my ordination in 1960, I had the opportunity to journey back to the battlefields in Europe where my infantry division, the 87th, went into combat in the fall of 1944. I looked up all the names of my former friends and comrades who had fallen in battle and offered mass in their memory.

When I preached to a group of gay veterans twenty-five years later on Veterans' Day, 1985, 1 wore my wartime decorations in the pulpit: the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Purple Heart, and the Good Conduct Badge. I normally object to symbols of patriotism in the sanctuary, because I believe strongly that when we stand before God, we must stand in solidarity with all humanity, as Jesus did. We should not try to approach God when we stand exclusively with only some portion of humanity: our own family, race, ethnic group, or countrymen. I decided to wear those medals as a protest against injustice.

I enlisted in the army during the Second World War when I was seventeen years old. I served in combat with the 87th Infantry division in the Third Army under General George Patton of "our blood, his guts" fame, whose body now lies at rest at the head of a graveyard full of dead soldiers in a military cemetery in Luxembourg. I went overseas as a private and served as a foot soldier carrying a bandalier of mortar shells on my back into the combat zone in Alsace-Lorraine. On December 2, 1944, my company was one of the first to penetrate the German border. Shortly thereafter we were surrounded by tiger tanks and all the soldiers in my platoon were either killed or captured.

I will never forget the terror I experienced when I realized that a tank had us pinned down in a German foxhole we had taken earlier, so that we could not return fire. At that moment a German soldier was making the classic infantry maneuver of crawling up to within throwing range to toss a rolling-pin-style hand grenade into our foxhole. We stood up, our hands high in the air. Sure enough, a German soldier; grenade in hand, stood up about twenty feet away and ordered us down the hill. We were Kriegsgefangenen, prisoners of war.

Even now, some forty-three years later, I can see myself, a frightened eighteen-year-old, being led down a dirt road with a rifle at my back. At a crossroads we came upon a wayside shrine, a cross with the body of Christ on it. In the broken German I had learned as a freshman at Canisius College in Buffalo, I asked the guard for permission to say a prayer. I remember kneeling and making what I thought would be my last Act of Contrition, since I was convinced that I was going to be shot. In the mean-time, the guard leaned on his rifle and smoked one of my cigarettes.

Well, obviously I was not shot; I was led away to a central collection point for prisoners. There followed six months of terror, starvation, and beatings, but, thanks be to God, I survived and I'm still here. I remember my prayer then was, "Lord, I am too young to die; let me live to do your work." That prayer was certainly heard.

One of the issues we who survived have to deal with is survivor's guilt. Why were we chosen to live while so many others died? There is an impenetrable mystery in that question. I emerged from prison camp with a new understanding of my faith, and after about two years of hospitalization and medication I regained my health in both mind and body and finally, in 1948, I entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in order to do God's work on earth, "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam," to the greater glory of God. Every moment from that day to this was borrowed time, which I believe was given to me because there was a task that God wanted me to achieve in this life.

That young man who knelt and prayed at the wayside cross obviously had received the gift of faith, the most precious inheritance his parents passed on to him. The apostle Paul, speaking of our faith, tells us: "God's gift was not a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power and love and self-control" (2 Tm. 1:7).

But my faith still had a long journey ahead, with many trials to undergo and many idols to be smashed. It is important for us to be aware that our religious faith needs to grow up and mature, just as we grow up and mature in all other aspects of our lives. This is a process that continues until we die. There are aspects of our faith that are healthy and favorable to growth; there are other aspects that are neurotic and destructive. We are all called on to be aware of the state of our faith, to strengthen what is healthy in it and to diminish what is sick and neurotic.

For example, there was a time when I confused the voice of God with my own sadistic superego. I allowed my spiritual life to be permeated by neurotic guilt. My spirit became a spirit of cowardice, not a spirit of power and love. It took me a long time to dispel that guilt, and the process is still going on. Only gradually did I come to realize the meaning of Saint Iranaeus's famous statement, Gloria Dei, homo vivens-the glory of God is humans fully alive. I thought God's glory was to be found only in suffering and not in moments of pleasure or joy.

It is also possible to confuse faith with a need for security. One example of this is the immature belief that one can only discover the will of God in the pronouncements of external authorities. It can be very tempting to submit blindly to the voice of authority and then, like some latter-day Eichmann, disclaim any responsibility for the consequences of our obedience. But if we do so we fail to see that God can speak to us directly through our own experience. There may be times when, in order to accomplish what God wants, we may have to oppose authority and take full responsibility for the consequences of our choices and actions.

The most serious distortion of faith of which I have been guilty is the belief that I somehow had to earn God's grace and love through what I accomplished. At such times I failed to see that it is not necessary to earn God's love, that in the end, like life itself, all is a gift. God gives his/her gifts freely, and the only meaningful response is gratitude.

What was it that I needed in order to arrive at a healthy and mature faith? It was a healing of my vision of God. Let me speak of my own spiritual journey within the gay spiritual community, and especially as a member of Dignity, over the past fifteen years.

I grew up in a homophobic neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. Because I was aware of my sexual feelings, I was tormented by the fear that, at the very heart of my being, there was a fatal flaw that rendered me defective and unlovable. I thought that I could be accepted by my family and Church only if I could hide, deny, and repress the specific form that my ability to love and sexual feelings had taken. With the full support of a homophobic Church, I transferred my fear of rejection to God, and in so doing built up a false image of God. I became a masochistic worshiper of the God created by my own superego.

At the same time I unconsciously built up a rage against that God, a rage against the injustice of being rejected for something over which I had no choice. But fear of God led me to suppress that rage. I remember reciting the Act of Contrition after confession: "0 my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell...." I could identify with the fear contained in those words. The words went on, but my feelings did not: "but most of all because I have offended thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love." Love and rage could not coexist in my heart.

I began to act out that rage in self-destructive ways. Out of a sense of fear, I tried to sacrifice my deepest reality, my ability to feel and to love, in order to be acceptable to that God. Like the pagans of old who out of fear would cast their firstborn into the fire before the statue of Baal, I too thought I had to sacrifice a vital part of myself in order to be acceptable to God. I was truly blind to God's reality, and worshiped an idol of my own making.

I remember well an incident that occurred right after my ordination to the priesthood. I had looked forward for many long years to that event. We Jesuits have a tendency to regard ordination as a reward for a well-spent life. The day after my ordination at Fordham University by Cardinal Spellman, the realiltation hit me that I was obliged under pain of mortal sin to recite the Holy Office, at that time still in Latin, several times a day - an obligation that seemed to me extremely burdensome to carry out. I immediately went into a deep depression. Here was another daily occasion to commit more mortal sins!

Returning to Woodstock Seminary from my first mass in Buffalo, I met a priest friend on the train. He told me the latest joke making the rounds of clerical circles in Washington. It was about three priests who ended up in hell. The first priest, Peter, said to the second priest, Joe, "Joe, why are you here?" Joe answered, "I got what I deserved. I ran off with the parish money, lived riotously in Miami, and I was killed in a car crash without repenting or making restitution." He asked Peter in turn, "Why are you here?" Peter answered, "Well, I got what I deserved. I kept a mistress in an apartment behind the parish house and I died in bed with her, unrepentant." Then they both turned to the third priest, Pat, and said, "Pat! Why are you here? You were the ideal priest. You had that poor parish in the inner city. You worked day and night with the poor in the soup kitchen. We thought you were a saint." Pat answered, "Well, I got what I deserved. The last night of my life I was very tired after eighteen hours of work with the poor; so I skipped the final hour of the office and died in my sleep. So here I am!"

As soon as I heard that joke, God gave me the grace to realize that reading the Holy Office was the wrong kind of worship for me. I decided to take a chance on God. I put my breviary aside and have not read it as an obligation since. This has not had the slightest effect on my delight in the Holy Office when I am on retreat or when I join the monks at Mount Saviour Monastery in singing God's praise. That experience helped me to grasp a primary principle of healthy, mature spiritual life: resist and refuse to perform any religious observance that is based exclusively on fear of God!

Today we gay people have a desperate need for a healthy and adult faith; a faith built directly on our own experience; a faith that can lead us to reach out in love to each other; rather than selfishly seek our own security; a faith strong enough to overcome all fears, especially fear of death.

The threat of AIDS can cause us to fall back into immature, neurotic faith. Neurotic faith is based in fear and a spirit of cowardice. In the chapters that follow I will attempt to spell out many of the forms that neurotic faith can take and what we must do to live out our lives as gay people with a healthy commitment to life and to each other.

The supreme gift of God is love. To experience genuine human love, to be part of a community of love is to experience the presence of God. However; love is paradoxical. It is absolutely necessary for a happy, fulfilled human life. And it is absolutely impossible by human means alone. That is why John could write, "Anyone who fails to love can never have known God, because God is love" (1 Jn. 4:8).

Love is always a miracle; always God's gift of self; always an experience of the divine. In the community of love to which we belong, we daily experience the presence of God. This is an experience we freely receive, and one that we can, if we wish, out of gratitude freely give to others in return.


Return to beginning of the
Introduction to Part 1

Taking A Chance On God is published by Beacon Press (Boston, MA). It has also been published in:



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