Recently I read a book by Andrew Doyle called Unabashedly Episcopalian, and in it he discussed the concept of memes, which he learned about from the works of geneticist Richard Dawkins. Doyle says:
"Geneticists speak of something called a meme. The concept originated with Richard Dawkins, a geneticist who has also gained fame as part of the atheist dialogues that are currently popular. Meme theory is basically the application of Darwinian genetic theory to culture, language and narrative. Dawkins argues that the human attachment to God comes out of fear and anxiety about having our basic needs met. For Dawkins God is like a story--or a genetic trait or a meme--that keeps getting replicated because of our anxieties and fear."
Bishop John Shelby Spong put it this way: early on in human existence, the world was a menacing place. Many of us have never experienced the black of a moonless night without electric lights. The darkness is almost palpable, and it is filled with threatening sounds and creatures who hunt their prey, which may well include a helpless human that they come upon. With our tendency to anthropomorphize, or give human qualities to inanimate things, we began to imagine gods of the wind and rain, gods of mercy and anger, and we began to implore them for protection, offering them gifts that we imagine would be desirable.
In real life it works like this: I saw a man who was interviewed in a program about tornadoes. He and his family were barbecuing in their front yard. The man realized that he didn't have a bucket of water to deal with an accidental cooking fire, so he went through the house and out the back door to draw some water. As he stepped out the door, his gaze was drawn to the sky above him. He was looking directly into a gigantic funnel cloud that was ready to drop to earth at any second.
His reaction was very human: he prayed. He looked up and said, "Oh, please, please don't. Don't come down on my family." This is an iconic reaction of the human mind in this type of situation.
But there was a problem with this, in that in all too many cases the storm breaks, or the gods do not answer prayers. This, I believe, brought about the emergence of the first atheists right along with the first worshipers.
We also know, as human beings, that we were once young and healthy, and that our lives will degenerate as we grow older into age and illness. We are able to anticipate this, as well as worry about our family or significant others. We are able to worry about wars and disasters. All of this contributes to our insecurity and results in a longing for safety.
And this is what primitive religion is selling us: security. Believe this and you will be protected. Believe this and you will surely get to Heaven. Affirm our creed and you can be sure that you will be in while others are out. If your primitive hopes and fears are strong enough, you can be persuaded to enroll in the correct group, and in exchange you can repress the terror that threatens to engulf the minds and emotions of primitive Christians.
Holy Scripture does not exactly help us on this point, as the Old Testament is brimming with threats and commandments from the Hebrew God, accompanied by stories that purport to show us how others suffered because of their disobedience or lack of faith. This produces people like Phelps, who died this week and is now finding out how wrong he was about God. One of Phelps' children commented that his father had become obsessed with a passage from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans about homosexuality, so I looked it up.
I re-read the Letter to the Romans and there is only one passage that comments on homosexuality in any way, and this is it:
"For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
"Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
"Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error." [Romans 1:21-29]
There is one set of questions about this passage itself, but there is also a set of questions about Phelps that are quite different. First, the passage says clearly that because of a lack of religious devotion, God caused a group of people to change from heterosexual to homosexual behavior. Do we as Christians believe that if we fail to please God, and we are straight, we will wake up gay one morning if we fail in our duties? I do not believe in such a God and I was never taught to believe that this kind of behavior is, or could be, something that God would do.
Do we as Christians believe that a God who is perfectly good, righteous and just would do such things, even if we thought it was actually true that a group of people went through this behavior? In point of fact, Paul was making a general accusation, contending that God had done this sexual transformation to someone, at some unspecified time. There is no group of people named in the passage just before the quoted material above:
"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." [Romans I: 18-20]
So these two sentences are not a truthful statement, but a conjecture meant to create a "scared straight" reaction to the Christian people in Rome. In fact, "scared straight" is a very good description, especially when we ask: what was the obsession with this passage on Phelps' part?
So--was Fred Phelps bisexual? Did he live with same-sex attractions even though he did not act on them? Did he interpret this passage in Romans as a warning that if he was not super-righteous, God would "strike him gay?" And did he also know that he almost wouldn't mind if God did so?
Many Christian people understand Paul's condemnation of the people in his story, but that is all it is--a story. And those who quote it frequently will usually fail to mention the idea that those folks were "struck gay" by God as a punishment.
If you ask them if their loving God would strike anyone gay, they will usually say that they don't think so. But maybe Phelps did. Maybe he was terrified of the bisexual man who lived inside his closet with him.
I realize that I could be wrong about this. It is more likely that Phelps simply did not understand the passage and took away from it only the condemnation of homosexual acts. Most Christians take it that way. But still I wonder: was Phelps a closeted bisexual man who punished others for what he knew was within himself, controlled only by the most overwrought acting out of heterosexuality and the "I'm on your side, God!" shouting that he kept up so that he did not have to listen to the whisper that disturbed the silence in his soul?
In any case, I advise this: if anyone quotes you this passage—and it will be only in part—ask them these questions. Who were those people? Where did they live? What religion were they? When did Paul visit them, or from whom did he learn the story? There is no basis in fact for Paul’s story, and the more people who know that, the better.