Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The denial of nature

Don't worry – this is entirely natural.
When I wrote at the weekend that sowing seeds allowed me to be “a god in my garden, granting the opportunity for life to grow from what seems, on the surface, like shriveled death,” it was within the context of a celebration of being in closer proximity to the natural world than those of us in vast urban conurbations often find ourselves.

So don’t fret – there are no delusions of divinity here!

However, it was also a reminder that my acting tutor at Leicester Polytechnic, the wonderful Tony Yates, once told us, his students, that we were gods too, for our ability to create; to breathe life into something as otherwise insubstantial as a dream.

But if my connection with nature, through the natural world, has such a simple meaning, ideas of nature can be far more complex.

Take religion.

The Catholic church in particular is fond of talking of the ‘nature’ of human beings. In particular, this tends to refer to the sexuality of human beings and the type of relationships that the church has decreed are ‘proper’ – ‘natural’; of nature.

Within this context, homosexuality itself and same-sex relationships are considered unnatural.

But this belief in such a simplistic idea of human ‘nature’ is both false and destructive, while the church’s continued promotion of such an idea is also inherently hypocritical.

At the weekend, having previously announced that he was taking legal advice over accusations of ‘improper’ sexual behaviour, the UK’s senior Catholic cleric, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, admitted that his behaviour had not been ‘as expected’.

In effectively saying that the accusations were true – or had a grain of truth in them – he basically outed himself.

If O’Brien had made sexual advances or suggestions to other clergy – themselves men – then he is either gay, bisexual, bi-curious or was simply downright frustrated sexually.

And whichever of those is or was the case, he was and presumably is denying his own nature.

The church’s very insistence on celibacy for clergy and nuns is a denial of nature – even masturbation is considered a sin (this is the same for Buddhist monks) – just as the church’s continued refutation of non-heterosexual sexualities as natural is itself a denial of nature.

It is both of nature and the norm to want sex. Indeed, male ejaculation has been shown to confer health benefits in reducing the risk of prostate cancer.

So if God says that this is bad – a situation that he created – then he is demanding that people behave in an unnatural manner and, indeed, open themselves up to health risk (also something that, to maintain the logic, he created).

Many outside the church of Rome – other religious groups and some outside any religion – continue to fall for the fallacy that homosexuality and bisexuality are not ‘natural’, often conflating this with their not being ‘normal’.

Part of the problem is in demanding black and white realities with no grey in the middle. Thus we have homosexuality in one corner, heterosexuality in the other and nothing between the two.

Kinsey’s idea of human sexuality being a scale – so as above, but with many different gradations in between – makes much more sense; it certainly explains bisexuality, for instance, and allows for the variations in the nature of bisexual desire Bisexuals don’t simply have equal proportions of attraction to either sex.

This obviously makes sexuality difficult to measure in terms of simple numbers. Estimates of the percentage of the population that is homosexual vary from between 2% to 10%.

So it’s quite clear from this that homosexuality is not ‘the norm’ – in other words, it’s not the majority situation.

But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t natural – ‘of nature’.

Homosexual behaviour has been observed in many, many species other than humans. In other words, it forms a part of nature. Thus, quite simply, it is natural.

Now from a religious point of view, if one believes that God created the world and everything in it, and nobody else has the power of creation (in Catholicism, to believe the latter would be heresy), then one is left with a reality, according to one’s own belief system, of God having created the full scale of sexuality, both in humans and the rest of life on Earth.

If, as Judeo-Christian tradition has it, Yahweh-Jehovah is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient, then God created everything, in the full and certain knowledge of what would occur.

There’s no room for choice in this: if God knew what would happen, having himself created it, then choice does not exist.

So on that basis, one cannot choose one’s sexuality. Neither can one choose if one is to act in a way that the church regards as sinful – it was preordained.

Yet religious groups take the logic of their own beliefs and warp them to claim that some groups are un-natural, and that we can all choose whether, through acts or faith (and most often, a combination) we are to be saved from eternal damnation.

As it happens, there is no scientific evidence that sexuality is a choice.

But let’s take a slight diversion here.

Colm Tóibín’s new novella, The Testament of Mary, is an astonishing work, seeking to allow Christ’s mother the chance to tell her view of the story.

Mary is nothing more than a symbol in the Bible; a characterless, featureless piece of fleshly clay onto which assorted events are imprinted.

In the Bible, she has no choice in being ‘chosen’ by God to give birth to his son – rape, by anyone’s standards – and only accepts her situation meekly after being divinely impregnated.

Which, as only a very slight aside, might be at the root of why the Vatican does not see rape as a justification for abortion; it replicates the conception of Christ.

But in his book, this symbol of womanhood is torn to pieces by Toìbìn, who presents instead a complex, emotional human being; vulnerable and tenacious at the same time, angry with her son’s disciples and not believing in his divinity, and facing an indescribable grief and horror at what happens.

Written in deceptively simple language, it is an incredibly powerful and moving piece.

And it is a portrait that is far truer to anything in nature than the one in the Bible or the one-dimensional, hagiographical one that religion, and Catholicism in particular, has presented down the centuries as a template for real women.

The Catholic Church's specialisation of distorting the nature of things is widespread and deeply corrosive.

While far from new (Christopher Hitchens did a rather fine hatchet job some years ago), research has shown, once again, that Mother Teresa was far from the saintly figure conventionally portrayed.

In her ‘hospitals’, suffering became the norm, the natural; not to be alleviated, even when entirely possible, but to be maintained as some sort of recreation of Christ’s own suffering. Not that Mother Teresa herself held to the same standards when she was ill.

It was a warping of even the church’s own images of maternal love and care – as also happened in church orphanages and schools, and in the obscene collusion between Irish state and Catholic church that was the Magdalene Laundries.

For centuries, various religions and religious groups have taken the word, the idea of ‘nature’, and both distorted and denied it.

The Catholic church is just one that had or continues to have ‘issues’ with the theory of evolution – indeed, the pretence amongst fundamentalists that the word ‘theory’ does not mean what it does in a strictly scientific sense either shows a deep lack of understanding/education or is deliberately disingenuous.

But then again, evolution is the antithesis of what such religious groups claim – that there is a nature that is set in stone; that it is undeniable and unchanging; that we can trace it back X hundred or thousand years and say that it is the same now as it was then and for ever will be.

This is all an ongoing battle. A battle that pits knowledge against superstition, in just such a black v white manner. No grays. No grays ever.

Some years ago, I interviewed – for the Morning Star, just so you know – the late Lord Rev Dr Donald Soper.

It was in his house in Hampstead. We shared tea together. I remember it fondly. He was a charming host – and also a great intellect.

Much of what he personally believed, I would not. But he had great honesty and enormous integrity – and he didn’t see his faith as an excuse to close down others and simply claim a divine right to be assumed correct.

Indeed, Soper was one of the very first clergy to stand on a platform calling for LGBT rights.

It might have appalled my father – a clergyman of the same denomination – but when I look back at it, at least I look at the Methodism I was brought up in and can think that it was not all reactionary and hate-filled.

And against nature itself.

There are other clerical figures I’d think similarly of, incidentally – Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone would be one; Archbishop Derek Worlock would be another (I can be quite ecumenical) – and there are more.

But here we are, watching as fundamentalists seek to fill the vacuum created as people of moderate faith (if you will) fall away from organised religion.

And so we see – increasingly in the mainstream – what was once the preserve of the far-flung fringes.

Nature changes. Nature is not set in stone. Nature grows.

That is the nature of nature.

That some religious people seek to pretend otherwise – and even, in attempting to do so – warp and betray the logic of their own faith – does not change this. Not one jot.

And what we are left with is human tragedy: that someone like O’Brien, having denied his own nature, must be in so much pain, and feeling so much self-loathing.

I’m not sure that I would wish that on anyone.

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