Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Worldly and the Pure

My teen years were spent as a fundamentalist. Back then (the early 1970s) a fundamentalist was somebody who affirmed the inerrancy of the Bible and lived a life of separation from the world.

Aspects of “the world” I was expected to shun included social drinking, movies, dancing, smoking, flared-leg trousers, miniskirts, heavy petting, mixed-race dating, divorce, masturbation, the peace symbol, sideburns, rock music, Good News for Modern Man, union membership, dirty jokes, gambling, and skepticism.

For a year and a half I even attended a Christian educational institution that preached “second degree separation,” which involved keeping a distance also from people who, although good and decent enough in their own behaviors, were yet not sufficiently separated from the world, so defined.

It is rather amazing, then, that I wound up, by age 30, an open homosexual with no desire to marry or adopt, tolerant and even supportive of prostitution and pornography, strongly inclined towards far-left politics and averse to religion—now even the blandest new age pablum irks me a little, even Unitarianism feels like I’m being clubbed over the head with simple-minded superstition.

Now I am deeply suspicious of almost all forms of purity and puritanism—even in the secular realm. In the early 1990s, when I followed a strictly vegetarian diet and belonged to one or two animal-rights organizations, I stopped short of criticizing others for eating meat—and affirmed, for no good reason, that I would happily eat meat again when I desired it again. (And I did, more out of convenience, though, than a born-again palate.)

Since my years as a Christian, I have found it difficult to be a joiner of, much less a true believer in, any organizations, even those for which I have a strong affinity. I belonged to ACT UP for a year in the eighties; more recently I sent a check to the Human Rights Campaign, even though I can’t fully comprehend why anyone, gay or straight, would want to marry, join the military, or be the subject of even benign stereotyping in Hollywood films.

I have not found a satisfactory “home” in the gay “community.” I have nothing rainbow colored in my home. I neither shun nor affect effeminate mannerisms—I consider myself neither queenly nor straight-acting, though I would not mind being called either one, provided sufficient qualification.

I have tried to form a character of integrity, with definite values, which nevertheless avoid strict strictures or wonted won’t’s. I can’t even say that I am entirely pure of puritanism as I sometimes sense a tendency in myself to pontificate and, when teaching literature, to preach from the text as if it were holy writ.

Politically I tend towards an idealistic form of socialism combined with libertarian, democratic values—but I don’t call myself a socialist, anarchist, or libertarian, and only recently started calling myself a democrat and a liberal, but only because it struck me as a little anal retentive (i.e. purist) to constantly distinguish myself from every known category of political persuasion.

I simply have to accept that labels have some value, however limited. I abandon any and every label when it begins to smack of exclusivity.

Thus, I am “homosexual,” “gay,” or “queer” entirely by whim, using whichever label tickles my fancy at a given moment.—I’d even feel better about myself if I could honestly call myself “bisexual,” since that strikes me as even more worldly. And I prefer to say I’m “irreligious” rather than “atheistic” (too puritanical in its ax-grinding) or “agnostic” (too wimpy—as if I’m advertising an interest in somebody’s converting me back to the faith).

I still catch myself, from time to time, drifting towards an absolutist mindset again, though seldom towards my old rightwing views. Catch me offguard and I’m likely to sign your petition to outlaw the sale of cigarettes or to demand the firing of a college professor who denies the Holocaust or a radio talk host who makes homophobic remarks … though I will regret doing so before the ink is dry. Why? Because it strikes me as so much more reasonable and worldly to be usually permissive, rather than censorious and reactive.

I had much rather be worldly than pure. The desire for purity tends to lead to persecution, it seems to me. What is the point of drawing a line in the sand unless you want to condemn others to the other side of that line?

Again, I’m not opposed to character or even strict definitions—but, as a rule, worldliness lends itself more easily to conversation. It seems to say “yes” more often than “no.”

The worldly relates, by its very definition, to the real world we live in; by contrast, purity is just a concept, one with no clear analogues to reality and one with a striking tendency to exclude common sense … and, too often, common decency.

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