New era, new challenges

It’s been almost exactly a year since I’ve written.  Part of the reason for my silence is that my identity is known to many of my readers, including my family. This had not been a problem, since it meant I could present my family and close friends with the ideas I’d been working through. But in recent times, as I’ve retreated back into yet another closet, I’ve been afraid that by writing I will out myself to people I’m not ready to be “out” to. 

Recently, however, I’ve gained other outlets for my work. Publications and venues where my voice and name are valued. I’ve also had a couple minor negative experiences with my work, where subjects or readers didn’t like how I presented the issues. It is through the experiences of recognition and repudiation that I have come to remember why I started this blog in the first place: to speak.

I started this blog when I was a scared agnostic teenager unsure how to process all the changes in my worldview. I wrote because writing—specifically writing to someone, even if I didn’t know who—was healing. It helped me face my challenges and resolve my struggles. Now I have new things to process, and once again I need to write. 

Since moving away from my home town two years ago I have fully come to terms with my atheism. I embrace Secular Humanism, and have been looking into Eastern philosophies which may fill the void of spirituality I still feel on occasion (more on that later).

However there have been new challenges, new identities I have had to come to terms with over the past year. The biggest one was my sexuality. I wrote over a year ago that I am bisexual. I talked about how I learned this once and for all by falling in love. I also noted, as a result of that experience, that it is possible to love two people at once. My partner agrees. Since that time we’ve become polyamorous, and as a result we’ve discovered new things about ourselves and our marriage.

For the uninitiated, polyamory is maintaining multiple romantic or sexual relationships at a time with the informed consent of everyone involved. Franklin Veaux, poly educator and co-author of More than Two with Eve Rickert, has a great FAQ sheet about polyamory on his blog. Even if you’re familiar with the topic, I recommend taking a look at it. For David and me, polyamory means that both of us are free to pursue romantic relationships with other people, within a set of agreements we’ve negotiated together.

We didn’t make the decision all at once. Instead, it came after about a year of continual and at times taxing conversation. However, once we decided to take the “poly plunge” the experiences, and improved communication skills were well worth it. It’s been a harrowing ride, but a good one. Here are some things I learned:

Being poly forced me to communicate clearly or suffer the consequences. When you have multiple romantic partners every choice about how you will spend your time, how you will approach a disagreement, even what disagreements are important, becomes more weighted. More partners also means more feelings, more priorities to balance, more personal negotiations, more time time management necessary, and more processing.  I realized that while before I had the option to avoid conflict through silence or avoidance, the same behavior, while problematic in the long-term, became problematic in the short-term as well. All of a sudden I was tempted to use one partner as an escape from my conflict with another. That, of course, would’ve been patently unfair to the first partner—who now may feel they are being literally abandoned, and to the second partner—who is being reduced to an escapist prop. I also couldn’t rely on a lack of fighting to indicate a healthy relationship. Instead, it became important to actively check in with my partners, to make sure they felt their needs were being met.

It could downright exhausting, but the payoff was improved communication, improved honesty, and improved personal integrity, as rigorous introspection and emotional interrogation became necessary to constructive communication with others. Even if my partner and I don’t remain poly for the rest of our marriage, I think our marriage will have improved because we were poly.

Being poly has connected me more deeply with my bisexual identity.  It is only through my poly lifestyle that I am able to fully explore my bisexuality. I have always had the capacity to love and be attracted to women, but only now do I have the opportunity to act on that capacity. While many poly people—especially those who are heterosexual—don’t consider themselves queer, for me, my ability to explore bisexuality is linked to my poly lifestyle, and thus I regard my being poly as a part of my queer identity.

This is not to say that I’m poly so that I can always have “one of each,” any more than someone who enjoys spending time with men and women platonically must be around both a man and woman at all times. As a bisexual person, I am aware that being poly is likely to be seen as confirmation of the worst stereotypes about bi people: that we’re greedy, indecisive, or unable to commit.

In fact, one can’t be greedy with something that is not a commodity. People are neither things nor commodities. And just because someone is dating me doesn’t mean they would date you if I weren’t around. You might not be their type. On the other hand, just because someone is dating me doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be open to dating you as well!

Finally, I consider myself very decisive. I decide who I want to be with at any given time, and when I am with someone I remain committed to promoting their happiness. I love big.

Being poly has made me more aware of queerphobia. Here’s the thing, if my sister got a new boyfriend my parents would want to know about it. If she chose to share that information it would be received as a gift—much the way news about a new baby, job, apartment, or house is gracious and happily received.

On the other hand if talk about a new boyfriend, I am met with “Why are you telling me this?” or “Shouldn’t those sorts of things be kept private?” My sister’s hypothetical boyfriend is seen as an “exciting new relationship.” My real boyfriend was received, by family, as “a sexual proclivity.”

Double standard?

Yes. And one that gays and lesbians have been dealing with for decades. I find it odd how the relationships of some people are celebrated publicly, while the relationships of others are reduced to their imagined sexual elements.

Always having my identity affirmed or accepted by my loved ones is a privilege. Ultimately, the hardest part about being poly hasn’t been jealousy, or the struggle to juggle multiple partners, or intra-dyad communication. It has been the inability to share my relationships with the most important people in my life: my family. When I met my last partner I told some family members, was received with varying degrees of disapproval, and ultimately felt it best to avoid telling the rest so that my joy would not be extinguished by a wet blanket. When my new partner and I started going through difficulties, I couldn’t turn to those whose opinions I value most for wisdom or comfort. And when that relationship ended and my heart was breaking, there was only David to hold me while I cried. He was fantastically supportive, and I’m more grateful for him than ever.

Many people aren’t so lucky. Gay and lesbian people commonly struggle to have their relationships accepted by their family. Until now, I enjoyed the privilege of both familial and social acceptance. For the most part I still enjoy it, as part of  a heterosexual dyad. However the experience of having my poly identity disapproved of by my family, even mildly, has brought me to a place of deeper empathy with my fellow queer folk who have had to face much, much worse.

So Here’s Something Crazy…

You’re all still here!

I haven’t written here for a few reasons: I got tired. I got lazy. I stumbled across other places where my voice is valued. I got used to signing my birth name to pieces, and wished to continue writing in spaces where I could receive credit and build a body of work.

So I finally came back here thinking I would pen a farewell post and be done with it. I could open a new blog under my own name, start from scratch. But I didn’t want to leave all this behind. All of you. All the growth and love, and change represented in this blog.

So I’m going to keep writing. Rarely and occasionally. But I will. Thank you for sticking around :).

Coming Out II

I am bisexual. It still feels a little strange to say, but I suppose this realization has been sneaking up on me for years. I said it out loud for the first time less than three months ago. Although I’ve told my family and close friends I don’t have much of a “coming out” story, perhaps because I never really felt like I was inside something. I don’t remember ever being closeted or consciously denying my sexuality. By the time this part of my identity beat its way to the front of my consciousness, I was at least comfortable enough with it to own it proudly. None of my close friends or family members were surprised, which was convenient. I, however, was a bit shaken by my own lack of self-awareness, and the way I came face-to-face with sexuality has been emotionally taxing. You see, I fell in love.

The short version (calculated to maintain everyone’s privacy, including my own) goes approximately like this: Last winter I met a kind, beautiful, talented woman and we became friends. One night, over drinks, I told her I was bisexual, and we confessed to having feelings for one another. Given our relational circumstances (we both have loving partners), we are trying to learn how to remain friends. This learning process includes being open and honest with one another and with our mates, who have been supportive and understanding of us and the situation.

This experience raised many questions for me about my identity and current values. The resultant struggle reminds me that relational values I was raised with as a result of my Christian upbringing–specifically heteronormativity, sexual monogamy, emotional monogamy, “purity,” and marital completion–continue to affect my thinking today.

Heteronormativity

Wikipedia defines heteronormativity as, the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life. It asserts that heterosexuality is the only sexual orientation or only norm, and states that sexual and marital relations are most (or only) fitting between people of opposite sexes.” In other words, to be heterosexual is to be normal, and any other orientation is abnormal, strange, or deviant. I have always felt normal.

Despite having several same-sex attractions throughout my childhood and adolescence, it never occurred to me that I was bisexual until I left my home town for Public College. As someone who greatly values introspection, the efficiency with which I suppressed this part of myself unsettles me. I wonder now if this personal unawareness (at best) or self-deception (at worst), was the result of growing up in an environment so steeped in heteronormativity that I subconsciously internalized its attendant attitudes before I even hit puberty.

Heteronormativity invalidates same sex attractions, and this may be why I so readily shrugged off my feelings for girls at ages six, ten, fourteen, and seventeen, in favor of my “normal” boy crushes at ages five, eleven, thirteen, and sixteen. I only acknowledged my feelings half the time, even to myself.

My denominational school and home church had little to say about sexual orientation. However, the idea still pervaded my academy peer group that gay men were anomalous little people, defined by the quirk of their childhood, abuse, or spiritual cross which made them crave other men, and could only be managed through deep spirituality, heterosexual marriage, or celibacy. Lesbians,

bisexuals, and gender queer individuals were only rarely acknowledged as practitioners of “the gay lifestyle’s” many deviant subsets.

During my late high school and early college years I began to criticize the greater Adventist establishment for its homophobia, but my own bi-phobic attitudes persisted. I privately believed the women were confused by too much experimentation, the men in denial of their homosexuality, and that for the sake of everyone else’s love-life and in the interest of public health, these so-called ‘bisexuals’ needed to ‘pick a team.’

Not me, of course. I liked men.

Sexual Monogamy

I have been in the same monogamous relationship since my senior year in academy. Until recently I assumed that unless and until it ended, it would be my only romantic and sexual relationship. You could say I had a “married mindset” or “relationship blinders.” I suspect this long term relationship, combined with my heteronormative attitudes, enabled me to further suppress or disregard my same-sex attractions.

Once I transferred to Public College, my blinders were severely challenged by interaction with members of the polyamorous community. There’s a great crash course in polyamory available here, but essentially polyamory is the practice of maintaining more than one romantic relationship with the informed consent of everyone involved. It differs from swinging in that it focuses on relationships, not sex. It differs from polygamy in that poly relationships may have any configuration of men and women, any of whom may have multiple partners (visually, imagine the difference between a spoked wheel and a branching tree or polygon). The unconventional nature of poly relationships has encouraged the development of strong communication values within poly culture, such that open communication, honesty, the informed consent of everyone involved, and fidelity to the agreements made within the relationship are cornerstones of poly-ethics.

My exposure to members of the poly community led me to change my definition of “cheating.” “Cheating” is usually shorthand for “having sex with someone else,” or indicates somehow acting on sexual or romantic feelings for someone other than one’s partner. However, a more inclusive definition is “breaching the terms of the relationship,” because it acknowledges the boundaries of relationships which do not emphasize sexuality as an exclusive property. Under this definition, as with games and trade, cheating is simply breaking the rules. In an adult relationship, the rules are defined by the people involved and are subject to change as they see fit.

Without a religious framework, and in the absence of conclusive research, there seems no reason to regard hetero monogamy as the only legitimate relationship model (at least when comparing ideals). Furthermore, the apparently healthy dating and marriage relationships of people like my friend Lark stand in stark contrast to everything I was conditioned to expect of people who deviate from that model. I only know four polyamorous couples and two other poly individuals, but none of them are disease ridden, they do not seem emotionally unstable, only one (to my knowledge) was a victim of abuse, and their relationships—far from being consumed by contempt or jealousy—appear quite loving.

When I saw for myself that alternative relationship models could yield functional, happy romances, I also realized that my partner and I could renegotiate the terms of our relationship, and it was therefore possible that I could yet have another sexual partner. I am quite satisfied with David, but the possibility did change the way I looked at the attractive and interesting people around me.

Emotional Monogamy

I was raised to believe that it is the emotions indicated by extramarital romantic behavior which defines that behavior as “cheating.” This reasoning carries three implicit assumptions:

  1. Every action traditionally associated with romance—be it hand-holding or sexual intercourse—is precipitated by romantic emotions.
  2. Nursing or acting upon romantic emotions outside your relationship constitutes infidelity because…
  3. Fidelity is defined by monogamy.

In other words, relationships are for two, and people’s hearts stray before their bodies do, so the best way to avoid sexual infidelity (i.e. maintain sexual monogamy) is to enforce stringent emotional boundaries with anyone you could realistically be attracted to, thus adopting a “married mindset” or “relationship blinders.”

Some people take the notion of emotional monogamy a step farther. They argue that blinders are a natural side effect of a truly healthy relationship. In other words, truly happy couples do not even notice the romantic potential of attractive and interesting people outside their relationship, but instead are wholly focused on one another.

This vision of emotional monogamy as an indicator of relational health seems unrealistic to me now for a few reasons. Firstly, all relationships go through warming and cooling cycles, meaning sometimes, either or both parties will be less attracted to their partner than at other times. During a cooling cycle it is natural to notice the romantic potential in others. (Note: There is an important

distinction between attraction and intent to pursue.) A second reason this notion is unrealistic ties into what I call the myth of…

Marital Completion

Nowhere is the myth of marital completion more iconically portrayed than in the rom-com classic Jerry Maguire (1996). People still long for a romance in which they are completed; where a firecracker sex life continuously explodes from a well of deep-seated passion which is supported by an almost spiritual sense of companionship. To say nothing of the intellectual challenge and monetary stability provided by this ideal partner. I think these are all wonderful qualities to look for in a mate, but realistically speaking, no one person can fulfill all of another person’s desires. And expecting complete fulfillment from another human being is not romantic, it’s codependent.

This is why we have friends, and the fact that people simultaneously maintain friendships and romances demonstrates that complete emotional monogamy is unnecessary to a healthy romance, perhaps even detrimental. My partner is a wonderful man, but it would be unfair of me to expect him to engage me in lively political discussions, like my friend Aiden; enjoy thrift shopping, like my friend Martina; and be a great performing artist, like my friend Keiko. These friends fulfill different desires, and my love for any one of them does not threaten my love for the others or my partner. However, the myth of marital completion tells people they shouldn’t need other sources of companionship. This notion has been updated in the last twenty-odd years to allow men to have their “boys” and women to have “girl friends,” but is still so steeped in heteronormativity that it does not acknowledge how extramarital companionship may be valuable across genders, even amongst heterosexual men and women. As a result, the male best friend is looked upon with suspicion unless he’s gay, and the woman who is “like a sister to him” is assumed to be a secret rival. Furthermore, if an individual is romantically drawn to someone other than their mate, they’re encouraged to examine their relationship to see what “missing” element they’re subconsciously searching for. In the Adventist community I was raised in, couples were conditioned to see extramarital attractions as a sign of marital fracture, which are only fully healed by praying together for god to strengthen their commitment. Notions of polyamory are anathema to most of American evangelicalism, and the practice of maintaining multiple sexual or romantic relationships flies in the face of purity culture. But if I’ve learned anything in the last few months, I have learned that it is possible to be drawn into another person even when your first relationship is going well, even when the sex is good, and the housework is done, and there’s time to talk before bed. It is possible to love two people at once. ♦

I don’t want to talk about Ferguson

I have no desire to write about Ferguson. None.

As a black woman the whole situation breaks my heart and frustrates me, but it does not surprise me in the least. It does, however, make me wonder if it is worth it to bring a son into a world that will see my child as worthy canon fodder the moment he steps out of line. (After all, who cares about your humanity once you do a little pot or commit theft?) I have been Facebooking and tweeting about the shooting since it happened and incidentally ran into some very good links on the topic. Instead of adding my own disgruntlement to the din, I’m simply going to link those.

A Timeline

USA Today Timeline: Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

Some articles and blogs

Ferguson police chief: Officer didn’t stop Brown as robbery suspect by Greg Botelho and Don Lemon

Lawsplainer: How Mike Brown’s Alleged Robbery Of A Liquor Store Matters, And How It Doesn’t by Ken White

Select quote: “Everyone has rights, or no one has rights.”

(Actually, just read everything on Pophat related to Ferguson. Seriously.)

A New Beginning (Podcast) with Jason Hines and Lily Archer Hines

Some friends of mine were discussing on Facebook…

what white people can do to help fight racism. One person, a woman of color, was asked for her input and gave a lengthy reply. I thought it was pretty good, and so am sharing it here. The following (edited to maintain the privacy of the writer) is in response to the question “What can I do that will matter in the fight against racism?” and was originally posed (and answered)  by this article (read it!).

  1. Be an advocate. You did this quite well [at our work place] by bringing up topics and concerns in staff meetings that I was reluctant to voice precisely because I am a black woman. When you saw things which appeared to have negative implications racially or with regards to sex or gender, you spoke up. And because you were a white male, it would have been extremely difficult to dismiss your words by claiming they stemmed from bitterness or anger.

  2. Listen. This is active…I remember when we were [in college] together and I shared a song called “I am not my hair” which had a huge impact on me as a black woman with natural hair. You, among others, dismissed it as a weird, nichey song comparable to a lament about pale skin from a Scandinavian. I did not have a chance to explain the complexity and cultural impact of the hair wars both within and without the black community, and thus felt my experience was being marginalized and discounted. This was one of many instances where my experience as a black person was marginalized without being actively discriminated against. Most prejudice does not involve white hoods or mustache twirling. However, if someone in that dorm room had chosen to listen to me, they would’ve likely become a better advocate.

  3. Remember that opportunities to be an advocate are numerous, even daily. Consider for a moment the following situations: a woman in your workplace is asked to exchange her afro/dreads/twists/bantu knots for a more “professional” hairstyle. Your office holds a date auction in which a level of participation is mandated. Your paper is covering a story which touches on drugs, poverty, or “inner-city problems.” Your church is holding a food drive/clothing drive/charity event in a neighborhood populated primarily by racial/ethnic minorities. All of these situations, when met with the awareness of a good listener, are opportunities to be an advocate.

  4. Seek out the opinions of minorities in your workplace, church, community, etc. Let the person know that while you do not expect them to act as the spokesperson for their subgroup, you recognize they may have a different experience from yours, and thus a perspective which could be valuable to the team. Then, if you find yourself repeating their ideas, give credit where it’s due.

  5. Pick an issue and learn about it. The prosecution of drug crimes, police brutality, gentrification, welfare, affirmative action. They all sound scary but ignorance and misinformation are scarier. Pick an issue being discussed in your community…educate yourself about it, then share your findings with your community and vote accordingly. Do not underestimate the power of your vote. (This will also make you a better advocate.)

  6. Join a group that works to combat issues of prejudice, or that works with a community often discriminated against. Poverty and race often (somewhat unfortunately) serve as proxies for each other in community outreach, so if you’re particularly concerned with race it’s not as though you have to join your local NAACP chapter. (Although, hey, why not?) Practical contact with marginalized communities through work at the local shelter, soup kitchen, public health concern, halfway house, etc. will make you more aware, and offer the opportunity to tangibly serve. (Talking to a social worker or public school educator about local needs can help get you started.)

  7. Join in solidarity. Tweet about Ferguson. Repost articles. Join a protest. Just show, somehow, that you give a damn. (Again, this is something you’ve already done quite well.)Anyway, this became a book somehow so I’m going to stop. I hope it was useful and came across the way it was intended: in the spirit of friendliness (and frankly, excitement that you asked for my input).

A closing meme

Photo: Ever questioned the "practicality" of fiction, specifically genre fiction? Well, here's one answer.

And that’s all she wrote, folks.

Coming Out I

It has been over a month since I last posted. The truth is, I’ve had significant developments in my personal and professional life which have prevented me from keeping this blog up to date. I return to it now from a sense of need. I am a writer, and therefore, writing is not just what I do, it is how I process the world around me, as well a my own thoughts and experiences. Recently, my experiences have led me to a personal realization which, while generally unsurprising to those closest to me, has caused me a great deal of emotional upheaval. Without even fully realizing it I have been living in two closets; and unlike the skeptic’s closet, this one has taken me by surprise.

I’ll cut to the chase: I am bisexual.

For years I have said I was straight. As I grew older I admitted to being attracted to some women, but always maintained that I only had “the occasional girl-crush,” was “mostly straight,” or described my sexuality in terms of percentages. “I’m 70% straight,” I’d say. Then, “I’m 60% straight.” Finally I said “I have some bisexual tendencies.” However, it was not until a friend of mine put the bug in my ear that I finally began to accept my orientation.

The infinity heart is a popular symbol of polyamory.

Lark is pansexual and polyamorous. “Pansexual” means that she does not consider sex or gender identity to be exclusionary criteria when choosing sexual partners. Lark’s attractions are not significantly limited by sex or gender and so potential partners may be men, women, intergender, agender, transgender, transsexual, or intersex. This does not mean she does not have preferences, or that she sexually desires every individual she meets, only that her sexual and romantic preferences are determined by different criteria than most people.

“Polyamorous” means that Lark is capable of maintaining multiple sexual or romantic relationships at a given time. There are many different ways to practice polyamory, but in Lark’s case, she has a primary partner and also participates in other sexual or romantic relationships with the knowledge and consent of both her partner and the individuals with whom she is involved.

Back in June I went out to lunch with Lark and her boyfriend, Benedict. Unsurprisingly, the conversation turned to sexuality, and I danced around the ambiguity of my own orientation, claiming that my lack of sexual experience with women barred me from considering myself bisexual. “After all,” I said, “I don’t even know if I like sex with women, so how could I be bi-sexual?” Lark posed a simple question:

“Before you had sex with a man did you know you would like it?”

“Well…” I took a moment to think about it, “no.”

“Then why would women be any different?”

Over sandwiches and fries, and then as we walked about campus, Lark and Benedict showed me that I was falling into an old trap set for gays and lesbians for decades. How many times has the gay boy been told he just needs to “give women a try”? How many times has the lesbian been told she “just hasn’t met the right man”? And yet both of them may know where their attractions lie even before their first sexual encounter. In the same way we take for granted the desire for prince charming in the little girl who fancies herself a princess, it is reasonable to assume that gay and lesbian individuals are capable of knowing their orientation, even in the absence of experimentation.

Bisexual moon symbol

And so it is with me.

I have never had a sexual relationship with a woman, but I know my capacity to love a woman is equal to my capacity to love a man. In fact, when I most recently visited my childhood home to attend the college graduation of some friends, I began confessing my bisexuality to close friends. No one was surprised.

Looking back I suppose there were signs. My fascination with gender, sexuality, and alternative relational models stretches back to my  childhood. My first female attractions date back to age six or seven. When I recounted my “crush history” with my partner, David, he looked me in the eye and seriously asked, “why did you ever think you were straight?”

I have always been attracted to two genders. I realized this fully just over two months ago. In the last two months this realization, combined with recent personal circumstances, has changed the way I relate to other people, how I evaluate my childhood, and how I understand and relate to myself.

Cara

I’m writing this blog because it’s a rock in my shoe. It’s a pebble, knocking around my brain and leaving me unable to focus on anything else. You see, I just finished a book called Pure, by Terra ElanMcVoy. When I first saw the bright yellow cover with the big symbolic daisy on the front I was skeptical. By the time I finished reading the back cover I knew I was going to leave it on the shelf. The teaser was about a group of five young high school girls, all with big, blingy purity rings, and the deep, heartfelt, syrupy promises they made to each other and to god. Naturally, the central conflict in the book revolves around the challenge to this promise represented by one girl’s decision to date. Every other book I’ve ever read about these kinds of promises has been too preachy to bear. I never went in for purity rings, even when I was a Christian. I put the book back.

Ten minutes later I pulled it off the shelf again. Thirty minutes later I left the library with it in hand. I finished the book just over an hour ago.

SPOILER ALERT.

THE FOLLOWING DISCUSSION REVEALS THE MAJOR PLOT POINTS OF THE BOOK.

It wasn’t what I expected. The main conflict wasn’t over dating, or even some reckless sexual decision made by the token “bad girl.” It was the thoughtful decision of a supporting character which threw the delicate world of these high school girls in peril. After discussing it for weeks, Cara and her long-term boyfriend, Michael, decide to have sex. It a safe, consensual act; an act that only brings them closer as a couple. But it involves Cara breaking her promise to abstain from sex until marriage, symbolized by the purity ring her brother presented to her years ago.

One of her friends shuns her, unable to condone even friendship with a girl who has “broken her vow.” The friendship group splinters. Most tragically, one of the girls tells a youth group leader, who in turn tells her parents. Her eldest brother, the one who presented her with the purity ring, is “crushed.” Together he and her other two brothers smash up Michael’s car with baseball bats, and spray-paint a threat to “castrate him like a horse.” Cara’s parents announce that she has broken their trust and until further notice is under complete lockdown. She can only go to school and back home. She may not use the telephone, her cell phone is confiscated, and her computer privileges are terminated. She is also forbidden to see Michael again.

As with most star-crossed lovers, things end badly between Cara and Michael. Michael, who is also a young teenager, is too scared to fight for Cara in the face of property destruction and physical threats from three older guys known for physically punishing people who get on their bad side. Cara is disappointed in Michael for not trying harder to reach out to her in the aftermath of her parent’s judgment. Their relationship, one which only days ago had held naïvely sincere promises of marriage, effectively fizzles out.

The story ultimately isn’t about Cara and Michael. It’s about the girls. It’s about the meaning of purity, and the significance of the promises we make to ourselves, to one another, and to god. It is also about how people grow and change, and how occasionally their promises must change with them. The girls are reunited, and ultimately decide that their promises about their bodies are separate from their commitment as friends.

The story is refreshingly nuanced and ends beautifully, but I can’t appreciate it because all I can think is “What about Michael?”

Michael isn’t a man. He’s a kid, a kid who loved a girl and who dared to express that love physically. Having been threatened with violence, and stripped of any opportunity to see his love again (he goes to a different school), it’s not surprising he fades out of the picture. You can’t really blame him. They’re too young to marry, too young to run away, there’s nothing to be done. Cara’s brothers and parents effectively accomplished their goal of separating them, what I can’t understand is why?

Why was it so important that Cara never see Michael again? Why was it so heartbreaking/enraging/disappointing to her brothers and parents that Cara chose to have sex? What do they hope to accomplish by removing their daughter from a loving, supportive relationship? What are they so afraid of?

When I was younger the answers to these questions revolved around disease, pregnancy, the innate sexual immorality of men, and abortion; but now, with my knowledge of fluid bonding, birth control, and feminism those reasons don’t cut it anymore, and the whole story surrounding the early termination of what was a beautiful first love seems brutal, unnecessary, and sad. I suppose this story really hits home because I know it isn’t “just fiction.” I know Cara in in real life. She is a grandmother, an acquaintance, and a childhood friend. I know that in at least one case, she never found another Michael, just cheep imitations who were strong enough to hold her, but never loved her quite as well.

♦♦♦

There’s a moment in the book where the narrating character is talking with Cara about the girl who shunned her. Cara displays a surprising level of insight:

“She’s still mad at you, though.”

“Well, she probably should be.” This takes me by surprise, and Cara sees it. “I did something she thinks isn’t just, you know, bad, but is totally immoral and against God,” she explains. “Totally unforgiveable.

“But nothing is—”

She shakes her head. “That’s according to you and me. But to my brothers in their way, to Morgan in hers, to a lot of other people, it’s not. They’ve got their rules—whatever they are. They need them. And even though I’ve seen it differently, I can’t necessarily ask them to change their own worldview. The way that makes things work for them.”

This was the first time in the story when I felt compelled to have any sympathy for Cara’s brothers, for her parents, and for Morgan, the friend who shunned her. Perhaps some people—people like Cara’s brothers, parents, and ex-friend—need absolute worldviews to make sense of the world, even if the only “absolute” is that in this moment, they are right. Perhaps for some people, to be stripped of certainty is to be stripped of the ability to function. Perhaps their minds protect them from complete world-collapse by resisting certain ideas, and this is okay. Is thinking of them this way an exercise is empathy, arrogance, or hopelessness? On some level, am I this way too?

Pure created a lot of feelings for me which I’m not sure I can wrap up into a neat conclusion:

I’m angry at how many young men and women have been hurt by (to my mind) misguided parents and guardians who do not trust them to make important decisions about their own bodies (body shame, slut shame, and the manhood myth take many forms).

I’m remembering my own Cara moment—much less tragic, since I was twenty at the time and there was really nothing my parents could do but express disappointment.

I’m intrigued by the suggestion in the book that for devoutly Christian girls, prayer and Bible study were unable to provide clear-cut answers about sexual purity.

I’m recalling a time when my school’s sex education furnished me with negative, fearful notions about men, which despite great progress, continue to haunt my marriage.

I’m thinking about the kind of parent I want to be one day, and what I will teach my own children about love.♦

“There is a God”: My Disappointing Introduction to Antony Flew

I recently finished reading There is a God by Antony Flew (HarperOne, 2007), at the suggestion of my dad. I don’t usually read books in defense of god because I find that they tend to rehash the same arguments, and I find them unconvincing each time. But this book by Antony Flew was supposed to be different. Flew, who passed away in 2010 at the age of eighty-seven, was not an apologist, or even a Christian for most of his life. He made his career as an atheist philosopher, wrote several books and essays in defense of rationalism, and even engaged in public debate with theists on a number of occasions.

His notable ideas include “No True Scotsman,” the term he coined for the ad hoc logical fallacy. He also coined the term “death by a thousand qualifications,” a phrase drawn from a section of his essay, Theology and Falsification (1950), commonly known as “the parable of the gardener.” In this parable, Flew describes a claim that must be qualified so many times to guard against contrary evidence, that it entirely loses its original meaning.

But after more than a half-century of dedicated rationalist advocacy, Flew reversed his position, declaring that he had become a deist. There is a God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind was published three years later drawing bewilderment, frustration, and even vitriol from prominent atheists, and smug, almost giddy delight from Christian apologists. (Christianity received a couple unsupported shout-outs throughout the book, which frankly, came across as pandering to a group he explicitly failed to join with his 2004 declaration, but which was all too willing to defend him from newly made enemies in the rationalist camp.)

When my dad suggested the book it was clear to me that it would not be an ordinary trip down the catalogue of apologist mainstays. I borrowed it at once and finished it in three days. I was disappointed.

Flew drew a lot of criticism for what some termed a Pascalian death-bed hedge bet. Some people even went so far as to suggest his reversal was the result of his declining state of mind (Flew eventually passed away from dementia), or that the book was the fruit of his co-author’s efforts to take advantage of him. All of these accusations seem a bit too easy to me. It is a convenient bit of rhetoric, when the elderly leader of a movement takes leave of his role, to claim he has also taken leave of his senses. If nothing else, these claims were made by people who did not have access to any special knowledge of Mr. Flew’s mental health, and frankly, are often delivered in such poor taste as to make me question their motive: cool analysis of a shocking situation, or the emotional lashing-out of spurned admirers.

I am too young, both in years and to rationalist philosophy, to have developed an attachment to Antony Flew’s previous body of work. My reasons for being disappointed with his arguments for god are simple: they aren’t very good.

The book itself is little more than a trip down memory lane wherein he repents of his former works, some musings on the burden of proof, a rehashing of the fine-tuning argument, and a long-winded reminder that science has not yet discovered what preceded the big bang and the question of “first causes” remains as relevant today as it was in the days of Aquinas. He takes the time to contextualize the question of god’s existence as a philosophical one, claiming that it is a question beyond scientific answer, but his philosophical argument for god’s existence is lackluster at best.

On the Limits of Science

Antony Flew is not the first person to assert that the question of god’s existence is unanswerable by science. This is one point on which I have yet to form a comprehensive opinion. On hand, the gods posited by theists are mystical entities, outside of and beyond the laws of nature. Given that science is the process by which nature is observed and described, theist gods definitionally falls outside of its purview. Similarly, one might argue that because god exists outside the universe, and science has not yet developed a method of seeing “beyond the universe” (whatever that may mean), the realm of god is thus beyond science. The boundaries of the universe are impenetrable from the inside. Another argument asserts that god affects the universe on a spiritual plane, not on the physical plane, and thus the impact of god’s intervention cannot be scientifically measured.

On the other hand, if by ‘god’ we mean not a trans-cosmic personality, but the “first cause,” or the original spark which made the universe bang into existence, scientific inquiry could yet lift the veil on the beginning of time. What we find there might be another natural system, or an intelligence, or a paradox. It may provide the final answer or simply introduce a new set of questions. It is difficult to imagine an ultimate beginning which does not beg further explanation.

Whatever we find before time, I believe it will demand our respect but be no more deserving of our worship or servitude than the earth, the laws of physics or the rainclouds.

On Fine Tuning

Many other people have written more clearly and comprehensively on the challenges to the fine-tuning argument than I wish to at this time. I’ll link some of their work below. To me, however, the most immediately compelling argument against an intelligently fine-tuned universe is a story my friend Jodi told me to explain why animals seem to suit their environments:

“Imagine a sentient puddle,” she said. “Stay with me…imagine that after a rainstorm there is a puddle in a pothole that for reasons unimportant to this story has achieved sentience. The puddle looks at its pothole and says, “Wow, this pothole is perfect! Every crack, every crevice accommodates my shape perfectly! What are the chances that I just happen to fit here? Why, it must have been designed just for me!”

The puddle thinks it exists apart from the pothole, and that the only way it could fit is if the pothole were designed for it. But we know it was the puddle which was made by the pothole. It’s shape is defined by the shape of the pothole. Likewise, animals, over millions of years, are defined by their environment. Nature is not suited to life, life is suited to nature, or it ceases to be.

It is easy for me to extend this argument to the universe. However improbable a life-sustaining universe may be (and sure, it is quite improbable), it logically follows that the life which thrives in the universe is that which is best suited to the conditions of the universe, or else it would cease to be (if it ever were at all). It is not the universe which is made for us, but we who were made by the universe.

I also wonder, though I’m no scientist, if life as we understand it is necessarily the only variety which could have existed. Perhaps a universe with different rules, while entirely precluding life and a world like ours, would hone natural wonders of its own.

More on Fine-Tuning

On the Sense of the Order of the Universe

Attendant to the fine-tuning argument is the notion that the universe operates in an organized manner. It makes sense to us, appeals to our intellectual sense of order, and it follows that something which appeals to our intellectual sense of order must be the product of an organized intellect: hence “intelligent design.” I’ve never been very impressed with intelligent design, perhaps because most of its proponents are unwilling to concede its limits. It is not science; it is not a testable hypothesis but a philosophical argument. As a philosophical argument it is worth some consideration, however, there are other worthy ideas which also deserve consideration.

Let’s consider for a moment that humans are hardwired to see patterns. The ability to notice repetition, draw lines between cause and effect, and make predictions based on those lines have aided our species’ survival. Let us also consider that these abilities are at the foundation of what we consider logic.

Several different conclusions may now be considered:

Perhaps the universe seems logical only to those creatures which thrive in the universe. Perhaps our less-suited forbearers died in confusion long ago.

Perhaps the universe is not objectively ordered (in the realm of all possible universes), but our minds impose order upon the universe as we continue to flex mental muscles originally furnished by evolution as we caught onto the rhythm of the waves or learned to predict the next sweep of a crocodile’s tail.

Perhaps the universe makes sense to us precisely because we are a product of the universe. Just as we are physically suited to an environment possessing the exact natural laws as the one we inhabit (Why would we develop any other way?), perhaps we are intellectually suited as well. Perhaps every species senses a greater harmony with the cosmos precisely because we are of it, and it is in us.

♦ ♦ ♦

There is a God did one thing for me for which I am very grateful: it made me stop and think about my position. Flew’s reputation provided him with enough credibility in my eyes for me to approach the question of god’s existence with a fresh mind. With each page I expected to be challenged, to have my world upended. I awaited the brilliant arguments which had turned around this career atheist with eager anticipation. I was disappointed when they did not come, but the time I spent waiting was honest and more open-minded than I have allowed myself to be for awhile. My views may not have undergone any drastic changes, but my reasoning was refreshed.♦