Review: A Special Illumination: Authority, Inspiration and Heresy in Gay Spirituality

by Rollan McCleary

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Also on this website:

Toby Johnson's books:

GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness

GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe

SECRET MATTER: updated, revised & expanded edition from Lethe Press with Afterword by Mark Jordan

GETTING LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE: A romance novel set in the 1980s and the 1890s.

THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil

TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams

CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story


About ordering

Books on Gay Spirituality:

White Crane Gay Spirituality Series

  Articles and Excerpts:

Read Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness

Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"

The Simple Answer to the Gay Marriage Debate

Why gay people should NOT Marry

Wedding Cake Liberation

Gay Marriage in Texas

What's ironic

Shame on the American People

The "highest form of love"

Second March on Washington

A Bifurcation of Gay Spirituality

 The cause of homosexuality

The origins of homophobia

Q&A about Jungian ideas in gay consciousness

What is homosexuality?

What is Gay Spirituality?

My three messages

What Jesus said about Gay Rights

Queering religion

Common Experiences Unique to Gay Men

Is there a "uniquely gay perspective"?

The purpose of homosexuality

The Reincarnation of Edward Carpenter

The Gay Succession

Interview on the Nature of Homosexuality

What the Bible Says about Homosexuality

Mesosexual Ideal for Straight Men

Varieties of Gay Spirituality

Waves of Gay Liberation Activity

Why Gay Spirituality: Spirituality as Artistic Medium

Easton Mountain Retreat Center

Andrew Harvey & Spiritual Activism

The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the  "Statement of Spirituality"

"It's Always About You"

The myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

Joseph Campbell's description of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.

You're Not A Wave

What is Enlightenment?

What is reincarnation?

How many lifetimes in an ego?

Emptiness & Religious Ideas

Experiencing experiencing experiencing

Going into the Light

Meditations for a Funeral

Meditation Practice

The way to get to heaven

Buddha's father was right

Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal

The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika

Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva

John Boswell was Immanuel Kant

The Two Loves

Curious Bodies

What Toby Johnson Believes

The Joseph Campbell Connection

Campbell & The Pre/Trans Fallacy

The Nature of Religion

What's true about Religion

Being Gay is a Blessing

Drawing Long Straws

Freedom of Religion

The Gay Agenda

Gay Saintliness

Gay Spiritual Functions

The subtle workings of the spirit in gay men's lives.

The Sinfulness of Homosexuality

Proposal for a study of gay nondualism

Priestly Sexuality

 "The Evolution of Gay Identity"

"St. John of the Cross &
the Dark Night of the Soul."

 Eckhart's Eye

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Religious Articulations of the Secret

The Collective Unconscious

Driving as Spiritual Practice


Historicity as Myth


No Stealing

Next Step in Evolution

The New Myth

The Moulting of the Holy Ghost

Gaia is a Bodhisattva

The Hero's Journey as archetype

Marian Doctrines: Immaculate Conception & Assumption

Teenage Prostitution and the Nature of Evil

Allah Hu: "God is present here"
Adam and Steve

The Life is in the Blood

Gay retirement and the "freelance monastery"

Seeing with Different Eyes

The mystical experience at the Servites'  Castle in Riverside

The Great Dance according to C.S.Lewis

The Techniques Of The World Saviors

Part 1: Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby
Part 2:
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Part 3:
Jesus and the Resurrection
Part 4:
A Course in Miracles

The Secret of the Clear Light

Understanding the Clear Light

Mobius Strip

Finding Your Tiger Face

How Gay Souls Get Reincarnated

In honor of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Karellen was a homosexual

About Alien Abduction

What are you looking for in a gay science fiction novel?

The D.A.F.O.D.I.L. Alliance

More about Gay Mental Health

Psych Tech Training

The Rainbow Flag

Ideas for gay mythic stories

Kip and Toby, Activists

Toby's friend and nicknamesake Toby Marotta.

Harry Hay, Founder of the gay movement

About Hay and The New Myth

About Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first man to really "come out"

About Michael Talbot, gay mystic

About Fr. Bernard Lynch

About Richard Baltzell

About Guy Mannheimer

About David Weyrauch

About Dennis Paddie

About Ask the Fire

About Arthur Evans

About Christopher Larkin

About Sterling Houston

About Michael Stevens

Our friend Tom Nash

Book Reviews

Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook

Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer

The Way Out by Christopher L  Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson

Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry

Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr

Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois

Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson

Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low

Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman

The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman

Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor

Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine

The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada

The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook

The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther

The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel

Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak

Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez

Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr

Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman

Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano

The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo

The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar

Occam’s Razor by David Duncan

Grace and Demion by Mel White

Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso

The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery

The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass

Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy and Communication by Tim Clausen

War Between Materialism and Spiritual by Jean-Michel Bitar

The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal

Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal

The Invitation to Love by Darren Pierre

Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration by Daniel A Helminiak

A Walk with Four Spiritual Guides by Andrew Harvey

Can Christians Be Saved? by Stephenson & Rhodes

The Lost Secrets of the Ancient Mystery Schools by Stephenson & Rhodes

Keys to Spiritual Being by Adrian Ravarour

In Walt We Trust by John Marsh

Solomon's Tantric Song by Rollan McCleary

Scissors, Paper, Rock by Fenton Johnson

The View from Outside

A Special Illumination-McCleary

A Special Illumination:

Authority, Inspiration and Heresy in Gay Spirituality

By Rollan McCleary

Equinox Publishing Ltd.
370 pages, Trade paperback, $24.95

Available from

5 stars

Reviewed by Toby Johnson, author of Gay Spirituality: Gay Identity and the Transformation of Human Consciousness

This is a worthwhile and important book. It represents a sort of official recognition of the place of the stream of thought in Western culture and specifically in modern gay culture that’s called “gay spirituality.” In the Introduction, Australian Rollan McCleary argues that homosexuals have been influential throughout the history of culture and religion, and so as homosexuality came out as gay in the modern times, the spiritual side of gay consciousness has also become visible. Up to now, however, the consciousness of an out gay religiousness has been shadowed by the intensely secular and political nature of Gay Liberation and has been unwelcome in religious circles and taken as an affront to religion rather than a serious stream of thought in human consciousness that address the nature of the self, of vision, and of ethics. This has resulted, McCleary says, in the field of gay spirituality going unexamined, unassessed, and unorganized.

A Special Illumination sets out to remedy that by surveying the whole field, observing interweaving themes, critiquing conflicts and inconsistencies, and seeking to uncover a fundamental cohesion. Not only does he consider the “new paradigm” threads (like Christian de la Huerta, Will Roscoe, or myself), he also includes traditional religion and churches.

This is a huge task. The study McCleary set for himself has so many parts and so many themes and so many ideas to consider and comment on. The result is impressive and, I think, generally successful. The book suffers from its origins as a doctoral thesis. There are too many footnotes and too many references commenting on similarities in one thinker’s ideas, for instance, with other writers so that it’s hard to distinguish just which writer he’s talking about. There’s an academic convention of identifying the various subjects of the analysis by their footnoted last names that assumes that the reader should know who all these various writers and principals are and what they’ve done or written about. And there’s a personally critical tone that seems acceptable in a dissertation, addressed only to a few members of one’s committee, to demonstrate the perspicacity of one’s research, but not in a book addressed to the public; the author occasionally pokes jabs or reports unflattering personal dish about his subjects.

The style, however, is pleasantly not academic; there are no clumsy passive constructions or strings of jargon. McCleary doesn’t write much about himself as a character in the field of gay spirituality, but he does use the first person pronoun, and inserts his personal opinions. By and large the book is very readable and interesting, if at times a little overwhelming with its scholarship and breadth.

A theme that runs through the book involves the word queer and the constructionist/essentialist debate and applicability and inapplicability to spirituality. Queer appeals to a youthfully disaffected segment of the homosexual population for its militancy, shock value, and currency. It’s deeply associated however with the queer theory argument of social construction which generally denies the historical reality of homosexuality as an inherent human trait, explaining sexuality as fluid throughout history, taking on different meanings and inflections at different times in response to historical and cultural trends. But a primary tenet of gay spirituality is that there is a spiritual nature inherent to gay consciousness and that people whom today we’d call gay have been in the forefront of the evolution of religion. So queer theory conflicts with the “essence,” as it were, of gay spirituality.

McCleary doesn’t say much about himself, so it’s not clear what founds his various opinions. Sometimes he sounds rather conservative and judgmental (as around issues of promiscuity). He seems to prefer Christian theological argument and religious sounding debate to Radical Faerie and New Age/New Paradigm assertions about gay identity.

There’s a very detailed account of the development of the Radical Faeries and of the evolution of thought in some of the founders of the movement, in particular, Harry Hay, Don Kilhefner, and Mitch Walker.
The book ends with a call for a gay ethics, as though the notions of political correctness, responsibility to all other oppressed minorities, and compassion for one another that are so prevalent in gay spirituality don’t point to ethical behaviors. And the specific issue he addresses is monogamy vs. open-relationship. Offhand, I’d say we do surprising well around that thorny issue. I’d say what we need by way of ethical direction is help showing attraction to other men in ways that aren’t threatening and in ways of turning down unwanted advances without causing hurt.

It was hard to know what McCleary himself believes religiously, though I gathered he seems to believe in an objective reality outside the human mind which religion seeks and sometimes succeeds at describing, even if in sometimes contradictory and confused ways. This is certainly the familiar epistemological basis of religion, though it is one that science and incisive fact-finding has to cause modern people to question.

This is an important book. For students of the burgeoning field of gay spirituality, it is something of a must-read; McCleary manages to touch on nearly every theme and to comment on nearly every writer or teacher in the field. Even when his observations are minor, that they appear in the book is indicative of something the student may want to investigate further.

It is not in any sense a devotional book, however. A religiously conflicted homosexual trying to reconcile his spiritual yearning with his sexual and emotional feelings will certainly discover that he or she is not alone in this effort—McCleary demonstrates this struggle stretches back to the beginnings of religion—but his survey and analysis isn’t likely to satisfy the religious conflict. There are few “spiritual answers” in this book, but lots of references to what other people have offered as answers.

But what McCleary clearly shows, whether this is his intention or not, is that essential to the effort of gay spirituality—and gay consciousness—is the attitude and technique of critical perspective. Virtually every theme and example that the author mentions is critiqued. Personally, I think that’s quite appropriate and correct. The critique of religion is itself a religious enterprise and a practice for opening to personal inspiration and “revelation.” To seek to understand religion is itself a religious act—and one that is necessarily outside religion. And this is where gay people find themselves.

The light from outside—ah, that’s the “special illumination.”

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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.

Johnson's Lammy Award winning book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are available now from Lethe Press.

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