National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 63: Promethean Love & the ‘Gay Jesus’ Question

The unprecedented claim I make in this series – that gay identity is best associated with the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus, a “third way” distinct from the dual options of Apollonian law or Dionysian hedonism in the German philosopher Nietzsche’s system – could not have been made in all of history before now, before Stonewall, when the fullest realization of the implications of an open, affirming gay identity has become possible for the first time.

History indicates there were similar circumstances in ancient Greece, when the Prometheus myth developed, and Aeschylus wrote “Prometheus Bound.” That was when gay identity, if not hegemonic in that culture, was nearly so. It has not been that way since, especially not in the context of a rising civilization steeped in profound thought, as opposed to something dying and degenerate, like Rome’s latter days.

In the European Renaissance, moral reference points were attached to Judeo-Christian imagery, thus it was the Old Testament David, the psalmist, slayer of Goliath and just ruler, whose love for Jonathan was famous, that became the symbol for a noble (gay) identity.

But appreciation of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Zeus and, along with knowledge and reason, gave it to man, was held back because Prometheus was too Christ-like and thereby posed a threat to the authority of church. Like Christ, Prometheus came down to offer great gifts to man, and for doing so was punished by Zeus and caused to suffer for eternity, tied to a stone as an eagle ate out his liver every day.

Therefore, characterizations of Prometheus have been skewed.

In “Prometheus, Archetypal Image of Human Existence,” (1944) Carl Kerenyi wrote Prometheus and Christ were incompatible concepts because Prometheus remained a Titan while Christ became “fully man.”

The German poet Johann W. von Goethe wrote a definitive poem about Prometheus in 1772, defining him as a defiant rebel, railing against the tyranny of Zeus. That image became prevalent, some equating him with the ultimate rebel against God, Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

Because he gave man fire and invention, Prometheus was also assailed for unleashing man’s arrogance over nature, as in Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus” (1818).

Ayn Rand’s defiant rebel in “Anthem” (1938) describes the Promethean as struggling for individual freedom against hated statist repression.

In 1970, Jesuit scholar William Lynch, in “Christ and Prometheus, New Image of the Secular,” depicts Prometheus as a rebel, too, but claims his real story is an eventual reconciliation with Zeus.

All these characterizations are terribly flawed because they misrepresent what, at his core, motivated Prometheus. The great English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his beautiful lyric drama, “Prometheus Unbound” (1820), came closest to getting it. Prometheus, Shelley dared say (in defiance of the church), was motivated not by hate or rebellion, but by love, a deep, profound and universal love for man.

Prometheus, as Aeschylus wrote in 440 B.C., was motivated by and punished for his “excessive love for man.”

He stood against the arbitrary authority of Zeus on behalf of man’s weal, giving mankind fire, the fire of the human spirit, and the tools for his advance and liberation from want, ignorance and pain.

His “impulse tendency” being love, it is enacted by a resolute determination to provide that spiritual fire. Love and fire are thus one, and they trace their origins to the corners of, and to the origin of, the universe, itself. Love and fire united for the “Big Bang” that got it all started. (That’s my “Big Bang Theory.” I love you, Sheldon!)
Among humans, love unfettered by the natural demands for species reproduction is purer, thus gays embody a greater potential empathy, undiluted by the reproductive urge.

Only in this context can the issue of whether Jesus was gay be addressed. I was given the pseudonym “Gay Jesus” in a book about the early post-Stonewall days, when as a seminary graduate, I wrote mostly about gay issues for the Berkeley Barb, the nation’s pioneer alternative weekly.

Art Seeger called me that in “The Berkeley Barb, Social Control of an Underground Newsroom” (1983) because, as the thug empiricist I knew him to be, he wrongly claimed that I proclaimed Jesus was gay.

Associating Jesus with gay identity was, for me, in the sense I’ve described in this installment. I published that view in 1970 in “God and My Gay Soul.”

Reductionist treatments of the issue, such as “The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament” (2003) by Theodore W. Jennings Jr. miss the most basic point. Same sex love is not discovered by picking through scriptures for evidence of explicitly gay behavior.

It cries out from the totality of the passionate Promethean love that Christ was, in his parables, prayers and Sermon on the Mount, for unqualified love in defiance of authority, and for love suffering on a cross.