John Hazlet was my best friend in college. We were both philosophy majors and Christians at Grove City College, one of the nation’s most politically conservative and religiously evangelical respected liberal arts institutions. John’s struggles with his homosexuality (which he initially revealed only to me) and with suicidal ideation, and his unrestrained and relentless skeptical probing of our shared faith in conversations with me were all instrumental in my eventually becoming an atheist. He will always be one of the most influential and beloved people in my life.
John went on eventually to become a Catholic monk and going by the name of Bede. While a monk he came fully out of the closet both as gay and as suffering from mental illness. In an extraordinarily brave, nuanced, and thoughtful 2 part, two and a half hour long, interview with me on October 14, 2012, John opened up in unsparing personal detail about his life and explored what it meant to him to be gay, Catholic, a monk, and someone who suffers from mental illness. (The full interview is here and here.)
In June of 2013, John left the monastery. He is in a relationship with a man. He remains a Catholic.
Thanks to the time consuming transcribing efforts of Josiah “Bibleman” Mannion, I am now able to re-present nearly the entirety of our interview in a series of shorter, self-contained segments, each with a transcript for those who want to read instead of watching, or to quote their favorite parts to others after watching. Finally, since donating many hours to do these transcriptions in the summer, Josiah has had the camera which he uses to make a living as a photographer break. The wonderful Sarah Morehead of Recovery From Religion is, in a personal capacity, accepting donations for Josiah at paypal. If you can send a few bucks to firstname.lastname@example.org they will go to a generous man in need. (Of course I already felt the need to chip in, given that I owe him for these transcripts, but he needs more than I can afford to help with.) (UPDATE: The atheist community came through big and Josiah was able to get a new camera!)
In this first segment of my re-presented interview with John, I explain at length his impact on my life and then he gives his side of that story.
The next portion of the video and transcript is here.
Dan Fincke: Hi, welcome to the Camels With Hammers Show. My name is Dan Fincke, and I am the blogger at Camels With Hammers and the host of this show. Today I have a very special guest, my best friend from college who is a Benedectine monk. And he is openly gay and openly talking also about struggles he has with clinical depression. And so, I’m gonna introduce him briefly by talking a little bit about his role in my own life, then we’ll here from him for most of the video.
But I just want to set up that he played a very transformational role in my becoming an atheist. And the way that he did this was, when he came out as gay, he was also, at the time, very deeply reading Friedrich Nietzsche. And he had a very nihilistic interpretation of Nietszche that led him to say things like that there was no meaning… that he was afraid that there was no meaning in life, there were no ultimate purposes. And that there was no ultimate truth, and he speculated that… I remember him one time him saying to me that he could imagine, If there were no God… his mom coming in and trying to wake him up in the morning, and he would say… he just would stare at her and blink, and stare at the ceiling, and not move. And say that there was just no point to get out of bed, there was no point to do anything.
And he had also shortly before coming to this sort of darkly nihilistic interpretation of the world, he had also come out to me as gay, and I was the only one who knew that he was gay for some time. So I kind of helped him bear that burden. We were both deeply religious at one of the most religious colleges in the country, Evangelical Christians. John was deeply theological, had studied John Calvin on his own during his teenage years, despite being raised as a Catholic, [he] had discovered this Potestant philosopher… er, theologian and become very influenced. And so John was very theologically serious. We were both very serious philosophy and theology majors. When he came out to me, I was stunned, and took it somewhat immaturely in that I was so shocked. But the other things was that he… but I tried to love him, and I tried to support him, and I became something of his confessor. And what wound up happening, was through this, he began to open up more and more to me about what he was feeling and experiencing. And he would share more about his experience of his sexuality, and his various desires, and what he thought was going on in homosexual psychology in general.
And I became an outlet for him to share as much as his fantasies, and many of his struggles. And this was intermixed with our debates about the existence of God; I was still trying to defend the existence of God at this time. And this became a lot of pressure, though, because the… because he was very tormented and he was suffering from what we now know was clinical depression. And so, he was… the more we would talk about his feelings, and some of his darker desires, and his dark interpretation of his desires, was the more that he became… we became emotionally connected in a way that was very overbearing to me. I became very… it was a great burden for me to bear.
And what wound up happening was, I started to get frustrated. There was one weekend we spent almost the entire time together while the rest of the campus was gone. I was starting a bit to feel, a bit threatened in my own sexuality, and that someone I was so deeply close to, who associated me, there… you know, who, we were associated with as though, almost as though we were close as a couple, in that sense. And if he was gay, did that mean something about me? Though I never brought that up to him… til now. [both laugh] And so–but that was there, right? There was … there was an overbearingness where we were so close, and I was dealing with darker and darker feelings and anxieties that he had, and he could only share with me, and he started to rely on me in this great way.
And one night, he confessed that, you know… one night I kind of realized, and he admitted to it, that the more he could talk about his fear… his fears and fantasies and not have me curse him and throw him into the darkness, was the more that he was starting to feel comfortable in owning them, even as he still had this dark interpretation of them as sinful and problematic. And I started to worry, ok, well then, am I “enabling” him? Am I “encouraging the evil brother” rather than throwing him out? And … because if he wasn’t going to get over this homosexuality, then maybe I shouldn’t be helping him stay in it. You know, maybe if he wanted to stay in it, then maybe I shouldn’t be supporting him, maybe this was the wrong way to love him after all. And this led to me one night … we debated the existence of God, and we went down one line of argument, and we came to an impasse. And so we went down another one, we came to an impasse. And then John went back to the other one, and we did it again. And I just felt like, Look, we’re doing these… we keep coming to this impasse, I keep thinking I’ve proven the point, and then you switch back and forth. So maybe we just said all there is to say, and I essentially said, Maybe you should just go. And then he paused a moment, and said, “Maybe I should go.” And left.
And the following Saturday, three of my friends showed up in my room, they filed in, very seriously. I thought they were coming to throw me in the shower wearing my clothes, as they were apt to do. But they weren’t. They came in and they … I looked up at them, bewildered. And what they said to me was, John has written a suicide note. He’s not here, he’s out of town with a group from the school. We’re looking for him. Nobody knows anything about why this happened. His roommate was using John’s computer to use the internet. As he clicked on… to use the internet, he closed the open file John had, and read the words, ‘Dear Mom and Dad, by the time you read this, I will have taken my own life.’ By the time, you know, by the time… his roommate tried to finish the letter, it had closed, and nobody knew what the rest of the letter said.
They came to me and they said, You are the only one who we know might know anything. And what I was able to tell them, was I had just fortunately the week before had John go to our theology professor, and talk to him. And so, I said, “Take me to our theology professor.” We went, we talked all night. I confronted John, and I said, “What was this.” And he said, “Well, I had… I was deciding whether or not, you know, it was worth it, you know. And what I had done was I had written down, ‘Dear Mom and Dad, by the time you take this, I’ll have taken my own life.’ Then I proceeded to spell out the pros and cons of living or dying, and I was going to… if… you know, I was going to think about it, and so I left it on my computer, I didn’t save it. And I was going to come back to it after some thinking.” And I was furious. Not the way to respond to your suicidal friend. I was… I took this as just appalling in the sense that, I said, “How could you be so cold and robotic as to write out the reasons to live or to die in such an abstract, distant way? How could you, you know, do that?” And I remember John saying he thought I was disrespecting him. And I said, “You’re the one disrespecting yourself!” And so, I was very furious with him, and we had… our relationship had become too… too close and too intertwined and I think after that, we… that confrontation, we kind of drifted for a couple months.
And… and I remember telling him the week before, when we were debating, and he had said, “I would wake up…” you know, he imagined waking up and not wanting to move or anything, I remember telling him that, “Even if I didn’t believe, I couldn’t imagine that. I would still be committed, I would still love what I love”; I didn’t need a supernatural rubber stamp on love, to care about what I cared about or the people that I cared about. And so… so then, you know, then the following spring I went and read Nietzsche for myself because of John and his own struggle with Nietzsche. I felt like, if I was going to defend Christianity, as I’d been living my life trying to do, I had to read Nietzsche, I had to discover this for myself, I had to work through this for myself; I had to see what was there that almost drove my friend to suicide. And that’s when Nietzsche deconverted me.
And then after that, I remember, the night I deconverted, the first person I talked to was John. And even though he had come back to belief, but a much more mystical and less propositionally Calvinistic kind; though he had come back to belief, I … you know, he just listened to all of my arguments against the faith, and said, “Mmhmm, mmhmm, sure, yes…” You know, not even… I’m not even sure comprehending I was telling him I was done with the faith.
And the most decisive part, one of the most decisive parts of my deciding that I couldn’t believe, was Nietzsche’s argument that I reread that night that I deconverted, that we could not believe based on faith because it was a lack of intellectual conscience. And I came to realize there were consequences to beliefs that made it not just permissible to believe what made us individually happy. And I felt greatly ashamed of the way that at my friend’s darkest hour, I put our interpretation of homosexuality as a sin above his own health and well-being, and threatened to ostracize him at that moment. And I realized that any belief which is not that well-grounded could lead you to do something so inhumane to someone you loved so much, and who needed you in that way… um, you know, that was irresponsible intellectually. And it was decisive… it was one of the most decisive factors in my becoming an atheist.
So it’s ironic that John wound up to go on to become a Benedectine monk, and has struggled with the clinical depression and with his homosexuality for the last decade… or longer, fourteen years since all that happened, thirteen years. And so today, I have him on to talk about what his road has been, he can talk about his own spin on that story, his own remembrances. And to talk about where he’s gone from there, and how he’s wound up in the position he’s in.
And just, we’re gonna talk about what it means, like, how he reconciles his faith with his homosexuality. And I’m gonna query him and challenge him on these interpretations. And we’ll talk a little bit about how he progressed in his journey. So, John, thank you so much for being here. His name as a monk is Bede, so he can explain that, too. But he said, I’m allowed to call him John, so I’ll try to do both. So, John, please introduce yourself, now that my introduction of how you played a role in my life most decisively, you know, in addition to our great friendship.
Bede (John) Hazlet: Well, thanks for inviting me to join you, Dan. Actually, elements of what you’ve just talked about were new to me, just now. But I think, as far as my own side of that story goes, which you’ve said, is quite accurate, for the most part. It might not be exactly accurate to say that we were both Evangelical at that time, because I think I was still sort of drifting. I think, at the time of that deep interchange, you could say, troubled interchange, I was still officially Catholic, but I had been very seriously reading Calvinist thinkers and thinking in Reformation terms. But didn’t actually make a decisive formal shift until I joined the Episcopal Church, maybe a couple of years later. But that’s probably not all that important, for the purposes of this conversation.
I’d also want to emphasize that my own memories of that time, and of your comportment, don’t dwell on the… sort of draconian side of things that you emphasize. I do vaguely remember something like that threat of ostracization, and on some level maybe a lack of sympathy. But what I remember most is just the importance of our conversations in terms of my beginning to come to terms with these dimensions of myself. The dimension of faith, and my struggle with it, and periodic lack of it, the whole question of God, and how that plays out in a human life. The struggle with my depression, which I didn’t really deal with very explicitly, then, and that it’s taken me many years, really, to address in a fruitful way; to recognize that it runs in my family on both sides, that there’s a heavy-going genetic element, though that’s bound up with various other elements that we can talk about.
And also, the whole question of being gay, which I wouldn’t want to define me. And in fact, the more I think about it, the less happy I am with hermetically sealed categories of sexual orientation. But for heuristic purposes, that’s certainly true of me. So in all of those ways, you were very helpful to me at the time, even though it was not an easy sort of way of being helpful, and even though both of us were struggling through how we were going to respond to these realities in our lives. So, I guess that’s all I’d want to say about my side of that part of our story.
Since then, my own journey has taken me into the Episcopal Church, and then to Oxford to study theology, thinking about becoming an Episcopal priest. And then back at Oxford into the Roman Catholic communion, in which I was initially brought up. And from there to seminary, studying to be a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, [and] leaving in the middle of that. And eventually discerning what I take to be my monastic vocation in coming here to St Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, where I just made my Solemn Profession last summer.
So… I think that there are undercurrents of that whole journey, both its theological or mystical side, and its sexual and its depressive side, that are fairly consistent. I mean, this quest for a sense of who I am in the midst of the universe, and what it means. Whether what’s behind the universe is benign or indifferent or even malicious. And how it is that one can live a human life with our without some kind of meaning of the kind that God would bring to life. I’m more prepared now to recognize the possibility of meaning without God. I still can’t really conceive that for myself, but I… as a kind of abstract possibility, I’m a bit more open to it today. And I’ve come to think that there’s a huge territory of commonality of pursuit or quest between people who do and don’t believe in God, but who are trying to find a way into the truth, a way into wisdom (more deeply), and a way into a way of life in the human community and in more concrete communities within that.
The rest of the excerpted videos and transcripts from the interview:
How My Best Friend Helped End My Faith and then Became an Openly Gay Monk
Out of the Closet for the 1st Time, at Oxford
On Anglicanism and On Celibate Love
How Catholic Moral Teaching On Sexuality Is Evolving
Does A Good God Guide The Catholic Church? A Debate
Is The Catholic Church’s Treatment of Gays Morally Defensible? A Debate
Does Celibacy Infantilize and Create Child Molesting Priests?
A Gay Monk Argues Against Reparative Therapy
On Treating Mental Illness, Rather Than Romantically Theologizing It
How the Catholic Church’s Views on Gays Might Evolve