First posted at Anglican Communion Institute
The unexpectedly rapid civil acceptance of same-sex marriage in the West may lead one to imagine that the issue is somehow already settled. Whatever doubts one may have had, they have been swept away by the overwhelming flood of changed public opinion. Fait accompli. Traditional Christians must simply step aside now.
Such a judgment would be a mistake. Indeed, far from the matter being settled, at least form a Christian perspective it has hardly been engaged, despite claims to the contrary by proponents of same-sex marriage. What we have had instead is a bait-and-switch set of tactics, first seeking civil and religious recognition and affirmation somehow of same-sex attractions, then pressing for ordinations, then blessings of unions. What comes next? The question of a “slippery slope” is hardly a fallacy here, for in this case we have a historical track-record of legal advocacy and movement that stands as quite rational “evidence” for the slope’s existence.
All the while, most discussions claimed that “marriage” was never nor could be ever the issue at stake. But here we are: changes to “marriage canons” and Prayer Books are now in the works. At this stage the advocates of change are merciful enough to suggest “conscience clauses” for those who disagree.
“Disagree” how, exactly? What happened? Was a carefully developed argument offered, studied, engaged consultatively across lines of commitment and ecclesial fellowship, and then adopted by a kind of consensual accord? Of course not! Failure to persuade on the part of same-sex advocates has simply been reinterpreted as “legitimate decision in the face of minority dissent.”
What is key to remember is that no sustained argument or persuasive action has taken place on the matter of same-sex marriage. Attempts, like TEC’s “Same-Sex Relationships in the Life of the Church” (2010) have been largely ignored, in part perhaps because they witnessed to the irresolvable differences governing the views expressed. I write this to traditional Anglicans who might have missed this fact. For if no persuasive argument has been offered, all that has been at work are the currents of unconscious sentiments tethered to the impersonal dynamics of institutional policy-making. The arguments, meanwhile, remain unaddressed.
And because the arguments have been unaddressed, they also remain potentially open to persuasive reordering. Traditional Christians should not, therefore, think that they have “lost” the argument. They have not yet been engaged, and it is possible to press for the truth openly and therefore effectively — indeed we are responsible for doing so.
Let me summarize where it seems to me the public arguments for same-sex marriage in the Church have in fact arrived — basically, a heap of unsubstantiated assertions that are, in their ensemble, incoherent. Indeed, it is both important and sad to note that forceful assertion rather than careful argument is now the way TEC carries on most of its business.
Forceful assertion unaccompanied by convincing argument has proved to be the modus operandi for the advocates of change. For one thing, the Bible offers several rather pointed prohibitions to homosexual acts. This has, with reluctance, been an immovable challenge to advocates. True, these prohibitions are not numerous, but they occur in both the Old and New Testaments. In addition, the Bible is suffused with a vast, rich, and interconnected fabric of heterosexual marriage imagery, and explicit discussion, much of it deeply charged theologically.
The basic approach to these facts by advocates of change has been to press, theoretically, for an interpretive method of Scriptural reading that stresses historical discontinuities and cultural relativism. In brief: whatever the Bible says about sexuality, sexual relations, marriage, etc., is fundamentally irrelevant to the current life of human beings in the Church. Rather, it is shaped by cultural outlooks and social practices that are distant from us and from our understandings. Christian attitudes towards sexuality today, therefore, must be shaped by something other than the “commands” or sanctions of Scripture’s explicit discussion of sex.
How does one support such an argument? First, one must demonstrate this cultural divide in understanding that separates the authors of the Biblical text from today, and that informs the actual substance of the text’s meaning. One can do this in various ways. First, one can try to reconstruct the cultural attitudes of the biblical authors, and show how alien they are to ours. Second, one can engage in historical word studies that purport to relocate the meaning of certain words used in the Bible into contexts that in fact alter their referents from apparent contemporary meanings. So, for instance, one tries to demonstrate that porneia in the New Testament does not refer to homosexual activity in any general way but to something else altogether. Third, one can show that today’s shared attitudes about these matters have changed and are accepted as such.
Here we must raise the first objection to those who have assumed the argument is over. For in fact, all these attempts at asserted historical cultural divides, between the minds of “biblical authors” and contemporary moral understandings, are nothing but speculation. From the historian’s point of view, they are founded on the thinnest of evidence, if any at all. We know nothing of the “authors” of the Bible. Further, we know very little about their “cultures” other than what we have in the Bible itself. What it might mean to understand how people in the past “think” — let alone people we do not know! — is a task fraught with irresolvable difficulties. The practice of historical word-study has been shown, except within very tight parameters (which we do not have with the Biblical text) to be wildly misleading. I could go on. In short, from a purely social-historical perspective, the entire project of arguing the same-sex issue on the basis of human discontinuities, especially those purportedly evident in the biblical text, is methodologically bogus. Believe none of it, because none of it is provable, and much of it is highly improbable on a purely historical basis.
One might, of course, note a central contradiction that same-sex advocates have accepted in all of this. For they have also tended to argue on behalf of profound continuities in human sexual orientation: people’s sexualities are stable, embedded, and consistent across cultures and epochs. There have “always been” large numbers of gay persons and so on. How this conviction lines up with scriptural-cultural relativism is not clear. What it demands, from this perspective, is a strong notion of “progress,” in human knowledge , moral fiber and sensitivity. That is, in this case the “divide” is one, finally, of the heart and spirit, not really of culture at all: today, we are more compassionate, more open, just, and the rest. We are, in short, “better” people than before, better, certainly, than the “authors” of Leviticus or than Paul. Needless to say, this is a difficult claim to make in the wake of what we know about contemporary human behavior.
To be sure, the notion of sexual continuities across time is not universally held by the advocates of change. The idea of social and now individual construction of sexual forms is one prominent element within so-called Queer reflection. But the latter’s deeply anarchic moral project fits incoherently with most Scriptural arguments on behalf of same-sexuality, and should probably be seen as an altogether alternative path from that pressing for same-sex marriage. The distinction between Queer Theology and the public attitudes of most same-sex marriage advocates, however, is rarely acknowledged, and people should be aware of this. Similarly, the category of “bisexuality,” that has been fastened into the midst of the “LGBT” identity acronym, sits uneasily within a notion of stable sexual orientation (as it does within any notion of “faithful” gay “marriage”). Again, this is something that has rarely been addressed openly.
In any case, the claims of the historical relativists with respect to the Bible are, to this point, simply unsupported by any commonly accepted method. And these claims, as a whole, not only beg the question of what the Bible “is” in with respect to the Christian Church’s life, they press the question insistently. In Anglicanism, we are (or were) agreed that Scripture is the “rule and ultimate standard of faith.” But how this is the case has not been addressed by same-sex advocates in any common fashion, if in any fashion at all. Not that there are no theories, which range from political readings to ascetic translations of pneumatic character. But virtually all of these fall far outside the longstanding traditions of Scriptural interpretation across denominations. Don’t be fooled: the exegetical job simply has not been done by advocates of change.
One of the elements in the historical relativist argument is that we “now know more” than in “biblical times” about sexuality. This is usually linked to the progress of scientific knowledge. But what has “science” told us in this realm? Same-sex marriage advocates in TEC’s Theology Commission chose to eschew the “findings of science” in their discussion, and well they might have, for scientific studies about sexuality have in fact offered little of solid or commonly accepted evidence for single theories. The search for genetic structures that directly determine sexual feelings and orientations has been frustrated. Notorious studies of twins have failed to gain methodological acceptance. Psychological theories, obviously, are wildly divergent and now politically unpopular (though still hovering about in many corners, and not only of the Freudian variety). Most scientists agree — though without any precise and synthetic evidentiary frameworks to back them up — that genetics plays a key role in sexual development, but they also agree that social location is deeply important. How the two relate is completely unknown, and recent studies regarding the reality of neural “plasticity” have only made this matter more murky (as well as casting a shadow on the simple claim that “God made us this way”). As one adolescent psychiatrist told me, “we are in the scientific Dark Ages” on this topic, much like cosmology was in 1400. It’s a sobering thought in the face of irresponsible claims to the contrary.
And the “science’ here is not just about biology. Social science similarly, especially with regard to adolescent formation, media influence, peer molding, and of course family, is in a constant state of flux and contestation. The Mark Regnerus controversy merely underlines how little we know about family rearing. (The respected sociologist Regnerus, to remind readers, did a rigorous review of studies, as well as his own research, and dared to question claims that had been made regarding the benign outcomes to same-sex parenting. For this he was not only vilified, but subjected to outrageous academic harassment. It is important to note that this kind of political coercion is rife in the so-called “scientific” community.) The debate also exposes the ongoing inability within the discipline to have the kind of “random” sampling from the general population that must undergird any valuable study related to this issue. (This was one of Regnerus’ major points, whatever one thinks of his own conclusions.)
The notion that “science shows us” x and y about same-sexuality, and in a way that can and ought to inform our ideas about same-sex marriage is, frankly, ludicrous at this point. This is not to say that there is nothing to learn from such scientific study; only that it is not of a form in our era yet to have provided useful knowledge. Furthermore, it is legitimate to raise the question, “how can we responsibly make sense of the scientific data we do have within a Christian framework?.” That question has yet to be posed, let alone answered in this discussion.
If not exegesis or science, what in fact lies behind the claim that same-sex marriage has a compelling rationale? This is an important question. At the very least, we can say that people go forward in their decisions, at least if they do so deliberately, with an underlying and informing philosophy. When it comes to same-sexuality, including same-sex marriage, there are no doubt many informing philosophies at work. It is important to realize that many of these are often incompatible amongst themselves. I have already mentioned the contradiction between historical-cultural relativism and notions of a continuous and stable sexual human “nature. Related to this are the tensions between Queer theory’s constructivism and many claims to genetic essentialism. There are also divergences between notions of evolutionary (moral) progress and embedded human diversity that must be respected. None of these views fit well with each other, and are often at odds with each.
I suspect, however, that there is one philosophy that is more commonly held than many, especially among younger people. It is what I would call “benign individualism.” In religious terms this fits with what some have dubbed “therapeutic deism,” the notion that God’s nature is to provide a general context for our selves’ individual comfort. At its base, it is a conviction that individuals are good, and that their goodness demands self-affirmation and expression. Politically, it views society’s purpose in terms of permitting, encouraging, and protecting this affirmation. Anybody can be anything they want to be. Indeed, anyone can be anything they want to call themselves, as long as it “doesn’t hurt anybody else.” And we should help each other do this.
This isn’t a particularly well-formed “philosophy,” to be sure. It is minimalist and derives from the mixed dregs of a pot-pourri of inherited cultural-political attitudes. Still, it is well-engrained, with Facebook and YouTube providing iconic frames for self-presentation, of every kind and in what (despite worries over cyber-bullying and predation) most people believe to be intrinsically benign contexts. Watch me play the guitar (poorly)! See how I can say the most silly things and get away with it! Listen to my poetry (please)! Notice the funny things I’m doing with my body!
Of course, we can always turn the computer switch off on this kind of benign self-expression, as boring, irrelevant, embarrassing, immoral, or just too much. My son, as an 8 year-old, thought he could sell his signature on eBay: “I could be the next Lincoln!.” And he was free to peddle himself as such. But the market finally rules, and not one person took the bait. For those whose inner needs are compulsive, by contrast, benign self-expression requires more than a forum; it requires external support and sanctions, in order to be embraced by others. “You will listen to me! You will affirm me!” That turns the philosophy into a claim with a coercive edge, which is just what we have seen.
The philosophy of benign individualism, however, is incoherent, or at least seriously incomplete on several fronts. Self-affirmation is not universally upheld in many realms. E.g., in the sexual realm, society firmly rejects pedophilia — although we know cultures have had different views of this, from the Greeks in terms of homosexual engagement [whence the contemporary NAMBLA group] to the marriage of children. We can rightly ask: what age is appropriate for “reason” or “responsible” freedom of sexual self-expression? What makes “sex” “consensual”? What are the lines within which sexual behavior “doesn’t hurt any one” and outside of which it does? The bottom line is that, however much self-expression is valued, all societies impose order on these matters. Where does it come from? Some larger meta-philosophy?
At the moment, such an overarching philosophical framework no longer exists in common. And it certainly has not been articulated in any clear way by advocates for same-sex marriage. In our society, such order has emerged by default from or been imposed by largely commercial dynamics — via music, film/TV, internet, social media. These are money-making ventures. We are all aware of this: “self-expression” is a slippery concept, when the “self” itself is formed by a range of imposed identities and its “expression” is defined by a set of socially formed and peer-received shapes. Sexuality — and sex — is a commodified reality in our society, something bought and sold, and exchanged for the sake of further commerce. To what extent this is the case is debatable; but it is hard to question the basic fact. Lurking behind benign individualism, then, are larger social and economic realities that weaken the philosophy’s claims to integrity from the ground up. And on this ground we can see the self-immolation of “progressive” sexual claims: for they appear to be among those most cravenly toadying to the potentates of Capital.
I am being slightly facetious in my last observation. But only slightly. It is true that Christians have traced disordered lives to the universally present disorders of individual human hearts, rather than primarily to social and economic “forces.” But Christians have also always understood, as Scripture confirms, the powerful effect of formation, especially upon the young. Eli does not escape the judgment God brings upon his sons! And it is odd to see how insouciantly the overarching “philosophy of sexuality” has been so easily handed over to the Eli’s of the market.
Just here we see how the “benignity” issue remains a thorn. “I am a gay man. I love another man. I want to be married to this other man. Gay marriage doesn’t hurt anybody.” How is the benign defined, so that it “doesn’t hurt anybody”? Who is defining it? How do we know? Back to science and social science: we don’t! Hence, all that is left are the dynamics of the market-place, and the putative philosophical claims are shown to be tied to nothing but the powers of commercial interests. If someone were to charge our young people and their sexual spokespersons with being patsies of “the Man,” here more than anywhere else I would frankly agree.
Isaiah Berlin argued that philosophy is intrinsically “revolutionary.” In this case, the philosophy behind same-sex marriage both is and is not revolutionary. It is, in that the claims of a radical benign individualism are tied up with the wholesale demolition of social structures and moral claims of the past. It is not, in that the “philosophy” involved here is suspiciously a front for already embedded interests, which have seemingly conspired with some of the most involuted of human motives. Ideas have been marginalized, and in fact have slipped out the back door altogether.
4. A Christian Understanding of Sexuality
This is not the place for a substantive discussion of what, in the face of the empty “arguments” for same-sex marriage, ought to be a genuinely Christian alternative. But it is worth sketching that alternative from one perspective, however compactly.
First, we might ask, is there a “Christian” perspective here? In light of disagreements about scriptural exegesis, and the thinness of science, and the contestability of informing philosophies, should we not just say that everyone chooses their informing vision arbitrarily, and thus all that is left are the often mysterious manipulations of the levers of social power? And when traditional arguments that place the begetting of children at the center of sexual life are dismissed as but one outdated social idiosyncrasy, is it possible to respond?
The social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has argued that human beings order much of their common life in response to the inescapable fate of death. For most of the world’s history, the usual form of this response was to achieve some kind of “immortality” through procreation, the leaving behind of children for the future, and Bauman places traditional Christianity within this philosophical matrix. What we have today in the West, he says, is a shift in which a sense of immortality is now grasped in the moment, the unextended experience of “now” — pleasure, self-expression, and so on. Understandings of sexuality will emerge from this difference, and procreation will give way to sentiments of immediate gratification. This isn’t a question of who is right. Simply take your pick. And social dynamics will see to it that one is more pickable than the other.
Perhaps this overall sense of arbitrariness is true. It is difficult for me to know how to prove that it isn’t. But what is not true is the characterization of a Christian outlook given here, tethered to some more general human yearning in the midst of a short and brutish existence. And this is important to see, precisely because the distinctiveness of the traditional Christian outlook on sexuality, to be fair, must be evaluated on its own terms of expression. It is my conviction that, if it is so expressed clearly and evaluated fairly, its persuasiveness will be compelling. It will certainly be far more compelling than the flaccid alternatives that we have been told are the given future of our race.
For Christians have never understood their necessary encounter with mortality as resolved through procreation as an escape or genetic necessity. Just the opposite: procreation, given within the primordial shape of our humanness, leads us more fully into the reality of mortality and into its divine meaning and outcome. To be a mortal human being is to be born to parents, and to die in the wake of the struggle for familial generativity. It is how one does this that determines the character of a life.
So, the Christian view is not “immortality through procreation,” but more starkly, “suffering procreative love.” Suffering, in the full sense of receiving and bearing, of patience and yes, even of pain. It is just this line that connects creation, Fall, and the free redemptive act of God in Christ, that draws itself out through the renewed lives of Christian women and men. It is just this line that connects the outline of Genesis’ opening, Israel’s calling and fate, and the final vision of Revelation’s divine marriage. The love of human beings one for another creates new life through sexual coupling, and this love is nurtured and lost in remarkable ways, such that only the grace of God, given in the body of Jesus crucified and risen, uncovers its final beauty and meaning, in an act that heals.
This outlook has proven itself — and I believe it is provable textually in biblical and traditional terms — remarkably synthetic and coherent of Scriptural and ecclesial realities over the centuries. It has made sense, not just of the world for this or that people in this or that time; but it has done so for a “catholic” range of life, and in doing so has made sense of the Christian Gospel as it was given and proclaimed in diverse places and times, and as written within the whole of the Scriptures.
Further, it explains the shape of the Church’s explicit teaching and ordering of life over the centuries as well. The suffering of procreative love, after all, has social implications. It is not simply a set of ideas. Socially, it implies — and has generally upheld — a broad, yet defined, framework of mores, within which there are a range of experiential realities. These have included, centrally, heterosexual marriage, the demand for fidelity and stability, the begetting and raising of children, the responsibilities of husbands and wives, and of parents for their children, and so on. But the social frameworks for the suffering of procreative love are vital precisely as they permit suffering: the suffering of infidelities, abandonments, childless marriages, divorce, and the rest. It is not that these elements are goods, but rather that they come upon us through sin and must be borne faithfully. Indeed, it is possible (and, I would argue, more than probable) that this framework can contain elements that gay advocates early in the movement sought — civil protections of various kinds. What is highly unlikely — and I would argue actually impossible — is that the framework of marriage outlined here can itself be translated into something else, without changing the very terms involved. “Procreation,” “suffering,” and a “love” that is defined within the shape of the former two realities, cannot be reconstituted in homosexual relationships, which cannot sustain the line from Genesis to Revelation noted above. There are, after all, only three explicitly sexual components to human life: friendship, sexual attraction and engagement, and procreation. The three do not always coincide, nor need they. And only when all three do coincide does the social framework of Christian marriage — and I would argue, the civil community — have an essential interest. Only here is the suffering of procreative love an extended reality.
An old Vaudeville joke goes: What’s red, hangs on a wall and whistles when you squeeze it? The answer is: “a herring.” But a herring isn’t red; “you can paint it red.” But a herring doesn’t hang on a wall; “you could hang it on a wall.” But a herring doesn’t whistle when you squeeze it; “if I made it too easy, you’d guess it right away.” One could apply the rhetoric to the present case: What sleeps together, loves each other, and has children with each other? Members of the same sex can and indeed do sleep with each other (sexually); can and do indeed love each other. The imprecisions and porousness of experiential logic allow for all this. Why not? But the concluding qualifier is possible to assert only as a form of enforced trickery. Even with medical interventions, it is “too hard” to accomplish. One can mock the image of Adam and Eve as the “parents” of the human race. But the theological logic is not so easy to dismiss: we are human beings as we are born of a mother and father, suffer that begetting, and enter into its explicit current within the grace of God.
Indeed, this is why the issue of children has become the crucial focus of the same-sex marriage debate. For Augustine, marriage was about three things: begetting children, faith, and the sacrament, in that order. This is a conclusion he comes to and insists upon, even after contorted discussions of Old Testament vs. New Testament times, the population of the world, the nature of Paradise, and so on. It is based, as he opens his famous treatise on “The Good of Marriage,” upon the fact that we are all descendents of Adam and Eve, “one race” joined through the character of procreation. But not procreation alone; procreation that is bound to faith and sacramental grace, each of which reflect the realities of God’s own suffering love in Christ, and that finally found the “society” of human life itself. To have children as a husband and wife, suffering in love their generation and mortal fate, is to reflect the “shadow” or figure of God’s act in creating us and redeeming us.
This does represent a coherent, and historically consistent, Christian perspective and set of claims. Children derive from a single mother and a single father who have joined themselves for this purpose, and have committed themselves — in the face of many past and future failures — to raising their children together. The love that sustains this is procreative, and the frameworks that order this are those within which we bear our lives and live them. One can rightly call this “natural law”; one can also rightly view this as Scripturally demanded. And within both perspectives, the still unmet arguments of Bible, history, and science noted above do in fact find a common resolution. They all “fit.” And thus far, in the face of this staggering fit, same-sex marriage proponents only mumble. And it remains a wholly unmet challenge to offer an alternative whose fit is of equal or even comparable clarity.
This is the answer to the charge of “arbitrariness” for traditional Christian claims. Worse than that, if the fit is real, the mumbling is actually deeply destructive. Refashioning procreation to forms of relationship that are no longer founded on the prior demands (whether met or not) of mothers and fathers within formative families is to rearrange the character of divine creaturehood. When some traditionalists argue that a child has a “right” — a “human” or “divine” right — to be raised by his or her own mother and father, the claim is to be taken seriously, for it is, from a Christian perspective, prima facie compelling. And if it is true, as it appears to me to be, then the civil permission of same-sex marriage, with all the protections it offers for child-conception, bearing, and parenting by same-sex partners, must represent an assault on the “rights” of children of the deepest kind. And from a Christian perspective, this assault must be resisted with all our vigor.
This is a strong conclusion. And it is not one to be shrugged off in the face of the rapid civil and in some places, ecclesial acceptance of same-sex marriage. We should not be lulled into thinking this is minor, as if it were impossible for so many good people, including Christian people, to be so wrong. Remember what happened with slavery! A practice basically outlawed, on moral, civil, and theological grounds by the 15th century (indeed, much earlier), was, in a matter of a few years, universally taken up again by Christians, with only marginal resistances. Not until the late 18th century did Christians once again find themselves recalled to their evangelical duty on this score, and in the face of much opposition. This single case is a warning to all sides in the same-sex debate, to the Left and Right both: it is possible to be deeply and horrendously wrong; it is possible to be a Christian and be horrendously wrong, along with one’s leaders and friends and fellows. The case of slavery is also a word of hope: it is possible to be horrendously wrong, to have gone wrong, and yet eventually for the church to regain its evangelical bearings. It is, finally, a word of realism: such a recovery of sight can take centuries, including centuries of unwarranted suffering and evil.
Warning, hope, and realism together on this matter means that traditional Christians cannot and must not consign themselves to an easy acceptance of the shifting status quo on same-sex marriage. We must continue to speak articulately, to teach faithfully, to challenge energetically, and to accept the consequences of our commitments on this score. We can no longer rely simply on our intuitions, let along our institutions, whose strength ebbs and flows and whose form fluctuates and changes; nor must we allow others to do the same.