Some Thoughts as We Head Into the Summer (and Fall) of Love

Now that we've gotten this climate change thing sorted out, it's time for all of us to refocus our attention back to where it belongs--sex!  Yes my friends, this summer, and into the fall, are going to bring us a number of events that are going to place the attention of many on who is doing what to whom and under what circumstances.  The first domino fell on Friday, in the form of the Supreme Court ruling on the gay marriage cases.  But it's not over yet, not by a long shot.  Observe:
  • Last week, we got the prepatory document for Synod on the Family Part II, Electric Boogaloo. [Ed. Note:  Official English translation here]. If you have been following this story, you will not be surprised to hear that it is a mixed bag!  For example, it calls out "a certain vision of feminism that considers maternity a pretext for the utilization of women and an obstacle to their full realization."  (Boo!).  But then it follows up with praise for "[a] style of communication open to dialog and free from prejudice is necessary particularly with regard of those Catholics that, in area of marriage and family, do not live, or are unable to live, in full accordance with the teachings of the church," (Yay!)  And then there are head-scratchers, like the notion that any sort of process for admitting non-annulled couples back to Communion would require them to stop having sex while the process plays itself out (good luck with that), or the weird bit about how couples are pulled by their consciences (which, it is worth pointing out, are preeminent in Catholic moral theology) to use birth control but run into the "objective moral indication" (read: what the Church says) about the pill, and therefore must "balance" those two things in some unspecified manner.  So, basically:

What to say about all of this?  I have a couple of thoughts.

1.  There is an idea out there that Episcopalians don't have a theology and that they make things up as they go along, but people who say that obviously haven't been following the debates associated with the marriage issue.  I have found the theological arguments advanced by various sides to be extremely rich and thought-provoking, with a very deep engagement with the Christian tradition, philosophical ideas, and practical realities.  I mentioned last week a piece by Thomas Bushnell that was outstanding, and this post by Fr. Tobias Haller builds on and expands on those ideas in a helpful way.

Fr. Haller's main point is that what is really going on here with all of these debates is a dispute between an idealist and realist view of marriage (and, I would say, a realist and idealist view of the world).  The idealist arguments are about marriage as a concept--the "institution of marriage" as Haller calls it--and what is the nature and proper purposes of that concept.  The realist discussion, by contrast, focuses not on "marriage" but on "marriages"--the actual, concrete manifestations of two people joined together.  As Haller says:

The [Task Force on marriage, taking the realist position] holds that marriage as an institution is not our concern. The "institution" or "estate" of marriage is neither good nor bad in itself. (It should be obvious that the "estate" also cannot procreate!) The TF holds that the moral good of marriage is found in the actual marriages themselves, not in some ideal. The virtue of marriage exists in real marriages, or it does not exist at all.

If you want to see a concrete example of the significance of this principle, look no further than this "symposium" from First Things (h/t to the always essential Letters to the Catholic Right for directing me to this symposium).

Twenty-one people weighed in on gay marriage.  One person, one, felt it relevant to mention an actual person who's marriage was actually being authenticated by the Court's decision in Obergefell.  The other twenty talked of institutions and purposes and ends and every other abstract idea one could possibly imagine, but not a word for any actual people and actual situations.  And the one writer who did talk about an actual person was the one writer who, as Frank points out, had some measure of understanding of why people might be excited about this development.  Funny, that.

Here is the great truth about the entire gay marriage debate, and it is something that folks like Andrew Sullivan understood from the beginning--insofar as people are willing to look at LGBT couples as couples, as people, the jig is up.  It is only a matter of time before the emotional and visceral power of the argument wins the day.  It is only through an ironclad insistence on remaining in the world of abstractions can the anti-gay marriage position retain a measure of strength, which is precisely why all but Wesley Hill of the First Things crowd insist on remaining in that space.

It's not just that the other twenty writers have chosen not to see the human dimension to the push for gay marriage; it's that they can't see that dimension if they want to hold the positions they hold.  They must, consciously or unconsciously, shut their eyes to this human dimension, lest they end up like Wesley Hill and be forced to confront the affective consequences of their position.

Sometimes "orthodox alexithymia" is an end result of bad theology; sometimes, as here, it is a lifestyle choice.

2.  Among the commentators in this First Things symposium (beside Wesley Hill), I was struck by Melinda Selmys's contribution [Ed. note: my apologies for misspelling her name in the original post], because she is the most honest about what the alternatives are.

Until quite recently, the purpose of marriage was to try to ensure that couples were adequately supported socially, culturally, and materially, so that they would be able to give birth to children and then care for those children in the family that they were born into. It provided the incentive and the means for the survival of a particular family’s genetic inheritance into the next generation. It functioned as a forward-looking institution in much the same way as the practice of putting up grain for long-storage functioned as a means of ensuring the community’s survival during periods of drought. . . . [Discussion of concubinage omitted]

The difficulty that presents traditional marriage in the modern world is that over several centuries we’ve undergone a major social shift. The keeping of mistresses or concubines stopped being socially acceptable at about the same time that the idea of “marrying for love” first started to gain traction in the public imagination. The institution of marriage began to change: the focus slowly shifted from the creation of family alliances and provision for the continuation of the line, to the happiness of the couple and the love that they have for one another. In the process, a lot of other concepts (consent, for example) also shifted. The relationship in which people joined their lives on a permanent basis in order to have children became, at the same time, the relationship in which people enjoyed intense erotic attraction and emotionally satisfying interactions.

Now, in a lot of ways this was a good development. It really is true that the ideal of human sexual love involves a permanent union that combines both the erotic and the procreative dimension. The problem is that this sets the bar very high. Highly motivated individuals can make it work, but on a cultural level you end up placing a series of stresses and expectations on the institution of marriage that make it ultimately unstable.

Understand what she is saying here.  First, she is in agreement with Dan Savage that it is straight people, not LGBT folks, that have redefined the nature of marriage.  Marriage was once basically a contract that regulated rights and responsibilities associated with procreation, and now it is grounded, at least in part and at least initially, in the mutual love and affection of the couple.  The notion that the modern understanding of what an opposite sex marriage is about is in any way "traditional" is nonsense, and Selmys is honest about that fact.

Second, Selmys is taking the position that this redefinition by straight people, not ultimately anything regarding LGBT people, is the unworkable part.  What we need, in her view, is to go back to a system that prioritizes procreation, full stop.  Sure, it's nice if you happen to love your spouse ("the ideal of human sexual love . . . combines both the procreative and erotic dimension"), but that's not what is really important here, and the lack of such a connection certainly not something that would justify breaking up (or otherwise not entering into in the first place) an otherwise workable arrangement.

Third, Selmys clearly advocates that we ditch this modern understanding and go back to the Good Ol' Days, posthaste.

The challenge, then, is for advocates of the traditional family to stop wringing their hands over the SCOTUS decision and blaming the gays for the demise of the family, and to focus instead on renewing the practice of sacramental marriage by building up communities of support so that the traditional understanding of marriage will become practicable and attractive again.

I think I speak for the overwhelming majority of straight people, including the overwhelming majority of straight religious believers and straight Christians, when I say, "F*** that noise."  What Selmys is calling for is a full-throated implementation of the Christian fertility cult.  Like all fertility cults, Selmys's visions turns sexuality, particularly female sexuality, into community property, something to be subjected to the goals and desires of the larger community.  And, fertility cults suck for everyone, but especially for women.  Which is why society abandoned the "traditional" understanding in the first place.  Not because people wanted to be anarchists and burn society to the ground, but because the old way was terrible and this new way is better.  Not without problems, certainly, but better.

Why is it better?  For one, notice how Selmys mentions "mistresses" and "concubines" as the approved "release" for eroticism back in the day.  What's not mentioned?  "Masters" and "gigolos."  You see, under the ancien regime marriage fidelity was really only something that women had to abide, while men (especially wealthy men) had all sorts of ways of getting what they want.  That's crap; that's obviously and unquestionably unfair.  Women reasonably asserted that they had a right to the same level of sexual fulfillment and expression as men, and so the old model of marriage had to be modified.  Marriage was not modified to include some new erotic dimension that was previously unexpressed, but to provide women an opportunity to have the sexual expression that men already enjoyed, while maintaining all of that permanence and stability goodness.  And that's all to the good.

But let's say you reject the "do as I say, not as I do," wink-wink-nudge-nudge approach to male infidelity that characterized the way traditional marriages were actually conducted back in the day.  You want to hold everyone to the letter of the law.  Does that fix the problem?  In a word, no; we must  also consider the pathologies that are manifest in those who have walked this path of neo-traditionalist marriages.

Come on down, Duggar family!  If you want a comprehensive break down of the psychological problems inherent in the Duggar model of family, here is an excellent post from someone who was once on the inside (I would also recommend his series on purity culture that he links to in the post).  The author makes the case that a letter-of-the-law approach to Christian sexual teachings is actively and overtly harmful.  At a minimum, it is going to make it really hard to have what most folks understand as a normal sexual relationship; at worst, it provides the environment in which people like Josh Duggar act out.  And, here's the thing--the author's argument not only makes  intuitive sense, but seems to be borne out by experience.  We hear all about the terrible consequences to families that will be wrought by gay marriage, but the alternatives seem to be worse.

But there is a more central problem with the Selmys vision, which is that it is fundamentally dehumanizing.  Marriage as defined according to the previous view is a breeding contract, not fundamentally different in kind from the stud contracts by which thoroughbred racehorses are made.  Sure, there may be love and affection there, but that is ultimately collateral to the real "business end" of marriage, which is as "a means for the survival of a particular family’s genetic inheritance into the next generation" and is similar to "the practice of putting up grain for long-storage."

Human beings are not farm animals, and they are not racehorses, and they are not similar to wheat.  To forge social structures that think of people only as tools to advance social agendas is monstrous.  Married couples are not breeding machines.  And, even more importantly, children are not a commodity, interchangeable social widgets that can be talked about in abstract terms, but wholly individualized creations that are individually loved into being by God.  To look at a child as some sort of genetic experiment, or as a purely social good, is to make him or her into a thing.  We cannot talk about children in this way without doing great harm to their humanity.

It is profoundly, profoundly, hypocritical to decry the distribution of birth control in poor countries as a dehumanizing act and then turn around and talk about marriage and child rearing in these wholly instrumental and utilitarian terms.  It is the traditionalists like Selmys, not LGBT people and not Planned Parenthood, who are diminishing and dehumanizing the opposite-sex family.  And we need to say that, and we need to call them out on that.

3.  The way these debates usually work is that traditionalists state clearly the way Things Should Be, and more progressive folks (particularly more progressive folks among the religious set) rely on "soft" responses, such as the need for tolerance or diversity or something like that.

The time for that kind of thing has come to an end, and stronger medicine in needed.  The gay marriage movement, and, yes, the dreaded sexual revolution, has laid bare the darkness inherent in traditional accounts of marriage and family.  Like all human activities, these movements are not perfect, but they are better than what came before.  And not just for gay folks, but for all of us.

The time has come for people, especially Christians and other people of faith, to state boldly and unapologetically that this traditionalist vision of marriage and family is unacceptable.  Not because it is out-of-step with the broader social norms, but because the broader social norms better reflect a vision of the fundamental dignity and worth of each and every human being than the old ways.  We will not give up marriage for love because marriage for love is a better way than what came before.  We must vocally reject the fertility cult; we must make clear that it is a violation of human dignity to think of a married couple as a breeding unit and children as commodities.  And we do this not (only) on behalf of our LGBT brothers and sisters if we are straight, but on behalf of ourselves.  Because we believe that we are loved by others, and by God, in our individuality, and that we deserve more than to be viewed as cattle.

Let's say that this summer.  Let's turn this into a true Summer of Love, recognizing our love for each other and the love God has for each of us.  Let's fight and advocate for that vision, and speak out against the alternatives that have made themselves known in the last few days and months and years.  And that most certainly includes the hope that the October Synod will be willing to stop and think about where this neo-traditionalist train might take us, and that the Episcopal Church will act as an example of what another vision might look like.  Let's pray for that.


Frank said…
1. "full-on throw down between the Germans/Swiss/Belgians and the Poles/Africans/Americans. "

Maybe the soccer-loving Francis will let that be settled on the soccer pitch? And not by the women's teams, because down with gender theory and all that.

2. It's worth noting that Melinda Selmys's points about concubinage actually strengthen the comparison between gay marriage and interracial marriage, since creole cities like New Orleans had, historically, semi-legal recognition of "concubinage" between white elites and their colored "wives"--relationships that were considered fundamentally different from marriage, because marriage was essentially about procreation.

3. "We will not give up marriage for love because marriage for love is a better way than what came before."

Yep, yep, yep. Great post!

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