Cutting Out the Poisonous Tree

It is something that I have thought for a long time, but it has become absolutely, unquestionably clear.  This insight is essential to understanding almost everything that is going on in modern Christianity, and I think it will be the defining issue for Christianity for the next generation, at least.  You cannot understand where we are or where we are going if you don't grasp this.  It is so important that it deserves to be written separately, and it should be written on the top of every paper and every essay discussing any of these topics:

The issue of homosexuality (or whatever terminology you want to use) in Christianity is not ultimately about homosexuality; it is about gender.

For the entirety of its history, with some limited exceptions, Christianity has been predicated on an, often unspoken but nevertheless pervasive, view that men and women are fundamentally different, and that this difference plays out invariably to the benefit of men at the expense of women.  In the last 150 years, and accelerating in the last 60, this underlying view has been challenged.  This challenge necessitates either a radical rethinking of Christian doctrine or a wholesale rejection of any substantive claim of gender equality.  Discussions regarding homosexuality are one of the many manifestations of this fundamental divide, albeit the most prominent flash point of this sea change.

This is because at the heart of the objection to LGBT people and expressions of LGBT sexuality is the idea that such expression violates the "natural" and essential gender divide, a divide which is seen as fundamental and pervasive to the human experience.  Being a man means a set of unchanging and unchangable things, one of which is that you are attracted sexually to women, and visa versa for women.  If you countenance the idea that same-sex attraction and behavior is OK, (especially, it should be said, male-male attraction) then you are challenging the "given-ness" of these fixed gender roles.  Such a challenge would open the door to other challenges to this scheme, especially broader challenges to the elements of this fixed scheme that place women on the short end of the stick visa ve men.  And we must not do that, no matter the cost.

I have argued this before.  But don't take my word for it.  Take it from the "horse's mouth," in the form of the most recent offering from our old foil Fr. Dwight Longenecker.  Longenecker sets out to defend the most recent missive from the Vatican about priestly formation, especially the part (admittedly small in a long document) about the ordination of gay men.  This ban is good and salutary, according to Longenecker, because:

The document goes on to explain, “Such persons find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.” Put simply, the homosexual condition inhibits fully natural relationships with people.

So, if you are gay, your relationships with men and women are essentially disordered.  LGBT are freaks, basically.  Longenecker even cops to it:

Once again, the answer produces more questions. What does such a statement mean? Is this a blanket condemnation of all homosexual men-implying that they are social pariahs- incapable of mature, reasonable and natural relationships with other people?

It is a bit more nuanced than that.

"Nuanced," but not wrong, and so it would be fair to say, pace Longenecker (and, by extension, the Catholic Church, or at least the authors of this document), that LGBT are necessarily "incapable of mature, reasonable and natural relationships with other people."  That sounds like pure homophobia, and it is, but there is a logic to it, and that logic is necessarily grounded in pure gender essentialism.

The first move here is to assert that all of our relationships, in any context, are necessarily sexual.  There is a way in which that's true--if sexuality is part of who we are, then by definition we relate to others through ourselves, and thus (in part) through our sexuality.  But, in Longenecker's world, sexuality is not a complex, multifaceted phenomenon.  Sexuality is reduced entirely to gender, and more specifically our physical genitalia/reproductive capabilities:

By “sexuality” I do not mean genital activity. I mean our masculinity or femininity. So, for example, as a man, I relate to my mother as a son-i.e. as a male to a female. I relate to my father as male to male. I relate to brothers, team mates, male colleagues and friends as male to male. I relate to sisters, aunts, female colleagues and friends as male to female. My masculinity relates to their femininity or their masculinity as the case may be.

These relationships are set within the natural context of what it means to be a man or a woman. The natural givenness of masculinity is intrinsically linked with the potential of being a biological father. The natural givenness of femininity is linked with the potential of being a mother

I will pause here and say that I think all of this is nonsense as an empirical matter--this is the same "objectively transcendent significance of my penis" stuff we saw in the Vatican sex ed curriculum.  Contra Longenecker, the fact that I am physically capable of being a biological father has little if anything to do with the way I relate to, for example, the barista at Starbucks.  We relate to other people as people first and foremost, or at least we should, not as walking reproductive organs.

But let us bracket that point and continue with the thread of the argument.  Because Longenecker takes the argument all the way, to the place where many modern traditionalists are embarrassed to go:

In the spiritual dimension, it is therefore crucial that God is “masculine.” While God transcends human sexuality, Jesus Christ reveals him as “Father in Heaven.” We therefore relate to him as sons and daughters. This is important because we can love a Father, but we cannot love an amorphous being like “The Energy Force of All Creation.”

All relationships are therefore integrated with our human sexuality.

There you are.  So, let's recap.  There are two genders among human beings.  One of them reflects the fundamental nature of the Creator of the Universe, and the other, well, doesn't.  So, the people who have one particular gender are aligned with the fundamental characteristics of the Ground of Being, and the other group of people are, well, not.  In what sense, under this taxonomy, can we say that men and women are equal?  I mean, doesn't this view require you to conclude that men, given that they are like God in a way that women both are not and never will be, are superior to women?  Or, at a minimum, being a man is superior to being a woman?  After all, insofar as a male is "being a man" (however that is understood and defined), isn't he necessarily drawing closer to the masculine God?  And, likewise, doesn't it follow that the more a female embraces her femininity, the more she distinguishes and distances herself from the masculine God?

"If God is male, then the male is God."  So said famous feminist theologian Mary Daly in her book Beyond God the Father.   Longenecker, it would seem, would say "yes, on both counts."  Or, if he would not necessarily speak the second part out loud, it is the almost inevitable conclusion of his categorical endorsement of the first part.  But, and here is where we go back to the question of gay priests, the male is God (or, in the priesthood example, acts in persona Christi) only if he is being male in the right way.  And that right way is the way which respects the purported essential and unchanging qualities of being male.  Deviation from that paradigm compromises his "maleness," and the ultimate deviation is anything that would make you more like maleness's essential opposite, femaleness (especially because God is male and not female).  After all, "you shall not lie with a man as you would with a woman," as Leviticus tells us, lest you become . . . sort of like a woman.  And, as we have seen, that's the one thing you really can't and shouldn't do.  If I may be so bold as to rework Daly's formulation, in essence Longenecker's piece argues that "because God is male, then the straight male is God."

I appreciate Longenecker's piece for its honesty and clarity.  So much of the Catholic discourse in this area is dominated by code-words and dog whistles like "complementarity."  Longenecker cuts through all of that with a simple, straight forward taxonomy--God is male, male means not a woman, because God is male women are less then men, if you are a man then don't be a like a woman, gay men can't be priests because they don't reflect the right way to be male.  And there is no doubt that Longenecker is reflecting the bulk of the Christian tradition in recounting this formulation.

But I think this vision of human relationships is unsupportable empirically, destructive spiritually, and increasingly unworkable and incomprehensible culturally.  Pieces like Longenecker's strengthen my view that the entirety of the traditional Christian structure around gender and sexuality need to be chucked out the window and worked out from a blank sheet of paper, no matter the consequences.  Nibbling around the edges is not going to cut it; picking an choosing which things to keep and which to change is not going to work.  All of the seemingly peripheral issues, like LGBT questions, are the fruit of a poisonous tree, and that poisonous tree is the notion that God is a dude.

Daly argued that the notion of God as male makes all of the monotheistic faiths inherently toxic and to be rejected.  I don't agree--I do not believe that it is necessarily to burn down the entire forest to root out one poisonous tree.  But I also don't believe that pruning the sick tree is going to fix it, and neither is fertilizing it.  We need to cut out the sick tree, and we need to do it now.      


Popular posts from this blog

On the Amice and Ghosts

Two Christianities

Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea