I had a piece published yesterday over at First Things on how we might avoid moralistic striving in the same-sex marriage debates in the church. Drawing on the work of the twentieth-century French Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, I talked about the need for grace to pervade the way we talked about sexual holiness:
Sexual abstinence is not an end in itself, [Mauriac] says, undertaken to demonstrate one’s own moral heroism. Our purity of mind and body is rather, firstly, for the sake of love for Christ—“His love does not allow any sharing”—and, secondly, for the sake of those whom Christ loves, for the sake of honoring the sanctity of the bodies and souls to whom we are attracted. “We have to be pure,” Mauriac writes, “in order to give ourselves to others, for Christ’s love is love for others.”
And the only way such purity is achievable in Christian lives is not by white-knuckled effort but by receiving a love whose sweetness somehow exceeds what we naturally think we want. “Christ,” Mauriac concludes, “is ready to substitute Himself in a sovereign and absolute way for that hunger and thirst, to substitute another thirst and another hunger.” The Sermon on the Mount is more carrot than pitchfork: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” The allure of the beatific vision, not the threat of punishment, is what Jesus uses to motivate the ascetic regime.
In retrospect, I’m not sure “against moralism/Pelagianism” was the right way to frame my essay. I think what I was attempting to critique is maybe more accurately described as “triumphalism.” On the pro-Christian-same-sex-marriage side, so much of the rhetoric can make it sound as though gay marriage is basically tantamount to salvation for gay people. Finding a same-sex mate and being able to express oneself sexually is given such elevated importance in these sort of statements that it really can sound as if being saved were at stake. I don’t know a better word for it than triumphalism.
But on the other hand, traditionalist Christian arguments for abstinence from gay sex can come off as just as blithely optimistic, as if sexual discipline were (a) pretty simple and easy to put into practice and (b) in and of itself somehow grace-giving. And that’s equally triumphalistic in its own way. I wanted to try to write a piece that would counter both of those emphases.
I often think in this connection about a pithy little line from the Christian writer Rodney Clapp: “Early Christians were seen as atheists because they rejected the proposition that Caesar saves. Christians [today] would be little less revolutionary in their ‘atheism’ if they now rejected the proposition that sex saves.” Amen.
And I would just add that we traditionalists/conservatives could be pretty revolutionary in rejecting the idea that celibacy or “traditional marriage” saves either.