Last week, I was invited to join Sherif Girgis (coauthor of What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense) to speak about marriage at the University of Notre Dame. This week, Ethika Politika has posted a pair of short essays on how American Catholics should move forward in their witness to the truths of marriage and family.
I’m working on a post that expands on my essay. In the meantime, I think Spiritual Friendship readers will find Sherif’s thoughts on vocation helpful.
Why are we losing the culture wars on family? One simple reason is that for years, young people have been told that our (natural-law, Judeo-Christian) vision of marriage is cruel.
That charge has been internalized. Many LGBT people my age don’t call us cruel for political advantage, or out of trained melodrama; they really believe it. Their belief doesn’t make our message cruel, but it makes their experience one of real pain. And pastorally, that’s what counts.
One thing we can do for these brothers and sisters of ours is to remind them of what they can do for us—of what we need them to do. For while fear of loneliness may give many LGBT youth pause about our ethic (a topic for another essay), I suspect a second common fear is of ennui or despair: the dread of being Christians “consigned” to singleness, with nothing positivedemanded of them, by the Church or the wider culture.
That is, behind the LGBT cry for dignity may be the sense that social standing comes from being needed by the community, which comes from having publicly recognized responsibilities—which nowadays only marriage seems to offer.
I’d suggest that Girgis, George, and Anderson (collectively, “GGA”) are losing for fairly simple reasons that Girgis seems not to understand, or which he at least wants to ignore.
First, straight folks long ago ditched the view of marriage that GGA espouse. In the West, we redefined marriage long ago. This redefinition has given us an institution that at least includes: (a) no-fault divorce; (b) remarriage following a no-fault divorce; (c) marriages mere agreements for sex and companionship; (d) the emergence of sexual, romantic, and emotional satisfaction as necessary elements of marital life; (e) marriage where most sex occurs with contraception and for purposes of recreation rather than for procreation; and (f) marriage that focuses on the satisfaction of the needs and desires of the contracting parties and that pays little heed to third-party obligations. It’s not that kids think that the GGA theory of marriage is cruel. Rather, they recognize that straight people chucked that view of marriage by the wayside long ago. So, the cruelty they see is the cruelty of asking gay people to conform to a standard that straight people discarded decades ago.
Second, in view of the foregoing, kids recognize that same-sex marriage is much more consistent with our culture’s marriage practices than GGA’s approach. Further, they recognize that their parents and grandparents seem to cling to certain stereotypes about gay people that don’t comport with their experiences with gay friends, classmates, and colleagues. They recognize that Christians often take the most extreme examples of gay people and generalize those in an unfair way to whole classes of persons. They see “conservatives” in the churches freak out over the election of an openly gay bishop who didn’t pay any mind to a straight bishop who denied the divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, and the virgin birth. Again, they see cruelty–unfair cruelty, in fact–but it’s not the kind of cruelty that Girgis supposes must animate their decision to reject his message.
I have some reservations about the wisdom of civil same-sex marriage. That being said, I see no legitimate reason to oppose it. Our culture long ago abandoned traditional marriage, and the church was largely silent throughout that process. In fact, in many cases, churches abandoned centuries-old views of marriage and sex to make Christianity more compatible with people’s new marital ways. Further, much of the opposition to same-sex marriage rests on limited and false stereotypes that bear little resemblance to most gay people today. Celibate gay Christians know this better than anyone. I was asked to leave my church (PCA) when I came out of the closet, despite the fact that I agreed to remain celibate. I tried out two other evangelical churches after that (EPC and ACNA), but received chilly receptions from the pastors when I told them my story. All three pastors said they felt that it was better for me to find another church because I was a danger to children. In other words, they had all come to believe the false stereotype promoted by conservative Christians that gay men tend to be pedophiles. So, now I worship in a mainline church that thinks I’m odd for wanting to remain celibate. Never mind that I only identify as gay based on my emotional attractions to the same sex, not my sexual attractions.
So, Girgis is right in perceiving that many find what he promotes to be cruel, but not for the self-gratifying reasons that he supposes.
“Our culture long ago abandoned traditional marriage, and the church was largely silent throughout that process. In fact, in many cases, churches abandoned centuries-old views of marriage and sex to make Christianity more compatible with people’s new marital ways.”
Bravo Evan, my sentiments exactly, very well stated.
Well said Evan. I have not been impressed with GGA for the reasons you state.
Well said, Evan, notwithstanding the fact that the ‘vocations’ he describes are quite generally freely embraced. You don’t simply enter a monastic order because you cannot get married. Gay people, on the other hand, have to maintain perfect continence and chastity as soon as the hormones kick in, no free choice there, no call (vocation). That compounded with the fact that those who now assert that this is no mere consignment to loneliness and call us to this heroism, nay, in their own words ‘greatness,’ were also the one who shortest loudest when it was popular to slap us down. I’m not buying it. In fact, it is a constant source of amazement that so many here can.
who shouted loudest, that is, Typo’s mine.
Karen & Lorenzo,
Thanks. In all of this, I think we can’t lose sight of the fact that there’s a fair bit of social construction that comes into play. Over the past 40 years or so, we have come to view marriage as requiring solid emotional, romantic, and sexual bonding. In fact, I daresay that this is probably viewed as the sine qua non of modern marriage. When that doesn’t occur, people divorce and try again.
That’s why being gay or queer isn’t necessarily reducible to one’s sexual desires. For some people, it may be, but not everyone. For example, I’m emotionally attracted to the same sex, but not sexually attracted in the same way. Even so, our culture’s prevailing view of marriage wouldn’t really work for me; I’d have to negotiate significant modifications from the social norm with my wife to allow me the liberty to make emotional connections with other men outside of the marriage. Today, most women would view that as cheating. Nearly all women today expect their husbands to avoid fostering any measure of emotional intimacy with anyone besides her. This was not always so, but it is so today. And that goes a long way to explaining why single guys are so lonely in the church: If any married person reaches out to them–even socially–it conjures up a kind of infidelity.
So, I do think we have to be a bit more creative about what we do with those in the church for whom our inward-focused “nuclear” view of marriage is unworkable. We also have to map that onto a culture that is ordered around coupling. I recently stopped by a restaurant to grab dinner. There was a sign on the door: “Between 6 pm and 9 pm, odd-numbered parties must pay a $50 surcharge for table seating and a $35 surcharge for bar seating.” I think there are a number of us for whom the standard gay-coupling narrative doesn’t work–either for religious reasons or simply because we don’t enjoy gay sex. In that sense, I appreciate the discussion here, as it seems to be centered around trying to explore social arrangements that may be suitable for those of us who feel disqualified from participation in conjugal marriage and who simultaneously have little interest in the types of partnerships that predominate in the gay community.
Even so, for must conservative churches, there’s little patience for working with those who don’t feel called to marry on the culture’s terms. They’d simply prefer that single people go elsewhere, at least if they’re not intending to settle down into a marriage at some point.
One appraisal I have with the call to greatness model is that, “ art, adventure, service, ministry or music or writing .. [as well as] deep and fulfilling relationships.” is actually a calling for all. So I am not sure it is a calling to greatness but rather a calling to human need and expression. Would it not be a common call to serve others and to use your gifts? Married people are artists, writers, musicians. Married couples are tireless volunteers in the church. I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken to evangelical families that go to Africa and South America on their holidays for the sole purpose of ministry and come back with stories of their adventure. I think human beings have a need which is above any pursuit or works or marriage contract, a need to be loved in order to love. That seems to be what was lacking in my life as a LGBT youth. And, I suppose because we are physical human beings we best understand what it means to be loved by other human beings first before we begin to understand how much God loves us.
Yes Kathy, all these things you mentioned are aspirations common to humankind. I do not believe in the particular ‘giftedness’ of gay people on that front. It always reminds me of Horowitz’s (I think) claim that there ‘are jewish pianists, gay pianists and bad ones.’ It’s not true. But the corralling us into certain vocations smacks of the ghetto.
Yes Lorenzo although I didn’t think of ghettoization as a comparison it does make the impression to me that LGBT people are being asked to find their calling as a subset of the church rather than equals.