Thursday, March 01, 2007

Engaging Richard

I'm opting to move my ongoing exchange with Bay Area (Marin County, no less) blogger and parish priest Richard away from the comment thread on an old post, and here to a more prominent position. This is a serious and civil discussion that I (and a few others, it appears) are finding quite stimulating.

By way of laying some groundwork for a specific response to your most recent volley, Richard, let me say something about signs and symbols--and by extension, sacraments--because I'm probably going to get into some further consideration of body parts, and I want to establish at the outset that I take seriously your observation that bonded relationships of the sort we are discussing, while they may include a sexual dimension, cannot be defined or even substantially understood by what partners do with their various body parts. One of the axioms under which I am operating is that, for human beings--who, in distinction to all other animals, bear the image of God--pair-bonded relationships participate in a symbolic vocabulary that is integral to the character of those relationships. They cannot be wholly understood only in relation to the symbols with which they are associated, but neither can they be even partially understood apart from those symbols.

An analogy may be appropriate (though it may also open a whole new can of worms!). For the Church's Easter faith, the Risen Christ is, to a quite substantial degree, symbolized by the Empty Tomb. The mere datum that the women found the tomb empty on the first Easter morning certainly does not exhaust the meaning and importance of the Resurrection. The Risen Christ, many have contended, is so much more than a resuscitated corpse. True. But, I would submit, it is at least that much. To proclaim the Empty Tomb is not a sufficient accounting of the mystery of the Resurrection, but it is a necessary part of a sufficient accounting. The Risen Christ is about more than the Empty Tomb. But he is surely not about any less than that either.

Human relationships that are presumed to have a sexual component--including, of course, marriage, and also the sort of same-sex relationships for which ecclesial blessings are being sought--are certainly about more than what body parts go where under what circumstances. To talk about the physical act of sexual intercourse is not to sufficiently account for the reality of those relationships. But neither are those relationships about anything less than their sexual component. In fact, their sexual component is an essential symbolic key to their character, even as the Empty Tomb is an essential symbolic key to the Resurrection (and this holds, some would say, whether one actually believes in the Empty Tomb or not! In the same way, sex remains an important symbolic key to understanding pair-bonded human relationships, even when the participants in a particular such relationship are not, or no longer, having sex).

Now to some of the specific questions you put to me:

With respect to whether certain covenanted relationships in the Bible can be read as connoting a homoerotic dimension, I cannot say that I am very impressed by this argument. Just using the venerable principle of Occam's Razor (i.e. all things being equal, the simplest explanation of any set of circumstances is probably the best one), to suggest that there was anything sexual between Ruth and Naomi is beyond speculative; it is fanciful. If they were lovers, why would Naomi coach Ruth on how to seduce Boaz? And to suggest the same about David and Jonathan ignores David's relationships with Michal, Abigail, Bathsheba, and possibly even Abishag. The existence of these women is especially compelling if one is invested in the notion that orientation drives behavior; David is clearly not "gay" as that term is understood presently. As for the centurion and his pais--Is not this precisely the sort of exploitative relationship that some "progressive" apologists suggest is being talked about--and condemned--by Paul in Romans 1? I don't understand how any of this helps your argument, Richard. I don't see how such examples "open the door" in the way you would like them to.

As I mentioned above, I appreciate your comments about not allowing the physical mechanics of sexual relations to dominate our understanding of human pair-bonded relationships. I realize there is a host of reasons why two people--whether of the opposite sex or the same sex--might want to set up housekeeping together and rely on one another in various ways. And I have no desire to put up roadblocks in front of people who want to know some companionship and love in a world that is too often very bleak and lonely. But, let's face it, that isn't what this whole mess we're in as a church and as a society is about. What it's about is bonded pairs of the same sex wanting to be married to one another "with all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining." The actual word "marriage" may not be used, but it is clear that what is sought is indeed marriage, even if by another name.

It is the very formality of such arrangements that makes them, in my view, morally objectionable. They presume to participate in the symbolic vocabulary of marriage, but they cannot, in fact, do so satisfactorily. They overreach. They may indeed enjoy some or even much of the "inward and spiritual grace" of the sacrament of marriage. (Trust me here: I'm going out on a limb saying this, and I reserve the right to scurry back to the trunk without notice!) But they cannot, by their very nature, share in the "outward and visible sign," and it is that outward and visible sign that we're talking about when the subject of public rites of blessing for same-sex relationships is on the table.

Same-sex relationships cannot naturally be signs of marriage; they have to improvise. Such couples cannot produce offspring as the fruit of their coition; they have to adopt (one of them, at least) in order to "start a family." Now, allow me to get a little graphic here--I apologize to readers who may be squeamish. Same-sex couples cannot even "have sex" without improvising. For two men to copulate, there must be a surrogate vagina. For two women, there must be a surrogate penis. (OK, I realize that latter situation is a little more subtle and complicated than my statement implies, but I think, on the whole, it still stands.)

Richard, you bring up evidence from animal behavior and other sorts of statistical indicators. It's late as I write, so I'm going to be perhaps a little more direct than I would like to be. (And I realize there are GLBT people "in the room" who have a quite personal stake in this, and who must feel as though I am being insufferably arrogant and condescending; I quite understand.) As a general principle, it is unwise to base policy on exceptional circumstances. I realize there is a certain percentage of the population for whom gender is an ambiguous experience. Such persons are real, and their experience is real, but they are exceptions. On the other hand, the phenomenon of gender polarity (what Tobias Haller likes to call sexual dimoprhism) is normative reality. It is the primary element in the symbolic vocabulary by which scripture and Christian tradition (and human experience across cultures) understand these issues that vex us. It is like the Empty Tomb, in that it is symbolically true even if one does not accept its literal truth. (For the record, I believe in the literal truth of the Empty Tomb.)

BTW, if it helps anyone to figure me out--the MBTI groupies, at any rate--I'm an INTJ.

I don't know whether I've wrapped anything up, but it's way past my bedtime.


R said...


Thank you for furthering the conversation. I am by no means willing to hang a proof on the biblical passages I mentioned. I said they are merely suggestive. The cultural realities of the passages in question made a thoroughgoing, life-long same-gender bonding impossible, quite clearly. Naomi and Ruth lived in a patriarchal culture where their best path to survival was to marry a man. David had a dynasty to consider and demonstrates the classic conflation of sex and power (whether he was "gay" in the contemporary sense seems to me beside the point). Nor do I dispute (and certainly would condemn in the contemporary context) the potential pederastic relationship evident in the centurion and his pais -- although, as I understand it, the pais may also have been a young adult male. At any rate, for the sake of conversation, I am willing to put these passages aside, only noting that they do not form the center of my argument and to avoid our conversation falling into the trap of dueling hermeneutics. There are many fine scholars who have made our points for us on both sides, so I have no desire at this stage to push this any further.

I want to first address your assertion: "It is unwise to base policy on exceptional circumstances." This points back to my early majority-minority argument in terms of sexuality (not only human but in the greater natural world.) I can agree with you this much: that marriage between a man and a woman is normative for much of the human family. That is not under dispute here, it seems to me. What is under dispute is whether or not normative should be equated with exclusive. And I mean not to imply, either, that this question has a clearcut yes or no answer on either side.

But returning to my earlier point (advisedly, but I recognize the danger of circling in rehashed assertions and counter-assertions), the ultimate unity that God desires should, in my view, take the exceptions fully into account. In fact, I would argue we do this already: for heterosexual couples who cannot bear children, others for whom sexual intercourse is impossible, etc. Part of the unity we are after, in God's name no less, it seems to me, is to draw the "exceptions" or, as I prefer to call them, minority situations, into the sacramental life of the Church. Else we continue to perpetuate the divisions of the human family that, it seems to me, Christ comes to end.

I appreciate your illustrations of symbolic/sacramental language, as they helped me better understand your position. I still hear, though, an ontological argument rooted in the precise natural purpose for various organs of the body, and that all other combinations are "surrogates." Surely you and I would agree that were it the case (as is seen in parts of the animal world) that human sexuality were merely for procreation (necessitating vaginal, heterosexual intercourse), that we would not be interested in it except for that. Rather, the broad experience of humanity, it seems to me, demonstrates that sexual contact of all kinds (this is a fuzzy boundary, as merely kissing is considered sexual in some very conservative cultures) can demonstrate affection and self-giving charity.

Your argument also appears to me to extend to other non-sexual questions, such as adoption (as secondary in desirability to, say, biological procreation? Or do I misunderstand you?) That such an argument would be perceived by many as offensive, I agree, but setting aside the offense for a moment I see a suggested hierarchical order that again is rooted in majority over minority witness, experience, or argumentation, with the potential danger of being oppressive in practice, particularly as it is institutionalized by the Church.

Taking sex off the table for the moment, many adopted children I know would not posit they are any less children of their adoptive parents than biological offspring are or would be. Something deeper than mere biology has been at work in their family relationships that has made them children of their parents. On the other side, there are also biological children who, for reasons of abuse or neglect, feel they are simply not children of their parents.

Likewise, there are spouses in marriages who essentially live entirely separate lives (save for legal contractual arrangements). While, by contrast, there are homosexual couples who lead deeply intimate and mutually nurturing lives with no benefit of societal or Church sanction.

My point is this: I continue to question the proposition that the combination of particular parts of the sexual anatomy forms a core or central symbol of the married state. I believe something else entirely does -- something in which the entire married state (sex and all) is subsumed. So I have difficulty agreeing with the analogy you draw between the empty tomb/resurrected Christ and heterosexual vaginal intercourse/married state.

As an aside, I do believe the former is central to our faith (To address for a moment your apparent caution, I am not personally interested at this point in disputing matters of historical fact in the first century -- rather that my articulation of "Christ is Risen" comes from the real, tangible ways I witness the Risen Christ at work in our midst. For this reason, I take serious exception to any suggestion that I say the Creeds with my fingers crossed. This has figured heavily into the debates elsewhere, and I have no intention of seeing it rear its ugly head here, if you don't mind.)

But to build analogy from this for the relationship between heterosexual vaginal intercourse and marriage illustrates a foundational disagreement we have about marriage itself. I posit the relationship of marriage differently (and I think I have some backup from the tradition itself), and that sex is not part of the foundational symbolic vocabulary of marriage:

1) Christian marriage is built first and foremost on the recognition and love of Christ in another and a life of exclusive self-giving commitment to Christ in that person (hence, the sacramental action). The recognition of Christ in the other is, in my view, the central symbolic/theological vocabulary for marriage. I must stress that even our current marriage rites and vows do not mention sex, except in the most tangential ways (as in readings, perhaps from the Song of Solomon -- and even then this is not the intention of having the Song of Solomon in the liturgy to begin with!) The heart of marriage is found in the relationship of self-offering between Christ and the Church.

2) From the essential actions of marriage -- covenanting (as God in Christ covenants with us) and householding, or setting up a life together -- flows God's grace in transforming both lives into something greater than a mere combination, but a new and greater life that bears fruit in the community: hospitality, in some cases children, in other cases gifts of creativity, or a combination of all three and more. In short, the couple together become more Christ-like for each other and the greater world than they might apart and single.

3) Sexuality is subsumed or servant to this core vocation of marriage. Sex between married individuals is only one embodiment of the self-giving and mutual joy that the couple share, pointing to the self-giving that Christ calls us into and the giving of Christ to the Church and vice-versa. But sex is only one way to demonstrate this. It is not ultimately essential to marriage.

4) Great care must be taken to avoid articulating marriage as the only desirable state for Christians. The single life can be seen as generative and transformational depending upon context. Clearly, the single and celibate life has been upheld by Christian tradition for ages.

Single or married are both vocational calls that are best discerned in and through the support of Christian community. Most of us live singly as a provisional vocation for a good portion of our lives, simply because marriage is not possible or desirable.

Gender, then, it seems to me, becomes far less important, although I will concede this demands of us a review of the traditional theological understandings of marriage (rooted in patriarchal culture) that Paul uses in some of his writing (Christ as the bridegroom, the servile Church as bride.) But, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Franciscans for centuries have posited men becoming "brides" for Christ, bringing this theological language out of essentializing male/female biology and reconciling Paul's language about marriage with other passages of his that in Christ there is no longer "male or female."

Again, none of this is to say that marriages between men and women will no longer be normative in the Church -- but again that is only because the natural majority of our members are likely to be heterosexual.

What is transformative and holy about all relationships, sexual or otherwise, is the divinely-inspired love that binds them together and utterly changes the make-up of the individuals over time through relationship. This is, it seems to me, more broadly speaking, the sacramental action and God's grace at work. It is this quality of the centrality of relational love that to me best parallels the empty tomb/risen Christ symbol. It also speaks to ways love works in Christian friendship, and puts sexual behavior in its proper context without, on the one hand, elevating it to idolatry, or, on the other, denigrating it to something casual or unholy.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Dan, a very interesting and civil discussion, indeed. What a relief to find such a discussion that does not include name-calling and ad hominem attacks. I thought the conversation needed a woman's touch, therefore, I chimed in. Because of my nom de blog, it is obvious that I am female and not young. I find that, more often than I would like, the conversation tends to circle around me rather than include me.

I call your attention to this comment of mine at Richard's blog, and, while I realize that it probably has little effect on the discussion between you and Richard, I think that your statement that I quote below is incorrect.

Dan, I must take exception to this comment of yours, "Men who are married to women their own age usually retain their sex drive quite some time after their wives' has waned." I don't think that is true at all. I have not, just now, checked out what surveys say, but if my memory serves me well, they show many women retain the sex drive well beyond menopause. A minor point, perhaps, but a reason why the women's voice needs to be heard.

Ofentimes, the men wear out before the women, thus the huge sales of Viagra.

Mystical Seeker said...

I wanted to comment on the statement that same-sex relationships necessarily involve improvisation, while same-sex relations do not. There are two problems that I see with that statement. First, there is the assumption that improvisation in sex is somehow bad, unnatural, contrary to the natural order, or otherwise proof of inferiority in the natural order of things. Second, there is the assumption that heterosexual couples do not, or are never forced to, improvise because of physical limitations.

Some heterosexual women, including those past menopause, don't lubricate particularly well. As a result, the couple has to improvise in order to have sexual intercourse. Some heterosexual men, frequently older men, don't achieve erections very easily. As a result, the couple has to improvise. Lubricants and viagra are two examples of improvisation that allow couples to overcome the limitations that their physical bodies have placed on them.

I would also point out that this idea that humans are ideally suited for heterosexual intercourse is belied by the simple fact that large numbers of women don't easily achieve orgasm through intercourse, if at all. God must have had a terrible sense of humor when he created the clitoris, because he created a situation where men and women are not quite perfectly suited for each other's sexual organs when they engage in sexual intercourse. Sure, intercourse often produces children just fine. But it is a terribly assymetrical situation that God created when it came to sexual pleasure--hardly an example of good planning on God's part, one could argue. The point of all if this is that many couples, if they want to please the female partner (and hopefully they do!), has to improvise in order to assure female sexual satisfaction. If the necessity for improvisation against the way nature made our sexual organs is some sort of proof that a particular sexuality is inferior, then from the problem of female orgasm I would say that we have proof that heterosexual intercourse is a violation of God's natural laws! (And the issue of the clitoris and the problem of female orgasm also illustrates the point that lesbians actually have no need whatsoever for a substitute penis in order to improvise with one another.)

The way that men and women please each other frequently involves improvisation. There are many ways that they can please each other, sometimes with artificial help, sometimes with manual stimulation, sometimes in other ways. Improvisation is natural. It's what humans do to make each other happy.

Sexuality among animals, especially primates, has evolved to serve all sorts of purposes. When bonobos, our closest relatives, use sex to resolve conflicts, that is built into the very nature of the species. And bonobos are quite the sluts, and they will have sex with others of either sex. Are they violating God's will? Of course not. They are carrying out their sexuality according to how they evolved, and this is perfectly natural for them. If bonobos stopped being so promiscuous, with both sexes, the entire bonobo culture would break down. The point is that we know from nature that there is nothing within the sexuality of primates (which includes us) that insists heterosexual intercourse as the only way that it can or should be manifested.

What makes human intellgence so wonderful is our ability to improvise, to overcome obstacles that nature puts in our way. If we didn't do that, we'd be stuck in the dark ages. Not only is there nothing wrong with improvisation, I think we should be celebrating it as an example of the triumph of the human imagination. And it is God who gave us that imagination. Thank God for that.

R said...

Mimi and mystical seeker,

Thanks for joining the conversation here! And thank you, Dan, for opening up your blog more for us to continue here. I am continuing to cross-post as we follow the essential threads of the discussion.

Charles said...


I trepidate and joining this conversation. All interlocutors seem practiced and fluent in these matters, I will gird myself and try to add something of value.

First, as the son of a Lesbian, I can certainly attest to the serious affection that is reciprocated between my mother and her partner. Holidays with my mother and her partner are the most pleasant and I dare say their hospitality (with all the attendant sub-sacraments of food, drink, music, and chatting) out stripes the warmth and conviviality of my hetero-sexual father and his wife. I just want to be on the record as one who is a beneficiary of the non-coital existential dimension of their relationship and of its natural loving outreach. I would also like to say that I have a dear friend in my mothers partner, for whom I have the most earnest affection.

Second, I do agree with Father Dan, though I can not articulate it nearly so elegantly in such fine post-modern parlance.

Richard, I would respectfully take issue with you on a couple of points in hopes that you would respond to them in kind. Before I begin though, I assume that we can all agree that what one does does not create or underwrite one's nature (in an ontological sense) -- in essence, you are "not" what you eat. I say this because I see this as a philosophical error articulated by both hardened Protestants who argue for capital punishment on the grounds that the person has forfeited his own human nature, hence the jus of life, and on the other hand from certain progressives that seek warrant for certain types of behaviors since it must be a kind of expression which underwrites their own identity (without which they would auto-extinguish). Keep in mind, I am saying this with the full realization that, as you say, there is a "kind" of sacramentality (in a literary sense -- like in Moby Dick where Queequeg and Ishmael share the marriage bed) that is achieved in the common life of same-sex partnered persons. I, like Father Dan, reserve the right to qualify this if pressed.

Moving on, I do not think it is sound that we appeal to your political metaphor to qualify the moral shape of partnered relationships. Now, there is a way in which I am totally wrong, but hear me out. I think there is a tad of abuse going on when we take the hoi oligoi , whoever they may be, and plant them next to the poor and the peacemakers because as a factor of volume, they are all in the margins. In essence can we morally exonerate minorities qua minorities. Likewise, I would defend patriarchy against the stigma it has accrued. I will use a common shibboleth of the Republican Party to prove my point. Republicans are know in times past to say: "Small government is good government." We all know this is false. It should be "Good government is good government." By this I mean, patriarchy is not bad, rather, bad patriarchy is bad. By the same token, there are good majorities and evil minorities. Likewise the possession of a monopoly on violence as a factor majority, or imagined majority (the police don't put you in jail, the people do) does not make a majority bad, pernicious, or implicitly corrupted. We cannot exploit some prevailing cultural (or sub-cultural) abstractions by trying to have them do the work that only persons can do.

Next I would go on along the same lines as Father Dan and start bloviating about ontology and teleology, but it is also past my bedtime. I will return soon.

in XC,

R said...


Good that you joined the conversation. If I understand your two counter-points correctly:

1) I have no intention of arguing that behavior must be accepted if people argue it underwrites their identity. Indeed, we would be agreed some very bad actors in both history and probably our own lives have argued such to defend wickedness. My argument does not set aside that we must measure the fruits of the relationships that are seeking holy blessing. This applies to heterosexual marriage just as much as homosexual, in my view. No priest is obliged to marry anyone. What I am arguing against is assuming a priori against homosexual unions on the grounds that they are a) ontologically impossible (which experience seems to demonstrate to me is false), or b) they are fundamentally flawed in some sense (which would point to pathology -- either spiritual, clinical, or both). Again, I do not see this as the case.

2) Your second point is well taken, and perhaps I got the proverbial cart before the horse. Again, it was not my intention to argue all minorities are good ones. I assumed the minority in this case (LGBT) essentially as created in the imago dei. I think where there might be some misunderstanding is that I was not intending a political argument per se, but one rooted in majority/minority manifestations of biology (sexual orientation), that have no intrinsic moral dimension except as we act on them. That much, I hope we would agree. Where the question does become political and ecclesiological is in how we address the call into sacred relationship in the LGBT community, or how we (as has occurred historically) dismiss this as aberrant or unnatural, or worse. Oppression is a reality, and I mean nothing liberal nor conservative by that statement. It just is. It is well documented, it seems to me.

I will not endeavor to argue with you here regarding patriarchy -- surely we have all known truly benevolent patriarchs! You have certainly called me out, though, on my biases, so point well-taken. Again, though, I believe this is tangential to my central argument:

That the scriptural and traditional witness is that relationships are blessed by God where they are bearing good fruit in community and discerned as Christ-filled. That in Christ there is no longer male nor female, at least in any ontological sense. And my personal witness is that LGBT Christians who oare so called can and do (with or without the Church's support) enter holy unions that show all the primary fruits of Christian charity that heterosexual marriages can, and therefore should not be denied the blessing of the Church, inasmuch as it publicly hallows what is good and gracious in the lives of the faithful.