What I lose, though, particularly in the Diocese of California at times, is a sense of a thoroughgoing argument from the "other side," and for that I am grateful to Dan for courting conciliatory, candid, and civil discourse, even as he weighs carefully, along with his colleagues and bishop, the merits of his diocese remaining part of the Episcopal Church. Dan wooed me by gracing this blog with a comment or two, a sense of humor that brings some welcome perspective, and a truly pastoral and generous tone with those who would sharply disagree with him.
Again, I offer this discussion, or, as Tobias Haller more aptly puts, "engagement" for consideration and comment. Please bear with me faithfully in mind and heart, though, that this is a discussion between two heterosexual, married, male priests, at least at the outset. For that reason, comments from LGBT sisters and brothers and women will be important to bring fair and honest treatment to this conversation. My hope, as another Lenten discipline, is that this demonstrates patient, honest, thoughtful, and charitable argument at a time when our discussions are largely anything but. I will post the discussion here as long as it unfolds, and bear correction to my points in keeping with the thread of the discussion.
Note to the reader: parts of the discussion here are quite candid regarding matters of human sexuality. I have edited some of the comments for content so as to keep this conversation appropriate for as wide an audience as possible (apologies in advance to those whose comments I have seen fit to edit -- call it blogger's privilege.) Still, reader's discretion is advised!
In response to the original post, I commented:
Dan moved the discussion to this new post on his blog, and continued from there (further comments also appear on his post):
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
Dan moved the discussion to yet a third post on his blog:
To Mystical Seeker:
As a middle-aged male, making broad generalizations about the sexual satisfaction of women is way above my pay grade. Suffice it to say that I am aware of divergent testimony on the matter you addressed.
To Grandmère Mimi:
I take your point. How 'bout we agree that, as couples age, the libidinal disparity between the partners tends to increase, causing a de facto state of "enforced abstinence" on one of them.
Your prose is plenty elegant, but this is the first time mine has been accused of being post-modern!
First, let me remove any suspicion that I may have implied that you cross your fingers when you say the creed. That thought has never entered my mind.
I agree with you that an extended point-counterpoint exchange over a narrow range of subjects invokes the law of diminishing returns rather quickly. Plus, it just gets boring. I find it both more helpful and more interesting to explore the underlying suppositions that lead us to different pragmatic conclusions on the questions that vex the church we both love.
I'm not sure of all that this might mean, but it seems potentially significant that I tend to speak of "norms and exceptions to the norm" while you favor the language of "majority and minority" (presumably both within the range of "normal"). These two paradigms certainly have their similarities, but they are also importantly different. Why is it that you embrace one and I embrace the other--I'm suspecting, without a lot of conscious intent?
Here's a theory: It seems plausible that you (and many who share your point of view) begin with the pastoral reality that there are gay and lesbian persons who "profess and call themselves Christians," and from there seek to articulate an idealistic construct that supports a robust ministry of inclusion. In the meantime, I (and many who share my point of view) begin with an ideal that we perceive as divinely revealed, and from there seek to find pastoral practices that minister to those whose experience diverges from that ideal, but without sacrificing the ideal. Could this be a speciation of the distinction between the Top-Down and Bottom-Up methods of doing theology?
You have suggested that my position is based on ontology. As far as I know my own mind (which is a significant qualifier!), the distinction I want to make is less ontic than semiotic. It's about the sign value of human relationships--sign values that exist despite the particular qualities of particular relationships that may not literally manifest that sign. I will confess that my view is substantially similar, though not identical, to that of the Roman Catholic Church, in that I would contend that the telos of sexual coupling is ordered toward reproduction. That is the primary sign. There are other benefits, from the unitive to the recreative, but they are ancillary and cannot be divorced from the primary sign. Heterosexual copulation looks like something that can be fecund, even when, in any given relationship, it cannot. But that gets into territory we've already traversed, and I sort of promised not to do that!
Thank you for answering my questions so directly and clearly.
I don't have anything additional to bring to the conversation at this point, but I certainly want to leave the invitation open to you for further discussion either now or at a later date. Your blog or mine. . . :)
I don't think either of us expected to "solve" anything with our engagement here, but I have found it personally helpful to better understand your position and see how it is reflected to some degree in the current conflicts in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. And I am profoundly grateful for the space to attempt to articulate, albeit not all that adeptly, my position as well.
However much I may disagree with you regarding what we discussed here and stand in solidarity with my LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ, I still offer you my continued regard as a fellow Christian on the Way. And I certainly mean never to impugn all that is good, holy, and just in your life and ministry in the midst of God's people.
Please know my prayers are with you, the people of St. John's, and the Diocese of San Joaquin, in the ongoing hope that we may indeed yet find a way to remain in Communion together without sacrificing where we hear God's call to us and our communities.
Your brother in Christ,
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