Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hiatus Thoughts

It never ceases to amaze me that all the truly interesting and important things tend to happen while I'm out of town!
After a day of tootling around Guam with Hiroko, Daniel, parents, and in-laws (and having a good time!), and on an evening before Hiroko and I renew our vows as a married couple before our family and God's people, I sat down to read more about the California Supreme Court decision to overturn the ban on gay and lesbian marriage. The decision itself strikes me as remarkable in the careful distinctions it draws. Tobias Haller lifts up some of the important points of the ruling germane to assertions regularly made in opposition to same-gendered covenants. Bishop Marc has already offered a response to the decision, and the San Diego Union-Tribune posts a report that contrasts the views over the question: is this at root a civil rights issue, or a religious-spiritual one?
My response is fundamentally this: What's the difference? How we treat one another both in terms of rights and policy as well as personally is profoundly spiritual. It stems from the summary of the Law that Jesus quotes in his teachings. It is Gospel, it seems to me.
On the related question about the place of the Church in all this business about marriage, I'm of a school of sacramental theology that thinks thus:
  • Two adults "marry" one another when drawn together by God -- nobody marries them. In this way, marriage is a human response to the mystery of a divine gift: mutual desire and self-offering for companionship, stability, and intimacy. Sexuality in its broadest sense (not narrowly defined as intercourse), is a manifestation of this desire, and it therefore has a strongly sacramental character when expressed in the context of prayerful, loving covenant.
  • The state, not the Church, confers the legal rights, protections, and responsibilities that support the resulting (expanded) household. In this way, the state defines the public/political dimension of marriage in regulating the household as an economic and legal entity.
  • Marriage as an institution is largely human in origin. Adam and Eve, contrary to the myth we all seem to have inherited, were not formally married! I note, too, the important witness of numerous couples who have lived for years in healthy covenant without engaging in a formal public union. Moreover, Jesus seems to stress this point about marriage as human institution in Mark 12:25 and Matthew 22:30. History and tradition tell us that marriage has evolved greatly over time, and it was a late comer to the sacramental ministry and mission of the Church. I find that its record in the hands of the Church is, at best, ambivalent. At worst, it has had a corrupting influence and has been abused in numerous ways as a tool of control. For this reason, the Church remains in a state of recovery -- I hope with a strong dose of grace -- when it comes to our theologies of marriage.
  • As far as Christianity is concerned, baptism trumps gender. Indeed, the vocation of new life in the Risen Christ explodes the notion that biological and social distinctions are essential to God's work and blessing. Every human institution is subjugated to the saving grace of Christ and re-ordered as a result, not least of which is marriage. Paul in his letter to the Galatians makes perhaps the most succinct assertion of this critical theological point: ". . .there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (3:28 -- NRSV)
  • With that in mind, I believe the Church ought to publicly affirm Christ's blessing on a couple (gender notwithstanding) and their shared household only after they have discerned with the body of the faithful that their covenant is an extension of their baptismal vocation. This is the function of a Christian marriage liturgy -- nothing more or less than that.
  • Christian marriage and Christian solitude are both mysteriously (and somewhat ironically) about building and nurturing Christian community. For this reason, the Church still has a great deal to learn from our monastic traditions about helping Christian adults discern the spiritual and practical dimensions of life-long vows, the very real call of single adulthood, and what it means in both cases to live with others in fruitful communion in Christ.
  • A word about procreation and marriage. . . Of course children, biological or adopted, benefit along with other family members, friends, and the broader community from the expanded, stable household generated by a healthy marriage. I love my son dearly, and I have learned that parenthood is just as much a vocation as marriage! However, I strongly disagree with the apparent position of Roman Catholicism and other more conservative theologies which continue to argue that biological procreation (or its potential, however improbable) forms an essential ingredient of a fulfilled marriage. To paraphrase the late Ed Friedman, good parents learn not to place the weight of their individual salvation (or the salvation of their marriage!) on their children. Essentializing procreation seems to me to have its roots in the worldly endeavors of perpetuating inheritance, preserving the institutional church through time, and building and sustaining other human institutions like the nation state. But this priority on procreation fundamentally distorts marriage as a sacramental icon for all human covenants and perpetuates a myth that has profound consequences for the human family and our companion creatures. Indeed, we have interpreted the command to be "fruitful and multiply" too narrowly at our own peril, our children's peril, and, as we are increasingly learning, the planet's peril.

I should add that I feel very fortunate to be in a part of the Church that has done extensive work on this subject already, and to be sharing ministry with friends and colleagues who have been on the forefront of the theological recovery in this area.

As a post script, Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire offers a strikingly personal and yet pastoral reflection on his ongoing work and ministry in an interview with the Church Times. Truly, he re-defines "grace under fire." Very much worth reading. . .