June 25, 2012

Sex and Civilization

In spite of the efforts of some to insist that heterosexual marriage is the cornerstone of civilization, people of the same sex, committed to each other for life, and very often with the blessing of the church, have also made significant contributions to civilization. I’m referring, in case you haven’t guessed, to the religious orders. Renouncing procreation, these monosexual bands of committed persons saw the West through the rough times of the dark ages, preserved the wisdom of the past in their libraries and scriptoria, and in their industriousness — and I’m thinking in particular of the Cistercians here — moved into unsettled frontier territory and established outposts that would form the core of new cities.

I was reminded of this by a radio interview this morning with the monastic casket makers in Louisiana who are fighting the funeral lobby to be allowed to manufacture simple wooden caskets. I wish them well in their efforts to persevere.

Now, some might say, well this is a silly issue. No one would suggest that monastic life was morally questionable simply because it is monosexual. To even bring it up in the same breath as same-sex marriage is unthinkable.

Well, think again, or for the first time. For no one less than the venerable Karl Barth, in his tirade against same-sexuality and idolization of heterosexuality, did precisely that. Clearly he was operating out of his own homophobia, and not a small amount of Reformed Protestant anti-Romanism, but here is what he said:

Everything which points in the direction of male or female seclusion, or of religious or secular orders or communities... is obviously disobedience. All due respect to the comradeship of a company of soldiers! But neither men nor women can seriously wish to be alone, as in clubs and ladies’ circles. Who commands or permits them to run away from each other? That such an attitude is all wrong is shown symptomatically in the fact that every artificially induced and maintained isolation of the sexes tends as such — usually very quickly and certainly morosely and blindly — to become philistinish in the case of men and precious in that of women, and in both cases more or less inhuman. It is well to pay heed even to the first steps in this direction. (Church Dogmatics III/4)

Here is the ripe fullness of complacent and self-satisfied bigotry, ad hominem assertions, largely baseless, including the tendency specifically to “dehumanize.” It is good to know that late in life Barth eventually rethought some of this — too late to pen a full retraction, but only to express regret both for what he said and the lack of time to correct it.

Moral: Better to avoid offense than to need express regret.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Tim said...


You will forgive me but I find any defense of "traditional marriage" by a member of the CoE/Anglican communion to be laughable.

"Divorced, beheaded and died; divorced, beheaded, survived...."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes. It's a bit like Basil Fawlty's, "Don't mention the WAR!" Of course, in addition to the helpful mnemonix -- which I recall from junior high history class -- there's also the fact that Henry's advisers briefly considered bigamy as the solution, after the manner of the kings of old. Henry apparently savored the thought, but never went through with it...

Kevin K. said...

Wouldn't they be Non-o-sexuals?

Kevin K

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

KK, it is one of the misfortunes of our language that "sex" means both a state of being (male, female, or intersex) and an activity. It is sometimes hard to separate the two, even with the proverbial crowbar. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Didn't Barth require the "attentions" of his wife and one of his graduate students, a young lady who moved in with his family for years? How was this healthy?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

T.G., I know next to nothing about Barth's personal life, and wouldn't presume to judge the rightness or wrongness of his theology on that basis.