September 24, 2012

Thumb on the Scale

The folks at Fulcrum have published what purports to be a theological examination of the difference between marriage and same-sex partnerships. The well-meaning author takes the actual difference (the fact that mixed-sex marriages involve a man and a woman, and same-sex partnerships don't) and then attempts to show how one measures up to a purported standard and the other largely doesn't.

The essay starts well, but gets worse and worse as it goes on. The first section acknowledges that as far as love goes, all couples can on balance fulfill that divine command. But after this hopeful start, things go quickly awry, and the rest of the paper seems not even to take account of points laid out in the opening section.

The second section starts with a concise restatement of a position that is out of keeping with orthodox theology, i.e., that "Heterosexual marriage...  reflects the Unity within Difference seen in the godhead." Now, as anyone who has studied systematic theology knows, there is no "difference" in the Godhead. There is only one "substance" in three "persons." The whole point of the Trinitarian Symbol is that the persons are persons but not "different" from each other in their substance -- that is the paradox that gets lost when one simply talks about human activities like marriage, or family, or social institutions as symbols for the Trinity. It doesn't work; and if it did Trinitarian theology would be ever so much simpler! It is far better to stick with the actual symbolic use of marriage in Scripture: signifying the relationship between God and Israel, or Christ and the Church. Marriage does not reflect the inner workings of the godhead, at least not in the way this author suggests -- where it does, a same-sex couple can do so as well, in accordance with the first section of the essay: for what binds the Godhead inwardly is the essence of God as Love (not as difference) and love is universal.

The third section goes awry on the usual special pleading about procreation, including the caveat that it is talking about the "norm" and leaving to one side infertile, elderly, and other couples who do not fit that norm. The problem in this should be obvious, yet it is a logical slip made again and again on that side of the debate: you cannot argue from a norm with exceptions when we are dealing with something exceptional, and when there is an uneven application of the very principle at hand to allow some exceptions and not others. If procreation is essential to marriage, then no one who cannot procreate should be "married" (but allowed to have a "union").

The final section is the most troubling both theologically and morally. It concludes by asserting, "It is not possible to both affirm the incarnation and assert gay marriage." On the contrary, it is not only possible, I have seen it; in fact I've done it! The author seems to suggest -- it is hard to tell as the idea is so strange -- that somehow same-sex relationships are not "physical." I confess it is very hard to understand whence this strange assertion comes, though it is not uncommon on that side of the divide. In this case it is particularly perplexing as the author recognizes the physicality of eros in the first section of the paper. Indeed the problem most people have with same-sex relationships is the physicality -- if these were simply consecrated friendships few would mind them or take notice; and we all know the age-old "cover" for such relationships was, "they're just very close friends." Though, I hasten to note, even friends are physical -- in their being and their doing. Everyone lives in the real, physical world, and every person has a body, a real body, just like Jesus.

This whole idea that same-sex marriage has a gnostic, docetic, dualist or immaterial underpinning is fantastic. Gay and lesbian people are just as real and physical as anyone else, and for that matter, each is different from any other as any two persons are -- difference is not just about gender or sex, but the radical individuality of each person made in the image of God -- this is where the real "unity in difference" comes in!

I applaud the irenic tone of Grayshon's article, but it misses the mark by 75 percent.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


JCF said...

Yikes, he lost me here:

I have every confidence that we are one in Christ for we share orthodox views of the incarnation, the work of the cross and the resurrection. (3rd sentence in)

Salvation thru "orthodox views"? The Christ I know/knows me is about grace.

...and then the next sentence,

we are struggling towards sharing fellowship in a way which admits the pain and presuppositions (nay, prejudices), wounds and bitterness known by each

Pity the poor heterosexuals, and their "pain...wounds and bitterness" (victims of "presuppositions, nay prejudices") from Those Darn Homos!

My blood pressure here bade me bail...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, JCF. Glad you highlighted that point about "wounds." It is difficult for someone like me to grasp, as I am one who welcomes correction or new information; but many in the conservative wing of things actually do feel personally assaulted or undermined when their world-view is challenged or contradicted. This is the danger of an ideological mind-set; one based not on a close reading of reality, but on the presuppositions and prejudices one mistakes for truth. The sad thing is that such folks are victims of their bondage to an ideology. When reality dawns, they discover they've been embracing a monster, and are not happy!

Christopher said...

In his book, After Our Likeness, Miroslav Volf makes a cogent reminder that unlike the Persons Three, human persons (and presumably any creaturely person) do not perechoretically inhabit one another and cannot. On the level of creatures, in my words, we are limited and finite in ways the Trinity are not, and so, if there is an imaging of this on our level, it is limited and finite and appropriately social to our being, which means we must look at rights, responsibilities, ethics, and moral ascetics of persons and consider a particular matter in these terms precisely because creaturely sociality and society are not perechoretic.

Moreover, as you remind us of our Anglican way, exceptions are always placed within the framework of the common case law, a la Hooker, so that a purely abstract "natural law" is given real flesh by examining the particular presenting case, including the exceptions, within the full load of previous cases. What we seem to have in the matter of same-sex sexuality is a very strong self-bias on the part of many heterosexuals to be lenient when the exceptions involved are heterosexual and a very strong self-bias against homosexual sexuality even when the heterosexual exceptions we are most like in terms of moral ascetics and share virtues across the generality of same-sex sexual relationships should give grave pause before proceeding to suggest they fall outside the exceptions to which we compare in case law.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Christopher, for the helpful reference to Volf. It seems to me people make a huge mistake when they begin to take the "persons" of the Trinity as if they were "people." Hypostasis and persona are really pointing in another direction; and as Volf would say, perichoresis is not really like marriage, not only in degree but also in kind. Again, it is best to stick with the Scriptural witness and affirm that the couple "become one flesh." The Trinity does not "become" the Unity, and the Trinity is not the Unity, rather each person individually (and not by combination) is God, while not being each other. This bears no resemblance to marriage. Interestingly enough, the very "complementarity" argument of which some conservatives are inordinately fond contradicts the "imago dei" argument. Of course, I hold both are in error.

Thanks also for noting the strange exceptionalism of the Fulcrum argument. I approach it from the evidentiary side: their argument only holds if they can eliminate the evidence to the contrary a priori. Hardly a sound way to proceed to a logical or faithful conclusion.

Thanks for your contribution to the discussion!

David Shepherd said...

Hi Tobias,

I'd agree with you that the author's comparison regarding the Trinity is ill-founded.

I found the former Cardinal Ratzinger's (Pope Benedict) 'Concerning the notion of person in theology' to be one of most cogent explanations of the Trinity in modern times. He starts with Tertullian's Adversus Praxean', the idea of God revealed as dialogical in being (Let us make man, the Lord said unto my Lord) and that 'person' must be understood as relation. In Deo nihil secundum accidens dicitur, sed secundum substantiam aut secundum relationem' said Augustine: In God, there is nothing accidental, but only substance and relation.

'Relation, being related, is not something superadded to the person, but is the person itself. Put more concretely, the first person does not generate in the sense that the act of generating a Son is added to the already complete person, but the person is the deed of generating, of giving itself, of streaming itself forth. The person is identical with this act of self-donation.'

The language is not of essential substance, but of one essentially relational being. In contrast, marriage that involves the earthly union of partners who are diverse and delimited from each other.

Nowhere in scripture is human marriage a symbol of the Trinity. However, representing the transcendent through fleshly union is often a basis for idolatry and to be avoided.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, David. It is good to agree on something from time to time!

I think that is precisely the problem with the argument in this essay -- confusing the relational and the personal. I know of one Eastern Orthodox author who insists that the distinction of the persons is only to be understood in terms of relation -- which is why filioque is so troublesome as it confounds part of the original formula.

Your closing point is on the spot. Some of this language begins to sound much more like hieros gamos than orthodox Christianity.