We Don’t Need No Water…

We Don’t Need No Water… August 25, 2019

A couple thoughts on the Pauline counsel, “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” as applied to gay people.

Now and then I’ve heard the argument that the Church must bless gay marriage, because mutual care and sexual fidelity are preferable to either isolated despair or promiscuity. This position often goes along with an argument that lifelong celibacy is impossible and spiritually damaging for most, and available only to those who have a “gift” for it (citing here Matt 19:11, “Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted”).

I’ve been hesitant to jump in to this discussion for three reasons: I haven’t read the in-depth presentations of the progressive arguments, only small excerpts (like this round-up of quotations from Karen Keen); this argument is often pressed in response to real anguish people have experienced in trying to live out celibacy; and while I am not personally good at celibacy, I am also spectacularly uncomfortable talking about my personal life in public. I’m going to try to say some useful things here nonetheless, but figured I would let you know where I’m coming from and what I can’t or won’t address. Gabriel Blanchard has also started a series of short posts on this topic, which I’d recommend. (ETA: maybe esp the third post.)

I’ve written before about overemphasizing “gift” or “discernment” in the spiritual life rather than acceptance. We have relatively little choice in our lives and God will ask us to do things we aren’t good at. There are things you have to do even if you don’t know how, simply because of your life circumstances. What can be said in response to the pain of repeated failure to live in the way you believe God is calling you to live? Gabriel cites Job and Ecclesiastes, and that strikes me as wise. Sometimes it’s helpful for me to remember all the ways other people find themselves “called” to deprivation or suffering; sometimes it’s helpful to remember that lots of people desperately want to marry and can’t, for reasons which are often harder to accept than being gay. (I don’t stay up nights wondering why I’m not married, you know?) I volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center and that’s a place where you’ll see people confronting an unchosen calling, an unwanted form of love and service, precisely because of their heterosexual emotions and actions. Sometimes it’s helpful to restate the cultural critique: “If we can’t accept Church teaching because it seems to impose a difficult sacrifice on people who are already lonely and outcast, maybe it’s the ‘lonely and outcast’ part we should be trying to change.”

But in the end all of that stuff is often just words. Words against suffering. Who do you think will win? In the end you can’t always soften it. You have to say, This is what I believe to be true.

I just read Kyle Harper’s From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, in which he notes that St Jerome read Paul as arguing that marriage is an acceptable “lesser evil.” But that view was pretty roundly rejected. It seems to me that a better reading (reading with the Church, and also reading Paul with Paul and not against Paul) is, “If you can’t do the best thing, do a good-enough thing.” The marriage that is being recommended here as good-enough is monogamous, opposite-sex marriage. “If you can’t do the best thing, do a thing nowhere praised in Scripture and condemned everywhere it’s vaguely approached” is a very, very different ethic.

If you look at individual lines of Scripture in isolation, the picture for gay people is very bleak. Gay marriage is nowhere imagined and gay sex is nowhere praised–nowhere are these acts used to teach us how God loves us and how we are to love Him. Gay sex appears not as the occasion for covenant but as the focus of condemnation. But if you look at Scripture seeking patterns, seeking the love story, you find something surprising: You find same-sex love praised and exalted. You find love between men and between women used to teach us what love is; what covenant is; what fidelity is. You can read these passages against one another and say the covenants of Jonathan and David, the promises of Ruth and Naomi, override the sexual ethic laid down in Paul and accepted throughout the early Church. Or you can read the sexual ethic as inextricable from the love story of God and the human soul, and conclude therefore that marriage isn’t the only kind of covenant which can be an image of God’s love for us.

That conclusion will still leave a lot of lonely, aching people. I don’t think renewing older forms of kinship will “solve” the problem of gay longing. But of course no change in our approach will “solve” everybody’s loneliness, unfulfilled desire, physical aching. What I hope we can gain from reassessing Scripture’s portrayal of same-sex love is a different relationship to the Bible.

When I was first kicking this post around I found myself instinctively saying “Scripture” when I was talking about the beauties and hope it offers us, and “the Bible” when I was talking about what it condemns. I wondered why I did that–is it an American thing? Maybe, but I think there’s some potential insight there. “The Bible” focuses on the Bible as a book: an object, which the reader approaches from outside and with which the reader interacts in isolation. “Scripture” focuses on the act of inspired writing: the relationship between the human writer and the Divine source. Both phrases highlight the question of trust. Why should I, the reader, trust the Bible enough to sacrifice and suffer for its rules? Perhaps because of the love which flowed between God and the author. Perhaps because I can see some important aspect of even my stigmatized or misunderstood loves in David, from whom flowered so many Psalms, and Ruth, one of the only women to give her name to a book of the Bible.

I’m pretty convinced that in this life you gotta obey, a lot of the time, even when it’s awful and you don’t understand why. I’m also pretty well-informed that that perspective can justify abuse and manipulation. I’m not sure there’s a perfect formula which will always distinguish between abusive and nurturing command. But one (imo) helpful framework is whether the commands are given by someone who shows contempt for me. Even sacrifice and professions of love can be mere weapons in an abuser’s arsenal, but eventually the contempt comes out–the unwillingness to view me as fully human. Scripture obviously shows God’s sacrifices for us–for gay people–and it’s full of professions of His love. What I find maybe more compelling is that He offers us models of love, which our own church cultures try to forget; a god who holds us in contempt wouldn’t bother, I think.

Picture of a house on fire via Wikimedia Commons.


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