[April 23, 2015]
Here are some other points, which didn’t find a place in the main essay. They are just random thoughts, and not arranged in any particular order. (I’ve included here the main points from three rambling essays on the topic that I posted in 2013, and taken down the latter.)
1. After Rod Dreher posted a link to my essay, “Why I Haven’t Spoken Out on Gay Marriage—Till Now,” a flood of comments flowed in to his blog. Several people rejected my statement that gay sex is damaging to the soul, saying that there was no reason people in a gay marriage couldn’t have a close relationship with God.
I responded that I wasn’t talking about a good relationship with God or a flourishing life, but rather a “specific goal.” And I was surprised to find myself deeply reluctant to say any more than that. I could not bring myself to explain the concept of theosis in a combox. I belatedly thought what I should have said was:
If you are in a gay marriage you may well be happy and well-adjusted and a credit to your neighborhood association. But you will not attain radical humility. You will not become a wonder-worker. You will not become totally fire.
2. Others asked about my assertion that the Church’s perception that gay sex is spiritually damaging is based on long experience, and will not change. I was told that gay marriage had never been tried before, so the Church has never considered this possibility, and might revise its belief.
But same-sex love has been known through the ages, and same-sex love is not, in fact, the problem. Same-sex sex is the problem. We’re all called to practice same-sex love, as well as opposite-sex love, because Christ’s command is that we love one another—that we love everyone. It’s not easy to do, and perhaps he’s the only person who has succeeded at it, but that’s the standard to meet.
Monasteries are places where same-sex love is particularly prescribed. It’s not easy to love others, so this is an ascetic discipline. Monks and nuns don’t have the option of avoiding people who irritate them; they have to go on having meals and sharing space with people they’d rather not see. It’s an ascetic discipline, as they keep trying to gain control of their rebellious hearts and practice love.
It is even possible for two people of the same sex to form a long-term, loving relationship with each other. Historically, this kind of love has been called “friendship.” It has always been held in honor, and appears in the Bible and throughout Church history. Examples of friendship-love among the saints are St. Zenaida and St. Philonella, St. Cyrus and St. John, St. Cosmas and St. Damian, St. Barsanuphius and St. John. This deep friendship can arise between two members of a family, such as siblings, or between people who met as children, or as adults.
Take for example St. Sophronius (AD 560-638) and St. John Moschus (AD 550-619). While still in their twenties these young men set out on pilgrimage through Egypt, Sinai, and Palestine. They wanted to see and hear the wise elders of the desert, and the book they wrote, The Spiritual Meadow, is a treasure of the Church. The two men were companions until death, and St. Sophronius fulfilled St. John’s final wish to be buried in Jerusalem.
Still, there are risks in such close relationships. In a monastery, the abbot will take care that other monastics not become resentful or envious due to a perception of favoritism. He will make sure the pair don’t become so invested in each other that they grow cold toward their fellow-monks. Also, their closeness must not tempt them into a sexual relationship.
For that is one more of the things the Church has observed, over these centuries and millennia. Same-sex love is a blessing, but adding sexual behavior to the relationship has a negative effect on spiritual progress.
This really shouldn’t be a surprise. Most of the great world religions teach chastity, and many have celibate monastics. We know instinctively that sex-fasting, like food-fasting, can lead to spiritual growth. But not everyone is looking for such challenges. If you prefer not to commit yourself to one of the ancient, demanding faiths, that’s your choice. There’s room in the world for all of us.
I only ask that my Church be allowed to go on believing, teaching, preaching, and practicing our faith. I don’t think I’ve heard gay people affirm that yet. Given the antagonism to ex-gay therapy, I’d like to know whether simply giving support to people who are trying to live chastely, encouraging and supporting them, is going to be forbidden.
I do think some of the rhetoric of oppression is overblown, but also hear enough anecdotal stories to believe that it can’t be simply dismissed. I would like to have a chance to look over all the evidence—some place people could tell the stories of what they have personally experienced, in terms of reprisals, but a place where the facts would be thoroughly checked. We need to shine a light on this problem, and if it’s no problem at all, that would be good to know, wouldn’t it? Let’s let these stories be told.
3. If I was not in favor of gay marriage, why wouldn’t I speak out about it, even if I found fault with conservatives’ other sexual behavior? Because I became convinced that you can’t persuade the other side, and you can’t persuade the middle. All that’s left is encouraging your own side, which is not nothing, but I didn’t have the heart for it. I wanted to persuade.
What’s more, I think protest can actually backfire. The simple storyline playing in the theater of the public mind is that gay people are victims of oppression. That’s a story that logically requires an oppressor. Since opponents of gay marriage have mostly learned to speak cautiously and humbly, the unending need for bad guys requires hatred to be picked out of even the flimsiest materials.
This accounts for media attention to Fred Phelps, even though his following consisted of a bare handful of people, mostly members of his family. Though his views were given wide publicity, Christians didn’t flock to him. His church did not grow, he was not in demand as a speaker, he didn’t publish popular books, because Christians considered his views repulsive. A bad guy was necessary to the story, though, so Phelps was kept ready for his close-up, year after year.
(Another reason that protesting gay marriage backfires: many people find it exciting to be disapproved-of. It throws gasoline on the fire. As Woody Allen said, “Is sex dirty? It is if you’re doing it right.”)
4. This insistence, that disagreement equals hate, was not always the default assumption. In a 2004 piece for The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot reported she could find little hate at a “Mayday for Marriage” event.
Her piece began, “It was hard to find anyone at the recent anti-gay-marriage rally in Washington, DC, who had a bad word to say about gays.” After quoting several participants, she observed, “All this careful sympathy for the sinner raised the question of how much appetite [gay marriage opponents] really have for a long fight against it.”
Since (it was presumed) proponents of traditional marriage were motivated by hatred, the scarcity of hardcore haters indicated to her a movement on its last legs. But you won’t read such a news story today, for the simple storyline demands that all opponents of gay marriage be inspired by evil motives.
5. I agree with others that what we say doesn’t persuade anyone, but a consistent witness in our own lives could. It did for the early Christians, who lived their beliefs about sexual morality, abortion, and divorce, despite the personal cost. Women were drawn to early Christianity in particular because it opposed their sexual exploitation, and defended their children in an era of rampant infanticide. Actions will always speak louder than words—but contemporary Christians’ actions in this area are not very eloquent.
6. A particular point of contention has to do with what restrictions or penalties that would be placed on those who serve the public, and believe gay marriage is wrong. One thing to note is that people of strong faith (all faiths) already know how to get along with those who disagree. We do it every day. The beliefs we hold about Jesus Christ are at the very center of our lives, and even more important to us than the gay issue. But the neighbors, co-workers, and shopkeepers we encounter in our daily lives might well not agree with that, and may think he was merely a prophet, or a fraud, or that he never existed. Despite this very profound difference in religious convictions, we get along. Why argue about it? What would be the point?
There will come situations that pinch, though, when people of faith are asked to do something that conflicts with their beliefs. Those who face that prospect should take time to think through exactly where they must draw the line. (For example, agreeing to provide appetizers for a gay wedding, but not the symbolic cake.) It shouldn’t need to be said, but only people holding a faith can define what it requires. We could not compel a restaurant-owner to prepare a food that he regards as ritually unclean. Nobody can tell him, “My desire to purchase overrides your private convictions.” Nobody can say, “No, your faith does not say that.” We must respect the right of people to define for themselves what their faith and conscience allow.
Those who do have such convictions may turn out to have more determined resistance than their opponents expect. I’m afraid this contested zone will have to be mapped inch by inch in coming years—mostly in court, sad to say.
7. There used to be a lot of debate over whether gay people “choose” their orientation. Yet it’s undeniable that, for many people, gay desire appears early and lasts for a lifetime. It’s often a distressing realization that they are different from their friends, and apparently destined for a lifetime of being different, an unhappy realization at the time.
It’s helpful for straight people try picture the kind of person they find attractive—tall, short, thin, stout, blond, brunet, whatever. Nobody is attracted to everybody –there are always preferences.
Now imagine how you’d feel if someone said that desire was unnatural and sinful. Would you be able, by an act of will, to desire another type? It’s not likely. Whether these desires are inborn or shaped somehow in early life, they sure don’t feel consciously chosen. They seem to be in a locked drawer somewhere inside, and we can’t open them up and rearrange things. We have no control over what we desire.
8. However we do have control over what we do. People restrain their sexual desires all the time. Just because you like redheads, you’re not allowed to tackle every redhead in sight. What’s more, sexual desire is only one part of what we seek in a loved one. There will be a number of other priorities we will try to keep in balance—a sense of humor, maybe, or an ability to listen, or loyalty.
We can’t control our passions (our desires), but we do control our actions. Today we think of sexual desires as mandating behavior; we assume these desires must be obeyed. But for most of history people have thought that this desire should be directed and controlled. It’s not the case that heterosexuals can have unlimited sex, but gays aren’t allowed. Not every straight person gets married. Not everyone’s marriage works out. Some spouses become sick in mind or body, and sex is no longer a possibility. The celibate path, down through history, is much more crowded with straights than gays, simply because of their numbers in the general population. Advertising pushes sex at us so relentlessly that it’s hard to believe, but you actually can live without it.
9. I speak of the spiritual path calling gay people to be celibate for a lifetime, but that’s not precisely true, for sometimes gay people form a romantic attachment to someone of the opposite sex. Sometimes they marry and have children, and love each other very much. It’s not to be expected that the gay person will become straight, in a universal sense; it may be that the person he marries is the only opposite-sex person in the world that he finds attractive. It seems that such a relationship grows most often out of something other than immediate sexual attraction. Strong bonds of caring and affection can sometimes develop into sexual interest.
I knew of a gay man and a lesbian who fell in love with each other (and married) while both were working in the offices of a gay-rights organization. You just never know.
10. The key to spiritual growth, in the Orthodox Christian path, is gaining increasing control over your thoughts. If you have tried to give up a bad habit, you know that it goes right back to thinking about the thing you desire; if you think about it, you make yourself increasingly miserable.
Part of the solution is to enlarge the strength of your “noticer,” the part of your mind that watches your mind. Instead of being swept off your feet by seductive thoughts, you gradually become able to see your thoughts as they approach, and evaluate them, deciding whether or not to entertain them. It’s no good to get upset about them and frightened, or angry at yourself. You just have to turn them aside and think about something else.
You can picture how that might work, in practice; thoughts that you succeeded in ignoring would weaken. And you would get stronger, in relation to them. Swiftly turning your mind to something different prevents the thought from taking root.
This approach can work for almost any habit you want to change. You have the right to do this, and you have the ability to do this, though at first it may seem weak. Practice makes it stronger. It is effective in any arena of life, and key to spiritual growth. I bring it up because people can greatly reduce the suffering caused by unwanted desires by building up the strength of their “noticer,” and getting better at recognizing unwanted thoughts and deflecting them.
11. The push for gay marriage is only the last in a long, long series of liberations that people—by sheer numbers, mostly straight people—have awarded themselves in the last few decades. It was the availability of contraception that first made the practical reasons behind “traditional morality” seem irrelevant. Before that, it was clearly advantageous to society to insist on a wedding before sex, and to support women who withheld sex till marriage. Single parenthood makes great demands on that parent, and needs overflow to the community that should have been met by the other parent.
But contraception made pregnancy appear preventable, and people gradually realized that they were free to do what they liked, as long as others didn’t disapprove. They also realized that not disapproving of others worked to their own advantage. There may have been good moral or spiritual reasons behind the traditional morality, but once the main practical reason (unwanted pregnancy) was gone, people felt able to do what they liked.
The lessening of disapproval naturally prompted many to try things they’d been too cautious to risk before. Ironically, that’s something that legalizing gay marriage won’t do; it won’t make straight people run right out and try gay sex.
This withering-away of traditional sexual morality has been accompanied by a similar withering of community bonds. We are free to be independent of each other’s opinions, partly because we are independent of each other’s help. People don’t need the good will of others in their families and neighborhoods as much as they used to. The people closest to us might be ones we know only on the internet, who are connected to us by bonds no stronger than likes and dislikes, with no practical obligations. That can work fine when you’re young and beautiful, but not so well when you’re older, in pain, or in need. We fragmented into solitary households, and while that can be delightfully free, it can also be painfully lonely—inexorably so, as the years march on.
Bob Dylan, of all people, put it forcefully in his March 2015 interview in AARP Magazine. He was talking about his new album of classic American love songs, and the interviewer asked if young listeners would find them “corny.” He said, “These songs are songs of great virtue. That’s what they are. People’s lives today are filled with vice and the trappings of it. … We don’t see the people that vice destroys. We just see the glamor of it.” We see the beautiful and enviable young people partying; we don’t see the 50 or 60 or 70-year-old whom no one wants anymore.
12. By the same token, the disintegration of community is hard on people who want to live by the old morality. These days, living without a romantic partner appears to be the same thing as living without love. But life without sex didn’t always mean life without love, for love used to come from many other sources. Families were less nuclear; leftover cousins and widows still had a place. Even if you didn’t have a romantic partner, you still had friends and family who felt you had a real claim on their help and love. Communities were closer. Neighbors kept an eye on each other. (That last was an early casualty of the sexual revolution, for we started to think neighbors should keep their eyes to themselves.)
Same-sex, non-sexual love is unlike romantic love in that it, obviously, doesn’t include a sexual component, but it can be every bit as strong. It is to our loss that the concept of nonsexual friendship love has largely vanished. Those bonds between men and men, and between women and women, run strong and deep, and are foundational to society. Under the traditional morality, it was never expected that people would live without love, or live all alone. Today, loneliness is epidemic. Let’s watch out for one another.
13. I wonder if a reason I wasn’t motivated to fight against gay marriage is that my parents had gay friends when I was growing up. I’m talking about the ‘50s and ‘60s, in the original “deep south,” Charleston, South Carolina. There was a male couple that regularly came to town, and they stayed as houseguests. My best friend had a gay uncle who lived with her family. The nice men who ran the small bookstore on King Street were a couple. Everyone knew, and accepted it, and if anything felt protective toward them. There was no doubt some patronizing stereotyping mixed in (“Gay people are so artistic!”)
I think seeing them so readily accepted had the opposite effect from being alarming or confusing, for it was clear how few of they there were. Marriages were all around us; almost everyone got married, and divorce was very rare. There were marriages everywhere we looked, and only a tiny few were same-sex. It was evidently an oddball thing, and not the kind of marriage we (most of us) would have one day.
(It was a funny thing because the grownups I recall were uniformly racist, despite being pro-gay. I remember someone in my parents’ generation being very upset because her house was on the market, and a black doctor with a wife and two kids was interested. “If he wants to buy it, there’s nothing we can do!” she said. “It’s the law, we have to sell it to him!” She was very relieved when it was purchased instead by a gay couple.)
14. I think what made it hard for people to grasp what I was saying is that we expect that people who stand on one side or the other have a specific set of beliefs, which fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. For me, I hold some of the beliefs but not all, and that was confusing to readers.
Where I differed was on a matter of strategy, not theology or faith. I am a member of an ancient Church, and it has far more accumulated wisdom than any revisionist theory today. I’m going to stand with those beliefs. But my strategic thinking was like this.
Picture how you’d react if someone came to you asking you to support an initiative to make gay sexual behavior illegal—gay people would be thrown in jail for having sex. I expect you decline to sign up. You’d think, firstly: “That wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t stop any behavior at all. It’s not even necessary to stop the behavior, since (as long as it’s private) the only people affected are the participants.” And secondly: “Opposing it publicly would backfire, and make us look mean. People already think of Christians as prudes and scolds, and this would make them even less likely to listen to us about other, more-important things.”
That’s how I felt about opposing gay marriage. I thought it would never work because the proponents will keep coming back, for decades if necessary, and never give up. And I thought that a gay couple in a neighborhood did not harm other families (having seen gay couples assimilated in the community when I was growing up), and that the state could not change the nature of marriage, no matter what word games they played, because the real meaning of marriage is so primitive and essential that it cannot be concealed. No matter how terms are rearranged or redefined, a rose is still a rose. Even if you call it a chrysanthemum.
I felt the only result of fighting that battle would be to make people hate Christians more. We wouldn’t achieve any good results, but only set fire to our credibility. To me, this was a choose-your-fights situation.
But it’s a whole different thing when Christians are persecuted for their views. It’s essential to stand up there. A friend of mine was talking to someone who teaches at a university. A student came to him privately wanting to talk about his sexual confusion, to get some guidance and think things through. And the teacher was frozen. He felt that he could not tell the student what he really believes, because if it got out he would be fired. And if he was fired, he’d never work at college level again, because he’d be labeled a “bigot.” Here was a student who was sincerely seeking his opinion and guidance; but the student had to go away with vague platitudes instead of the teacher’s honest guidance. Pressure like this will get increasingly intrusive. We’ll have to see what forms that takes, and resist it as best we can.
There are also the problems faced by Christians who bake, cater, photograph, or otherwise serve weddings. If I were a photographer or baker, and was asked to provide a service to a gay wedding, what would I do?
I decided I’d say yes. When God brings interesting people into my life, I usually think that he has done it for a reason. My job is to spend my time with them praying, listening to the Lord, and also listening to them—most people don’t get enough listening in life. And to help them if I can.
It seems like a spiritual opportunity to me. I might be the only praying Christian in their lives. I would pray for the couple as I made the cake, pray over every ingredient. I would treat them with kindness and gentleness. You never know. Nothing I could say at that moment about my faith would make a dent; they already know what Christians believe (or think they do; what they think is actually meaner than what we do believe). If the Lord is going to convey something he would have to do it directly. Maybe part of his plan is for me to be in the background praying.
Before his conversion Fr Seraphim Rose was living with a young man, one who came from a Russian background. His partner took him to visit an Orthodox church, and it changed his life. It was like lightning struck. Christians in the wedding business, praying in the background, kind and respectful, may be used by God to plant lightning rods, even if we don’t know it at the time.
15. Someone asked me whether I thought the Orthodox Church would eventually begin doing gay marriages, like other churches have. No, I would consider that impossible, because of the way the Orthodox faith is constituted. Some churches base their beliefs and practice on their own unique interpretation of Scripture; others base it on the theology devised by their founder, or on the decisions of a contemporary leader or board (or even on a vote taken during a convention).
But Orthodoxy bases its beliefs on what Orthodox believed last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. And the century before that. Orthodoxy is guided by community memory. Amazingly, this “memory” is consistent not only from century to century, but also from culture to culture. When I talk with Orthodox anywhere in the world, I find that we share the same spirituality, theology, liturgy, and practice.
(Where there are differences we know it is OK to differ; the test is, do worshipers keep advancing in union with God, are saints and miracle-workers still being made? We look to the results. In “Welcome to the Orthodox Church” I talk about how both music and iconography were westernized in Russia in the 18th century. Time showed that the new music “worked,” was consistent with transformation, but the iconography was too earthbound, and the old style is being resumed.)
I even find this similarity when I talk with Oriental Orthodox Christians (Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syriac, Malankara Syrian, and Armenian), even though we Eastern Orthodox have been separated from them since the 400’s. That’s three times longer than Protestants have been separated from Catholics. We stay the same, because we all go back to a common memory. Within an organization, even a very powerful leader can’t enforce unanimity of belief; to those who disagree, he only represents a target to be replaced by “someone who thinks the right way, like me.” But nobody can repeal the past. Orthodoxy has never practiced gay marriage, so it is impossible for it to begin.
I sometimes see Orthodox people argue for gay marriage, but they use the same arguments that non-Orthodox use; they don’t address this point, and explain why community memory could be wrong for 2000 years, but we are wiser today. (I think the evidence shows that we are far less wise today, and more spiritually insensitive on sexual matters.) I would think the only way to make that case would be to say that gender is meaningless.
Does gender mean anything? The consensus has been so consistent till today that it looks like there is a deep meaning to gender, one that was obvious to previous generations for millennia, but which we can no longer grasp. Sexual matters, which have a purpose and correlation in physical reality, have been separated and disproportionately emphasized in our time, and as a result we don’t have an instinctive sense of what they mean. But earlier generations understood it, so much so they never argued about it or needed to defend it.
I suspect there was a simple reason for that. For most of history, people lived right on top of each other—a whole family in one or two rooms, with livestock outside the door. There was no glass in the windows. Everybody knew what a woman in labor sounded like. Everyone, even children, knew about the physical and functional aspects of gender difference. The mechanics of reproduction were very familiar from childhood up.
Today we live such disembodied lives; we live most vibrantly on-line, in vertical silos, disconnected from those present in our physical world. There’s a lot of money to be made from the business of sexual temptation, so it’s no wonder that we’ve come to think that sex is solely about personal pleasure. But it’s a lonely world, and increasingly so as you get older, if you have sought only your pleasure and not built up a circle of friends and family who will stick with you to the end.
The meaning of gender is deep, and has everything to do with physical complementarity; it can’t be understood apart from that. A man and woman making love is “a profound mystery, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” says St. Paul (Eph 5:31-32).
Is gender meaningless, such that “marriage” is the thing, however you define it, and the physical attributes of participants don’t matter? No, it seems to me much more likely that gender differences mean something very profound and powerful, something that was so obvious to earlier generations that it was never controversial. In Orthodoxy, theology is done on a “need-to-know” basis, and up till now no one needed to have it explained. Maybe the time has come for the Church to do that labor, and put into words what it already knows.