Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hound of God

There was a mind-boggling article on the Guardian's website this past weekend.  I'm still trying to make sense of it.  Here's the core, um, argument:
It seems obviously fair and right that if straight people can get married, why not gay people? But we must resist the easy seduction of the obvious. It once seemed obvious that the sun revolved around the Earth, and that women were inferior to men. Society only evolves when we have the mental liberty to challenge what seems to be common sense.

Many Christians oppose gay marriage not because we are homophobic or reject the equal dignity of gay people, but because "gay marriage" ultimately, we believe, demeans gay people by forcing them to conform to the straight world ...

Cardinal Basil Hume taught that God is present in every love, including the mutual love of gay people. This is to be respected and cherished and protected, as it is by civil unions. But to open up marriage to gay people, however admirable the intention, is ultimately to deny "the dignity of difference" in the phrase of the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. It is not discriminatory, merely a recognition that marriage is an institution that is founded on a union that embraces sexual difference. It is not a denial of the equality of the love between two gay people, for all love is of infinite value.
According to his Guardian profile Timothy Radcliffe, the author of this piece, "is an English Dominican. He was Master of the Order of Preachers from 1992 to 2001. His latest book is Take the Plunge: Living baptism and confirmation."  As a piece of writing it's standard theological word salad; a friend once said of a similar work that you could rearrange the sentences at random and they'd make about as much sense.  Come to think of it, Radclyffe's piece reads as if someone already did rearrange the sentences at random.  (I love his repudiation of common sense, by the way.  As usual with such people, though, he has it backwards: common sense tells us that marriage is supposed to be be between Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.)

I have my own reservations about same-sex marriage, civil or religious.  But I think it is up to gay people, individually and collectively, to decide whether they want to demean themselves by "conforming to the straight world."  It's no news that many of us can't wait to leap into that sinkhole of degradation.  Radcliffe wants you to believe that he's liberal, by prating about the beauty and equality of the love between two gay people, but I am pretty sure I've heard this kind of argument before: Women don't really want to go to college and pursue professions; that would be a denial of their essential femininity.  Blacks don't really want to be equal to whites; deep down inside they know that they were created to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, servants of servants.  God created us different for a reason, and the Fremen have a saying: One cannot go against the word of God.  It's only common sense.

For all that the majority of marriages in history have been between men and women (often between one of the former and several of the latter, but Radcliffe discreetly avoids that issue), seeing the union of two men or two women as a marriage comes quite easily to most people.  If anything, that's about what one would expect: if heterosexual marriage is a central institution in society, then it will be imposed as metaphor even on same-sex couples, even if they aren't erotically involved.  So marital language and symbolism turns up in the friendship between the ancient Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Herman Melville's Ishmael compares his pillow talk with the Pacific Islander Queequeg to that of man and wife:
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.
Later in the nineteenth century, female couples who lived together were referred to as "Boston marriages," even though they were assumed (not necessarily accurately) not to be Sapphists.  Did all this marital imagery degrade the persons involved?  Did it deny difference?  Not that I know of -- at least not until gay people began demanding that they be allowed to literalize the metaphor by applying for marriage licenses.  Reports of same-sex lovers having wedding ceremonies go back hundreds of years, to the great indignation of the hostile reporters who passed their accounts down to us.

As I've said, I have doubts about all this.  To some extent I even agree with Fr. Timothy that marriage might not be the best metaphor for same-sex couples, but then I feel the same way about heterosexual marriage.  There's also a tradition in gayish circles of referring to same-sex partners as friends, and this hasn't always been a euphemism.  As Paul Monette wrote in a passage of his AIDS memoir Borrowed Time that has stayed with me for decades now:
I always hesitate over the marriage word.  It's inexact and exactly right at the same time, but of course I don't have a legal leg to stand on.  The deed to the house on Kings Road says a single man after each of our names.  So much for the lies of the law.  There used to be gay marriages in the ancient world, even in the early Christian church, before the Paulist hate began to spew [sic] the boundaries of love.  And yet I never felt quite comfortable calling Rog my lover.  To me it smacked too much of the ephemeral, with a beaded sixties topspin.  Friend always seemed more intimate to me, more flush with feeling.  Ten years after we met, there would still be occasions when we'd find ourselves among strangers of the straight persuasion, and one of us would say, "This is my friend."  It never failed to quicken my heart, to say it or overhear it.  Little friend was the diminutive form we used in private, the phrase that is fired in bronze beneath his name on the hill [24-25].
I recognize that for many gay people, marriage is the word that fits and quickens their hearts.  So be it, but let it be a reminder that not all of us see our relationships in the same way.  (I've noticed a certain reluctance among some marriage-equality advocates to accept the other terms that go with marriage, like husband and wife: perhaps it's the gendered implications of those words that make them uncomfortable.  I don't think they should be allowed to evade them, though two husbands or two wives are fine with me.  And I've seen less of this reluctance in the past couple of years.) 
An easygoing tolerance, rubbing along beside each other without much curiosity, is not enough. We need to recover a confidence in intelligent engagement with those who are unlike us, a profound mutual attention, otherwise we shall crush a life-giving pluralism. It will not only be gay people who will suffer. We shall all be the poorer.
It is still not clear to me what this has to do with gay people, let alone gay marriage.  Again I'm touched, if not convinced, by Radcliffe's concern trolling about how gay people will suffer if they're allowed to marry.  Things may be different in England, but in the US there's nothing non-homophobes and non-bigots like Radcliffe can do to prevent same-sex marriage, even if they manage to protect gay people against themselves by blocking civil marriage between males or between females.  In England, the legality of marriage is handled differently, plus there's an established Church that could conceivably prevent laypeople from staging their own religious weddings.  In the US, the First Amendment and the absence of established church means that religious non-bigots have no way to impose their definition of religious marriage on anyone, not even other heterosexuals. Radcliffe's blather about "life-giving pluralism" is disingenuous, to put it gently.