Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Treating Falsehood with Complaisance

If this were a higher-traffic blog, I'd hesitate to link to the site I'm about to discuss (linkage is currency in the Intertoobz), but what the hell. This webpage, which claims that a rite of "same-sex marriage" was officially celebrated in Eastern Christianity, has been linked on Facebook by two gay Christian friends of mine in the past week. It's a disorganized mishmash of claims, mixing "same sex marriage" with "same sex unions" more or less at random, and it only really cites one source: the late John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (Villard, 1994).

I wrote comments to both my friends, pointing out that, while some of the criticism of Boswell's thesis was motivated by homophobia, some also came from gay and gay-friendly scholars. The bigots can be dismissed; the latter group must be engaged. I have my own criticisms of the late Alan Bray's The Friend (Chicago, 2003), but Bray was a gay Roman Catholic historian, so anyone interested in this subject should read The Friend as well as Boswell's book. (Of course neither of my friends has read Boswell, even though one of them is just a few years younger than I am and must have heard about the controversy when Same-Sex Unions was published more than fifteen years ago. As the gay Roman Catholic scholar Mark D. Jordan wrote a few years ago, "[Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality] and, to a lesser extent, [Same-Sex Unions] are talismans more than books. People own them much more often than they read them, because mere possession is enough to allow one to benefit from the results" ["'Both as a Christian and as a Historian': On Boswell's Ministry", 101]).

Jordan's The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (Chicago, 2000) contains a lot of useful discussion of issues other than marriage, but I think it would be almost as disturbing to most lay gay Christians as it is to homophobic gay Catholics. His essay on Boswell, which I just quoted, comes from Matthew Kuefler, editor, The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago, 2006).

One giveaway in the linked webpage was its quotation from the Secret Gospel of Mark:
"... in the evening the youth came to him [Jesus], wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan." —The Secret Gospel of Mark, The Other Bible, Willis Barnstone, Editor, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1984, pp. 339-342.
The Secret Gospel, you may remember, survives only in a few brief quotations in a fragment of a letter by the early church father Clement of Alexandria, a copy of which Morton Smith discovered in a Greek Orthodox near Bethlehem in 1958. Even if you believe that it depicts a gay Jesus (which I don't, for reasons I've gone into at length before), I don't see what it has to do with same-sex marriage. Oddly, the writer of this material calls himself ThosPayne, after the great eighteenth-century rationalist and skeptic; but Thomas Paine would probably have regarded a sodomitical Jesus as further evidence of the corruption of religion -- "The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense," he once wrote -- not as a model for modern Christians.

I haven't read Boswell's Same-Sex Unions since it was first published over fifteen years ago, but as I remember it he left a lot of questions open, questions ThosPayne treats as closed. Was the rite he discussed a marriage rite, for example, or something else? Could a person who'd made these vows then marry heterosexually? If so, that would indicate that it was not a marriage, Christian marriage being monogamous. ThosPayne claims that one version of their martyrdom calls St. Sergius "the sweet companion and lover" of Bacchus; but even in English "lover" doesn't always mean "sex partner" -- read Shakespeare, for example, or consider phrases like "a lover of good food." What (Greek?) word was translated as "lover" in that text ThosPayne doesn't say, though he does claim that "the oldest text of their martyrology, written in New Testament Greek describes them as 'erastai,' or 'lovers'." That doesn't help, because in Greek you don't have two erastai, you have an erastes or lover and an eromenos or beloved. It's hard to know for sure, because according to James Barr, the connotations of Greek verbs related to eros changed over the centuries, and agape, which is popularly thought now to mean spiritual, nonsexual love, could be used in the Greek Bible for love in such relations as husband and wife. And according to Bray, "wed" means "vow"; so if you find an older English text which refers to "a wedded brother" it doesn't mean that a marriage has taken place between them, it means that they have sworn brotherhood and friendship, which is a very old rite found around the world, and is definitely not same-sex marriage, though it's not less valuable or meaningful for that.

But it doesn't really matter, because none of these modes of relationship are suitable as models for us today. When I've run into gay people who claimed that they wanted a "traditional" marriage, I would point out that "traditional" marriage means a division of roles and labor between husband and wife, and a sexual double standard too. It also means considerable loss of legal personhood for the wife. They usually back down as it becomes clear that what they are imagining isn't "traditional" at all; at best it's an idealized child's-eye picture of their parents' marriage, about which they don't know a lot. Some gay-marriage advocates are quick to assert that they don't want traditional marriage, they want a modern, more egalitarian contract. Fine, but in that case there's no point in wondering whether the brotherhood rite Boswell wrote about constitutes marriage; they wouldn't want it if it did. To quote Mark Jordan again, from the same article:
Even if Boswell's reading of Byzantine liturgy had been unassailable (and it is not), anyone familiar with Vatican responses to rebellious claims could have predicted that official or quasi-official responses would be denials, either by thunder or by condescending silence.

Boswell's imaginary dialogue with the pope looks like another instance of willed naivet̩. It is not true, for example, that the undisputed existence of a rite binds present teaching of worship. In the prevailing Roman Catholic theology, the meaning of rites Рlike the meaning of the Scriptures -- is determined by church authority, not historical scholarship....

Boswell must have known that the role of historical evidence in theology has been a neuralgic point for Catholic thought during the whole of the modern period, but especially since the middle of the nineteenth century. To stake a historical claim is not the end of a conversation about Catholic tradition. It is barely the beginning -- and a stigmatized beginning, at that [94-95].
Let me stress again that Jordan is a Christian, still Roman Catholic I believe despite his conflicts with the hierarchy, and gay. One of the friends who shared ThosPayne's article wrote about "secular" responses to Christianity, and I pointed out that all the resources I recommended to him were by Christian scholars. My friend, who's evidently still struggling with Christianity, had swallowed conservative Christian polemic and took for granted that anyone who differed with entrenched church positions must be a secularist. But there's a wide range of positions within Christianity; it's not an atheist like me, but Christians who want you to suppose otherwise. What I'm doing here is pointing out the range of options among Christians; for an atheist like me, these questions are almost literally academic.

"It is an affront to treat falsehood with complaisance," ThosPayne quotes Paine in his web profile. I agree. As I've said before, gay people should not spread misinformation about us: that's what bigots are paid to do.