Here We Stand
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has written one of the most compact and elegant explanations of the traditional Christian position on same-sex marriage that I have ever seen. He begins by pointing out that the argument that Christianity needs only a push and it will change its position on gay sexuality in the same way it has altered other teachings over the centuries fails to understand something basic to Christianity. Excerpt:
But this premise is also fundamentally mistaken, because the history of Christian ethics actually shows that the faith has been surprisingly consistent on the topic of sexuality. Christian opposition to homosexual acts is of a piece with a much broader vision of what it means to be a human being that Christianity will never part with.
The story Christians have been telling for 2,000 years goes something like this: The God who made the Universe is also, by his very nature, Love, and he made human beings with a very lofty vocation. Humans are meant to reflect His glory in the world; to be like God, that is to say, to be lovers and creators. Everything in the Universe has been put here to be used by God’s children to reflect his loving glory — and to teach them about God’s love. This is particularly true, or so the story goes, of the unique sexual complementarity between men and women. The sexual act is meant to reflect God’s love by fostering a union at once bodily and spiritual — and creates new life. The complementarity of the persons in a marriage reflects the complementarity of the Persons of the Trinity, and the bliss of marital union is an inkling of the bliss of the union of the Persons of the Trinity. The fruitfulness of the marriage act reflects that God is a creator and has charged man to be an agent of his ongoing work of creation. And, finally, if God’s love means total self-giving unto death on a Cross, then man and wife must give themselves to each other totally — no pettiness, no adultery, no polygamy, no divorce, and no nonmarital sexual acts. According to the story that Christianity has been telling for 2,000 years, Christianity’s view of sexuality isn’t some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era on its way out, but is instead deeply connected to its understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for.
Christianity’s opposition to homosexuality is not the product of some dusty medieval exegete poring over obscure Old Testament verses. From the beginning, what set apart the new and strange sect called Christians from the rest of their culture was their strange sexual ethic. They refused polygamy. They refused the sexual exploitation of slaves by their owners. They refused prostitution, premarital sex, divorce, abortion, the exposure of infants, contraception — and homosexual acts.
Read the whole thing. Gobry never actually endorses this view; I don’t know what he believes about same-sex marriage or any of it. He’s a Catholic, but an idiosyncratic one. Whatever his personal belief, he has it right in this column. And the column highlights how flawed our thinking about Christianity can be. Many of us — both Christians and non-Christians — have a habit of isolating particular Christian teachings from the whole, and either defending or attacking those positions. I remember how hard it was to defend Catholic teaching on sexuality to non-Catholics (Christians and unbelievers both) without going into a relatively lengthy discourse on how all the teachings fit together into a comprehensive whole. People don’t have the patience for it, and it’s hard to do. They want a simple, clean answer on why a particular sin is sinful.
You can find that if you want, but if you believe the simple answer to be too simplistic and unsatisfying, you shouldn’t think therefore that Christianity has no good answer.
Again, I go back to Dante (as you knew I would). Dante expresses in extraordinary detail the concept of a complex, harmonious cosmos in which everything works together to mirror the mind of God, and to propagate life, which is how God’s love works itself out in Creation, according to that metaphysic. When Dante encounters the circle of the Sodomites in Inferno, we come to see the nature of the sodomites’ sin. It’s not that “gay sex is morally wrong,” though it certainly is, to Dante; it’s why gay sex is wrong. Dante calls it a sin of violence against God (not, note well, “nature”) because it intrinsically denies the generative power in the sex act. Sexual desire in Dante, even desire for someone of one’s own sex, is natural, but it is corrupted nature because it doesn’t conform to the moral order. All disordered sexual desire, heterosexual and homosexual, is either punished in the Inferno (if unrepented) or refined in Purgatorio.
I bring it up here only to illustrate the traditional approach to sexual morality, and indeed to all of morality: thinking about it systematically and holistically. For traditional Christians, our struggle in this life is to partake of the life of God and to be transformed into His likeness. In all our thought and action, we are to seek harmony with the Way. Christianity has always taught that God has revealed how the Way applies to the conduct of our erotic lives. Dante shows that all desire must ultimately be directed toward union with God, including harmony with the created order, or we miss the mark. In other words, we sin.
To change the historic and consistent Christian teaching on gender complementary, generativity, and sexuality would not be a matter of tweaking the tradition. It would be a revolution. You can’t pull that one part of it out without doing severe violence to the whole. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s post makes that clear in an admirably terse way that ought to make sense to readers, even if they don’t agree with it.