Then Raushenbush hauled out a familiar argument: “Let’s just be very clear here —if you are against marriage equality you are anti-gay. Done.”
As a gay man, I found myself disappointed with this definition—that anyone with any sort of moral reservations about gay marriage is by definition anti-gay. If Raushenbush is right, then that means my parents are anti-gay, many of my religious friends (of all faiths) are anti-gay, the Pope is anti-gay, and—yes, we’ll go here—first-century, Jewish theologian Jesus is anti-gay. That’s despite the fact that while some religious people don’t support gay marriage in a sacramental sense, many of them are in favor of same-sex civil unions and full rights for the parties involved. To be sure, most gay people, myself included, won’t be satisfied until our loving, monogamous relationships are graced with the word “marriage.” But it’s important to recall that many religious individuals do support strong civil rights for the gay members of their communities.
What exactly do we mean when we say “anti-gay,” or “homophobic”? Often when I try to understand where my conservative opponents are coming from, my gay friends accuse me of being homophobic. It isn’t homophobic of me to try to understand why someone might be opposed to marriage equality. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt takes courage; dismissing him before considering his argument—well, that seems a bit phobic. Beside—me? Homophobic? I write essays about being gay, and then I publish them, and everyone goes, “Oh yeah, he’s gay.” I have no reservations about my sexuality, so as far as the accusation of homophobia goes: that gay ship has already sailed to Disneyland, with a speedo-clad Tom Daley carved into the bow.
If it’s “anti-gay” to question the arguments of marriage-equality advocates, and if the word “homophobic” is exhausted on me or on polite dissenters, then what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them? Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.
It’s true that as an LGBT person, I am Otherized against the sexual norm. But at the same time, I have an ethical obligation to my Other—the people unlike me—as well. On this issue, my Others include conservatives, fundamentalists, and more than a few folks from the square states. If my primary ethical obligation to my neighbor is to allow and affirm his moral agency, so long as it does not lead him to commit acts of violence, then what happens when I take away his right to peacefully disagree with me?
Read the whole thing. It’s really thoughtful. You may remember Ambrosino’s essay from earlier this year in which he talked about coming out while a student at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. He expected harsh condemnation, but he didn’t get it — and that surprised and gratified him.
What Ambrosino’s latest essay brings to mind is the impoverishment of our moral imagination, and the related hysterical narrowing of discourse, on the subject of homosexuality in general and sexuality in particular. That many, even most, modern people oppose the traditional taboo that Abrahamic religions place on gay sexuality is not hard to understand, given the sacrosanct place both the individual and sexual expression have achieved in the Western mind over the last century. What is extremely frustrating is the inability — and the unwillingness — of pro-gay folks to try to imagine what the world looks like to traditionalists, and why the traditionalists may be wrong, but their argument is not based on mere bigotry.
In the Divine Comedy, when Dante and Virgil visit the circle of hell reserved for the Sodomites (Dante’s term), sex and sexuality never come up, perhaps because it was too delicate for Dante’s medieval audience to consider the particulars. For whatever reason or reasons the poet doesn’t talk about sex, it affords the reader the opportunity to consider the sin of Sodomy in a broader philosophical perspective. In their (terrific!) Great Courses lectures on the Commedia, Professors Herzman and Cook talk about Sodomy (in Dante’s poem) as a metaphor for sterility, and the misguided use of creativity and generativity. Dante would not have had to have made a case for his medieval audience for the sinfulness of actual sodomy, of course, though he could have gone that route. Instead, he does something far more interesting.
In the circle of the Sodomites, Dante meets Brunetto Lattini, an older teacher and poet who had been a mentor to Dante. In their conversation in Hell, Brunetto explains that writing is a way to immortalize oneself with fame, and counsels Dante to think of his vocation in that self-serving way. This is a trap. Dante loves and respects his old teacher, and is grieved to see him suffering in Hell. But Dante (the poet, not the pilgrim character) understands the temptation here. Brunetto and the other sodomites are punished by having to spend eternity in a desert, a land of extreme fallowness — this for being “violent against God,” which is to say, taking something that was supposed to be fertile and rendering it infertile by misusing it. The encounter with Brunetto is not about sex, but about poetry — creative writing, in other words. According to Herzman and Cook, Dante (the poet) is telling his reader that to put one’s creative gift to the service of one’s own fame and fortune, as opposed to serving a higher cause (e.g., Art, the Truth) is to be guilty of violence against the God who gave one those gifts, and expects one to use them in a fruitful way.
So, in Dante’s imagination, the sin of Sodomy is a misuse of the generative power God gave to humans, insofar as new life cannot emerge from a same-sex encounter. The historical Dante was not tempted by homosexuality, so far as we know, but he did use the punishment of the Sodomites to comment on a temptation that did afflict him: the allure of selling out his creative gifts for worldly fame.
Brunetto is also an example of a mentor who sees his former pupil Dante (whom he calls his “son”) as having worth only insofar as Dante’s potential for fame reflects well on his teacher Brunetto. Brunetto advises Dante the pilgrim to read his (Brunetto’s) book Trésor as an unfailing guide. As the Yale Dantist Giuseppe Mazzotta puts it in his terrific forthcoming book Reading Dante:
Brunetto’s bibliography undeniably dramatizes an incredible self-delusion on his part. Here he is, dead. Here he is, circling around under the reign of fire, and he still thinks he lives in his own text. He mistakes for reality the symbolic life that he has within a text. The language of images, the language of seeming that pervades this canto, has to be understood in terms of this confusion on the part of Brunetto. The bigger mistake that Brunetto makes here, though, is to believe that Dante’s own life is a replica of his own: read my text because whatever it is that you have to know is already available to you in my own book. He never faces the difference between Dante and himself. He refuses to see that Dante’s life can have its own development and its own destiny, a destiny which he cannot understand at all. Canto 15 ends with this idea, therefore, that the sin of sodomy can also be seen as a confusion between the real and the imaginary, a way of drawing the real world into one of fictions and imaginations.
What does Dante the Catholic poet’s insights into the nature of literary fame and the writing life have to do with our discussion today of homosexuality? It reveals the philosophical and theological breadth with which Christianity considered sexuality and generativity. That is, sex, in the normative Christian imagination, is teleological; it’s meant for something, and not for other things. Dante has the Sodomites suffering in a level of Hell reserved for the “violent against God”: Blasphemers, Usurers, and Sodomites. It’s obvious why Blasphemers are there, but why Usurers? Because medieval Catholics believed that Usury — the charging of interest on loans — was a sin against the natural order. Similarly with Sodomy. In the cases of Usury and Sodomy, the sin is misuse of the generative powers God gave to humanity.
This is the philosophical background for Christian teaching on sodomy. You should also be able to see from it why the Catholic Church teaches that contraception is wrong. It’s not because a bunch of old men in the Vatican want to spoil the fun. It has deep philosophical and theological roots. It’s the same way with the Church’s teaching on homosexuality. It’s not simply that the Bible says it’s wrong, and that’s the end of that, nor is it simply a matter of personal revulsion — though it is probably the case that one or both factors certainly are as far as most people who oppose gay marriage take it. But there’s something more fundamental and more serious at work in traditional Catholic and Christian thinking about sexuality — principles that entail, but do not separate out, homosexuality. These principles are, of course, entirely debatable, but it cannot be denied, as so many people today want to do, that they derive from a profound consideration of what sex means.
Needless to say, very few people today — even professed Christians — think about sex in this teleological way, as having an intrinsic meaning. Rather, we are nominalists about sex and sexuality: it means what we want it to mean. That is a coherent moral position, but it is not the only coherent moral position. When contemporary people make sweeping assertions like Paul Raushenbush’s — that the only reason anybody could oppose gay marriage is bigotry — they reveal themselves to be close-minded and ignorant of history, philosophy, and theology. One doesn’t expect modern people to agree with the classical Christian way of thinking about sexuality and teleology. They don’t accept it for heterosexuals, certainly, and the main reason the taboo against homosexuality fell so quickly is because gays made straights confront the fact that all gays were asking for was a more consistent application of the post-Sexual Revolution standards to themselves. While one doesn’t expect agreement from moderns like Raushenbush, one does expect more intelligence and charity than people like Raushenbush show to their opponents. In this, Brandon Ambrosino is a model. This is great:
To me, recognizing the distinction between opposing gay marriage and opposing gay people is a natural outgrowth of an internal distinction: When it comes to my identity, I take care not to reduce myself to my sexual orientation. Sure, it’s a huge part of who I am, but I see myself to be larger than my sexual expression: I contain my gayness; it doesn’t contain me. If it’s true that my gayness is not the most fundamental aspect of my identity as Brandon, then it seems to me that someone could ideologically disapprove of my sexual expression while simultaneously loving and affirming my larger identity. This is what Pope Francis was getting at when he asked, “When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” The Pope probably won’t be officiating gay marriages any time soon. But because he differentiates between a person’s sexual identity and her larger identity as a human being, he is able to affirm the latter without offering definitive commentary on the former. Maybe his distinction between Brandon and Gay Brandon is misguided, but it isn’t necessarily malicious, and that’s the point.
Yes, this. Thank you, Brandon Ambrosino.