Convention and Commandment

I have been thinking and writing a lot lately on the idea of difference and how society understands it and deals with it, particularly as it concerns issues of convention and morality. Along this line, I found a passage a few weeks ago that really struck home.

In writing about the relationship between Taoism and Confucianism in Chinese thought (the latter being the conventions by which society is ordered and the former a way of liberation from them), Alan Watts says:

Taoism is a way of liberation, which never comes by means of revolution, since it is notorious that most revolutions establish worse tyrannies than they destroy. To be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it. It is to be able to use it as an instrument instead of being used by it.

The West has no recognized institution corresponding to Taoism because our Hebrew-Christian spiritual tradition identifies the Absolute — God — with the moral and logical order of convention. This might almost be called a major cultural catastrophe, because it weights the social order with excessive authority, inviting just those revolutions against religion and tradition which have been so characteristic of Western history. It is one thing to feel oneself in conflict with socially sanctioned conventions, but quite another to feel at odds with the very root and ground of life, with the Absolute itself. The latter feeling nurtures a sense of guilt so preposterous that it must issue either in denying one’s own nature or in rejecting God. Because the first of these alternatives is ultimately impossible — like chewing off one’s own teeth– the second becomes inevitable.*

There is much to be said about this. I certainly don’t have the expertise to either challenge or support his assertions about Eastern philosophy, but I think his critique of the West is fascinating and illuminating. Now, he is painting in broad strokes and there will inevitably be counterclaims that could be made, but it does seem that there has often — if not always — been a tendency in the West not only to reify but to some degree deify the social order. Leaving issues of traditional morality aside for the moment, one can see this trend in medieval Europe’s religious justification for its feudal system of governance, the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, religious justification for race-based slavery in the American South, and even the current idolatry of the nuclear family in some conservative circles. When you think about it, with the West’s traditional identification of the divine as Law-Giver or, in the Christian context of Christ as the Word of God itself, this is hardly surprising.

With this in mind, the psychological consequences of such an identification as described by Watts make sense. If established social conventions are divine law, what happens when you find yourself outside of them? His description seems apt to me. In fact, if you substitute “confusion” or “dissonance” where he has written “guilt”, it genuinely reflects my own experiences. To believe in what is ‘Right’ and to long for what is ‘Right’ yet to find yourself alienated from that ‘Right’ through no action or fault of your own is simply untenable in the long term. As much as you might try to make yourself fit (in the gay experience, which I use only because it is the one I know, by entering a marriage that would always to some degree be pretense no matter how much genuine affection were present, or by trying to live a life of intentional celibacy whether or not you were suited to it), the psychological dissonance (if not guilt, as Watts suggests) must eventually catch up to you. Something at some point will give and the result will not be pretty. The alternative is to openly flaunt social expectation, which is isolating and destructive in its own way, or, simply to give up entirely. (As a friend of mine once put it, about being gay in the 1960s, “I had three choices: bite my lip, get married and hope for the best; turn myself into a ridiculous queen; or commit suicide.”)

If, as a society, we agree that this is not a sustainable or acceptable state of affairs — and it would seem that we do, at least to some degree — what are the alternatives? We can try to reject and overthrow social conventions entirely, so for our case study, simply reject the idea of marriage and family entirely and promote values of free sex and love, a society of many loose relationships rather than few strong relationships And certainly many people, especially in and since the ‘sixties, have tried this. But, as they say, revolution tends to create worse tyranny than it destroys. A better solution for everyone, in my mind, is to try to maintain our social conventions but do so with an open hand, so to speak, to relax about them and apply them in a way that reflects their spirit and intent rather than enforce them strictly as law.

To some extent, this is why the Christian opposition to civil gay marriage has always confounded me. You can’t reject people in stable, committed relationships in the name of promoting stable, committed relationships! Some conservatives in the public sphere have called the push for marriage equality the final victory of the sexual revolution over traditional morality. I don’t think this could be further from the truth. Marriage equality is the final victory of the heart of traditional morality over the spirit of the sexual revolutionIt is people who have traditionally been excluded by conventional morality agreeing with it that love is not free, that love is costly and demanding. The convention is broadened, the convention is stretched, but it remains intact and is in fact strengthened by this flexibility.

Of course, this demands a reconception of the relationship between social convention and God as Watts describes above. And this is likely why it proves so difficult. Yet, I don’t think the demand is all that demanding, really, even from a religious perspective. If one approaches the precepts in religious texts as ideals rather than laws — which is functionally how they work anyway, if we are all honest with ourselves — and recognizes that those ideas are elusive for everyone and that we are all merely doing our best with what we’ve been given, it creates this more flexible attitude I think is needed and harms religious orthodoxies in no way. It may be true that from within a Christian worldview a marriage between two women can never be an icon of Christ and the Church (though, again, if we are honest with ourselves, how many marriages practically function as such an icon as it is?), but such a marriage can still be profoundly meaningful and sanctifying in all the ‘as iron sharpens iron’ ways marriage is at its best.

I know that, ideologically speaking, the best case scenario for social conservatives would be that homosexuals would simply not exist. But we do. And that’s not going to change no matter how badly they may want it to. And, as those of us who desired to be otherwise painfully discovered, if there is a God, He is either unwilling or unable to change us or even lessen the burden we face of loneliness, frustration, confusion and anxiety. So we’re here. And, if their ideological best-case scenario isn’t possible, social conservatives need to stop blaming us for that and find a way forward without the pointless animosity. I think the attitude towards social conventions I have described here is a sensible one and ultimately helpful to the conservative cause. Because, no matter what religious conservatives may believe, a lot of us are at heart pretty conservative too.


[* Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage, 1957), 11]


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