I have a number of half-completed and ultimately abandoned draft posts attempting a constructive theological engagement of the issues same-sex marriage presents for the Church, and particularly the Anglican Church of Canada and broader Anglican Communion in this difficult season of its history. The drafts have all been started because I don’t feel I can remain quiet and abandoned because it’s just a difficult thing to write about well, particularly when I feel the way the conversation has been defined misses the mark in certain important ways. But here I go again…
One of the more helpful contributions of “This Holy Estate,” the theological report commissioned by the 2013 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada,*was its teasing apart of differences in the biblical witness between approaches grounded in Creation and those grounded in Redemption (p.47). The assumption seems to be that, if we ground our theology of marriage in Creation, then there is little room for the inclusion of same-sex marriage within the Church. The concern for a theology of human personhood, relationships, and sexuality that is grounded in the Creation narratives is reminiscent of something my theology professor said in our very first class thirteen years ago: “The question we must ask about homosexuality is not what it says about us today but what does it say about Creation?”
I wonder, though, whether this is really the case. Even if we accept that Creation rather than New Creation is the best place to look for such theologies, it seems to me that whether homosexuality is part of God’s good Creation or part of the fallen world is to some extent irrelevant: I’m not sure it clarifies anything, or even what criteria one would use to decide what kinds of differences among people belong in which category.
I suppose really there are three options: 1) homosexuality is not part of the created order and is a result of explicit, conscious choice; 2) homosexuality is not part of the created order and is a consequence of the generational sin that pollutes every human interaction; or 3) homosexuality is part of the created order.
I don’t think the first option deserves much comment; if it’s the case then the conversation is over: my experiences and the experiences of millions like me of an innate, early-manifesting, and persistent orientation are entirely delusional, Paul’s comment in Romans 1 is an etiology that is literally true for all of us, and there is no need to continue the conversation. But assuming the Church doesn’t want to simply write off the lived experiences of millions of people and the increasing scientific evidence that suggests some genetic or prenatal environmental influence (if not outright causation) on sexual orientation, this isn’t a very attractive or theologically interesting option. Really, in this case Christianity becomes little more than a ‘language game’ walled off from the world we actually experience.
The second option, however, requires a lot more thought. If we want to argue that homosexuality is not part of God’s original intention for Creation, but is a manifestation of the generational sin that infects and affects all of us, our cultures, systems and structures, relationships, and personalities, there is much to commend this view theologically. Certainly, homosexuality doesn’t fit in easily to the Creation narratives as received in the Scriptures. Nor does this perspective cause any problems for the legal strictures in Leviticus or to Paul’s comments, such as they are. It therefore requires no disruption to the traditional understandings of gender, sexuality, and marriage.
And yet, as tidy as the Creation narratives are, with their firm divisions of night and day, water and dry land, and male and female, what we actually see in the created world is far more complicated. Between night and day there is always dawn and dusk, and as anyone who has ever walked a beach at low tide knows, there is plenty of middle ground between sea and earth. And so it continues: there are mammals that lay eggs, there are fish who bear live young, there are carnivorous plants, fish with lungs, aquatic mammals, and even flightless bats. So diverse and unexpected is the created world that there was a common patristic belief that everything that God could create was created. As much as our Creation narratives love straight lines of division, the fact is, in our world as it has been given to us, when we see a straight line, we know that it is a human hand at work, and not God’s. In a world like this, unless we want to claim that the platypus is a result of sin (and really, hasn’t the poor platypus suffered enough ridicule!) all we can do is to stand back in awe and wonder and proclaim: How glorious are your works, O Lord! In wisdom have you made them all!
Even the seemingly cut and dry areas of reproduction and biological sex are far more complex than one would imagine. There are creatures which reproduce by division, creatures which reproduce by cloning themselves, creatures which can reproduce by parthenogenesis, and others which can revert back to less developed stages and begin life anew. Even among creatures with sexual reproduction, there are species that exhibit such great differences between male and female that the males are little more than genetically necessary parasites. (How glorious are your works, O Lord! In wisdom have you made them all!)
Then there are individual creatures that are biologically neither male nor female, or both, for entirely genetic reasons. What do we say about these creatures, human or non-human? Do we despise them as outside God’s creative will, or do we, as Jesus did with the man born blind, say that they were born as they are “that God’s works might be revealed in them”?
Our world is an unfathomably diverse place, and the fact is that our Creation narratives, as beautiful, profound, and paradigmatic as they may be, touch on only the smallest sliver of reality. So, when it comes to human sexuality (and also gender identity, which is a separate issue), why can’t we see — or why shouldn’t we see these things which are givens of earthly existence as equally part of the complexity, bounty and beauty of what God has made? (As an aside, I love the analogy of the paradigm for these kinds of discussions; anyone who has ever learned a foreign language knows that while paradigms are very helpful regular patterns and categories through which words change form, very few words fit the patterns perfectly — they are helpful descriptive tools of what generally happens, but are never prescriptive statements about what should or must happen.)
So, when I look at the world around me, I see ample reason why the goodness of God’s creation is vast enough, creative enough, and complex enough to include me, my sexuality included.
And yet, I find myself somewhat ambivalent between the second and third options I gave above. Or perhaps more accurately, my affirmation of the third option must be coloured by my affirmation that no aspect of human existence — sexuality most certainly included — is untouched by the impact of sin. If we are too quick to affirm that sexual diversity is part of God’s good creation in all its glorious complexity, the “Baby, I was born this way” mentality can all too easily blind us to the reality that all human relationships, and therefore all human sexuality, are skewed by our weakness, finitude, and sinfulness. It can therefore easily cause us to miss important aspects of our lives that require healing and sanctifying. No matter where we stand or who we are, no matter how easily we may fit into the our society’s traditional gender and sexual norms, or how paradigm-busting our humanity may be, the warm glow of God’s affirmation that “It is good” is always chilled by the cold wind of sin. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously reminded us, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Getting back at long last to the issue of marriage, the good news is that where exactly we fall on this spectrum is actually irrelevant. Same sex marriage is not dependent on one view or the other, really. Even if homosexuality belongs to the fallen world, it means that it can be redeemed and saved by being turned towards God in and through Christ, just as all less-than-sanctified aspects our personalities must be. What greater way of saying, “You intended this for evil, but God intended this for good” could there be than to enter into a committed, God-focused, ecclesiastically-oriented relationship, forsaking all others, and committing to the hard work of working out salvation together in fear and trembling, till death parts us? Not to “explain away” the Scriptures but to live them out as fully and life-givingly as possible: to devote our life together to bearing good fruit and contributing to the flourishing of the community, not to demean, belittle or use someone for our own sexual or psychological gratification;** to see clearly God’s “invisible attributes” in Creation, not making excuses, but knowing and glorifying God, being thankful and giving our thoughts and hearts to the light of the Spirit;*** and neither trampling down the humanity of others in aggression nor being blown about by any and every passing whim of ourselves or others in passivity.**** Turning what might not be godly over to God in an intentional way is simply what believers do in all facets of life.
And in a very real sense, this means it is no different from heterosexual marriage. Something that often gets lost in these debates in the Church is that there is nothing essentially good or holy about marriage, procreation, and family life per se: these can be just as wicked and destructive as any way of life unless they are directed wholly, persistently, and consistently towards God. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann points out in his brilliant essay on marriage, “[M]arriage is, as everything else in ‘this world,’ a fallen and distorted marriage, and that it needs not to be blessed and ‘solemnized’ … but restored. … Needless to say, this restoration infinitely transcends the idea of the ‘Christian family’. … Family as such, family in itself, can be a demonic distortion of love — and there are harsh words about it in the Gospel.” And again, “The real sin of marriage today is … the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.” ***** Those who choose to ground their theology in Creation can often, I believe, turn family life into just such an idol and therefore mar marriage’s genuine iconic nature. As important, beautiful and profound as family life is, Christianity is not and has never been a fertility cult. All human relationships find their meaning and their ultimate fulfillment not in finding ‘true love’ or in raising children, but in in the Kingdom of God, represented canonically as the marriage of God and Israel, of Christ and the Church. In this sense, marriage is not “heteronormative” as much as it is “christonormative.”
In a paradoxical way, this both centers and marginalizes gendered existence. It centers it in that the union of male and female in an iconic reading of marriage requires the male to ‘play the role’ of Christ, in his agency and priestly vocation, and the female to ‘play the role’ of the Church, in its radical openness towards God. And yet, even assuming for the moment that these traditional gender roles are good and holy, these differences are also marginalized in the Kingdom, for in Christ there is neither male nor female. Since we are all, male and female, within the Church Christ’s Bride, we are therefore called to embody this stereotypical symbolic ‘feminine.’ And since we are all, male and female, called to offer our lives in self-sacrificial love, as well as to offer up creation to God in thanksgiving as the priests of creation, we are also therefore called to embody the stereotypical symbolic ‘masculine.’ And this is true not only in our orientation towards God, but also to each other. When it comes right down to it, both stereotypical paradigms boil down to the same thing: humble, self-giving love.
But beyond the gender stereotypes, we know that both biological sexes include the full spectrum of personalities, strengths, and abilities. And it is not difficult to see what bad fruit is borne when gender paradigms are enforced strictly in a fixed and inflexible way, without reference to the personhood and individual characteristics of each man and woman. Even where men and women may match the gender norms perfectly and naturally, in some ways, they can act as too-convenient excuses that hide the genuine differences between two persons, as well as provide too-easy justifications for bad behaviour. (It’s exactly the same “Baby, I was born this way” attitude I was speaking of earlier.) As much as it can be true that part of the beauty and challenge of marriage is the overcoming of the solitudes of Male and Female, a world where ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ can mask the fact that the true gulf lies between ‘I’ and ‘Thou’. To appropriate Solzhenitysn, the true gulf of separation lies not between the sexes, but between two human hearts, and every two human hearts.
And this is where I begin to see the theological prospects for what genuine part gender and sexual diversity might play in God’s good Creation. The idolatry of ‘typical’ family life and the reification of gender differences is always a temptation, whether in ancient Canaan’s fertility cults, or in Christian groups today who are obsessed with procreation and the 1950s-style nuclear family. The presence of same-sex couples, and the celebration of these relationships as channels for the working of the Spirit of God, can remind the Church that Christian marriage is not primarily about making babies, but about manifesting the Kingdom of God; just as the presence of those for whom traditional understandings of gender don’t apply can remind the Church that we all, male and female, are in this together, and are called to be Christ to one another, and are simultaneously called to be His Bride, that we contain within ourselves, and are called to cultivate within our selves, both halves of the marriage icon.
These are clearly very complicated issues and these reflections are only a small part of a vast picture. But as I sit here writing in the quiet beauty of my mother’s garden, I can’t help but marvel at how all these things I see — the birds, the flowers, the trees, the insects, the slugs, and even me! — are wonderfully and fearfully made. How glorious are your works, O Lord! In wisdom have you made them all!
*This report has sadly been largely ignored, and inasmuch as it has been read at all has been much maligned on all sides, I believe unfairly. It is a humble document, aware of the limitations of its scope and of the intractability of some of the hermeneutical difficulties faced; it is also a comprehensive document, giving full voice to the broadest scope of opinions within the Church; it is also very careful and generous in its conclusions, saying: “To say that it is theologically possible to make this change is not to say that the change is theologically desirable. We have attempted to show how it might be done—not why or even whether it should be done.” It is far from a perfect document, but I think it’s a helpful one and I hope it isn’t mothballed and forgotten.
** As Rabbi Steven Greenberg points out in his brilliant Wrestling with God and Men, the misogyny of the Levitical injunction against “lying with a man as with a woman” cannot be ignored. It was an assumption that the act of sexual penetration was demeaning and evidence of women’s inferiority to men. This would explain why there is no injunction against sexual activities between women.
*** cf., Romans 1
**** arsenokoites and malakoi
***** For the Life of the World, p 82 and 90.