Friday, September 28, 2012

A Reader Writes: "There's a Rich Vein of Understanding about Marriage That Remains to Be Discovered"

Another stellar comment here in the past few days by boltingmadonna, who writes the following in response to my posting earlier in the week about Archbishop Cordileone and Cardinal George and the knotted knickers of Catholic leaders vis-a-vis their gay brothers and sisters:

I believe there's a rich vein of understanding about marriage that remains to be discovered, theologically speaking, and that welcoming marriages between gay people into the heart of our understanding might enrich us all. Gay men and women shouldn't be like the poor cousins at the table, begging for the opportunity to imitate the Standard Model. Maybe some of them will choose to follow that model and do as good a job of it as heterosexuals. But I also think they will bring special gifts of their own and teach us something about mutuality and authenticity that we sorely need. Perhaps that's what the authorities fear!

I agree.  Wholeheartedly so.  This is one reason I've been expressing skepticism (here, here, and here) about the immediate use to which some commentators seem to be putting the recent "discovery" that Jesus had (may have had? probably didn't have?) a wife.   In my view, what boltingmadonna rightly calls the Standard Model of marriage isn't working conspicuously well for heterosexuals.  And that has nothing at all to do with the gays and their supposed threat to the Standard Model.  To try to cram Jesus and the gospels into the middle-class, nuclear family-centered model that now constitutes the Standard Model of heterosexual marriage--a model that has everything to do with the presuppositions of Western cultures since the Enlightenment--would be beyond disastrous, both for Christian faith and also for our understanding of the institution of marriage.

Much that's awry with the Standard Model has to do precisely with its insularity, its blessing of the unquestioned "right" of a heterosexually married couple and the children they raise to separate themselves from society in general, if they so wish, solely because they're a married couple and/or family.  Much that's awry with the Standard Model has to do with its obsessive focus on the nuclear family, as distinct from the extended family or of society and social institutions in general conceived as extended family.  Much that's awry with the Standard Model has to do, not to put too fine a point on it, with its selfishness--with the way in which putting a ring on a finger of someone of the opposite sex automatically earns people astonishing entitlement in our culture.  Entitlement from which many of the ring bearers are determined to keep others excluded.

All of this clearly seems to me to militate against what I see as the primary emphasis of the gospels and of other New Testament works as they speak about marriage and family.  The emphasis of the gospels and the New Testament in general when they use the term "family" seems to me to be to invite, to challenge, us to extend the notion of family to the entire human community.  I take that to be a central point of Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan, of Jesus's observation that whoever does the will of his Father is his brother or sister (Matthew 12:50), of Ephesians (2:19) and Galatians (6:10) when they employ the term "household of faith," etc.

In short, I think--this seems self-evident to me--that permitting gay folks to exercise their right to marry bids fair not to undermine, but to strengthen, the institution of heterosexual marriage and heterosexually-headed family in our society, at a point when these institutions are in peril.  The experiences of gay and lesbian people in loving and committed relationships stand, it seems to me, to enrich and not diminish the institution of marriage, by expanding the horizon of what marriage and family are all about, so that these institutions are less turned in on themselves than they've customarily been in Western societies in the recent past.

Turned in on themselves, so that they've had to bear an enormous weight of cultural expectations that are unrealistically placed on the rather frail social unit of a man, a woman, and their children . . . .  Living as a unit apart from the surrounding society to which they are in no way beholden because marriage is understood, in some fundamental sense, to impart a right to such isolation and lack of obligation to society at large . . . . 

As I've said before, I tend fairly strongly to agree with the classic Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas when he suggests that the fecund diversity of the created world is there to mirror the fecund diversity of a Creator to whom any single image from the order of creation cannot adequately point as a comprehensive metaphor for the divine.  The more we can maximize the potential of all kinds of people--and especially those we keep shoving to the margins--to live full, productive, and happy human lives, the more likely we are to see God's image radiated back to us throughout the world, from all sorts of people and all sorts of situations.

And the more enriched any of us will therefore be by the gifts--and the divine revelation--offered to us by those we've considered alien, non-familial Others in the past.  And for a wonderful, wry, hilarious look at how the gays might very well save heterosexual weddings ("theater produced by straight amateurs" which is "what a dog show would be like if it were organized by the dogs"), see A.A. Gill at Vanity Fair.  Because, Lord knows, if anyone can take an institution desperately begging for a "fairy makeover" and make it shine, pop, and glitter with style, the gays surely can.

In its own tongue-in-cheek way, Gill's article seems to me strongly to reinforce boltingmadonna's point about opening up a rich vein of understanding of marital relationship in a way that promises to enrich all marital relationships--if we let this happen.

(Hat tip to Fred Clark's magnificent Slacktivist blog for the link to A.A. Gill's Vanity Fair article.)

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