Saturday, August 9, 2008

Male-Female Complementarity and (Bogus) Theological Arguments Against Gay Marriage

My last posting, on gay marriage, leaves an unanswered question. If the theological grounds to oppose gay marriage are as tenuous as I propose they are, then why are churches today so confident, on the whole, that gay marriage is unthinkable?

The argument of my last posting rests on the assumption that even the most hidebound traditional Christian theologies of marriage—e.g., the Catholic one—have surprising openings to the possibility of gay marriage. That is, those openings are apparent when we examine the actual lineaments of traditional theology, moving beyond what we think we know about the tradition and beyond the skewed perspectives of prejudice.

My argument also begins by noting an incontrovertible fact about how the churches have long viewed and practiced marriage. This is the incontrovertible fact that from time immemorial the churches have married heterosexual couples beyond childbearing years, as they have also married couples in which it is apparent that having children will not be possible, due to physical problems of one or both spouses.

The fact that churches have solemnized such unions without raising an eyebrow suggests—it conclusively demonstrates—that, at the very core of the churches’ practice of marriage and the theology underlying that practice, there is a strong recognition that marriage is fundamentally about something more than procreation of children. In officially recognizing the union of two people, in blessing that union in a church setting, we recognize something that goes beyond the intent to procreate.

If it were otherwise, the churches would refuse to marry couples too old to conceive children or unable to conceive children for other physical reasons. If it were otherwise, churches would expect all couples who marry to promise that they intend to have children whenever possible—since marriage is for procreation.

My reflection on marriage examines the tradition itself for an answer to the question of what that “something more than procreation” is, in the traditional theology of marriage. I note that the sacrament of marriage developed out of social practice: the sacrament of marriage presupposes and ritualizes a social practice that had developed prior to the Christian sacrament of marriage. This social practice itself saw marriage as about something more than procreation.

In its roots, in its essence, this social practice was one whereby two spouses promised themselves and their goods to each other within a public context in which the community acknowledged the lifelong public commitment of the two spouses, promising to support that commitment, to help the committed couple foster the gifts that might develop through their shared life, and to receive those gifts for the common good of the community. Communities have a vested interest in recognizing and supporting such lifelong unions—even when the unions do not intend to bear children—because such unions have the promise of serving the common good, and they can fulfill that promise fully only within a social context of recognition and support.

Those who focus on procreativity as the purpose of marriage are correct to this extent: marriage is meant to be a generative union of two spouses, a pro-creative one, in which those who share themselves and their goods for life develop gifts that enrich the community which recognizes and supports their union. This is why churches have not ever thought twice about marrying heterosexual couples that cannot or do not choose to bear children: acknowledging, supporting, and blessing lifelong committed unions of spouses that offer generative gifts to the community is in the shared interest of the community.

In the traditional Catholic theology of marriage, these insights are ritualized in the following way: the spouses make a public vow, within the context of the Christian community, to commit themselves and their goods to each other for life; the community (in the person of the priest) receives that promise and blesses the union; in blessing the union and receiving the couple's vows to each other, the community simultaneously covenants itself to support the union, to foster generativity within the union, and to receive the gifts of that generativity.

These are the bare bones of the traditional Catholic theology of marriage. Those bones have a place for unions that are procreative in the sense that they will bear children. But they also have a place for unions that will be pro-creative in the more fundamental sense in which all committed, blessed unions are pro-creative—in the sense of a generativity that is not restricted to the bearing and raising of children. In its longstanding practice of blessing heterosexual marriages that cannot or do not choose to include the procreation of children, the church implicitly—and strongly—recognizes that marriage has a more fundamental meaning than procreation. It is about procreation and more: it is about manifold kinds of pro-creation and generativity within a communitarian context.

If this argument accurately sketches the practice of churches up to the present, as well as the traditional theology of marriage that underlies this practice within the Catholic context, why do churches—and notably the Catholic church—still so bitterly oppose the blessing of gay unions, the sacramentalization of gay marriages? I maintain that there is a powerfully determinative and often unexamined bias at the heart of the churches’ resistance to gay marriage.

If the churches marry non-procreative heterosexual couples but refuse to marry same-sex couples on the ground that gay unions cannot be procreative (that is, cannot biologically bear children), then the inescapable conclusion one must reach is this: the churches are hinging the entire theology of marriage on hidden assumptions about gender. The real hitch for, the true objection to, gay marriage in the mind of many Christians has nothing at all to do with the inability of a gay couple to bear children. If it did, Christians would find the practice of marrying couples that practice artificial contraception morally objectionable in the extreme, and would refuse to marry such couples.

No, the heart of the matter is the fact that gay couples are same-sex couples. To the extent that the churches recognize that this is the real basis of their refusal to marry gay couples, churches have recently begun to develop a new theology of male-female complementarity to justify the refusal to marry gay couples.

This theology is an innovation on the Christian tradition. It is a new way of reading the Christian scriptures. It yields a novel perspective on marriage.

It is also, I believe, a highly dubious theology, one with pernicious applications that have not yet begun to yield all the bitter fruit we will see this theology yielding in the future. In the Catholic context, this theology of male-female complementarity began to blossom in the papacy of John Paul II.

With the assistance of married couples—Polish couples who did not practice artificial contraception—John Paul developed an elaborate “theology of the body” centered on the concept that men and women have different, complementary roles rooted in the biological differences of gender. On this basis, John Paul developed an elaborate, quasi-mystical theology of marriage as the spiritual transformation of a couple through a committed fidelity to the biological differences of a man and a woman, which recognizes these innate differences and “uses” them to achieve spiritual transformation by being faithful to the implications of these differences within the context of marital union.

In John Paul’s theology of the body—and in the theology of male-female complementarity that now powerfully energizes almost all churches’ understanding of sexuality, gender, and marriage—biology becomes destiny. Being born male or female is a fate that one must not seek to overcome, if one desires redemption. Seeking to overcome the dictates of gender is, in this theological system, a throwback to the original sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of rebellion against creaturehood.

This theology of gender is, unfortunately, crudely biologistic. In the name of God, it apotheosizes gender roles that are purportedly written into the natural law of the universe. It reads into God’s purpose for creation presuppositions about what men are supposed to be and what women are supposed to be, stamping those differences with biological proof construed as divine law.

Men are strong, dominant, ruling, governing, rational. They need women—they need marriage—in order to tame their tendency to belligerency. Women are weaker than men, submissive, emotional, natural tenders of the home and children. They need men to rule them, to assure that their tendency to sympathize and emote does not sour their spiritual lives, leading them down wrong paths. Men and women need each other—they need the bond of marriage—in order to live out their biological destinies in a complementary way that enables them both to fulfill those destinies and to overcome the pitfalls of those destinies.

This is, in a nutshell, how many churches today are choosing to read gender, sexuality, and marriage. John Paul II’s theology of the body has been highly influential outside the Catholic church. It echoes themes running through the fundamentalist wings of many churches, as well as the radical middle of churches. The theology of male-female complementarity, and the use of this theology to make gay marriage unthinkable, is everywhere in Christian thought today. And it is only going to become more powerful in the future.

This theology reads the Jewish and Christian scriptures as though they are some parable about the choice of God to make everything male and female, as if the biological fact of gender is the linchpin of divine revelation. In the theology of male-female complementarity, a biological fact (with unacknowledged presuppositions about gender roles enfolded into that "fact") is read as if it is somehow the most significant thing to say about creation, and about divine revelation regarding the purpose of creation.

On the basis of this assumption, those promoting the theology of male-female complementarity propose that the Jewish and Christian scriptures consistently and unambiguously view marriage as the union of one man with one woman for life—as a mystical union in which a man and woman seeking fidelity to the biological imperatives of gender join together to live out those imperatives in a way that transcends their limitations. Women will achieve salvation if they but submit sweetly to their man; men will achieve salvation if they rule their women not only with power and might, but with sweet, tender love as well.

Unfortunately, this understanding of what the scriptures say about marriage and gender is sheer nonsense. There is no consistent view of marriage throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures, nor is there a highly elaborated theology of marriage in either set of holy books. Polygamy was taken for granted for many centuries in Judaism. The scriptures reflect this; they take it for granted.

In key respects, the gospels are more anti-family than pro-family, more anti-marriage than pro-marriage. Jesus speaks of putting the reign of God first, of leaving family behind to follow him. He challenges the subordination of women to men, calling women to walk with him as he preaches and teaches—an unthinkable act for a rabbi.

Jesus’s teaching about family always opens to a higher value than family itself. In Jesus’s teaching, family is what the entire world is about (and that is precisely why his followers were so shocked by the radical implications of his answer to their question, Who is my brother?). Family is a lens through which one should view every other human being in the world, in Jesus's teaching. Family is not restricted to a small closed circle of blood kin. To be faithful to Jesus, one is called to extend the rubric of familial love, familial acceptance, to every human being. The human family trumps the nuclear family in spades, in the teaching of Jesus.

The current theology of male-female complementarity does not see things this way. It makes the middle-class nuclear family, along with the gender roles that model of family presupposes into an idol. On the basis of their notion of family, the churches today bless behavior that is anything but gospel-centered: selfish behavior in which those who are different are excluded and demeaned as threats to the family; ugly behavior in which nuclear families shrug off their refusal to care even for their own elderly or for those within the family circle who do not fit the mold of family expectations.

At its worst, the current theology of male-female complementarity represents a preferential option for the male—the male in his crudest, most belligerent, most life-threatening form. Hidden within the churches’ resistance to gay rights today is a choice to hand over the future of the churches to those least equipped to move the churches into a bright future: manly men who do not trouble with thought as they rule; manly men who take for granted their breathtaking entitlement to dominate and who have never thought sufficiently about that entitlement to have a clue about justice; many men whose claim to fame rests on their biological traits rather than their character. In the theology of male-female complementarity, the churches have waged their future on the brute fact, and the power, of the penis, tout court.

So as the churches think through the challenge posed by the legalization of gay marriage, will they soon begin to recognize that something is awry with the choice to wage the future on phallic power? I doubt it. Those with power rarely yield power. Men have power in the churches. It is men who read the scriptures to support phallic domination of women and men construed as feminine. It is men who claim ownership of a tradition they are intent on reading as their tradition, as one vindicating all of their choices in the present.

And men have power in the world at large. All the structures of our society have a tremendous amount invested in maintaining gender roles as they are. Machismo sells. Domination of women by men sells. Why should the churches challenge—how can they challenge—presuppositions about gender so fixed in the economic structures of society that it is almost impossible to view them as anything but natural? We are bombarded daily with consumerist messages that try to make us think that male domination and female subordination are natural, unchangeable facts of nature, stamped with divine approval.

Indeed, how can the churches challenge such presuppositions when they actually bless these presuppositions through their spurious new theologies of male-female complementarity? I'll believe the churches are ready to concede how cruel and ultimately silly their current theology of male-female complementarity is, when I see the churches stepping away from all the shtick surrounding that theology today.

For instance, when EWTN stops running clips of robed friars lobbing footballs to each other (real men play football, the crude text shouts, and if we just had real men, manly men, in the priesthood again, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in), I'll believe the churches are getting serious about the shortcomings of this fatuous pseudo-mystical theology of male-female complementarity.

In the meanwhile, I'm not going to hold my breath. In the meanwhile, I'm not going to count on a book by feminist theologian or an openly gay one becoming a run-away bestseller in the "Christian" book market anytime soon, displacing the shlock of bogus-mystical male-female complementarity that now rules the market.


colkoch said...

"It is men who claim ownership of a tradition they are intent on reading as their tradition, as one vindicating all of their choices in the present."

Bill, in a brilliant piece of writing, this statement is so on target why, IT'S A TOUCHDOWN!

By the way, any theology of complimentarity which leaves out the female clitoris in it's discussion of sex, isn't even based in sound biology. Maybe that has something to do with the fact the clitoris has no bearing on sexual procreation, just pleasure. Must be an incompatible biological fact for the Theology of the Body believers. Women enjoying sex in a physical way must not be part of the complimentary thing.

William D. Lindsey said...

Colleen, excellent point: in the attempt of the men who own the tradition to read biology as destiny, it's interesting to note all the inconvenient biological facts that are just ignored.

As you note, the existence of the clitoris is such an inconvenient fact. If we are made for procreation, as the biology-as-destiny contingent want to think, then why that particular non-procreative bit of female anatomy that is crucial to sexual pleasure?

Andre Gide noted a long time ago that people can think what they think about gender and sex roles only because they ignore the biological evidence right in front of them. Gide noted that people persist in saying that same-sex behavior is unnatural when all around them, animals are, in fact, engaging in same-sex copulation. Visit a farm with your eyes open, and your view of what is "natural" will be vastly expanded.

Thanks for letting me know that this piece scored a touchdown. Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life!

Unknown said...

As usual, Bill, you nail it. I recall once raising the whole "procreation" as the excuse for marriage with someone, and pointing out that if they really mwant this, then along with the usual "blood test" required for people getting married, they should require each person get tested for his/her ability to procreate.

This person answer was that it didn't matter, that so long as it was a male and female, there was always the chance for procreation if it was "the will of God." So, that's their stock mystical answer to your sound logic.