This weekend, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote a great response to my response to his piece at The Week. His post included some necessary corrections to what I wrote: I take his point, for example, on the theological distinction between metaphor and analogy. As I say on my “about” page, I always welcome input from those better trained in theology than me (which is just about everybody) and Gobry’s post is an example of what I mean.
Then, on Monday, Kyle Cupp built on the conversation, arguing that “the fatherhood of God is more than a metaphor, but the analogy of fatherhood doesn’t preclude our addressing God by other names and titles, including ‘Mother.’”
Reading both pieces, I realize I need to refine my point. I was too breezy in my first post, what with the “Relax” title (I almost titled it “Frankie Say Relax”) and with my sentence “Who cares if it takes imagination to see the fruitful love of God for his Church in the marriage of Charity and Sylvia?” That was the general tone of my post.
So I get why Cupp said that I called the fatherhood of God a “replaceable metaphor,” and I guess I invited Gobry to characterize my argument as saying that “God’s Fatherhood is just a metaphor, and therefore doesn’t have implications for how we view the sexes.” That phrase, “just a metaphor,” shows up a couple of times in Gobry’s response, which is my fault, but it isn’t what I meant. I wasn’t trying to say that metaphors (or analogies) don’t matter—and less still that the language of the Bible doesn’t “teach us anything about what fatherhood means on Earth and what the sexes were created for.”
I agree with Gobry that “wrestling with both/ands is hard–but valuable,” and especially that “there is always an element of mystery, of groping in the dark, but taking a shortcut by simply jettisoning one side of the equation simply will not do.” I didn’t intend to jettison one side of the equation; I did intend to emphasize the side that I think sometimes gets short shrift.
Let me explain.
It seems to me, the Church’s problem is that increasingly, people like me (and, in a different way, Conor Friedersdorf) are able to both accept the Church’s understanding of the meaning of the two sexes and the way they come together in heterosexual intercourse and understand that that’s not how it works for everybody, that there might be other paths to that same point. That is, we can look at a gay couple, see God’s love in them, and not see that as a challenge to our own sense of the importance—both secular and sacred—of fatherhood (or motherhood). This is what I took Friedersdorf to be getting at when he said, “Even if I knew [that procreative sexual intercourse is a special act], however, I would not feel compelled or even inclined to declare homosexuality to be wrong,” and that’s the reason I endorsed his column in my post.
Gobry has an answer, and it boils down to Yes, but that’s not marriage. “To say that other forms of love also reflect God’s glory,” he writes, “misses the point—of course they do.” Putting aside the question of the sinfulness of homosexual acts (which is a big question, but one I’ll not get into today) Gobry’s point is that while we might see God’s love for man in the love and commitment of two men, or two women, the traditional view holds that it’s a categorically different thing. It’s not marriage. Marriage is a bodily and spiritual union, open to life, whose bliss “is an inkling of the bliss of the union of the Persons of the Trinity.”
Except the Church doesn’t say that’s necessarily what marriage is. Okay, more precisely, it does and it doesn’t. Both/and. I know I keep harping on Josephite, or Spiritual, marriages, but I do so because I think they present a tremendous challenge to the Church’s reasoning on marriage. Or would, if not for the Christian imagination.
In fact, one reservation I have with Friedersdorf’s column is that I don’t think he goes far enough. He says that, in the Christian framework, non-procreative marriages are “less reflective of God’s glory,” which leads one of Gobry’s commenters to describe his position as saying that gay relationships are partly good, but not as good as heterosexual ones.
This is difficult to articulate, but while I think that procreation is sacred and adds something to a marriage that isn’t present in a non-procreative marriage (well duh, I guess), I don’t believe that my marriage is one jot better, one iota more sacred, than a non-procreative one.* This is the both/and that Gobry is talking about, and it can definitely lead one into positions that are hard to defend. BUT, and this is a point I was trying to make in my first post, Christianity gives us examples of how to do it. Josephite marriages, which don’t have “organic bodily union,” which aren’t “open to life” in the physical, literal sense, aren’t disparaged by the church as less-than; instead, they’re often talked about in saintly terms. Fulton Sheen got positively flowery describing them:
Here the marriage is of the heart and not of the flesh; it is a marriage such as the stars have, whose light unites in the atmosphere although the stars themselves do not; a marriage like the flowers in the garden in springtime, who give forth perfume, although they themselves do not touch; a marriage like an orchestration, where a great melody is produced but where one instrument is without contact with the other.
So, Christianity shows us that something that lacks that which is said to be essential to marriage, can not only still be marriage, but even be considered among the greatest of marriages.
Gobry writes (in another post I loved) that we moderns have “overlearned” Christianity, and maybe I’m taking this particular lesson too far. And, yes, I know that Josephite marriages are still male/female, and that they have precedents in the Christian tradition (you know, starting with Joseph and Mary) that gay marriage, obviously, doesn’t. But their existence makes the prohibition on gay marriage a whole lot harder to defend. And, anyway, with something like the radical possibility inherent in Christianity, it’s hard to know where to stop learning.
*By “non-procreative” marriages, I mean not only gay marriages, but also those that are childless by choice. And I’ve written before (here & here) that I think elderly marriages ought to be grouped with those, since, the example of Abraham & Sarah notwithstanding, past a certain age people aren’t getting married with the intent of having kids.