Monday, December 15, 2008

Newsweek's "Religious Case for Gay Marriage"

Newsweek magazine (the December 15 edition) features an essay by Lisa Miller entitled "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" which claims to prove once and for all just how unbiblical "religious conservatives" are for opposing same gender marriages. To my mind there are two unfortunate features of this essay: its argument finally fails and it is based on erroneous assumptions.

Miller, like many others, has chosen to frame this issue within the conflict between "fundamentalist" and "liberal" interpretations of Scripture, with "fundamentalists" (any Christian who disagrees with her) supporting a "literal reading" of Scripture and being motivated by bigotry and narrow-mindedness and "liberals" opting for more "open" and "compassionate" readings. It does not require a subtle mind to see that when the debate is thus framed who will come out the victor. This is the fundamental flaw of this very flawed essay. Miller is certain that the only possible motivation behind objections to same sex marriages is a combination of bigotry and ignorance: "Religious objections to gay marriage are rooted not in the Bible at all, then, but in custom and tradition (and, to talk turkey for a minute, a personal discomfort with gay sex that transcends theological argument)." Aside from the obvious question of how it is that Miller knows this, there is the important fact that the theological anthropology which serves as the basis for rejecting same sex marriage was formulated long before the advent of Protestant fundamentalism. Apparently oblivious to this fact, Miller is content to make her argument largely by name calling. It does not require a subtle mind to realize that name calling does not constitute an argument. (Note to Ms. Miller: I regard same sex marriages as theologically problematic not because I am a "religious conservative" but because I aspire to be a catholic Christian.)

Two things abut this rather poorly argued essay strike me. First, I was struck by the initial sentence of the final paragraph which seems to reveal a good deal about Miller's whole approach to this subject: "More basic than theology, though, is human need." More basic than theology? For Miller, apparently, theology (or doctrine) is completely secondary and has little bearing on what one thinks about the proper order of human sexuality and love. The real divide here is not that between "fundamentalists" and "liberals" but between those who think that doctrine is important and those who are inclined to substitute psychology for doctrine so that all questions are resolved on the basis of appeals to vague construals of "love" and "inclusivity". Miller wants "human need" (meaning what we want at any given moment) to trump theology and, sadly, many Christians are only too happy to follow.

Second, I was struck by Miller's completely non-theological approach to Scripture. In her account Scripture is a grab bag of arbitrary rules, almost completely of human derivation, from which "religious conservatives" arbitrarily choose. This leads her to offer an observation that she apparently thinks is profound: "The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, it's impossible to apply its rules, at face value, to ours." So, Scripture is a collection of antiquated rules which can not possibly be applied to our highly advanced stage of development. This is what happens when someone who is theologically blind attempts to read Scripture which is essentially a theological narrative. There probably are fundamentalists who have a wooden reading of Scripture, a reading which is arbitrary and which treats the text as a code of law but this says nothing about the origin or state of Christian anthropology and the view of marriage that rests upon it. Miller wants to make things as easy as possible for her dubious argument; while wanting to appear sophisticated she reveals that she knows virtually nothing about the way in which the catholic Church has read Scripture.

One example may be helpful. Apparently referring to Leviticus 18:22 (which prohibits sexual relations between men), Miller describes this verse as "throwaway lines". This prohibition, she holds, is simply one of many arbitrary biblical rules which can safely be ignored. But is this prohibition simply arbitrary? Could it, perhaps, refer back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24-25 and a normative vision for the relationship between men and women? Miller's reading of Scripture is so impoverished and so bound by worries about patriarchy and other ills to even consider this. It is interesting that Jesus cites these very two texts in Mark 10:6-9 when speaking of marriage. And he is not simply offering an opinion but making it clear that this was the case "from the beginning of creation" (Mark 10:6). Jesus appeals to these two texts from Genesis for the same reason that Leviticus 18:22 does and this is because both assume that they reveal God's intention for marriage. Furthermore, it is significant that in a discussion of porneia (Greek="sexual immorality") Paul also cites Genesis 2:14-25 in 1 Corinthians 6:16 as normative. What this suggests is that Scripture (Leviticus, Jesus, Paul) does have an integrated vision of what marriage is supposed to be and this is the way in which the catholic Church has read Scripture. It reflects a huge deficit of understanding to refer to all this simply as "fundamentalism".

When it comes to interpreting Paul, Miller is simply hopeless. She deploys all the traditional objections to his treatment of homosexual practice from opining that "Paul was tough on homosexuality" to mentioning the opinion of an "expert" that Romans 1:18-32 has nothing to do with homosexuality at all. What she does not mention is that first century Jews were united in their horror of homosexual practice (prevalent in both Greek and Roman culture). One can not say that Paul was "tough on homosexuality" as if there was a segment of Jewish opinion that was lenient on it; in his opposition to the practice Paul was simply Jewish and his opposition was based on an anthropology not a few arbitrary rules. Miller completely misses the fact that in Romans 1:20 Paul begins his discussion with the important phrase "ever since the creation of the world," an obvious reference to Genesis 1-2. The signs of human sinfulness, which include everything from homosexual practice to gossip, are understood as departures from God's intended order for his creation. Thus, same gender sexual relations are objectionable to Paul for the same reason they were objectionable to most Jews and to most Christians. It has nothing to do with bigotry or prejudice but is based on the fact that such practice is "contrary to nature" (Romans 1:26).

One of the strangest aspects about this pretentious essay is that it completely fails to mention the biblical text which has had the most influence on Christian understandings of marriage: Ephesians 5:22-32. Here, the relationship between Christ and the Church serves as the theological context for understanding the nuptial mystery of marriage. This is not a mere proof text but a theological analogy. This is a complex text but one thing to note is that in this analogy Christ is male while the Church is female. The whole point of the analogy is that Christ is united to his Church in a way that preserves the real difference between the two and is appropriate because while different the two parties are complimentary. One could trace a doctrine of marriage that runs from St. Augustine to St. John Chrysostom to Martin Luther to Pope John Paul II very nicely by using this text as a connecting device. But such connections will escape Miller as heavy handed and obtuse reading of Scripture.

In short, Miller's essay fails on every count imaginable. Its assumption that all opposition to same gender marriage is based on fear and bigotry is simply ungrounded assertion. Its treatment of Scripture is beyond redemption and highly simplistic. And its abandonment of theology finally means that it is not a "religious" case at all because it finally holds that what is most important about religion (theology, truth) is unimportant and must be subjugated to what supposedly sophisticated people think. Perhaps in ten years or so a similar essay will appear in Newsweek entitled "The Religious Case for Polygamy," a fine essay attacking the bigotry and prejudice of those who want to confine marriage to two people.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, Newsweek. A beacon of truth. Miller's article would be comical but for the multitudes who will, in 'drive-through window' fashion, consume the product whole without any research into its ingredients.

"Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions." 1 Tim. 1:6 (NRSV).

December 17, 2008 at 5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this clear and concise Biblical argument.

December 31, 2008 at 10:39 AM  

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