The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (5): the sexual revolution and Christian marriage

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1

OK,  some thoughts on marriage in this little mini-series set off by reflecting on allegory and the Song of Songs.

Contemporary Western attitudes to marriage are complex and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is legally and socially less significant – a lifestyle choice ignored by increasing numbers of people. Yet, on the other hand, it is a status vigorously pursued as a legal and human right for those formerly excluded from a male-female heterosexual understanding of marriage.

Much confusion arises from different understandings of what marriage actually is. Modern views of marriage are, at key points, historically novel – radically so. Yet, such has been the cultural success of the modern concept of marriage, that it has swept all before it – including much Christian understanding and practice of marriage. The result has been that much Christianity in the West lacks the theological resources to imagine marriage, sex, and the body in radically counter-cultural ways.

So what is this dominant modern view of marriage? It is shaped by at least two major innovations:

Innovation 1: A revolution in the understanding of sex

  • celibacy is incomprehensible (our previous post)
  • being sexually active is an essential part of being human; repression of who we are sexually is harmful and oppressive
  • sex is an activity detached from reproduction. (This is technically possible only in the blink of an eye historically. Remember that for the early church fathers sex was only legitimate if done for procreation. Sex for pleasure was a venial sin).
  • Detachment from procreation frees sex to be a leisure activity – primarily a source of pleasure, fun and self-expression.
  •  Thus sex becomes an end in itself – a source of personal self-fulfilment and expression of identity
  • Modern sex is therefore deeply linked to modern consumerism – it is no accident that sex is used to sell pretty well anything.

Innovation 2: Romantic fulfilment

  • Everywhere in a thousand ways Western culture affirms that the path to individual fulfilment is through authentic romantic love
  • Such love is equal, sexual, intimate and exciting. It is the Other who meets our needs and us theirs. It is ‘us’ and then the rest of the outside world.
  • This vision of romantic love is also new historically – never before in human history has happiness, meaning, fulfilment and purpose been so invested in one relationship.
  • The stakes are high – if the relationship doesn’t deliver exalted hopes then its future is in serious doubt
  • Rising divorce rates suggest that our ‘all or nothing’ investment in marriage / the ‘perfect one’ / ‘true love’ as the ultimate source of identity, happiness and future hope is unrealistic and unsustainable. There are sadly a lot of broken dreams out there.

How has this framework impacted marriage ?

At least two ways:

1. You might think that it would undermine marriage and you would be right.

Marriage rates in Ireland are still high, but on the decline. Many places in the West are far ‘ahead’ in this trend. This makes sense – logically marriage is an optional extra, unnecessary to a fulfilling relationship. For increasing numbers people the thinking is, why bother?

Easier and quicker divorce also follows – if it is not working out, then get out. (I’m speaking big picture here. I’m well aware that many try heroically and self-sacrificingly to make a marriage work and it still fails with associated enormous heartbreak. It takes two to make a relationship function. But the trend is a devaluing of marriage as a life-long commitment).

2. If marriage is only about fulfilment, love, romance, sex, mutuality and happiness then gender also becomes logically irrelevant.

The reshaping of marriage in the West has been about the rights of two individuals ‘in love’ – so it matters not if you are heterosexual or homosexual or somewhere else on a spectrum of human sexuality. This explains the social revolution of the West’s rapid adoption of same-sex marriage. The speed that traditional norms have been abandoned is indicative of how firmly entrenched a romantic individualist view of sex and marriage has become.

Notice though that children are secondary to this pursuit of authentic love. In contrast to a historic, traditional understanding of marriage as the context for conceiving and raising children, the West’s reshaped understanding of marriage has largely detached it from procreation.

This also means that there is now no logical boundary to the pursuit of the perfect relationship. At the moment marriage is limited to two people, regardless of gender in an increasing number of Western nations; it is hard to see why Western culture will not widen its social experimentation to include other forms of ‘pure love’ – love between free, equal consenting adults in whatever arrangement they find fulfilling.

[Can’t remember where I read someone raising the ironical point that the West’s shifting views of sex and marriage, while totally alien to Islam, makes it difficult rationally to resist the argument for polygamy to be legalised. This both on the grounds of ‘free choice of consenting adults’ AND on the grounds of tolerance & inclusion of other ways of life.]

Challenges facing Christians

I said earlier that in the face of the West’s revolution in understanding of sex and marriage, that much Christianity is struggling to articulate a vision for and practice of marriage that is counter-cultural. That’s a big claim and these are blog musings – but what do you think?

I wonder if we are so impacted by Western culture’s revolutionary understanding of sex and romance that these implications follow:

  • adoption of same-sex marriage by many churches and denominations in the West – eg the Scottish Episcopal church vote in 2017, the similar direction of travel of the Church of Scotland, continuing deep divisions in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the USA etc etc.
  • assimilation of Western romantic individualism that marginalises the idea of marriage as a life-long covenant commitment. Here’s a favourite quote from Stanley Hauerwas talking about a minister doing a marriage preparation course and thinking it

..… interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.

  • a subtle revolution in Christian understanding of and practice of divorce. I know this is a painful and complex area and this is not meant in a judgemental way. But it is here that a Christian understanding of marriage should be most counter-cultural. However we understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on divorce, it is crystal clear that it is a disaster; it should be practiced with the utmost seriousness and in limited circumstances. An easy divorce and remarriage policy and divorce rates similar to that of the wider culture would be signs that the church is losing its vision for Christian marriage. [For a very helpful resource on this see the work of Dr David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House here.]
  • A marginalisation of the practice of celibacy. As I said in this post, while associated with some bad theology, celibacy was the default ‘best option’ in church teaching and life for hundreds of years. It is clearly the New Testament’s preference. Yet today, singleness is not valued as at least an equal option to marriage. While studies vary and stats are unreliable, it is also pretty clear that rates of pre-marital sex amongst young Christians are climbing due to enormous cultural pressures.

Question: do you think celibacy losing credence within the church as well as being incomprehensible outside it?

Of course, describing these trends is easier than saying how best to respond.

Four challenges come to mind:

i. At the very least these are issues we need to be talking about, thinking about theologically, and articulating in teaching and preaching an authentic Christian vision for sex and marriage..

ii. Too often the first response of the church has been to resist and oppose changes in the law enacted by secular governments as a way of ‘protecting’ marriage. Too often absent, has been a first response of looking at ourselves – how church practice and beliefs around sex and marriage have been profoundly formed by Western individualism and consumerism. It is when the church practices sex and marriage well that it will have most impact, not when it takes the Christendom option in a post-Christendom culture of fighting and losing legal battles in the courts.

iii. Almost finally! – there is a need to combine teaching and practicing that vision with listening to people who do not fit within modern church assumptions about the default best option being heterosexual marriage with 2.2 children; singles, people with same-sex attraction, people self-identifying as LBGT+ etc.

iv. Finally finally – let’s return to the Song of Songs. The two lovers are ‘perfect’ – their pristine love captured in beautiful lyrics. We don’t read of them getting older. We don’t read of imperfect lovers making mistakes and failing to love well. Theirs is a wonderful picture of idealised love. It both gives us an inspiring vision and reminds us that our lives and relationships are inevitably marked by sin and selfishness, and our sexual lives are no different. So in all our thinking and teaching about an ideal Christian vision for love, sex and marriage, we also need to practice forgiveness, compassion and tons of grace.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage? (6) why gender agnosticism and same-sex marriage is not the solution

Who_Owns_MarriageI said in my comments in the book that, in effect, the state is wishing to affirm homosexual identity by extending the right to marry.

I’m not persuaded that this policy is a necessary or good solution by which to affirm LGBT identity.

Here’s why I don’t think that same-sex marriage is a good idea.

It represents a radical retreat from a ‘maximal’ role of the state in actively legislating ‘for’ the family based on a marriage between a man and a woman from which children emerge (1937 Constitution) to a ‘minimal’ role where the state is now saying it has no interest or role at all in affirming marriage as between a man and women.

The rights of the individual of whatever sexual identity are now to be recognised and affirmed over and above established notions of marriage. Indeed, marriage as traditionally understood as being between a man and woman will be legally erased as a result of the Referendum. The words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ will become legislatively redundant.

I’m not against change, nor do I think that just because the state took a particular position in 1937 is should be set in stone for ever more. Nor do I assume that the state has a duty to legislate according to Christian morality.

But it should be recognised that the state, via the Referendum and recent Family and Relationships Bill, is now demonstrating a remarkable form ‘gender agnosticism’.

The wording of the amendment to the Referendum says

“Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.”

This means that the state has now legally has no interest in the gender of parents.

It means that it, in effect, has no vested interest in how children are conceived or brought into a family and indeed is encouraging and affirming alternative artificial methods of procreation since a homosexual couple cannot produce offspring.

It means that there is no value placed on male-female difference: this will inevitably contribute to an increasing erosion of gender norms and acceleration of the normalisation and societal approval of a wide spectrum of sexual identities.

Logically, in light of this legislation and if consent, romantic love and commitment are all that are required for marriage to exist, it is hard to see a reason why marriage should not be extended to a variety of other arrangements.

As I said in my comments in the book, traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble. This legislation will, I think, only speed up the erosion of marriage and the family in Irish society. It continues a process of the hollowing out of marriage with negative implications for society.

And, also as I noted in the comments, the overall direction of the legislation carries with it significant threats to civil and religious liberty.

To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance.

A new intolerance is in the air for those accused of promoting ‘homophobic’ ideas (not being supportive of same-sex marriage or holding to Christian teaching about sex and sexuality).

Over time those outside the new legal consensus will likely be increasingly marginalised. How far that marginalisation will go is unknown, but it is obvious from experience elsewhere that changing the law on same-sex marriage will have profound implications, not all of them foreseen or predictable.

See here for a very fair summary by a UK barrister on the conflict between equality law and human rights inherent in the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Same Sex Marriage and Religious LibertyFor a good example of an academic discussion of this issue it’s worth looking at Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts (2008) In it academics in an American context trace how the introduction of same-sex marriage inevitably triggers various legal church-state conflicts such as:

  • Restrictions on free speech against same-sex marriage in public employment and educational contexts and elsewhere in the public square
  • Withholding of licences and accreditations from professionals and institutions that oppose same-sex marriage
  • Civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodation, housing and education
  • Withdrawal of charity status and other forms of government ‘approval’ and funding from organisations that oppose same-sex marriage

See also this article by Roger Severino in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. He concludes that after the introduction of same-sex marriage

“the chilling effect that either litigation or the threat of litigation would have on religious liberty is real and immediate.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage? (5) An LGBT perspective

Who_Owns_MarriageKirsty Park tells a bit of her story in her commentary on her father’s book.

She grew up gay within evangelical churches and is absolutely convinced that

“the church is complete denial about the extent of the damage it has caused LGBT people worldwide.”

She recounts how she experienced years of people sharing their opinions with her before someone took the time to actually ask her about her experience and how she felt.

She talks of how LGBT experience of rejection by parents means they are eight times more likely to attempt suicide and have higher risks of depression, illegal drug use, and HIV/AIDS infection. And she argues that evangelical attitudes towards gay people are informed by prejudice.

She contrasts Christian attitudes towards homosexuality (a level of disgust, ignorance and sometimes fear) over against attitudes to sex outside marriage or divorce (which she says are Iargely accepted realities by evangelicals with no campaign to change the law to reflect Christian morality on these issues.).

Her heartfelt appeal is similar to Richard Carson’s – take time to really listen and understand.

On the political issue of the referendum, Kirsty is candid in why she wants to marry her partner.

Her reasons for wanting to be married are honest: ‘marriage’ is a powerful word associated with social approval and acceptance. Change in the law is sought as a means of LGBT people having equal access to the social capital that comes with marriage.

She sees marriage not primarily about legal rights but as a quasi-religious ceremony that gives a context for celebration; a rite of passage that publicly affirms the couple. Without the word ‘marriage’ “there is no custom or expectation and no social capital behind the word.” She wouldn’t exactly be excited to hang a banner on the car saying ‘Just Civil Partnershiped’.

She locates marriage as primarily personal and romantic rather than legal and institutional.

Her argument is that Christians are absolutely free to believe that homosexual relationships are sinful and to encourage same-sex attracted believers to pursue a life of celibacy. This is in effect is church business.

But, she argues, Christians can’t have it both ways: the state and Christian views of marriage are drifting further and further apart. Already heterosexual marriage is a long way from Christian ideals as living together, divorce and breakdown stats show.

Christians can still believe in and practice Christian marriage.

“Christians own Christian marriage, and may happily continue to do so. However, Christians can never own the marriages of those who don’t choose to have a Christian marriage, so why attempt to do so in some situations and not in others? Why care when it involves LGBT people but not when it involves heterosexuals?” (65)

Kirsty’s story is moving and real. I don’t know but I guess telling it in a book edited by her father, a pastor and the Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland, was a tricky and courageous path to negotiate.

Both her contribution and Richard Carson’s do invite a further conversation between the LGBT community and evangelical Christians. As I tried to say in my own contribution, love must at the very least mean learning to listen well and there is much listening to be done.

However, I’d want to disentangle the personal experience of exclusion from the argument for same-sex marriage. In a final post on this subject I’ll try to explain why I don’ think that same-sex marriage is the right solution to LGBT marginalisation and exclusion.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Owns Marriage? (3) counter-cultural witness

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 2 in which Nick unpacks evangelical beliefs and values around marriage, sex and society.

Nick’s discussion of four core values for evangelical thinking about same-sex marriage forms a really helpful and honest chapter. I particularly liked the description of relationship-based morality which gets to the heart of evangelicalism ‘at its best’. At the end of this discussion Nick concludes that

“an Evangelical passion for holiness, and our search for morality, should lead us more to self-examination and repentance than to an obsession with judging and condemning the actions of others.”

This is so refreshing to hear! In a ‘culture war’ any admission that ‘our’ side might not be completely in the right is an admission of weakness. Nick’s appeal for evangelicals to be self-critically reflective shows that he has no interest in scoring points or trying to control culture. The most significant challenge for all Christians in this debate is not winning a vote ‘from the top down’ but embodying the transforming beauty of loving marriages from ‘the bottom up’. For the reality is that Christians of any hue are fooling themselves if they think that marriage can be ‘saved’ by defeating the same-sex Referendum in May 2015. Trusting in the law to preserve or enforce ethical or moral good is a Christendom instinct and is, I believe, a profoundly mistaken way to witness to the gospel of Christ. Ireland’s recent experience of Christendom should have taught us that. For the reality is that traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble in Ireland. Over 50% of children in Limerick Ireland are now born outside of marriage (the figure nationally is about 35% which is similar to EU averages). Relational breakdown is pervasive. The Referendum is only a symptom of a much deeper process of cultural transformation driven by the West’s embrace of capitalism and consumerism: the autonomous individual; freedom of choice; privatised morality; the pursuit of happiness; and the right to express our own identity – whatever it is (within the law).

The 1937 Irish Constitution was framed in a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. It was assumed that the state had a ‘maximal’ role in shaping law to reflect the Catholic values of the vast majority of the population. Remember De Valera’s vision of his ideal Ireland? It was a place of frugality, spirituality and simplicity in which Ireland’s isolation protected the people from the unspiritual forces of modernisation, materialism and capitalism. Those hopes now seem quaint in a globalised world. Let me illustrate it this way. At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying “No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation.” In his day, the individual was subordinate to the greater cause of the nation. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say “No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.” Now the nation is subordinate to the rights of the individual – and is legislating accordingly.

It is in this sort of context that Christians are to live and witness. This is where Nick’s call for repentance and self-reflection is so important. First we need to look at ourselves. How well are we living up to the high ideal of Christian marriage that Nick describes? The American ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual satisfaction is a very modern development that has led the church to neglect the public and political nature of sex in Christian theology. If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.

Of course love is a pretty important part of Christian marriage! But I like the way Hauerwas challenges popular perceptions as he talks about a minister asking a young couple getting married if they love one another;

“What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you are in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”

If this sounds strange maybe it is because we have been more shaped by our consumerist and individualist culture that we would like to admit. This isn’t the place for detailed discussion of the development of Christian marriage since Bible times save to make a few brief points. For centuries marriage was a communal and political ‘institution’ that provided the context for sex, the raising of children, giving them legal status, and the ordering of property rights. Interpersonal love had no significant place in Christian marriage from the New Testament, up through the Middle Ages to the Reformation. For much of this time marriage was seen as a lower spiritual option than the religious life of celibacy. After all, both Jesus and Paul (a widower?) were single men and Paul, while seeing both marriage and singleness as good valid options, preferred the latter (1 Cor. 7). More negatively, Augustine’s theology of sex as the means by which original sin is transmitted and the only legitimate sex within marriage being for the purpose of procreation would cast a long shadow over Christian attitudes to sex. It was at the Reformation that marriage received a new theological assessment. While rejecting the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, Luther considered marriage a God-given and most natural form of life, to be lived in faith by the grace of God. Sexuality is a good gift of God, to such a degree that Luther could not imagine a woman or man living without sex unless they had been given the rare gift of chastity. He also spoke against forced marriages and the need for the couple to have desire for each other. This was a new appreciation of women as marital partners. He, with other Reformers, saw marriage as a high calling, a vocation for a couple to bring up their children well. Marriage in this sense is far more than mere legitimation of sexual desire or a private partnership for mutual fulfilment.

Hopefully, this quick review helps explain Hauerwas’s comment. The emergence of love as the overriding motivation for marriage is a recent development, yet ‘mere’ romantic love or hopes of conjugal bliss will not sustain a marriage through difficult times. An authentically Christian view of marriage needs to be robust.

It’s time to make some concluding points (and I’ve run out of space to comment on chapters 3 and 4!):

First, an authentically Christian view of marriage stands in increasingly sharp contrast to the personalised romantic understanding of marriage as a private affair between two individuals of whatever gender that now dominates Irish and Western culture. The basic orientation of a Christian marriage is outward, towards the church community and wider world. The man and woman’s love is a transformative gift of God that goes beyond their mutual desire and enjoyment to serve and bless others. Marriage in this sense is a pathway of God’s grace. As Christians are by definition people who have been forgiven, so they are to be people of forgiveness (Roms. 15:7). For without forgiveness a marriage will not survive, grow and flourish. The calling of Christians to get married and stay married is a sign of the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness being worked out in everyday life. This vision of marriage demands my complete self-giving to my other and a willingness to be transformed by that relationship of difference as it is worked out in relationship with God and with others in the community of faith. All of this is to say that for Christians, sex and marriage serve a very different vision and purpose than they do in our contemporary society.

This is why I agree with Nick Park’s suggestions about civil partnerships for all and the state withdrawing from the marriage business in Chapter 4. For the state to take upon itself the right to extend a redefined notion of ‘marriage’ is exactly the wrong direction to be going. This is why I will be voting ‘No’. Justice and equality can better be served by civil partnerships for all. It is a very curious aspect of the Referendum debate how marriage is being viewed as an idealised status to which everyone has a right to aspire. The law should not be used primarily as a stamp of societal approval and recognition of personal desires – which is what the legislation is primarily about. (But neither do I believe the sky will suddenly fall in if and when it passes).

Second, more recent emphasis in Christian marriage since the Reformation on the necessity and high calling of marriage has actually marginalised the equally if not more valid Christian calling of singleness. As a result many single Christians can be made to feel second-class citizens within the church. We need to beware the ‘idolatry’ of marriage and the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation. The fact that Christians are followers of an unmarried Jewish man should be a reminder that marriage and sex is not essential to live a completely fulfilled life! Also, Jesus’ teaching on the temporary nature of marriage in this life should also give us pause about unduly exalting marriage as the ultimate goal of happiness, personal fulfilment or affirmation of identity (Luke 20:34-5).

Third, it’s fascinating just how counter-cultural the early church’s practice of family and marriage was. The first Christians were accused of undermining the family structures of the Roman Empire by allowing men, women, Roman citizens and even slaves to be baptised into their community quite independently of the permission of the patriarchal head of the Roman household. The church became the ‘household’ of God (a word used frequently of the church in the NT) whose head was the risen Lord not the pater familias. It’s hard for us to imagine how radical this was in a highly stratified world. Just imagine a slave with the gift of teaching instructing his master in the church gathering! Or a woman prophet prophesying to a mixed gender community. The basis for membership of this new family was faith in Christ. Their common father was God whom they could even call ‘abba’. Anyone could join – across the great gender, social and religious boundaries of the ancient world (Gal. 3:28). It was to be a united household marked by love, acceptance and forgiveness not power or control. Significantly it did not require the establishment of biological families. The household of God was to be ‘propagated’ by witness and mission. The goal or hope of the new community was future orientated to a new creation to come.

None of this was to diminish family structures but it was a radical departure from a Roman way of seeing the family and the world. For this reason the early church was seen as a threat to accepted societal norms and posed an implicit (non-violent) challenge to Empire. In time, this challenge would result in violent persecution by the state.

I mention all this neither to suggest that Christians today are about to face state persecution nor to equate the Irish government with the Roman Empire! My point is that for Christians, family, marriage, sex and sexuality is part and parcel of their identity to live counter-culturally. Christians belong to a different story to that of the world. During Christendom this distinction got covered over and many Christians assumed the state would always be ‘on their side’. As we move more and more into a post-Christendom secular Ireland, the gap is widening fast. The same-sex Referendum is a reminder that the state does not remotely share a Christian view of marriage and the wider culture reflects the values of hyper-consumerism more than any other belief system. This should not be a surprise to Christians. The challenge it poses to us is what does it look like to be a counter-cultural community of Christians in 21st century Ireland?

Finally, linked to that last question and to Nick’s comments about evangelicals and social justice, I believe that there is a question that evangelicals too often overlook or ignore in this whole debate. Namely, how do we respond to those that are different to us; who have opposing objectives; whom might even be seen as ‘enemies’? Jesus’ command is pretty clear – love. At the very least love means listening well. It must mean opposing stereotypes and ‘doing unto others as we would have them do unto us’ in terms of how we speak and think. To love gay people will include building communities where everyone is welcomed and respected without fear of being singled out, shamed, embarrassed or judged. Can evangelical churches be places where people of same-sex orientation can feel secure enough to be open about their sexuality as they explore the Christian faith? Are Irish evangelicals ready or able to encourage, affirm and rejoice in an openly gay celibate Christian using his or her gifts in ministry in their local church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Who Own’s Marriage? (2) the issue of religious liberty

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 1 of the book in which Nick sets the context for the debate: I’m picking up on his personal experience of how hostile and polarised the debate has become.

Nick develops some reasons why it is important for Christians to speak into this debate rather than stay out of the fray. I find myself in agreement with most of his arguments. I think it is an overstatement to say that how evangelical Christians speak into this Referendum “may well determine the long term future of the Evangelical movement in Ireland” but he is surely right to say that the real challenge is to engage in a way that manifests “the presence and influence of Jesus Christ.” Redefining marriage is an important issue and Christians need to be making a positive contribution rather than staying silent, both in what they say and how they say it.

As citizens of this state, Christians have exactly the same opportunity and right as anyone else to articulate their vision of what sort of society will best lead to human flourishing. Part of this task will include opposing harmful and destructive policies and ideas as well as developing positive practical proposals for a way forward (Nick develops the latter in chapter 4). Of course, the ‘rubber hits the road’ in articulating what sort of society should evangelical Christians be arguing for and what should they be arguing against? Let me focus on one theme that I think is very significant that Nick alludes to – that of religious liberty.

Nick comments that increasingly where one stands on same-sex marriage is indeed being “viewed as a litmus test for being a decent human being”. There is a rising level of hostility to, and impatience with, people who do not jump to ‘get with the programme’ of same-sex legislation (to quote David Cameron lecturing the Church of England in Parliament a couple of years ago). The same-sex marriage campaign has developed enormous political and social capital, such that it would be a shock (to me anyway) if the Referendum is not passed in May. It resonates deeply with themes embedded in our Western culture: individualism, the pursuit of happiness, equality, freedom, liberation from oppressive institutional structures and tolerance. This is a narrative of progress, inclusion and justice as compared to the old repressive ‘Catholic Ireland’ of the past. To be perceived to ‘belong’ to the anti same-sex marriage camp is to be labelled as someone who has an regressive agenda to control the individual, promote unhappiness, endorse inequality, restrict freedom, reinforce oppression and maintain intolerance. Now that is a hard place from which to gain a hearing! Such labelling acts to exclude those who dissent from the majority position as voices not worth listening to. Potentially I can imagine such exclusion leading eventually to legislation to withdraw state support (funding, charity status etc) from organisations that do not ‘get with the programme’.

Nick talks about the fragmentation of postmodernism. One of the biggest political and social questions in Ireland in the years to come will be “How do we live with our deepest differences” when those differences appear to be getting deeper and deeper? If, in the past, tolerance in a free society was tolerating views you disagreed with or even found distasteful, today tolerance seems to be in the process of being reformed to mean only tolerating views with which you agree. Os Guinness has written about how the liberal pursuit of equality can become an illiberal imposition by the state of its values at the expense of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. In this context, and especially coming from our experience as a small minority, I think it is the role of evangelicals in Ireland to be actively contending for religious liberty.

Now, too often Christians in the West only get all hot and bothered when it is our rights that are being mildly threatened (like not being able to wear a crucifix to work or being sued for not baking a cake for a gay wedding). The real challenge, I believe, for evangelicals is to look beyond themselves to argue for religious liberty for all citizens, whether religious or secular. In other words, whatever rights we wish for ourselves, we should be willing to defend for others. For it is this sort of society that will be most free – where believers and atheists, Muslims and agnostics can live together within a civil public square. By that I mean where the state gets on with its job and citizens have some sort of shared vision of the common good while having the freedom of conscience to be themselves. Some may say this is a naive pipedream, but what is the alternative? Are we going to replace a dominant Catholic Christendom that had little room for minority voices with a dominant secularism that has little room for minority voices? Are evangelical Christians just going to shake their heads at the big bad world and withdraw from it? Or are we going to love that world by seeking the best for our fellow citizens by trying to help to build a civil society that promotes maximal freedom: a freedom to be human; a freedom to worship; a freedom to share our faith; a freedom to practise Christian marriage; a freedom to disagree without silencing each other.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evangelical Alliance Ireland on the same-sex marriage Referendum

This is the text of a recent statement by EAI on the upcoming Referendum in May on introducing same-sex marriage.

Feel welcome to give your reactions and comments to what they say. (I should say that I have not had any involvement in this statement but I will be one of the contributors to the planned book mentioned below).

STATEMENT ON THE FORTHCOMING SAME-SEX MARRIAGE REFERENDUM

Issued 25 February 2015

The forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage has provoked debate among Evangelical Christians. Many of us have friends and family members who identify as gay or lesbian, and there are those who worship in our churches who have been profoundly impacted by same-sex attraction and relationships.

Evangelical Christians in Ireland hold a wide variety of opinions. A minority within our movement interpret Scripture in such a way as to sanction same-sex marriage. Others prefer to ignore the issue, not wishing to create controversy or to be labelled as ‘homophobic’ (a term that should be reserved for those who fear, hate or abuse, rather than as a description of anyone who holds a different view on the definition of marriage).

However, the majority of Evangelicals hold a conservative biblical view of marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman, united as one flesh in the sight of God for the duration of their lifetime. EAI urges Evangelicals to promote and affirm this view of marriage during and after the debate.

We remind all Christians that our primary goal is to represent the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. This is more important than winning a culture war. A ‘victory’ in debate is not a genuine victory if, in the process, we insult, belittle or treat others with disrespect or discourtesy. Those who address this issue should do so truthfully and graciously – and that includes our interaction with Christians who hold different viewpoints.

EAI does not expect the State to impose anyone’s religious views on anyone else. Under Irish law and the Constitution, married couples are currently favoured over other domestic arrangements (including unmarried heterosexual couples, same-sex couples and civil partners). It is fair to question whether a secular nation State should so favour married couples, or indeed why the State should have the power to control and regulate the definition of marriage. In its submission to the Constitutional Convention, EAI argued that the laws on civil partnerships could be amended to address inequality.

The referendum, then, is more to do with marriage redefinition than it is about equality. The meaning of words evolves over time but this is a deliberate redefinition of a term that carries a deeply spiritual significance for many.

In the past there was an assumption that everyone meant the same thing when they referred to marriage. The term ‘marriage’ is increasingly minimised to simply mean “two people making a public commitment to one another”. This ‘hollowing out’ of marriage may have a more profound effect on society than the issue of whether same-sex marriage is legalised. Such a redefinition makes ‘civil marriage’ indistinguishable from a civil partnership and certainly very different from the biblical covenant.

However, the majority of marriages are still solemnised in places of worship, according to the traditions and customs of that church (or religion). Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, there is a need for discussion as to the relationship between religious and civil marriage.

In all matters, Evangelical Christians should vote according to their consciences. EAI would advise a ‘No’ vote in the forthcoming referendum on the grounds that the State is going beyond its legitimate sphere in attempting to redefine marriage itself.

[EAI is in the process of preparing a more detailed response to this issue in the form of a short book which will include multiple contributions to the conversation. This is scheduled for release in early April.]

Musings on sex, capitalism and the same-sex marriage referendum

Ireland will vote on same-sex marriage in a referendum in May.

I’ve been re-reading Daniel Bell’s excellent The Economy of Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World (Baker Academic, 2012).

What have these two rather random things to do with each other? Well, while Bell’s analysis of capitalism isn’t focused on sex, reading him with the upcoming referendum in mind opens up what I think is an often overlooked angle on how we think about sex and sexuality. Namely: how deeply and profoundly contemporary our attitudes are shaped by the beliefs and values of free-market capitalism.

Some of these unacknowledged assumptions are rising to the surface in the same-sex marriage debate. Assumptions shaped by the ubiquitous, pervasive and ‘normalised’ nature of capitalism in our culture. Since it’s the air we breathe, we don’t notice it. It’s such a natural and assumed part of everyday life that it just ‘is’.

The purpose of this post is to suggest, and invite discussion on the idea, that the culture in which we live is deeply shaped by a capitalist and consumerist view of human relationships. More specifically, it is to suggest that the reason that the same-sex argument for equality of treatment of gay couples with heterosexual couples is so ‘obvious’ and powerful (and unstoppable) is because if fits perfectly into the assumptions and beliefs of contemporary capitalism.

Just to be clear – this post is making no comment at all on the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage. That’s another topic entirely. These are musings on why the same-sex marriage argument is going to win the referendum.

Nor am I proposing that it is ‘only’ proponents of same-sex marriage (or sexual equality and freedom in general) who are shaped by the beliefs, assumptions and values of capitalism and consumerism – just take a look at the disintegration of traditional marriage in Irish and many western societies (and Christians are far from exempt).

So, to Daniel Bell. He sketches various characteristics of what he calls ‘HOMO ECONOMICUS’: an anthropology shaped and moulded by capitalism. I’m loosely linking to just some of his ideas.

  1. The Individual

The freedom of the individual will benefit society. Limits on the expression of individualism will harm society in terms of freedom and prosperity. Individual autonomy comes before any form of collectivist control (state or religious).

This means that there is little expectation or vision for what society ought to be. Indeed, there is no ‘ought’ in capitalism apart from the market being free.

In terms of human identity, each one of us becomes our ‘own’ manager: creators of our own ‘brand’. We alone are owners of ourselves: our bodies; our possessions; our lives. We are free to dispose of and do with them as we wish. No-one has a right to tell us otherwise.

At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying this

No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation

In his day, nationalism was the unquestioned good shaping the direction of Ireland. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say

No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.

To question unfettered individualism is a very modern heresy.

Links to current debates about sex and sexuality are not hard to see. The 1937 Irish Constitution was written in a different world: a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. Some arguments opposing same-sex marriage are functioning from (or wishing we could go back to) that framework. Some argue that the big issue is what form of marriage is best for children. But such is the unquestioned good of individualism within capitalism such arguments will gain little or no traction.

For it’s the unfettered imagination, creativity and entrepreneurial power of the free individual that drives capitalism. In terms of sexual identity the individual must be allowed and encouraged to pursue his or her own authentic identity – whatever form it takes: bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender or queer or ….

  1. Freedom for freedom’s sake

It’s important to understand capitalist freedom. It is freedom for freedom’s sake. What matters is that the individual is free to choose. What the individual chooses is virtually irrelevant because capitalism has no logical internal ethic or moral core. It has no teleology – no ultimate goal or end result in sight. It is freedom from restriction of choice rather than freedom for something in particular.

So, when capitalist freedom is applied to sexual ethics, it is obvious that the individual should have a right to choose whatever sexual identity and practice they wish. Human dignity derives from the individual’s right to choose. To deny such freedom is to deny human dignity and identity. Free choice is a virtue to be defended.

Opponents of same-sex marriage (and various other restrictions on freedom of sexual expression) are therefore not defenders of morality but deniers of virtue.

  1. Self Interest

Bell uses the term ‘interest maximizer’ but this really means self-interest. Let me clarify here – I’m not proposing that somehow all proponents of sexual freedom for the individual are motivated by selfishness. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness. It is self-interest that is a vital factor that drives the success of capitalism.

For example, Adam Smith saw human life as being shaped by self-interest and this to him was a very good thing. It is the way the world works. Self interest drives the market: it is a powerful source of reform, renewal, market efficiency, creativity and liberty.

Apply capitalist thinking to sexual ethics and you end up with no particular moral or ethical boundaries to sexual relationships. If two (or more – there is no logical boundary to formalising polyamorous relationships) people enter into freely chosen behaviours that are in their mutual self-interest, this is what the market allows and should not be restricted but rather facilitated.

Therefore, those that would put boundaries on the individual right to pursue their own self-interest are seeking to control freely chosen acts of autonomous individuals and should be resisted.

  1. An invisible God

A final characteristic of capitalism is the irrelevance of God and / or religious belief. The ‘god’ of the free market is invisible and impersonal; a hand of providence that ensures that the individual pursuit of self-interest ends up (supposedly) benefitting the whole. The system does not need God, or any form of particularly Christian ethics to function. It believes that most good is done when most individuals pursue maximal gain.

Again, apply this to modern debates about sexual ethics and it becomes apparent that this sort of capitalist thinking well describes the zeitgeist. Religious beliefs should be kept invisible; they have no place in the public square. They are actually a hindrance to the wider good. Most good is done when most individuals have the free choice to live as they please. No particular ethical or moral framework should be allowed to dictate to free individuals. God, if he exists, is in the far background out of sight and mind.

Individualism

Freedom

The virtue of self-interest

 An invisible God (no particular moral or ethical framework)

These are powerful forces in western contemporary culture that when combined provide a formidable cultural wave that will wash opposition in Ireland to same-sex marriage aside.

What do you think? How does this description make you feel?

If capitalism reinforces and affirms individual freedom and sexual identity above all, what are the implications for Christians living in such a culture?

Do you agree that much conservative and Christian opposition to liberalising law around sexual ethics tends to concentrate on the symptoms and not the cause? In other words, conservative and Christian opposition to same-sex marriage tends to ignore how capitalism has reformed and deformed human relationships. Neither does it tend to be self-critical of how Christian practice of marriage and sexuality has also been debased by capitalist consumerism.  This is because capitalism is either seen as a good thing or it is such a ‘natural’ everyday presence that it is not even noticed.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Same-sex marriage in Ireland and the purpose of the law

wedding ringsIn the latest edition of Studies, Patrick O’Riordan SJ, who teaches political philosophy at Heythrop College in London, writes about impending (inevitable?) same-sex marriage legislation in Ireland and the purpose of the law.

The narrative for same-sex marriage goes something like this:

– Same-sex relationships used not to have society’s approval; now, increasingly, they do. This represents significant social progress.

– The law should be changed to reflect society’s approval and to affirm the right and legitimacy of such relationships

– This should include the right of same-sex couples to marry

– Change in the law will bring equality of treatment to same-sex couples. Current law discriminates unfairly against them.

Marriage in this sense is located in the realm of individual rights. Change in the law will bring into being a new social institution of same-sex marriage, declared to be legally equivalent to heterosexual marriage. To do this in Ireland will require a change to the 1937 Constitution which has a major place for marriage as a union between a man and woman.

O’Riordan notes how this narrative raises some significant questions around the purpose of the law and the institution of marriage:

‘What interest does a liberal democratic state have in the private relations of its citizens?’ ‘Is the legal concept of marriage necessary?’

He traces the arguments that some have made (he names Baroness Hale of Richmond, a judge in London’s new Supreme Court) that marriage as a legal institution has no real unique value. In England, there are no distinct legal consequences of marriage that are not already covered elsewhere. Children are equally protected under the law whether of married or non-married parents. Marital status is effectively irrelevant with regard to taxation and welfare provision – it could just as easily be co-habitation or civil-partnership. With the drive to equality, the distinctiveness of marriage as a legal category is undermined.

This means, in effect, that the state has no special investment in marriage. These developments reflect a minimalist view of the functions of a liberal democratic state.

Ireland’s Constitution is most definitely not minimalist. Our debates are going to be around those who see it as the role of the state to invest in and promote marriage by law for the good of society (current Constitution) and those arguing for a minimalist role of the state in redefining marriage around equality and personal liberty.

The Church’s Response

Where O’Riordan gets really interesting is in his advice to the Catholic Bishops. The self-understanding of the Irish RC Church has been forged in a profoundly Christendom context (my comment) – and this has led to the Church understanding itself as a guardian of political and social values. Such assumptions are no longer credible in post-Christendom Ireland.

But why, he asks, should the Church take a position on two competing views of the function of the law? Both have strengths and weaknesses. Both have ‘unobjectionable social values as a basis for legislation’ . Yes, the debate will be a lively one, but he urges the Bishops not to campaign beyond highlighting the values at stake.

Another reason not to campaign is that they will almost certainly lose. Arguing for the abstract notion of the social value of marriage over against a narrative of equality, overcoming discrimination, the right to marry for those in love of whatever gender, a better more inclusive Ireland … well you get the picture.  It’s a no win.

O’Riordan argues that once understood that the debate is effectively about the appropriate role of the law in a liberal democracy, rather than the nature of marriage or moral truth, then the Church is best to keep its powder dry for other occasions and higher priorities. Fighting a whole series of losing battles in the public forum over the last few decades has had a deeply demoralising impact.

If the bishops were to take on a losing fight, they would compromise their capacity to perform their essential mission – to preach the Gospel …. No-one is encouraged in faith, hope and love by preachers and teachers who are anxious, demoralised or depressed. In another sense, the core message of the faith has been drowned out by a predominance of moralising in the Church’s communication. There has been too little of the joyful proclamation of the presence of the Risen Lord and of his Spirit in the midst of our messy and broken world.

What the Catholic Church needs to recognise, is the new context in which it exists. Christian marriage will not cease to exist – the sky will not fall in if (when) same-sex marriage happens in Ireland. But rather than rely on the state or law to uphold it, the challenge is for the Church ‘to engage in more direct and deliberate preparation of couples for their giving and receiving of the sacrament [of marriage].’

What words would you use to describe this article? Here are some that come to my mind:

Refreshing – focused on the essential mission of the church to preach the gospel

Realistic – discerning the (post-Christendom) times and an appropriate strategy. Not trying to live in the past.  What he says sounds positively anabaptist in his call for the church to be the church whatever wider society is doing to marriage.

Wise – informed, engaged, and most impressively of all, self-critically reflective (all too rare)

Constructive – not fearful or scare-mongering. Able to isolate the underlying issue of changing attitudes around the purpose of the law. Not demonising opponents. Showing how different Christian responses to same-sex marriage legislation does not necessarily equate to diluting or compromising a traditional orthodox Christian view of marriage.

Incomplete – a key issue down the line will be that of religious liberty. If marriage is redefined under law, how will that legislation protect the right of Christians (and other religious faiths) who will resist the practice of same-sex marriage within their faith traditions? At the moment there is clear blue water between marriage and secular civil partnerships performed by a state registrar. A change in the law will need to be carefully crafted if equality legislation does not end up trumping religious liberty. Christians will rightly resist the state over-reaching its power to force the church by law to act against conscience and established teaching.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

EAI, same-sex marriage and Irish secularism?

Another timely related post to the EAI statement on same-sex marriage is by Roger Olson who has a gift for clarity and not being dull.

In this post he’s discussing the difference between ‘secularism’ and ‘secularity’ (after theologian Harvey Cox).

On the one hand, there is a version of secularism as being anti-religious.

The EAI statement has a negative view of this type of aggressive and exclusive secularism and sees it as increasingly influential in Ireland. A Government operating on the basis of secularism is seeking to exclude religious voices from public discourse through laws and a culture of ‘opprobrium’. In this model, religious views are not to be welcomed, tolerated or given space since they ‘threaten’ equality, tolerance and diversity.There is an active resistance to hearing religious voices or giving them space to be heard.

This sort of secularism, is manifestly blind to its own prejudices, agendas and ethical value judgements. The conceit is that the secularist society alone is somehow neutral and objective and free from such primitive judgementalism.

As Olson asks, why should secularist beliefs be privileged in the forming of laws? Aren’t many liberal views based on and rooted in religious beliefs? (equality, civil rights and so on). Hasn’t postmodernity taught us that there is no such thing as a purely ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ source of human reason?

What do you think? Are we in Ireland at the level of secularism suggested in the EAI statement on same-sex marriage?  Do you see evidence for an  “entirely secularist” agenda “currently being proposed by those who affirm the social philosophy which seeks, illiberally, to eradicate the religious voice from the public square.”? 

On the other hand, there is a version of ‘secularity’ that refers to the separation between church and state.

A Government operating on the basis of secularity allows space for diverse views without privileging the church. At its best, this produces a civil public square, where all can be heard and all enter on an equal basis. And of course many (right-thinking 😉 ) Christians endorse this anabaptist model as being good for the church and for society in general.

Comments, as ever, welcome

EAI, Same-Sex Marriage and Ireland

A timely recent post related to the EAI statement on Same Sex Marriage.

Ben Witherington talks about what marriage is and isn’t. Like EAI, he supports civil unions but opposes the redefinition of marriage.

The EAI statement focused primarily on the threats posed by an illiberal secularism to human rights and a civil society. While important, this emphasis meant that while same-sex marriage was talked about as being a ‘retrograde step’ for the common good, a weakness in the argument was it didn’t really give reasons why.

Witherington gets into the ‘why’ a bit more.  He refers to an article from CNN written by three lawyers. This is Witherington’s summary of the lawyers’ argument.

First, the redefinition of marriage will undermine the marriage itself and will inevitably lead to more and more forms of ‘marriage’.

If marriage is just the emotional bond “that matters most” to you — in the revealing words of the circuit judge who struck down California Proposition 8 — then personal tastes or a couple’s subjective preferences aside, there is no reason of principle for marriage to be pledged to permanence. Or sexually exclusive rather than “open.” Or limited to two spouses. Or oriented to family life and shaped by its demands.

In that case, every argument for recognizing two men’s bond as marital –equality, destigmatization, extending economic benefits — would also apply to recognizing romantic triads (“throuples,” as they are now known). Refusing such recognition would be unfair — a violation of equality — if commitment based on emotional companionship is what makes a marriage.”

Second, marriage is NOT just a ‘bond of affection’.  “The attractive civil rights rhetoric of “marriage equality” masks a profound error about what marriage is.”

“All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

Witherington adds other more theological reasons of his own that have general implications for marriage in general beyond the church.  If both male and female are made in the image of God and it is together that they are complete, then gender difference matters in the marriage relationship. A father and a mother give children something that two men or  two women can’t. There is a purposeful duality to human nature.

Within the church for believers, for both Jesus and Paul, “heterosexual monogamy and celibacy in singleness were the only legitimate options for Jesus’ disciples.” Witherington argues that no Christian minister should be “advocating or solemnizing non-marriages as if they were God-blessed marriages.”

See here for Steve Chalke’s very different view on this in his own words.  He has blessed monogamous gay-unions and says

I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded.

A few musings and, as ever, feel welcome to add your own:

Witherington does stress that far more than just a man and woman together is needed for a marriage to be a good one – marriage needs love for one another and for children if it is to work (and is not just all about children). Neither is he saying homosexual couples don’t love one another etc. He is saying, like EAI, that civil unions provide the context for same-sex relationships to be recognised by the state with various legal implications. But marriage by definition is a relationship between a man and woman.

I think the argument made by EAI and Witherington needs to be articulated by Christians (with grace and charity). They have as much democratic right as anyone else to make their case. They don’t of course have any automatic right for their views to be privileged.

Especially given Ireland’s recent past, getting a hearing for that case is hard work and likely to fall on stony ground. Religious views are increasingly seen as threats to tolerance, equality and diversity in an increasingly secularist society. The ‘civil right’ narrative around marriage is hugely persuasive, popular and politically potent.

Therefore, one of the greatest contemporary challenges for Christians (in Ireland / the West) is to be thinking through how to relate to a culture that is detaching itself from its Christendom past. In terms of mission, ethics, witness, citizenship and so on.

Another is how to relate with love, grace, respect and Christ-likeness to a gay community which has all too often not experienced any of those attitudes when it comes to church?

And in terms of critical self-reflection – why do Christians all but idolise marriage, the middle-class nuclear home, 2.2 kids and all that jazz? Why is it held up as the ultimate expression of the ‘good life’ ? (and I speak as someone only missing the .2 children from that description, still looking).