“We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy: we belong with and to each other, not to our ‘private’ selves (as St. Paul said of mutual sexual commitment), and yet are not instruments for each other’s gratification.”
“The Body’s Grace,” Rowan Williams
My hunch: The theological polarization around Amendment One, which does not necessarily track as a liberal-conservative divide, is here to stay. At least for several more years. Decades, maybe. Such is the glacial pace of change in the ekklesia of God: slavery . . . women . . . human sexuality–it’s a long, slow slog with a lot of heartache and misunderstanding along the way.
And, contrary to the polarizing tactics of soundbyte journalism (and soundbyte religion), there are good people on both sides of the divide. (There are also bigoted, graceless, humorless people on both sides, but there’s a lot of good, too).
And there’s this: a third way of thinking theologically about marriage, including gay marriage–a way that resists the go-to arguments and clichés of both conservatism and liberalism. This third way locates the basis and legitimacy of marriage not in biological complementarity or in the soft logic of “live and let live” but in the divine trinitarian relations–that is, in the very being of God.
This can’t help but sound a little ridiculous to those outside the Church–and perhaps to many within it–but here’s the thing: The source of a sound theology of marriage cannot be the Bible exclusively or perhaps even primarily, since its witness on the subject is necessarily varied, even contradictory, conditioned by cultures and customs spanning milennia. Which is not to say–as the liberal argument might put it–that modernity now trumps antiquity and thank God for that.
Rather, it is to see the Bible for what it is and for what it isn’t: a richly-varied record of encounter, not a handbook of personal moral instruction. And it is to resist the idolatry that attends so much of our engagement with Scripture–the tendency to worship the book instead of the One (or the Three-in-One, as I’ll get to in a minute) to whom the book points.
A theology of marriage begins, ironically, with the unmarried Jesus. Not the liberal Jesus of fuzzy love nor the conservative Jesus of family values (neither exists in Scripture) but Jesus, the Son, the second person of the Trinity who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, subsists in relations of divine reciprocity, mutual indwelling, eternal self-giving, ceaseless caritas. Marriage, christologically construed, bears witness to, even as it participates in this divine economy of grace and gift.
Those of us who marry, says Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. (in an argument for gay marriage), give ourselves over to another in order that we may be caught up in God’s own desire for us, that “we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.” Thus human, sexual, married love bears a trinitarian mark.
But such love is also, always–of course–bodily. So how does this bodily sexual love mirror the Trinity? In my view, no one is more convincing (or eloquent) in answering this question than feminist theologian Sarah Coakley:
What would that involve? Surely, at the very least, a fundamental respect each for the other, an equality of exchange, and the mutual ekstasis of attending on the other’s desire as distinct, as other. This is the opposite of abuse, the opposite of distanced sexual control; it is, as the French feminist Luce Irigaray has written, with uncanny insight, itself intrinsically trinitarian; sexual love at its best is not ‘egological,’ not even a ‘duality in closeness’ . . . As each goes out to the other in mutual abandonment and attentiveness, so it becomes clear that a third is at play – the irreducibility of a ‘shared transcendence.’
There is nothing in a trinitarian theology of marriage which makes heterosexuality normative. In fact, as Rogers insists, embodiment–which is at the heart not just of our sexual selves but of our creatureliness–implies diversity: “As the Spirit forms the bodies of human beings into the body of Christ, she characteristically gathers the diverse and diversifies the corporate, making members of one body.”
* * * * *
Much of the heated rhetoric of the last few days has been driven by fear: on one side, the fear of monumental social change that would unsettle and disrupt a familiar world; on the other, fear of the ever-diminishing dignity of those long-excluded from full participation in the social order. On Sunday, the lectionary for mass will include the passage from 1 John which says that “perfect love casts out phobos.” (Protestants will read from a different chapter of the letter).
This is the third way. The way of love. The way of a God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–who has created us for communion with each other and with God’s very self. For those who choose the vocation of marriage, this third way allows the labels to fall away; it refuses the polarizing politics of fear. And it’s where the body’s grace is something we learn to receive–tentatively, hopefully–with gratitude and wonder.