[October 10, 2013]
Today I read a blog post praising an Orthodox bishop for speaking out on gay marriage, and I wondered if the time will come when someone scolds me for not speaking out. Well, here’s how it looks to me, as a member of the Orthodox Church.
The Church’s ancient wisdom on transformation in Christ, called theosis, includes the spiritual discipline of fasting. We fast in a number of ways: from sex outside hetero marriage, from anger, gossip, unforgiveness, and other negative impulses, and (about half the days of the year) from meat, dairy, and some other foods. Christianity isn’t the only religion to recognize that self-control in the face of strong desires enables deeper union with God. The spiritual discipline of fasting keeps appearing in religions around the world and throughout history. It’s been tested and proved again and again.
But I don’t expect people outside the Church to observe our fasting traditions. Why should they? If they’re not interested in union with Christ, what would be the point? And by the same token, I don’t expect them to care that we do observe these fasts. It’s none of their business, what we do and teach within the community of faith. Live and let live. Or, as the bumperstickers say, Coexist.
The bishops are called to teach the Church, so it’s right for them to speak out and explain the what and why of our spiritual tradition. People in Orthodox congregations need to hear clearly what the ancient tradition holds. But I’m not a bishop; I’m a writer in the public square. Readers there are by no means all Christian. And in that context I don’t feel much motivated to protest the so-called “gay agenda.”
It’s not a “gay is OK” attitude, though. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe gay sex is detrimental to a person’s spiritual life. But I don’t expect someone outside the faith to agree, or even understand what I’m saying. Maybe that person thinks, in turn, that it’s detrimental to my spiritual life to believe Jesus is the Only Son of God. Their opinion of my beliefs doesn’t bother me. It’s OK for people to think other people are wrong. We form opinions of other people all day long, even down to how they dress and wear their hair. We know the routine: you should politely hold such opinions inside, and community life keeps flowing on.
(By the way, the Orthodox tradition is that the habit of judging others this way is another one of the strong desires we must fast from and try to resist.)
I think where I part ways with other conservatives is on the question of whether the “gay agenda” causes harm to society as a whole. I just don’t think it has much impact. It actively involves such a small percentage of the population. Compared with other temptations, like drugs or drinking, cultural approval of gay sex is not going to dramatically increase the amount of the behavior. Yes, there are some who will act out their desires who, decades ago, might have resisted. But people who are heterosexual—the vast majority of the population—are not going to be tempted to go out and have gay sex. They can accept that others are gay without wanting to go out and emulate the behavior. This must be one of the few social shifts in which a great change in public mores has little effect on private behavior.
What irritates me is how the much greater damage caused by heterosexual promiscuity is being ignored. If we’re going to focus on the sexual mores that damage society, the big glaring spotlight should fall on hetero divorce, porn, premarital and extramarital sex. Demeaning images of women and sexual images surround us, in entertainment and billboards and wallpapering the internet. If we were serious about protecting marriage, we’d be up in arms about that. But we just take it for granted now, or even secretly enjoy it. (Not that there aren’t some groups battling porn, and good for them.) In comparison, gay sex just seem like a big a public threat. The protest that it amounts to “redefining marriage” comes decades too late; quick and easy divorce has already dumbed down marriage until it’s little more than a joke. The responsibility for rebuilding marriage lies on hetero married people, to keep our own marriages strong and stand against that endemic disease.
Allowing gay couples to enter the state called “marriage,” diminished as that state has come to be, still won’t cause a fundamental change in the meaning of marriage. The uniqueness that hetero marriage embodies—literally, embodies—will inevitably emerge in time. What’s the most primitive aspect of human life? Survival, first; secondly, reproduction. Male-and-female constitutes an archetypal truth, and no other formulation of marriage can convey it. The resemblance between “gay marriage” and hetero marriage can never be more than skin deep (literally). The primitive truth about male-and-female will always emerge, in the long, slow circles of time.
I don’t expect to live to see that. That’s OK. The abortion issue is a matter of life and death, so there is urgency; this issue is one we can wait out. Where we Christians go astray is when we get caught up in picturing social or political movements as forces we must counter. But the movement is a mirage; in reality, there are only people. Every person wants to be loved, and fears being alone. We live now in such an atomized society that many, many people are alone; people who had fun when they were young and pretty find that time is inexorably replacing them with younger and prettier specimens. The usual modes of self-comforting (like overeating and drinking) cause those changes in appearance that, perversely, make one even less attractive to amorous strangers. So loneliness is endemic; it is our great unspoken pain. Earlier cultures did a better job with this, because people would remain life-long in a definite community or live with an extended family; those particularly drawn to the spiritual life could join same-sex (but non-sexual) communities, and be surrounded with love and care for a lifetime. But today, people are more likely to be merely alone.
Our deepest hunger is for the love of God; to know for sure that God loves us and is with us. I believe that gay sex damages a person’s ability to register that love and perceive that presence. But you can’t start with telling a person, “Quit having sex.” You have to start with love—with Jesus Christ, love incarnate. Every time we fall, he forgives us; comprehending that forgiveness makes us more determined not to fall; sincere desire to resist temptation draws down the grace of God and we become stronger, more able to resist. Those who persevere find more freedom every day.
When bishops speak to the Church, it is right for them to teach the deep things of the spiritual path, including the spiritual discipline of fasting from sex outside hetero marriage. When I speak in the public square, I have to start with Jesus. He is the ultimate desire of every heart, and when we begin to know him, every kind of fasting starts to make sense.