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Thursday
Oct102013

Why Not Speak Out on Gay Marriage?

[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. 

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Reader Comments (9)

Do you feel the same way about polygamist marriage: that polygamists are "wrong", but state-sanctioned polygamy is not detrimental to society? If not, in what way is polygamist marriage different from (ie "worse than") homosexual? I know this sounds like a leading question, but as someone who is Orthodox and generally shares your attitude on this, I would really like to see you address that in the context of what you've written.
October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDR
I'm a Christian, and I don't think gay people in committed relationships are violating God's will for their lives. But nevermind. I'm interested in what you've said. At one point you seem to say there just aren't enough gay people around to affect an entire culture. But if, say, there were more of them, living peacefully among us -- would that cause you alarm?

I live in a progressive college town, and a number of my son's grade school friends are from families with two moms or two dads. Maybe as many as 3 families per classroom. Makes sense, when you realize it would be preferable for a gay family to settle in a place like Burlington, Vermont than a rural community in Alabama. I think the worried conservatives are right to be worried -- the more we get to know these people, the more we sit next to these families in church, the more we carpool with their kids -- the more untrue it is going to seem that they have "imperiled" their spiritual lives by living as who they are. And the more this archetypal hooey is going to seem simply that. Looks good on paper, sounds logical, elegantly so, --but does not correspond to the reality of people's lives.

We probably wouldn't agree about abortion either. I'm with these older evangelicals, but that's probably a topic for another day. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/02/18/the-biblical-view-thats-younger-than-the-happy-meal/
October 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTracy
I think you are so right in saying that we have to start with love and that that love is Jesus Christ. Our deepest desire truly is for God, and therefore, most things, whether "right" or "not right," are meager attempts to fill the hole left by His absence if He has been removed or rejected. When we do not allow Him to reside in that place we experience distance from God, and a sort of living Hell (those who desist from God's love when knowing it exists resign themselves to living in it's absence, which could be called the definition of Hell itself). If each attempt in life at relationship, hetero- or homo-sexual, is done without first seeking the love that is Christ and without first attempting to fulfill our desire for God, it is "incorrect." This doesn't mean that we will necessarily be capable of truly seeking Him first and realizing He is our deepest desire, but it reversing the priority (an attempt to place God first, marriage second) in the discussion makes argument over homo-sexual marriage moot until priorities are truly in line, and as humans, can they ever be?
October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNichole Osborne
What you write is very interesting. There is, however, an aspect that cannot be easily ignored - and I would very much like to have your opinion on this: the very next step from accepting gay marriages is to accept that a gay couple can adopt children. It seems that you cannot have one without the other. The "legality" of a gay marriage cannot exclude the right of a married couple to adopt children.
This, to me, goes beyond one's subjective beliefs, since it affects the life of a third person, and what's more,the life of a child. The meaning and consequences of this are of a great moral, social and spiritual imprortance. The "gay agenda" may not harm society but one might suggest that the issue of adoption by gay couples can harm a child's spiritual health.
So my questions to you could be formulated as follows:
1) Do you think that we can "divide" the issue of gay marriage from the issue of "gay-adopting"?
2) How would an Orthodox Christian stand on the issue of adoption in that context?

Many thanks!
Christos
Athens-Greece
October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristos Makropoulos
The scriptures are full of instances where God directed someone, like Jonah, to go to non-believers and demand they repent. The Church is the beacon and we are to be lights and to witness to the unbelievers, urging them to repent as well.
October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoanna
I am a life-long Orthodox Christian (courtesy of a Russian Grandmother) and I am also married to another man. We tend to move in Conservative circles because we are pro-life and believe in financial responsibility. There are not many pro-life homosexuals, and I think that is a big mistake. And short-sighted. One day soon, doctors will be able to tell a pregnant woman: "Your baby is healthy but tests indicate that she will have a same-sex attraction." How will people respond then? Will they be able to justify "necessary" abortions, or the hypocrisy of becoming pro-life, overnight?
We don't call ourselves Gay, because that is just as much a political label as it is sexual, and we don't choose to define our lives that way. Without descending into complete tackiness, we are only really homosexual for half an hour out of the day, and have other ways to define ourselves and our lives.
Anyway, most homosexual families really aren't that different. We don't raise our children to necessarily follow in our footsteps. We want grandchildren as much as anyone else, and we know that no amount of fervent prayer or human influence has ever yet either made a person homosexual or changed them back to "normal". Just like anyone else, we raise our children to be good, and happy. My son is an officer in the USMC, and is engaged to a lovely young woman he met in England. If he'd been raised by his mother, he'd likely be a drug addict, or worse, now. We never really know what God's plan is, but it is pretty futile to try to avoid it
October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDavid MacGuire
I don't agree with everything here. I agree that we need to fast on many things as Orthodox Christians, and that includes being uncharitable. The sad thing today is that most people see those who sin through homosexual acts as an opportunity to be uncharitable. Being uncharitable is never justified, so definitely we should fast on that. But to say that we are not to speak at all? I think that is wrong. If we can speak charitably, we should. If we can speak in wisdom, we should. We are all called to lead others to Christ, to let the light of Christ shine though us. If we don't speak out, how do we lead other people to Christ? Especially in today's society where silence is easily assumed as consent.

Let me put this in another context. I have a number of heterosexual friends who are unmarried but living with their partner. Of course even if they do get married, being that they are not Orthodox, they will won't be in a marriage that is the same as those of us who are Orthodox and married have. But still, being married is the right thing to do. Of course I don't hound them day and night to get married, or tell them that they are fornicators who are destined for hell. But I am extra careful when the subject of marriage is brought up that I don't say anything that will make them think that avoiding marriage is okay. If I can promote marriage, I will. Even though it is not an Orthodox marriage, it is still a step closer for them realize what a true marriage is. And who knows they might become Orthodox one day.
October 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterchoy
I want to answer David MacGuire's comment. You are right about what you say on abortion - that is a hellish image of the future: one in which we can select a child based on its sexuality. This is not in accordance with the 'mind of the Church'. You are right to point out this danger. Anything based on hate is part of the hell and death that Christ trampled on at his Resurrection.
But I am troubled by what is implied by 'half an hour a day': this is not our understanding of our life in the Church. Our Church is not concerned with a fraction of our lives, but with the whole of our lives and the entire person: mind, heart, soul and body. What I do every millisecond of the day matters in terms of drawing nearer to or further from Christ. Christ wants us completely, and loves us utterly - we cannot divide ourselves up and offer only parts of ourselves. I cannot say if I am unmarried or married I'll sleep with a(nother) man or woman for half an hour a day, and that that has nothing to do with the other 23 1/2 hours of my living self. In fact my transformation and drawing nearer to Christ is not only affected by what I do but what everyone else does, so we can't really divide up people or time like that at all. So you and your partner are part of my life too, and literally you are my life (St Silouan says). The great saints, and traditionally monks and nuns, pray for the whole world, including every single being in it, whether animate or inanimate, and every single minute of every single day that ever has been or will be.
That is why every single one of us can become so great - we can become divinized through the process of theosis, in which the whole of us becomes filled with the light of Christ and burns with the love of Christ. We cannot leave out any part of ourselves in that process of becoming.
October 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSeraphima
I agree and appreciate what you have said, because of the fact that it is a personal statement about what you (don't) do. Criticism for what a person has not said is idiocy. There are those who are compelled by divine urgency or office to speak on this, and other, issues. Those who simply feel they are obligated to "weigh in" on everything around them are usually not helpful.
October 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim
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