Wednesday, March 03, 2004
Following up (sort of) on the last post, and various other same-sex marriage and homosexuality-related posts on this blog: I have a question.
Why is this a topic that excites such passion?
I understand why this is a big deal for gay people. It has enormous practical but also symbolic significance. There are big consequences for their lives that spring from the marriage question. The downside risks, whether the ones I focus on or the ones Stanley Kurtz focuses on or the ones Maggie Gallagher focuses on or what-have-you, are abstract, hypothetical, pehaps contingent. They are exercises in reasoning, predictions about what will happen to law, to culture, to the social order. The upside potential for gay people is concrete and immediate. I know why they care so much. Why do we?
Why are opponents of same-sex marriage talking about amending the Constitution over this question and not, say, no-fault divorce, given how much demonstrable harm the divorce explosion has done to families and children?
Why would a normally sane man like Dennis Prager compare the advocates of same-sex marriage to Islamist terrorists in terms of their threat to America?
Why is this the issue on which the religious right will accept no compromise (e.g., civil unions), and not, say abortion, which is, they believe, a matter of life and death?
The gay-rights crowd would say this speaks to the power of prejudice and to insecure masculinity. Really? There's no mass movement on the religious right to roll back basic women's rights, but the fight against same-sex marriage is about insecure masculinity? That doesn't sound right. And why this particular prejudice, if it is an irrational prejudice? Because it's a religious issue? But who made it a central religious question? Why, once again, isn't divorce the scandal? Or adultery? Or Sabbath-breaking?
I'm not sure I know the answer. I know I don't feel this passion myself. I view the whole question as an interesting and vexing one, but I view it as a problem to be solved: a problem of a clash of values that have to be reconciled or accommodated one to the other. I understand but disagree with the advocates of same-sex marriage. I agree with, but often don't understand, the opponents. They feel something I don't.
I think it does boil down to a religious question, but not in the way it's usually presented, as a matter of particular passages from Leviticus. (Hey: we Jews are the ones who are supposed to be abiding by those Levitical laws, abominating shrimp and all. What's with all these Christians getting into the act?) I think the heart of the matter is the tinge of gnosticism that colors American Christianity.
The ancient gnostics held that we each have an occult self, eternal, older than creation, co-substantial with the divine, which we should seek to know through introspection. This true self is pure and unsullied by the fallen nature of the world and, indeed, of our own flesh. This self, and the divinity it is part of, is to be worshipped as the true divinity, not the lord of this fallen world, the demi-urge, who is a limited, parody of the true divine, unable truly to create but only to manipulate reality.
This idea was rejected by the early Christians as heretical, but it has never entirely gone away. Harold Bloom in his much-noted book, The American Religion, identifies American religion as, in fact, a species of gnosticism notable for being (a) popular (whereas classically gnosticism was highly elitist) and (b) confusingly devoted to the worship of the demi-urge that the gnostics disdained. Bloom pushes his case too far, but there is an important truth to his argument. You can find echoes of gnostic ideas in Emerson, in the writing of Joseph Smith, in the locution of being "born again" that is ubiquitous in evangelical Protestantism.
But you can also, quite plainly, find the idea echoed in the "coming out" narrative that is central to the contemporary construction of homosexuality.
In this narrative, we are each possessed of a sexual nature that is immutable and an essential part of our deepest self. To deny or suppress knowledge or this nature is wrong. The journey to discover this nature, whether through experimentation or, more importantly, through open-minded introspection, is essential to spiritual progress as well as mental health. To reveal this knowledge, once achieved, is to evangelize - not to make others like you (they are essentially what they are) but to encourage them to undertake a similar journey to discovering their occult selves.
I don't think I'm presenting this "coming out" narrative in a negative light; I'm trying to be descriptive. I think the narrative is, in many ways, both very appealing and very American. I think it's also obviously a variation on gnosticism. When that gay Episcopal bishop says his love for his partner is a "sacrament" he can't possibly mean a Christian sacrament; he must mean a gnostic one, the expression of his true self bringing him into communion with the divine.
Howard Dean, at one point, said that God couldn't be against homosexual relations because He made people homosexual. Critics pointed out that this was absurd; God made all our desires, wholesome and unhealthy or immoral alike. Does that mean all our desires are suddenly holy? But this misses a crucial implicit assumption of Dean's. Dean was not necessarily saying that all our desires our good. He might - I think he was - saying that our sexual nature is essential to our being, and that God cannot have made our essential natures evil. This is a crucial difference.
Let me make explain a bit further. Imagine someone with an uncontrollable urge to strangle cats. He's tried all kinds of therapy to no avail; if he doesn't strangle a cat once a month at least, he starts to go mad. Finally, one day, someone invents a pill that cures cat-strangling urges. The man takes it, and the urges cease. He's better. Is he still himself? Or is he a different individual than he was when he was a cat strangler? Has his essential self been freed from a force that kept him prisoner? Or has he just murdered his essential self in an effort to conform?
I strongly suspect that the man would consider himself to be cured, that he would say that the real him is the one who doesn't want to strangle cats, and that he has been freed from the condition that forced him to do these things against his will.
But this is not the judgement that any gay man I know would make about himself. He would not say that, if he took a pill and ceased to desire men, he would be the same person. Coming out, he would say, was the process of discovering who he really was. If he destroyed that, he would cease to be himself - becoming someone else or, more likely, nobody, a shell of himself, a man whose self had been destroyed. So to say to a gay man that God wants him to be straight is to say that God wants him destroyed. You can see why he'd be furious at such a suggestion.
So why does this contention infuriate so many religious Americans?
I think the reason is that they are also, to some extent, gnostics.
I, myself, have no problem with the idea that God made some people in such a way that the rules that normally apply won't work for them. People are made with all kinds of variations and disabilities. We try to accommodate them when they are basically harmless, recognizing that a norm is still a norm. I believe that God judges us each according to our native abilities and potential; He knows that some of us have a harder hill to climb, and He accounts for that on the day of Judgement. I don't think that public acknowledgement that gay people exist is a threat to the social order in any way; indeed, since they do exist, I think it's a matter of basic justice to acknowledge that fact. My objections to same-sex marriage relate entirely to how I think such an innovation would change marriage, and have nothing to do with concerns about public acceptance of homosexuality.
If you took a more strict view of the matter than I, you might say that while acknowledging the existence of gay people is fine, nothing should be done to encourage them to act on their inclinations. You might say that while God can forgive sin, we should encourage virtue. We could argue about this all day, but here's the point: your contention is entirely prudential. You're trying to help someone live virtuously; well and good. But losing this particular battle shouldn't be an earth-shaking matter. People behave badly all the time, and much of their bad behavior is legal. Why this issue above all others?
Well, if you're a gnostic-tinged Christian - or Jew - the matter looks a little different. If you believe that God gave us an unchanging moral law, and you also believe that we have an occult soul, identified with the divine, which we have to discover, then for someone to say that the essential nature of their occult soul commands them to violate God's moral law is pretty darned blasphemous. And for that person to demand that the state explicitly endorse his blasphemy would provoke understandable outrage.
I do think that religious objections to same-sex civil marriage stem from this above all else. It's not the worry about a slippery-slope to polygamy or incest, or worries that homosexuals will "recruit" in high-schools, whatever that means. It's not about blind prejudice and it's not about some supposed determination to turn America into a theocracy, which no Christian I know seeks. It's about the sense, probably not articulated, that what the gay-rights crowd would have the state affirm is blasphemy. Which is ironic because, if I'm right, the reason it seems blasphemous is that American Christians have absorbed a bit of gnostic heresy.
I've argued before that the state should treat contemporary homosexuality analogously to the way we treat religions: the state should neither affirm nor repress. The state has no business offering an opinion on the nature of our secret selves, or whether we have secret selves. The state has no business asserting that gayness is an essential aspect of our individuality and no business denying that contention if made by any gay man. That's what freedom and a liberal order are about. I wish we could get back there.