When people call you a blasphemer, Christ-denier, a defender of tyranny, and an apologist for Babel, who cares more about impressing liberal academics than listening to the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church, the best response is almost always silence. My general practice is to avoid confrontations with anyone who believes him/herself capable of knowing me in 1500 words or less. But, for Fr. Johannes Jacobse and some of his readers, I am going to make an exception. Fr. Jacobse is involved with a call-in radio show I will appear on this Sunday (June 17). Even though his article did not speak for the show or its station, I thought it might be wise to offer potential listeners/callers a short “intellectual memoir” of my involvement in the gay marriage debate over the past year. I do not intend to change anyone’s mind. I only hope that offering a little insight into my intentions and motives might help us have a more substantive conversation – one focused more on the issues than speculations about my character.
Last July, I published a blog article in the Huffington Post on gay marriage. I used New York’s decision to legalize gay marriage to point out that a sacrament is not the same as a civil contract. Relationships other people call “marriage” has no bearing upon what we believe marriage to be. But some readers missed the point. Either they did not pick up on the double sense of the term “marriage,” or they simply assumed that anyone not wagging a Pharisaical finger at gay people must be pro-gay. Of course, in my case, they would be right. But more on that in a moment.
I got my PhD from Vanderbilt, which has a reputation for promoting “liberal” theology. This seems to have led some to assume I pray for the day when an Orthodox priest might hold wedding crowns over the heads of Steve and Frank and pronounce them husband and husband, “You may now kiss the groom.” (Yes, I know that is not exactly the way an Orthodox wedding ceremony works.) The words “liberal” and “conservative” are okay for convenience’s sake, as long as we don’t use them to scour away any nuance in a person’s theology or politics. Then they just become an excuse to stop listening.
My politics lean left sometimes, but they lean right in other ways. I am not a political liberal in the proper sense of the term, and my theology is orthodox. I believe in the Holy Trinity, the virgin birth, the two-natures of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the real presence of Christ in Communion, and miracles. When it comes to gay marriage, the position I take is about a quarter-step to the left of the well-respected Orthodox theologian, Fr. Thomas Hopko.
Fr. Hopko has written a book called Christian Faith and Same Sex Attraction. I picked it up a few years ago and was surprised to find that he supported civil unions. In his opinion, Christian love demands extending the same rights to gay couples that straight couples enjoy. The exceptions he makes are adoption and marriage.
That book made me wonder what the difference was between a civil union and a civil marriage. What if a civil union gave gay couples all the rights of straight couples? Does it matter what we call it? Does using the word “marriage” to describe that relationship affect what it actually is in the theology of my, or any other, church? Civil union laws are often piecemeal. They are not always understood or consistently enforced. Using the word “marriage” seems like a more effective and just way of giving gay couples the rights Fr. Hopko says Christian love requires.
Let me illustrate what I mean with a thought experiment. In many states only the biological parent has legal rights to her child. Imagine a little girl, nearly four years old, born to a lesbian couple. The birth mother dies suddenly and tragically. Now imagine the screams and terror of that little girl as a DCS agent rips her, in her grief, from the arms of the surviving, non-biological mother – the only other “mommy” she has ever known – and puts her into foster care. Forget about the morality of same-sex relationships for a minute! What about that little girl?
Five years after reading Hopko’s book, I decided to practice a little “holy disobedience.” My views on gay marriage are at odds with the consensus of my bishops. Speaking out on this issue has probably done irreparable damage to my career. I can forget about ever teaching at an Orthodox school. But after five years of thinking and soul-searching, I could not ignore that grieving child and her sobbing lesbian mother. I do not know if or how much this happens, but I know it is a fear that many gay families live with every day. In this sense I am pro-gay, because I am pro-people.
As a theologian, that does not necessarily make me a part of the “Steve and Frank” camp. I will admit to struggling with my church’s official teaching on same-sex orientation (or as we Orthodox often call it, “same-sex attraction”). Fr. Hopko made a good start with his book, but our theology has yet to bring the rich resources of our tradition to bear upon modern LGBT experience in any kind of comprehensive or particularly Orthodox way. Mostly we just parrot the natural theology arguments of Roman Catholicism or the Evangelical mythos (and concomitant persecution complex) of American moral and spiritual decline.
Fr. Jacobse and his readers can blame Doug for my reluctance to jump on their finger-wagging bandwagon. I got to know Doug in my early twenties. He was my first real gay friend, and he has taught me more than any straight person I know about what it means to exude the love of Christ from every pore of one’s being. I remember once when the two of us were approached by a homeless woman. I kept my “scared white man” distance from her, but Doug walked right over to her, held her hand, talked to her, and hugged her goodbye. He touched a person that I considered “dirty,” or as a Pharisee might have put it, “unclean.”
Some of my critics would say that, as an unrepenent gay man, Doug will go to hell. I have a hard time accepting that. Doug repents all the time. I have met few people who are as aware of their own brokenness and need for grace as him. He believes he has plenty of sins, but he does not believe being gay is one of them. If Doug is going to hell, there is no hope for me. Thankfully, the last time I checked, neither I, nor Fr. Jacobse, nor any of his readers get to make that decision.
Being Orthodox means learning to be comfortable with ambiguity and mystery. It means remembering that every Sunday, before I receive Communion, I pray that God would have compassion upon me, a sinner, “of whom I am chief.” I will practice intellectual humility when it comes to the teaching of my church on same-sex orientation, but I will also not condemn or judge any LGBT individual. To do so would not only be to commit the sin of Adam (to believe I can possess the mind of God), but it would make my own “Lord have mercies” hollow.
Some readers, who support the full inclusion of gays into the life of the church, may struggle to understand my reluctance to oppose my hierarchs on this point. I think the past year shows I am willing to utter a respectful “No” when I firmly believe they are wrong. Orthodox theology moves slower than molasses. To put things in perspective, we still fight about when we should celebrate Christmas. As a lay theologian, I can take a bit more intellectual risk in what I say, because I am not a spokesperson for Orthodox Christianity, but as a man in love with his church, I have an obligation to respect the process.
Fr. Jacobse and his readers may see my equivocation as a sign of a secret agenda. I doubt I can say anything that will convince them otherwise, but if they feel like being charitable critics, they might consider that many Orthodox Christians have beliefs (about icons, Mary, the saints, and even the Holy Trinity) that they have to grow into. As St. Gregory of Nyssa said, our journey into God never ends. We are on an infinite journey into Infinite Mystery. Some of my critics may know where I will end up, but I don’t. Therefore, I will close with what seems to me the most definitive thing an Orthodox Christian can ever say about the sinfulness of “homosexuality.” “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).
I think we should live and speak and write like those words mean something.
Note: Doug Harrison is the first to admit his brokenness, and so he thinks my praise is undeserved. I will let you, the reader, decide. http://www.outpatientmonk.com