It seemed like a catchy title. It’s inspired by an article by Mary Hunt, Ph.D., described as a “feminist theologian”. The article is entitled “Newsweek takes a bullet on gay marriage” and is available here. It is commenting on a Newsweek article whose link is within Hunt’s piece.
A few thoughts.
The ‘Newsweek’ article is a supportive piece on gay marriage. She notes that it received so much response online that the magazine’s Comments function shut down (though whether through technical dynamics or editorial/site moderator concerns is not clear). Surely there is a great deal of feeling about the matter ‘out there’ or ‘out here’ or wherever the vanguard elites are not. It recalls the point that substantive changes in a society’s and a culture’s most fundamental ways of seeing and organizing life is a huge change that requires much deliberation, or else – in a democracy anyway – a whole lotta folks are going to become alienated or mad, perhaps at the proposed change, perhaps at being bypassed in the approval-process of that change.
Stalin, of course, would have none of it. He rather thought he knew what Russia needed, as did his mentor Lenin. Consequently, adoption and implementation were not up for discussion and, indeed, any effort to ‘discuss’ was considered ‘obstructive’ and got you a trip to the Lubyanka or the nearest wall or the Gulag (take your pick on which option was the ‘luckiest’).
I’m not taking a position here on ‘gay marriage’. I’ve got some questions, starting with – I think – Gore Vidal’s observation that just as scads of ‘straight’ people are looking for exits, the gay community (lesbians included) want in. Or as one wag put it somewhere recently: Gay people want to get married … haven’t they suffered enough? Is it simply another ‘symbol’, justified as a further way to get gays ‘recognized’ as equal in status to heterosexuals? Is it that gays are equally as capable in raising children? More capable? Is it a self-esteem ‘thing’ – We recall that the ‘philosopher’ John Rawls named ‘self-esteem’ as a ‘right’ back there in the early ‘70s. Is it simply that they want – as Jesse Jackson characterized all such ‘rights’ agitations with uncharacteristic candor 15 or 20 years ago – “a bigger slice of the pie”? These are questions that most recently came to mind in the matter of the latest Army General, replete with striped pants and sensible shoes (whose contributions to the actual combat efficiency of the beleaguered Army remain to be seen, if indeed any are actually expected).
At any rate, Hunt opines that people would not be as interested in what “religions” say in a “progressive” mode about the war in Iraq or the death penalty. I’m not sure that objecting to the war in Iraq on religious or theological or moral or philosophical grounds is the private property of a “progressive” theology, especially if such a “progressive” stance includes approval of gay-marriage and – for that matter – ‘choice’. Some rectification of names is in order here, and has been for quite some time. Forty years ago ‘liberal’ theology opposed the war in Vietnam using quite ‘traditional’ arguments and reasoning, without necessarily embracing every social change that was rammed into the ‘liberal’ agenda.
But she’s right that people seem (still!) very concerned (she implies ‘too much concerned’) about what religions have to say about “matters of sexuality”. Can it be surprising? Must such ‘concern- - and so widespread and energetic – be explained away as merely obstructionism, fuddy-duddyism, and lumpish backlash by troglodytes who ‘just don’t get it’? Is it not possible that a whole lotta folks have – however unrefined their conceptual apparatus – a visceral sense that ‘sex’ is somehow a significant element in the human life and therefore in human societies and cultures?
I can’t quite grasp how simultaneously We are told that a) the ‘sexual rights’ revolution is a huge and glorious chapter in the evolution of the species and the culture and yet b) the revolution’s agenda is comprised of ‘changes’ or ‘reforms’ that aren’t really such a big deal and it’s only silly and obsessive whackjobs who would oppose or doubt them. Either this revolution is a verrrrry big deal or it isn’t. To assert both is to give rise to legitimate suspicions that manipulation rather than enlightenment is driving matters here.
It’s ‘big’and ‘good’, so it should be respected and shouldn’t be questioned and ‘proves’ that those who support it are right and very clever and really do ‘get it’; but it also ain’t but a thang, so only small-souled, no-life lumps would oppose it, just to be ‘hateful’ and to deny yet more rights to yet more oppressed and deprived victims. Now if it’s that ‘big’, then it should really be looked at – and perhaps a tire or two kicked and a test-drive would be in order. And if it’s ‘small’, then given all the distraction and expenditure of public attention, especially in Our present troubled times, shouldn’t it be asked as it was in World War Two: is this trip necessary?
She goes on to suggest that one reason that religious folks are making such a fuss is “that as Christianity has lost its hegemony in an increasingly religiously pluralistic society, Christian conservatives have staked their shrinking claims on changing personal ethics”. In other words, it’s a last ditch effort on the part of “conservatives” (defined polemically, it would seem) to keep some influence for themselves, and they’re doing it by interfering in what is essentially a matter of ‘personal morality’. But you don’t need the sanction of the state to live out a personal morality; you can do that on your own – as long as you’re not harming others.
But if you want the sanction of the state – of the ‘res publica’ – in a democracy, then you’re putting yourself out there for questioning by the ‘public’ from whose state you seek authority. That’s how democracy works.
But that “pluralist” is also a flag here. The deepest problem with “pluralism” in its current American version is that in its efforts to ‘loosen things up’ and ‘make room’ for a more ‘sensitive’ and ‘liberated’ lifestyle, it has actually removed the entire Vertical and Meta (Greek for ‘beyond’, or ‘Beyond’ with a capital B) dimensions from Our conception of the Life-Space, reducing Us all to a Flatness. At sea, to remove the keel and the mast (vertical agents of essential stability) means that you are reduced to one-dimension, the horizontal, for your stability and your mobility. And that’s a very dangerous situation to be in; a ship dismasted and without a keel is liable to be rolled around by the waves until it is tipped over or swamped.
Of course, all elements of Verticality had to be removed from American culture so as to remove the danger of any ‘new’ agenda being ‘judged’ by such authority as ‘tradition’, ‘common sense’, ‘morality’, or ‘Reason’ or – the biggie – by its conformity or lack of conformity to the nature of Being itself.
It wasn't 'sold' or 'spun' as a strategic move in a revolutionary power-play. It was brought in as being part of the grand old American tradition of lively change - like Jefferson and Jackson and a whole bunch of other famous folks (not Dead White Males for the purposes of this exercise, curiously) said was good. The valuable historian Gary Nash, known as a 'progressive' historian because he tells the story from the little-people's point of view, observed that 'stabilty' in historical narative usually favors the status-quo and those already in power. He's right, and some shake-up, some controlled 'instability' is a vital and necessary element in a democratic politics. But that is hell-and-gone from losing control, introducing sooo much instability, and then trying to cover yourself by saying that any instability is good, all instabilty is good - no matter how much of it - just by its very nature. And that's a recipe for catastrophe. Stability and instability are neither good nor bad of themselves; it's in how they are blended and balanced. And if the controlling balance is lost, then what you have on your hands is not a 'liberating' instability but a runaway loss of control and also of Shape - not only will the 'officers' lose control, but the craft will come apart. And then nobody wins. And everybody loses.
Nor is it at all any less dangerous for individuals, to lose all sense of Verticality within themselves or any sense of Beyond. To lose a sense of Verticality – the ability to judge yourself by what you might be or should be – is to become mired in whatever level of undeveloped potentials and skills you presently have, ‘free’ from the goad of motivation to improve or excel. To lose a sense of a Beyond means that any effort to comprehend more fully the awe-someness and awe-fullness of this life that we humans share is to suddenly realize that you are terribly and hugely and deeply ‘alone’, too small to master such vastness and too weak to defend yourself or extend yourself.
Unless, of course, you rely on the ‘government’, the one ‘big’ power that may be ‘on your side’ and can – you desperately have to presume – tame ‘life’ for you, on your behalf.
This ‘pluralism’ project, whatever its strengths and advantages, has a verrrry profound downside, for individuals and for society and for culture. If there is nothing worth sacrificing for, nothing so anchored in the Beyond that your efforts will participate in consolation and reward, will respond adequately to your love and to your fear, then you are not going to be able to develop into a human being capable of ‘blue water ops’ as the Navy likes to say. We shall become, in Edgar Lee Masters’ fine image from ‘Spoon River Anthology’: a society of “ships longing for the sea and yet afraid”. It’s a terrible epitaph for a baffled and unspent life, and a lethal disease to infect a democracy, especially one such as Ours where the Constitution’s machinery requires and presumes the grounding of its moving parts in the solid, conscientious, confident, careful deliberateness of The People.
But the youthful impatience of the Sixties combined with the revolutionary impatience of the Seventies to demean all that. Are We the better for that? Are We better off now?
I am not looking to evoke some gauzy, hazy nostalgic glow of a perfect time in America. But We have always been on a path, pursuing an ideal, that was proven to mitigate the worst excesses of tyranny and oligarchy and of populism and majoritarianism – not a guarantee of perfection, but then this is Earth Delta, not Earth Prime (which is a niftier way of saying that this is a world mired in its own imperfections and its own self-betrayals, a vale of tears, shot through with – oy – original sinfulness). And while ‘original sinfulness’ may be a ‘religious’ term, the human reality to which it refers – the consistent incompleteness of individual and communal fulfillment of the best potential – is an all too real characteristic, noticed as clearly by ‘pagan’ philosophers and millennia of acute human beings, and not only in the Western tradition.
To think that by barring the ‘religious term’ one has thereby eradicated the reality that the term was developed to describe … is not very impressive display of careful thinking at all. And you don’t have to have a degree in philosophy or theology to sense that viscerally, deep inside. And in consequence, it would be right to be afraid, perhaps very afraid, at the Flattening of American life and culture. The philosophical and theological Flattening that is now embedded in the dominant strains of “progressive” thinking is lethal to Us individually and communally. Any ‘progress’ that is made will only be on the Horizontal plane, and will thus be build on sand – or, more specifically – on the power of the federal government, the default ‘god’ and the default ‘religion’ – willy or nilly – of the ‘progressive’ life.
To purchase ‘progress’ at the price of such Flattening would be greatly inadvisable even for a ‘pagan and tribal’ culture; for a democracy whose roots, historically, are in a religiously-expressed experience of the Vertical and the Beyond (Judeo-Christian, Native American, Eastern), imparting Shape in the very act of imposing Boundaries, is monstrous regression. Civilization has purchased such progress as it has made with far too much blood and suffering and failed lives and hopes to regress to a Horizontal Flatness that must include a profound Emptiness.
In asserting this, I am not disregarding the Prophets or the acute perceptions (not so his conclusions) of Marx and many others, nor the insights of Darwin, Freud, and others (not so their conclusions). Nor do I lack sympathy for the often-estimable Gore Vidal’s aversion to ‘sky-godders’, since the religious impulse, like all other human impulses, is subject to the awe-full force of that force of deforming moral ‘gravity’ characterized as Original Sinfulness.
Nor am I seeking to manipulatively imply that the critiques by theology 'in a feminist key' are without merit nor their proposals irrelevant or groundless. Elshtain and Glendon, Nussbaum as a philosopher (except in her infatuation with Rawls) … are only the tip of a hugely valuable corpus. Nor am I discounting what Hunt describes as “queer” scholarship. There are very valuable contributions here.
But any ‘liberation’ that ‘frees’ from Shape, especially from a demonstrably consistent and ‘true’ or True human nature is a chimera. You might as well fracture the keel of a ship in order to give it more ‘flexibility’ or fracture the hull of an airliner to make it more ‘maneuverable’ and less ‘rigid’ … it’s moral, philosophical, ethical, social, cultural, and political insanity. It flies in the face of a demonstrated consistency, of a reality, that cannot be wished or Theorized away, or simply derided as an ‘essentialism’ that isn’t at all essential.
Some things are essential to the very reality of being ‘human’, and some things may even be ‘out there’, beyond and Beyond, that are best not ignored, lest We not only slip though Our own fingers, but invite the more primitive and ‘lower’ capacities, those ancient dark incompletenesses and imperfections, back to the fore – and that would constitute a monstrous regression, setting humans back millennia as a community, as a civilization and as a species.
Surely, that’s not the note to go out on. Surely that’s not the ‘gift’ that the citizens of this age wish to bequeath to the generations to follow.
Hunt, remarkably for a self-described theologian, asserts that “religions traffic in illusions”. That’s a hardly adequate description of the visions and ideals – however incomplete – by which religion has always sought to give form to the abiding human Sense that there is a Vertical in the human and a Beyond that exists … well, beyond the appearances of this plane of existence, this dimension of being. With theology like this, who needs materialists who claim to reduce all being to matter that can be seen or quantified?
And as far as “scholarship” goes, I would say that any “scholar” who is more interested in the advocated ‘ends’ than in the studiously researched and contemplated ‘means’ of the intellectual calling is doing nobody a lasting service. The afore-mentioned Professor Rawls cobbled together a mélange of assertions, far too unsubstantiated and shrewdly tailored, that provided in the very early Seventies the simulacrum of a ‘philosophy’ that justified and provided a cover for any Shapelessness or de-Shaping that any of the nascent Identities could wish for, especially as they sought to indoctrinate students or intimidate half-willing pols and judges.
And in the process, Rawls built-in a compliment to those intellectuals who ‘got’ him, indicating that they were – wait for it – a vanguard elite who, being the sole possessors of the ‘true’ state of things, were justified in dictating – especially with the help of judges who possessed the power of imposition – the ‘just’ way of ordering American society with no further ado. And that, most certainly, was a gambit that dragged Us back to Leninism’s method and the Flatness and Emptiness from which humanity spent millennia seeking, with no small success, to escape.
All this has happened in Our time. And is with Us still.
So in this season when American culture makes the time for thoughts of renewal and rebirth, and since – by curious coincidence – a lot of folks won’t need to be spending so much time in the malls, We could do a lot worse than rededicating Ourselves to the great task that remains before Us, as citizens but also as human beings, as members of a community but also as individuals.
Our task is not to recreate a past, but to build on it and – yes – improve upon the gifts that the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of millennia of human beings have provided.
Of all the debts We now owe, that debt – to those past and those yet to come – is the greatest. And so Shaped, We can give more useful care to what is owed among Ourselves, and to all nations and all peoples.
It shouldn’t be boring, this holiday season. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.
It comes to me as well that this does not represent an either-or situation: that 'liberal' or 'progressive' 'reform' is either a) a redress of rights or b) a fracturing of the airframe. But this either-or posing of the question, so immature a thought-process, is precisely where We went off the tracks in public and private deliberation some decades ago. Suppose that some 'reform' was both a 'redress of rights' and a fracturing of the hull (for the purposes of clarity let's not consider here what happens when a whole bunch of 'reforms' might result in a whole bunch of interacting 'fractures').
What do you do then?
Common sense and prudent procedure would require a careful cost-benefit analysis of the 'reform', looking not only at the best-case benefits that it might provide but the worst-case consequences of its fracturing effects. But this is precisely what 'Political Correctness' was designed to prevent; not only did the Identities and the Advocacies pick up the Pentagon's baaaad habit of exaggerating the potential benefits and minimizing the possible (or - worse - probable) downsides of a proposal, but PC ensured that any public discussion of the downside would be pre-empted by being 'demonized': i.e. if you even think about not doing this, then you too are a (fill-in-the-blank).
Some might recall this in the '70s deinsitutionalization craze, when pie-eyed liberationists joined with eager-to-strut medical and psychological types to convince cash-strapped state legislators that the folks in state mental institutions would do just fine on the outside, and that to keep them locked up was primitve and barbaric - and then We got 'the homeless'.