15 March 2009

Past Is Future, I Hope

A year ago I couldn't have imagined writing something like this. But you learn new things, and if you're intellectually honest, sometimes those things change your perspectives. I try to practice what I preach.

LDS and other defenders of "traditional marriage" relentlessly reiterate the point that marriage between one man and one woman based on romantic love is "how it's always been since the dawn of civilization" so for that reason alone, we shouldn't "tamper with the wisdom of the ages" because doing so would be "a radical experiment" that's "never been tried before" and "the consequences are unknown."

I don't blame people who think this, because for most of my life I thought the same thing. It was just received wisdom, didn't seem to need questioning.

But guess what folks. It might not be quite that clear after all.

Respected Yale historian John Boswell has concluded the following, based on impressive research:

"Same-sex unions . . . in various forms were widespread in the ancient world, where heterosexual matrimony tended to be viewed as a dynastic or business arrangement . . . Ordinary men and women were more likely to invest feelings the twentieth century would call "romantic" in same-sex relationships, either passionate friendships or more structured and institutional unions as exemplified by the recognized [same-sex] couples of Crete or Scythia, the swearing of perpetual love among the Greeks, and the social phenomenon and legal stratagem of "brotherhood" among the Romans.

Christianity's main innovation was to privilege and make real widespread voluntary celibacy, . . . suggesting that heterosexual matrimony was a mere compromise with the awful powers of sexual desire, even when it was directed exclusively to the procreation of children, the one rationale Christians found convincing [and still use today, obviously, e.g. Prop 8 hysteria about the perversions kids would be forced to learn in schools]. But passionate friendships, especially among paired saints and holy virgins, continued to exercise a fascination over the early Christians—still residents of the ancient world—and in time were transformed into official relationships of union, performed in churches and blessed by priests.

In many ways from a contemporary point of view, the most pressing question . . . is probably whether the Christian ceremony of same-sex union functioned in the past as a 'gay marriage ceremony.' It is clear that it did, although, as has been demonstrated at length, the nature and purposes of every sort of marriage have varied widely over time . . . Indeed, in all times and places in its history (including the present) the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church (one of the two bodies in which the [same-sex union] ceremony developed) has been that the two parties marry each other, the priest merely acts as a witness. If the couple intend to be married, they are. By contrast, in the Eastern Orthodox church the priest does perform the ceremony, and in all known cases priests performed the same-sex union.

Such are the historical facts. . . Even persons who argue that same-sex couples should now have the right to contract marriage like anyone else are apt to view such unions as an exotic indulgence of our time, a novel experiment in a liberal society. And many people—both homosexual and heterosexual—argue that same-sex couples should not undertake traditional relationships similar to heterosexual matrimony. . . A well-known prelate . . . [said] that heterosexual matrimony had become such a ragged institution in the second half of the twentieth century that it hardly constituted a useful model for same-sex couples . . . I replied that I had not composed the same-sex union ceremony that seems to parallel heterosexual marriage, but only discovered it . . . Whatever significance the ceremony might have for persons living at this juncture of history, its greatest importance lies . . . in its role in European history. 'Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still,' observed C. S. Lewis in a related context.

Recognizing that many—probably most—Western societies institutionalized some form of romantic same-sex union gives us a much more accurate view of the immense variety of human romantic relationships and social responses to them than does the prudish pretense that such 'unmentionable' things never happened."

Now, of course Boswell is not omniscient. He was a fallible human. His knowledge, like ours, was and is incomplete. But his research is exhaustive and his conclusions appear to be based on solid evidence. This is more than I can say for any of the Prop 8 proponents whose myth-mongering seemed to scare a lot of innocently ignorant people into believing the California public schools would start indoctrinating their children in "the gay lifestyle" if Prop 8 didn't pass.

The implications of Boswell's conclusions are profound. If he is right, then "traditional marriage" is not and has not been only what current conservative Christians would have us believe, and there is solid historical precedent for same-sex unions in Christianity. If you really want to have some fun, print out this post and read Boswell's conclusions in priesthood meeting the next time the subject comes up.

Any honest non-LDS Christian ought to have great difficulty explaining away Boswell's conclusions, especially since his book includes the actual texts of multiple same-sex union ceremonies dating back many centuries. Latter-day Saints might be expected to blithely dismiss every one of his conclusions as trumped by Section 132. But that would be hasty and ill-advised.

Nephi said that God denies none who come to him, male or female, black or white, bond or free, all are alike unto God. He created all of us in this infinite variety. It's undeniable that millions of His children throughout history have found the deepest and most fulfilling relationships of their lives with those of their own gender. The weight of history is against this being an "aberration" or a "struggle" or a "temporary burden." It appears that this is simply how a portion of God's children are by nature.

Recognizing that, why should we be surprised that there is historical precedent for these children of God to seek and have the same committed relationships that heterosexual couples d0? And, more daringly, why is it offensive to think that God would not make some provision for the greater happiness and stability of all His children regardless of their sexual orientation, or for the Christian church itself to bless such unions regardless of the genders involved? I find this a much more compelling conclusion than the Scripturally groundless theory that death will somehow magically remove "the burden of same gender attraction" (euphemistically so-called).

Section 132 was a doctrinal earthquake when received. It completely up-ended everything the Saints thought they "knew" about marriage and the eternities. The 9th Article of Faith affirms that the Latter-day Saints believe God "will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." Only the ignorantly arrogant would presume to say that we now know everything there is to know about how the eternities work. Joseph Smith said that if the apostles themselves knew what he knew about that, they would be so angry they would try to kill him. To me, that suggests we are all in for some shocking education that could challenge everything we thought we "knew" about our eternal possibilities. Do the Latter-day Saints really believe the 9th Article of Faith, or do they privately qualify it with "as long as those great and important things match what I already think"?

Two thousand years ago, slavery and concubinage were unquestioned components of the natural order of things. They were self-evidently just part of the world God created. The Bible itself takes that view. Yet now we consider both unthinkable and unconscionable. We've gained additional knowledge and understanding, and moved ahead.

Last night I watched as a Chinese-Indonesian man directed an orchestra of mixed races playing a piece by a German. He then embraced and kissed an African-American female soloist, and shook hands with & embraced a Caucasian male soloist. The ensemble included people from every race and continent, black white, male female, gay and straight, married, single, old and young and everything in between. None of that made any difference. All were God's children, united without any distinctions in one common purpose of creating magnificent music written in praise of the Creator. That scene would have been unthinkable just a couple of centuries ago. Even good Christians would have considered it unconscionable, against the natural order of things ordained by God. Guess what? No lightning bolts so far, and we seem to be doing fine.

I couldn't help watch that wonderful event last night and hope for a day when we can not only leave racial prejudice behind in the dustbin of history, but also recognize and support, regardless of race, color or orientation, the good that can come from allowing two people who love each other to commit their lives to one another. Then we can move on to a host of other societal ills that also flow from inadequate understanding and prejudice. What should stop us from doing this now with marriage, especially when, as I've now learned, we really aren't looking at some radical untried social experiment. It's been done before. Do we have the courage to learn from the wisdom of the past and do it again?

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