Heteronormativity: A Discussion

/images/managed/Story+Image_picture+1_1231371501.png[Today’s post is a response to a comment from a previous post, but we thought the whole thread was interesting enough to be presented as a whole, in order. So here, once again, professor Ruprecht’s post, the comments by reader Quidditas, and finally, Ruprecht’s response.]

Equal Opportunity Apocalypse or: Our Psycho-Sexual Brouhaha, originally posted January 20.

We all know the outlines of the story: Obama invited Pastor Rick Warren to the inaugural podium, and earned the ire of his liberal base. Then Obama invited the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, to kick things off at the Lincoln Memorial on that same day, horrifying the very religious conservatives to whom he’d made his initial gesture.

The President did exactly what he has said he’d do: listen to everyone, and give everyone a hearing. And thus, like many middle-of-the-roaders, he antagonized both extremes. Happy to have a hearing of their own, they had no intention of listening to the other guy. (Which goal was made easier, in the case of Robinson’s invocation, as the bishop’s voice was barely heard beyond the stage of the inaugural concert.)

But what would it be like to try to hear both parties in the current psycho-sexual brouhaha? Is there anything that this strange juxtaposition of Warren and Robinson can teach us about the current state of the religion-and-culture wars? Perhaps.

First and foremost, one is struck by the nearly apocalyptic rhetoric on all sides. The liberal Obama’s gesture to conservatism is feared as announcing the death of the political left. The parallel gesture to the gay and lesbian community is thought to be the end of the world among some conservative hardliners.

It is that strange note of apocalypse that struck me first, and gives me cause to ponder now. Can a single preacher’s prayer, no matter the venue, really usher in the apocalypse? More to the point: Is there a logic to this linkage of the rhetoric of apocalypse and the question of gay sexuality? Perhaps. And the issue is, as Warren’s recent support of the California Proposition makes clear, the implicit conception of marriage.

I have quarreled with Rick Warren’s biblical exegesis before. But to pose questions of the correct biblical view of marriage ironically raises the specter of the apocalypse in a curious way. The Bible does demonstrate an interest in marriage, though it does so in unexpected and often unusual ways.

It would not be fair to say that the biblical view of marriage begins in the Garden of Eden, “where God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” In fact, God did not create Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; God created Adam and the Woman. Adam was a man (ish) made from the soil (adamah), and she, created from his rib, was a she-man (ishah). Adam gave Eve her name later—Hava, the Life-Giver—only after the two had been expelled from the Paradise-Garden. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the two were married in Eden, since it is hard to imagine marrying a she-man with no name, and also because there is no textual evidence to suggest that the two were sexually related in any way.

That all came later—after the expulsion, after the burden of mortality, after Hava became a “life-giver,” by bearing children.

So too, the New Testament mentions marriage with some regularity, though often obliquely and often in challenging ways. Joseph and Mary were unmarried when Mary was pregnant (Luke 2:5). Jesus is called the son of God, who is imagined as a Father with no bride. Jesus scandalizes many, especially in Luke’s gospel, by traveling openly with unmarried women. He is instructed by widows (Luke 21:1-4), mothers who may or may not be married (Mark 7:24-30), and young women (Mark 14:3-9). More to the point, Jesus’s opponents try to trip him up with complicated legal questions involving encounter, he is almost shockingly cavalier in forgiving an adulterous liaison (John 8:3-11, though he offers much harder judgments in the Synoptic gospels, especially at Mark 10:2-12). Paul has his own distinctive and complicated view of gender relations and of sexual desire, and of marriage (most notably at I Corinthians 7:1-16).

But what kind of marriage was Paul talking about here? Roman marriage, in the main. If we are talking about what kind of wedding these people celebrated, then in most cases it was a traditional Greek marriage. The distinctive difference a Christian marriage is supposed to make had not yet been articulated.

That came a bit later, oddly enough, in Christian “apocalyptic” discourse. This is where the most curious and striking Christian references to marriage appear (Revelation 19:6-10, 21:2-10, 22:17). It grows out of the Hebrew prophetic tradition, where Israel is imagined as God’s wayward wife, separated from the divine love until an eschatological reconciliation. Christ is thus the bridegroom, come to marry the heavenly city, apocalyptic stand-in for the old wayward Israelite Kingdom.

So too, the Christian is wedded to Christ, eschatologically. Only such a marriage can be perfect. Christian marriage exists outside of time.

So the link between debates over the proper quality of a marriage and the despairing rhetoric of apocalypse has a curious biblical warrant, though we might reflect better on how the Greek word ‘apocalypse’ has lost its original meaning of “revelation” and taken on a new meaning of “violent destruction,” or “end of the world.” Christian marriage, as opposed to the sorts of marriage in which other people (presumably pagans) engage, is apocalyptic in this sense, oriented to the end times.

And neither Rick Warren nor Gene Robinson said one word about that.

Which raises the question: What are we really arguing about, and why?

Comment, posted by reader quidditas:

I think you have to look at how evangelical religion in the US developed historically in the 19th century. Evangelical religions coming out of the 18th century awakening were disreputable populist religions, and gained a greater degree of respectability in the 19th century by toeing the bourgeois line—which meant adapting an entrepreneurial market mentality and the emerging middle class “nuclear family” ideal. Historian Susan Juster talks about this in her book on evangelicalism in revolutionary New England. As New England Baptists sought to assume their new citizenship roles, men abandoned tropes like “Christ as lover” and assumed the autonomous, masculine “self governing” ideal of the new Republic.

I think that this particular form of American Christianity still hews heavily to that norm because it was fundamentally re-elaborated in that 19th century social context, and they can’t really separate what might be “Christian” according to the New Testament from the most highly valued 19th century social norms.

I find the evangelical sacralization of the nuclear family almost heretical myself, and I personally rather dislike it for a whole assortment of reasons. However, I also think that they are far and away not the only group of Americans who are not comfortable with gay marriage. Churches are pre-organized groups that can be pretty readily mobilized politically, so they get to take take the heat for everyone else—which is just fine with everyone else.

Ultimately gay marriage is not really a religious issue, and continuing to approach it as if it were such has the hazards of calling forth anti-religious (really anti-Christian) sentiment from gay marriage supporters, which can be alienating to people belonging to more socially liberal mainline Christian denominations. Don’t take the bait.

It’s really an issue of social norms. Neither Obama nor Biden have been willing to concede that gay marriage is a fully legitimate option. Is it really because they don’t think consenting adults can make their own decisions and legitimaize their own relationships, or is it fear of what it would mean to try to raise children without the guide of heteronormativity? Do we really think that parents of any religious persuasion are prepared for that? I would say that most are not, and it’s simply not true that legalizing gay marriage has no impact on their lives.

Religion has become a convenient excuse for people who want to shore up heteronormativity and a convenient whipping boy for people who want to over turn it. I think it’s more effective to deal with the real issue.

And from professor Ruprecht, today:

Thank you, Quidditas,

I deeply appreciate the thoughtfulness of your response to my brief piece, and the care with which you lay out the reasons for your answer to my final question. What is the argument over gay marriage really about? Your answer has an elegant simplicity: “heteronormativity.”

Forgive what will be little more than a ramble through the state of my own confusion on this issue, and my own uncertainty about whether I ultimately agree with this assessment.

You make three interesting suggestions:

1) gay marriage is not really a religious issue 2) it is really an issue involving confusion over social norms 3) and in fact, it is almost heretical when evangelicals turn it into a religious issue, (denying any moral or theological significance to singleness as a Christian vocation, for instance).

For me, the conundrum is the following: If the current debates over the definition of marriage are ultimately ill-disguised attempts to challenge the hegemony of heteronormativity, then it is unclear what politics should follow from this. After all, there are Queer theorists who are opposed to putting their limited energies into this fight precisely because it is an attempt to secure the “right” to a heteronormative conception of faithful union for gays, lesbians and bisexuals.

Why, one might ask, would we ever want to engage in a heterosexist form of socially-sanctioned union? That question, it seems to me, helps to elucidate one reason why the issue is not so much divisive as it is deeply confusing. It is hard to argue about gay marriage in a society that has little clarity about what marriage is and why it is so important. If marriage was always the most secular of the Christian sacraments, then what does it become in a Protestant culture that does not view it as sacramental at all? That’s a puzzler.

The battle lines in the current arguments about gay sexuality are clearer; heteronormativity involves the inescapable marginalization and delegitimation of non-heterosexual (and often all non-procreative) forms of sexual expression.

But when it comes to marriage, the concern for heteronormativity cuts two ways. I may be opposed to gay marriage simply because I do not want to participate in such a heteronormative conception of romantic union.

The confusion is multiplied by confusion over what role the state really has in underwriting and policing love-unions, marital or otherwise. This, take it, is what you think needs to be clarified, and I entirely agree. If the state is interested in defining legitimate offspring for inheritance purposes, there are other ways it could achieve this aim. If the state’s interest lies in securing stable households with clear lines of parental authority, then this may have more to do with current beliefs about the role stable households play in the moral development of children. Then we are not arguing about religion at all, but about social psychology. If the state’s interest in romantic relationships really is limited to assuring that marital relations, and other equivalent domestic partnerships, be non-violent and non-abusive, as our current domestic violence laws suggest, then this has little directly to do with Christian theology. And more to the point, it already suggests the legal equivalence in the eyes of the state between religiously sanctioned marriage and all other forms of cohabitation.

Your suggestion that this is very complex as well as very charged is well taken. Your suggestion that religion is often merely an overlay to a debate that has other rationales and reasons is also well taken. But I do not think that I see religion merely as a “convenient excuse” for homophobia, nor a “convenient whipping boy” for a political left that is allergic to religion.

As Mark Jordan puts it in the Introduction to his book, Blessing Same Sex Unions, “[t]he conviction is that there is a single thing, Christian Marriage, which is now being asked to accommodate this other single thing, Queer Relationship. Neither member of that duo is what it seems.”

I was trying in my short piece to discern what the biblical texts say, why marriage is mentioned when it is (albeit in a bewildering number of ways), and how it is imagined when so invoked. Adulterous liaisons, for instance, are worrisome enough to be flagged in the Decalogue, though we are not told why they are wrong. And this seems odd, given that there are such a wide variety of reasons we might worry. Such reasons run the range from viewing adultery as stealing a man’s property, to seeing it as a violation of the sanctity of a sacramental union that is intended to mirror God’s fidelity in relation. None of this is articulated clearly in biblical texts that lay donw laws, and none of it is captured in invocations of “what the Bible says.”

So, for now, I am still not certain that my question permits a single answer, since no side in the current controversies is quite what it seems to be.

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