The Empire of Desire

White House

It has now been a week since the Supreme Court issued its fanciful decision on gay marriage — legally contrived and morally suspect. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice Kennedy wrote (or co-authored), “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is a good summary statement of postmodern nominalism. There is nothing higher, nothing to which we are accountable, except our own experience of “meaning” and “mystery.”

Justice Kennedy continued his romanticist jurisprudence in last week’s Obergefell v. Hodges case. He formulates the first premise on which the majority decided: “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” (p. 3). This is why, we are told, bans on interracial marriage were invalidated. He continues, “Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.” So, “personal choice” and “individual autonomy” are the founding principles upon which interracial marriage is a marriage? We are then given flimsy attempts to define marriage as “a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals” and “an intimate association.” Same-sex couples aspire to “the transcendent purposes of marriage” (p. 4), which are what exactly? Kennedy then finally proceeds to offer the only constitutional basis of the majority’s opinion: a highly dubious interpretation of the fourteenth amendment.

The subsequent media parade offered scarcely any attempt to digest and discuss the moral rationale. At this point, I suppose, Kennedy’s moral logic is self-evident to the culture. The corporate blitz to capitalize was unlike anything we’ve seen in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision, as seemingly every major corporation proudly displayed its support. Social media followed suit. The White House went technicolor. News anchors and reporters could scarcely contain their enthusiasm. This united front gave voice to our new era of social discourse. We emote and shame, whereas our forefathers reasoned and convinced. Twitter is more powerful than Aristotle.

If you have not done so already, I highly encourage you to read the SCOTUS decision, both the majority opinion and the dissents. Justice Scalia never holds back: “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic” (p. 75.) Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia, offers the most conservative dissent, insofar as he directly targets the redefinition of marriage away from its procreative ends and offers this sober warning:

It [the court’s decision] will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent. Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. [pp. 101-102]

Below, I have collated some of my favorite articles that have dared to wade through this torrent of powers, the potestatis publicae. I will begin with “The Empire of Desire” from R. R. Reno. Unlike most of the subsequent articles, this was not written in response to the Supreme Court decision. It was published in the June 2014 issue of First Things. This is one of Reno’s most incisive essays, more important now than then.


“The Empire of Desire,” R. R. Reno (First Things, June 2014):

Indirectly (and unknowingly) evoking the rich tradition of liberal Protestant theology, Vattimo suggests that this antinomian trajectory is “a transcription of the Christian message of the incarnation of God, which St. Paul also calls kenosis—that is, the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.” Here we find a wonderfully pure expression of the metaphysical dream of our era: God himself is an antinomian. Christ does not fulfill the law of Moses; instead, he undercuts Moses and evacuates the law of all normative power. Sinai becomes the Antichrist.

“The Benedict Option for Evangelicals,” Phillip Cary (First Things, June 30, 2015):

The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.

It’s a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They’ve adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today’s evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can’t the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?

“Can Evangelicals See Themselves in the LGBT Movement?,” Alastair Roberts (The Gospel Coalition, July 1, 2015):

While most persons receive their identity from without as society imposes its sexual and gendered identities, the LGBT person recognizes that true identity arises from within. The realization of an authentic subjectivity over against the formalism of imposed norms of gender and sexuality is recounted in the “personal testimonies” of coming-out stories and tales of transition. Given the understanding of the nature of true identity within LGBT communities, it shouldn’t surprise us that same-sex marriage has been pursued chiefly as an “expressive”—rather than a “formative” and “institutional”—reality.

…the LGBT community and the same-sex marriage cause are advanced in large measure through emotional personal testimony and stories of subjective self-realization. This is the language evangelicals were raised on, and it can resonate with us. Evangelicals, having placed so much store on the truth and immediacy of the personal narrative and the value of unfeigned emotion, will face particular difficulties in considering how to respond to these.

“After Obergefell: The Effects on Law, Culture, and Religion,” Sherif Girgis (Catholic World Report, June 29, 2015):

It’s not that the majority opinion offered bad interpretations of the Constitution’s guarantees; it hardly interpreted them at all. Huge swathes of it read less like a legal argument than the willful paradoxes and obscure profundities you might hear at a winetasting.

…now the most prestigious secular organ of American society—the Court that helped make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality—stands for the propositions that deep emotional union makes a marriage, and that mothers and fathers are perfectly replaceable; indeed, that it “demeans” and “stigmatizes” people to think otherwise.

“The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion,” David French (National Review, June 26, 2015):

This isn’t constitutional law, it’s theology — a secular theology of self-actualization — crafted in such a way that its adherents will no doubt ask, “What decent person can disagree?” This is about love, and the law can’t fight love. …

Christians who’ve not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can’t abide being called “hateful.” It creates a desperate, panicked response. “No, you don’t understand. I’m not like those people — the religious right.” Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.

“A Conversation With My Gay Friend,” Jennifer Fulwiler (July 9, 2012):

“Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”

[Andrew:] “So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”

“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”

…”If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”

“Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?,” Wesley Hill (Spiritual Friendship, June 27, 2015):

Yet I’m also a Christian, and according to historic Christian orthodoxy, marriage isn’t the only, or even the primary, place to find love. In the New Testament, as J. Louis Martyn once wrote, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” Marriage in Christian theology is, you might say, demythologized. With the coming of Christ, its necessity is taken away: gone is the notion that without it we are doomed to lovelessness.

“The Episcopal Church on Its Way Towards Adopting Gay Marriage,” George Conger (Anglican Ink, June 29, 2015):

“God has given us a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church,” the bishop said. “As such, we must proceed slowly and with generosity of spirit,” to ensure that the revelation given to the majority was not in error. The bishop said the history of the surrounding community, Mormon Salt Lake City, was an example of what not to do.

Apropos, the Episcopalians now have something in common with Mormons: new revelation. By the way, TEC officially voted — overwhelmingly — to adopt a new rite for the marriage of any gender configuration. The ACNA will continue to attract the remaining few evangelicals in TEC over the course of the next year.


Image: The White House in rainbow colors after the SCOTUS decision on June 26, 2015 (source)



  1. Notwithstanding the news on the wire, I trust that you, Kevin (and Bobby, Cal, et al), will have a pleasant Independence Day on the morrow.

    I find myself thinking less about the Supremes singing Obergefell than about the quite emotional reviews from their critics. The lyrics are overblown; the band can’t get on the same beat or play in tune; Stevens is not their best front man; the riffs from Scalia take leave of the song itself, etc. My detachment would probably seem strange to the pundits; their rage that the band has jilted them is surely strange to me. Believing in God has never seemed to me to leave room for that sort of passionate identification with the state.

    O critics: Christian theologians have had achingly beautiful insights into marriage, but what made you think that any of them were the standard Americana of the body politic? When you stand in the checkout line at the grocery store, do you believe that you are in the company of introspective Augustinian penitents, natural law theorists of procreation, New Perspective witnesses to new creation, etc? I have seen happy couples with babies in checkout lines, but I have never seen anyone skimming People magazine who seemed to be gazing at the stars for the descent of heaven to earth.

    • Believing in God has never seemed to me to leave room for that sort of passionate identification with the state.

      That’s a valid criticism for much of the reaction, but more of what I have seen cannot be characterized in quite that way. I suppose it depends on what we mean by “identification with the state.” I see a lot of people lamenting this cultural moment, as they should. Such concern for our society is not necessarily tethered to an idolatry of the state. It is a lamentation that we should have for any nation, as in Western Europe or Argentina or S. Africa. Naturally, as Americans, we are reacting out of that context and with our neighbors in mind. Tragically, of course, we have failed to lament prior cultural moments that deserved our grieving.

      True, “the standard Americana of the body politic” has been misjudged by Christians. There should be a lot of soul-searching right now. Conservatives are just as complicit in the decades-long redefinition of marriage, the family, and “values.” We are formally correct on the simple question of whether marriage requires the gender binary, but that’s the easy part.

      • Kevin, I suppose my concerns about bioethics, human development, negative population growth, and the morals of the poor have affected my affect. At different points over the past couple decades, all four have lead me back to the urgency of an ethos for procreation. Since relationship registration has not fostered this ethos in decades, I have expected something like Obergefell for about as long, and have wondered how the Church can again be the home of a procreation ethos that satisfies all that the scriptures and human life demand.

        The most elegant view of all this– perhaps one that will be discovered by others over time– is that the Church should simply celebrate a mission accomplished, and let the state be the state. The Church in the West invented the public registration of marriage contracts in the late middle ages to protect brides from coercion and prevent them from bigamy, and this bit of social engineering has continued to bear fruit for several centuries. Only the Church– an organization with stubborn, literate, rubric-following officers in every community– could have induced a vast territory to accept this reform, and so we must reckon the modern way of marriage to be among the Church’s many gifts to our civilization.

        But as the Continental reformers insisted, maintaining a public registry was the mission of a stronger state, and had only provisionally and in a more anarchic time been a concern of the Church. To stop the ‘mission creep’ reflected in medieval speculations on the form and matter of the sacrament of marriage, they flatly declared that it was not a sacrament but a civil ordinance and developed a quite sophisticated theology of the orders of creation. Obergefell reminds us that the power-seeking state never maintains order quite as citizens of the Kingdom would wish, but reformers who knew their princes all too well were not naive about this. We do not refuse to pay taxes just because a more godly state would spend money differently; we should not rend our garments every time a blind caesar tinkers with laws on marriage in some ill-advised way. Thinking missionally, we have other priorities now.

  2. Kevin you said “News anchors and reporters could scarcely contain their enthusiasm.”

    This reminds me of Padme’s remark in Revenge of the Siths “So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.”

    I think the dissenting court opinions state my concern well: ” the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women … The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.”

    I’m afraid there will be a number of people who think conscientious objection is no argument, any such misgivings will simply be bigotry. None of this is really surprising, but it ain’t fun to watch.

    • I like the Star Wars quote! Indeed, the “conscientious objection” is barely worth registering with those on the other side of this debate. They have as much patience for that as for hearing why the Dukes of Hazzard should stay on the air — that is to say, zero patience. We have lost all ability to reason, argue, and come to measured opinions. The emotional zealotry on the Left is astonishing, especially for a movement that once prided itself on rising above such zealotry.

  3. The real shame is that LGBTQ Christians themselves would want to opt into/be assimilated by this theologically vacuous modernist/postmodernist, consumerist/market-driven understanding of marriage, which, of course, is the default contemporary practice of heterosexual marriage which Kennedy is simply reflecting. Rather, they should be joining with those Christians who, unhappy with both liberal and conservative readings of marriage, have worked hard to develop theologically nuanced, rich, and responsible accounts of marriage sub specie creationis novae, accounts that (a) relativise the normativity of reproductive sex in marriage; (b) focus on holy friendship and mutual sanctification, not personal gratification, as the telos of marriage; (c) (it should go without saying) eschew the discourse of rights and equality; while (d) being attentive both to the cultural history of the institution of marriage as well as to the insights that science provides about human biology, sexuality, and psychology — accounts which could and should yet open the church to acknowledging, welcoming, and blessing same-sex unions in the name of Christ.

    From the general discussion, however, generating so much smoke above the trenches of the culture wars, one could be forgiven for not being aware that such accounts even exist.

    • I appreciate your four points, even as we would come to some different conclusions. It would certainly make for an entirely different discourse and one much healthier for both society and the church.

  4. Not to press this issue too much but there was a time when contraception and divorce were also condemned by all Christians. I have no doubt that soon enough most churches will be OK with gay marriage as well. And I’m afraid it won’t only be the progressives who accept it. You and Cal have different models of Church/State. I tend to stick to the 14th century model: the Church is above the State. Otherwise, the Church gets influenced by the State and everything goes downhill. America doesn’t run on this model so none of the developments of the past 50 years are too surprising. I know it comes across as ecclesiastical arrogance but as the Body of Christ, we know what is good for the State. I would allow for one caveat – that religious pluralism be permitted. The Church however would be responsible for defining and promoting Natural Law, which the State would then execute. History has demonstrated over and over again that both State and Church can’t exist peacefully side by side. When such a model is employed, the State always has the upper-hand. This is not a very American view but there’s where I stand.

    • Thanks, Fariba. I like bold challenges to our American prejudices about how the church and state should function. As for myself, I hardly have a model for church and state. This is not to say that I have not thought long and hard about it, but I have not come to any firm convictions. There are libertarian aspects to my thinking, but that has more to do with pragmatic considerations. (For example, even if I were an absolute monarchist, it would have little impact on my thinking about what’s possible here and now in America.)

      My strongest conviction is simply that “the American experiment” is just that — an experiment. It has no special divine sanction. It is founded upon Locke’s theory: a society can be governed by reason alone. I am not a postmodernist, but we know now that Locke’s “reason” had several inbuilt assumptions, not the least of which were Christian in part and Enlightenment/Deist in other parts. I suspect, Fariba, that your Catholic understanding will gain a significant hearing in the near future, as Christians re-evaluate these matters. The secular nation-state of the West is a novelty with only two centuries under its belt. It’s perceived permanence is surely a delusion of our times, under the influence of our affluence.

      I would caution, however, with saying that “we know what is good for the State.” As you would probably agree, this needs several qualifying statements! The track record of Christendom’s church-state relations is often abysmal. More significantly, as both Cal and Bowman would probably agree, the biggest problem with the old Roman Catholic model (even with allowance for religious pluralism) is how it gives “divine right” to the state, lending itself to a disastrous confusion of the earthly kingdom and Christ’s kingdom. If this model is to be renewed by Catholics today, it will have to be a highly nuanced and entirely revamped account.

      • I agree that it would need to be highly nuanced. I am not proposing any kind of Divine Right Monarchy. I’m more for a modified democracy. I may have been a bit harsh about knowing what’s good for the state, but the assumption was that Natural Law is known by anyone who seeks to know God whether or not they’re Christian. The problem is that there is a growing number of people who do not seek any kind of God and therefore need guidance by the Church to know the Natural Law. Ideally, other monotheistic religions should come to the same conclusions. The Natural Law argument doesn’t real hold water today because unlike in Aquinas’ day, not everyone is Christian. The Church needs to be seen as a moral compass, but that would mean that our current American model of Church/State would need a bit of a revision.

      • I suppose anything is possible in the future. The church’s role as moral compass for the state is rather laughable for the average citizen of a wealthy nation-state like ours. But our present circumstances are far from guaranteed.

      • I basically agree with Kevin, but just want to say that absolute divine right monarchy is more an early modern thing than a medieval one. The king’s power was limited, often in informal and unwritten ways, by the nobles, the church, and various self-sustaining social institutions such as the guilds and universities. Even those who did claim divine right (such as the Holy Roman Emperors) were much less powerful than Renaissance kings in practice.

      • Yes, I like Joel’s points on this. It is too easy to think in terms of some homogenous “Constantinian” model dominating the centuries. It was far more complicated and interesting than that.

      • To add on to that, there were even various forms of electoral politics. Most obviously English parliament, but also Italian city-state republics, elected monarchs in some places (including the HRE), etc. So as you said, it’s complicated.

        To take things even further off-topic, I’ve been reading Dante and it’s interesting to see his critique of the church’s entanglement in politics in his day. He talks about the church defiling herself by “fusing two powers into one” and even makes a comparision to Babylon the Great. All this from a very orthodox Catholic in the early fourteenth century. But he does have his own political blind spots with a hyper-romanticized nostalgic view of the Roman Empire (though understandable given the Italian political instability he lived through).

      • Sad to say, I recently started reading Dante for the first time. I don’t know why it took this long — probably all of the systematic theology texts I’ve had to read!

  5. On its own, the fact that gays can legally marry doesn’t bother me too much. As I’ve gone over before, my inclinations on gay marriage are libertarian – that this part of Christian ethics should not be enforced by the state. Part of me even thinks that allowing it is one way to love our neighbor (I realize there are good counterarguments to this).

    Still, I do have concerns about religious liberty, especially after Memories Pizza, that have made me more ambivalent than I used to be. I’m still hopeful it’ll work out okay in the end, but maybe I’m being naive.

    If large parts of the church hadn’t taken so long to say “maybe we should actually be nice to gay people”, though, maybe there would be less much hostility against us now. Some are still responding in silly ways (nullification! constitutional convention!), though it’s not surprising.

  6. What does worry me is the larger social forces that go with it – basically, how we got here and where we’re going next. Fredrik de Boer (a thoughtful progressive who often criticizes his own team’s worst tactics) argues for polygamy here:

    Forty percent of all children are born out of wedlock now, and here we have a writer at an elite publication who seem to think it’s something to be celebrated.

    • Raister’s article reminds me a bit of one of the left’s greatest thinkers:
      “Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.”

      “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

      I’ll let people look up who said this for themselves.

    • Ha, I should have been able to guess! Yes, you rightly identify her as part of “the left.” And Traister is definitely following the same line. “This dour view of matrimony is in fact consistent with a lot of what it used to be, back when it held a stranglehold on us all.” So, basically, she is saying that gay marriage is indeed what conservatives have been saying all along: the end of marriage in any meaningful sense.

      • Yes, you rightly identify her as part of “the left.”

        Ha, well, I was partly just being cute. Certainly a labor union doesn’t fit that quote very well, for example. But I guess it just goes to show how slippery the terms “left” and “right” are.

  7. One thing that does trouble me about the procreation-centered view of marriage is that it doesn’t seem to have much scriptural support (with Genesis 1 being one possible place to reflect on). It does seem to me that the scriptural emphasis is on the one-flesh unity between man and woman as opposed to specifically procreation. That being said, the procreation centered view does have the advantage of giving marriage a more meaningful definition than what our culture ascribes to it. I guess the task would be to establish it exegetically and not by natural law (which I’m rather suspicious of to be honest, though I do see the exegetical and theological rationale for it). I’m also worried about people reducing marriage and sex to just procreation, which would lead to an under emphasis on the emotional and spiritual (and ultimately sanctifying) bond within marriage. After all, Paul himself compares marriage to how Christ sanctifies the church.

    That being said, do you see the possibility of a procreation centered view on marriage to still be open to contraception and in vitro fertilization, albeit to a more limited degree than the wider culture?

    • Let us not be confused here by the narrow C20 neo-thomist position on birth control. The scriptural ethos is nearer to the Judaic sense that God created the succession of generations and that he is glorified in a just person who finds his or her place in that cycle. The capability for procreation is the anchor for a whole web of virtues and relations in a person’s life. Comment on that is found not only in Genesis but also in the rest of the Pentateuch, Proverbs and the wisdom literature, the OT historical narrative, etc. Jews retain a fine sense of this– I look to them more than to Rome for a model here– as do many evangelicals. But again, evangelical ecclesiology is inadequate– in allowing the church to collapse into mere chaplaincy to nuclear families it has opened the way to three dysangelical outcomes: (a) organization by race and class, (b) compromised resistance to careerism and consumerism, and (c) the exclusion of those without children. For the latter, including Christian homosexuals, the solution is probably a church with a richer sense of life in the ‘not yet’ of the Kingdom. At that point, we may be more inspired by churches that have embraced celibacy as a way of life oriented to the ‘not yet’– Rome, Orthodoxy, some radical Protestant pietists. Only a church that has realized that sense of living in the ‘not yet’ in practice can give the unmarried a robust place, and a fortiori only such a church in it is able to make pastoral sense of homosexuality. For the most part, the others should maintain a discreet silence until they have removed the log that is in thelr eyes.

    • Postscript– This may be the place to point out that contemplative, liturgical, and missional movements in the Church tend to appeal precisely to those for whom community in Christ cannot be centered in the children that they do not have. Those who flatly oppose these things are the ones who narrow the church to an unsustainable and unscriptural focus on the nuclear family, thereby enabling the evils enumerated.

      • You bring up a good point about the Jews. Never once have I thought about looking into them. Could you get deeper into the differences between Jews and Catholics on marriage, sex, and procreation? Also never realized that the narrow Catholic view on procreation was a C20 neo-thomist invention.

        Yeah, my church recently brought over a speaker who talked about family discipleship (having churches be centered around parents discipling their children). While it sounded good and all, I was unsettled by the fact that such a concept places too strong of an emphasis on the nuclear family even though the nuclear family is a recent Western invention resulting from the forces of industrialization. It also worried me that it could create too insular of a church life and leave out singles like me who don’t plan on getting married any time soon. Not to mention the fact that it could obscure the fact that the church is one big family and that marriage is only temporal and not eternal even if it is important for this life.

      • “Also never realized that the narrow Catholic view on procreation was a C20 neo-thomist invention.”

        I meant birth control, sorry.

      • To be clear, Ivan, most churches in the West saw procreation as the telos of marriage and opposed artificial means of contraception as a logical consequence. Most Protestants however tacitly dropped this teaching in the late ’50s and early ’60s in response to pastoral concerns about the marriages of the infertile and political concern about ‘the population bomb’ that threatened to overwhelm the earth’s carrying capacity by about 2010. It may be that most Roman Catholic theologians agreed with the future St John Paul II in tentatively agreeing with this emerging consensus. However, Pope Paul VI bucked the trend with an encyclical Humanae Vitae that proscribed artificial birth control, in this siding with ‘traditionalists’ informed by neo-thomism (eg Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange) against ‘progressives’ influenced by a somewhat Continental reading of the fathers (eg Henri de Lubac). This is why the only Western church now unequivocally emphasizing procreation as the telos of marriage is Rome.

        The birth control debate somewhat foreshadowed the one on same-sex marriage. Importantly, the Catholic ‘progressives’ were not denying that marriage was in some sense about procreation; they did want to reject a biological determinism in the neo-Thomist moral theology that, in its modern pursuit of objectivity, gave no weight to human intentionality in such acts as the intercourse with birth control of a man and wife. We see a similar tension today between those who believe that moral theology must give at least some weight to the subjectivity of homosexuals and those for whom the whole point of doing moral theology is to make it easier to correct the unreliable self with objective rules. As with our narrow focus on state registration today, so then the momentous problem of understanding the great mystery was reduced to the question whether married couples should use condoms. Had the churches of the West thought more broadly about procreation and marriage in the middle of the last century, we might have been better prepared for the transformative era that followed that debate.

      • On the Jews, Ivan, a brief reply now, a better one on Monday.

        The idea of the family as a ‘little church’ can be found in all branches of Christendom. For American evangelicals, Philip Greven’s Protestant Temperament, although focused on the C18, is still a useful introduction to confessional differences in child-rearing. Although some parenting was and is driven by an overriding concern for the conversion of a born sinner (see Kevin’s fine recent post on the Baptists), all of it seems to construct an identity in the civil society without intrinsic religious significance. You cannot be deeply respected for your christianitas as a lay person, not because of any disrespect for the laity but because the lay identity is constructed as purely civil. This is why politics matters too much to evangelicals– we have an unhealthy stake in the outcome of entirely worldly power struggles.

        In contrast, all branches of the Jews aspire to rear children who are worthy members of the rather competitive family of Abraham and, as such, philanthropic contributors to whatever society they live in. The law is about forming good Jews, and there is a trans-generational consensus about what that means. Thus many a lay surgeon has been revered as a Jew above rabbis (eg Maimonides).

      • The relationship between the RC ban on contraception and its rejection of gay sexual partnerships is a seamless ethical garment. That is, to remove the ban on contraception would open the way — logically speaking, on the basis of RC moral reasoning — to the acceptance of gay sexual partnerships. James Alison observes the connection with crystal clarity and notes, historically, that “While he was mulling over preparation for the encyclical [Humanae Vitae], Paul VI was told that if he permitted a separation between the unitive and procreative functions of sex in the case of heterosexual married couples, he would be depriving the Church of any realistic reason for making same-sex acts intrinsically wrong.”

        And Alison continues: “And so it has turned out to be. The vast majority of the faithful has not accepted Humanae Vitae, and sure enough, since we are quite logical animals, over time the percentage of straight Catholics practicing some form or other of birth control who are willing to judge gay people negatively for acts which are no different from their own in respect to what the Vatican refers to as their ‘indispensable finality’ has diminished steadily.”

        The recent referendum in Ireland: QED.

      • Yes, Kim, Paul VI and, say, Rowan Williams both inferred that any toleration of artificial birth control implied acceptance of any sexual intercourse that is unitive, but not procreative. In Rome, that reasoning lead to Humanae Vitae, and in TEC it recently lead to the conclusions of the Task Force for Study of Marriage which were accepted the other day.

        If William Alison offered an evidence-based argument that rejection of Humanae Vitae caused Irish voters to vote for same sex marriage, then I would be willing to consider its methodological merits. However, they had better be stronger than those of the already credible cases that– (a) the recent scandals have persuaded Catholic voters in Ireland that freeing their state from the tutelage of their church is a necessary civic reform; (b) the Northern European predisposition to prefer careers to families has made the whole region resistant to the procreative understanding of sex and so hospitable to homosexuality. One can easily imagine an Catholic couple in Dublin believing that– yes, they will have children; yes, they will use birth control until their careers are secure; and yes, Ireland will be more a just society with a more secular state.

        What is at stake for most readers here are the questions whether (a) the procreative function entails the sinfulness of all use of birth control, and (b) whether evangelical insistence on the man/woman dyad has a different epistemic ground from that of the procreation argument that we have been discussing. Personally, I think the answers are likely to be no and no, but there are dimensions of both questions that have not been discussed.

      • Question from the theologically untutored layman for Bowman:
        Regarding the moral status of birth control: If neither artificial birth control, nor natural family planning, are 100% effective in preventing contraception (and neither is), but the use of either is intended to reduce the likelihood of conception, then why is one inherently morally unacceptable and the other not according to Roman Catholic teaching? If the intention in both cases is to reduce the likelihood of conception, but both are “open” to procreation because both may fail in their intended purpose, then what’s the difference? The intention is the same in both cases.

      • I do understand that one involves more “self-discipline” (or less convenience) than the other, but is that what it comes down to? The one involves sacrifices that the other doesn’t? Is the presence of an ascetic dimension the only substantive difference between morally acceptable contraception (NFP) and morally unacceptable contraception (ABT) for the RCC?

      • Thanks, Robert, for interesting questions.

        Answers from different Catholic moralists would be subtly varied– Fariba may want to comment on this– but the tenor on which all would agree is something like this–

        (a) those who recognize the hand of the Creator of all things have a natural obligation to cooperate with his creative purposes;

        (b) and a fortiori, Christians, who know and love the Creator in Jesus Christ, and who have faith in his promise of providential care for them in life and in death, know that they have nothing to fear;

        (c) therefore, as human bodies are evidently designed by the Creator to reproduce, married Christians should cooperate with his design and trust in his care;

        (d) through the virtues, both cardinal (eg courage, temperance) and theological (hope, love).

        (e) so that it ‘misses the mark,’ either to add to or subtract from the Creator’s design;

        (f) or to fail to trust his providence in the conception of new life.

        By this reasoning, these couples are sometimes said to be missing the same mark of cooperation and trust as a couple who use artificial birth control–

        (g) those who avoid sex altogether for fear of pregnancy;

        (h) those who rear their child with a perfectionistic disrespect for his created individuality;

        (i) those who use biotechnology to conceive what they regard as a perfect child.

        So then the main difference between a condom and a calendar is that the condom materially and intentionally changes the system that God created (e), while the calendar does not. That one’s faulty plan to rob a bank may not succeed in practice does not make the plan itself blameless.

        A little thought about (g), (h), and (i) will show how important (d) is to the ethos of Humanae Vitae. Until Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue was published two decades later, Protestant ethicists did not usually offer such accounts of the virtues. Instead they explored the implications of divine commands variously discovered, God-given dispositions to do good, or the consequences of actions. (Your comparison of the odds of pregnancy for those using condoms and those using a calendar exemplifies the last of these three.) Some of us doubt that any ethos that lacks an account of virtues and vices can guide a faithful daily life.

  8. No, of course the Irish referendum wasn’t even on Alison’s radar when he wrote c. 10 years age. That was me — and rather flippantly — and, yes, the (a) and (b) points in your second paragraph are correct. I think, however, that even without (a) and probably (b), the trajectory in Ireland would have been toward a Yes gay marriage vote in the Irish referendum — and that Spain will follow suit. And yes, things only get theologically interesting with your third paragraph.

  9. My Fulcrum comment on TEC seems apt here–

    In France at the turn of the C13, all but two of the bishops affirmed the opinion that when a husband presents his wife to her new husband at her second wedding, then, as she passes from husband to husband, she is never in the state of divorce prohibited by Christ, and so all are complying with his command. But in Byzantium at the same time, marriage was an eschatological reality; a first marriage was not only of this world, but of the world to come, and the bishops permitted any second or third marriage only if the couple did penance in the wedding service itself. Most villagers here will disagree with both the French and the Byzantines, but we have all read the same Bible.

    Every local church believes that its marriage practices have fallen from the sky. This is in part because they are, uniquely, a blend of ‘local knowledge’ about family and social order on which few can have any transcendent perspective, and an extensive complex of scriptural ideas about Christ and embodiment. The two elements mix everywhere, but have formed a compound nowhere. And local social needs have always shaped the local institutions that have registered the existence of couples in the West– heads of families, clerics on churchsteps, clerks in town halls, captains on ships, etc. But we are always sure that our society has gotten it right.

    Notwithstanding our Lord’s first miracle in Cana of Galilee, the reformers knew enough about the unsuccessful attempts at a universal understanding of the mystery to firmly exclude the registration of marriage from the sacraments. Their aim was to return it to the civil sphere from which Late Roman emperors had pushed it and Duecento popes had plucked it. Historically speaking, this is why Parliament (or here the Supreme Court) votes on marriage.

    But this move obliges Protestants to try to find religious meaning, not in the civil registration, which can never be more than a local hodge podge cobbled together by a blind caesar, but in the great mystery itself. Few evangelicals have attended to it because we frame most spiritual things as concerning the minds of believers, and not their bodies personal, marital, or ecclesial. But as the old social supports for Christian life slip away in the North Atlantic community, our circumstances will press us to seek a fuller understanding.

    The report of the TEC Task Force for the Study of Marriage is here–

  10. By the way, guys, I’ve been in the mountains this weekend for a bluegrass festival. I’ll catch-up on the recent discussion soon.

  11. “Apropos, the Episcopalians now have something in common with Mormons: new revelation.”

    Sloppy talk about ‘revelation’ where ‘illumination’ would be clearer is not new, nor distinctly Episcopalian.

    “The ACNA will continue to attract the remaining few evangelicals in TEC over the course of the next year.”

    Maybe. It depends on whether they read TEC as unhooking procreation from state registration of relationships, or actually as denying the whole gestalt.

    • It would be hard to not hear — from TEC leaders themselves — the “whole gestalt.” Schori was certainly not interested in anything less than the latter.

      • Thanks for the review, Kevin! Do you ever get up to the Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax?

        Without writing a disquisition on Anglican ecclesiology in North America, I cannot explain why, but TEC’s ‘national leaders’ have little influence on what rooted evangelical Episcopalians do back in their dioceses. The evangelicals in the ACNA that I know joined it, not to get away from the General Convention but to follow an inspiring archbishop who wanted to found 1,000 parishes. You’ve read the Pew Report; you probably know that the Anglican Communion has entered a long-expected period of evangelical dominance; seeing the writing on the wall, one could make a case for either church.

      • No, I’ve never even been to Galax, not counting driving past it on 77. Glancing at the website, it looks like a fun time.

        That’s interesting about the ACNA. I have one friend in the ACNA, and his decision was very much about dissatisfaction with TEC. Though I’m not surprised that others would care little what TEC does.

    • Until fairly recently, the constituent churches of the ACNA have been the Anglican Church in Derpistan– tiny museums of Sarum Use ritual or Calvinist theology nostalgic for different eras of the Church of England’s past. Natural opponents codependent on their common frenemy, TEC, these refuges for minds far too absolutist about far too much were far too self-absorbed to agree among themselves across the catholic-reformed divide. Quite simply, those churches were too derpy to do any missional good.

      The African intervention helpfully rescued them from isolation, rid them of some dysfunctional TEC legacies, and shaped them into a more authentically Anglican church. The last primate’s bold emphasis on church-planting created a generous space for thinking, missional evangelicals. An alliance with conservative Lutherans has begun to supply the needed doctrinal bridge from theology to practice. These were hopeful developments.

      Although some would view it as a sort of triumph of the will, a fresh outflux of derps from TEC could spread weeds into the ACNA’s still-tender garden. One sees what is to be avoided in Orthodox churches who took disgruntled evangelical clergy they thought were converts, only to discover that although they were too authoritarian to remain Protestants, they were also too stubborn to learn and grow in a thinking, missional church– derps. Some of the ACNA’s biggest boosters are among its biggest problems.

    • The speed with which ‘marriage equality’ has rippled through Western societies has given us a ‘natural experiment’ against which to test theories of ‘tradition’ or ‘development,’ both of which are indeed claimed for the whole TEC project of prioritizing the self over the body in ordination, marriage, etc. So, for the moment bracketing my usual concern for procreation, I wonder– does the TEC report fit any good theory of doctrinal revision?

  12. Ivan, Bowman, Kim, Robert, et al., I have now finally had a chance to catch-up. There is little that I can add, but there is much that I have learned. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion. Here are just a few brief comments:

    Ivan: I’m also worried about people reducing marriage and sex to just procreation, which would lead to an under emphasis on the emotional and spiritual (and ultimately sanctifying) bond within marriage. After all, Paul himself compares marriage to how Christ sanctifies the church.

    I agree, that would be a serious misunderstanding of the “procreative telos” as put forward by Rome. My understanding of this has been derived, almost entirely, from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, now published as:

    Man and Woman He Created Them

    Interestingly, my review from nine years ago is the top review! It has been too long since I have read it (along with Love and Responsibility), but my impression was that JP2 emphasized all of the dimensions of marital union: emotional, spiritual, and life-giving. Indeed, the NFP “exception” is normally argued in terms of the emotional and spiritual benefits for the couple. The article from Jennifer Fulwiler (linked above) is a good example.

    By the way, it would be worth exploring the connection between, as Bowman claims, Humanae Vitae and neo-Thomism (e.g., Garrigou-Lagrange). I don’t dispute that, but it is also noteworthy that Karol Wojtyła (JP2) was influenced by Husserl and phenomenology/personalism, less so by the manual tradition of neo-Thomism. Therefore, subjectivity was very much at the center of Wojtyła’s concerns. This is especially evident in Love and Responsibility. The same can be said for Balthasar and Ratzinger, who were also staunch defenders of Humanae Vitae.

    Bowman: Only a church that has realized that sense of living in the ‘not yet’ in practice can give the unmarried a robust place, and a fortiori only such a church in it is able to make pastoral sense of homosexuality. For the most part, the others should maintain a discreet silence until they have removed the log that is in their eyes.

    Amen! This is something that our church is discerning, but I am afraid that there is too little understanding among the congregants. We do a great job at attracting young couples with little kids, but we are horrible at attracting/retaining singles. And the elders of the church do not even know where to begin. There is a distinct advantage to Rome, insofar as there is at least a tradition (and theological-devotional literature) that supports celibacy. For Protestants, with few exceptions, celibacy past the age of 30 is a defect.

    Robert: Regarding the moral status of birth control: If neither artificial birth control, nor natural family planning, are 100% effective in preventing contraception (and neither is), but the use of either is intended to reduce the likelihood of conception, then why is one inherently morally unacceptable and the other not according to Roman Catholic teaching?

    I have been generally happy to oppose the “contraceptive mentality,” as recent evangelical leaders (e.g., Russel Moore) have done, without specifying whether a couple need oppose artificial contraception. Thus, there is still a procreative openness, generally. Nonetheless, I am very disposed toward the RC position, as expressed (once again) by Jennifer Fulwiler: “When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.” Without an understanding (and reverence toward) created orders, this will make no sense. This is why I am cautious about strictly natural law arguments (e.g., Robert George’s), even as they offers crucial insights.

  13. ” the connection between, as Bowman claims, Humanae Vitae and neo-Thomism (e.g., Garrigou-Lagrange)”

    To be clear, Kevin, I mentioned G-L as the best known neo-Thomist critic, and HdL as the best known proponent, of the theologie nouvelle on which the Second Vatican Council’s periti (eg Yves Congar, Karl Rahner) relied, not as persons known to have been lobbying the pope on the subject of birth control.

    Apart from neo-Thomist manualism, it is hard to see why Paul VI regarded every single use of artificial birth control as intrinsically evil. Yes, KW and JR later defended Humanae Vitae on other grounds, and as you have said before, those grounds do offer a richer ethos for an ethic of procreation. We are entitled to our doubts about whether those grounds would have supported all details of the position taken by Paul VI.

    • The reason is quite simple although the theology is rich and nuanced: contraception creates a barrier to the “two shall become one flesh” business. Also, contraception can easily lead to objectification of the other person. I remember hearing a preacher talk about sexuality. He said all the right things about waiting for marriage, etc but when asked by a congregant whether it was OK for a man to carry a naked picture of his wife with him while away on business trips, the preacher said it was fine as long as no one else saw it. He may have been the exception to the rule, but it seems to me that there is a taboo surrounding sex outside of marriage, pornography, homosexual activity but the underlying problem is not addressed so that in marriage, anything goes. The question of procreation non-withstanding, there are I believe feminist reasons for opposing contraception. Contraception has led to people taking more risks and more widespread date rape. Does marriage “fix” any of that? I doubt it. If the reproductive organs are separated form the person which is what contraception essentially does, it should come as no surprise that there are so many family problems. It doesn’t do to say don’t do this, don’t do that because God said so. Why did God say so? Matthew 10 would be a great place to start. Divorce is wrong because it commodifies the spouse. Contraceptive sex can easily lead to the same thing. There was, as I said above, a time when all churches agreed on this issue. It might be worthwhile to revisit the original reasons for its prohibition.

    • Bowman,

      I think we agree, though that was not clear (“as Bowman claims” should have been “as Bowman writes”). I wasn’t disputing the connection between neo-Thomism and Paul VI, which makes perfect sense in regard to Paul VI’s tutelage in the neo-Thomism of his generation. I just wanted to acknowledge that HV has other defenders with an other framework, albeit overlapping with neo-Thomism in significant ways. Anyway, I should do some research on Paul VI’s specific influences at the time. That would be interesting.


      The point about commodification is indeed very important. That reminds me of how JP2 was skewered for saying that a man should not lust after his wife. The general assumption was that “lust” and “sexual attraction” are one and the same, so they could only conclude that JP2 hated/feared sex — which plays into the whole canard that the Roman church hates/fears sex. They could not fathom how JP2 was talking about objectifying one’s spouse in a utilitarian fashion.

      • “Anyway, I should do some research on Paul VI’s specific influences at the time. That would be interesting.”

        An evenhanded Reformed take on this could be quite useful. When I worked through the available documents and histories on this several years ago, they were generally by rather polarized Catholics. (The treatment of Cardinal Ottaviano is a sort of litmus test that shows you which side they’re on.) Giovanni Montini’s doctorate was in canon law, which reflects his renowned organizational skills, but did not prepare him to write as Paul VI with the theological flair of JP2 and B16.

        It often seems– Fariba?– as if, despite being a diplomat born to the ‘nobiltà nera’ who negotiated the Catholic Church’s concordats with four states, Eugenio Pacelli as P12 is the father of the revolution with his liturgical and canonical reforms, his 41 encyclicals, and his elimination of the Italian majority in the College of Cardinals. Historian Angelo Roncalli as J23 reframed such change as a positive response to the modern world (eg Pacem in Terris), and summoned a council to consolidate P12’s reforms. Giovanni Montini as P6 implemented them with efficiency, recalled some themes of P12, further reduced the influence of the ‘nobiltà nera,’ ended papal coronations, and saw the polarization of Catholics that persists to this day. After the September papacy, Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger began their partnership to strengthen the theological center while continuing the internationalization of the Holy See as JP2 and B16. Today, the chastened Jesuit humanist Jorge Bergoglio as F has left still more Papal States tradition behind, challenged the culture of the curia, and begun planning a global reorganization of the Roman Catholic Church.

      • I like your assessment of the state of the Catholic Church today Bowman. Unlike the traditionalists, I think this is fantastic news. I’m conservative on moral issues but I’d probably considered a modernist by the traditionalists. The progressives wouldn’t mistaken me for one of them though. The loss of the papal lands and the aristocratic clergy was one of the greatest things that happened to the Church. It may be that Pope Francis has a different concept of the papacy in mind than his predecessors. I’m just as fascinated with his leadership as the rest of the world. I believe that every 500 years God does something really interesting. Think about it. Major changes/reforms/renewals have occurred every 500 years or so.

      • The great material change in the papacy is that its power base today is, not a feudal Italian state, but a global constituency who await encyclicals as music fans await a new release. Arguably, this change follows the same arc.

        Eugenio Pacelli was born into a family that kept its front doors locked to protest that, without the papal states, the pope was ‘the prisoner of the Vatican.’ He was ordained a priest before the invention of radio, and was P12 in the infancy of television. He used it little, but pioneered the papal interest in the lives of the mass of ordinary Catholics on which his successors have built. The encyclical is, in form, addressed to other Catholic bishops, but J23 used it as an evangelistic tool, addressing Pacem in Terris to the usual suspects “and “to all men of good will,” and encouraging broad publication for readers who were unlikely to read theology. Although P6 continued to write for the broader public, Humanae Vitae killed the thrill of the genre for a time. But he was succeeded by a tall man with an actor’s delivery and a love of travel and spectacle who attracted cameras and crowds at huge rallies around the world. In the course of his long pontificate, JP2’s media savvy stimulated immense popularity and that in turn gave him immense power independent of the curia and the episcopate. As a professorial lecturer, B16 did not attract the same enthusiasm, but remained a media star nonetheless. Completing the revolution, Jorge Bergoglio was ordained in the television age, is Francis in the age of Twitter, and is the first pontiff to live outside the papal apartments in more than four centuries.

        Nothing about a pope’s power as a media star is limited to the Roman Catholic Church. The pope who can speak over the heads of cardinals and bishops to a mass audience can just as easily address Buddhists– or Baptists– as Catholics. It intrigues me to see a conservative evangelical like Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, refer to Francis’s encyclicals in his public statements as if everyone who is anyone at least pretends to have read them. Welby, who is brilliant with the media himself, knows exactly what he is doing. The 500 year change that you are waiting for, Fariba, might just be a world in which St Peter’s successor is, like the present Dalai Lama, a sort of chaplain to the global media village.

      • I am not sure what you’re getting at but I’ll take a gander. Correct me if my response is way out in left field.

        That the popes recognize the usefulness of the media is just common sense. There are new challenges that come with increased media presence but I don’t think the pope will become like the Dalai Lama because they are not similar leaders. The pope will always represent the Catholic Church with all its dogma, doctrine, council decisions, etc. There is a structure in Catholicism that Buddhism lacks. The pope and the media will always have a complicated relationship because while the pope may say things that all people can agree with, he will also say things that make people feel uncomfortable and ultimately he represents a very structured institution that doesn’t go along with every new idea on the market. Yes, the modern media is a force to be reckoned with but was the printing press any different? The pope will still have an important role to play for practicing Catholics but I suspect that local bishops conferences will have more of an influence. For the rest of the world, the pope may have any number of images but no one is fooled by what he stands for.

      • The 500 year change that you are waiting for, Fariba, might just be a world in which St Peter’s successor is, like the present Dalai Lama, a sort of chaplain to the global media village.

        Hmm, maybe, but the Francis papacy is still too contrarian, in ways that should make our elites considerably dissatisfied. The Dalai Lama, at least as the media delivers him to us, has solely become a voice against “power” in its economic and political dimensions and little else.

        This is indeed what the media is attempting with Francis, not entirely without Francis’ complicity. But, as you know, this is hardly an accurate assessment of Francis. I assume that Fariba is hoping and expecting a far more substantial revolution, more than the papacy as a puppet for the Western liberal conscience. I suspect that Fariba is right.

      • If we step back from the trees, we see the forest– lineage confers a cumulative authority in human communities, and unique lineages confer universal authority in a global village. This is a proposition, not about what human beings ought to do or believe, but about how we organize.

        The Roman pope will always personify contemporary Christianity to most of the planet, Christian and non-Christian, whether people like what he says (“Who am I to judge?”) and chatter happily about it, or dislike what he says (B16 at Regensberg) and kill Christians in the Middle East. In an argument about Christianity in a bar, whoever can show the pope is on his side wins. Similarly, because Tibet, as a Buddhist state, had just one head and a traditional way of recognizing him, the Dalai Lama is the inevitable global representative of Buddhism. In an argument about Buddhism in a bar, whoever can show the Dalai Lama is on his side wins. Humanly speaking– maybe neuroepigenetically speaking– humans require lineage to recognize authority.

        Because evangelicalism has– is perhaps defined by– an ‘internalist’ epistemology, it has nothing for a lineage to do. Billy Graham at his peak of popularity showed that something like this universal recognition was possible, but the absence of a role of preeminent exegete, pastor, or evangelist and of an institution for recognizing him, means that evangelicals have no lineage and produce no similarly unique figures. Even when one emerges, as John Stott did, few outside of evangelicalism recognize him for what he is.

        Francis seems to be encouraging Canterbury and Constantinople to achieve some lesser but similar standing.* In Islam several voices are striving for something similar– the head of Al Azhar, the heads of some Sufi lineages, Iran’s supreme ayatollah, the ISIS caliph, and maybe the Aga Khan. But the popes of Rome got there first. The global village is something new, and the unique position of the pope in it is a new reality with consequences yet to be fully explored.


        * Jorge Bergoglio was enthroned in Rome two days before Justin Welby was enthroned in Canterbury. When they met a couple of weeks later, the pope teased the archbishop–

        “I am senior to you.”

        “Yes, I know that.”

        “By two days!”

        And Francis seems to have similarly warm relations with Bartholomew, who is convening an ecumenical council in Constantinople next year.

      • “Similarly, because Tibet, as a Buddhist state, had just one head and a traditional way of recognizing him, the Dalai Lama is the inevitable global representative of Buddhism. In an argument about Buddhism in a bar, whoever can show the Dalai Lama is on his side wins.”

        Possibly, Bowman. But consider this:

        “From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own two feet.” — Message sent by one Tibetan Buddhist abbot to another (Trungpa Rimpoche) as they both fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion in 1950 (as related by Thomas Merton’s in his Asian Journal).

    • Thanks. I just read that a couple hours ago. I actually forgot that our “flag code” (all of which I learned in middle school!) prohibits that the US flag should fly underneath another flag, not that I really care about our flag code.

  14. Man, I missed most of this convo because (fittingly) I was on honeymoon, but I’ve tracked it and Fariba, Bowman, Kevin, Joel et al. made so many good comments and reflections on this present state.

    Couple additional thoughts:

    Despite many who compared the US to Rome (including the Founders), the US is much more akin to the ancient Athenian Empire (especially with how the American Empire actually conducts its benign, economic/military-aid based control). Similarly to Athens, the democratic/demagoguic insanity left a burn mark through history. I wonder if the US will implode on account of all the balances and tensions that are being yanked this and that way. Of course the US has a much greater resource pool and propaganda machine than Athens ever could, but I wonder.

    Why this reflection is relevant is because this mass-appeal full on adoption of redefining marriage is only as stable as people want it to be. Just like the end of segregation, it was not motivated by any conviction besides a bottom-line. It’s bad for business to oppose, and that’s why I can agree with Alastair Roberts’ claim that much of this is interwove in the theology of the Market, the god of Western capitalism.

    Fittingly Mad Men concluded with the same message. It’s not capitalism that’s bad, that’s just the filthy whorish version of a modern ideology that enslaves us in quantifiable measures. Perhaps ironically, the alteration in marriage coincides with a generally philistine attitude, and the preference for the instant, the flashy, the explosive etc.

    In terms of ecclesiology, the Church is caught at a cross-roads, capitulate or segregate. Well, not quite. Those are the options of the flesh. But according to the Spirit, we may be able to the hold the tension of being present, but outside. Maybe if the Church stopped playing power-games, but then maybe this whole debacle is God’s judgment and a destruction of the false church. Those who move on with the flow will become distinctly less Christian, and perhaps give up the Name altogether (if only Satan were that kind). Those who flee, segregate and point the finger will be, as synagogues of Satan, leveled by God’s US of Assyrian whip.

    The question is how do we live? If we take the 2nd and 3rd century church as a teacher, maybe we can learn. Maybe we can have no politics regarding the city of man, and do a politics of heaven. We go around doing the equivalent of healing plague victims, adopting abandoned children, avoiding idolatry yet rejoicing and being amidst our cities and towns, all the while Caesar, equivalently, builds statues of his sodomite lover (Hadrian), makes himself a woman (Elgabalus), or creates a monotheistic civil religion that attempts to unite the State (Aurelian).

    May God have mercy when the American age ends, and the imperium passes to a new confederacy or empire, that the American people will not be smashed too hard.


    PS. I’m also irritated with a lot of vengeful “God will not be mocked” talk. As someone said, if God has not brought vengeance down on the US for enslavement of Africans, utter destruction and rape of the Native tribes, creating horrible systems of wage slavery in both factories and mines, systemic (North & South) racism and cultural bigotry, among so many other crimes, then why are we so sure that this is the moment of doom? In fact, I think because of National lust, maybe this supreme court decision, and the new thrust of things, is God’s Judgment. This insanity is what we deserve.

    • Thanks, Cal, for all of this. Earlier, I commented about our need for “soul searching,” identifying where we as Christians in America have been encouraging the same ethos that birthed our present calamities. And surely our blindness about consumerism is an excellent example and should drive us toward deeper questions about our (in)securities and lack of faith.

      Congratulations on the wedding!

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