Sunday, June 30, 2013

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Ken Burns, the historical documentary film maker, once said: "It is the great arrogance of the present to forget the intelligence of the past." Are we so “enlightened” and our ancestors so "bigoted" that we should move swiftly forward, certain of our own moral rectitude, in re-defining the most basic unit of our society? Both humility and prudence suggest caution, lest through the lens of "present-itis" we judge all other societies and cultures as deficient to our own.

Let us be open to new paradigms and new possibilities, but let us also exercise prudence and deliberation. The problem with navigating our vessels through the powerful currents of contemporary opinion is they are pulled downstream at the same rate as everyone else's vessels, making it impossible for us to detect the true distance and speed of our travels.  We need reference points alongside the river’s banks, outside of the current, to measure how far and how fast we’re moving.

This, it seems to me, is the value of the tradition of our Church. We are quick to marginalize the Church’s claims as “historically conditioned" and "anachronistic", but like the “pot calling the kettle black”, our instant, casual dismissiveness of the Church's claims reveals how beholden we are to the conditioning of the present day. Might there be room for self-doubt when Scripture is so unequivocal in defining homosexual acts as sinful? Should there be reason for pause that up until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality a mental disorder? Does the fact that more than 90% of countries worldwide do not sanctioned gay marriage suggest we move with less self-certainty?

Our reflexive reaction to “Tradition” shouldn’t be that of contempt. In his book Orthodoxy, G.K Chesterton reminds us that tradition represents the established wisdom of our ancestors against the vicissitudes of what’s faddish, a “democracy of the dead,” (which) “refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” We do well to respect such wisdom, even if science or other disciplines compel us to stretch beyond our previously held views.

My vote would be that homosexuality becomes a matter of settled science before normalizing it in our marriage laws. Is homosexuality a matter of physiology? Psychology? Nature? Nurture? As much as this issue has been politicized, it's very difficult to separate out the science and the posturing (for a remarkably balanced presentation on what the science says and doesn't say, see the article "Sam Sex Science." Can “mother-hood” or “father-hood” be replicated among homosexual partners for the psychic wellbeing of their adopted children? These questions matter, I think, but there is no scientific consensus as to their answers.

There is a broader, more philosophic question as well: If the legal definition of marriage is no longer rooted in the natural law complementarity of male and female but is instead re-contextualized as a subjective, private matter between couples, what right does government have to prohibit other marital “forms,” even if those forms happen to be (currently) repugnant to our public sensibilities?

Let us step ahead here delicately. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

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