The New Christians


It just turns out that he won’t debate it with me.

Last fall, Rod and I agreed, at the behest of our then-editor, Patton Dodd, to hold a friendly “blogalogue” on same sex marriage.  It was in the aftermath of California’s Prop 8 passage.  I went to Dallas and met Rod, and even shot this video on his front porch. 

We started earnestly but quickly petered out.  I wrote, Rod didn’t respond.

When we finally reconnected, Rod said that he’d decided to bow out. The antagonistic comments on his blog were too much, he confessed, and he just couldn’t keep the pace with deleting all of those that didn’t meet his standard for civility.
Well, Rod has jumped back into the fray.  But not with me.  With Andrew Sullivan.

Now, listen, I don’t begrudge Rod his right to blogalogue with Andrew instead of me.  All of us in the blogosphere know that an inbound link from Sullivan is, “Gold, Jerry, gold!

So I’ll just take this opportunity to continue the blogalogue in my little (tiny) corner of the Interwebs by reflecting on their posts.

It all started when Damon Linker wrote that Rod, and other conservatives, have a gay fixation.  Like me, Damon takes Rod at his word that his animus toward gay marriage has nothing to do with the “yuck factor” — in fact, some of Rod’s best friends are gay.  So Damon wonders why Rod is so adamant that regularizing gay marriage in our culture would tarnish, and even destroy, his own heterosexual marriage.

Rod responded that he’s actually not that hung up on gay issues, or on sex at all, but that, as a Christian, (homo)sexuality is a hinge issue:

Sex, especially homosexuality, is a big deal because how one comes downon those related questions has a lot to do with how you view theauthority of Scripture and Tradition. There’s a reason why the churchestoday are breaking apart over homosexuality, and it has to do with theplain fact that there can be no compromise on this issue, as it goes tothe heart of how believers understand ourselves, our relationship toGod, and to the nature of truth.

Rod went on to argue that he’s being chastised primarily because he’s an outside-the-Beltway conservative Christian.

Damon replied that to cowtow to scripture and tradition is ludicrous, since scripture and tradition are firmly contrary to other issues that Rod accepts. 

That’s when Andrew Sullivan chimed in, with one of his brilliant mega-posts.  Sullivan thoroughly deconstructs Rod’s argument that the legalization of gay marriage would reify the libertinism of the 1960s sexual revolution. On the contrary, says Sullivan, what gays want is all of the societal incentives that monogamous heterosexuals enjoy.  That’s why Sullivan want same sex marriage, while Dreher wants only civil unions. (Interesting that some of the conservative readers of my blog find even civil unions odious.)

The thing that really gets under Sullivan’s skin is that Rod says that legalization of SSM is a bold step toward nihilism. In fact, Sullivan says it’s just the opposite. Since that, Rod has responded again, and Sullivan has promised another post addressed to Rod — can you see why I’m feeling left out? 🙂

Okay, after that extended recap. Here are my initial thoughts.

Like many conservatives, Rod’s fall-back position is, essentially, “This is what the church has always held.”  He defers to tradition, to the conventional reading of scripture, etc.  The problem that conservatives have when they do this is that they’re inevitably selective in their cherrypicking of tradition. The immediate response has to do with slavery, head coverings, etc.  This has been my response, as well, in many cases.  It’s a big hermeneutical conundrum: which passages are eternally normative, and which are culturally bound?  Make no mistake, 150 years ago, pro-slavery churches argued that slavery was acceptable in 19th century American because is was normative in the Old and New Testaments.  And there are a lot more passages regarding slavery than homosexuality in the Bible.

Secondly, I think that Rod’s conversion to Orthodoxy plays a bigger role than his interlocuters realize. Rod converted to Catholicism in his 20s, after a hedonistic youth.  In other words, it was a pretty radical conversion.  Then, after reporting on the pedophilia scandals of the Catholic church, and almost losing his faith over it, he converted to Orthodoxy.

So what? Well, I had a talk with Frederica Mathewes-Green a couple years ago that shed light on this for me.  She, too, converted to Orthodoxy after years as a pretty radical feminist.  We talked about my appropriation of the Orthodox “Jesus Prayer” in my writings and my personal prayer life.  And, while she appreciated my admiration of this Orthodox practice, she told me that it could not be truly understood outside of Orthodoxy.  One had to embrace Orthodoxy in toto, she told me, to really appreciate the Jesus Prayer.  To emphasize her point, she said this meant the whole Orthodox enchilada, including a 3rd century hermeneutic and cosmology!

“You mean demons and a flat Earth?” I asked.  “Not a flat Earth,” she said.

I don’t want to over-psychologize Rod or Frederica, but I have known a number of people who’ve converted to Orthodoxy, and it does seem to attract a certain type of person who, at some deep level, is looking for an enclosed system of belief — the most-bounded of bounded sets.  And systems like these have an answer for virtually every exigency.  Further, they often tend to revel in taking positions that cut against the grain of contemporary society and are even doomed to failure (as Rod has said his opposition of SSM is).

Honestly, I don’t begrudge Rod, Frederica, and other conservatives of other flavors.  Their desire for a system of belief that is bounded by practices and language that has been forged through the centuries is a natural progression of the Aristotle-Aquinas-MacIntyre-Yoder-Hauerwas stream. 

But for my part, this is neither an intellectually nor spiritually compelling move, because it mitigates against the ongoing work and revelation of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, methinks, instead of maintaining an openness to the Spirit, it tends to enshrine the opinions of men — particularly dead, white ones.

The Orthodox don’t call their current seminary professors “theologians.”  The theologians of the Orthodox church are a bounded set, and they lived in the patristic period. 

That tells you something, doesn’t it?

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