Bigotry, Ignorance, and a Small Point on the Matter of Everything
“It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. That was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object. But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and [impractical] than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period. General theories are everywhere condemned; the doctrine of the Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fall of Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day. Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itself is too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations. Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram: “The golden rule is that there is no golden rule.” We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost. Everything matters—except everything.”1
It’s been a wild month in the wide world of American politics, particularly in the civil liberties arena. When Indiana passed its own version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, national conflict flared and battle lines were drawn between supporters of same-sex marriage and advocates of religious liberty, even if those two positions aren’t necessarily at loggerheads in the Indiana legislation. I believe everything that needs to be said from the traditional Christian perspective on the matter has been said, and it has been said by writers far wiser and far more articulate than I. On that subject, I refer the reader to Ross Douthat’s pair of recent pieces (one and two) and a post by Matthew Lee Anderson over at Mere Orthodoxy. Still, there remains for me a minor point, a niggling thing that I cannot leave unaddressed while the debate is still fresh in our minds. It is the accusation that if I stand by my convictions, I am either a villain or a clod.
This accusation comes from Frank Bruni’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana, in which he writes that the traditional Christian view “elevates unthinking obeisance above intelligent observance” and what we should really debate is “freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.” Bruni’s thrust is that one can only stand by a traditional construction of marriage by being either a hateful person or simply ignorant of, well, everything. Now, I am perfectly willing to admit that I am equal parts villain and clod. I am certainly no lesser these things than any other man or woman. It seems to me that such an admission is one of the minimum requirements for being a Christian. The universality of the fallen state of mankind is elemental to our beliefs, even credal. “None is righteous, no, not one,”2 the apostle to the Gentiles reminds us. So, I am not immediately concerned that Bruni implies flaws in my character that I already confess routinely before God. However, it does seem strange to me to make such tacit ad hominem attacks over what is ultimately legal arcana when the real question is not a quibble of modern law, but a debate over the construction of reality itself.
Bruni operates on the curious assumptions that Scripture is old and therefore outdated, as if knowledge is a carton of milk that turns sour after lingering in the fridge for so long. He even cherry-picks some progressive Christians to bolster the argument. This is all well and good if you’re a relativist and believe that right and wrong are all a matter of taste, a fashion that goes in and out of style. In this view, there are no universal ethics that transcend time and space; right conduct is matter of going with the grain in whatever cultural context you find yourself. However, this is not what Christians commonly believe. We don’t cling to Scripture because we’re uncreative or recalcitrant or, alas, bigoted. We cling to it because we have an altogether different view of morality and an altogether different view of the universe.
We operate on our own assumptions. Like many other thinkers, we believe that the universe exists and that it had a definite beginning. Unlike some thinkers, we don’t believe the universe caused itself; rather, we believe it was created ex nihilo by a supremely powerful being. Some people believe the finite universe, with its finite energy, is uncreated. We, instead, believe the Creator, generally called God, is the Uncreated One. We believe he created the material realm we inhabit: the planets, the solar system, the galaxy, and whatever else—and we believe he created us. Not only did he create us, but he did so with the intention that we would live in a relationship with him. That relationship is marked by parameters on our part, these parameters give us the choice to either draw near to him or distance ourselves. Primordial man rejected the parameters, and in doing so, badly damaged both that relationship and his own nature, which was designed to live in harmony with its Designer. The Creator later gives a select nation new parameters to renew their relationship with him, as well as declare his presence to the rest of humanity. They fail to honor the relationship. The Creator takes the form of his creation as a radical step to repair that broken relationship. That is the work and ministry of Jesus Christ, through whom we are reconciled to God. Man’s failure to uphold past parameters is wiped clean, but we are also given new parameters. Those parameters, those ethics, are preserved in Scripture (and ecclesial authority and tradition, depending on your church tradition). These ethics transcend time and space. God sets the same standard for conduct in ancient Rome as he does in modern Indiana. These aren’t random rules to follow or face punishment; our Christian ethics are how we live out our restored relationship with God.
Our ethics are not arbitrary rules. They are the steps to a dance imagined before our creation, the notes to a song intended for us to sing from the very dawn of the universe. They are part of the performance we were designed to give. Any artist worth his salt understands that form is the essential element of a good work. God is an artist, and ethics is a part of our form. We exhibit beauty not only by what we are or by what we do, but also by what we aren’t, and what we don’t do. Like the demands of poetry, the demands of ethics make us a far more beautiful work, one that is pleasing to God.
Over the last half century or so, some factions have buckled under the pressure of advocates of liberalized sexuality, reconstructing their views on Scripture or casting doubt on the demands of Scripture altogether. They’ve fallen, as Frank Bruni has, for that oft-repeated, comical myth of modernity, that something new is something good. There are two problems with this. First, questions about sexual ethics aren’t merely questions about sex; they are questions about how the Maker of all creation—if there is one!—interacts with his creatures. Second, attitudes shift. In a century or two, same-sex marriages might be as backwards and uncouth as Republicans and Democrats alike considered them just a few years ago. Perhaps in a handful of years, SSM advocates will be labeled bigots for refusing to support polygamous marriages. Evaluating the worthiness of an idea by its location on a timeline is a horrible standard. Christianity, too, has had its cycles of acceptance, even in America. The merit of its claims are independent of its popularity.
Even if only a portion of Christians are able to fully articulate such reasoning, the fact remains that despite the widespread and heated controversy, our traditional sexual ethics (including marital ethics) are a small part of our worldview, small enough to almost be a footnote in the grand story of the universe. Still, they are the steps we believe the Maker of heaven and earth commands us to take in our journey with him. Frank Bruni, and others like him, would do well to remember that it is not the individual steps that must be discussed—but everything, instead.
1. Chesterton, G. K. Heretics, “Introductory Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy.” (John Lane Company, New York, 1905.) Electronic copy.
2. Romans 3:10.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at Flickr Creative Commons.