Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

There are moments when a person says something that should have been obvious but which has been left unsaid-and we wonder why the rest of us have failed to see or say it. That, at least in part, is my reaction to a thesis put forward by Jonathan Mills in a little book titled Love, Covenant & Meaning (published by Regent College Publishing, where Mills teaches). The subtitle of the book-”Why are Liberals and Conservatives Conspiring to Prevent ‘Homosexual’ Men from Marrying?”-may seem more intriguing. The book is straightforwardly written though not especially well written, is aimed principally at pastors, and deals almost exclusively with gay men rather than lesbians.

“The basic thing I want to say,” Mills writes, “is that the presence of ‘homosexual’ desires in a man does not make him incapable of marrying and raising a family.” That is why I write here of “gays marrying” and not of “gay marriage.” Mills’ claim is that both “liberal” and “conservative” Christians turn out to share an attitude that burdens and harms “homosexual” men. Beginning from the premise that marriage is an expression of our sexuality, both sides unwittingly cooperate in keeping men who experience sexual attraction for other men from marrying and raising a family. The one side does this by suggesting that such men have no capacity for marriage and that their sexuality must be “expressed” genitally with other men. The other side agrees that such men, as they are, have no capacity for marriage and claims that their sexuality must be altered-so that, as Mills likes to put it, “their adulterous sexual desires toward men [are transformed] into adulterous sexual desires toward women,” at which point they will be deemed to have the capacity for marriage!

Mills argues, in fact, that neither research nor common sense suggests “that ‘homosexual’ men lack what is necessary to choose to be good husbands and to raise their families well. Most men have the capacity for sexual relations both with men and with women.” Men are for Mills “the chaos gender”; their sexual desires (after the Fall) are anarchic, to say the least.

Take those men whom we call heterosexual. Out of their (hetero)sexual appetites we cannot, Mills argues, construct faithful, monogamous marriage. If they manage such marriage it is because they have restrained and transcended their appetites. For “heterosexualness in a man is much more likely to dissolve his marriage than to bind him to his wife.” Hence, “homosexual” and “heterosexual” men stand in pretty much the same position in relation to marriage. The appetites of neither draw them solely in that direction. Each needs what marriage and family paradigmatically provide: a “higher purposiveness” that can “elevate his life from aimless individualism.”

“Shouldn’t we,” Mills writes, “at least be asking whether the transcending of venereal desire that marriage requires of a mostly or entirely ‘heterosexual’ man who marries for the sake of love, friendship, and raising a family isn’t more or less the same as the transcendence required of a man whose venereal desire is ‘oriented’ mostly or entirely toward men but who restrains these drives, and who marries for the sake of love, friendship, and raising a family?”

This is a question worthy of our attention and reflection. It will not suffice in response to say that some men with strong “homosexual” desires would be unhappy in marriage, for so are many “heterosexual” men. Nor, as Mills notes, can the successful marriages of “homosexual” men be studied, because they will be defined as “heterosexual.”

There are, however, some complicated problems raised by Mills’ thesis, and, helpful and provocative as his argument is, we need to put some questions to it. Central to his argument is that we need to break free of our tendency to regard marriage as the “expression” and fulfillment of our sexual nature. Indeed, he contends that such an understanding of marriage is as foreign to the Bible as to other ancient cultures. In our culture it is largely an inheritance from the enormous influence of Rousseau, for whom the sexual drive was the only force that could bring human beings out of individualistic isolation into society.

Certainly Mills is right that in most societies marriage has been understood not chiefly as a community of romantic love but as an institution for the begetting and rearing of children. And I, at least, would grant that much of the fragility of marriage in our culture is due to the fact that we have lost that deep sense of its biological ground and necessity. When it becomes simply a project of two people, a project aimed primarily at their fulfillment and satisfaction, marriage loses much of its high seriousness and purpose. All that is true. But that does not mean that our creation as male and female-with marriage as the typical though not necessary expression of that creation-is unimportant to human identity. Mills is forced to argue that marriage is “an identity in covenant and intentional purposes (belonging, friendship, raising a family)” and not an “erotic identity.” It would on his view be better if all marriages developed from friendship rather than from erotic attraction.

I am not persuaded. That marriage is a covenant in which we vow faithfulness is surely right. That the vow is the most important thing about marriage is also right. But that does not mean it is right to “argue that in light of the Scriptures, the human being is not a sexual being but a choosing being.” Human beings are more than their rational wills; they are also passionate beings and are personally present not only in their rational choices but in their passions. Mills is, essentially, returning to Augustine’s view of what (unfallen) sexual experience would be like, when Adam and Eve would have engaged in sexual relations when their rational wills told them to set to work to make a child. I always take Augustine seriously enough not simply to dismiss what he says, but here, I think, he is wrong. Not wrong to connect our sexuality with what he understands the human person to be. But wrong to think that the person is present only in the rational will and not also in the passions. Indeed, it is because in their sexual embrace a man and woman must set aside their chosen projects, step out of themselves, and give themselves to each other, that the child is not their product but a gift.

This inability to see anything positive in the passions is related to Mills’ tendency to equate sexual appetite (or lust) with erotic love. He argues-wrongly, I think, though I do not know exactly how to test the hypothesis-that sexual relations with the same woman “soon becomes unexciting, though it may remain delightfully affectionate” even for “heterosexual” men. He does not, so far as I can tell, distinguish between appetite, which simply lusts after all attractive women, and eros, which desires a particular beloved. His only categories are appetite (which desires any appealing woman) and will (which makes covenant possible). But between the two, eros intervenes. It personalizes and humanizes our animal appetites in such a mysterious way that a man now desires not just any woman but one. That desire, of course, is not always faithful. The chaos to which Mills points remains. And hence, as appetite is personalized by eros, so eros in turn must be made steadfast by covenant. But, however important covenant is-and I have granted that it is central and primary-we should not emphasize it in a manner that denies the importance of erotic attraction.

What this means for Mills’ thesis I am not sure. It need not, however, undercut the fundamental sanity of Mills’ argument and its power as cultural critique. The central place given to the language of “orientation” in discussions of sexuality has probably been mistaken, and we ought to be grateful to Mills for reminding us of much that we should not have left unsaid.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.