The recent open letter to Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School is a model for responding graciously yet firmly to wrong-headed attempts to address Christianity and the LGBTQ issue. After the school announced in an email that its alumnae magazine would in future carry notices of same-sex unions, a group of alums gently skewered the false alternative of love or Christian teaching, thereby demolishing the school’s argument for this policy change.
False alternatives are standard fare in contemporary Christian approaches to political issues, where “love”—a code word for whatever the political piety du jour may be—is set in opposition to “dogma” or “doctrine”—code words for whatever piece of traditional Christian teaching is deemed to be inconsistent with said political piety. Therefore, the Georgetown Visitation incident is emblematic of a larger problem: The school’s policy change does not represent a more Christian approach, but actually expresses the secular mindset in a Christian idiom.
We can look at the pathologies of the contemporary secular mind through a number of lenses. To approach the matter from Philip Rieff's perspective, we might characterize modern men and women as psychological selves for whom the good and the true is identical with whatever happens to make them psychologically happy at any particular moment. Or we could use Charles Taylor’s notion of expressive individualism, that the modern self is the person who expresses outwardly that which they feel inwardly. In this view, social ethics are shaped by recognizing as legitimate the outward performance of inward convictions. Or we could adopt Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of emotivism, and see modern ethics as manifestations of emotional preferences. Bringing all three to bear upon the sexual revolution, it becomes clear that the LGBTQ moment is not merely a revolution in what sex means; it is a revolution in what it means to be human. And when we look at the Georgetown Visitation incident, it becomes clear that the secular mind as delineated by Rieff, Taylor, and MacIntyre is alive and well among those who profess to be Christians.
For many, gay marriage is a dead issue, as it has not brought in its wake the chaos some predicted. And it has slowly but surely become normalized. How it will affect freedom of speech and religion has yet to become clear, but it is no longer the pressing issue of the day. And therein lies the danger: We need to remember that for a Christian to recognize gay marriage as Christian in the manner of Georgetown Visitation is not simply to recognize a shift or expansion in the definition of marriage. It is far more significant for the Faith in at least three deeper ways.
First, it is to abandon Christian teaching about the self—as made in the image of God, and as resting upon an order which transcends individuals and their contexts—in favor of one constituted by whatever the moral structure of society happens to be at any given moment in time. Gay marriage emerged from the sexual revolution; and the sexual revolution is the latest iteration of a revolution in the self, which has been taking place for hundreds of years and which stands opposed to the essentialism regarding human beings at the heart of orthodox Christianity. The moral structure of contemporary society stresses the foundational importance of individual psychological conviction with a marked preference for prioritizing polymorphous sexual desire as definitive of a sense of self. In legitimating gay marriage, a symptom of this underlying structure, Christians therefore effectively affirm the legitimacy of this deeper revolution of the self.
Second, it misses the point of dogmatic religion. A religion of dogmas is by definition one that regards the pastoral question of how to care for people as a function of the prior question of what is and is not true. Certainly the church should welcome, love, and care for LGBTQ people. But she must do so on the basis of what she believes about God, human nature, sexuality, and marriage. In affirming gay marriage, Christians run the risk of turning theology (that which is true) into psychology (that which is therapeutic).
This is simply a rerun of the old liberal Protestant move now in vogue among Roman Catholics. But theology is not psychology, and that which is true is not determined by that which is therapeutic. The church’s teaching provides the prior framework for understanding reality by which particular social or personal pathologies can then be diagnosed and addressed.
Third, as doctrine becomes psychology, so ethics become sentiments—sentiments not shaped by Christian teaching, but by the emotional tastes of the day. That is clear in Georgetown Visitation's email announcement, in the contrast it draws between “love” and church teaching. Love here seems to mean “affirming these people in the actions they have chosen to take.” That makes the church as inclusive as the world, which begs the obvious questions about why she should exist at all. And it represents worldliness in the shape of the ethics of therapy, authenticity, or emotional preference, depending on whether one wishes to use the idiom of Rieff, Taylor, or MacIntyre.
For Christians, however, “love” is not a warm, fuzzy feeling; it is not the set of actions which the moral structure of society happens to approve or to allow as legitimate; it is not facilitating a sense of personal contentment with a particular person, object, or state of affairs. Rather, it is formed, shaped, and invested with objective meaning by biblical teaching concerning the being and action of God, specifically in and through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Kudos to the alumnae for clearly, yet graciously, calling out their alma mater on this point, for gay marriage is not a matter of trivia when it comes to the Christian faith. It strikes at the heart of Christian discourse. Yes, we must be gracious as we address the matter, as these alumnae have been, but we must not lose sight of what is at stake. Gay marriage does not stand in isolation from broader theological and philosophical concerns. We may have lost the argument in wider society, but we cannot afford to concede this point within the church without, in effect, conceding many other essentials of the Faith.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Calderwood School of Arts and Humanities at Grove City College, Pa., and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.