SERMON—4 OCTOBER 2015
Glory to God, Source of all being, Eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I will admit that, when I looked at them, the readings for today made me slightly uneasy. That, of course, may not come as a total surprise to some of you. Do I really want to talk about marriage, I asked myself, or about the supposed complementarity of male and female? For those of you who know me, I tend to have a rather critical view of such topics. Not that they are necessarily bad or inappropriate. It’s just that we make so many unfounded assumptions when we talk about them. One of those unsettling and almost universal assumptions is that we live in a binary world, that, somehow, life is all about pairs and pairing, that what should go together always does, and that any other combination is somehow suspect or unnatural. It’s rather fashionable, in the sorts of circles I tend to hang around in, to talk about transcending binaries. So let’s do that. Let’s see if we can think theologically about binaries. Let’s ask the hard question. Could there be any spiritual pitfalls to living in an exclusively binary world?
The problem with binaries is that they make us feel so comfortable: in fact, much too comfortable. They make things way too easy for us. We might say something like this: “This has always gone with that, so they necessarily belong together. This is the way God made them. Any other pairing is therefore not quite perfect. This other kind of pairing is problematic. It goes against the given order, against the way things should be.” We know, of course, what that kind of fixed thinking can lead to, especially when it is given the imprimatur of divine sanction: exclusion, humiliation, blame, even persecution. We know the legacy of this throughout human history. Whether it has to do with race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, ability or even religious belief itself, binary thinking always sees one of the two parts in a subservient or compliant role. Binaries are almost never about perfect parity, but rather about inherent dis-parity. And of all the binaries, the gender one is by far the toughest to crack. Our entire world is built around it.
The other problem with binary thinking is that it forecloses change. Binary thinking is premised on things being stationary, static, certain and immovable. In binary thinking, there isn’t much room for the proverbial grey zone. Things either are this, or they are that. And once they are what we think or say they are, they are that thing forever. In a binary-defined world—or even in a binary-defined church—there are only ever paired possibilities, never ones that are unpaired, or single, or even something one day and something else the next, or perhaps everything all at once. So much as admitting the vague possibility of change, however minor, poses a direct and disquieting affront to the binary worldview.
Theological thinking is, in actual fact, all about an intimate discovery of, and a close conversation with, God. And God is not binary; God is Trinity. Though one, God is also an odd number, and I mean that in every sense of the word: “odd” as in unpaired and far more than the strict sum of its disparate parts. God is never static. God is movement itself. God is not about opposite poles coming together—which means that when we limit ourselves to binary thinking, we limit God, and we limit our appreciation of God’s amazing versatility, but also of God’s creation. I wonder if we could even go so far as to say that binary thinking is “blasphemous,” in the sense that it denies God’s autonomy. It boxes God in. It makes a motionless pair out of a dynamic threesome.
I think the real spiritual danger behind any excessive form of binary thinking is idolatry. This may seem like a harsh word to use, but it makes good sense when we think about it with care. The classic definition of idolatry comes from the idea of “worshipping false gods.” But idolatry also has a broader usage, having to do, as the Webster dictionary states it, with “an immoderate attachment or devotion to something.” That’s a rather insightful idea for us to keep in mind when we may be tempted by the facile appeal of binary thinking, or by the comfortable allure of seeing things in pairs, and nothing but. Idolatry closes our minds: it closes our mind to a triune God, to a complex world, to the never-ending need for difference, to an infinite and compelling versatility, to our deepest selves being able to mix and mesh with life in all its wide-ranging beauty and uncertainty, and ultimately, it closes our minds to conversion. Idolatry, in other words, always impoverishes us. It closes us off.
This morning’s readings from Genesis and from the Gospel of Mark are most definitely about gendered pairings and binaries, but even more about where gendered pairings come from, and what they can lead to. I must admit that there is something faintly disturbing about woman having been created after animals, and from a part of the body of man. There’s a hierarchy implied here, and it leaves the male as the paradigmatic part of the equation. I know that this passage could also be read in other ways: as a commentary on the inherent wholeness and integrity of creation, on the importance of all parts being valued equally, on ‘companionship’ as the modus vivendi of God’s created order, and on the need for us to apply this model in all our relationships. True, but we need to ask ourselves if that is how it’s been most often read down through history. We need to ask ourselves what sort of gendered binary is being reaffirmed and divinely sanctioned in this story, and to what use it has most often been put. And we do know the answer to that.
Mark’s text offers a more critical view of gendered binaries. Here, Jesus directly confronts a traditional patriarchal view of women as property: the idea of ‘putting away’ your wife—renvoyer, we might say in French—so as to allow a man to marry another. This text is not about divorce as we understand it in our contemporary culture, but rather about dismissing a wife without divorce, an even more precarious situation for women. Here, I would suggest that we get a glimpse of what we might call a ‘binary-defying,’ perhaps even a feminist, Jesus, a Jesus who understands full well that gendered binaries are inherently unequal, and who deliberately sets out to undermine them. Scholars do not see Jesus as pronouncing here a timeless teaching on heterosexual marriage, but rather as responding with unique compassion to a particular pastoral need.
As you may know, the report of the Commission on the Marriage Canon of the Anglican Church of Canada recently issued its final report. Entitled “This Holy Estate,” it recommends that our church allow same-sex marriage. It offers some deep and insightful theological perspectives on Christian marriage, and it is well worth reading with care. I should like to quote the following excerpts: “To speak of the predominance of heterosexual orientation (and its necessary role in reproduction) is simply to state a biological fact. What value and significance is attached to that fact is a theological question. (…) Gender diversity was created by God, who cannot be defined in terms of either gender or by the genders in relation to each other through marriage. Nor does gender or marital status describe our ultimate identity and destiny as human beings.”
Whatever your position may be on the question of same-sex marriage, this passage offers a dynamic and theologically open view of the gendered binary and by extension, I would argue, of all binaries. It refuses to equate God’s essence or God’s activity with a fixed binary world, or, in this case, to equate our biological reality with human identity or destiny, or even with God’s ultimate purpose. To do so is to fall into presumptuousness, to take ourselves for God. And that has always been our downfall. The good news of these texts lies in what they hint at, but also in what they subvert. Paradoxically enough, they are asking us to think of pairing and difference in new and unfamiliar ways, not as immutable poles that are fixed, permanent, rigid or static—in a word, not as binaries—but as signposts on our way to a greater and more compelling completeness in a flexible, ever-dynamic God. A God not limited to, or constrained by, opposing poles, but one who invites us to transcend them. Just as the man Jesus did, at once both human and divine.