Monday, 20 February 2012

Matrimony Rethought

"Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth: but how can one be warm alone?" Ecclesiastes 4:9-11

One of the defining features of Unitarianism since its inception and one of its principle strengths, is in its commitment to freedom of thought and freedom of religious inquiry. The challenge for the individual is to understand why he/she holds the beliefs they do, and to reassess them in the light of new evidence or new thought. As an honest pursuit of truth this can be done with confidence and without fear. However it isn't always easy in life to revise a belief or opinion that one has held, especially if one has held to that belief with any kind of passion or conviction.

Over recent weeks I myself have had to rethink a position which I had held with some degree of passion and clear conviction and that issue is same-sex marriage (and to a lesser extent Civil Partnerships).

Those readers who read my blog regularly may remember a while back me mentioning that I was opposed to same-sex marriage and that I believed I had rational reasons for being so. I never elaborated those reasons at the time but I do so now in order to show where my thinking has changed.

I used to believe, and actually I still do, that marriage, an institution of great worth and importance, is specifically designed for and expressly addressed to the nature of male - female relationships. Ultimately this is rooted in my belief that the purpose of marriage is to regulate intimate relations between men and women by limiting them (in a moral sense) to legally defined unions. In this way the not unusual outcome of male-female intimacy; children, are born into an environment which is clearly defined and regulated, with paternity protected and issues of stability and inheritance also clarified. The child born as a result of an act of love, sees in the love and commitment between its parents a reflection of their love and commitment to him/her. The bringing together in such a union of male and female creates a microcosm of society for the child to learn about and develop within. I also believe that in creating an arena which in some sense morally legitimises sexual activity, it strengthens positive and humane values that serve to dignify physical intimacy and elevate it above simple pleasure seeking, recreation or exploitation.

It is fair to ask why a relationship between two people should have anything to do with the state and the law at all. Surely it is a private matter, involving those who freely enter into a partnership. It appears to me that the state and the law have been involved for much of human history in this area because of the huge social importance that heterosexual relationships play in society, again primarily because these relationships bring forth the next generations, but also because they bring together the two halves of humanity. As such the representative of society; the State through the agency of the Law clearly defines and confers recognition on these unions, and creates for them certain privileges which reflect the esteem with which society holds them. The wonderful, late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, whose lectures on the Bible are an enthralling glimpse into the wisdom of traditional Jewish Biblical commentary, noting that many of the Bible's laws governing the public national life of the Israelite nation occur in the book of Deuteronomy, and wondering why laws of marriage appear there, concluded in a similar vein that the relationship between a man and a woman is of national and not only private importance.

I felt and I continue to feel that homosexual relationships, such as the one I have with my beloved partner, while being most precious to those involved in them, do not have the same social/national importance as heterosexual relationships. Their small numbers compared to the heterosexual majority, their non-reproductive nature (leaving adoption, surrogacy, children from previous relationships aside) place them, in my thinking, more in the category of private importance and not public importance.

Because of this difference I felt that same-sex marriage, in equating homosexual and heterosexual relationships could serve to confirm and reinforce a loss of understanding as to the value and nature of marriage which would be very regrettable. It is this last belief that I feel that I have no choice but to rethink.

I have come to realise that marriage is not a "zero-sum game", and that because something is designed for one specific set of circumstances, it does not mean that its value cannot be felt in other areas. Simply put the value of marriage is not restricted to opposite-sex couples for which it is designed. Marriage (and/or civil-unions) have valuable benefits for same-sex couples, aside from the practical benefits such as, for example, next of kin rights etc, and I can see no way that such gains would diminish the value of marriage in general.

The existence of same-sex marriage could play a strong part in encouraging and supporting positive values regarding intimacy in the gay "community", providing as it can, an ideal setting for a loving sexuality and adding extra support to those people, especially men, who wish to resist the overt sexualisation, and the value-free sex that is sadly not an unusual aspect of the contemporary gay "scene". For too long, and almost certainly as a result of the bigotry and rejection of homosexuals by mainstream society and religion; morality and healthy, elevating principles have not had the same structural and cultural support in gay society as has existed in the wider community. Same-sex marriage could help to repair some of the real harm that such a lack has caused.

It is not easy to exaggerate the immense personal and emotional value for couples, same-sex or otherwise, of having their relationship formally recognised. To declare to their peers their love for their partner, and to have that respected, even if not approved of, is of huge psychological importance and not something that should be prevented without good reason, and as I said above I no longer see any strong reasons to prevent it.

Finally, two men or two women willing to commit themselves to each other exclusively, to share each other's lives, to support and care for each other for the rest of their days, forsaking all others, is something that is in and of itself beautiful and uplifting and worthy of recognition, and if truly celebrated and truly valued would do much to enrich our civilisation, where concepts such as commitment, care, and restraint have unfortunately seen some erosion. Indeed how encouraging it is in this age where marriage has been undervalued to see the passion and desire on the part of same-sex couples to formalise and celebrate their couplehood in this way.

Of course in some sense I have yet to address the elephant in the room. Many religions and many people of faith view same-sex marriage as improper because it would seem to legitimise relationships which they feel are truly wrong and sinful. It would seem as if society, of which they are a part, is giving its imprimatur to sin, and in some people's view, to an abominable sin, so naturally they wish to prevent this from happening. I do have respect for people with such views and am not quick to judge them as bigoted, homophobic or wicked, especially those who harbour no hatred of individuals but who genuinely "hate the sin and love the sinner". However I do believe they are very mistaken. Either way no church, mosque, synagogue or temple should ever be forced to conduct marriages which they deem as contrary to their conscience, beliefs or theology. Not in a free and liberal society.

Theologically I have no problem with same-sex marriage. It is also clear to me that the meaning of the famous Biblical prohibition, often cited by those opposed to same-sex marriage and homosexuality itself:

"V'es zochor lo tishkav mishkavei isha. Toeva hi" Literally: "And with a male do not lay female layings. It is an abomination" Leviticus 18:22

is as it has always been understood in Judaism, a prohibition on one particular male-male sexual act. It is not a prohibition against homosexual attraction, love, togetherness, commitment or broader intimacy. As such this prohibition does not to my mind in and of itself preclude same-sex marriage. It is certainly true that an argument can be made to suggest that marriage in Biblical terms serves to legalise sexual union and hence the prohibition against the sexual union of two men, means that same-sex marriage is null and void, however our society has over the centuries broadened its understanding of marriage, and same-sex marriage need not be seen (and indeed is not seen) as having anything to do with specific forms of homosexual intimacy. It, like marriage in general, is much more about the love, companionship and desire to live as a committed partnership.

It is my belief that the Eternal esteems devoted love whether it is between a man and a woman, or two men, or two women. My partner and I both feel God's presence in our life together, guiding us, strengthening us and even challenging us to be the best we can be, not only as individuals but also and importantly as a couple. Experience informs me that all the little events that thankfully brought he and I together, were the hand of Providence, which reminds me of the words of our teacher Jesus:

"What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder". Mark 10:9

And so I celebrate the change in the law that has allowed religious groups in Britain to conduct civil-partnerships in their places of worship. I give thanks that Unitarians, alongside Quakers and Liberal Jews fought for this right. I cautiously hope for the time when the definition of marriage is legally broadened to include same-sex relationships and I pray that tolerance and understanding be extended to those whose conscience prevents them from agreeing to such changes. I hope that honest and respectful arguments be used to conduct the debate on this contentious issue, and that it not be used by either side to further political agendas. But above all this I look forward to the time when my partner and I become husbands to each other in my chapel, in the presence of God, and trust that after 14 years together our embarking on this new step, solemnised by the very law of our great nation, serves to strengthen even further our loving bond.

"God is love; His mercy brightens
All the paths in which we rove;
Bliss He wakes, and woe He lightens:
God is wisdom, God is love"
John Bowring Hymns 1825

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Eternal's Healing Face.

"O Lord my God, I cried unto Thee, and Thou hast healed me." Psalm 30:2

Over the last few days I have unfortunately been unwell with a pretty harsh cold. I had the opportunity during this time (apart from feeling very sorry for myself) to contemplate the wonder that is our body's natural ability to heal. The fever I suffered with, while very uncomfortable, was a stark reminder of my body's various strategies to defeat the invading virus, which when thought about with any depth truly fills a person with gratitude for the wisdom inherent in the way our immune systems function. And there was even more to be grateful for; the healing properties of chemicals and plants and the awesome wisdom of humanity that over time has learned to harness these properties to manufacture medicines that can cure or make bearable many illnesses. (How lucky we are to live, as James Martineau says in one of his prayers, "at the end of so many ages, heirs to the thoughts of the wise, the labours of the good). Finally and certainly not least, much gratitude towards the love and concern of our fellow human beings, which is often so clearly felt when one is unwell.

The more I mused on all this, the more I came to see the notion of healing and repairing as existing throughout our world and the vast cosmos beyond. It can be seen in the way a forest destroyed by a violent and all consuming fire, very quickly begins to replenish itself, with shoots of the new trees and plants emerging from the scorched earth. The way that plants and life return to land obliterated by flows of volcanic lava. The way that new stars are formed out of the vast gas/dust clouds left behind by other stars in their supernova death-throws. The way our skin so rapidly repairs itself when cut, not to mention the ability of some creatures to replace entire limbs. The power of sunlight to help ease some skin disorders, and the way that the sea and its wave actions slowly clean the last traces of oil spilled on its surface, allowing life to flourish once again, and so on and so forth.

My own personal theological conception of God is most similar to what is called Panentheism. A Greek word meaning All is in God. This understanding is present in many religions and the Jewish religion itself uses the word "Makom" Place, as one of the names of God, signifying that God is the place in which the universe exists. I conceive of the Eternal as present in every aspect of the created world, and yet not confined by it, but instead transcending "beyond" it. An analogy I personally find helpful is to conceive of an image in my own mind; say a man sitting on a swing in a park. That image has an existence, but it exists solely within me. I am therefore present in every single part of that image, in its shape, colour, texture and movement, it could not exist without me, I am the very fabric of that image, and yet I am not that image, my essence and existence transcend it.

It is my belief that the essential nature of God, The One, is unknowable, as it exits beyond all possible frames of human conception. The only way we can know something about the Divine, I believe, is through the world that He created and through revelation.

So as I look at the aspects of healing and mending that are present in nature, I see God, specifically God as Healer. The very properties in chemicals and plants that cure illness and discomfort, the very forces discovered by science that bring new life to where destruction ruled are the healing Hand of the Divine itself, revealing Her merciful face as a God who wants this world of ours to exist and to mend and to repair. Nature is both a veil that hides the Divine countenance and a mirror that magnificently reveals it

And so onto us, made in the image of our Father in Heaven as we are informed so radically by the Bible. Should we not also, as a religious imperative use the power of healing and mending inherent in us for the improvement and welfare of our fellow human beings, and beyond that to the other dwellers of this world? Surely religion is not only about prayers, observances, self-actualisation, personal salvation, committee-meetings and some coffee and biscuits.

For did our teacher Jesus, himself not send out his followers into the world to heal:

"And he sent them forth to preach the Kingdom of God, and to heal the sick."

I am a believer that we can all do something to bring healing to those who are ill, indeed a wonderful American Orthodox Rabbi, Rav Pam, taught his students that even telephoning an unwell person, and talking with them for a while can bring them cheer, which even if for only a few moments has the power to make them feel better. This too is healing. What do we do and what could we do, as individuals and congregations to support our local hospitals and hospices I wonder?

But there are other ways too. There are so many rifts amongst people, from the trivial to the international. What part do we play as individuals, and as wider congregations to bring together those who have been torn asunder by hatred, pain or mistrust, and heal those divisions?

We can of course never be one hundred percent sure, but I feel that if we play our part, however small, in bringing health and reconciliation to our world, we too will become living demonstrations of the Almighty's healing presence and a testimony that God is found within us as much as beyond us.

"And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace." Luke 8:48