Defending Traditional Marriage

Who knew? As a gay man I did not. A lot of really smart and influential people also seem to be unaware of the facts.

Given what’s about to happen we would all do well to know the real facts before we jump to conclusions. Thanks to William Eskridge, professor of law at Yale, we no longer need to be uninformed. [link]

Authorities no less than Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted in Supreme Court arguments in April that every dictionary he checked that was published “prior to about a dozen years ago” defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said: “This definition has been with us for millennia. It’s very difficult for the court to say, oh well, we know better.”

Justice Samuel Alito asked: “How do you account for the fact that, as far as I’m aware, until the end of the 20th century, there never was a nation or a culture that recognized marriage between two people of the same sex?”

The main criticism from those who object to marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples is that it “redefines” marriage contrary to the male-female definition “accepted for millennia.” Everyone, including most gay people, simply assume that premise is correct. It is not!

We are simply misinformed to say that the Western tradition had never entertained marriages between people of the same sex until the 20th century.

First and second century historians Suetonius and Tacitus document official same-sex marriages in imperial Rome.

Modern historians have found plausible evidence of such marriages among Egyptians, Canaanites and Hittites and on islands in ancient Greece.

The evidence is also overwhelming for non-Western cultures. In 1951 anthropologists surveyed 191 world cultures and found many examples of same-sex intimacy occurring “within the framework of courtship and marriage.”

Researchers have demonstrated that a majority of Native American tribes as well as many tribal people elsewhere in the world have recognized such marriages at points in their histories.

Anthropologists have also documented the phenomena of “woman marriage” in African societies, in which a wealthy woman marries another woman and then secures her impregnation, thereby generating heirs. Such marriages have been recognized in more than 30 African cultures.

There are other examples, but these show that there has been no universal definition of marriage that excludes same-sex couples. Professor Eskridge asks the obvious question: What is the point of this history? He then draws some conclusions.

One obvious conclusion must be that “marriage” is an evolving, socially adaptive institution. In 1950, those who study human cultures defined “marriage” as a potentially procreative union of one man and one woman. But in the next 20 years, undisputed evidence of same-sex unions across dozens of cultures upended that definition.

By the 1970s, anthropologists had settled on an understanding of marriage as a social institution serving a variety of purposes — not just procreation and inheritance, but also personal relationships and alliances.

Was this a “redefinition” of marriage? In a way it was — it was the correction of a prevalent misconception of the facts. They brought to our attention that “marriage” has been much more inclusive and pluralistic than previously thought. Far from imposing their own definition, they help all of us come to a necessary “redefinition” that better reflects human history and practice across cultures.

Traditional marriage law in this country was one man, one woman because of an essential concern for the welfare of children. Thus, most states previously criminalized sex outside marriage, denied rights to illegitimate children, made wives legally subservient to their husbands and made it difficult to divorce.

Today we place no legal barrier to consensual sex outside marriage. Wives are not inferior. Children born outside of marriage are guaranteed “equal protection of the law.” Although divorce is never easy, “no fault” divorce certainly reflects a significant legal reform in the way we think about this foundational social institution.

We have seen in our own lifetime a fundamental shift in the way we define “marriage” to accommodate adults who love one another.  In this definition we are increasingly recognizing the many gay and lesbian couples not only make life-commitments, they are often conscientious parents of children as well.

To my knowledge the only traditional understanding we are unwilling to redefine is the legal right to marriage for the many couples — in our own families, sometimes our parents or our own children — who have no intention or capacity to procreate.

About the only group legally excluded from this human institution Americans call “marriage” is gay people. That’s been changing in the United States and around the world. And if we know our facts, well it should!

___________________

I have quoted liberally from Professor Eskridge’s June 19 article in the Washington Post cited above. In addition to crediting him as my source, I want to express my sincere gratitude to the professor for “teaching” us what too many of us had not known.

Grandparenting

Grandmas — and sometime grandpas — have to be as good as it gets this side of heaven. Yesterday a friend’s account of her time with her grandkids at the shore drew me back to fond memories of my own Grandma Wieseler.

Theresa had just returned from a week with her seven grandchildren. The kids are scattered all over the U.S. so she gathered them at their house on the shore for a week of family togetherness. Yes, this would provide terrific bonding-time for the cousins. But Theresa was also indulging her own deep affection for them — there was plenty of healthy self-interested “grand-mothering” in her plan as well.

Although she was grateful that one parent was present at the beginning and a different Mom came at the end of the week, Theresa mostly wanted the grandkids to herself. Her rationale will be obvious to all of you who have grandkids. It was an Aha! moment for me! She explained, “Kids are just different when parents aren’t around. We have more fun and get to know each other so much better when they are out of the picture.”

Of course, some aspects of being an uncle — and now grand-uncle — prepared me to understand what Theresa was saying. But I also recognized she was speaking of a deep, intimate bond that I will never know. All the more reason to treasure the enduring love my siblings and I experienced with our Grandma Wieseler.

Perhaps the difference comes down to the necessary and appropriate roles parents must play. They need to discipline, proscribe, direct and say “no” as often as “yes.” Grandparents are free of responsibility to be that kind of authority figure. Grandparents are allowed to be much more about love, pure and simple!

Theresa and I mused a bit about all this. Then we wondered whether our experience of God is more like a Grandma or like a parent. Hmmm! Of course, we knew which we wanted it to be. But really, which is it? This seems pretty important for Christians to figure out. Jesus, after all, taught us to call God “Father”, abba, papa.

I have long claimed that my first and best introduction to God was my Grandma Wieseler. She was unconditional love personified. Yes there is a need for discipline, proscriptions, direction and “no” in the practice of our faith. But that’s early on, when we are children. We are meant to grow-up. Isn’t that the point of good parenting?

One day, some of us even become grandparents — in this, God is pleased!

Life Moves On

Folks say you can walk across, even jump across, the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park a couple hundred miles north of here. In fact, you’d have a few places to choose from — seems the actual headwaters of the river is a matter of serious civic pride and a cause for some dispute. There are at least three rival claims to the source of the Mississippi. Who’s to know?

Back in grad school in St. Louis — where there was absolutely no dispute about the size or source of the Great River — we tinkered with a silly but intriguing riddle: Can you step in the same river twice? Think about it… the current is constantly moving; the water you step in first is not the water you step in the second time. Even the fish and undergrowth are constantly awash, shifting, changing. Or, when those disputed waters in Itasca are frozen solid in a Minnesota winter, are they still the origins of the Mississippi?

Such mind-benders have intrigued mystics and confounded students for thousands of years. But they are important. Like a metaphysical crossword puzzle they tease us into looking at how something can be the same when everything about it changes. Does anything ever remain the same? What is the “same”? What, if anything, remains?

Forget about rivers! Are you the same person you were twenty years ago? We want to believe so but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Even the cellular make-up of our physical bodies is said to turn-over entirely numerous times during our lifetime? Who or what is the “me” amid all this flux and change?

Back in St Louis during the early 1980s I learned that Heraclitus, a resident of Ephesus during the 6th century BC, was the source of this riddle about stepping into a river twice. I remember him being portrayed as pretty much of a fall-guy or foyle for later philosophers — mentioned only to introduce the question which future thinkers would then be given the distinction for resolving.

In self-defense you need to know that I don’t think of Heraclitus very often. In fact, years go by! However, he made a surprise appearance recently in something I was reading about Thomas Merton. What Merton wrote stopped me in my tracks — something you cannot do with a river, by the way! I really liked it!

I like it so much that I’m willing to risk family once again telling me, “Read your blog… don’t know what the hell you were talking about.”  Aware of the risk, here’s what Merton wrote that hit me up-side the head:

This is the tragedy which most concerns Heraclitus — and which should concern us more than it did him: the fact that a majority of [people] think they see, and do not. They believe they listen, but they do not hear. They are “absent when present” because in the act of seeing and hearing they substitute the clichés of familiar prejudice for the new and unexpected truth that is being offered to them. They complacently imagine they are receiving a new light, but in the very moment of apprehension they renew their obsession with the old darkness, which is so familiar that it, and it alone, appears to them to be the light.

We live only a few miles from the Mississippi. Jeb the Dog takes me for a daily walk along a creek that empties into that river.  This afternoon, as Jeb leaps into the creek to tease and torment Mother Mallard with her five ducklings, I will remember Heraclitus.  His riddle, his question, this nudge toward deeper conversion, transformation, change will remain with me for a while.

Wherever you are, whatever river invites you this summer, be like Jeb the Dog — leap boldly into its free-flowing current.  Savor what it means to be fluid, alive, changing. Stay with the flow!

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The Merton quote is from his 1960 article in the September issue of Jubilee, “Herakleitus the Obscure”, paragraphs 264-65.  My source is from In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB.  Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 2015., pp. 67-68.

Get Smart

All of us have been in situations where we shake our heads and ask, “How’d they know that?”  Some people just “get it” before the rest of us catch on.  People often think I’m smarter than I really am.  Truth is, I’ve just had opportunities to hang around a lot of people smarter than me.

That, and my hope to catch a few tips, drew my attention to something Shana Lebowitz, Strategy reporter for Business Insider, posted on the World Economic Forum blog. [link]. Maybe if more of us knew what smart people do, and did more of that ourselves, we’d all make smarter decisions.

With that hope, here are the qualities that nearly all super smart people share:

1. They’re highly adaptable. They remain flexible and are able to thrive in different settings.

2. They understand how much they don’t know. Intelligent people aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know. They see this as an opportunity to learn.

3. They have insatiable curiosity. Albert Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”

4. They ask good questions. Intelligent people know that asking thought-provoking questions is just as important as providing answers. That’s especially important when old answers (old wine-skins?) don’t answer new questions.

5. They’re sensitive to other people’s experiences. Being attuned to the needs and feelings of others and acting in a way that is sensitive to those needs, is a core component of emotional intelligence. They listen well!

6. They’re open-minded. Smart people don’t close themselves off to new ideas, opportunities or alternative solutions.

7. They’re skeptical. This goes hand-in-hand with open-mindedness. The key is being willing to consider new ideas as long as they’re backed by supporting evidence.

Okay, Kneading Bread is a blog about spirituality. So posting these seven traits of really smart people comes with an ulterior motive. What does “being smart” have to do with our spirituality? How do thinking-people link these traits with our religious beliefs? What do they suggest about a mature faith?

I won’t be so presumptuous as to say what they should mean for your spirituality. I intend only to “ask good questions.” I trust each and all of us will remain curious, open-minded and admit what we don’t know.

All I will hazard to suggest is that we be really, really skeptical of any leader, community or religion that doesn’t want us to get smarter and smarter all the time.

Never Missing in Action

When people learn that I am the youngest of ten kids they invariably ask, “What did your dad do?” Although gender roles are shifting, dads are still presumed to be bread-winners. It’s a rare man whose ego is not threatened by a spouse who earns more than he. A stay-at-home dad is really swimming against social norms!

Yet when people ask what my dad “did” to support ten kids and a wife, I really am at a loss for words. Yes, I know his places of employment and who issued his paycheck. In the status-conscious pecking order of their over-55 retirement community Dad would boast that he owned a Pontiac car and GMC truck franchise. Which he did — but that was for fewer than ten years and before I have any conscious memory.

Over the years, my standard answer has evolved, “Dad did whatever he needed to earn money — he was a farmer, small business owner, a manager, a salesman, an entrepreneurial genius.” All that is true! This also enables me to defend his reputation and express my esteem within the competitive world of the masculine pecking-order.

Here is the factual truth. My father finished his career as the manager of a parking ramp in downtown Omaha. That used to embarrass me. That is probably the reason for the retrieval of his Pontiac/GMC franchise identity with his card-playing buddies at the Sun City rec center. Yes, he felt the weight of raising ten kids. He also labored under the cultural burdens of what it means to be a “successful” man.

But, here’s the real truth. I’m bored by the question! It’s so unfair and irrelevant to the dad I love — probably to all dads. Yes, Mom and Dad raised ten kids. He died at 83. My Mom did not “run out of money” until 18 months before her death at 97! Dad only finished the tenth grade. Mom never went to high school. By any economic or social standard I would say they were pretty damn successful!

Even that defensive explanation fails to explain the man. My dad was a decent poet. He was horrible at telling jokes because he’d be laughing too hard to deliver the punch line. He had really hairy arms which I loved stroking when he was holding me on his lap. A favorite photo shows my dad wearing a fedora, suit, white shirt and tie, and tweed overcoat when he took my sister and me sledding at the park. My love of gardening — the earth — comes from him.

Every hamburger is still rated against those I ate with my Dad in small town cafes when I accompanied him as a farm equipment sales rep. Except for my Mom, my Dad’s greatest asset was a deep, mature and vibrant spirituality.  Though ten of us exasperated and exhausted him with regularity, my dad was immensely proud of his family. We knew that — and his investment paid off.

What did my dad do? Whatever he needed to do. Most of all, he showed up! Too many dads are missing — absent from too many lives and too many homes. Some are simply AWOL. Others are enslaved by needing to make money to sustain a lifestyle that is virtually unsustainable. Yes, my dad worked really hard. But in too many neighborhoods — both rich and poor — too many kids are left with a gnawing father-deficit.  We were not!

We all need mentors, coaches, teachers, uncles, neighbors, role-models providing a rich assortment of male relationships. Having no children of my own I take seriously — and with great satisfaction — these essential roles. Yet, my knees buckle at the prospect of doing what my dad did.

On this Fathers Day I am immensely proud to be the son of my dad — a man who was never missing in action!

 

The Earth Just Shifted. Feel It?

Let’s, just for a moment, take a different tack. There is a veritable avalanche of commentaries and analyses of Laudato Si, Francis’ encyclical. I’m not competent to add much to that discussion.  Yet, there is something that can be said — needs to be appreciated and celebrated — right off the bat!

As one would expect, the very first paragraph sets the tone with a moving reference to Francis of Assisi’s Canticle from which the encyclical takes its name:

LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore – Praise be to you, my Lord… Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.

According to good argumentative style, Pope Francis first references Scripture (Paragraph 2) and then places his pastoral exhortation squarely within the tradition of the church. With one paragraph each, Francis grounds his teaching in that of his immediate predecessors John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI (paragraphs 3-6).

There is still nothing unique or exceptional about Francis citing secular authorities to bolster his teaching.  His claim is not simply anchored in Scripture and Catholic teaching. In paragraph 7 Francis writes:

These statements of the Popes echo the reflections of numerous scientists, philosophers, theologians and civic groups, all of which have enriched the Church’s thinking on these questions.

That reliance on additional sources of teaching authority reflects the best of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

The inclusive context set by Francis is especially welcome and refreshing. He makes a deliberate effort to raise up and give expression to a broad spectrum of additional voices:

Outside the Catholic Church, other Churches and Christian communities — and other religions as well — have expressed deep concern and offered valuable reflections on issues which all of us find disturbing. To give just one striking example, I would mention the statements made by the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with whom we share the hope of full ecclesial communion.

Notice… “the beloved Ecumenical Patriarch.” Even more, notice the careful phrasing, “with whom we share the hope” not “with whom we hope to share.” The hope for full communion is already shared!

Francis’ next two paragraphs (8 and 9) cites the teaching and authority of the esteemed Patriarch of Constantinople — considered the “Successor of St. Andrew”, first among equals in the Orthodox Churches.

This sequencing can be nothing but deliberate… first Francis of Assisi, then Scripture, then his immediate predecessors of the past fifty years, then scientists, philosophers, theologians and other civil authorities. Nobody, but nobody, is shown more respect or given such deferential authority as the Orthodox patriarch with a reference in paragraph 7 and then two lengthy paragraphs (below) citing Bartholomew’s teaching authority.

Yes, this encyclical is about our moral obligation to be responsible stewards of God’s good creation. But the earth just shifted under our feet! Did you feel it? When have you seen the Bishop of Rome pay such fraternal respect and deference to another Patriarch?  Not in a thousand years has a “Successor of St. Peter” so deliberately shared teaching authority for the church with the “Successor of St. Andrew”!

For the first time ever a high-ranking Orthodox bishop — Metropolitan John of Pergamon — helped unveil a papal text.  In addition, two women joined the president the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace headlining a panel of five people presenting various aspects of the document.

The women were Carolyn Woo, president and CEO of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services and a former dean of the business school a the University of Notre Dame; and Valeria Martano, a teacher and community organizer in the outlying areas of Rome.  The fifth person is an avowed agnostic, John Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Something dramatic has changed. I like it, I like it a lot! Gives greater credence to whatever else Francis has to say. Makes me excited to read more! The air we’re breathing is already fresher!

LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore – Praise be to you, my Lord!
_________________
Here are Paragraphs 8 and 9 if you care to read them in their entirety:
8. Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for “inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage”, we are called to acknowledge “our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation”. He has repeatedly stated this firmly and persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation: “For human beings … to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”. For “to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God”.

9. At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs. It is liberation from fear, greed and compulsion”. As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet”.

Gift Beyond Gift, Beyond Reason

Is there any day of the week more nondescript than Thursday? Today is pretty innocuous even for a summer day in Minnesota — forecast is for clouds to hang around all day. It’s tempting to get lulled into monotony.

But stop! Every day is as Denise Levertov protests in her marvelous poem, The Yellow Tulip.  

But it’s so: a caravan arrives constantly
out of desert dust, laden
with gift beyond gift, beyond reason.

Though tulips have faded in Minneapolis — and we are probably the last people to enjoy this Springtime ritual — take a moment today to savor Levertov’s praise for this humble flower. [link].

But today, this partly-cloudy Thursday in June, is hardly ordinary. In fact, it’s quite remarkable. For one thing, today is the beginning of Ramadan, the month-long season of fasting and heightened attention to prayer and spiritual practices.

In this world of religious fanaticism and fundamentalism of all stripes, we do well to respectfully remember and honor this holy season. Too often we hear only headlines caused by extremists. Today we would do well to listen to what rank-and-file Muslim neighbors have on their minds. A simple, short summary of Ramadan is available [here].

And today, Thursday, June 18, 2015 is a momentous day that will be recalled a hundred years from now! Today the much anticipated — you know something is really significant when vested-interests and nay-sayers attack something well before it is even published!!! — release of Pope Francis’ letter on creation.

It is not a political or economic treatise! It is not about climate change, though that is central to his moral exhortation! Neither is it primarily about the environment, if by that we mean adoption of “green” policies in response to our current ecological crisis. It’s about creation, God’s bountious and boundless gift in which we humans are to serve as humble stewards.

Read that last sentence again… human, humble. These words are cognates of humus — rich, fertile soil from which all life springs. Human, humble, humus all come from the same root. Take time this Thursday to make the connection. We are by definition and nature earth-creatures. Give that some thought. Find your particular place in this God-given creation — it’s a humble place of honor!

If you’d care to review a simple, five-point summary of the pope’s pastoral exhortation, you can do no better than to take five minutes to read this [link].

Laudato Si… Yes, Praise be… even on an ordinary Thursday in 2015. Every day — each day — is anything but nondescript, innocuous or monotonous!

Or, as Francis of Assisi expressed it…

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!

All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.