By Stephen Adubato
June 30, 2020
Upon coming out of the closet, the young Houston-born Michael Arcenaux was offered two options by his devout Catholic mother: either look for love and risk damnation, or live a lonely life of celibacy, falling back on the comfort of knowing he will be with Jesus in the afterlife. “I know you can’t help it, but maybe you should not act on it,” his mother suggested. “Well, I can’t date Jesus. What do you want me to do?” This realization led him to leave the Catholic Church and place his faith in Beyonce, his “Lord and gyrator,” to whom he attributes his courage to become an out and proud gay man.
This oft-repeated narrative of self-acceptance is fueled by a logic that posits romance as the solution to the problem of loneliness. It was this logic that inspired the Supreme Court justices who voted for the legal recognition of same sex marriages five years ago.
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”
Revisiting the Christian Witness on Hope and Happiness
It’s all too tempting for Christians to mourn June 26th as the day that the United States officially abandoned it’s Judeo-Christian heritage. For many, Obergefell vs. Hodges marks the victory of expressivist individualism, moral relativism, and sexual libertinism, lacquered as it may be with the “traditional” veneer of domestication. But I’d posit that this is a crisis not of “family” or moral values, but of competing narratives of happiness.
It is implied that marriage can “solve” the drama played out between the universal experience of loneliness and the corresponding desire for intimacy and happiness. Obergefell codifies the conviction that the greatest love of all is romantic in nature, and that the deepest form of intimacy comes from shared domestic life, from passionate sex to the everyday things like cleaning up after each other, bickering, and supporting each other through the bad times. No greater love hath man than to fall madly in love and grow old with someone who fills his loneliness.
None of this is anything groundbreaking to contemporary ears. Author Eve Tushnet commented on the day after Obergefell on how much this idolatrous trust in the salvific power of marital love is embedded in our popular culture. When reading Justice Kennedy’s words in the Obergefell statement, she couldn’t help but think of Lava, a Disney short which features a lonely volcano “surrounded by pairs of animals: two leaping dolphins, two flying seabirds, etc. Every day he sings about how much he longs for ‘someone to lava’...The years pass, he’s still alone, and he becomes grayer and colder, eventually sinking into the sea. But lo! a lady volcano has heard his song...Volcanette and volcano are united, in a cataclysm of underwater lava, and snuggle together as one island, forever and ever.”
Religious folks’ knee-jerk reaction of reiterating the argument for the “sanctity” of complementarity in marriage does little to challenge this narrative. Rather than falling back on their worn-out talking points, they ought to find a way to engage with the assertion that that sensation of loneliness will be “answered” by the presence of another human being. Let’s dare to ask, is marital love capable of fully satiating the need for intimacy and staving off the feeling of loneliness in the long run, and is it true that we can’t be happy without a committed romantic/sexual relationship?
The Rapture of Loneliness
At root here is a naive miscalculation of the metaphysical magnitude of human loneliness and the desire for intimacy. This is why the commitment between a male and female is conferred the status of sacrament: their complementary unity and capacity to generate new life mirrors the ultimate unity for which we are all destined...unity with a Lover who will never grow impatient with our idiosyncrasies or want to call it quits because He “just doesn’t feel the same way” about us anymore. And as much as one can begin to recognize the reality of God’s infinite agape through the sign of a sacramental marriage, conflating the sign with the signified minimizes the intensity of the heart’s thirst for love. As the closing scene in Call Me By Your Name demonstrates, the flame of human eros, when not conformed to God’s design, fizzles out, leaving us wanting for an inextinguishable fire.
This exaltation of eros has engendered an attitude of suspicion toward all forms of intimacy that don’t become outwardly romantic or sexual. Intensely intimate friends are secretly gay and a woman who dedicates her life to God is repressing her desire for sex and “real” love.
This conspiracy fuels the plotlines of blockbuster hits like The Da Vinci Code. Is it possible that Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus was “merely” chaste devotion, and not covertly sexual? How could such a passionate woman “stuff away” her sexual longing like that? Or rather, how could her love for Jesus be fulfilled without genital consummation? This same mentality reads an implicitly homoerotic tension between other biblical figures like David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi. It’s somehow unimaginable that two people of the same sex could love each other so intensely without having sexual feelings for each other. Love’s climax is romantic, and intimacy can only be fully realized in the conjugal act.
And yet if we look more closely at these accounts, these supposedly “secretly sexual” relationships actually reached a level of passion and intimacy that surpasses that of marital, romantic, and sexual love. The Biblical author notes that David and Jonathan’s love for each other was not equal to that of marital love, but instead was even “more wonderful.”
We could say the same to “erotic” interpretations of Bernini’s statue of the Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila. Was Teresa a victim of medieval sexual “hysteria,” repressing her sexual longings to the point of having delusional visions? Her own account of her first ecstatic vision expresses that her experience of God’s love was indeed bodily and erotic, but this kind of eros exceeded the kind of pleasure and fulfillment that comes from human love and sex. The same could be said of queer readings of Teresa’s spiritual brother John of the Cross. Many a queer theorist see repressed homoerotic desire in the spousal imagery he uses in Dark Night of the Soul, in which he takes on the receptive role of the bride to Christ’s bridegroom.
Again, he demonstrates that the “true” climax of his desire is not sexual or physical (though it may indeed encompass his bodily and sexual desires). His ultimate yearning is for unity with Christ, the sole source of true happiness.
Christian Witness to Our Broken Hearts
So what does the future of Obergefell mean for Christians? Surely many bakeries will fear further infringements on religious liberty. But perhaps it would be more prudent to be preoccupied with how to be witnesses of what true love and happiness look like. That the greatest love of all is not possession of another—it’s the experience of allowing oneself to be fully possessed by Christ, the eternal, infinite, and unconditional Lover, and to allow this unity to penetrate and inform the rest of our earthly relationships. It’s times like these that we should find inspiration in figures who found fulfillment in ordering their erotic desire toward a “higher love.” Take Dorothy Day, who, contrary to the accusations of her being a “pious prude,” wrote of her high esteem for the gifts of marriage and sex. "I had known enough of love to know that a good healthy family life was as near to heaven as one could get in this life. There was another sample of heaven, of the enjoyment of God. The very sexual act itself was used again and again in Scripture as a figure of the beatific vision.”
But she knew that her ultimate fulfillment in life came not from these gifts, but from the Gift Giver. When her lover Forster Batterham refused Day’s request to get legally married, in accord with the Church’s teachings, she realized that she was at a “point where it was a simple question of whether I chose God or man.” This choice led her on a life long journey that brought her to accept that nothing and no one would ever fully eliminate this “long loneliness” that plagues human existence.
Instead, she discovered that the solution came not from using other people to eliminate it, but instead from belonging to a community whose basis is the sharing of that loneliness that only God can fill.
I’d imagine that Michael Arcenaux would have found himself in a different position if he met people like Day, or if he were introduced to literary figures like Lord Sebastian Flyte from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Contrary to most gay love stories, Sebastian’s desire for love is not fulfilled by living happily ever after with Sir Charles Rider, but instead by living his last years caring for his ailing friend, and being cared for on his death bed by monks in a Tunisian hospital. The fictional Lord Sebastian is in company with plenty of historical figures like Oscar Wilde, Fr. John Gray, and Marc-Andre Rafflovich, who left behind gay sex in pursuit of a greater love and deeper forms of same sex intimacy.
And so rather than lamenting Obergefell’s anniversary this year, let’s witness to how conforming one’s sexual desires to God’s will is not a condemnation, but a stepping stone to a fantastic love affair. Instead of critiquing those toting banners proclaiming “love is love,” let’s incarnate a kind of love that points to a Presence that transcends the confines of time and space.