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Bondage whip leather

(Photo credit: HMBshop.com)

By Jeff Gissing (@JeffGissing)

As our culture continues to grapple with the meaning of marriage, the Washington Post reported that vocal advocates of polyamory in the Unitarian Universalist church are detrimental to legal recognition of same sex marriage. You can read the original Post article here and the IRD’s commentary here.

Many traditionalists have asked the question: if same sex marriage is recognized, what next? This “domino effect” objection has been pooh-poohed by progressives as something of a straw man. Yet, as the Washington Post notes, the efforts of Unitarian “Universalists for Polyamory Awareness” (UUPA) threaten to demonstrate that perhaps this conservative objection is not as specious as it once appeared.

The article cites sociologist Peter Berger as observing that once you recognize same-sex marriage, “you open the door to any number of other alternatives to marriage as a union of one man and one woman: polygamous (an interesting question for Muslims in Germany and dissident Mormons in Arizona), polyandrous, polygenerational – perhaps polyspecies?” If Berger is correct surely it is only a matter of time before the poly community poses the questions: “Why is marriage limited to two people?” “Why is marriage privileged over other arrangements?” According to the article, poly activist Kenneth Haslam has argued: “Poly folks are strong believers that each of us should choose our own path in forming our families, forming relationships, and being authentic in our sexuality.” The key concepts here are: autonomy, choice, and authenticity.

This stands in stark contrast with the Christian notion of the purpose of marriage. Marriage was ordained for the “procreation of children,” as a “remedy against sin,” and for the mutual society, help, and aid of the couple (Book of Common Prayer 1929).

These three concepts are external to us whereas the modern litany of autonomy, choice, and authenticity are self-focused. We enter into Christian marriage for the purpose of bringing children into the world who will be raised in the faith. We enter into Christian marriage for the purpose of limiting and focusing our sexual expression to one with whom we enter a solemn covenant. We enter into Christian marriage to support, encourage, love, and suffer with our spouse. These are concrete obligations that have stood the test of time and which tower over the mantra of “to thine own self be true” that has so bewitched our current moment.

Given the growing polyamory movement, is it really specious to argue that the legalization and normalization of same sex marriage will be the dropping of a domino whose tumble will have subsequent repercussions? I think not.

Within a day of tweeting a link to the IRD piece, I received a reply directing me to a sermon entitled “Leather and Grace” written by David Ravenstone. You can read it here.

Unitarian Universalists have been settled on the matter of homosexuality since the 1960s, but today there is no consensus either about polyamory or about the subject of the sermon, bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadomasochism (BDSM for short).

So while gay and lesbian Unitarians feel welcomed and affirmed in their sexuality, many “kinksters”—who knew this word existed?—feel they must keep their sexuality closeted. As Ravenstone puts it, “…[T]his is a challenge for Unitarian Universalists, just as homosexuality was in the late 1960’s. Should UUs and other religious progressives merely accept mainstream presumptions, or question those presumptions and seek to learn more? Both our principles and our history call for us to engage in a deeper search for truth, and to overcome the prejudices of the past.” The question is a fair one although the implied answer is less than convincing. Presumably the outcome of such engagement will be the affirmation of polyamorous BDSM relationships as some how part of the creational order set in place by “the divine.”

After all, notes Ravenstone, popular misconceptions abound concerning the BDSM community. He likens them to common reactions to sushi. Some love it and some think that consuming raw fish is as prudent as gargling kerosene. I happen to be a sushi-lover, for the record.

BDSM is not, according to Mr. Ravenstone, some dirty, degrading sexual perversion but rather, “[T]he delicate balance of risk, trust, intensity and intimacy – a balance within which many of us find a deeply spiritual aspect, what Justin Tanis refers to as ‘ecstatic communion’.” I will stipulate that there is a certain amount of risk, trust, intensity, and (perhaps the wrong word) intimacy involved in being bound and threatened with some object often associated with the taming of beasts or the securing of prisoners. Were these things not present, we would be describing the sexual assault and torture of a person rather than some profoundly mystical experience incomprehensible to those who have never been subject to it.

What stands at the center of all of these new and innovative sexualities—BDSM included—are the notions of autonomy, choice, and authenticity. Let’s explore these bedrock principles of the new sexuality.

As Ravenstone notes, “The most common expression for this BDSM ethic is ‘safe, sane, and consensual.’” Of course even the notion of consent has limits. Consider German Bernd Jurgen Brandes who consented to being cannibalized by Armin Meiwes in 2001. Meiwes was eventually convicted on the charge of murder despite the apparent consent (he consented prior to his inebriation) of his victim. I cite this merely to note the limits of consent, not to make a moral comparison between cannibalism and BDSM.

I agree that authenticity, generally, is to be lauded and inauthenticity scorned. By using this term with respect to individuals we are suggesting that consistency exists between a person’s inward (private) and outward (public) self. This is what makes the story of Jason Collins—the first openly gay NBA player—so compelling for many. It should be pointed out, however, that authenticity is only of limited value. In other words, a person who is immoral inwardly and acts in an immoral ways outwardly is authentic, but this authenticity does not make him morally good. Authenticity is only as valuable as the moral state of the authentic person.

Common to all these examples is our culture’s loss of any sense of value in restraint. Restraint is almost inevitably conceived of as negative. Yet, in his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton points to the value of limits: “Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” Love that is not bound—to the Scriptures, to tradition—will prove to be no love at all. It is for this reason all the innovation in the world with respect to sexuality and marriage will never achieve the goals it has set for itself. Again, Chesterton: “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.” If this is true for art, how much more so in the ordering of our common life?