My friend Scott Jones wrote the following essay on love, sex, marriage, and why is that infidelity is the only sin that forever defines someone as a failure, the sin for which there is never grace.
Scott is a pastor in the Philly area, a Princeton alum like myself, and a (much better than me) podcaster, hosting Give and Take and New Persuasive Words. Check out the conversation he references below here.
All you need is love, love is all you need.
That is so true on face value that it almost needs no unpacking. Its meaning can also be elusive, even opaque. As with all things, context is king. Where and when we read the above sentence will inevitably shape what we make of it. What I’m making of it today is shaped by a conversation I had last Thursday with Dan Savage.
Dan is a world famous sex columnist. He began his column “Savage Love” decades ago as a kind of joke. He thought it would be hilarious as a gay man to give sex advice to straight people with a tone of suppressed “ewwwwwww-ness” that colors the voice of most straight people (mostly straight guys) when they talk about gay people and gay sex. What started as a lark become an incredible success. He became a sort of celebrity, one who scandalized gays and straights alike. My friend Mark Oppenheimer wrote a book about Savage, one he begins with an interesting observation. We’ve had a lot of gay celebrities in late modern American culture, but Dan Savage was the first to start “out”. Elton John, George Michael, Melissa Ethridge…the list goes on, but they all began their public life in the closet. Even if people suspected they were gay there was a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy before the policy enacted to deal with gays in the military that seemed to govern public life, at least where celebrities were concerned. Everything was handled with a wink and a nod.
A Lutheran minister who wrote a think piece on Savage a few years ago claimed that he saved more marriages than a successful pastor at a prominent church could do in decades of faithful work. The same minister summarizes the secret of Savage’s success as follows:
Underlying all of Savages principles, abbreviations, and maxims is a pragmatism that strives for stable, livable, and reasonably happy relationships in a world where the old constraints that were meant to facilitate these ends are gone. Disclosure is necessary, but not beyond reason. Honesty [is] the best policy and all, he advised a guilty boyfriend, but each of us gets to take at least one big secret to the grave. Stuck with a husband whose porn stash has grown beyond what you thought you were signing up for? Put it behind closed doors and try not to think about it. Who knows how many good relationships have been saved and how many disastrous marriages have been averted by heeding a Savage insistence on disclosing the unmet need, tolerating the within-reason quirk, or forgiving the endurable lapse? In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn’t expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores. A successful marriage is basically an endless cycle of wrongs committed, apologies offered, and forgiveness granted, he advised one very uptight spouse, all leavened by the occasional orgasm.
As I read those words and reflected on my conversation with Dan a passage from Paul Zahl’s Grace In Practice remained perched in the forefront of my mind:
“Ministers see no evil, and yet they see everything. This is the reality of imputation. Pastoral care is not “proactive,” a big word in our lives today. Pastoral care observes, yet decides not to see. This is the essence of grace in practice. You look out on a group of people on a Sunday morning and observe bickering mothers and daughters, sullen and resentful sons, sexually ually frustrated men and misunderstood wives. You feel the rising infidelities ities and the hurt feelings and the palpable mourning for mothers and fathers thers who are no longer present. You see all this if you have an eye to original sin and total depravity. Yet you speak the word of imputed righteousness: teousness: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The blanket of condemnation that the discerning eye cannot fail to see is replaced by the “garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:io)…This means that pastoral response is always the response of listening and passive reception. It is not the response of trying to fix things. Every conversation you ever have in ministry is a piercing conversation from the standpoint of the pastoral listener. He or she has heard it all before, many, many times. Yet it has to come out. It has to be heard with full acceptance, even sorry acquiescence. Grace never tries to fix, but trusts God to do this. Grace listens.”
Dan said something early on in the conversation that I am still unpacking. He said that fidelity in the context of monogamy is the only thing that if you fail once at defines you as a failure. You can be a world class tennis player and make a few unforced errors at Wimbledon and you’re still a world class tennis player. You can be the winner of Top Chef and then burn an omelette and your still a chef, and regarded as a good one. In fact we celebrate the failures of someone who has dutifully done their 10,000 hours and become proficient in some skill that we need to make this thing called modern life going. We can even sometimes romanticize failure, but not where infidelity is concerned. Dan is at heart a conservative and a traditionalist and he thinks this glaring inconsistency ruins a lot of salvageable and even salutary relationships, ultimately eroding the quality of our shared public life.
One needn’t agree with everything Dan Savage says about sex or the nature of monogamy to get his point. And I think our celebration of failure often is only when we see it as part of a success story. Past failures get baptized retroactively because they are attached to clearly revealed current success stories. We often praise failures of successful people at the same time derisively scorning the same failures when they confront us attached to stories of people who we’d rather not look at or be around, let alone admire. Perhaps our approach to infidelity actually masks our intolerance for any failure, be it in ourselves or others. If we can just keep this one rule maybe it will be the deeper magic that wipes away the rest of our transgressions. The sensibility of this kind of rationalization is only surpassed by it’s silliness.
Hans Ur Von Balthasar describe the agonizing end ecstatic nature of human love in his masterful little book Love Alone Is Credible:
But though all of this may point the way, it does not accomplish the journey, for there are other equally strong, or stronger, powers that set a limit to love’s movement: the fight for one’s place under the sun; the terrible stifling of the individual by the surrounding relations, the clan, and even by the family; the struggle of natural selection, for which nature itself provides the strength and the arms; the laws of time’s decay: friendships, once thought to be forever, grow cold, people grow apart, views and perspectives and thus hearts too become estranged. Geographic distances create an additional burden, and love must be strong and single-minded in order to withstand it; pledges of love, meant to be eternal, get broken, because the rising wave of eros gave way and another newer love came in between; the beloved’s faults and limitations became unbearable, and perhaps even worsened because the finitude of love seemed to be a contradiction: Why love just one woman when there are thousands that could be loved? Don Juan poses this question as he shakes the cage of finitude, driven by a fundamental intuition no less valid, perhaps, than Faust’s. But if the very meaning of love slips past the don in the surfeit of women, Faust fails to hold onto the eternity he thought he could pin down in the surfeit of “moments”.
Given the fragile, faltering and fallen nature of human love it’s astounding that God chooses marriage as a primary metaphor to tell the sacred story of his journey with his people. A few years ago Ray Ortlund wrote a book called Whoredom: God’s Unfaithful Wife In Biblical Theology. He attempts to bring to the forefront a metaphor which, despite it’s biblical prominence, has gotten short shrift in the church’s preaching and teaching. He concludes the book with the following words:
If we perceive the Rorschach pattern of life as a lonely fight for survival without the consolations of divine succor, so that we barricade ourselves within the apparent safety of the self, we discover too late that the lock on the door operates only from the outside. All we have left is an endless reconfiguring of the autonomous self, and we are incapable of release into the light and freedom of God’s larger conceptual world. But, in the mercy of God, the biblical gospel intrudes its way into our prison as a blessed subversive agent, alerting us that that larger world really is out there and that God is able to break the lock of our self-imposed confinement…
Perhaps our borderline obsessive focus on infidelity as the only sin that merits a permanent scarlet letter thinly veils our own awareness of the infidelities that characterize more of our lives, public and private, than we’d care to admit. But the realization of our own human ineptness and infidelities is always the occasion for God’s invitation to rest in faithfulness that can only be described as divine. God’s love is a savage love, the kind that civilizes and shapes us for an eternal feast, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb that is the City of God.