One question hanging over my mind throughout this year’s Revoice Conference was: What exactly sustains a “Side B” position? For those unfamiliar with the term, “Side B” refers to the Christian view that God created sex for marriage and that marriage is an institution between a man and a woman. To put the question another way: How do we make sense of the many people who have been deeply and publicly committed to the Side B position but then eventually left it?
As I have observed participants come in and out of this position over the last ten years, I have become less and less surprised by those who have left it. The changes made sense, in light of the preceding perspectives and behaviors. At the same time, changes of belief aren’t easily reducible, and they don’t all share one predictive characteristic. The reasons for abandoning a position are as diverse, personal, and unique as the reasons for coming into a position. There are as many reasons as there are people.
We tend to think of arriving at belief as a straightforward process. We think of belief as something that exists on the level of syllogism, where my rational assent is always the result of a clear logic unfolding from the circuitry of my mind. But coming into deep belief does not involve a mere continuation of syllogistic progression. Rather, it involves the mysterious integration of a complex constellation of experience, context, affection, habit, longing, rationale, and choice. Often the assertion of belief is a last step, the articulation of something which already exists within the person but which has taken time to develop into words. I suspect that coming out of belief functions in much the same way.
John Henry Newman writes about how principles undergird Christian doctrines, and failing to give proper attention to principles will make doctrines lose their vitality. A doctrine is an external word, but a principle is an interior and life-giving thing. For example, Newman says that the Being of a God is a doctrine, but personal responsibility is a principle. You can give a sort of assent to God’s Being, but this assent does not live in a life unless one moves with personal responsibility. Doctrines lose their meaning when devoid of the principles which give them shape and motion. And absent the necessary principles, doctrines fade away. You can sow doctrines as seeds, but much will depend upon the soil.
In this way, we might consider how the mainstream acceptance of same sex marriage by Christians is not simply an abandonment of one teaching, but rather the result of a move away from a host of narratives, practices, and dispositions which gave meaning to the doctrine on marriage in the past. For example, the rise of the nuclear family, diminishment of the institution of friendship, abandonment of asceticism, and changes in ecclesiology can pull out the social contexts which have given the practice of celibacy meaning. Richard Sipes has found that those achieving a “mature adjustment to celibacy” usually have a well-defined prayer life, productive work, a commitment to service, and a strong sense of community. Without these four pillars, he found mature celibacy much less likely to take hold in a life. Mature celibacy comes out of a particular way of living.
Likewise, having watched many persons move in and out of the Side B position, I suspect that many who move away from the traditional vision of sex and sexuality are often not so much coming into a new position as they are finally affirming principles they’ve held and lived out for some time. The Side B position is unsustainable as an isolated doctrine. Rather, it must be held up by related but distinct underlying principles. Changes in ecclesiology, practice, and disposition often imply a change in doctrine, even if this latter change is not explicitly recognized or articulated (yet).
Christians can change their principles even while still asserting (now hollowed) doctrines. This is why so many gay persons who grew up in Christian contexts affirming a “traditional” view of sex and sexuality end up either strongly considering suicide or affirming same sex marriage. Regardless of what doctrines these Christian contexts might articulate, the principles undergirding such contexts cannot sustain a gay person who both affirms traditional doctrines and lives. It’s like asking someone to rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral but only providing them with paper mache. Of course, this does not excuse the gay Christian for making choices contrary to his or her Christian convictions. But it does unveil the many-layered culpability for such choices.
The sustenance of a Side B position doesn’t come from holding a Side B position. It’s not really about one particular doctrine. It’s about everything else. It’s about how we spend our days, our habits, what we consume in the media, our rituals of prayer, our practices of community, what we find in the silence, the formation of our erotic lives, our practices of asceticism, our commitment to service, the cultivation of creativity, and the many other ways in which we live and love as persons. The common arguments over the meaning of marriage are just exercises in failing to really get the point.
This, of course, is one of the advantages of a space like Revoice. The conference focuses on flourishing for LGB persons in historic Christian traditions, but it doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the evils of gay sex or defending “traditional” marriage. If you attended the conference this weekend, you were much more likely to step into a session on working through shame, developing healthy boundaries in relationships, making sense of queer culture, or living ecstatically. But of course, only LGB Christians could put on a conference like this. We’ve seen where our Christian communities and mainstream culture have failed us, so we must help each other seek the right foundations for a living doctrine.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.