There’s a scene in HBO’s John Adams miniseries that remains one of the most succinct summaries of today’s defining cultural battle. The scene features the two guiding stars of the American founding, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The two friends are attending the launch of a hot air balloon in France where they are attempting to negotiate a treaty between France and the revolting American colonies.
As the balloon rises up into the sky, Jefferson sings “So our umbilical cord to mother Earth has been severed for the first time in history. Mankind floats upon a limitless plain of air.”
Typically unimpressed, Adams replies “hot air” as the two friends exchange a playful glance.
It is a perfect summation of two defining convictions about man and nature. For Jefferson the scientist, the material world supplies the raw materials (sometimes, for Jefferson, in the form of human slaves, we should note) which the greatest members of mankind use to extricate themselves from the limits of embodied existence.* Set next to Jefferson, Adams, the man of the law, is unimpressed. He punctures his friend Thomas’s romanticism with one marvelous quip.
Recently, The Matter ran a story about a trans couple (both partners are transgendered, though one presented as genderqueer in the past) that is worth reading. The Medium story is titled “They found love, then they found gender” which tells you the basics of the story, I think.
There’s a temptation evangelicals (particularly older evangelicals I think) have when reading such a story to immediately move to moralizing. And given that Johnny (referred to as Jeannot in other parts of the story) left two boys and a husband behind to begin dating Ashley, this harsh judgment is certainly merited. (Johnny’s husband, notably, declined to comment for the story.)
But there’s something else worth highlighting: In the natural understanding of marriage, the institution of marriage is a creational institution; it formalizes a relationship that through procreation is inextricably tied to the physical world and which mimics the other living members of that world. There is an organic quality to it, if that’s not an odd way of putting it.
To be sure, the creative power of the love existing within marriage is not limited to procreation alone. In many other ways Johnny and Ashley realize these other creative potentialities that exist within close human relationships as they create a home together and offer hospitality to their neighbors.
Yet to separate marriage from procreation, to act as if the potential for creating new life is irrelevant to marriage, is no small change. It is, indeed, to sever marriage from creation and to, instead, suspend it above the physical world with a hook whose only anchor is the emotional attachment which exists between two people.
Consider the specific case of Johnny and Ashley. Though they clearly have a strong attachment to each other and have, indeed, given up much to be together, their marriage is not grounded in the physical order for the simple reason that they have rejected the procreative intent behind marriage and, indeed, have attempted to erase the signs of that intent as it exists on their bodies.
And while there is something in their emotional commitment that can be affirmed, we would be foolish to ignore the fact that the relationship between these two people seems to exist in a kind of ether hovering just over the material world. Much like Wesley Morris’s recent piece on identity, there is an undeniable abstractness to their relationship. This is the main idea of Matt’s argument on same-sex marriage from several months ago. The full expression of love between a couple cannot simply exist suspended in mid-air, as it were. It must incarnate itself in the world. And it does that through the bearing of children. Evangelicals are clear on this point; our post-Christian neighbors are not.
I say all of this because one of the chief critiques of evangelicalism in recent years (and it’s a perennial critique of Christianity as well) is that we are modern gnostics. And you know it’s an oddly universal critique when you can find both DG Hart and Dianna Anderson making it. In its most common form, the argument is typically an imprecise way of saying we only care about immaterial goods and have relatively little to say about the physical world or human bodies. Indeed, some, including Anderson, would even say that evangelicalism is opposed to creation and hates the body. (I can happily report that we’ve been suspicious of this line at Mere O for several years.)
And yet when we actually step a little outside the evangelical bubble (and broader American Christian bubble), what we see is evangelicals more or less lining up on the side of creation. It is evangelicals who, at the very least, are attempting to argue that the design of our physical bodies says something about sex ethics. We’ve been hitting this note for some time at Mere O, but there are other evangelicals saying the same thing. Consider Russell Moore’s Wendell Berry-influenced piece on transgenderism.
Increasingly it is also evangelicals who are taking a lead in thinking about ethically raised food and animal welfare and thinking more seriously about environmental issues in general.
This work isn’t just happening on a purely institutional level either. My wife and I just spent last summer at a farm/study center led by a Covenant Seminary graduate in rural Iowa where half her day was spent working on the farm and the other half was spent in books and discussion. (Think L’Abri meets community supported agriculture and you basically know what it was like.) Author Lisa Graham McMinn of George Fox University is leading a similar work in Oregon and has a book coming out soon that we’ll be reviewing here at Mere O.
None of this is necessarily novel either. Francis Schaeffer was writing about this stuff almost 50 years ago, though he admittedly sometimes felt like a voice in the wilderness. CS Lewis, one of American evangelicalism’s most beloved writers, also cared deeply about the physical creation. Another evangelical favorite, JRR Tolkien, had views similar to those of his friend Lewis.
Indeed, though he has a complex relationship to evangelicalism, Wendell Berry himself has often attended evangelical Baptist churches and has frequently linked respecting the land and respecting the body. For all these writers a respect for creation colors their sex ethic as well as their way of thinking about land, food, and a host of other issues as well. Far from being gnostic, these writers and their many fans are actually deeply materialistic. Taken together, what we have here is a compelling case that if there is a conflict between materialism and gnosticism—and there is—then evangelicals are prominently involved. They just aren’t on the side that so many seem to think they are.
* Jefferson would likely say “which mankind uses to extricate itself” but this is only because he basically ignores the human costs of this move and the limited number of human beings with the means to achieve it. As is often the case when talking about these issues, CS Lewis said all of this directly in The Abolition of Man and more indirectly and amusingly in That Hideous Strength.