Weight – a prolegomena to theology



The debate about gay marriage has raised some weighty issues. To start with there are the debates around the nature of marriage. Marriage, previously, was focused on procreation – it was a way of managing the conception and raising of children. This, indeed, is a very weighty and serious matter and gave to marriage a deep seriousness and importance. But gradually we have seen marriage change, so that it is now seen largely as a choice between two consenting adults wanting to publicly and legally commit their lives to each other (at least until they have had enough of it!). It seems to me that there still is a connection between marriage and children, but it has been greatly weakened and marriage is now seen as being a less weighty matter than it once was – something more like a lifestyle choice than a fundamental human institution. Gay marriage is, from this perspective, only one more factor in changing the nature of marriage, making it something lighter; less rooted in human bodies and their biology and more a matter of individual choice.

But this is not the whole story. There is also a weightier side to gay marriage. This is our long history of discrimination and harassment of, gay people. This indeed is a weighty issue, when gay people are excluded from employment (say, as an Anglican bishop) or abused and attacked by their neighbours (as happened in the street where we lived in normally gay-friendly Hackney). Gay marriage from this perspective is part of the fight for equality and justice.

For me this lightening of marriage, a moving of it away from our bodies and our biology is something I feel uncomfortable with. I like the weight of marriage. It’s deep fleshly significance. It’s embodied seriousness. Tired of the light fluidity of modern life, and suspicious that this makes life less meaningful and, frankly, more boring, I find myself wanting to celebrate the ancient institutions of human life, even while recognizing the injustices and oppressions that have been perpetrated through them. That is, I want to live the full weight of human life. But I also want to take seriously the weighty issues of homophobia and discrimination. These, if anything, are more important and cause me to be rather uncomfortably in favour of gay marriage. Gay marriage would seem to be an important symbol in our present culture which signifies our desire to reject homophobia and embrace equality for all people whatever their sexual orientation. Nonetheless I am worried at the way this may make life less weighty, more superficial; less meaningful, more consumerist.

For I believe that fundamentally life is about weight. That is the fleshy, earthy reality which we carry in our bodies and is who we are. Life becomes meaningful and significant when we feel and carry this weight rather than seek to avoid it by distractions and forgetfulness. Life is not what we think it is, but at its most fundamental level what it is: sex, procreation, illness, food and death et cetera. Animals simply live in this reality, they do not think about it but simply cope with reality as they find it, and if they can’t cope with it they die. They live very heavy lives. For human beings life is different, it still has the same weight but we need to find ways of making sense of this weight, for we are not able simply to live life day to day, in the moment: despite what certain superficial spiritual teachings tell us.

I remember watching a wonderful TV program about a man who raised a brood of wild turkeys. As he lived with them he more and more lived day-to-day without giving thought to the morrow. He responded instinctively in the same way that the turkeys simply lived by their instincts. But he could only do this for a short time. He could learn from them but it wasn’t fundamentally who he was. He was a human being who had to make sense of his life and could not rely merely on instinct.

I believe we make sense of this weight of life by telling ourselves a story which shapes our weight. For the weight of our life is malleable. It is not stuck in one particular shape, we can mould it so that it is easier to carry and makes more sense to us – and to other people. This is what makes us human beings. Animals can’t shape their lives in the same way. We have the power of telling life-shaping stories, but our lives still weigh the same however fancy our shaping of them might be. Modern technology is able to do extraordinary things and create shapes we had never previously dreamed possible, but the weight of human life is the same. It is still sex, procreation, illness, food and death.

We each have our individual weight and must each shape it as best we can. But our weight is also something we share. This is part of the weight of being human. We share the common weight of humanity. When we made the Dodo extinct it was extinct for everyone not just the person who ate the last roasted Dodo. As we fundamentally change the Earth’s climate it will be changed for everyone not just those driving gas guzzling SUVs. We have a common humanity and we have a shared earth. If I play my music at ear-splitting volume then my neighbour also has to shudder to the same music. This is part of the pain of being human. One of the ways in which we seek to reduce the weight of life is by telling ourselves a story that human life is essentially individualistic – that we each simply have to find our own way. But this is willful forgetfulness, a distraction from the real weight of life: the sticky threads which bind us together. We also seek to reduce the weight of life by various dualisms. For example, living the life of the mind: not paying attention to our bodies but retreating into our thoughts. This is a common way for the intellectual elite of Western societies to seek to avoid the weight of life. This helps us avoid the heavy implications of sexual relationships, the weighty oppression of the poor, the gravitas on illness. Such intellectualism has, perhaps, enabled us to make extraordinary strides in the technology of shaping human life, but as soon as it slips over into forgetfulness and distraction then it becomes a kind of fantasy which, paradoxically, only increases the burden of life – especially for the vulnerable and marginalized 

Each of us, therefore, I believe, is faced with the challenge: what story can I tell myself in order to shape my weight? What common story will I move towards, will I participate in, in order to share the common weight of humanity? How can I avoid forgetfulness, how can I gaurd myself from distraction, in order to live the full weight of my human life with joy, meaningfulness and significance. This story-shaping is crucial. For carrying a well-balanced load is so much easier and enjoyable than carrying a misshapen weight which is always causing us to stumble. But to balance the weight we must be aware of exactly what the weight is, not pretending that some parts of it don’t exist. Not imagining that it is other than it is – that is embracing the fullness of its weight and with that our common, shared humanity.

I have become particularly concerned for this issue of weight because of two heavy and weighty life experiences. 

Firstly there is the infertility of my marriage. My wife and I were both looking forward to having children, but it turned out that my wife was unable to conceive. This was a very difficult experience and it continues to have enormous consequences for our life together – and, will, I believe, continue to have significant consequences until we both die. The weight cannot be lightened. We are not able to bring children into the world. Our marriage is permanently scarred. To pretend otherwise would be to deny reality. We have been struggling to find some way of shaping this reality, of telling ourselves a story which enables us to make some sense of life as it now is, but it is hard and difficult. No doubt having children would also have been hard and difficult but that is not the weight we have had to bear. We have had to bear this weight of infertility. It is with this reality that we must tell our story and it, no doubt, affects my somewhat diffident attitude to gay marriage. One part of me wants to affirm the importance of gay people being treated equally, but another part of me experiences the reality that, for me, marriage has always been about procreation. It would be convenient for me not to think in this way, but I am reluctant to avoid the weightiness of my situation. I do not believe that would bring any healing. I believe part of what we have to do as human beings, as we shape the weight of our life and tell ourselves creative, healing stories, is to value the weight of our life and construct our lives in such a way that we feel and know that weight in deep ways; rather than indulge in a dualistic sidestep which seeks to dodge the weight and make it lighter – and, therefore, I believe, less human and less meaningful.

My second story relates to the first and it is my ongoing struggle with chronic illness. Exactly what this chronic illness is I do not know. Medical technology has been singularly unhelpful in relieving its weight – although certain low-tech interventions have been helpful for me. If you like you could call it Chronic Myofascial Pain Syndrome, but I have increasingly come to believe that it is caused by my response to certain experiences that were traumatic for me. This uncertainty as to the cause of my illness is part of the weight of it, for it would be easier for me to shape my story if I could simply explain to people what it is that I am experiencing. But the fundamental reality is that having a chronic illness makes life feel very heavy. It has made me, for instance, reluctant to consider adopting children and in many ways makes it difficult for me to participate in normal human activities. I am particularly aware of this at the moment, as last weekend I had to refuse an invitation, as I generally do, to a large wedding simply because it is too painful and isolating for me to try and participate in such gatherings. I have, however, sought to shape my body’s experience of chronic illness in a creative way. In particular it has made me sensitive to the weight of life. As a preacher, storyteller and community worker I think I am more effective because my illness has given me a better appreciation for the difficult realities of life: its true weight. Furthermore, I have found that seeking to avoid the weight of life only makes it heavier and that we must find very robust stories in order to make sense of being human.

For me these stories have been rooted in the Christian gospel. The theological story of a Creator whose actions may at times be dark and mysterious, but whose purposes are always those of love; of the Liberator Jesus who walks beside me in my joys and my sorrows; and of the nurturing Holy Spirit who fills me and all of life with the divine presence, has been richly meaningful and weighty. This theological notebook is an exploration of how I have entered into this Christian story, made it my own and so shared in the great human endeavour of making meaning through the practical application of love.