The New York Times today covers the efforts of same-sex couples to be allowed into competitive ballroom dancing.
It may seem a bit trivial to make a fuss about the symbol when the substance is so far under attack. But symbols are important, at times of more immediate importance than reality. They provide a lens to understand the reality.
Ballroom dancing, as Henry Tilney pointed out in Northanger Abbey is, and always has been, a symbol of marriage. It is the exclusive union of one man and one woman for a mutual purpose. It beautifully illustrates the complementary nature of marriage: Men lead and women follow, not because men are generally better dancers, but because someone must lead and within the parameters of the dance it makes sense for the man to do so.
Submission in the dance does not lead to the man trampling the woman, but empowering her to do things the man could never do, and she could not do alone. It brings to mind that old line, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did--only backwards and in high heels" that beautifully illustrates the strength and grace of the traditional woman's role.
(Can a Baptist speak so warmly about ballroom dancing? But after all, any Baptist objection to it is based on the grounds that it provides such an excellent symbol of marriage that it ought not to be engaged in promiscuously. So the analogy holds.)
Even those promoting same-sex ballroom dancing acknowledge that it's a different art form than opposite-sex ballroom dancing. A man can't move the way a woman does. The leader-follower relationship must be changed. And even the emotional dynamic of the relationship symbolized influences the dance. Two men dancing is not the same thing as a man and a woman dancing. And thus the symbol draws us back to the reality.
I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis using the analogy (and another Jane Austen insight) of a ballroom dance in analyzing why women should not be ordained in the church. He argues that, on the fringes, one can treat men and women as interchangeable--that at a factory or at a ballot-box their sex indeed does not matter. But the closer you get to the center, to the realities at the heart of the universe, the more important the distinction becomes.
Ballroom dancing is the symbol of a symbol. Marriage and the church hierarchies are symbols of the reality. I doubt we will fully grasp the reality symbolized until we look into the face of our Father (not Mother or Parent) in heaven. But it has something to do with otherness. The delight of one person in another like himself could be merely narcisstic. Sex shows us the potential for delight in someone different; indeed, that part of the delight is the very differentness. Equating a same-sex relationship with an opposite-sex relationship hides the reality that God planted within human beings when he made them male and female: that although He is not like us, yet He desires us.