Posted on Nov 26, 2012
Book Review: What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.
The movement toward same-sex “marriage” has every appearance of being an irresistible force, with recent elections indicating the inexorability of its spread across the Western world. Those who stand against it will be bowled over by it. The outcome is all but inevitable.
So say its proponents, at any rate. Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George beg to differ. Two years ago the three released an influential paper arguing that there is a solid and permanent reality to marriage that stands despite any social or political force that may challenge it. Although marriages differ widely in form and custom, and especially in each couple’s experience, there is nevertheless a stable and enduring core meaning to marriage itself that will endure any assault.
Their 2010 paper having been widely discussed and widely criticized, they have now extended it to book length in What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, available for pre-order now, and scheduled for release tomorrow as an ebook (Kindle, Nook, iBooks), about two weeks from now as a paperback. The three authors are, as was to be expected, very much holding their ground, as is the marriage defense movement they are helping to lead.
Gay “marriage” versus man-woman marriage—it is as close as a social issue ccould come to “irresistible force meets immovable object.” No wonder there’s so much energy being released around it.
The question asked in the book’s title, What Is Marriage? is the right one, for whether marriage can or should be revised politically depends on what marriage is. If it is the kind of thing that’s open to revision, then there may be no need to stand in the way of its alteration. If not, then change may not only be politically unadvisable but essentially impossible.
And yet that question is also a step or two down the road from the starting block; for in the very question, “what is marriage?” there is the assumption that marriage entails some identifiable is-ness, some inherent or essential reality that defines it (pardon the repetition) definitely; that marriage, whatever it may be, actually is one thing and is not another. This assumption is open to debate.
The Western world in the twenty-first century is deeply infected with an unstudied democratic nominalism, meaning (for present purposes) that we tend to think our institutions, including marriage, can be whatever the majority says they are. We find it hard to conceive of something like marriage possessing or exhibiting any enduring and essential nature. How could it, after all? If biological species—including homo sapiens—are but today’s snapshot in a stream of populations that were once something else and likely will be again, how could mere behaviors be imbued with anything essential or permanent? Nothing is what it was yesterday; everything is becoming something else; and why not marriage, too?
So on that view one might wonder why a question like “what is marriage?” shouldn’t be discarded right off the bat. The right question could only be “what is marriage today?” And today’s answer could hardly be supplied through philosophical treatises like Girgis, Anderson, and George’s, but only by legislatures, plebiscites, and the courts. The same-sex “marriage” movement could move forward unresisted.
But there are reasons to recognize in marriage an unmoving, unchanging core essence or nature. Girgis, Anderson, and George take up the burden of showing that this is so, what that nature is, and why; band it seems to me they accomplish what they set out to do. They make a persuasive case that marriage necessarily involves a certain sort of comprehensive union that can only be achieved between a man and a woman. Their arguments are cogent; they handle objections deftly. It is a powerful book: marriage revisionists will find they are quite required to deal with it.
Or not. They could easily choose to ignore it, even if it’s all that I have just said that it is.
For let us imagine, if only for the sake of argument, that the authors have given us not just a good argument for conjugal (man-woman) marriage, but an absolutely unassailable case. Why should revisionists have to pay it any attention? They’ve already won the major public relations battles. Gradually—inexorably, it seems—they are making progress on one political front after another. Theirs is the irresistible force. They can press on regardless. What’s another book when victory is in your grasp?
The answer to that question resides on two levels, the first of which is (to my mind) determinative, the second more consequential yet.
On the first level there are the fatal contradictions in revisionist marriage—which, by the way, is not to be confused with the question of marriage for same-sex couples. The authors define this revisionism as
a vision of marriage as, in essence, an emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that points mainly inward, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s feelings. In marriage so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it.
This stands in contrast to the conjugal view they defend:
It is a vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished thus by its comprehensiveness, which is, like all love, effusive: flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.
Revisionist marriage has been around a lot longer than same-sex “marriage:” it is the form in which many heterosexual couples have been taking their vows (such as they may be) for decades, more or less since artificial contraception allowed childbearing to be decoupled from sex, sex from marriage, and of course marriage from childbearing. It was that decoupling that gave marriage the opportunity to be construed as being primarily of, by, and for the married pair. The same-sex marriage question is simply the same issue extended further in the same logical direction.
This revisionist view is fraught with fatal contradictions, discussions of which form a considerable proportion of the content of What Is Marriage? If, for example, marriage is essentially an intense and romantic friendship, what business does the government have being involved in it? How does such a marriage not interfere with, say, a partner’s friendship with his or her second-best friend? Other than, “my goodness, we’re not asking for that,” is there any principled reason not to invite that other friend in to be part of the same marriage?
But revisionism’s problems extend much deeper than that. Marriage is, the authors explain,
a human good with an objective structure, which it is inherently good for us to live out….
It is a human good. Its goodness stands upon, and flows out of, what we are as human beings. It is good to unite with another person in a comprehensive union. It is good for that union to be of the sort that uniquely completes the one biological function that depends on two persons, male and female. It is good for that union to be of the sort that can and usually does result in offspring, the effusive fruit of the couple’s love. It is good for those children to be raised by their biological parents. It is good for individuals, for couples, for children, for society as a whole, which by the way is the only reason it makes sense for government to be involved in marriage. It is not good to practice or propose any view of marriage that would undermine these goods, just because they are real goods.
They are good because of who we are as humans. And it is our humanity, not any three authors’ opinions, or any religious or conservative political group’s viewpoint, that is the immovable object against which the (seemingly) irresistible force of same-sex “marriage” is pressing itself. There is, after all, an answer to the question, “what is marriage?” In its core (not its accidents but its substance), that answer has been the same the world over in virtually all cultures: a fact which is easily understood in virtue of humans being humans in all cultures the world over.
I do not mean to suggest that there is something less than human about marriage revisionists. I suspect what we’re seeing in them is not a loss of belief in marriage as human, but rather a failure of confidence in marriage as good; and that it is this loss of confidence that leads them to be willing to toss the whole thing up in the air and start all over again. Marriage is a human good, but humans being what we are, not all marriages are good, or experienced as good. But now I have started down another trail, and I had better wrap up before I wander too far in a new direction.
I urge marriage defenders to digest this book. There are better and there are worse arguments in defense of marriage; and to the extent we are losing ground, it may be partly attributed to not knowing the difference. This book should be hugely helpful in that respect.
I do not know whether marriage revisionists will consider it necessary to contend with this book. For all I know, they’ll decide they can continue acting as if their movement is the irresistible force they suppose it to be. I think that they would do themselves a favor to read it, though; for in it they will find a charitably, rationally, and persuasively presented depiction of what they will eventually—inexorably, even—discover: that marriage is a distinctive human good; that it is good that it always involves the comprehensive, effusive union of a man and a woman.
(Also posted at First Thoughts. Quotations from the book in this review were taken from an advance review copy which included a notice that it was subject to change prior to publication. Although this should go without saying, my prior experience with this topic impels me to point out that if it appears I have not presented a complete defense of the conjugal marriage position herein, it is because that was not my purpose. I am rather hoping readers will obtain the book, which is where the arguments may actually be found.)