President Obama declared his affirmation of same-sex “marriage” yesterday. His opinion changes nothing except the legal and political environment. More specifically, it has no effect on what marriage actually is, because the meaning of marriage is not up to anyone to decide—not even the President.
What I mean is that marriage has its own enduring nature or essence. I know many would disagree with me on that. Where you stand on that one question, though, will largely determine where you stand on SSM. Is there, or is there not, something—some nature or essence, that makes marriage what it is? Or is “marriage” up for grabs? If the former, then the SSM advocate carries an exceptionally strong burden of proof, to show that majority of cultures through history have gotten marriage wrong by making it about male and female. If the latter, then marriage can be whatever it is at the moment, and there’s no good reason to oppose SSM.
In this series I have been explaining that not all opposition to SSM is religious in nature. I could hardly forget while doing so that these non-religious arguments somehow seem to keep being proposed by people of faith. One has to wonder, if the non-religious arguments are that great, the why are the people on our side so overwhelmingly religious?
I think there might be a very good sociocultural answer to that question, and I intend to propose it in a moment, after I first clarify who I am talking about here and who I am not. On both sides of this issue there are some who have taken their stance only because “that’s what my kind of people think about this.” Make no mistake: support for gay “marriage” has a lot to do with aligning with one’s social group. So does opposition to it. I’m not talking about that kind of support or opposition, but about that which is well informed and thought through.
Some of us who have thought about it think marriage is what it is, and that social movements don’t change that. Girgis, George, and Anderson have developed a strong case for the enduring identity of marriage on natural, not religious, grounds. Others think precisely the opposite: that social currents are exactly the right place to look for the definition of marriage.
Is this not a religious difference after all, however? Could it even be that religious people are fooling ourselves and trying to do the same with others? We have our biblical reasons to oppose SSM, after all, which we know won’t be allowed into legislation or into the courts. Maybe we’ve manufactured some handy-dandy non-biblical reasons to take into battle in their stead. There’s a hint of truth in that. We do have biblical reasons that we can’t deploy in the legal fight. We do bring natural-law reasons instead, as that theory suggests. All of that’s irrelevant, though. The question is, what about the reasons? How do they hold up under challenge? If they’re strong, it doesn’t matter where they came from.
It’s not as simple though, as opening up an article and assessing its arguments. The best arguments for man-woman marriage depend lean heavily on the supposition that there is something that marriage is, and that its nature, its essence, isn’t up for a vote. That supposition is no longer widely shared. Many of us take it that we can mold the meaning of marriage to suit the temper of the age.
Many of us, in fact, take it that we can mold the meaning of almost anything to suit ourselves. Is there an enduring essence of maleness and femaleness, or, as some now maintain, does each person have the option to choose (pardon me, but I can’t avoid saying it this way) his or her own gender? Is there an enduring essence of humanness, or are we (as again some hold to be true) of pretty much the same sort of thing as the animals? Are we on our evolutionary way toward becoming something else? The questions can be multiplied. Interestingly, answers to all of them seem to line up along a religious divide.
Herein, I suspect, lies the reason for the religious divide which exists even for non-religious arguments. Though I have done no social research on the question, still I am suspicious that this is what separates the parties: believers in God are far more likely than non-believers to hold that certain things have their own enduring nature, essence, or definition. Thus we are far more likely to hold that marriage, gender, and human nature have stable and lasting meanings.
That’s my theory. Supposing I am correct, why might that be so? I can think of at least three reasons.
1. Pride of progress, or, chronological chauvinism. Non-believers are more likely than believers to think that every new generation is wiser than every earlier one. This is, unfortunately, a silly conceit associated with the fallacy of thinking that all knowledge is scientific knowledge. Obviously scientific knowledge is increasing day by day. Does that mean wisdom is, too? Or literary expertise, or musical creativity and virtuosity? Obviously not. These have virtually nothing to do with science. Neither does marriage. Why would we assume we are any smarter than the ancients (read: anyone born before 1960) concerning the nature of marriage?
Believers are more likely than non-believers to recognize that fallacy for what it is. We are therefore less likely to fall for the fallacies of scientism (“science is all there is of knowledge”) and chronological snobbery (“our age knows more about everything”).
2. The sexual revolution. The children of the 60s—and their children—are running the country. The message of the 60s has been that whatever consenting adults decide to do is just fine. Though there both biblically- and non-biblically based arguments against this foolishness, Bible-believers have at least been more motivated than non-believers to give them proper respect—in theory at least, if not always in practice.
3. Evolutionary theories of origins. Darwinian evolution is an all-encompassing theory, covering every aspect of organisms’ physical and behavioral characteristics. It is furthermore—and crucially—a theory of change, of things that are always on their way to becoming something else. Of course evolution can accommodate and explain stasis in populations, but still for all that it remains a theory of change. Today’s humanness is a snapshot along the road of history, so why shouldn’t today’s marriage be the same?
If I’m right, then a theory of marriage such as Girgis, George, and Anderson’s, arguing as it does on the basis of what marriage is, faces uphill sledding among non-believers. Why believe that anything is what it is, or at least that it is so in its essence?
I am hoping my estimable friends Holopupenko and G. Rodrigues will fill in some gaps for me here. They are better equipped than I to show, for example, that these differences pre-date Christianity by hundreds of years. Can a man step in the same river twice? Is he still the same man if he does? Was Heraclitus correct to think change is the only reality? Or was Plato closer to the mark with his eternal forms? They know more than I do about what a nature is or might be, too.
Regardless of that, though, I hope you see that these are not necessarily religious questions. Religious belief can inform them, certainly, but questions like these can also be asked and answered independently of such belief. I refer you again to the paper by Girgis et al. Granted that its arguments are more readily received by those inclined to accept that there could actually be something that marriage actually is, that doesn’t mean others need not pay them any attention. Perhaps their force is adequate to cause someone to believe that for the first time.
I think there’s more that could be said about this, but I’m exploring and proposing ideas here, not trying to work out a final disquisition on them, so I’ll leave it at this. What do you think?
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