Making Sense of the Marriage Debate. Part One.

Yes, I know. It’s either totally foolish or terribly audacious to suggest that one blog post from a barely known pastor-theologian will do what many have begged for and few have actually provided. So let me begin by saying I am not claiming to have the final solutions to anything, least of all how we should handle the questions surrounding what is described as same-sex marriage. And I acknowledge that I approach the matter as a Christian committed to the integrity of the biblical narrative and to the definition of Christianity provided by the ancient creeds; these are, after all, summaries of the doctrines implied by that narrative.

One of the most difficult tasks in an emotionally laden controversy is to separate the questions and the positions the questions imply. That is what I propose to do in this post. It will say too much for some readers and too little for others; it will ask as many questions as it will answer, but it will hopefully do so in such a way as to generate less heat and more thought. If any readers find that those with different answers to some of the questions do have a point to consider, we will have moved forward. As a Christian I want to honor Christ in the way I engage others in hard conversations just as much as I want to honor him by speaking the mind of the Holy Spirit. The first of those is always under my control; the latter is something about which I can be mistaken, strive as I might and shall to hear his voice through the scriptures, through reason, and through history.

What Are We Talking About?

On the surface, this seems a silly question. We’ve already stated that we are speaking about same sex marriage. But that’s just the problem for many people in this debate. What is marriage? And, more importantly, how do we know what it is, and who gets to say what it is? What are the grounds for saying it is one thing and not another, or that it can or cannot be different things for different people? We cannot be deceived on this latter point. To say that the nature of marriage is such that it can be different things simultaneously is to make a claim to know the truth about marriage.

This is a philosophical issue, something for which our culture has little time or training. And because we have not been taught how to think or reason well, we have fallen prey to a philosophy that says things only become something when we name them, and that the naming is arbitrary, performed as an act of power by those who have the upper hand. In other words, there is no true identity to anything, no essence to the things and even (or especially) the values or ideals by which we measure human actions and purposes. Beauty, truth, justice, goodness are just ideas we have created. They don’t actually exist. When it comes to something like marriage, or families, or pets, or humans themselves the same is true. There are no definitions until we supply them; in fact, they can’t exist until we make up words to apply to them.

If this is the case, there can be no debate. If we say marriage is anything we want it to be, and there is no question of whether it is true or not, then if we want two people of the same gender to have the same status as two of different genders, then so be it. Who could argue?

 

Nominalism, which is the position just described, can be adequately understood as name-only-ism; our values and our descriptions, our definitions of terms, our understandings of concepts, etc., have no grounding other than in the words we use to name them. There is no real or true answer, description, or standard against which to measure or assess what we call things. And the question before us then is a question of whether there is anything that can be true or false about what we decide what marriage–or anything else–is.

The Christian concept of revelation challenges nominalism. It tells us that all things exist in, through, and because of God; they have their meaning in God. And the concept further suggests that there are ways in which God communicates the nature of the things that have been created. While some people would limit revelation to the words of the Bible as God’s “special” revelation, even the Bible itself suggests that the nature of the world and our reflection on it gives us some insight into the true nature of things. It is my strong inclination to believe that reason, properly employed and honestly pursued, will not undo the picture of things which the Bible paints–provided that it, too, is honestly and properly understood. I say this because it is one thing to claim that there is ultimate truth, grounded in God; it seems a position Christians are bound to adopt. But it is quite another thing to say that we fully and finally comprehend that ultimate truth; that is something we should not say. That is, we cannot allow ourselves to deny the possibility of our being mistaken as individual persons or even as a corporate church. But our susceptibility to error does not invalidate the idea that there really is truth. All of this may seem a to be a tangent from what I first proposed to write about. But God’s revelation, if such there be, must be the starting point for Christian reflection on the nature of the world and the things in it, most importantly regarding the nature of human life.

When we seek God’s perspective on human nature from the Bible, we learn a few things very quickly from the first two chapters of Genesis. Let’s list them for simplicity and in order to refer to them at later points:

1. We are created in the image of God.
2. We are created male and female.
3. Man and woman are united by leaving parents and, at least in potential, creating offspring.

What we learn in these few simple statements from the opening chapters of the Bible is corroborated in many ways through human history and anthropology. All cultures have some way of recognizing and protecting the relationship between the parents and potential parents of the next generation; it is essential to the survival of the culture into the future, the protection and continuation of what they have made into a future beyond their own lifetime. In all cultures, a man has left father and mother in order to be united with his wife and create a family of their own.

With respect to the second statement, human psychology and physiology concur. There is difference within the bearing of the image of God. Male and female bodies are different; the brain chemistry is different, as science has repeatedly demonstrated. Yet these differences between male and female are complimentary; and both male and female characteristics have their origin in God. Some conclusions follow from this. As designed, humans are to be God’s image-bearers, that is, the icons of God. And since this image is born jointly by male and female, it is through their difference and in their combination that children born to them are to see God represented to them. It is how they learn of God. This is an idea primitively stated in Adam’s having a helper (better: compliment) suitable for him; it is one more sophisicatedly stated by research that demonstrates that children of two-parent (male-female) households thrive better than those in other situations. It is the reason all cultures, with or without the Bible, with or without the research, have protected in some significant ways the relationship between man and woman. It’s in our nature as created to do so.

Things have diverged from this creation pattern in many ways. That’s why we have controversies. But as we consider the challenges and brokenness of our lives in this world, we cannot do so without some strong sense of the place from which we have fallen. It is for that reason that I have begun this series of posts in this vein. What to do about our fallenness, what Christians do and should say to the culture at large, and how they should think of the matter of same-sex unions in their own company will be considered in subsequent additions to the blog. Thanks for listening.

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Time to Finalize the Divorce?

I know, it’s a radical suggestion. And it is fraught with difficult side issues and entanglements which make it a hazardous direction by any account. Children, inheritance, estates, custody, property, visitation rights, medical guardianship, and probably a lot of other matters would have to be accounted for. But maybe it’s time to begin the conversation (one which has in fact already begun in some circles).

The divorce I am thinking of is not one between two people, but between the church and the state as that relationship pertains to the legalization of marriage. Is it time for the church to have nothing further to do with what state-sanctioned marriage proceedings? Neither the state nor the broader culture seem to have little knowledge of and even less concern for what Christian marriage is; and maybe it is time for the church to claim its ground, at least among its own people. This idea is, to be sure, prompted by the news this week that Maryland has become the eighth state to legalize marriage between same-sex partners. There is little short of divine intervention that will keep that number from growing rapidly in short order.

On one hand, it is perhaps of little concern to those who do not walk in this way; no one says a person must marry one of the same sex. But on the other, it may well come about soon that anyone authorized by the state to legally sanction any marriage may be required to do so for whatever is declared by the state to be a marriage; and that will have ever more fading resemblances to Christian marriage. Odd, isn’t it? A rapidly increasing number of heterosexual couples eschews marriage for simple, convenient co-habitation, while same-sex couples want increasingly to opt in to what is by all accounts a fading institution. And on the other side of the courthouse, where marriages are legally de-sanctioned via divorce, we have mountainous evidence that the permanence assumed by Christians to be part of the substance of marriage is a sham at best and a rejected idea at worst.

It is enticing to say that Christian churches should have their own ceremonies, independent of the state, whose legal recognition a couple could seek independently if they wish. It is no longer a matter significantly noted by the community that a couple living in the neighborhood is or is not legally married. Such a drastic step should only be taken, however, after a thorough teaching of the ontology of marriage. Yes, that’s a philosophical term. It refers to the belief that marriage is not a nominal matter—something that only exists because we have given a name to it, a name with which we can interchange shapes and meanings. Instead, we believe it to be grounded in God and revealed to us through general as well as special revelation. The latter is plainly given in the earliest portions of the Bible, continuously reaffirmed throughout its unfolding story; the former is witnessed to by the virtual universality of male-female marriage through all manner of cultures, notwithstanding the many differences in roles and expectations. If there is an ontological reality to marriage, we can call something else by the name all we want; it does not make it so.

Perhaps there are good and sufficient reasons for the state to grant legal recognition to unions of same-sex persons. I am not fully convinced, particularly in light of the diminishing respect for marriage among the general population. But there are good reasons for Christians in particular to distinguish these from holy matrimony.

These thoughts are just beginning to gain some traction in my own thinking; I’m not sure where they will end up. What are your thoughts?

Another Call to Arms?

Well, here we go again. Nothing like a good controversy to spur a backsliding blogger back into action.

And oh, what a controversy we have, courtesy of the White House, from whence it was announced earlier this week that the fifteen year run of the Defense of Marriage Act will no longer be defended itself. Predictably, a host of conservative watchdogs has been busily rallying the troops for an all-out frontal attack on the decision and on those responsible for it. Anyone associated with evangelical causes of any kind can expect a mailbox flooded with appeal letters pointing out the evils of homosexuality, the callousness of the current administration toward what its citizens truly believe, the necessity of overturning the decision, and–oh, by the way–the need to send a check to make sure all of this happens. (Last time I checked, I did not need to pay someone else to cast a ballot for me. Just saying.)

Let’s make no mistake about it. There is plenty to find disconcerting in the announcement. For starters, there is the hubris of justifying the decision by pronouncing that it violates the constitution. Clearly, that sort of declaration does not come from the Oval Office; but apparently the body charged with making that declaration failed in its duty to so rule and needs to be corrected by the White House. Technical foul. If that were not enough, the administration also presumes itself to be the appropriate arbiter of what marriage is and is not. Flagrant foul. Then there is the flip dismissal of the moral traditions which have been woven into the fabric of this culture as though they cannot speak into the whole question. Just plain foul from the start.

The concern in this corner is not over whether or not to agree with President Obama’s decision; rather, it with what we are to do about it. I cringe almost as much over the coming rantings and deluge of promo materials as I do over the decision itself. Does that mean I am indifferent? Not at all, though interpret it as you must. But I do wonder whether it is time for Christians to evaluate what they have to show for the strategies of the past forty years or so, strategies which have included the giving of untold millions of dollars which have yielded virtually nothing by way of actual policy reform. At the same time, there has been far too much vitriolic language targeting “the opposition.” Unlike the funding, this has produced a yield, albeit of a negative sort; it has created further defensive barriers and animosity, not only toward the attitudes on the issues, but toward the faith supposedly represented. So what do we do? Below are several options, not exhaustively stated by any means.

1. Fight the good fight as before, trusting that the Lord will do mighty things to bring victories which we may not see immediately. Write the letters, send the contributions, and join the marches.

2. Pray for those who represent our views and for those who do not, yet have influence in the decisions.

3. Recognize that the arena of the mind, from which ideas flow, was conceded a long time ago when we preached a private faith, untouched and unaffected by reason. We then must do the hard work of recovering the believing mind, and maybe the even harder work of gaining a hearing, all the while displaying a respectful attitude.

4. Let the world do what it will. It is unredeemed and we cannot expect redemptive behavior from it. After all, no one is forcing believers to engage in homosexual marriages, have abortions, gamble, etc. When they have had enough, we’ll be there to help the lost to see a better way.

It’s just the start of a list, but I’d like to hear where you find yourself and why. Since some of my readers cannot refrain from posing their own nuanced options, you have my permission.