Is it possible to be unhappy about gay marriage?

Here are some preliminary thoughts about the gay marriage debate that NZ will face in coming weeks. They grew to a longer screed than intended, sorry. A bill will be debated before parliament on this subject – here is its current form. These thoughts are a work in progress, and I may work on them further in future if it seems a productive use of time. I realise that by entering this area, I may offend some people, but that is not my intention. I ask that you read this with an attitude of charity. If you’d like to talk about it, I will gladly buy you a coffee, though if a firestorm of controversy erupts this is a limited offer as I have finite time and resources.


[image from Wikipedia]

What am I looking for in this debate; what do I hope to see? As far as possible, I want to see human dignity respected, human well-being maximised, and consistent standards applied. I want to see careful reasoning. Bold claims about ‘rights’ and ‘progress’ will be treated with scepticism – if this is considered sacrilegious, so be it. There are many conflicting claims in this area, often uttered by the same person – some attempt at rigor and clarity is essential if we are to see genuine debate rather than an emotive shout-fest. Some will say that the time for talking is over. I say that talking is one of the best defences we’ve yet found against bad ideas and I don’t intend to stop it. I write this post as I have studied philosophy, have a semi-amateur and seldom-indulged interest in legal thought on this issue, and believe it is important that the debate is actually had rather than simply assumed to have had been won sometime in the past.

What values do I bring to this debate? Firstly I am a Christian, and I believe that the Bible is entirely true in all that it teaches. I will leave that for now, but am always happy to discuss it. I think you will not need to agree with me on that to agree with me on other things presented here. I also, incidentally, believe that Christians should be able to promote religious views in the public square much as atheists can present views founded on a secular ethic; but I don’t think you’ll need to accept ‘religious’ premises in order to rationally oppose or be sceptical of claims for a change in the definition of marriage.

Secondly, I am socially conservative. Full explanation of this will have to await another occasion, but there are at least two strands. 1) Societies of the past have something to offer our present society. This is encapsulated in a quote from GK Chesterton:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.” “

2) Living in a ‘western’ country, our laws and institutions owe a great deal to the Christian faith. As a Christian, I am therefore inclined to want to keep more of them than I want to immediately change. There was, however, no ‘golden age’ in our past that we can look back to for a perfect legal system, and our system is always and rightly being reformed. Indeed, we have made some significant moral progress over the centuries – not in all areas, but in many. Note that by accepting that we have made real moral progress, I am accepting that there is a standard by which moral claims may be judged. I believe that this standard is from God and our best hope at it is intelligent reflection on the biblical witness to divine revelation, taking into account other findings, for example from science and human experience of the world. This proposal may sound unlikely to you, but it is my contention that a secular basis for normative ethics is at best very hard to come by. And if ethics is an illusion, let us give up talk of rights and progress! But, human beings tend to share some moral intuitions and the ability to reason about the world and I think people of goodwill can be reasoned towards accepting the good sense of a traditional, conjugal, view of marriage. If not, I guess we’ll all just be talking past each other, and that’d be a real pity.

Okay, prolegomena aside, time to move on to the dangerous stuff.

What is marriage? I believe that it is the union of one man and one woman who commit to each other exclusively, and that an important function of the institution (though not every instance of it) from the perspective of the wider society is the raising of children; part of the nature of the institution is that it is for the benefit of the wider society. This is what marriage intrinsically is. But in New Zealand and many other places, there is an added layer – marriage is recognised by the state; it is considered normative in some sense, or at least worthy of recognition. The view I commend is that enshrined in our current law, as I understand it. If we are to reject it as a society, I want to see reasons. Following RP George et al, the view I will be defending is the “conjugal view”. Fuller argumentation in support of it can be found in this important paper – I will simply highlight aspects that I consider important in my particular context. Mere statements of one’s opposing belief about the issue will not be persuasive and noone should expect them to be. If you disagree with what I present, an alternative is required – not mere critique or mockery, but a new definition.

The view I hold is found across cultures and I think is firmly grounded in the nature of human beings. There is Christian teaching to this effect, but it is also commonly recognised as being normative. However, we must ask: what about the vast range of other relationships out there, whether sexual or not – are any of these also ‘marriage’? One alternative view is that any committed relationship between two people where they love each other should be considered eligible for the status of marriage if the two wish to take that path. Anything else, we are told, is discrimination. Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the view found within the text of the new bill. On my reading, this proposed piece of legislation stipulates that a person, no matter how strong the love, commitment, etc., may not marry their:

(a) grandparent:

(b) parent:

(c) child:

(d) grandchild:

(e) sibling:

(f) parent’s sibling:

(g) sibling’s child:

(h) grandparent’s spouse or civil union partner:

(i) parent’s spouse or civil union partner:

(j) spouse’s or civil union partner’s parent:

(k) spouse’s or civil union partner’s grandparent:

(l) spouse’s or civil union partner’s child:

(m) child’s spouse or civil union partner:

(n) grandchild’s spouse or civil union partner:

(o) spouse’s or civil union partner’s grandchild.

Perhaps some proponents of the bill would wish that these restrictions were not in place, I do not know. But it is clear that things are not entirely simple in this area; love between two consenting adults is not enough! A slogan promoting revision to the law is “legalise love”. But in my view, love is not the issue here – the state prevents no-one (including those sharing love with another on the “still banned” list) from loving each other. The question is what relationships the state should recognise as belonging within ‘marriage’, conceived as a fundamental institution of our society. If marriage is literally meaningless or a definition is unable to be found, then it should be abolished rather than renovated.

The new definition of marriage desired by those pushing for “marriage equality” is I think an essentially selfish one, at least in the way I have seen it promoted. Marriage under such a definition is about two people who love each other, and everyone else can keep their nose out of any such partnerships. What happens between two adults is up to them, we are told, and we should all respect other people’s choices. But, those pushing for the recognition of same-sex marriage are simultaneously looking for state approval of such relationships. If state approval of marriage is currently due to what it produces, i.e. is essentially ‘others’ or ‘society’ focussed, then individual-centred, rights-based approaches will be in conflict with this understanding. If the state is required to recognise any relationship whatsoever, then it seems to me it may as well get out of the business of recognising relationships entirely. But if it is to only recognise some (even if a very large range) as constituting “marriage”, it will need to provide justification to those whose relationships do not fit the pattern deemed normative – and there will always be some! The conjugal view can provide such justification, in that under it, marriage is considered a public good and the natural foundation of society – a version which is only concerned with the self-fulfilment of those in the marital relationship will struggle to justify special state treatment accruing to those who enter it.

In summary, I don’t see principled distinctions being made between relationships recognised as marriage and those not (e.g. incest, not to mention polygamy and other multiple-person relationships) under a new definition. I also don’t see justification for State recognition of a broader range of relationships. Instead, same-sex marriage seems to me to be a quirk, a mere twist on a traditional view of marriage – we are held back by our western heritage from legally recognising a number of relationships (there’s a cringe factor associated with them) but want to recognise as many as possible, so are stuck in a bizarre half-way house where some aspects of traditional marriage (e.g. love & commitment [to some extent] and the requirement for exactly 2 participants) are arbitrarily insisted on, while others (those that are distinctive to the heterosexual conjugal view) are dropped. “Marriage equality” is presented as the epitome of progress, but is instead just one iteration of the traditional view that is possible out of many – merely cultural factors cause the population to favour some over others.

Finally, to respond to some assertions made in an article in ‘Craccum’ on this issue published last week, mostly dealing with what Christians think about the issue, qua Christians (I may write a proper response some time, we’ll see):

The Bible is clear that sex is intended for heterosexual marriage – assertions to the contrary are false.

Many marriages in the Old Testament (OT) were indeed polygamous. This is clearly forbidden in the new and is an example, perhaps, of progressive revelation – I am not a theologian so I’m not sure of the right way to put it. The OT, however, does not I think advocate polygamy or see it as normative. A quote from Tim Keller is helpful:

”… then I read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter is a Jewish scholar at Berkeley whose expertise is ancient Jewish literature. In his book he says there are two institutions present in the Book of Genesis that were universal in ancient cultures: polygamy and primogeniture. Polygamy said a husband could have multiple wives, and primogeniture said the oldest son got everything—all the power, all the money. In other words, the oldest son basically ruled over everyone else in the family. Alter points out that when you read the Book of Genesis, you’ll see two things. First of all, in every generation polygamy wreaks havoc. Having multiple wives is an absolute disaster—socially, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and relationally. Second, when it comes to primogeniture, in every generation God favors the younger son over the older. He favors Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Alter says that you begin to realize what the Book of Genesis is doing—it is subverting, not supporting, those ancient institutions at every turn.”

The Craccum article claims that there were medieval and pre-medieval examples of gay marriage in Christian countries. This is a popular claim on the internet, but is most probably false.

As the author says, it is curious that the State has a role in recognising the marriage relationship. Maybe there’s a reason for it.

There is more I intended to say – including about why marriage is particularly important to Christians, having been used repeatedly as an image of God’s love for people and the relationship between God and Church, and more – but this will do for now. If you’re annoyed by what I’ve written, I’m happy to talk about it; please convince me!

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One comment on “Is it possible to be unhappy about gay marriage?

  1. Mr Gronk says:

    A good post. Something similar to a lot of my thoughts on this topic.

    I don’t oppose same-sex civil marriage because the Bible opposes same-sex sex. To put it bluntly, why the flip should anyone who’s not a Christian care what the Bible says about anything? Rather, I oppose it because — as you say — it reduces marriage to something the State has no legitimate interest in. The State at least has good reasons to encourage producing children and raising them well; it has no reason at all to give its stamp of approval to a sexual relationship between two adults of arbitrary sex, other than to make them feel happy.

    Especially since their “happiness” seems to require others’ approval, which makes it a very dangerous thing. Because that means a piece of paper issued by the Department of Internal Affairs won’t satisfy them. Their logical next step is the elimination, not just of legal or official disapproval, but of social disapproval (i.e., the disapproving opinions of private citizens). We’ve seen this recently with the Chick-fil-A manager in the United States, where various cities, notably Boston, are declaring his business persona non grata because of his opinions in this matter. Besides, what about the happiness of those who don’t want to see homosexual behaviour normalised? In a world where all people are supposedly equal, what makes their happiness less worthy of consideration than that of gay and lesbian couples who could, if this bill passes, marry?

    As a side point, one thing about polygamy (at least in the OT) is that even when it was permitted, any given marriage was still between one man and one woman. (For instance, Jacob didn’t “marry Leah and Rachel”; he married Leah, then some time later he married Rachel.) It’s just that the man could enter into a subsequent marriage without dissolving all his pre-existing marriages. And death of one wife, or divorce, wouldn’t affect the remaining marriages. This is, perhaps, quite different to some models advocated today (e.g., three-person marriages), at least in symbolism, and is actually a lot closer to the one-man, one-woman ideal.

    Having said all that, I suspect that this bill will pass, and to be honest it might in some ways be a relief, because it might cause some of the usual suspects to lay off for a bit. But I think Christians and churches need to begin planning for a world with same-sex marriage. I wonder, for example, about the usefulness of withdrawing recognition for civil marriage when it comes to legitimising sex. After all, I would say the elements of a Christian marriage are a relationship that is (i) sexual, (ii) publicly acknowledged, (iii) male-female, (iv) exclusive and (v) lifelong. (i) fell a long time ago, when the requirement that marriages be consummated was removed; (v) followed with no-fault divorce; (iii) is about to go; and (iv) is likely to come under increasing attack. So far, there are no particular moves to attack (ii), but it’s probably the least important of all of them. Take them all away, and what do you have left that’s worth recognising anyway?

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