Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Marriage Debate: Why Christians Lost the Argument Before it Began.

Interesting article here by John Milbank of Radical Orthodoxy fame:


He makes the point regarding gay marriage that the redefinition of marriage by law ultimately redefines heterosexual relationships in terms of homosexual ones.  He also notes that properly speaking, marriage doesn't fit all that well with gay relationships and that homosexuals themselves historically haven't really wanted to get married.  Hence, there must be an  ulterior motive.  Ultimately, Milbank argues, the whole issue is about the divinity of the state.  If the secular state can redefine an institution that exists prior to it (and was created by God, I might add), then it means that it possesses an absolute power over human life.  Hence, Milbank see the issue has revolving around the deification of the state.

I think the question of the continuing deification of the state in modern life is a interesting one, and I've explored it here: http://jackkilcrease.blogspot.com/2012/07/thomas-hobbes-as-theologian-part-i.html and also here: http://jackkilcrease.blogspot.com/2012/07/law-gospel-and-liberal-tradition-of.html.  Ultimately, in terms of winning the argument about traditional marriage (by which I mean both the belief in heterosexual marriage, and also the indissoluble nature of marriage- i.e., no divorces without Jesus' single exception) it is a daunting task for modern Christians.  It is a daunting task because even before the debate begins, Christians are faced with the fact that everyone (including Christians themselves) already have a distorted understanding of marriage.

Prior to the modern era, the basic conception of marriage in Judeo-Christian culture was an Order of Creation and an economic relationship.  Since all property was tied up in land, and land was owned by families, marriage was a way of ensuring intelligent and rational means of wealth transference and (depending on the status of the family) political alliances.  Theologically speaking as well, love was secondary in the definition of marriage.  In Luther's commentary on Genesis and in the Catechisms, he understands marriage as an Order of Creation established by God, and definitional of the human self in this age.  Here he echoed Jesus in Matthew.  Similarly, the RCC understood marriage as both an something rooted in creation, and elevated by the order of grace.  

Though I may disagree with this later definition theologically, the commonality between it and the Lutheran one is clear: Marriage is a reality rooted in a legal, creational, and economic relationships.  It isn't about the subjective feeling or personal preference of the participants.  People in the pre-modern world of course did experience romance and love (it being universally human phenomenon), but such realities only had an incidental relationship to marriage.  For perspective on this, read some of the Medieval chivalric romances: The authors actually assume that love and romance are only incidental to marriage, or in very extreme versions, very nearly impossible within marriage.   

Things changed in the 19th century.  Since Capitalism made wealth transference and generation possible without people handing it down through kinship, western European and American society had to come up with a new rationale for marriage.  This rationale was companionship and romance, and marriage therefore was redefined as a public ratification of one's subjective romantic feelings.  After this, divorce became more common. Why?  Because if one doesn't have the experience of proper companionship with one's spouse the whole relationship isn't serving its function.  Hence, why not just move on?  Of course there were still legal barriers to divorce, but after the 1960s and no-fault divorce kicked in, rates of divorce went off the charts.  Moreover,  the theory of companionship marriage also made homosexual marriage thinkable in ways that was never were before (even to homosexual themselves!).  Because companionship and romance took over as the rationale for marriage and people of opposite genders can obviously have these experiences as easily as people of the same gender, why not gay marriage?

This is why the gay marriage argument is so powerful in our context, even though at best it's an exercise in the logical fallacy of "begging the question."  In other words, what advocates for gay marriage already assume is that homosexual relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships, and consequently, denying homosexuals the ability to marry is an act of discrimination.  Gay marriage is a a matter of "marriage equality."  Nevertheless the question remains: Why can the advocates of gay marriage assume that there is this equivalency and appeal to it?  Because they assume that marriage is a public ratification of our subjective feelings about another person- i.e., companionship marriage.  Since all heterosexuals in our society already assume this, such an appeal works.  If one, for example, believes that marriage is an Order of Creation, and tied to specific heterosexual activities, then the argument doesn't work.  Also, if one assumes that marriage ordains certain goods that are tied to the gender diversity of the persons involved and that these goods remain good irrespective of the subjective feeling of the partners, then the argument also falls apart. 

But almost no one does, and that's why the gay marriage debate is not winnable for Christians in this society: We've already abandoned the correct understanding of marriage a long time ago. We can't appeal to a model of marriage that even conservative Christians unconsciously don't ascribe to. 


  1. Wow! You really are challenging my preconceptions about marriage! I'm gonna have to think about this one for quite awhile…

  2. I believe you're understating one of Milbank's primary points, that the gay community is attempting to not only re-define marriage, but the sexual relationship. Sex is an asymmetric relationship that results in children. Homosexual marriage would separate human reproduction from human sexuality.

  3. You are absolutely correct that the gay-marriage debate is already lost because we Christians are working with a faulty understanding of marriage. The theological problem goes back further than even the "Order of Creation/economic relationship" understanding you reference (and which you seem to acknowledge, if I am reading your post correctly).

    Are you aware of Paul Bretscher's study, "The Mystery of Oneness"? I understand Bretscher has his weaknesses but in regard to reclaiming a biblical understanding of marriage for the church, I think his work is an excellent exposition of the texts and what they mean. The study certainly helps clear away the modern preconceptions about marriage that no one even bothers to question, at least. It would be an excellant start in trying to reorient our thinking on marriage into more biblical paths.

    I don't know if you would ever have the time or inclination, butI would be interested in hearing your take on what Bretscher has to say.

  4. "The authors actually assume that love and romance are only incidental to marriage, or in very extreme versions, very nearly impossible within marriage."

    Maybe. But when you are married to the King, you can't help but be in love.

    I guess I see these things - romance and security - going hand in hand with one another.

    The point being that true love - which in the context of male and female is in fact meant to entail romance and passion - has creative power.

    Here are my thoughts on this, if you are interested. http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2012/09/21/regarding-jesus-wife-his-real-wife-that-is/


  5. "which in the context of male and female is in fact meant to entail romance and passion"

    that should say husband and wife!


  6. I think Milbank hit the nail on the head, as did your further comments. Let me add some corollaries to what you have written:

    1. The changes in marriage go back to the age of the Enlightenment itself, where both capitalism and the idea of the centralized state came into being and sought to overthrow any mediating institution (family, church, civic organizations, etc.). This is not just a development of the Sexual Revolution or of the past decade.

    2. Capitalism is as much a foe of traditional marriage as is the overbearing state. Capitalism disavows the traditional concept of economy as literally "household management" and instead favors enterprises that transcend those of individual families. It wants its workers to be as fungible as money, not rooted down by ties to land, marriage, and children. Moreover, it is in the interests of commerce to promote such family-destroying things as pornography and divorce: the former because the demand once stoked is insatiable; the latter because it leads to the need for more houses, more sets of furniture, etc.

    3. It is no surprise then that with the Industrial Revolution we see the breakup of the extended family and the subsequent decline of the birth rate, which is but the first step to the breakup of the immediate family and the subsequent separation of sex from reproduction. (Aside: I agree with Milbank that one need not be RC about birth control to be troubled by some developments in reproductive technology.) In a pre-capitalist economy, children are one's 401(k). Yes, it costs a little in the short term, but one's children will pay the dividends of grandchildren, who will support one in old age. But when the extended family has been broken up by urban immigration and when loyalty to the paterfamilias has been replaced by loyalty to the employer, children become a burden. You will inevitably lose whatever money you invest in them. The current changes to family life are an attempt to mitigate that burden.

    4. One ought not to ignore that many of the social changes in recent decades (such as recognizing unmarried domestic partners of all types) have been advanced less by the government than Fortune 500 companies, who see this as good business. Moral conservatives, who are one embattled political minority, may naturally want to seek other embattled minorities, such as the captains of industry, but we should not overlook that we have vastly different concerns. Their anti-statist attitude does not make them pro-family.

    5. Thus, the realistic danger to human freedom may be more the friendly, hedonistic, statist-capitalist "Brave New World" where sex has nothing to do with reproduction and where people seek an anodyne without negative side effects--can anyone say, "TV"?--rather than the puritanical security state of "1984." Nobody since 1989 has seriously argued for the latter, while we increasingly move toward the former.

  7. "Prior to the modern era, the basic conception of marriage in Judeo-Christian culture was an Order of Creation and an economic relationship. Since all property was tied up in land, and land was owned by families, marriage was a way of ensuring intelligent and rational means of wealth transference and (depending on the status of the family) political alliances."

    Then the concept was mangled even before the modern era, by millennia. In the Garden, the "wealth transference" of the marriage was less inter-generational (or a matter of political maneuvering), than blessedly inter-spousal. Adam's sacrifice of himself, through a loss of a rib, whelped his wife's very being... through the gift (albeit an unconscious one), two were made in fact really one, for a cause (Mk 10:7, AV). Man and wife, the unit (the "them" of Gen 1:28, AV) were called upon by God to be fruitful ... not Adam (individually) or his wife (individually). But together, as an inseparable and undivided one, in the married state. The homosexual pairing cannot compare to our first parents' unit, as to potential fruitfulness; that unit is not "equivalent," but is barren through willful human choice, in this case a choice entailing the selection of a biologically-absurd partner. The same-sex components of the supposed "unit" cannot sacrifice of each other's tissue (or nucleic acids) to form a unique creature, but one nevertheless bearing the distinctive marks of two lines of genetic heritage, as the chromosomes witness. There is no chance of true fusion in the homosexual "union," then, as expressed so poetically and powerfully in the gametal dance. The true fusion, the "one flesh" marriage meant as the creedal Lord and Giver of Life's ideal vehicle for fruitfulness, is spoken of in Scripture quite before "offspring" (those potential benefactors of land transfers and treaties and short-sells and all the glories of a passing world) are encountered in chapter 4 of Genesis.

    Christ's riven side poured forth water and blood, the stuff that makes His relationship with His Church exceedingly fruitful as well. We are all baptized and sustained weekly into God's kingdom now. And if the Song of Songs has captured things rightly ... I think it has ... then romance and love, both the chivalrous and the head-over-heals type ... have as much a place in Christian marriage on earth, as it does between Christ and His Bride for an eternity.

    Man did not first become a fallen mess, or experience a hardening of the heart inside our present age. Marriages driven by economic or political investment were surely corrupted by the inescapable greed and lusts of mankind. Perverse things are accelerating in their pressures now, of course; we are finally reaping a whirlwind. But the assault on the "one flesh" was a long time a-brewing, even inside the "Judeo-Christian culture" ... as the discussion between the Lord-of-the-Dance and His adversaries (Mk 10:2-9) clearly illustrates.

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  9. Well. I've now got a much better understanding of this. It makes a lot of sense and in my debates with homosexual (former) friends, some of whom are "married" I can now make a much better argument as to why it is wrong.