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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Self-Interview about Same-Sex Marriage (1)

I sat down with myself recently and asked myself some questions about same-sex marriage (part 1 of 3).

Do you believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, and why or why not?

The heart of the Christian perspective on marriage generally is Matthew 19:3-9, which in turn is Jesus' meditation on Genesis 1:26-27; 2:18-25.  In this passage, Jesus is asked by Jewish legal scholars whether it is legit to divorce one's wife for any reason—their argument is that when Moses gave the legal stipulations for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 he didn't put conditions on them.  Jesus' reply is that Moses' law came later as a concession to "your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way."  Rather, God's plan in the beginning was that "a man . . . will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh," since indeed, the first woman was made from the rib removed from the first man's body, and their union in marriage is the reunion of the two halves of humanity into one whole, a reunion recapitulated in every marriage since.

This is all interesting and relevant stuff, but what's really interesting is Jesus' dictum, "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."  The key words here are, "What God has joined together."  When a marriage is made, God is the one who makes it; God "joins together."  Marriage is God's invention, God's definition, and God is the one who makes it happen.  The two spouses must be willing, in traditional settings the families must be supportive, the state typically gives its acknowledgment, and for religious people a member of the clergy facilitates the ceremony.  But neither the spouses nor the families nor the state nor the clergyperson make the marriage.  Mysteriously, God joins them together.

On the one hand, it is accurate to say that traditional Christian teaching forbids same-sex marriage because marriage is (or ought to be) an intrinsically sexual relationship, and homosexual activity (i.e., acting for gratification on same-sex attraction) is defined in the Bible as a sin.  But it is just as accurate to say that Christian teaching forbids same-sex marriage because there is no such thing as same-sex marriage.  If God is the one who defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman (see my analysis of biblical polygamy if you must), and if God is the one who makes marriages happen, even for those who don't know he exists, then no one else has the power to alter his definition or make marriages.  So even if two partners of the same sex love each other deeply and pledge their lives to each other, even if their families support it, even if the state legitimates it, and even if a clergyperson officiates it, it still isn't a marriage because God didn't make it.  Christians maintain that "same-sex marriage" is like "square circle," a self-contradiction, a logical impossibility.  Just because someone says there is such a thing doesn't mean there really is.  That doesn't mean that two people of the same sex are unable to love each other faithfully for the rest of their lives.  It just means that that life-long love isn't a marriage.

So I oppose legitimizing same-sex marriage not so much because such a thing shouldn't happen as because such a thing can't happen.  And my opposition is based on an assumption that since God created stuff, if people function in accordance with his definitions of stuff, then things will go better than if they don't.  It's like if I operate my car in accordance with the owner's manual then it will run better for longer than if I rewrite the manual the way I like it and expect that the car itself will reflect my wishes.  Legitimizing same-sex marriage is an attempted societal revision of natural law we didn't write and are unable to rewrite, and we put ourselves at unknown risks by pretending to.

Is there any argument against same-sex marriage that doesn't come from a religious source or worldview?

As a matter of fact, there are such arguments.  One is an argument from evolution.  If marriage was not instituted by God, then it evolved along with the human race.  A foundational principle of evolution is that new forms last and multiply when they equip organisms better for survival in a dangerous world with limited resources.  The existence of this social institution called marriage, then, as we have known it to this point, has assisted our survival as a species generally and of the bloodlines of those who have entered into it specifically.  It is possible that legitimizing same-sex marriage is a further evolution that will enhance our species' chances of survival.  It is also possible that this would be a harmful mutation that hurts our chances.  The only way to know will be many generations down the line when we can compare the strength of societies with the mutation and those without.  Of course, by that time it will be much too late to do anything about it if this evolution of marriage turns out to be the devolution of marriage.

An argument that follows similar lines is the observation that same-sex marriage has very rarely been known in the history of the world, including among societies (e.g., ancient Greece) that routinely engaged in homosexual activity.  So we're comparing the argument of those who favor legitimizing same-sex marriage today with the overwhelmingly larger number of those who oppose it or knew no such thing both today and in all human generations past.  Now, let me make something very clear: a principle is not wrong just because it's believed in by a minority, even a tiny minority.  A tiny minority might be the only group that has it right (in fact, Christianity itself has often been in this position).  However, this situation does suggest caution.  At the very least, to take an arrogant stance that those in favor of legitimizing same-sex marriage are enlightened and those who oppose it are cretins is to set oneself up as one of the far less than 1% wisest human beings who has ever lived.  That may be true, but it's quite a claim to back up.

Another argument has to do with the sociological benefits of marriage as we have known it.  Numerous studies document superior outcomes (in life expectancy, education, earning power, etc.) for children who were raised in the household of their married parents.  There is a strong case to be made that marriage is one of the greatest health- and wealth-generating things we know.  Some critics' opposition to same-sex marriage is founded on a belief that redefining marriage in that way will weaken it within society across the board, not extend its benefits to more people.

In places that have already allowed same-sex marriage, the world hasn't come to an end, so what's the big deal?

I think that anyone who believes that the effects of same-sex marriage for good or ill would appear within a few years of its legitimization is quite naive.

Let me illustrate it this way.  A massive earthquake on the ocean floor can trigger a tsunami that devastates a coastline hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  The cause of the destruction and its effect are widely separated in both distance and time; in fact, without global seismic observation and communication, we would never know that one was connected to the other.  Likewise, the most powerful, profound, and irreversible effects come from causes that are widely separated from them in time and even space.  For example, when production began in England and America during the Industrial Revolution, they didn't know that as a result our global temperature would increase faster than the natural rate and threaten our world itself.

In the same way, we just don't know what the results of same-sex marriage would be.  But it is safe to say that if we tinker with the fundamental social unit of human civilization, there will be enormous and profound consequences.  Few if any of us will be around to see those consequences, but it is also safe to say that if our descendants want to undo our decision, they won't be able to.

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