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In a recent post, Peter Leithart reflects upon the debate between Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan on same-sex marriage. Observing the increasing inability of Christian arguments to gain purchase upon the public’s imagination, he wonders how arguments against same-sex marriage might become persuasive again. His conclusion is far from sanguine: without a recovery of Christian imagination, we are fighting a losing battle. “[T]he only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.”
I must confess to some astonishment at such a conclusion. From such a statement, one might be led to presume that we were defending something akin to the Chalcedonian Definition, rather than the virtually universal consensus that has existed across human history and culture: namely, that marriage is a public institution declaring the interdependence of men and women; formed around the natural realities of sexual dimorphism, of the procreative union between a man and woman, and of the bonds of blood; and providing a secure setting in which children’s bonds with the parents that bore them are honoured and upheld and their nurturance assured. The fact that a Christian thinker as insightful and uncompromising as Dr Leithart has arrived at such a conclusion strikes me as an indication of just how much ground has been needlessly surrendered in this particular debate.
In acceding to the framing of the debate over same-sex marriage as a struggle between ‘religious’ definitions of marriage and a ‘secular’ case for same-sex marriage – founded upon the public and objective basis of reason and the social sciences – those opposing same-sex marriage have been forced into a corner. Such a ‘religious’ case against same-sex marriage not only lacks persuasive power but also, given its seemingly partisan foundations, will consistently find itself excluded from the ‘reasonable’ bounds of secular and public discourse.
My dismay at the claim that our only arguments are biblical and theological ones is due to its improper modesty. It involves a falling back from a stance upon creational order, an order established and ruled by God, an order that we all hold in common, irrespective of where we stand on such issues. In a willingness to admit our interlocutors’ claims that same-sex marriage can only be opposed on partisan and fideistic grounds, we have retreated to such an unassuming commitment, from which we are increasingly powerless to speak against their retreat from reality.
The fact that Dr Leithart’s piece interacts primarily with Douglas Wilson’s argument against same-sex marriage might be a factor here. As with many others, Pastor Wilson’s references to creational order are weakened by excessive dependence upon a construal of ‘authorial intention’ in relation to this order, a construal derived from biblical revelation, a construal that therefore no secular critic would be prepared to admit. The conviction that there is an order integral to creation, an order that is public, an order that can be appealed to even in interaction with critics who deny or question the identity of its Author, is not really acted upon. If it really were the case that the created order were perfectly susceptible to any interpretation apart from theological appeals to the intentions of its author, the fact that human culture and history bears such a consistent testimony on the nature of marriage should be most remarkable to us: even in contexts where sexual relationships between members of the same sex bore no stigma, same-sex marriage would have been unthinkable or considered ridiculous.
In sum, I think that there are very strong arguments and evidences from the creational order against same-sex marriage. I have argued this case before, at length, and do not mean to rehearse it again here. My concern here is to arrest the lack of nerve and conviction that I so frequently encounter among Christians arguing against same-sex marriage, who, despite the firmness of their personal persuasion, are fielding arguments which betray an unfitting reticence and reserve of belief in the force of our case. These arguments aren’t confidently advanced into the public conversation: timidly, without either strategy or momentum, they blunder into it, wildly beating the air, before hurrying back to the security of a tribal reservation, where most of its forces are concentrated.
We let supporters of same-sex marriage off the hook far too easily. We can present good, strong, and accessible arguments from the creational order. We need to have a sense of the strength of these arguments that is not contingent upon the reception that they receive. I am concerned that Dr Leithart manifests a loss of nerve in the strength of a firm case against same-sex marriage, merely because it doesn’t prove persuasive. Should it surprise us that many supporters of same-sex marriage will regard his claims as a demonstration that arguments against it don’t merit a place in the ongoing conversation, being unable to meet the requirements of secular and public discourse?
In my experience, the greatest difficulty that we face is not that arguments against same-sex marriage fail (although many do – there is a lot of rubbish written against same-sex marriage), but that few people are really listening, that the debate is politically rigged, that few people have the nerve or willingness to hold unpopular positions that may seriously harm their employment and social prospects, and that the development of the culture over the last few decades has inured people to the creational realities that marriage cultures have always had at their heart. My experience has been that with patient, thoughtful, and charitable opponents – persons prepared to engage in a thorough and searching investigation of the issues within the debate, and having the courage to reach unpopular conclusions – genuine progress can be made, and minds can be changed.
The arguments for our case are good, and they are persuasive too. To actually exert their persuasive power, however, they need to be patiently heard out and closely engaged with. This is where our primary problem lies. We should not forget that we are arguing against a position that would have been considered ridiculous or unthinkable by most of the human beings that have ever lived, whether they had a Christian imagination or not: our stance does not lack considerable persuasive force.
The actual arguments that are presented against same-sex marriage are further evidence that Christianity’s historic claims concerning the natural order have been relinquished by many parties. Instead of bold appeals to the natural order of creation, many Christian arguments against same-sex marriage frequently amount to little more than pusillanimous and self-concerned presentations of concerns about threats to our religious freedoms.
A further popular line of argumentation, that same-sex marriage paves the way for polygamy – an argument which Pastor Wilson repeatedly referred to in his debate with Andrew Sullivan – also manifests similar weaknesses. Once we have surrendered claims to a natural order with a divinely established teleological directionality intrinsic to it, all we are left with is a competition between the wills of the gods and men regarding whose claims should prevail within a formless and malleable creation.
Pastor Wilson and others maintain that the radical entitlement to reshape reality, claimed by same-sex marriage advocates, is undesirable because it may lead to polygamy. The resurgent fear of polygamy in the context of the same-sex marriage debates is strange indeed, given the fact that same-sex marriage is by far the more radical aberration. To most of our forebears and to most societies beyond the orbit of W.E.I.R.D. sexual and marital values, expressing a concern that same-sex marriage might lead to polygamy would be akin to worry on our part that mainlining heroin might lead to experimentation with marijuana.
Those presenting such slippery-slope arguments also often forget that the future comes to us pre-packaged in a manufactured normalcy field. A society with established same-sex marriage won’t feel alien and strange. The future typically seems terrifying only when regarded prospectively: having actually arrived, it seems like mundane normality. Appeals to fears, then, will almost invariably appear ridiculous in retrospect. While those arguing in favour of same-sex marriage may believe that I am here granting that its institution will change little of significance, my point is rather that it is very hard to appreciate the magnitude, character, and gravity of the gains and losses that our society has incurred as we live through them. Our marriage culture has already been devastated in many respects, but few of us have a pronounced sense that we are living in the aftermath of a cataclysm. What makes us think that same-sex marriage will be any different?
Something is wrong when we have fallen back to relying primarily upon relatively unreasoned appeals to fears of the monsters that could possibly enter in the future were we to open the door to social change on some other issue in the present. The over-reliance upon such arguments reveals a lack of ability to present principled and reasoned opposition to the actual change that is occurring, to give a clear rationale for our position that ventures beyond appeal to positive divine revelation and human fears (which will always gradually retreat from the familiar worlds of our reality). We risk becoming little more than the sort of fearful conservative reactionaries who can provide no more cogent opposition to an envisioned future than the psychological trepidations of the present. Of such, someone rightly declared them little more than ‘the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition.’ Bereft of any sense of a natural teleology established by God and forbidden any appeal to a divinely imposed will within the creation, instead of drawing attention to the tensions between reality and the social teleologies of our modern constructivist friends, we can do little more than meekly present a set of subjective apprehensions about the direction that things might head and hope that our interlocutors share them.
It is also revealing that such arguments against same-sex marriage as the one from the threat of polygamy have focused so consistently upon our fear of what other human beings might do in the future if same-sex marriage were allowed. To me, the dependence upon such arguments demonstrates a lack of awareness of the social ecosystem as something that involves forces that are more determinative than the wills of other human beings, and of the fact that tinkering with its order invites far more serious problems than that of allowing the polygamists in our society to have their way. We presume that the social order is the servant of human will and aren’t sufficiently aware of our inability to master it. An exclusive fixation with the power and danger of sovereign human will arises from our forgetfulness of a divinely ordered created reality that has the power to kick back.
We need to distinguish between two different developments within the same-sex marriage position. The first is the movement in the direction of a strong social constructivism, decoupled from any sense of telos either within or divinely imposed upon the created order, which would place limits upon a self-asserting human will. The second is the movement in the direction of a very particular view of marriage, one that is deinstitutionalized, built around such things as romantic and sentimental ideals, detached from the expectation of procreation, elevating sexual gratification, gender neutrality, and shared lifestyle consumption (‘consumption’ being a very important word here – the modern marriage is increasingly ordered primarily around shared consumption practices and habits).
The first movement allows for a radical reinvention and reorientation of society, its institutions, and ourselves according to whatever we will. There is no ‘natural’ or divinely imposed order admitted. In principle, such a movement allows for all sorts of things, from same-sex marriage, to polygamy, to bestiality, to institutionalized paedophilia. However, while allowing for the possibility of our willing such things into social reality, the first movement is only an impotent potential in and of itself: it needs the second movement to produce an actual social reality.
Appeals to the threat of polygamy typically rely upon a conflation and confusion of these two things, over-emphasizing the former, and providing only the shallowest analysis of the latter. If we want to know what actually will become a social reality if current trends continue unarrested, it will only be by analysing and understanding the latter that we will discover it. I contend that polygamy does not lie on this trajectory, although polyamory, being romantically driven, gender-neutral, oriented towards the satisfaction of individual desires, non-stable, more sexually open to outsiders, and typically non-procreative, might be a different matter.
Same-sex marriage acts on these two levels. On the first level, it affirms faith in and commitment to constructivist will over the concept of natural or divinely commanded order. On the second level, it institutionalizes a particular vision (involving institutional norms and public meaning) of the sort of thing that marriage is, not just for same-sex couples, but for all couples and the entire society, married or unmarried.
The difficulty for those who rely upon appeals to divinely revealed will imposed upon the creation is that they have largely granted the first movement of the radical social constructivists. Unprepared to answer such constructivism by referring to and asserting a divinely established order intrinsic to the creation that resists it, they can only press a sort of divine constructivism against it. Once that is dismissed, they are left to grasp at weak straws. It should not surprise us that such Christian constructivists consistently present us with such ineffective arguments.
The struggle between the Christian and secular constructivists over who has the right to sculpt the putty of reality is one between divine permission and will and human will. Such a framing of the theoretical opposition will tend to produce inattentiveness to the intrinsic ordering of creation and of social movements. Detached from the conception of created order, divine will begins to be conceived in a manner orthogonal to the creation, pressed down upon it from above, rather than operating through its channels from within. Such a conception of divine will leads almost inescapably to a philosophical neglect of deep reflection upon, and understanding of, the divinely established processes of the creation, and thus the ways in which cutting a new course for the flow of marriage might disrupt entire ecosystems of human relationality.
Its focus upon brute will imposed upon the present world will also lead those who adopt such a perspective to share same-sex marriage proponents’ dullness to the trajectories of ideological, sociological, and political development that their proposals lie upon, and to their possible destinations. As there remains little conception or inner understanding of a deep order of creation, and of how shifts in our practice of marriage might affect this, we can do little but surrender our society to the experiments of social scientists with naught but the most anaemic vision of human nature.
In the minds of our Christian brothers and sisters whose case against same-sex marriage rests solely upon divine will, if you surrender this divinely imposed will upon the creation, there is no order left to which to appeal, and so all positions become open possibilities. Our only arguments are theological, and our only hope the recovery of a Christian imagination. The all-or-nothing character of this position – either imposition of the revealed divine will upon reality or chaos of competing wills in a formless reality – hamstrings argument when that imposition of divine will is disputed.
The divine will does not just submissively knock on the doors of our reality and prove powerless when we turn it away. As long as we exist within the creation, we are besieged by God. The Christian thinker is called to press this divine advantage against all who would lamely flee from its presence. The Christian thinker should be a student of the consequences of particular actions in God’s creation and the ways in which the creation prosecutes the will of God against those who flout it. This is the sort of reasoning that the same-sex marriage debate requires from us. It is also the means by which we can draw the nerve and confidence to prevail.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.