Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Problems with Undefined Marriage

I’m not the only one who has argued that once the traditional definition of marriage is gone, then any combination of marital union is, in principle, possible. We were mocked, of course, as alarmists. Here is the first foray I have seen by the cultural left to add polygamy to the acceptable forms of marriage (by no small thinker, by the way).

SINCE the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, Americans have enjoyed unprecedented freedom in their lifestyles and private relationships. The decision held that states could no longer use the criminal code for social engineering, dictating the most intimate decisions of citizens in their choice of partners and relations. But even as states have abandoned laws criminalizing homosexual and adulterous relations, they have continued to prosecute one group of consenting adults: polygamists.

Jonathan Turley goes on to argue that it was only right for the Court to keep the government out of other people’s private business “so long as they do not harm others” and now this protection, initially intended for a pair of homosexuals, should be extended to consensual polygamous relationships.

First, I think it should be noted that the cultural conservatives were right in every regard: if the traditional definition of marriage is removed from the institution, then every imaginable permutation of relationship is possible under a now undefined label of marriage. Why limit it to two? Turley thinks we shouldn’t. Why limit it to adults? To humans? (The charge of speciesism is on the rise in many culturally left circles.)

Turley notes that Scalia dissented from the Lawrence decision by making this very point. But, Turley disagrees on the grounds that, “There is no spectrum of private consensual relations – there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others.” In other words, Turley thinks it misses the point to list and explicate all the possible marriage permutations because there are no such specific rights, just a general right to private, non-harmful behavior. By arguing thus, Turley ends up agreeing with Scalia, he just refuses to name the possible marriages we will want to allow in the future. It doesn’t make his point at all to simply not list them.

So the point seems made by both Turley’s positive argument for polygamy and his failed attempt to argue against Scalia: it will not end at polygamy. By removing the traditional definition of marriage (life-long, monogamous, heterosexual), no suitable definition has been put in its place. And without a definition there are no boundaries.

The attempt is often made to redefine marriage using vague terms like “adult,” “consensual,” and “love.” Who is to say who an adult it? In many cultures that age reaches down into prepubescence. What of cultures in which arranged marriages are made between children. Are the consensual adults in this case the parents and not the marriage partners? Is that OK with Turley? “Adult” doesn’t help us solve the problem of the slippery slope.

“Consensual” is a radically slippery term. On one end, some feminists argue that even traditional marriage necessarily includes rape. On the other end, the SIECUS (what is left of the Kinsey Institute, and very influential in sex education curriculum in public schools) argues that pedophilia is only wrong because our social norms have seen it as shameful in the past. The correction to shameful pedophilia is not to get rid of the pedophile but the shame. “Consensual” doesn’t help us either.

“Love” is not a definition – it is an emotion. Mom and son love each other. The members of NAMBLA love little boys. It is too broad and broadly applicable a term to be of any help defining any relationship out of bounds for our modern marriage sensibilities. It is not help to Turley either.

And then, finally, there is the old chestnut (and new bumper-sticker) that every sexual practice is OK as long as it doesn’t harm others. This line suffers from some of the same semantic malaise we rehearsed above. I would like to have Turley or others sufficiently define “harm” so as to allow polygamy and homosexual marriage while disallowing incest or bestiality. But without going into great detail, it has been noted in study after study that the much more common, but no less harmful, act of fornication, harms plenty of other people.

Single motherhood (which, outside of adoption, happens because of sexual behavior) is the single greatest predictor of poverty, criminality, prison time, socially dysfunctional behavior and unemployment. And those are the kids, not the moms. So, all that harmless sexual behavior that we shouldn’t say anything about has radical, negative and mesurable consequences.

I just don’t believe there are actions we engage in that don’t touch other lives, and negative behaviors, no matter how private, will have negative effects on others.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Christian and Skepticism

Proverbs 14:6 “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for a man of understanding.

I recently heard the philosopher, John Mark Reynolds, remark that a right understanding of skepticism might be closer to our current notion of wonder. As a true, even classical, skeptic, he argued, someone is on a genuine quest for knowledge, truth and wisdom and thus is dissatisfied with simplistic or obviously short-sighted explanations of things. They are “skeptical” because they are plumbing the depths of a thing, not because they are perpetual disbelievers and critics.

On the other hand, he so creatively noted, most modern skeptics are more like the 5-year old who asks “why is the sky blue?” and because they don’t understand the answer, they keep asking “why.” It is a perpetual cycle unthinking disbelief. These folks (my take now) are quick to grab onto bumper-sticker beliefs, claim some sort of privileged position of objectivity and declare themselves the smartest people in the room because they can respond with “why” to every assertion and argument. Always asking, always challenging, never really getting anywhere.

This section of Scripture in Proverbs 14 is evidence that the Christian view of skepticism is more like what Reynolds described – a wonder about the world and a genuine seeking after the truth of a matter. The Christian skeptic anticipates answers and solutions while the scoffer (a modern-day skeptic) despises and doesn’t always understand answers and solutions. The Christian skeptic is a seeker of wisdom, not just a critic of everything he or she hears.

I often find it ironic that one charge repeatedly leveled at the Christian faith is that it is a “blind faith” and is by its very nature opposed to knowledge. I can’t remember how often I have been told with that superior air of finality, “Christianity is faith, atheism is science.” The clear implication being, “Christians are children and we are adults.” And while we can produce plenty of individuals who might fit the bill of simplistic faith, the worldview of Christianity is exactly the opposite. In fact, later in Proverbs 14, the writer says, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” (vs. 15) If the Christian is to be true to their own worldview, then they are required to give thought to what they believe and how they live.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Mushy, Fuzzy God?

I received this in an email newsletter the other day:

God is not a Christian

We should in humility and joyfulness acknowledge that the supernatural and divine reality we all worship in some form or other transcends all our particular categories of thought and imagining, and that because the divine -- however named, however apprehended or conceived -- is infinite and we are forever finite, we shall never comprehend the divine completely.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I know this will ruffle a lot of feathers, but I find this meaningless. From beginning to end it is full of nice-sounding puffery, but fails to provide any good insight into who God might actually be.

First of all, why would God be a Christian? Christians are humans who are followers of Jesus Christ. The title is category mistake masquerading as profundity.

Humility is not the same thing as ceasing to think about issues and draw boundaries, distinctions and judgments. Humility is more about a disposition to the truth, not our refusal to distinguish the truth from falsity.

The idea that the divine transcends all our categories is a popular way of stopping thought about who or what the divine really is. In one way Tutu is right, but in significant ways he is wrong. It is true, as the Christian tradition has always taught, that our conceptions of God are analogous – not exhaustive. Being analogous means we have a grasp on true ideas, but only a grasp. It is true that God is love, and that love has boundaries, but we will not know completely what that means until the next life. Where he, and so many others, goes wrong is concluding we can’t know anything about the divine with certainty.

We can know with certainty that the divine is not both triune and not triune in the same way at the same time. We can know with certainty that salvation is not both through martyrdom and not through martyrdom at the same time. The list of contradictory beliefs between different religious systems is longer than we care to acknowledge in our age of religious tolerance and to brush them aside with a slightly dismissive wave of the hand is to treat every religion on the face of the planet as insignificant and unserious. No religious system of any consequence ought to be happy with his assessment of their beliefs and practices.

This email was produced by the Emergent Village. I am frustrated, but not all that surprised, that this seems to fit well with their vision of the Christian religion.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Moral Outrage or Pop-Psychology?

The Casey Anthony trial has elicited a lot of powerful reactions from a lot of people, from the circus of the media coverage to the apparently shocking verdict of not-guilty. Now, let the cultural assessment games begin. Why were we obsessed? Why (in the minds of many) did the jury let someone so obviously guilty go free? What do we do with mothers and families that seem to be so negligent of their children and grandchildren? One recent column provides an initial set of thoughts on why we are so fanatical about, even angry at, Anthony.

That said, the real sad and unspoken truth is the reason why everyone’s been obsessed with this trial: because demonizing Casey Anthony makes us feel better about ourselves. The screams, shouts, and cries of outrage aren’t just damning Casey for what we perceive to be her actions, but in a weird way putting ourselves up on a pedestal for…well, not being Casey Anthony. Through the expression of our frustration, we bury our transgressions and sins by shoveling mounds of hate onto her.

So why are we so angry? It could be that like so many other things, we’re letting out anger and frustration over unrelated things and attributing it to this trial. Maybe we carry an insecurity that requires us to show other people that we’re a good person, and we think that rage against what we perceive as a great evil will do just that. Perhaps there’s something deep down that’s frustrated with Casey Anthony getting away with the unthinkable while we face consequences every day for far lesser misdeeds and mistakes in our own lives. Regardless of the reasons, all this anger can’t be healthy.

Though Marshall hints at our sense of justice and moral outrage being one of the reasons we are upset at the verdict, the cultural picture he paints is one largely devoid of genuine moral categories. Instead of our reaction being prompted by justice, we are psychologised into a box of “unhealthy anger.” His view of moral reaction, though common today, is radically shallow. It exchanges pop-psychology for moral reasoning and leaves us all poorer as humans than when we began.

Let’s try a different approach to our reaction.

We are indelibly moral creatures hard-wired to react against what we view to be a moral tragedy. We react against the moral wrong because we believe the good, beautiful and the true ought to win more often than they lose. Our anger is entirely healthy as long as it is moral indignation and leads us to work on a better way of doing things where justice is done more often. Moral outrage is not about me, it is about objective moral values and their integrity in our culture. I react, not because I want to demean another person, but because a moral law has been broken and I have the inescapable sense that something needs to be done about it.