Thursday, May 30, 2013

Communication Impasse and the Meaning of Marriage

For a long time, my writing about 'gay marriage' has been focused on the arguments against legalizing gay marriage. You know...think of all the arguments you can against gay marriage and then write as many articles as possible on the subject. This has led me to produce 25 articles on the subject. Recently, however, my thinking has started to shift and become more focused on the sociological and psychological factors that create the impasse of communication between the two sides in this debate. What are the issues behind the issue that account for the chasm of mutual incomprehensibility between the two sides? Why can't we actually listen to each other instead of thinking they just need to shout louder?

I think part of the problem is that both sides usually approach the issue with different starting assumptions, and this creates the impression that the other side is either not listening or completely irrational.

For example, if someone’s starting assumption is that marriage must involve sexual complementarity, then considerations about equality, social justice, and tolerance are not going to change anything, just as a class on the wonders and benefits of Jackson Pollock’s drip painting will be irrelevant to someone who has already decided in advance that art, by definition, is necessarily representational. 

On the other hand, if someone’s starting assumption is that the meaning of marriage is entirely a social or verbal construct, then all the arguments in the world which assume the meaning of marriage is something specific and objective are going to fall on deaf ears. In fact, that is exactly what is happening in the current debate.

Is there a way to overcome this chasm of mutual incomprehensibility? I believe there might be, but only if both sides are willing to back upstream and consider the rationality of their starting assumptions.

This is probably an unrealistic if since most public discourse about practical questions operates on the basis of philosophical starting assumptions that are themselves rarely identified, let alone scrutinized. As a result, our position on the meaning of marriage tends to function like an axiom in Euclidian geometry that informs everything else but is itself immune to critique.

That's one reason I think there is such an impasse of communication in this debate, and I've talked more about this in my article 'Apples and Oranges' and again in my article 'The Meaning of Marriage Part 1.' But another reason for the breakdown of communication is something that comes entirely from the Christian side.

Many Christian thinkers suspect that genuine dialogue with unbelievers about the meaning of marriage is impossible. The thinking tends to run something like this: if someone doesn’t share our Christian worldview, there isn’t much we can appeal to when defending traditional marriage. Moreover, why would it even make sense for the other side to listen to us given that they don’t share the worldview that gives rise to our understanding of marriage in the first place?

Peter Leithart reflected this attitude in his post earlier this year, ‘Gay Marriage and Christian Imagination.’ Musing on a debate that took place between Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan, Leithart suggested that we need “a cultural revolution” before our arguments for traditional marriage can even to be heard. This is because appeals to “liberal polity…leaves biblically-grounded Christians with little to say.” All we can do is fall back on “The Bible says” and make “theologically rich, biblically founded arguments against gay marriage” that will probably not “make any sense to the public at large” but may have an aesthetic pull.

Although some thinkers have been trying to show that it is possible for Christian to make non-religious arguments to show how gay marriage is a public threat (see here and here and here), Leithart concedes that “it’s a hard case to make” that “gay marriage has harmed society.” In the end, Leithart wonders if we are trapped in our own interpretive communities unable to truly communicate with those outside: “Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish….Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.”

This approach assumes that we are pretty much stuck with the chasm of mutual incomprehensibility. Unless our opponents are already predisposed to agree with us, everything we say is going to sound like nonsense.

The problem here is that Leithart’s approach only works if one begins by divorcing what we know of marriage from the order inherent in creation. If the Christian understanding of marriage arises from the raw command of an omnipotent God arbitrarily constituting the world in a certain way that might just of easily have been otherwise, then I agree that there is little we can say about the moral constitution of the world to those who do not share our theocentric worldview. On the other hand, if we are realists then we believe that God’s commands about sexual ethics flow out of the teleological directedness intrinsic to creation itself. Under this scheme of things, it becomes possible to appeal to unbelievers on the basis of that ordering without needing to invoke explicitly Biblical arguments. (For the larger context of the realism/nominalism distinction and its applicability to ethics, see my series of articles on nominalism.)

This realist approach is exactly the line that Girgis, Anderson and George have taken in their book What is Marriage? These authors have received push-back from the Christian community for being content to construct purely secular and even non-moral arguments. However, the irony is that we actually have good Biblical reasons for making non-biblical arguments. I hope to develop this point in more detail in a future article with the Colson Center, but basically the point is that Genesis shows that believers and unbelievers alike share a common world, a common rationality and a common human nature. This remains constant even if an unbeliever’s worldview prevents him from given a consistent account of these things, just as gravity remains constant even for those whose worldview cannot give a coherent explanation for gravitation.

Christians generally understand this principle in other areas. For example, in mathematics we generally understand that even if the worldview of an unbeliever precludes him from being able to give a consistent account of mathematics, a Christian mathematician can still prove mathematical truths to the unbeliever on the basis of a shared creation without having to explicitly invoke the Bible. A Christian mathematician may want to invoke scripture for evangelistic purposes, just as he may want to demonstrate that an atheistic worldview cannot consistently explain mathematics, but this is not strictly necessary in order for a believer and unbeliever to communicate meaningfully about mathematics. 

Now here's the rub: in talking about the meaning of marriage it is possible to appeal to the realities of our shared creation without needing to invoke the Bible. We can point to the order of the world and the pushback that occurs when that order is flaunted. We can show that biologically, socially, psychologically, legally and historically, there are good reasons to be cautious about gay marriage, and we can make these points by appealing to creation itself.

The Christian nominalist is not in the same position of being able to appeal to creation. This is because, for him, there can never be any question of a right-ordered nature that stands antecedent to, and the reason for, God’s commands: we simply need to know what the rules are and to keep them. All the ordering in our world becomes deliberate ordering, and creation becomes radically contingent. But this brings communication into atrophy, for then we can never make appeals to creation, and if someone with a different worldview disagrees with our morality, all we can do is throw up our hands and say “Unless you accept the Bible, there really isn’t a basis by which we can discuss this.”

Having suggested (above) that we have good Biblical reasons for making non-biblical argument, I have put my money where my mouth is and published three articles with the Colson Center in which I do just that: present non-Biblical arguments against gay marriage drawing from the common nature, creation and rationality that Christians and non-Christians alike have access to. To read my articles, click on the following links:

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