Okay, so by now you’ve all seen the news from the US Supreme Court. You’ve seen the jubilation from the supporters of same-sex marriage and the triumphant cries of “Love Wins!” You’ve also seen the cries of anger or resignation from those on the other side, along with warnings of the impending moral collapse of America. For some of you this is a confirmation of your beliefs; for others, it’s a challenge. However, I imagine that there are still others of you for whom this is making you think about what you think about the topic. It is to those in the latter group that this series of blog posts is directed. If you’ve already completely made up your mind either way, then I suspect that these posts won’t be very useful to you. In fact, they will probably just annoy you; so you may be excused to join one of the other congratulatory or consolatory conversations out there on the Internet. However, if you are still thinking about the issue—even if you are strongly leaning one way or the other—then let’s think about it together for a bit. I can’t guarantee you’ll like what I have to say, but hopefully what I say might help you think, even if you disagree with me. It is, alas, an occupational hazard for all middle-of-the-road moderates that we always get hit by traffic coming from both directions.
Part One:Just How Important is This Issue?
We are going to start this series of reflections on marriage by asking how important the issue of the legalization of same-sex marriages is. One thing that the vocal exponents on both the right and the left seem to agree on, is that the issue is extremely important. For those on the left, it is a fundamental civil rights issue, and the Supreme Court’s validation is a victory for liberty and equality on the order of the Nineteenth Amendment (giving women the right to vote) or Brown vs. Topeka (dismantling segregation). For those on the right, this is the definitive sign that the United States has finally forsaken its traditional Christian heritage and that a small group of unelected judges have run roughshod over the actual rights guaranteed by the Constitution to impose their narrow views on the whole country. But both agree that this issue is of paramount importance. But is it really? Is this really the definitive sign that we are decisively moving forward or dangerously sliding back?
A Brief Philosophical Detour
To begin, I want to take a three-paragraph philosophical detour to introduce an ethical distinction that is often overlooked in this discussion. In order to think about what is and what is not good, we need to distinguish between values that are absolute and values that are only relative or instrumental. What that means is this: some things can be said to be good in and of themselves, but others things are good only because—and only to the extent—that they are good for something else.
Now, we won’t all agree on which goods are absolute and which ones are instrumental, but the distinction is still important because getting the two mixed up leads to all kinds of other confusions. Besides, for a large majority of us, no matter what side we take on same-sex marriages, there are still some common goods that we agree on. For example, most of us want to say that the value of a human person is absolute. We don’t want to say that a person is valuable because they are good for something–even if we often treat people that way. Despite our actions, our ideals tell us that any statement that begins, “You are only valuable as a human person if…,” is going to be false no matter follows. People are valuable as people, full stop. At the same time, there are also relatively non-controversial instrumental goods. Having a well-running car, for example, is a good thing but because of what you can do with it. A well-running car is good because, for example, it helps you get to work easily, which helps you provide for yourself and your family, and providing for people is a good thing because people are good. A well-running car that never goes anywhere isn’t much good at all.
Of course, the interesting cases—and marriage may be one of these—are those where it isn’t clear to everyone whether the “good” in question is an absolute one or an instrumental one. Take, for example, the virtue of courage. Some people would say that courage is a good thing in and of itself, and therefore it is good wherever it is expressed. So, the bank robber who robs a bank courageously is still displaying the virtue of courage. Other people would disagree. They would say that courage is only virtuous when it is directed toward an absolutely good end, and robbing a bank doesn’t qualify. So, even if the bank robber was willing to take risks to obtain the good that he wanted, what he wanted wasn’t good enough to qualify his actions as courageous.
Absolute and Instrumental Good in Marriage
So let’s drag this discussion back to the question of marriage. Again, it seems that folks on the right and on the left are both implying that marriage is an absolute good. The proponents of same-sex marriage feel that it to be a good to which they have a right but which they have been denied. This is why the idea of offering a “civil union” that gave the same material benefits as marriages was not acceptable to most of them. They said that they didn’t want marriage because it was good for something (like tax benefits or insurance sharing); they wanted it because they saw it as a good, full stop. The opponents of same-sex marriage seem to feel the same way. They think that marriage is a good that needs to be protected, a sacred union ordained by God from the very beginning of Creation. The good of marriage does not appear because it was a convenient way for human beings to reproduce or because it gave a moral sanction to sexual activity. No, the opponents of same-sex marriage say, marriage is a good in and of itself. This is why giving the label of marriage to something which is not, in their eyes, a marriage is a sham, much like calling that bank robber “courageous” because he bravely risks his life to steal other people’s money. That’s not courage, they might say; that’s just determined selfishness. That’s not a marriage, they might say; that’s just two people of the same sex looking for society’s approval of their relationship. The issue of same-sex marriage is so divisive precisely because both camps agree that this is an absolute moral good that must be defended at all costs but disagree on what that means. In such an environment, there is no middle ground, no place for moderation. One is either right about the issue or one is wrong.
What if both camps are mistaken? What if both left and right have made the same faulty assumption, which has now led to this cultural impasse? What if marriage is not an absolute good but a relative one? What if it is good but only because it is good for something else? If that’s true, then it changes the discussion completely. If marriage is not an absolute good but a relative one, then the discussion shifts from being about marriage to being about what marriage is for. And in that discussion, there is indeed room for a radically moderate position.
But isn’t that crazy talk? God ordained marriage, the right wants to say, and that makes it absolute. Or, the left might say, marriage is the only covenant that society fully recognizes, so it’s as absolute as any moral principle can get. Again, if you, my dear reader, already believe one of those options, then you are probably wasting your time reading this, but if you’ve made it this far, then maybe you are open to the idea that the issue is not as straightforward as the strident voices on the left and right want to make it out to be.
To my left-leaning friends: Yes, society sanctions marriages in a special way, but societies are always changing. It seems odd to act as though a changing thing (society) is necessary for authorizing an absolute and unchanging thing (marriage). It also seems odd that in pursuit of individual freedoms we should seek society’s approval. If what you think you have is a marriage in absolute terms, why should it matter whether society approves? That’s a bit like saying, “I’m going to go over here and be independent—so long as that’s okay with you, I mean.” So, despite the high value marriage equality proponents give to marriage, I suspect that it doesn’t quite rise to the level of an absolute good in actual practice. If you say marriage is an absolute good but actually want it because of some other reason, then it is, in fact, an instrumental good in the end.
To my right-leaning friends: Yes, it does seem that God in Genesis explicitly sanctions the union of one man and one woman in a way that no other union gets sanctioned, and it does seem that Jesus reaffirms that in the Gospels. But then it is also clear that God uses the polygamous relationships of Jacob/Israel to build his nation and the adultery and polygamy of David to ensure a succession for its kings. So perhaps the issue isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like it to be. We’ll return to the biblical issues involved in this discussion in Part Two of these reflections. For now, my dear reader, if you can consider the possibility that marriage is a relative good rather than an absolute one, we can move on. If not, well, there’s a little “x” at the top right of your screen or a red dot at the top left of your screen, either of which will let you get on to more important things.
To my friends on both sides: Here’s another biblical point that is worth considering. Jesus makes an extraordinary statement about marriage that is usually ignored in discussions like this, a statement which would indicate that he, too, saw marriage as a relative and not an absolute thing.
A Biblical Middle Ground
Here’s the set up: A bunch of Sadducees come to Jesus, trying to trick him by pointing out what—in their minds—is the absurdity of the resurrection. They tell a story of a woman who, because of the Jewish law in Deuteronomy 25:5, marries a man and then each of his six brothers in turn as they all die off before her. Then they ask Jesus, “In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her” (Matt 22:28, NRSV). Jesus’s response is very interesting because he doesn’t start out by pointing out their misunderstanding about resurrection; he starts by pointing out their misunderstanding about marriage: “Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt 22:29-30, NRSV; see also the parallels in Mark 12 and Luke 20).
Despite our instinctive intuition to absolutize marriage, here we have Jesus saying categorically that marriage is not an eternal reality. Let that sink in for a second. In the resurrection, in the new creation, in the ultimate reality that Christians think God is (re)creating out of this one, marriage does not have a place. To me, that says that marriage is a relative and not an absolute good. It says that marriage is a matter of this world and this world only. By the way, Jesus’s statement also aligns with the Jewish intuition that Paul expresses in Romans 7 when he uses the analogy of marriage to point out that the law is only binding on people as long as they are alive.
So, what if we tried to be true to Jesus’s words and approach marriage as something other than an eternal or transcendent construct? What if we gave up on the idea that marriage exists as some kind of Platonic ideal abstracted from this world against which we have to measure all of its this-worldly expressions? What if we started our discussions about marriage with the recognition that marriage is only a relative good—a very important relative good, mind you, but a relative good nonetheless. All marriages—good or bad, licit or illicit—are temporary. They have no existence outside of the physical world of emotional connections, sexual bodies and the human reproductive micro-communities that we call families.
What if we started there? What if we shifted our discussions about the morality or immorality of same-sex marriage away from discussions about what does and does not conform to some absolute, transcendent standard? What if, instead, we started asking questions about what truly absolute goods marriage does and does not contribute to? What kinds of things ought marriage to empower, things like love, relationship, or commitment? Do same-sex marriages do that? What are the signs of malfunctional marriages, signs that goods are being compromised rather than empowered? Do same-sex marriages exhibit those to a greater degree than heterosexual marriages do?
I don’t necessarily have the answers to those questions (though I will address some of them in upcoming blog posts), but hopefully you can see how asking them changes the tenor of the discussion. This doesn’t mean that proponents or opponents of same-sex marriage have to change their stance, at least not right away. It only means that they have to justify their stances differently. It also means that there may be room for moderate positions that begin with statements like “Yes, same-sex marriage is not God’s ideal but…” or “Yes, same-sex marriages are fine, but…” What a radical thought.
Also, if marriage is a this-worldly and temporary institution designed by God to serve certain other-worldly and eternal ends—but is not itself one of those an eternal ends—then it might also be possible for those who disagree about same-sex marriage to still agree on eternal goods. Love is a good thing for everyone, right? Perhaps it remains to be seen whether or not same-sex marriages foster or inhibit love in its truest biblical sense, but then that’s not always clear in heterosexual marriages either. In any case, we might all agree on what kind of love we are hoping any marriage will foster, love that is the steadfast pursuit of another’s good even at the expense of one’s own. That’s an indisputable eternal good, at least if the Bible has any authority whatsoever. And now that this door has been nailed open by the highest judicial authority in our country, we’ll have plenty of opportunity to see whether or not same-sex marriages do what marriages are supposed to do.
Obviously, this kind of radically moderate approach will be unpalatable to those who remain convinced of marriage’s absolute moral value. They will still be noisily enjoying their triumph or mourning their defeat in the coming days and weeks, I imagine. But maybe there’s room between those camps to have a civil and rational discussion about what this new reality means for those who want to follow Jesus, love wisely, and take both the Bible and human experience seriously. I think that middle ground looks very Wesleyan, and if you agree, my dear reader, then I’ll be interested to see what we will find as we explore that middle ground together.