Yesterday upon the stair I met a man who wasn't there He wasn't there again today I wish, I wish he'd go away.
Disturbed that he did not exist I punched him with an angry fist So from this day my guilt I’ll bear For striking the man who wasn't there.
(The first verse is from "Antigonish" by Hughes Mearns, 1899. The second verse is my own.)
I have just now punched someone who isn’t here, right here near my desk, where I’m working entirely alone. I did it to test my guilt response. Nothing. Is there something wrong with me?
Proponents of same-sex "marriage" (SSM) tell us their view of marriage is a matter of civil rights, and that those who would deny marriage to gays are bigoted, prejudiced, intolerant, and on and on. It’s serious sin, and we bear serious guilt for committing it.
Of course I agree that marriage is a civil rights issue. It’s a distinct human good that no government should impede or infringe upon. I have a principled basis on which I can make that statement, which I’ll come back to in a moment.
It seems to me, though, that the guilt of opposing SSM may be just as empty as the guilt of striking the man who wasn’t there, and for the same reason: SSM is the “marriage” that isn’t there.
Sure, it might look like it’s there. Same-sex “marriage” has been enacted into law in a few states, and SSM proponents think it’s real. But just as fuzzy vision can make us see a man who isn't there, the same has happened with marriage.
"Marriage is a civil rights issue," they tell us; and marriage’s vanishing nature appears even in that SSM slogan. The first two words are the sticking point: "Marriage is." For whenever we use the word “is” after a noun in a sentence, no matter what predicate might follow, we should be able to stop right there and still have a sentence that means something. For example, “Baseball is fun,” shortened that way, becomes “Baseball is.” Admittedly that’s a strange construction, but it’s not an impossible one, and it does have meaning.
So suppose someone wanted to dispute my idea that baseball is fun. But wait, let’s try another example first. Suppose I said, “Morjexking is fun.” You would be stuck at “Morjexking is.” As far as you know, “morjexking is” doesn’t mean anything at all.
But let’s go back to baseball. Imagine this dialogue:
ME: “Baseball is fun.”
YOU: “It’s okay, I just can’t stand it when it goes into extra innings. It gets too long and boring.”
ME: “No, I don’t mean that kind of baseball. I mean the kind that ends when the clock winds down to zero.”
YOU: “That’s not what baseball is!”
ME: “It is for me. I don’t accept it when games go too long.”
Obviously this is illegitimate. When a person says, “Baseball is fun,” there has to be some definite sense or meaning implicated in the shorter form, “Baseball is.” It can’t be infinitely malleable. But this also means knowing what baseball isn’t. It isn’t a game played against a clock, for one thing.
A statue has a definite form because of what it includes—all the marble that is in it—and what it excludes: all the marble that is not. And so it is for marriage as well: In order to say anything definite about it, we need to know both what it is and what it is not.
SSM advocates can cover the first half of that easily enough: They can define what they think marriage is. Typically they say that it’s a lifelong committed union of two people in a relationship that includes sexual coupling.
And as far as that definition goes, it's fine. It includes the right things. But in the same way that a statue includes all the right marble before the sculptor starts work on it, this definition needs its shape developed by way of removal. SSM proponents need to state clearly what is not marriage, and why.
Man-woman marriage is shaped, among other things, by its family and future orientation, the procreative potential. Although social currents have weakened that family and future orientation and its connection to marriage, it still (as Girgis, Anderson, and George have demonstratedsoclearly) stands at the center of a viable, clearly defined, principle-based view of marriage.
Thus we can state clearly what marriage is and what it is not. If Sam says, "It’s right to support the man-woman view of marriage," and George asks him, "What is marriage, on that view?" Sam can give him a definite, well-formed answer. Both Sam and George will know what Sam is talking about, whether George agrees or not. It includes a comprehensive union between a man and a woman, and it excludes multiple-party marriages, marriages between close relatives, marriages with inanimate objects or animals, marriages between persons of the same sex, and a continuing list of other familiar exclusions.
So how then do SSM proponents define marriage? As I’ve said, typically they say it is the union of two people who love each other and want to join in a lifelong, sexually involved, committed relationship with one another. That's a borrowed definition, obviously. What shape it has, it takes entirely from the historic man-woman understanding of marriage.
Note, however, how freely it picks and chooses from conjugal marriage. It accepts the idea of pairing off. It's happy to appropriate sexuality into it. And of course it's more than willing to bring into it the state-endorsed and state-sponsored benefits connected with marriage.
But in borrowing freely, it opens itself to being freely amended. There is no principled reason for it to have borrowed the number "two," as in, marriage is for two people. It's not clear why it has to be a sexual relationship, or why it needs to exclude chain marriages: Steve is married to Bob who is married to William who doesn't care to be around Steve. There’s no principle explaining why Bob can’t be married to Steve when he's in Portland and to Mark when he's in Charlotte. Of course all that would cause confusions in the law surrounding marriage, but the legal part was borrowed from man-woman marriage, too, so why can't that be fudged to make it work?
The fact is that for SSM advocates, marriage is what they've said it is. There’s nothing to keep marriage tomorrow from being what someone else says it is tomorrow—whatever that might be. I’ve heard it said that "marriage is a box that needs unpacking," but SSM would make marriage a shapeless bag instead, to be filled up with whatever shapes and forms anyone chooses.
Thus, marriage on the SSM view is like my version of “baseball.” If I won’t allow any solid form to be attached to the idea, “Baseball is ___,” then it’s impossible to take me seriously when I say, “Baseball is fun.” If there’s no solid definition attached to “Marriage is ___,” then it’s impossible to take it seriously when others say, “Same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue.” To the extent that “marriage” is formless, to that extent it has no viable reality at all.
SSM advocates say I’m attacking their position. As much as I might want to, I can’t find it in me to feel guilty for that. Is there something wrong with me?
Maybe. Certainly if I do it heartlessly, coldly, cruelly, that would be wrong. But if it’s just a matter of holding the views I do on marriage, I don’t think so—because same-sex “marriage” is the “marriage” that isn’t there.
Tom Gilson is a writer, ministry strategist, and speaker, and author/host of the Thinking Christian blog. He’s closely involved in developing curriculum for global discipleship use through Campus Crusade for Christ, and in co-founding a new Life Leader Institute at King’s Domain near Cincinnati.
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