Book Review: What is Marriage?

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What Is Marriage?  Man and Woman: A Defense

Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson

1) What is Marriage For?

2) Back to the Reproduction Line?

3) The Meaning of Sex

4) What Can We Learn from a Taboo?

5) Why All the Fuss?

 If the traditional view of marriage is to survive in the secular West, it must begin by explaining why lifelong, exclusive heterosexual relationships deserve a recognition denied to other types of relationship. Hence  What Is Marriage?  Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson. This book develops their Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy article of the same name. It opposes the “revisionist” view of marriage, which describes marriage as an emotional union, or romantic attachment, between two people. Revisionists view marriage as a union of hearts and minds, enhanced by whatever forms of sexual intimacy both partners find agreeable. This union need not be procreative – that is, the type of union that creates families.

1) What is Marriage For?

Against the revisionists, Girgis, George and Anderson argue that only the traditional, or “conjugal”, definition can give a robust and comprehensive explanation of marriage. While they are convincing, and What is Marriage is rigorously argued, they won’t win points for readability. Here is their definition of marriage:

 Marriage is that type of community that is both a comprehensive unity (a unity on all levels of the human person, including the bodily-sexual) and a community that would be fulfilled by procreating and rearing children together. Moreover, there is an intrinsic link between these two aspects of the community; the comprehensive (and therefore intrinsically sexual) relationship is fulfilled by, and is not merely incidental to, the procreating and rearing of children.

That won’t reduce to a soundbite; What is Marriage? will give spin doctor ulcers. However, robust and rational definitions have been conspicuously absent from this debate and the authors’ point is simple enough. The institution of marriage exists to form unions that can create and nurture the next generation: marriage is designed to create and raise new families. There is an intrinsic link between marriage, sex and procreation. Marriage is a relationship that completely unites two people in mind, will and body. The physical union of a man and a woman can create children and their emotional union creates a relationship which is the best context for raising those children. Therefore, we should honour marriage because it is essential for creating and maintaining families.

2) Back to the Reproduction Line?

That is not to say that marriage is for making babies. Children naturally desire a loving relationship with their biological parents, and biological kin find it easier to form deep emotional bonds. So, in the context of marriage, sex becomes about more than having children or satisfying biological desires. It expresses and deepens the intimacy and attraction between the partners, and in so doing, strengthens their relationship. Marriage is about making your relationship the ideal place to accept the gift of children; but a marriage that has been denied this gift is still a family in its own right.

Even if no children result from an exclusive, permanent heterosexual union it remains significant because it is an instance of the type of relationship designed to produce and nurture the next generation. The traditional view of marriage has never made fertility a prerequisite for marriage:

.. to recognize only fertile marriages would be to suggest that marriage is valuable only as a means to children—and not what it truly is, a good in itself … The more spouses (including infertile ones) reflect by their lives the truth about what marriage requires, the more saturated we will all be in those truths, so that more families with children will stay intact. As these truths dim, so will our prospects as a culture.

3) The Meaning of Sex

Some people might meet too late in life to have a child of their own; other couples will discover that they are infertile. Still, it makes sense if the older couple wish that they had met earlier to have had children of their own, and for the infertile couple to wish that they were fertile.  Homosexual partners simply cannot form the same bodily union as heterosexual partners. To put it as delicately as possible, men and women can unite in a way that is impossible for same-sex couples. When a man and woman consummate their relationship, their bodies are more than interlocked and their touching is more than intimate. Whatever the couple’s intentions, their bodies strive to make new life. Heterosexual intercourse makes procreation possible; same-sex acts cannot, under any circumstances, produce children. A homosexual couple simply cannot consummate their relationship in this way.

This is why, historically, homosexual relationships have never been accepted as marriages. This conjugal definition of marriage precedes Christianity and evolved independently of Judaeo-Christian tradition. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophanes, Musonius Rufus and Plutarch all accepted definitions of marriage that excluded same-sex relationships. They did so in societies that tolerated (and even promoted) same-sex relationships, so their arguments cannot be attributed as homophobic or dismissed as the products of religious bigotry.

4) What Can We Learn from a Taboo

It seems to me that the authors are correct to argue that the conjugal view is essential to our understanding of marriage. To see why,consider the following absurd scenarios. Suppose a father and daughter, or a brother and sister, wished to be married – and that as well as experiencing  a deep romantic love for each other they have received surgery to ensure that they will be infertile . Or suppose two brothers wished to marry, or two sisters. Or suppose three men and two women in a polyamorous relationship wished to have their relationship honoured as a marriage.

Why would we be unwilling to recognise such relationships as marriages? If the revisionists are correct there is no principled reason to deny marriage to people with to with strong romantic attachments provided it will cause no-one else any harm. There would be no principled reason to forbid incestuous marriages, provided the couple is sterile. And if the creation of a family is no longer the aim of marriage, there seems to be no principled reason to exclude polyamorous relationships. We would have no moral right to impose a dated heterosexist norm on other types of relationship.

Now no-one expects a demand for bizarre marriage relationships to grow if we revise the definition of marriage. This is not an argument from a feared slippery slope; nor is anyone suggesting that homosexual partnerships are equivalent to such bizarre sexual bonds! The point of such thought experiments is solely to clarify the purpose of marriage –  marriage is a union designed to create the next generation. To repeat, procreation need not actually occur in such unions. But homosexuals simply cannot form procreative unions under any circumstance; nor can they even coherently desire to form such a union with their partner.

The conjugal definition explains how marriage has been viewed across time and culture. “Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity.” In other words, why do we restrict life-long romantic attachments to couples? Why do we expect these couples to be exclusive and faithful? Simply because marriages are the source of new families. If reproductive relationships are not monogamous, ties of kinship become complicated (to say the least!) In fact, the authors note that some queer theorists worry that gay marriage will impose heterosexual norms on homosexual relationships.

5) Why All the Fuss?

So, the traditional view of marriage is coherent and plausible. Why should we retain it? The authors have three main arguments, which resonate with arguments made by other writers. First, the law is a teacher.

 Our argument depends on three simple ideas: 1. Law tends to shape beliefs. 2. Beliefs shape behavior. 3. Beliefs and behavior affect human interests and human well-being. Taking these truths for granted, we argue that an unsound law of marriage will breed mistaken views—not just of marriage, but of parenting, common moral and religious beliefs, even friendship—that will harm the human interests affected by each of these.

This seems correct. As Ron Sider pointed out in an article in First Things:

 Most people assume that if something is legal, it is moral—or at least not immoral. What is legal soon will become normal. Every society requires an ongoing supply of babies who grow up to be good citizens. Every civilization has known what contemporary sociologists now demonstrate: Children grow best into wholesome adults when they live with their biological mother and father. Marriage law is a crucial way in which the state promotes the sound nurturing of the next generation of citizens.
Legalizing gay marriage would weaken the connection between marriage and procreation—and the connection between biological parents and their biological children—which is why court cases in support of gay marriage typically downgrade the role of procreation[i]

Second, as we have noted, a change in the law will place society’s definition of marriage at odds with religious views of marriage. “We are not scaremongering: we are taking revisionists at their word. If support for conjugal marriage really is like racism, we need only ask how civil society treats racists. We marginalize and stigmatize them.”

It is likely that the state will interfere in Churches to protect what it views as “civil rights”. In fact,the state would be rather inconsistent not to interfere if it believes homosexual couples have a fundamental right to marry. In Britain the government has attempted to provide legal safeguards for religious communities. These are not reassuring.  According to the “Coalition for Marriage”

“There are dangers enough under domestic legislation. The Equality Act puts public authorities under a legal duty to promote equality, and that applies to how they administer the use of public facilities. If a church group that objects to same-sex marriage is hiring the village hall, it would be lawful for a local council to ban them from using the facility, citing its Public Sector Equality Duty. This has been confirmed by leading human rights lawyer, Aidan O’Neill QC. When sexual orientation rights clash with religious liberty rights, the courts have tended to place more importance on the former rather than the latter.”[ii]

Finally, there is simply no need to redefine marriage for the sake of “equality”. There are other ways to ensure tolerance and co-operation. In Britain, same sex couples can have exactly the same legal and financial rights as  a married couple. In fact, if the British government was really interested in equality and family, it would drop the ‘prohibited degrees of relationship’ provision from civil partnerships. This would benefit elderly siblings who live together, or children who take in elderly parents. Indeed, the government could choose to benefit “households” rather than “partnerships”.

 I do wonder how What is Marriage will be received in the secular world. The authors are quite correct to point out that the conjugal view of marriage is not a specifically Christian teaching. However, while their view of marriage is religiously neutral, I do not think that it is metaphysically neutral. It assumes that there are objective goods. The authors seek neutral ground to persuade revisionists to abandon their project. However, the secular world has little time for objective values and it will reject the slightest hint of purpose in nature. In the secular world humans create morals from preferences and desires. Nature is just matter in motion and the universe does not provide purposes for us to fulfil.

Once the West  believed that sexual unions should be permanent and exclusive affairs between a man and a woman. Such unions ceased to be permanent with “no fault” divorces. Then the sexual revolution made fornication not only permissible, but respectable. Gay marriage just seems to be the last step in the secularisation of sexual relationships. Sex is not about life anymore; it is about leisure. Relationships are a form of recreation. We cheerfully abandoned exclusivity and permanency; it is little wonder, then, that we are content to abandon marriage’s connection with procreation altogether.

Yet Christians must continue to insist that Creation is purposive and that sex has a purpose that is only fulfilled in marriage. The ultimate purpose of sex is to create families and children, and we have children to love and be loved. That becomes difficult when parents are strangers: so rather than saying that God gave humanity the gift of sex, we should insist that God gave humanity the gift of marriage and that sex is part of that gift Whatever the political fall-out of contemporary debates, apologists and evangelists must remember that they are not politicians or lawyers and that God’s purposes still must be taught to an unbelieving world. What is Marriage? teaches the Church two important lessons. The Christian definition of marriage is more rational than anything the secular world has to offer; and, however much we are scorned and ridiculed, Christians should not be reluctant to preach this Scriptural wisdom.





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