Thursday, April 28, 2016

Gay Marriage, Religious Liberty and Logic

Here is an email I wrote to the participants in two Issues Etc. (Lutheran Public Radio) podcasts:

To: Pr. Todd Wilken, Mr. Mark Tooley and Dr. Gregory Schulz

Dear Todd, Mark and Gregory,

The juxtaposition of these two topics was just too much for me. I need to say something, because the contradictions between your positions on gay marriage and religious liberty are just too glaring for you to be lecturing others about logic!

Todd and Mark discussed the case of a retired Methodist bishop who performed a same-sex wedding, defying a ban by the United Methodist Church. Clearly you didn’t approve of the bishop’s actions. You approved of the ban, you lamented the failure of church discipline to prevent such an occurrence, and you discussed differences of opinion between liberal American and conservative African Methodists about what is the true Christian view on this issue.

I recognize that the United Methodist Church is a voluntary organization, and it has a perfect right to make rules of membership and to enforce them. And I recognize that conservative Christians believe that same-sex marriage violates God’s law. But here is an example of a Christian bishop who holds a different opinion. You must recognize – don’t you? – that this is his religious conviction, and he lived out his religion by performing that wedding. You insist that religious liberty is not just the freedom to worship, but to live by one’s religious beliefs. Yet you would have the government prohibit these Methodists from exercising their religious liberty and following their consciences by participating in this religious ceremony. At the same time, you loudly complain that the failure of the government to obstruct this free exercise of religion abridges your religious liberty! Can’t you see how you are contradicting yourself by insisting that a general principle of religious liberty must be enforced by denying it to others?

Dr. Schulz gave what seemed to me a very simple-minded exposition of logic. He juxtaposed an attack on postmodernists with an Aristotelian approach to the meaning of words. Now I share his disdain for postmodernism. But by jumping from Aristotle to postmodernism he skipped over all of modern  philosophy! He mentioned the meaning of “marriage”, remarking that any discussion should begin with definitions. Implicit was the idea that there is some fixed definition of marriage, its essence, which will clearly define, by essential characteristics, what marriage is and what it is not.

A modern philosopher by the name of Wittgenstein took issue with this notion of the meaning of words. He didn’t think language worked like that. He took as an example the word ‘game’. What do we mean by ‘game’? What are the essential characteristics which all games must have in common? Consider card games, ball games, board games, games like ring-around-the-rosey. I’ll quote Wittgenstein a little from Wikipedia’s entry on “Family Resemblance”:

“We can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; we can see how similarities crop up and disappear.... And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.... I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than "family resemblances"; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: "games" form a family.”

He then applied this concept of family resemblance to the word “number”:

“Why do we call something a "number"? Well, perhaps because it has a direct relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.... I can give the concept 'number' rigid limits ... that is, use the word "number" for a rigidly limited concept, but I can also use it so that the extension of the concept is not closed by a frontier. And this is how we do use the word "game". For how is the concept of a game bounded? What still counts as a game and what no longer does? Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn. (But that never troubled you before when you used the word "game".)”

The word “marriage” is like that – like a thread twisted of many fibers. One man and one woman? Well yes, and... remember how Jacob was married to sisters Leah and Rachel? Leah, who was foisted on him under false pretenses, whom he did not love but who bore him children, and Rachel whom he did love but who at first was barren. And then each gave her servant to bear him children. “So she gave him her servant Bilbah as a wife.” Well, sort of a wife, just as Bilbah’s children counted as Rachel’s children, sort of. “So that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” So even the institution of motherhood is a flexible category in the Bible, extensible by a sort of family resemblance. This complicated business is certainly not by the book, but it’s in the book.

Marriage is a human institution that is different in different societies and has changed through history in Western societies. Just as words are flexible things, lacking fixed eternal essences, human institutions are flexible too. “Marriages”, like “games”, form a family. Same-sex marriages resemble stereotypical heterosexual marriages in many respects but differ in others – they share some fibers of the thread, but not all, just as second marriages do, and marriages between seniors, and marriages by nuns to Jesus, and the marriage between the Church and Christ.

So saying “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” as if this were a belief about a definition, is either disingenuous or based on a mistaken idea about the rigidity of meanings. After all, even you can see – can’t you? – a family resemblance between straight and gay marriages. What you probably mean to say is, “I believe marriage SHOULD only be between a man and a woman, because God so decreed it, and the institution and meaning of marriage SHOULD NOT be extended to include bonds between two men or two women.” But for you that is a religious belief, based (you believe) on Scripture. What about the Methodists you discussed who believe the opposite? How does your religious belief give you the right to deprive them of their religious liberty? You may disagree with them; you may preach at them; you may threaten them with hellfire; you may expel them from your church; but the state is not your tool to establish your faith-based concept of marriage as the law for everyone. Recent popular culture has educated people on the previously under-appreciated similarities between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. So the family resemblance between straight and gay marriage has become compelling to many Americans, too compelling, in the view of many, to deprive same-sex couples’ families of its benefits.

You might answer in terms of so-called “natural law”, but that sham is a topic for another day.

Gerald Lame