Love, Marriage and Jim Obergefell

So we are living in the post-Obergefell world wherein the Supreme Court of the United States has decreed that “marriage equality” is the law of the land.

This means, according to experts, there is no longer “marriage for some” but marriage for all—or   “just marriage.”  The analogies are as tempting as they are fallacious: democracy for all, liberty for all, fair distribution of justice for all—and in America,  guns for all.

I say fallacious because democracy, freedom and justice describe the conditions under which most people—in the West anyway–would choose to live.  They are not, as such “institutions.”   They are mechanisms, implemented and extended differently from country to country, for achieving a society that operates in the pursuit of that elusive rogue, The Common Good.

Marriage is not a mechanism.  It is an institution.  It is older than all forms of government and exists in democratic and non-democratic, totalitarian, tribal, theocratic and socialist societies alike.  It always has.  In fact it can be argued that the mechanistic view of marriage—marriage as a thing limited to achieving an end, such as reproduction—is precisely what has changed with the recent Supreme Court decision, though some version of this mechanistic view will continue to dominate thinking in most religious traditions for a long time.

Marriage as the normative man-woman arrangement for population increase was there for the Romans.  It was there in Palestine when, questioned about marriage,  Jesus replied, “Why ask me: you know the routine. When you’re married, stay married.”  His hard to cipher attitude toward divorce is one of the reasons Luther decided to take marriage off the list of seven sacraments and demoted it to an ‘ordinance’.

I am not especially fussed that same-sex marriage has been ruled legal by a sweeping and typically incoherent opinion of US judges. Having satisfied themselves that the petitioners were not trying “to change the institution of marriage,” the judges responded with same paternalistic resignation that caused your father to turn over the car keys when you were fifteen with the admonition, “As long as you don’t drive too fast.”  Ennui had set in. Boredom had set in.  The tide was full; the time as the writer of Ecclesiastes said, had come. Divorce had become easy.  Marriage should not be different.

There is a theory that marriage equality has come at a time in human history when marriage itself has become, at least in the West, dogmatically empty and socially unsustainable.  The reasons most often given for this grim assessment are changes in lifestyle corresponding  to changed understandings of gender and social roles.  –Ironically the same reasons given for opening the institution up to a larger clientele.

The campaign for same sex unions did not cause this impoverishment of the idea of marriage, the theory goes, it simply residuated from it.  It did this by asserting that freedom, justice and liberty cannot be achieved if the “equal right” to marriage is not extended to gays and lesbians.  Marriage, an institution formed in patriarchal contexts that depended on subordination of the sexes, eschewed romantic and sexual love as, at best, distractions, and was rooted in ideas of contract and financial benefit (usually though not always to the bride’s family)  was now to be about equality, love, and justice.

Even though the battles for gay marriage was fought inside liberal Christian denominations before it was adjudicated in the courts, it was contested at the expense of squandering most of the orthodox ritual, tradition and doctrine concerning the sacrament in its full-blooded iteration: Poetically expressed in the 1559 Anglican Book of Common Prayer (which became the template for many shorter protestant versions of the service)

DEARELY beloved frendes, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of his congregacion, to joyne together this man and this woman in holy matrimony, which is an honorable state, instytuted of God in Paradise, in the time of manes innocencie, signiflyng unto us the mistical union that is betwixt Christ and his Churche: which holy state Christe adourned and beautified with his presence and firste myracle that he wrought in Cana of Galile, and is commended of sainct Paul to be honourable emong all men, and therfore is not to be enterprised, nor taken in hande unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, to satisfye mennes carnall lustes and appetytes, lyke brute beastes that have no understandyng ; but reverently, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the feare of God, duely consideryng the causes for the which matrimony was ordeined. One was the procreation of children, to be brought up in the feare and nurtoure of the Lorde, and praise of God. Secondly, it was ordeined for a remedy agaynste sinne and to avoide fornication, that suche persones as have not the gifte of continencie might mary, and kepe themselves undefiled membres of Christes body. Thirdly, for the mutual societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, bothe in prosperity and adversitye, into the whiche holy state these two persones present, come nowe to be joyned. Therefore if any man can shewe any just cause, why thei may not lawfully be joyned together let hym now speake, or els hereafter for ever holde his peace

Matrimony (lit. the estate of ordaining motherhood) was a deadly serious thing, established by God for specific purposes, not to be entered into lightly.  It was linked, in the Aristotelian calculus theologians used, to the consequent idea of family,  and implicitly tied the inward reality of the ritual to the “mystery of creation” whereby God made two sexes to complete his work.   Marriage was the final form of an act begun on the first day and realized in the Genesis 2 story of the creation of the man and woman.

“The man said, This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman’ ….. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2.23f)

It was, perhaps, the most powerful symbolism attached to any ritual of the Church with the exception of the Eucharist.  So powerful that whoever wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians calls the Church the Bride of Christ admonishing it to be as pure and chaste as a virgin, fit to bring forth the fruits of grace.

What the 1559  ordinance does not mention, of course, is the word love except in a chain of verbs that includes honoring, serving and obeying.  Conversely, what gay couples roundly rejected was the word “contract” (as in “civil contract”) as being a sufficient equivalent to “marriage. “  Marriage equality was the first specifically rights-based ruling rooted in the logic that to deny people of a particular sexual orientation a status given by the state to people of a different sexual orientation was discriminatory.   Since the Reformation the state had progressively usurped the role of the church (in the form of civil magistracies that recorded and certified marriages), at the same time returning to priests and pastors the right to serve as official state-authorized ministers of vows and recorders of  deed.  Only the Catholic and Eastern churches doggedly withstood  this encroachment by saying that the state lacked the power to finalize a sacrament, so that marriages conducted in a judge’s office were no more than expressions of intent until ratified by the Church.  That little theological river remains to be crossed and won’t be anytime soon.  To do so would undermine about 1500 years of Catholic  theological reflection on the nature of marriage.  By the same token, the liberal protestant traditions will fare much better with the decision,  since for them marriage lacks sacramental authenticity.  While this makes marriage equality easier for the liberal Protestants, it makes it easier only because the definition of marriage is theologically chaotic in those traditions.


Beyond Marriage


From a strictly historical perspective, the understanding of both “traditional” and “same sex” marriage in the late twentieth century had become so heavily suffused with the Hollywood teleology of the wedding- as-happy-ending  that a deeper understanding of its significance in human culture was almost totally ignored in the polarization of slogans:  Marriage was either “between a man and a woman,” or it was a “loving relationship between two people regardless of sex or sexual orientation.” The old view emanated from a theological position based in natural law as interpreted through sacred texts; the new view was thought to be based on human social values like equality and freedom to choose. One view was teleological (marriage must be defined in terms of its purpose, utility or final form), the other in terms of entitlements and rights.

The post-Renaissance development of love relationships in the West had led finally to the unavoidable question of whether the thinking of the Church had become outmoded: institutions like marriage are subject to social change and pressure.  Thus, if society changes, can institutions designed to accommodate the assumptions and beliefs of earlier times continue to govern our understanding of the institution?   Conservative Christians  and many Catholics and orthodox Jews said yes.  Their certainty was rooted in an assortment of biblical texts, assumed to be authoritative, composed millennia before these social changes occurred.  Their defense of traditional marriage was not so much rooted in history as simply tethered to the past.  The gay community—or the small part that was actually interested in having a discussion about the sacramental nature of marriage as opposed to its legal recognition–said No. If the Church is a living voice intended to speak to people in the modern world, it must speak to be understood and in a language people can understand.  Yet this position could easily be challenged as amounting to a rejection of the normativity which the Church often uses as an entitlement to speak on a range of other moral issues where precedent, texts, the words of the founder, or centuries of teaching and practice are used to alter and reform existing norms.   It is one of the reasons it has become increasingly easy to bypass the opinion of liberal protestant churches with their comparatively skeptical attitude toward the use of “”orthodox” authority from the past while listening in rapt attention to any “modern”  or liberalizing word spoken by a pope, who claims to represent the living  voice of unbroken tradition.

Writing in this week’s Time magazine, the editor of the American Conservative (a publication I regret to say I don’t read very often) had this to say:

“…the Court majority wrote that gays and lesbians do not want to change the institution of marriage, but rather want to benefit from it. This is hard to believe, given more recent writing from gay activists like Dan Savage expressing a desire to loosen the strictures of monogamy in all marriages. Besides, if marriage can be redefined according to what we desire — that is, if there is no essential nature to marriage, or to gender — then there are no boundaries on marriage. Marriage inevitably loses its power.

In that sense, social and religious conservatives must recognize that the Obergefell decision did not come from nowhere. It is the logical result of the Sexual Revolution, which valorized erotic liberty. It has been widely and correctly observed that heterosexuals began to devalue marriage long before same-sex marriage became an issue. The individualism at the heart of contemporary American culture is at the core of Obergefell — and at the core of modern American life.”

The first of these two paragraphs contains both a truism and a cheat: It is undeniable that marriage equality has come at a time when marriage itself is socially weak.  But the attack on monogamy is not specific to gay marriage.  The sexual revolution was largely a heterosexual revolution dampened by epidemics of HIV AIDS and STDs and only coextensively a feature of the gay revolution.  Gay marriage is not the final act in a drama that begins with gay promiscuity.  Promiscuity, adultery, or what the Book of Common Prayer calls “fornication” is not unique to 2015; it existed in 1559 and 1776 and 1943.  Whatever the restraining power of chastity or monogamy as a perquisite of the marriage union, this aspect of the institution has been weakening for two centuries or more,  if indeed it ever was really definitive.  There is nothing to be said for the idea that marriage equality is related, in any way, to loosening the bond of monogamy.

The second paragraph is more sober.  Marriage equality may well be an expression of erotic liberty, if by that we mean the right to have pleasure with persons of the same sex in the same way heterosexuals enjoy pleasure with people of the opposite sex.  The question in this case goes back to the question of purpose as opposed to the question of rights: Is the purpose of marriage the legitimation of sexual pleasure, or does it have some deeper and more fundamental purpose. Eschewing the teleological, what is the meaning, the essence of marriage?

But underlying both paragraphs is a more troubling message:  If marriage is now defined strictly in terms of conjugal rights by extending those rights to same sex as well as heterosexual partners, it is very difficult to see what the battle was about: The need for legitimation? The need to express love on paper? The blessing of the state?  The push for final sacramental legitimacy within religious traditions? My guess is that compared to achieving this final goal, winning over five justices of America’s highest court will be a piece of cake.

Transformative Views on Abortion and Marriage

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:


I am tapping away at two “related” books—a history of the question of abortion (foeticide, in an older language) and infanticide in Jewish, pagan and Christian culture, and a short history of the “sacrament” of marriage in Christianity. I won’t do spoilers here. If you want the straight story, you will have to read the books.

But I think it is fair to say that writing books can be transformative, even if you don’t especially want to be transformed.

I have been a proponent of the “right to choose” since Roe v Wade became the law of the land, in conscience before that.

My mother as a college student remembered helping her room-mate slip out of St Louis to a “doctor” in East Saint Louis, then an Illinois slum of the city, to have her problem “taken care of.” The doctor, a black midwife, was a compassionate but undertrained woman…

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Genetics 101: “Please Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful”

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

Genetics 101

by admin Posted on December 9, 2011

A recent response from a reader aptly named “Hunt” about atheist criticism and tactics quotes one of the mavens of the movement (now that new atheism is not new they seem to want the name back), Greta Christina, who runs a site called Greta Christina.

I am taking Hunt at his usually impolite word when he says she says,

“People don’t dislike atheists because of  our tactics; they dislike atheists because of who we are”

I don’t have any idea of what that throwaway line means either (“I don’t like you because you’re a mean and nasty old bugger Uncle Crank. I dislike you because you’re an uncle”).  But giving Ms Christina the benefit of a doubt, since I have occasionally smiled at her postings, let me just say that “Hunt” has ripped another page out of the Atheist Surefire Response…

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ISIS and The Limits of the Grotesque

Saturn Devourng His Children

Stalin did not actually say “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.” But had he said it, he would have been right.

The mawkish anticipation of new and better terror after September 11, 2001 is one of the saddest commentaries on the rubber-necking proclivity of the human soul: the part that delights in seeing hurricane damage, fatal car crashes, planes lost from radar, and manned spacecraft decimated in the noonday sky. And, yes, beheadings and bombings.

While some of these catastrophes are what theologians like to call “natural evil”—things that happen without our being able to prevent them—like earthquakes and avalanches—and another portion accidental– there has been no shortage of what theologians (yet again) like to call “moral evil”: the man-against-man form of catastrophe. And as we all know, a reliable source of this kind of evil is religious extremism.

Interestingly, we used to call natural disasters “acts of God” (as insurance policies sometimes still do) and moral evil “man’s inhumanity to man.” That was until we realized that we did God no favours by saddling him with Nature’s quirkiness and that moral evil is nothing other than human decision-making at its most contemptible.

According to Alan Bullock (Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, 1993) the two leaders separately killed upwards of 15,000,000 non-combatants. Of the 5,000,000 Jews killed by Hitler, only about 170,000 were German Jews, the majority being exterminated in areas that would finally fall to the Soviet bloc. The number of people killed by ISIS varies wildly from between 60,000 to 170,000 using systematically unreliable sources. The number of ISIS fighters killed by all forces, including the US-led Coalition, has been put at 10,000. These are statistics, which as we know (according to either Disraeli or Mark Twain) are the superlative degree of lying. More significantly, however, statistics often do not horrify. They are meant to horrify but their real value lies in propaganda—to encourage the enemy to think his side is down in the score or to encourage voters to think their side is up.

In the long run, catastrophe is a matter of optics, not numbers—though numbers can help in the visualization of catastrophe if they are strewn on a battlefield or found floating in a flood plain. The 9-11 apocalypse was all the more effective because of its lack of visual morbidity: everyone knew that thousands of people were trapped in the inferno, but apart from a few isolated shots of people jumping from the 60th floor of the World Trade Center tower, the affect on viewers did not come from numbers but from the visualized reality of fire and pluming smoke–the instruments of death. This was scale and magnitude not witnessed since Hiroshima, and in terms of immediate effect as measured by viewership not even then.

Lacking the ability (as of now) to reproduce the grand and violent premiere of the Third Millennium, the new terrorists have resorted to different optics: torture, mass execution, beheadings of westerners, and the destruction of sacred archaeological treasure, valued more in the West than in the regions where it is situated. While the sheer number of these atrocities may be significant, they are far more significant because they are not statistics but symbolically grotesque occasions of horror. They are, in fact, market- tested ways to evoke horror in a way that the decimation of a Shi’a village or two will not do. It is maximalized optical downsizing, from the level of epic to the level of epithet, from the grand to the well-constructed small—in short from the statistical and abstract to the tragic and personal.

However. There comes a time in the rubbernecking business when the horror recedes or rather appetite wanes.. The sight of a head being held aloft by a masked man speaking the dulcets of central London begins to bore us. The sight of a hundred Yazidis, face down in a ditch created to be their mass grave and shot in the head, has been seen one too many times. Execution by bullet is suprisingly quick and dull, like swatting a fly and too clinical to be good theatre. The sight of sledgehammers being used on Assyrian icons is of interest only to the 3% of the population who know where ancient Assyria was and why anyone should care about its treasures, most of which have long since been carted off to the museums of Europe by academic thieves and explorers in a competition for colonial prestige. The only questions that can be posed is, Are these people savages? The answer is yes. Turn the page.

In other words, after a while, the outrageous ceases to be outrageous. One two many heads will have been severed. One too many truck bombs will have gone off on the way to a peace-loving, unpronounceable, faraway market town. Just as the line of traffic that clogged the road when the smell of death was crisp along the highway–the ambulances racing, and the twisted metal contorted into a death trap—the lookers and gawkers and commiserati will begin to move on. They will lose interest. This one is like the last one. Besides, they have to be someplace before 5 pm. They will lean on their horns, frustrated by the mess they have helped to create by their devotion to catastrophe.

The problem with the optics of terrorism is that we seem to be hard wired to reach of state of ennui about such things: Not another beheading. Not another village gone down the drain. Not another four hundred girls rounded up and fucked into conversion. It’s for the psychologist to explain why these peak experiences of the terror we are witnessing cannot be sustained or expected to hold our attention. But it must have something to do with the sense that we have seen this movie one too many times now. We know how it comes out.

The bad news is not for We the Curious but ISIS because there is every chance that the members of this community take themselves seriously and have begun to believe in their own invulnerability (and the attention span of onlookers and potential recruits). It is bad news because the recruits will sense the loss of affect before the leaders in Iraq and Syria realize they have lost the battle for religious hearts and murderous minds. They too will begin to wonder what happened to the audience, why the visual pornography they are peddling as part of their recruitment campaign has begin to look dull. The amplified chants will continue to ring above the beleaguered towns of Syria and the oases of Mesopotamia, but they will be hollow and fewer people will listen. ISIS will simply fall apart.

Not because any military operation will drive the last nail into the coffin of their irrelevance but because the onlookers will have become tired of the show. They will want the mess they have helped to create untangled. They will want to move on. It seems to me that is where we are, or are fast approaching, in this drama.

God and We the People

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

At the end of the film Henry V, a single tenor voice intones, Non nobis, non nobis, Domine…

He is joined by a few others, until in the end a whole chorus (with orchestra) crescendos to complete the verse: Sed nomini tuo da gloriam. The passage is from Psalm 115,  the bit of the Roman Easter liturgy where the priests, hearing the lines,  would kneel in abasement: “Not to us, not to us, O Lord, but to your name give glory.”

The verse became a familiar song of the Knights Templar during the Crusades, but its most famous use was in 1415 when the English, against  heavy odds and a superior army, defeated the French at Agincourt.

It was easy to see the battle in biblical terms–and the English never tired of attributing their unlikely victory to divine intervention. Except, of course: Henry V of England and Charles VI of France were…

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High Noon and Gun Control

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

My friend Joe Segor, whom I’ve had a couple of enjoyable evenings with in Miami, had a good comment on “A Secular Argument for Gun Control.”  He writes:

“An excellent essay. Unfortunately, it won’t convince the gun nuts. Not even those who can understand the argument. The people at the top of the NRA are there to protect the arms industry. Most of the rest have a fanatical belief in the right to own firearms. A friend of mine is rational on every subject except guns. He is beyond persuasion.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Usually I let my occasional comments rest quietly in the Comment section where they die a peaceful death in 24 hours (or earlier).  But here is what I said to Joe:

“I doubt any gun nut would make it through the first paragraph, or even stumble on the site unless they think New Oxonian is…

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Is Atheism a Humanist Value?

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

In a word, No.

There is nothing inherently “humanistic” about atheism, and some forms of militant atheism–the outwardly obnoxious, deliberately offensive kind now primarily associated with the Center for Inquiry and the minions of the new atheism–are unhumanistic.

I have been at work pari passu (meaning “when I feel like it,”) on a “Little Lexicon of Humanist Values.” It will never be the OED. It will never be Webster’s–maybe not even the Yellow Pages.

Instead it is a half-serious, occasionally flippant attempt to reflect on values that humanists might agree are important to the pursuit of a humanist worldview or life-stance. The definitions sometimes approach the famous discussion between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in chapter six of Through the Looking Glass, when Alice says to the Eggy creature (who has used the term “glory” in an unusual way),

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”….’

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Cleopas the Atheist

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

The dilemma for thoughtful people who find much to commend in serious unbelief is brought about by unthoughtful and (often) unserious people. Even if their intentions are good (as in nice, not naughty) their tactics are terrible. I quote me:

My real quibble with redivivus atheism is that it has taken a sideshow approach to a subject that ought to be viewed and debated seriously. Atheism, as such, is an intellectual position, not a moral philosophy. But sideshow atheism is neither. Blasphemy Days, sloganeering, bus campaigns, unbaptisms, video challenges, cartoon contests — whatever motivates this activity (bonding, boredom, or the lust to be noticed?), it is not of a kind nor quality that does atheists any good. If instead of arguing their case, the atheist strategy for growth was to build the world’s most repulsive bogeyman, they have done a good job.

I am not even certain why…

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Transformative Views on Abortion and Marriage


I am tapping away at two “related” books—a history of the question of abortion (foeticide, in an older language) and infanticide in Jewish, pagan and Christian culture, and a short history of the “sacrament” of marriage in Christianity. I won’t do spoilers here. If you want the straight story, you will have to read the books.

But I think it is fair to say that writing books can be transformative, even if you don’t especially want to be transformed.

I have been a proponent of the “right to choose” since Roe v Wade became the law of the land, in conscience before that.

My mother as a college student remembered helping her room-mate slip out of St Louis to a “doctor” in East Saint Louis, then an Illinois slum of the city, to have her problem “taken care of.” The doctor, a black midwife, was a compassionate but undertrained woman who would not have been able to deal with any complications during or after the surgery; D & C procedures were not done, and often the abortion was simply induced with the patient left to deal with the after-effects.

Like a lot of women of her generation—Catholic women as it happens—she simply assumed that one day common sense would prevail and procedures like the one she facilitated would be done in proper hospitals under sanitary conditions. And like a lot of Catholic women (she remained a Catholic until her dying day) she felt the Church was simply irrelevant to the discussion of contraception and abortion, a brave position towards a Church that had chosen to take its moral stand on gynecological matters under the rubric “the gospel of life.”

Given this preface, even I am surprised at what I have come to think about the topic of abortion as it is now framed.

I do not like the term “abortion rights”—not because I am a man and will never have to choose, but because it is a cynical phrase hewn out of the conflict with equally sinister activists, the “right-to-life”-cadre–who hold that abortion is murder. Not only murder, but murder most foul because it preys on the innocent at the most vulnerable point in their existence.

I think positioning abortion as a right, similar in some sense to the right to free speech, or press and assembly was a flawed response to the invocation (and manipulation) of the Constitutional right to life, which (whatever else Jefferson or Locke may have meant by it) was clearly not envisaged to apply to inviable foetuses.

Writing Faith and Foeticide has convinced me that the discussion of personhood cannot be avoided, and that it is foolish to try to do so. Since ancient times the question of “viability” has been a topic of medical, domestic and theological discussions. That subject in turns hews closely to the questions of “identity” and perhaps more important in the ancient discussion the question of property.

The Jews asserted a parental interest in an unborn child only when quickening occurred, in the fifth or sixth month. For millennia—-long before the technology existed to explore embryonic development in the uterus—it was the voluntary movement of the foetus that established its personality, that is, its distinctive identity as a human being in utero. The property right of a father over an unborn child could only be asserted at this point, as a famous text (Exodus 21.22 ff.) illustrates. In Jewish, pagan and early Christian cultures the wife was the custodian, not the owner, of the property. The penalty for inducing an abortion (miscarriage) by accident or deliberate action was a fine paid to the father.

By the eighteenth century the assumptions of legal sholars like William Blackstone were formed in almost total ignorance of the ancient discussions, which made it possible to write nonsense like this:

Life… begins in contemplation of law as soon as an infant is able to stir in the mother’s womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb; or if any one beat her, whereby the child dieth in her body, and she is delivered of a dead child; this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter. But at present it is not looked upon in quite so atrocious a light, though it remains a very heinous misdemeanor.

(Blackstone, William (1979) [1765]. “Amendment IX, Document 1″. Commentaries on the Laws of England 5. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 388.)

The ancient debate looks distant and even foolish to us. It was a form of reductivism that understood a child as having value in relation to a certain system that we have come to know as patriarchy. While abortion certainly existed, contraception was not very effective and could be dangerous to the woman. In general, only wealthy women could procure abortions—for unwanted children or to keep a jealous husband, father, or lover in the dark about an inconvenient pregnancy. None were safe; all were potentially fatal.

But the modern debate is just as reductivist: it begins with the (equally proprietary) axiom that the mother in some sense owns not only her body (a good Lockean principle) but what is in it, by chance or design. Given that assumption–that the mother has the power to sustain or extinguish this life– whether we choose to humanize it or not, the only relevant questions are essentially questions of hygiene and safety. In ancient times the discouragement to abortion was that women died, not just from botched surgery but from routine childbirth. This risk having been reduced substantially in the modern world, it becomes necessary to focus on the question of choice and rights, maintaining all the while that the rights that can be extended to the born child cannot be ascribed to the foetus. While the term “unborn” is considered by many pro-choice advocates as prejudicial to discussion, the fact is that intrauterine and post-uterine existence are not ontological statuses but physical realties: the object of this existence needs to be considered, which in the super-charged and historically vacuous climate of contemporary discussion is not possible. The premises are simple on either side: Either abortion is murder or it is not. If is is murder, its advocates are criminals. If it is not, then it is a permissible form of family planning or social hygiene. In choosing sides, the ethical reality of the foetus is exploited but the ontological status of the foetus is almost never considered in a mature and humanistic way.

So entrenched are views on the topic that any suggestion that the life of the foetus is human life immediately drowns the “personhood” question in a barrage of cases about rape and incest, though the majority of unwanted pregnancies (>5% in first trimester) are not the result of rape. The overwhelming majority of first trimester abortions are elective. This statistic in itself is meaningless, however, part from consideration of the ethical reality involved. The unasked question it seems to me is not whether abortion should be legal–of course it should be–but what is being done in the process.

Statistics, however, are routinely used by the most strident of the anti-abortion contingent to bring back the dark night of blanket illegality. And in the offing, the question of life and personhood is reduced to caricature. That, if you ask me, is a shame because it throws a sensitive question to the howling yahoos in American political life like meat to dogs.

The safer and more common abortion has become the more it has become proceduralized. By that I mean the condition of pregnancy has been reduced to the same status as the condition of having a curable disease. The pregnant woman on this analogy can be considered nothing but a person seeking relief from an illness, a frame so constructed as to include the nature of the condition that entails the choice. As there would be no debate for example about the “right” to seek relief from pain or the ravages of a degenerative disease, there should be no debate about the analogous right to seek relief from pregnancy.

The hygienic approach to abortion however raises a range of moral questions that were postulated as long ago as 1970 by George Huntston Williams lamenting the fact that the abortion debate was being resolved not on the basis of historical and humanistic reflection but as an expression of our increasing dependence on clinical solutions to all human problems—the conclusion Williams adds of a “cold and strangely harsh age.” “It is an anomaly of the development of the moral conscience of society at the very moment when we know the most about foetal life and we are, in our reverence for life, reviewing such formerly major instruments of society as capital punishment and war, that many in the name of humanity and humaneness would be disposed to let go centuries of ethical concern about prenatal life.”


Marriage Everyone?

Marriage was not a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church until the 12th century. The reason was that earlier canons required a sacrament to be a practice started (instituted) by Jesus Christ to impart grace” (“Sacramentum proprie dicitur quod ita signum est gratiae Dei, ei invisibilis gratiae forma, ut ipsius imaginem gerat et causa existat”: Peter Lombard IV Sententiae , d.I, n.2 )–and it is clear that millennia of married people had existed before Jesus.

More embarrassing still, while Jesus responded to some questions about marriage from his opponents, they were not questions about what he “founded” but about a practice already assumed to exist among Jews and gentiles. Indeed they were not even questions about marriage but about divorce (Mt 19.19ff, pars.)

One thing is clear: marriage in itself was not a remarkable thing. Love had nothing to do with it, and insofar as it was a significant social factor it was significant (especially in the upper reaches of society) because it established legitimacy and paternity. Its sole defining function was tied to procreation, legitimacy, and inheritance.

Over the centuries, the Church became more and more involved in the “consecration” of marriage, and more and more specific about the nature of the institution. It derived its divine sanction from two key passages, Genesis 2.23-4. And the pseudo-Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians (5:22-33) where marriage is understood to be symbolic of the bond between Christ and the Church, thus a symbol of salvation itself.

St Paul was downright disparaging about the institution, giving it no more than a pass in his dismissive comment that it “is better to marry than to burn with lust.” (1 Cor. 7.9)

In denying marriage was a sacrament, the Protestant reformers did not challenge its symbolism but its right to be regarded as an institution started by Jesus, maintained by the apostles, and controlled by the church. The early reformers knew very well that marriage became important to the church only because of the question of benefices due the bishops from the landed gentry—the nobility—and that the episcopacy needed to be involved in the question of legitimacy, heirs, and inheritance.

The Church took virtually no interest for another two centuries in marriage practices of ordinary folk, where common law practices provided the social context for a custom that was valued primarily (as also in its religious context) for being a guarantor of legitimate offspring. As Carter Lindbergh has written, Luther, as essentially a late medieval man rather than a renaissance one lived at a time when the Church sanctioned public brothels and approved of prostitution: marriage was not a thing to quell lust but to channel it into procreation. Luther’s basic thesis was that man and woman are God’s work and creatures; God created humankind so that there should be men and women (LW 45:17). Bodiliness and sexuality are God’s gifts which deserve thanks and responsible use. God knows what humankind needs: “It is not good that a person be alone.” (“The Estate of Marriage,” 1522; LW 45:13-49). But whatever else marriage is—-among other things, an institution out of which friendship can grow and even affection–as his own to Katherine von Bora illustrated– it was not a sacrament of the Church and conferred no special “grace” on the partners. It becomes in the language of the Book of Common Prayer a sacred ordinance, blessed by God for the specific purpose of sexual reproduction, the echo of God’s creation. It is not human. It is certainly not about romantic love and care.

One of the difficulties we face with the secularization of any discussion of a religious custom is the question of definition. The incremental importance attached to marriage, as most scholars know, followed the age of courtly romance when marriages involved traditions of ritual flirting, Platonic love, and finally the belief that romantic love and marriage could be conjoined only rarely and with family approval. Alliances between the parties were always taken into account, even among the lower orders of society. Marriage almost always involved some measure of political or financial advantage. The tale of Romeo and Juliet is grounded in a time where the hostility between two families prevented their marriage. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur illustrates the price of crossing the line between flirtation, courtly romance, and adultery. Marriage is idealized in countless stories of ”true” (extra-marital) love and betrayal, but what changes fundamentally is the focus of marriage. It is often not a symbol of love but an impediment to love. The sacred union it comes to represent is not human: beyond its prosaic meaning as a symbol of legitimate succession through proving heirs, it is now a symbol of Christ’s “eternal” love for his bride the Church, which in fact is not a signal of love but of subordination and obedience.

What it is not is a symbol of passion or human affection. The high sacramental importance attached to marriage essentially suffocates love in favour of children.

My own view of the history of marriage is that its use over time does not make it a desirable model of “union” for same-sex couples. The historical purpose of marriage has not been to symbolize the love of partners or the equality of partners but the sexual role of partners in a union of biological opposites against the background of natural law. Natural law in turn is the self-determining view that a union which does not naturally residuate in offspring is sterile. In the medieval church, such a marriage could not be validated and if it had been, by accident, could be nullified.

The monopoly of heterosexual couples on this “higher”-than-contractual level is tied to referents that I think homosexual couples would have been better off shunning in favour of civil unions that granted all the rights and privileges under law that “married” couples enjoy: Inheritance, insurance benefits, domicile—the things that were, in fact, always integral to the idea of marriage as a contract. Whatever is superadded to the civil union—the idea of sacramental authenticity, romantic love, child-bearing, the family—has only served to retard and impede same-sex unions within a war of definitions. Same sex-unions should have been based on a rejection of traditional marriage, not the appropriation of the word based on the Ken and Barbie embodiment of the twentieth century.

As with the abortion debate, people have been forced into corners as “for” or “against” gay marriage, whereas, in fact, the ones who should have been redefining the union as a union of likeness have focused almost exclusively on expropriating symbolism that is stubbornly resistant to reinterpretation, the incorporation of same-sex symbolism on the premise that marriage is “really” all about love and the right of two people, whatever their sexual preference, to formalize that love.

When all is said and done, it is the metaphorical significance of marriage that matters, and it is no accident that the definition wars are occurring precisely at a time when religious definitions and metaphorical coherence are at the lowest point in history.

Why not gay marriage? is a question that can only become significant when a symbol has been eviscerated of its traditional power, as marriage itself was during the time of Jesus and Paul against the backdrop of apocalyptic thought. The belief that the world was ending was a clear disincentive to reproduction. Ironically, it is this context that explains why Jesus, called upon to answer questions on the topic, ends up responding to questions about divorce. Contracts without sacramental and metaphorical value are made to be broken. We are not at the same-sex marriage juncture of human history; we are at the end-of-marriage crossroads–not why not gay marriage, but why marriage of any kind?

Eden Gardens

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

The community was advertised as the best landscaped in south Florida.

Not only did the faux-Moroccan gate provide security from nonexistent intruders and drug-dealers, but every condo nestled in a tropical array of bougainvillea, hibiscus (coral pinks and striated reds), fiddleleaf figs, palmetto and assorted ferns.

Adam Feinstein loved the fact that the small yard was mown on a weekly basis by a Mexican boy named Donnie who spoke no English but smiled broadly and sang as he raked the shorn blades into neat piles.

Promptly at 4.45 on Thursdays, when the Feinstein lawn had been cut, Adam waited on the front patio with a large glass of iced tea for Donnie. The Association didn’t allow tipping, but a libation of iced tea or water was permitted. It made Adam feel that he had contributed something to the process.

The Association dealt with everything, trimmed everything, fixed everything (outside)…

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