Category Archives: Culture

What is Marriage? (Part 4)

The first three parts of this series (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) detailed the positive arguments made by the authors for a “conjugal” view of marriage. The remainder of the book—chapters four through six, the conclusion, and the appendix—address objections to the view that the authors have presented. The fourth chapter, “What’s the Harm?”, addresses an objection commonly put by advocates of same-sex marriage, that extending the institution to same-sex couples will increase the blessings of marriage while doing no harm to existing marriages or marriage itself. The authors list six harms (53-72) that may arise from changing the definition of what a marriage is. Their argument is based on the ideas that Law tends to shape beliefs; beliefs shape behaviour; and beliefs and behaviours affect human interests and well-being (54). The particular harms identified are:

  1. Redefining marriage redefines it for everyone. Opposite-sex unions would increasingly be defined by what they had in common with same-sex unions; that is, they would come to be seen primarily or even exclusively as emotional unions, and this would make the basic goods of marriage traditionally understood, more difficult to realise. For example, choosing a suitable partner might be reduced to emotional signals of compatibility rather than a prospective partner’s fitness for such prosaic things as domestic relations and parenting.
  2. By making marriage about emotional union, the norms of marriage make less sense. If sexual complementarity is optional, so too are permanence and exclusivity. As the norms weaken, so might the emotional and material well-being that marriage gives to spouses.
  3. Conjugal marriage reinforces the centrality of reproduction and parenting, and the idea that men and women bring different, complementary strengths to the tasks of parenting. As the connection between marriage and parenting is obscured, no parenting arrangement will be recognised as ideal. The problem here is not that same-sex couples cannot be excellent parents, but the development of the idea that mother or father is superfluous. The authors argue that the result will be the diminishing of the social pressures and incentives for husbands to remain with their wives and children, or for men and women to marry before having children. Ultimately, because having a loving biological father and mother is ideal for child development, many children, and so the state also, will be worse off.
  4. The authors suggest that moral and religious freedom will be threatened for anyone who does not agree with the new legal definition of marriage. If support for conjugal marriage is really akin to racism—as has been claimed by those supporting changes to the definition of marriage, then those who support the traditional view should be subject to similar cultural and legal treatment that racists receive.
  5. The revisionist view will undermine friendship and make things harder for single people. As marriage is defined simply as the most valuable or even only kind of deep communion, it becomes harder to find emotional and spiritual intimacy in nonmarital friendships.
  6. Finally the authors address the so-called “conservative objection” that extending marriage would impose its norms on more relationships, which can only be a good thing. This objection fails, they suggest, because the state could not effectively encourage norms for which there is no deep and rational basis. “Rather than imposing traditional norms on same-sex relationships, abolishing the conjugal view would tend to erode the basis for those norms in any relationship” (67, original emphasis).

Chapter five, “Justice and Equality” (73-81), addresses the criticisms that the conjugal view is inconsistent when dealing with infertile marriages, and at odds with the principle of equal access to marriage. The second objection is easily addressed:

Laws that distinguish marriage from other bonds will always leave some arrangements out. You cannot move an inch toward showing that marriage policy violates equality, without first showing what marriage is and why it should be recognized legally at all. That will establish which criteria (like kinship status) are relevant, and which (like race) are irrelevant to marriage policy (80-81, original emphasis).

The authors argue, as noted in an earlier post, that infertility does not invalidate a marriage, for even the infertile couple engage in an act of bodily union that is fit for and capable of reproduction even if the goal is never achieved. Further, the infertile couple demonstrate that marriage is a human and social good in itself, that marriage is more than merely reproduction. Of course a friendship between two men or two women is also valuable in itself, but “lacking the capacity for organic bodily union, it cannot be valuable specifically as a marriage; it cannot be the comprehensive union on which aptness for procreation and distinctively marital norms depend” (76, original emphasis).

Is support for the conjugal view of marriage “a cruel bargain”—the title of the sixth chapter (83-93)? Does it win support for the many at a cruel cost for the few? Why argue for a position that harms the personal fulfilment, practical interests, and social standing of same-sex-attracted people? The authors agree that same-sex couples, and indeed many other kinds of relational partnerships seeking practical legal benefits (such as recognition as next of kin, financial and medical rights, etc.) should not be hindered from obtaining them. Further, because every marriage policy will keep some people from legally recognised relationships, we must fight against arbitrary or abusive treatment of those for whom this is the case, with the same force and diligence that we use to oppose unjust distinctions by race or sex (91).

Legal recognition does not include changing the definition of marriage, however, for sheer legislative will cannot erase the very real differences between the conjugal and revisionist views of marriage, or make disregarding them harmless to the common good. “Redefining civil marriage means pretending otherwise” (87).

The same-sex civil marriage debate is not about anyone’s private behavior, but about legal recognition. … Legal recognition makes sense only where regulation does: these are inseparable. The law, which deals in generalities, can regulate only relationships with a definite structure. Such regulation is justified only where more than private interests are at stake, and where it would not obscure distinctions between bonds that the common good relies on. As we have argued, the only romantic bond that meets these criteria is marriage, conjugal marriage (90, 92).

The authors conclude, therefore, that marriage is a particular kind of union with distinct and essential features which cannot be set aside without fundamentally changing and weakening what marriage is. They make this claim on the basis of philosophical and legal considerations without appeal to religious or theological authorities. They have amassed a great deal of evidence to highlight the rationality of their arguments, and to show how and why counter-arguments fail.

Marriage is not a legal construct with totally malleable contours—it is not “just a contract.” Instead, some sexual relationships are instances of a distinctive kind of bond that has its own value and structure, which the state did not invent and has no power to redefine. As we argued in chapter 1, marriages are, like the relationship between parents and their children or between the parties to an ordinary promise, moral realities that create moral privileges and obligations between people with or without legal enforcement. Whatever practical realities draw the state into recognizing marriage in the first place (e.g. children’s needs), the state, once involved, must get marriage right to avoid obscuring the shape of this human good (80, original emphasis).

Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society. When the arguments against this view fail, the arguments for it succeed, and the arguments against its alternative are decisive, we take this as evidence of the truth of the conjugal view. For reason is not just a debater’s tool for idly refracting positions into premises, but a lens for bringing into focus the features of human flourishing (97).

What is Marriage? (Part 3)

Chapter three addresses the interest of the state with respect to marriage. Girgis, Anderson and George put the matter simply:

The universal social need presented by relationships that can produce new, dependent human beings explains why every society in the history of our race has regulated men and women’s sexual relationships: has recognized marriage (39).

These relationships alone produce new human beings. For these new and highly dependent people, there is no path to physical, moral, and cultural maturity without a long and delicate process of ongoing care and supervision—one to which men and women typically bring different strengths, and for which they are better suited the more closely related they are to the children. Unless children do mature, they will never become healthy, upright, productive members of society; and that state of economic and social development we call “civilization” depends on healthy, upright, productive citizens. But regularly producing such citizens is nearly impossible unless men and women commit their lives to each other and any children they might have. So it is a summary, but hardly an exaggeration, to say that civilization depends on strong marriages (38).

The reason marriage is regulated by the state is therefore on account of the long-term common good of the society and culture as a whole. As such, marriage is more than a personal arrangement designed to address personal issues; it is a social institution developed to solve a social problem: the care of children that the mere desire for children and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve. Although marriage is universal in practice, however, it is also fragile and costly, requiring a strong marriage culture. Indeed, people “tend to require social pressures to get and stay married” (39).

By regulating marriage entry and exit, and by helping and sometimes requiring the government as well as individuals and civic institutions to treat certain couples as a unit, marriage law sends a strong public message about what it takes to make a marriage—what marriage is. This in turn affects people’s beliefs, and therefore their expectations and choices, about their own prospective or actual marriages (41, original emphasis).

Having argued that marriage is a social institution, the authors go on to argue that it is fitting that the state regulate marriage in order to facilitate society-wide coordination and support of this public good. This regulation of conjugal marriage, however, “need not and should not involve prohibiting any consensual relationship” (42). The aim is to support this vision of what marriage is, not restrict the liberties and relationships of those seeking other forms of relationship.

When considering the social benefits of this particular relationship, the authors suggest that “common sense and reliable evidence both attest to the facts that marriage benefits children, benefits spouses, helps create wealth, helps the poor especially, and checks state power” (42). Citing and utilising numerous research studies, they detail the evidence for each of these claims though also acknowledging that, “obviously, none of this is to suggest that any marriage is perfect or that spouses never fail to live up to their vows. We are speaking here in generalities, in light of the accumulated social-scientific evidence” (117).

The final section of the chapter addresses the criticism that “marriage is not a naturally generated institution with certain essential elements,” but has been “constructed over time” and reflects “larger social power relations” (117). Obviously the authors have already argued that marriage is a basic human good with certain distinguishing and naturally inherent characteristics. They do recognise that the specific characteristics of marriage differ between one period and another, and that other marital forms such as polygamy and arranged marriages have existed in many cultures. Such variations do not invalidate their central claims:

No moral truth of much specificity has enjoyed universal assent … It is natural rather to think that the most basic ethical principles would be most widely held; while those derived from more basic principles would meet with patchier understanding and assent. … What [the conjugal view] considers most basic to marriage—like bodily union and connection to family life—are nearly universal in marriage practice. And what it and our argument treat as grounded in these basics—permanent, exclusive commitment—is less represented (48-49, original emphasis).

For the several thousand years that we have records of philosophical and legal traditions, sexual intercourse between men and women has been regulated. Other forms of sexual intimacy have never been recognized as consummating a marriage, while other matters such as infertility or old age do not void the relationship. “The law [in western traditions over 2400 years] reflected the rational judgment that unions consummated by coitus were valuable in themselves, and different in kind from other bonds” (50).

If it is the case that marriage is simply an endlessly malleable social construction, there is no natural right to marriage that existing laws violate by being defective, and if it is considered just to extend those laws to include other forms of relation, it would be unjust not to recognize other relations such as polyamorous unions unless there were clear and heavy social costs to including them (50-51). Nevertheless, the authors suggest that most advocates on both sides of the current debates reject constructivism. “They agree that marriage has certain necessary features. They only disagree on whether sexual complementarity is one” (52).

What is Marriage? (Part 2)

The second chapter of What is Marriage? sets forth the authors’ rationale for their view of conjugal marriage, which they further define as “Comprehensive Union.” Comprehensive union is grounded in biological and social realities: without bodily union, a relationship cannot be considered “comprehensive” even if it includes other aspects such as companionship and common domestic life. Further, just as the organs of one’s body are coordinated for the single biological purpose of the whole that they form together, just so “for two individuals to unite organically, their bodies must coordinate toward a common biological end of the whole that they form together” (25, original emphasis).

There is one respect in which this highest kind of bodily unity is possible between two individuals, one function for which a mate really does complete us: sexual reproduction. In coitus, and there alone, a man and a woman’s bodies participate by virtue of their sexual complementarity in a coordination that has the biological purpose of reproduction—a function that neither can perform alone. … Here the whole is the couple; the single biological good, their reproduction (26, original emphasis).

The authors note that it is this coordination toward procreation which makes the union, not the achievement of procreation in itself. Comprehensive union is of value in itself, and not simply as a means to an end. Because it has a unitive as well as a procreative function, the failure to conceive a child does not invalidate the bodily coordination.

Because marriage is uniquely ordered to having and raising children, marriage calls for the wide-ranging co-operation of a shared domestic life to support that end: “the demands of marriage are shaped by those of parenting” (28). Again, the argument is not “that the relationship of marriage and the comprehensive good of rearing children always go together. It is that, like a ball and socket, they fit together: that family life specially enriches marriage; that marriage is especially apt for family life, which shapes its norms” (29, original emphasis). Procreation is the good that fulfils and extends a marriage because it fulfils and extends the act that embodies or consummates the commitment of marriage: the same act by which spouses make love also makes new life; it both seals the marriage and brings forth children (30).

The authors continue to use the biological complementarity of the male and female, and the organic analogy to argue for permanence and sexual exclusivity as norms which characterise the marital relation; comprehensive union requires comprehensive commitment. Marriage is possible only between two because no act can organically (bodily) unite three or more parties. The raising of children and establishing of family is an open-ended task calling for whole-of-life commitment and coordination which in turn requires undivided commitment. Divorce and infidelity undermine the stability conducive to this task and commitment. Because the conjugal view of marriage understands it as distinguished by bodily union and its natural fulfillment in children and family life, it is able to make sense of a pledge to sexual exclusivity, which the revisionist view finds difficult to explain (33-34).

An account of marriage must explain what makes the marital relationship different from others. In our view, the kind of union created by consent to marriage is uniquely comprehensive in how it unites persons, what it unites them with respect to, and how extensive a commitment it demands. … In short, as most people acknowledge, marriage involves a bodily as well as mental union of spouses, a special link to children and domestic life, and permanent and exclusive commitment. All three elements converge in, and go to constitute, the conjugal view (35-36, original emphasis).

Continued Soon…

What is Marriage? (Part 1)

What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York: Encounter, 2012) by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, began its life as an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter 2010,  245-287), which was both well received and heavily contested. The book is an expansion of the original article as well as a response to the discussion which arose in the aftermath of the article. At the time of publication Girgis and Anderson were doctoral candidates at Princeton and Notre Dame Universities respectively, while George was Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School and Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. The authors also present their argument in person at a Wheatley Institute lecture.

The book is relatively short (xiv + 133 pages) and comprises six chapters together with an introduction, conclusion, and appendix. It is very concisely and clearly argued, as well as carefully circumscribed: they explicitly state that the argument is not about homosexuality, the morality of homosexual acts or their heterosexual counterparts; they are not making a religious argument; they are not offering an historical or social-scientific argument, although these play a supporting role in their argument. They are detailing a philosophical and legal defense of what they term a “conjugal view” of marriage over against a “revisionist view.” The revisionist view informs many heterosexual approaches to marriage and is not limited simply to those advocating same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, that the question is highly conflicted in the present context provides an occasion to revisit the arguments made, and to reflect specifically on the question of same-sex marriage. Finally, I note that the book was published prior to the US Supreme Court decision of June 2015, allowing same-sex marriage, and reflects that milieu and state of play.

The authors set forth their argument in brief, in the introduction:

Our essential claims may be put succinctly. There is a distinct form of person union and corresponding way of life, historically called marriage, whose basic features do not depend on the preferences of individuals or cultures. Marriage is, of its essence, a comprehensive union: a union of will (consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences. It has long been and remains a personal and social reality, sought and prized by individuals, couples, and whole societies. But it is also a moral reality: a human good with an objective structure, which it is inherently good for us to live out.

Marriages have always been the main and most effective means of rearing healthy, happy, and will-integrated children. The health and order of society depend on the rearing of healthy, happy, and well-integrated children. That is why law, though it may take no notice of ordinary friendships, should recognize and support marriages.

There can thus be no right for nonmarital relationships to be recognized as marriages. There can indeed be much harm, if recognizing them would obscure the shape, and so weaken the special norms, of an institution on which social order depends. So it is not the conferral of benefits on same-sex relationships itself but redefining marriage in the public mind that bodes ill for the common good. Indeed, societies mindful of this fact need deprive no same-sex-attracted people of practical goods, social equality, or personal fulfillment.

Here, then, is the heart of our argument against redefinition. If the law defines marriage to include same-sex partners, many will come to misunderstand marriage. They will not see it as essentially comprehensive, or thus (among other things) as ordered to procreation and family life—but as essentially an emotional union. … to the extent that marriage is misunderstood, it will be harder to see the point of its norms, to live by them, and to urge them on others. And this, besides making any remaining restrictions on marriage arbitrary, will damage the many cultural and political goods that get the state involved in marriage in the first place (6-7, original emphasis).

The introduction also provides a sense of the terms “conjugal” and “revisionist,” that the authors use to describe two visions of marriage. The conjugal view sees marriage as a comprehensive union, joining spouses in body and mind, begun by consent and sealed in sexual intercourse. It is “especially apt for and deepened by procreation,” which then calls for broad sharing of domestic and family life. Uniting spouses in an all-encompassing way, it “objectively calls for all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive.” Such comprehensive union is inherently good, though “its link to children’s welfare makes marriage a public good that the state should recognize and support” (3). The revisionist view which has informed marriage policy now for half a century or so, sees marriage “as a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it” (1-2). The view of marriage as an intense emotional bond was ratified by the US Supreme Court judgement.

The first chapter, entitled “Challenges to Revisionists,” begins by claiming that marriage, as traditionally understood, is a basic human good. It is not, of course, the only human good, nor the only means to a good life. To redefine marriage, then, is not simply to change a legal artefact or title, but to misunderstand a basic human good, and so to diminish the possibility of living out the real thing (14). The chapter argues that the revisionist view fails on its own terms, for it cannot coherently account for the three points common to both sides of the debate: that the state has an interest in regulating certain relationships; that interest exists only if the relationships are sexual; and it exists only if they are monogamous (15).

If you insist as a matter of principle that we should recognize same-sex relationships as marriages, the same principle will require you to accept (and favor legally recognizing) polyamorous—and, as we saw above, nonsexual—relationships as marriages. In other words, on the best accounts on which two men or two women can marry, marriage consists of emotional union and domestic life. But as pleasing and valuable as emotional union can be, there’s nothing about marriage so understood that also requires it to be dyadic, sexually closed, or even sexual at all. Yet bonds that lack these features just aren’t marriages. So the best theories by which any two men or women can marry are mistaken: they get other, less disputed aspects of marriage wrong. … As we deprive marriage policy of definite shape, we deprive it of public purpose. Rigorously pursued, the logic of rejecting the conjugal conception of marriage thus leads, by way of formlessness, toward pointlessness: it proposes a policy for which it can hardly explain the benefit (20-21, original emphasis).

Continued tomorrow…

Leal, On Gay Marriage (Review)

Leal, Dave, On Gay Marriage (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2014) pp. 27 
 ISBN: 978-1-85174-906-5

This is a booklet rather than a book, part of the Grove Ethics series (E174). Dave Leal teaches at Oxford in the Philosophy, and Theology and Religion departments. Written in 2014 soon after the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, it deals with and alludes to issues more familiar with the British context than I am. The brief format of the series means that it is quite compressed in style, as Leal includes more ideas in the work than he can clearly explain—though that is very possibly more my shortcoming than his.

The booklet is divided, after a one page introduction, into three chapters of roughly equal length. The first is entitled “Gay,” the second “Marriage,” and the third “Gay Marriage.” The first chapter opens with the apparently controversial statement that “Christians can live without gay.” He quickly proceeds, however, to an equivalent statement that “Christians can live without straight.” It is the practice of mapping human being according to various purported sexualities that he finds problematic. Leal explores the connection between “sexuality” and identity, and indeed challenges the reality and relevance of the notion of “sexuality” at all, understood in terms of identifying or labelling either oneself or others according to sexual preferences or practices as though these are part of a person’s “essence.” A Christian perspective on identity, he suggests, must be grounded primarily in our fundamental relation to God, in the light of which all other identity commitments are provisional.

The second chapter plumbs the meaning of marriage, which Leal intentionally de-centres as a primary mode, at least of Christian life. The focus of the chapter is much more on legal questions with metaphysical questions concerning the nature of marriage bracketed. The reason for this is that marriage takes and has taken different forms in different cultures and historical periods; there appears to be no “essence” of marriage accessible to public reason, although it is true that different groups have what John Rawls has termed a “reasonable comprehensive doctrine” of marriage. Thus multiple legal patterns of marriage have emerged in different jurisdictions. This is not to say that marriage across jurisdictions does not share some central ideals, and Leal identifies three as primary—sexual exclusivity, permanence, and consent. Noting these features, Leal suggests that the “goods” of marriage might be articulated in terms amenable to public reason and the “human good,” as a guide to those responsible for drafting legislation, that it serve this human good. An important issue addressed in this chapter asks whether marriage is simply a cultural-legal matter which may change in accordance with social and cultural shifts. Does marriage “evolve,” as suggested by one minister in the British parliament? Leal comments:

It is certainly a matter of historical fact that once there was Marriage [according to the Marriage Act 1754], and later there was Marriage [according to the Marriage Act 1949], but this does not suggest that marriage evolves. Perhaps all the Culture Secretary meant was that we change our minds about what we mean by marriage, which would not, of course, be a comment about marriage at all (16).

Perhaps metaphysical questions about the nature of marriage cannot be bracketed after all.

Having laid the foundations of his discussion in the first two chapters, Leal now asks, What, then, of gay marriage? and asserts that, “Christians have no reason to expect marriage laws accurately to reproduce their own conception of marriage” (18). Leal is no doubt correct in this assertion, particularly given the secular, liberal-democratic context in which he writes—a context shared by Australia.

However, he is unprepared to leave it at that, and offers arguments to suggest that changing marriage laws to affirm same-sex marriage may not be a good idea. He argues, on the basis of consequences deriving from liberalisation of divorce laws, that it is simply not the case that liberalising marriage laws to include gay couples will have no real impact on heterosexual marriage—or marriage itself. Further, marriage was never conceived as a form of relationship for heterosexuals in any case; “Who, after all, believed in heterosexuality before the nineteenth century?” (19). Marriage, as a form of human relation, pre-exists any human laws regulating it, and arguably, any religious development as well.

Marriage was traditionally conceived as a form of relationship binding male and female, accepting the biological relation between the two, along with the form of natural sexual reproduction of humans, as a reality to which marriage corresponds. This conception may arise from a religious perspective . . . or it may simply be rooted in a sense of respect for the natural, without any additional religious dimension. This appeared to be the main conviction of those who identified themselves as homosexual but opposed changes to permit same-sex marriage. Those who opposed the introduction of same-sex marriage did not principally see marriage as answering to the particular appetites and identities of types of people (19).

This concern with creaturely reality, especially with respect to procreation and childcare (though this is a point not developed by Leal), suggests that marriage itself is something, that it is grounded in the nature of how things are, and thus not simply “what we say it is,” or the mere creation of legislation.

“Marriage is what we say it is” would separate marriage from that conception of human reality it has traditionally been seen to belong to. If that conception of reality is deemed to belong to a comprehensive doctrine not defensible in public reason—or dismissed as merely the present mood of past centuries—it is not at all clear that the alternative conceptions of reality, such as the sexuality map . . . are in fact any more publicly defensible. The result looks unlike discernment, and more like the choice of a different doctrine, the triumph of a different partiality. The loss, then, is perhaps precisely that of tradition, and if that is indeed lost, to be replaced by mere legislative contingencies, the harm done to marriages by that move remains to be seen. There were never any winners here though. If a stated aim was to open up marriage to same-sex couples, but in doing so marriage necessarily lost its original meaning, we may wonder whether anyone has made a significant gain (20).

One may guess that the long-term effect of the recent changes to marriage will be to reinforce the conception of it as a creature of the legislator’s and participant’s wills, and therefore make it more fragile as a social institution, and more readily rejected, with unfortunate consequences for those that the institution might be concerned to protect (24).

This is a thoughtful essay attempting, successfully for the most part, to contribute a reasoned argument in non-sectarian terms to an issue fraught with tension in the public sphere. Leal includes many more ideas than could be expansively developed in the format of this series, but what he has developed is worth careful consideration.

Sex Before Marriage

The other day I came across an intensely personal and yet ambivalent reflection on the realities of sex before, and in, marriage. Katherine Willis Pershey recalls her own experience in an evangelical subculture, as well as her inability to fulfil its strictures:

Although I once was the proud wearer of a purity ring—a silver band acquired in junior high school that advertised my intention to remain a virgin until my wedding night—at some point along the way, I misplaced the ring and, some years later, the virginity (“Fully Naked, Fully Known” in Christian Century, September 28, 2016, 22-25).

Pershey remains critical of such Christian attempts to control and shame adolescent sexuality, is grateful that couples living together are no longer the objects of abuse and shame as they once were, acknowledges the true beauty of love and commitment that can exist in the lives of many de facto couples, and wonders how she could possibly exhort her own children to abstain when she herself did not.

“And yet,” she says. Despite her misgivings, and almost in spite of herself and her deeply held convictions, Pershey finds herself drawn to accounts of marriage by conservatives such as Timothy Keller. Her experiences seem to have led her to a position she can hardly imagine holding: “I suspect I might actually believe that sex is for married people. … The contrast between unmarried and married sex is significant. The covenant of marriage—the vows to love now and forever—changes everything. It just does.”

Pershey provides some indication of how that might actually happen through the account of her own experiences both before marriage, and as a beloved wife. The final words of her article address the question of how, as a minister and a mother, she could possibly encourage others to consider saving certain intimacies for the wedding night without descending into the destructive shaming that so harmed her own life.

So perhaps I hold up my pain: all that fooling around before marriage ever did was give me a world of hurt. But I can’t hold up my pain without also lifting high my joy: all that fooling around within marriage ever did was give me a world of healing.


This article is available online at Christian Century (pay wall), or here.

ANZATS 2017 – Lynn Cohick

The second international guest at this year’s ANZATS Conference was Lynn Cohick from Wheaton College in Illinois. Like Stephen Barton, Cohick is a New Testament scholar, but who is also very conversant with the life and circumstances of early Christianity in the first centuries of its history.

Cohick’s first lecture was entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Marriage in First-Century Families.” Her second lecture addressed “Inheritance and Worthiness: What Children in First Century Families Reveal about the Message of the Gospel.” Both lectures used early Christian and ancient secular sources in addition to the New Testament to provide a vivid account of the life and times of families and children in the world of the New Testament, in both its Jewish and Hellenistic contexts.

Marriage in the first-century Greco-Roman world was highly regulated in terms of social class and custom. Polygamy was forbidden, concubinage allowed, and prostitution and other forms of sexual allowance for men was accepted as normal. Slaves, both male and female, could be used routinely for sex, though only a woman could be a concubine. A concubine had a status somewhere between a wife and a slave. Most marriages were contracted with the hope of love, or at least harmony, and some evidently attained it. But remarriage was common on account of both the death of one’s spouse, or divorce.

The forms of marriage, and power within marriage, were very patriarchal. A good wife was one who maintained a good reputation, bringing honour to the family name, undertook the duties of motherhood, was submissive to her husband’s authority, and modest, chaste and industrious in character. Cohick argues that Paul’s instructions to married couples in the New Testament were audacious and counter-cultural, introducing a strong note of mutuality and equality into the marital relations, challenging the male privilege of the Roman world, including the “natural social right” of the husband to use prostitutes. His vision of love demands self-sacrifice and honour of the other, making demands, especially on the husband.

With respect to children, Cohick acknowledges the difficulty of obtaining and interpreting sound data on the status and life-experiences of children in the ancient world. In fact, the concept of child does not really have an ancient analogue. Childhood was not sentimentalised in the ancient world where child mortality could run as high as 35% in the first year of life, and up to 50% by age ten. Life was harsh and work was rough, existence was brutal, even—especially?—for children.

Perhaps the enduring image Cohick’s lecture left for me was of the instrumentalising of children. Children were for work, for family support and honour, for sex. Children were like unformed clay, and needed education and a strong hand to cause them to grow and mature.  Cohick spent a good deal of time distinguishing between free and slave children, and between Roman and non-Roman children, and how these distinctions played out in society.

The image of children in the New Testament challenges the instrumentalising of children, and the central role of the Roman family in society. They were to be nurtured and educated in the “new family” which was the church, with a primary allegiance not to their earthly paterfamilias, but to God. Cohick used the story of Perpetua and Felicitas to great effect here. So, too, the adults in the church were to serve as surrogate mothers and fathers for all the children in the church, whether slave or free, Roman or otherwise.

Cohick’s lectures provided a “thick” descriptive account of family in the first century world. It was like seeing a full-colour picture after having only seen black-and-white and blurred images previously. It was easy to visualise the impact of the gospel message of hope, in a world of such high mortality. It was challenging to see the commitment the early Christians had to a devotional and moral existence that challenged the life and culture around them in fundamental ways.

ANZATS 2017 – Stephen Barton

This week I have been at the 2017 ANZATS Conference in Adelaide. The theme this year has been “Kinship & Family in Contemporary Australia and New Zealand.” The two international guests have given excellent plenary addresses, and the elective sessions that I have attended have been good. Of course, one of the best things about Conferences is catching up with peers from around the country—and from New Zealand, and meeting new friends.

Stephen Barton from Durham, UK has given two addresses on the topic of marriage, the first providing a biblical perspective and the second, an historical perspective from the Christian tradition. Both accounts were descriptive rather than prescriptive, and portrayed the complexity and plurality of images and approaches in both the Bible and the Christian tradition. Several things stood out to me:

  1. Barton rejects a “sola scriptura” approach to the question of a Christian ethic of marriage and family. Several statements in the lecture make his position clear: “‘The Bible says’ is no way to establish a ‘biblical’ understanding of ‘family.’” He prefers a more “Anglican” approach—Lex orandi, lex credendi (which translates roughly as “the law of praying [is] the law of believing” and means that prayer and worship lead to belief and theology)—“the Bible released from rationalism opens a depth of biblical resources for prayer and moral reflection.” And again, “sola scriptura is too narrow a foundation for a full doctrine or ethic of marriage and family.” Barton views marriage as a complex, many-layered phenomenon with natural, spiritual, legal, social, cultural, and sacramental aspects. He eschews reductionist approaches which would reduce marriage to just one thing. Thus while scripture is an indispensable source for a Christian ethic of marriage and family, other sources of moral reflection must also be consulted, including an understanding of natural law, the history of development of concepts and practices of marriage, cultural forms and traditions, philosophical reflection on the “goods” of marriage, etc.
  2. Barton views marriage primarily through an eschatological lens: a wise reading of Scripture adopts a prophetic-eschatological perspective that disrupts cultural values in the light of the coming kingdom. I found this intriguing, especially since biblically, it appears grounded more in creational frame of reference. Nevertheless, his treatment of the biblical vision was very insightful and challenging.
  3. His recounting of the development of marriage in historical and ecclesial perspective was incredibly interesting and illuminating. The lecture was peppered with such gems as “the [medieval] Roman Catholics understood marriage a natural origin, a legal form, and a spiritual significance.” Or, the Roman Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament was transformed in Protestantism: Luther viewed it as a “social estate,” Calvin in terms of a “covenant,” and Anglicanism as a “little commonwealth.” Barton’s discussion of each of these was rich in detail and insight.

In the end, says Barton, marriage is indeed a complex institution, essential for personal flourishing and familial and societal well-being. He understands it especially in terms of a practise of life-long openness to the other, in a context of deepening hospitality and self-giving.

An Ode to Learning German

The Guardian had this piece  “Why We Should Learn German” from novelist John le Carré. Once again, I am stirred to renew my study of German and gain a renewed competence in the language.

You can have a lot of fun with the German language, as we all know. You can tease it, play with it, send it up. You can invent huge words of your own – but real words all the same, just for the hell of it. Google gave me Donaudamp-fschiffsfahrtsgessellschaftskapitän.

You’ve probably heard the Mark Twain gag: “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” You can make up crazy adjectives like “my-recently-by-my-parents-thrown-out-of- the-window PlayStation”. And when you’re tired of floundering with nouns and participles strung together in a compound, you can turn for relief to the pristine poems of a Hölderlin, or a Goethe, or a Heine, and remind yourself that the German language can attain heights of simplicity and beauty that make it, for many of us, a language of the gods.

To quote Charlemagne: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” He might have added that to teach another language is to implant a second soul.