""The argument that the physical embodiment of the sexes is morally determinative for marriage is identical in form and substance to the argument that the physical embodiment of the races is morally determinative for slavery." Tobias Haller at In a Godward DirectionThanks for the responses so far, thanks also to the correspondent who pointed me to this comment in the first place, and who made the observation that this is gnostic thinking.
What do you think? Is this the epitome of Anglican incarnational theology, the cornerstone of all reasonable arguments for the malleability of marriage? Or? "
To my mind Tobias Haller highlights the subtlety at work in theological arguments being made for change to understanding Christian marriage, or, if you prefer, to Christians understanding marriage. The subtlety is in clever phrasing which offers seemingly seamless transition from 'traditional' understanding of marriage to (what I will call here) 'new' understanding of marriage.
In the traditional understanding of marriage, the core relationship in marriage is the relationship between a man and a woman. Difficult questions arising from this core relationship have concerned number (might one have more than one wife or more than one husband?) and frequency (might one be married more than once?), to say nothing about method (how do I sustain the relationship I have entered into with my wife/husband? How do we together grow and develop our marriage?). Until recently such questions have rarely, if ever, in any culture, concerned gender: might I marry someone of the same gender as me?) There have also been questions about the economics of marriage (dowry, inheritance, joint ownership or otherwise of property) which themselves tie into questions about fruitfulness of marriage in respect of bearing and raising children. For Christians, the answers about number and frequency have been shaped by a commitment to monogamy. There should be just one husband and one wife in any marriage. There should be a permanence to marriage which is broken only by death of one party to it. Divorce is tragic. That some churches permit remarriage of divorcees is a facing of that tragedy. Divorce is a diminuation from the ideal. Remarriage is a form of remedy, but theologically it is not a derogation of the ideal.
In the new understanding of marriage, there is no core relationship, only the character of the marriage relationship (is it faithful, permanent, stable, loving?). Haller's argument appears to sweep away all previous assumptions about the core relationship constituting marriage being between a man and a woman.
One question to consider here is whether the church is authorised to make (or to agree to) a change to the understanding of marriage as a complementary relationship between a man and a woman. The setting of marriage in the first chapters of Genesis, to which our Lord refers back in his own teaching on marriage, sets out a divine authorisation for marriage as the exclusive and lifelong conjugation of a man and a woman. It is Adam and Eve, 'man' and 'woman', not Adam and Steve or Phoebe and Eve, who are placed together in this first marriage, purposed both for fruitfulness (Genesis 1) and companionable help (Genesis 2). This template is referred to again and again in Scripture, these multiple references undergirding the church's teaching on marriage since the days of the apostles. Even if Haller's neat syllogism above is logically correct, it does not, in itself, provide divine authorisation for a change in understanding of the core relationship for marriage. (I acknowledge here Bryden Black's influence on my thinking. He consistently, both in comments on this site, and in other conversations has raised this question of authorisation).
There is a question whether the syllogism even works. The argument that "the physical embodiment of the sexes is morally determinative for marriage" assumes that a marriage is moral when it is a partnership of a man and a woman and immoral when it is a partnership of two men or two women. But the point at issue is not the morality of marriage but what is marriage. Haller seems to have problem with the simple definition that marriage consists of a man and a woman and not of a man and a man or a woman and a woman. In a subsequent post, responding to a very recent C of E statement on the UK government's proposals re gay "marriage", he writes,
"The Church of England has issued a statement in response to the British Government proposal to recognize same-sex marriage. The document is a particularly disappointing rehash of the same defective anthropology and circular reasoning to which we have become accustomed on this issue. For example, the paper asserts:On the contrary, the nature of the argument is necessarily circular because we are talking about the definition of marriage. Marriage can only take place between a man and a woman because only a man and a woman can make a marriage. A question might then be, What is distinctive about marriage between a man and a woman in comparison with any other marriage-like relationship between two men or two women? The answer is then the real (not alleged) complementarity of the sexes: marriage is the bringing together of the two embodiments of humanity, male and female. Whether we focus on the complementarity of the sexes for the purposes of procreation, which biblically, historically, and contemporaneously is one of the primary reasons for marrying (notwithstanding Haller's consistent attempts to downplay procreation's importance), or on the particular companionship which is the companionship of complementary sexes becoming 'one flesh', the distinction of marriage over all other relationships rests on the complementarity at its core.
Such a move would alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as enshrined in human institutions throughout history. Marriage benefits society in many ways, not only by promoting mutuality and fidelity, but also by acknowledging an underlying biological complementarity which, for many, includes the possibility of procreation.The authors hammer away on the alleged "complementarity" of the sexes as a necessary component of marriage without apparently recognizing either the circular nature of that argument or the dangerous tendency towards Christological heresy inherent in its anthropology. The circular nature of the argument is: “Marriage can only take place between a man and a woman because only a man and a woman are of different sexes.” This is, of course, merely restating the premise."
To suggest that complementarity is not a necessary component of marriage begs the question what is it about the biblical or historical account of marriage, let alone the importance of marriage in the ongoing generation of human society, which obscures this foundational truth.
In the citation immediately above, Haller offers another criticism of defenders of complementarity: "the dangerous tendency towards Christological heresy inherent in its anthropology." He goes on to explain this criticism,
"The more dangerous, and heretical, trend of this argument lies in the suggestion that the sex difference implies a different order of being for men and women. This is known as sexism, and it undercuts the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation."
I find this to be unconvincing. The sex difference between men and women does imply a different order of being for men and women, and precisely so in the context of marriage and family. We are not talking here about the right and ability of men and women to (say) vote or own a house or take a job as an accountant. In such contexts there is only one order of humanity: voting, ownership, employment are matters indifferent to the sexes. Actually, in employment, matters might not be so simple. Precisely because of sexuality we are often not indifferent to the question of a man being responsible for small children in (say) a childcare facility, or a woman seeing a male doctor without another person being present. But in marriage and family contexts there are different orders of humanity: only a woman may be a mother, only a man may be a father, and, dare I say it, only a woman can be a wife and a man a husband. No matter how nurturing and mother-like I may be as a father to my children, I am not (and never will be, even if my wife died) their mother. Not least because in the complementarity of the sexes, I did not conceive, carry and give birth to them, to say nothing of continuing in relationship to them as that one who carries for all this life the experience of bearing them into the world, a relationship which in all sorts of ways is necessarily different to my relationship to them as their father. To call this differentiation "sexism" is very odd, and does not in the least undercut the orthodox doctrine of the incarnation.
All wives and husbands, all mothers and fathers are one order (with all non-wives, non-husbands, non-mothers, non-fathers) of sinners in need of the redemptive work of God the Son who became flesh that we might be healed. In short, there is a "both/and" aspect to the ordering of humanity which Haller bypasses when arguing that marriage understood as having complementarity at its core undercuts the doctrine of the incarnation. (Does anyone here think that Jesus, Paul, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther or Calvin would agree with Haller re marriage and the incarnation?)
Of course to reflect in this way is to explain that the physical embodiment of the sexes is intrinsic to marriage, though not to its moral determination but to its definition. If someone wants to argue the moral superiority of any relationship to marriage, that argument may proceed. But if the moral determinacy of marriage does not rest on its complementarity then loading in a comparative statement about slavery is neither here nor there to the question of complementarity as a core component of marriage. It is. (Or, if you like, it just is so).
We can kick an egg because it is shaped like a rugby ball, but the egg will not perform like a rugby ball. Though its form is the same, its substance is different.