What should we make of marriage? Or should we perhaps frame the question differently? Should we instead take up what marriage makes of us, and so consider ourselves as fundamentally responsive to it rather than creative? Why does a particular form of relationship deserve the special treatment we afford it? In what way does the structure of marriage inform a particular life and its prospects?
These questions are perennially interesting and they entangle us all. Gay, straight, single, married, the childless and parents—even those who permanently deny themselves marriage are, through their negation, shaped by it. As an institution, marriage provides a unique point of access into the structure of reality. And of all the subjects we might possibly take up in this world, few bring together the cluster of personal desires, society, law, tradition, history, theology the way this one does (along with many other strands, no doubt). The sheer collision of the complexity of the issues and their fundamental importance makes the subject an endlessly fertile source for inquiry and understanding.
But my interest in such questions is unremittingly personal as well. I was not always the happily married man I am today, and my path into this status was anything but smooth. My adult life began with a romance that ended badly. I found myself not so unlike Dante in the opening of his Inferno, lost in a wood, “the right road was wholly lost and gone.” Like many young evangelicals, I had known that I was supposed to be headed toward marriage. I simply did not know why or how to get there. It was only through the exploration and inquiry that the crisis precipitated that I slowly found out the “marriage” to which I had been headed was not much of a thing at all.
I have not lost that original interest in understanding the meaning of marriage or its peculiar goodness, even while our society has been beset by a sharp controversy over its legal and political dimensions. Over the past decade, the gay marriage controversy has intensified into a social conflict between two warring factions, who have taken their arguments everywhere from the Supreme Court to Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A. The concurrent rise of social media has made the conflict feel even more totalizing, as it became harder to avoid seeing friends and neighbours locked in interminable discussions about it.
All this has had a considerable effect on younger evangelicals, even if the transformations may have been more subtle than the blunt instruments of “yes or no” polls might allow. Many younger evangelicals with conservative theological positions no longer support the state’s recognition of traditional marriage. The percentage who does is still disproportionately large, but even so the atmosphere has shifted. Institutional bellweathers of young evangelical opinion like RelevantandQhave barely even addressed the subject the past five years. Many prominent young evangelical writers seem to have adopted the Louie Giglio model of never speaking of the subject at all, so as to not unnecessarily offend their audience base and embroil themselves in controversies that are not their “core issues.” Others seem to have adopted a “strategic ambiguity” about the question, routinely chastening conservatives for approaching the subject badly without necessarily taking up the task of finding substantive remedies themselves.
The broader cultural shift is not only having its effect on young evangelicals’ political positions, though. Many young evangelicals are losing confidence in traditionally Christian statements about sexual ethics, including those pertaining to homosexuality and masturbation.
Some have resigned themselves to accepting what they take to be God’s commands, but have lost hope of understanding the reasons for them. Submitting to Scriptural authority is an essential starting point for understanding, but it cannot be the end. This erosion of confidence may not show up in opinion polling, but it has been noticeable in the conversations I have had nonetheless.
Yet there are benefits to a controversy like we’ve had on marriage, if we will use it well. Like any social institution, marriage is a focal point for our understanding of the nature of reality. It is entangled in a broader cluster of ideas about the nature and destiny of the human person, the meaning of children to a society, the role tradition plays in human formation, and more. The logic of marriage pulls everything into it, such that the reasons for the traditional understanding of it can be properly described as “cosmological” (to borrow a point Rod Dreher has made). As we respond to the public controversy about marriage, we are given the opportunity to grasp this reality anew. When that which is given is called into question, we must provide an account. But for that account to be persuasive it must stretch out toward the things themselves and lay them bare so that they can be accepted, and the institution renewed, or rejected.
Such a pursuit can take the form of an inquiry. We need not know when we set out all the reasons for a particular position, even if we already affirm it. It is reasonable to affirm a stance on the grounds that it has the strength of a tradition behind it. Such a posture merely admits that there may have been reasons why these things have come to pass, and that while our forebearers were fallible, they were probably no more wicked or malicious than we are ourselves. We may have forgotten the reasons for a particular tradition—but that is a different problem than there never having been any, nor does it necessarily justify scrapping the tradition altogether. The chemist in the lab may only have a dim grasp of all the preceding scientific work that enables their research, but if he tosses it aside for that reason he shall find progress rather difficult. Traditions do sometimes need their barnacles scraped off or the occasional rejection outright. But determining when and how those should be done depends upon first understanding the reasons why the tradition exists as it is. No tradition can exist in a state of perpetual revolution.
If this is right, then it means we should reject a traditional position only after we have understood it; we should grasp its point and debate it on those terms. The rhetorical move of dismissing a stance as “unintelligible” strikes me as a failure of this responsibility, one designed to place the burden of proof entirely on the conservative side. If the conservative cannot marshall reasons (and in a hurry!), then we have no reason to carry on. But that gets the order backward: the person who asks us to reject a tradition should demonstrate they have understood it and can persuade us why it is wrong. Dismissing a position as “unintelligible” might say more about the speaker than the position itself.
But still, the inquiry is necessary. When a traditional position is called into question, the answer cannot be that it is traditional. That is simply the grounds on which the inquiry must be taken up: why might the tradition have held this thing out as important, such that we should hold on to it today? What is the structure of reality, such that we can say the institution of marriage is actually bearing it? We gain a way of looking from the tradition, but that does not mean we have nothing left to learn. We might adopt the tradition’s conclusions, but find a new path to them. We might start in the half-light of having received a particular outlook; but we do not yet see or understand fully, and a challenge to a position is simply an invitation to grow further.
I will happily acknowledge that inquiry is only one mode of response to such a controversy, and while there may be reasons to prefer it to others we should not be methodological exclusivists. Those conservatives who have been frustrated by the shifting winds are perpetually in danger of overthinking what tactics they should pursue. (I speak as one who knows from experience.) Yes, the resources are limited and it is important to understand how cultures shift so they are spent well. But conservatism does not do well if it becomes doctrinaire, either, nor are conservatives immune from the temptations of the central-planning fallacy. It is not bad to be methodological pluralists. To each his own style of argument, provided they are cogent and lend themselves to the truth. But then I’m not in a particular hurry, either, for reasons I have explained before.
What’s more, that marriage is cosmological—or that its logic depends upon the “re-enchantment of reality,” to use Joseph Bottum’s term—does not mean that conservatives should give up on exploring and unwinding that logic in order to see how it might fit our new context. The failure of conservatives to persuade, after all, is wrapped up in our failure to understand these things ourselves. Taking the “monastic option” and entering segregated communities intent on cultivating the practices of a healthy marriage culture still requires theoretical exploration. If Dreher and Bottum are right, then we are all implicated in the failure of marriage in ways that we do not yet realize. The rehabilitation of our practices must happen concurrently with our ongoing growth in understanding of the reasons for them.
The unwinding of our own cosmological position on marriage, though, will invariably be not only for ourselves and our communities. Such monastic communities must be missional, which means they must be prepared to provide an account for the hope and flourishing that marks them off. And as Oliver O’Donovan has put it, “The reasons to believe are simply the reasons of belief.” Those reasons might come from anywhere—we need not limit ourselves strictly to special revelation, after all. But they can be nothing less than our reasons, reasons that we have seen in their essential connection to the subject of our inquiry.
In this way, inquiry and the reasoning that accompanies it become invitations to the world to come and see, to learn how we this one aspect of life. It is true that Christians have sometimes forgotten this in their eagerness to describe marriage’s shape. But if marriage is cosmological, then for Christians it must at some point be a window into the relationship at the heart of our understanding of reality: Christ and the church. Any truly cosmological inquiry must therefore be attentive to the goodness of this news, to its profound power and unique beauty. It will look for it at every turn and expound upon it, offering it to all who are willing to listen.
Yet goodness is rarely in a hurry, and frequently evades our most urgent demands for revelation. Discerning the beauty of marriage demands patience, especially in a world where its fundamental terms are foreign to us (even to those, like me, who were raised in the church). The promise of marriage has always been that the glory would be revealed at the end, that the wedding is a foretaste of things to come, that the last five years would magically be more meaningful than the first. The argument for marriage need not take the same lifetime. It might be summarized in a sentence, the way a description of Scripture’s proclamation might fit on a bumper sticker. But cultivating a rich and thorough appreciation for the soundness of its structure and the integrity of its logic may take time.
I once proposed to take up such an inquiry and explore the more narrow topic of gay marriage. There were some worries and cautions, and some expressions of weariness. I have worries about its utility, too, which I will lay out in a future essay. But the outpouring of encouragement and interest was overwhelming. So I naturally laid the idea aside and said nothing, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling and the unparalleled interest in the subject. I was in the midst of writing a book, and simply ran out of energy and time.
The value of such an inquiry has doubtlessly shifted given the Supreme Court’s ruling. But it has not been lost altogether, and I am interested in taking it up. I do so not because I think I have anything particularly interesting to say, but because I am personally interested in it. I too need to see more clearly, and in our growth toward understanding there is no substitute for testing arguments and claims. I make no promises for how quickly I will proceed, or how systematically. Indeed, I have not begun prior to this in part because I simply was not sure where to start. But the questions surrounding gay marriage entangle us all, and as such deserve careful and patient consideration.
An invitation: Please let me know what sort of questions you have that you'd like me to take up.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.