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What Marriage is For: Robert George's Latest in the Ongoing Conversation

August 17th, 2009 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In my recent reflections on the question of legalizing homosexual marriage, it has become clear that the disagreements between those who oppose it and those who are in favor of it are grounded upon competing anthropologies.  For defenders of traditional marriage, the human person, his sexuality, and his body are inextricably related, and any attempt to render them apart nullifies the structure of the (created) natural order.  It is, after all, by virtue of the union of male and female persons that the species propogates.

Yet this line of thought, however fruitful, is often confused and badly stated by its conservative proponents (including this one).  Not so, however, for Robert George, who in last month's First Things offered a defense of traditional marriage that pursued this thread.  Writes George:

The alternate view of what persons are is the one embodied in both the historic law of marriage and what Isaiah Berlin once referred to as the central tradition of Western thought. According to this view, human beings are bodily persons, not consciousnesses, or minds, or spirits inhabiting and using nonpersonal bodies. A human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. Far from being a mere instrument of the person, the body is intrinsically part of the personal reality of the human being. Bodily union is thus personal union, and comprehensive personal union—marital union—is founded on bodily union.

The bodily unity of spouses is possible because human males and females, like other mammals, unite organically when they mate—they form a single reproductive principle. Although reproduction is a single act, in humans (and other mammals) the reproductive act is performed not by individual members of the species but by a mated pair as an organic unit.

It is precisely upon this point that the debate hangs.  It is not the reproductive principle per se that defenders of traditional marriage must articulate, but rather a particular view of the human person and his sexuality.  Namely, the possibility of distinctively one-flesh communion of persons.  Again, George:

In fact, however, at the bottom of the contemporary debate over marriage is a possibility that defenders of conjugal marriage affirm and its critics deny: the possibility of marriage as a one-flesh communion of persons. If acts that fulfill the behavioral conditions of procreation (whether or not the nonbehavioral conditions happen to obtain) are, in fact, capable of uniting spouses interpersonally—thus providing the biological matrix of the multilevel union and sharing of life that marriage is, according to the traditional understanding long embodied in Western law, philosophy, and culture—then truly marital acts differ fundamentally in meaning, value, and significance from intrinsically nonmarital sex acts (such as acts of sodomy and mutual masturbation).

On such an account, sexual union is not for some end that is extrinsic to it, like pleasure or even procreation (an argument, I think, that I have fallen into in the not-so-distant past).  Instead, its end is intrinsic to its action.  Sexual union occurs for the good of the marriage, and not for the sake of anything else, even though pleasure and procreation inevitably accompany it.  It is on this grounds that he rejects the counterargument that infertile heterosexual couples are illegitimate.  The act of sex retains both its unitive and reproductive character, even when the reproductive organs are no longer functioning.

Ironically, if George is right, then most defenders of traditional marriage (including this one) have been unwittingly harming their cause by grounding their understanding of marriage in goods that are extrinsic to--a particular sort of-- bodily union.  Additionally, George's article raises questions for me as to whether Protestant evangelical defenders of traditional marriage have access to the same anthropological resources as him.  Our particular covenental understanding of marriage tends to remove the sexually unitive features to the background.

George's article, though, is a welcome addition to the ongoing conversation about marriage in America.  By attempting to move the conversation to its core--to competing anthropologies and philosophies of law--George has made a worthy and important contribution.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.