New York, Gay Marriage, Bad Terminology, and O’Donovan’s Critique of Historicism

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Gay Marriage has been on the general public’s radar for a couple of decades now. However, with the passing and signing of A8354-2011 in New York this past week the topic has reached new heights in the streams of media coverage. What I am hearing more than anything out there from those that espouse the legitimization of gay marriage is that it is a matter of equal rights. I have found that when an interest group(conservative or liberal) wants to push its agenda, they will utilize the term rights.

Republican State Senator Grisanti’s statement about “rights” is telling of the growing opinion of many Americans in the current cultural shift concerning gay marriage. After the vote Mr. Grisanti stated, “I cannot deny a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, the people of my district and across this state, the State of New York, and those people who make this the great state that it is the same rights that I have with my wife.” This statement is problematic on many levels and I’m sure that we could all find several rights that Mr. Grisanti and his wife have that most Americans and New Yorkers don’t have access to. My primary quarrel, however, is with the utilization of the term rights. (For my Word Nazi friends: notice my use of the term utilization, which is to make the point that the term rights is not being used by the special interest group in the way that those respectful of social formation would have it be used).

There have been many purveyors of western culture over the years that have noted how culture shapes the way we think and feel about such foundational topics as marriage and sexuality. That said, I believe that Oliver O’Donovan is one of these thinkers that saw and diagnosed the cultural complexities concerning changing social norms in an especially clear and accurate manner. His book Resurrection and the Moral Order, first written in 1986, aggressively addresses the whimsical nature of the social soul in contemporary western culture. O’Donovan writes,

In man’s dealings with nature historicism invariably promotes a strong tendency to intervene and manipulate. The logic of this is simple: the ends of natural life which human action should respect are no longer understood to be given objectivity in nature itself, but to be conferred upon nature by the interpretation of a human culture. But that culture serves its own historical end. In so far as that end is to become consciously directive, intervention becomes a necessity. (O’Donovan 1994, 68)

O’Donovan frames his understanding of the idea of historicism as “an undefined term of self-justifying change, receding infinitely like the horizon as we approach it. But in each case natural order and natural meanings are understood only as moments in the historical process. They are to be dissolved and reconstituted by that process, and their value lies not in any integrity of their own but in being raw material for transformation” (59). This is precisely what is happening in the battle over the acceptability of gay marriage by the culture. The term rights is simply a tool to be utilized by a group of individuals who no longer believe in the biblical revelation of the Creator’s intent for humanity, of morality, or of the fallen state of human nature.

O’Donovan’s comments on a biblical understanding of marriage and a culture’s deviation from such an understanding are apropos to what is taking place in the American cultural war over the issue of defining what marriage is and should be. He first confirms the biblical understanding of marriage by suggesting that the natural attractions of the opposite sexes toward one another along with the community recognition of the union and stabilization of a home “form a pattern of human fulfilment [sic] which serves the wider end of enabling procreation to occur in a context of affection and loyalty. Whatever happens in history, Christians have wished to say, this is what marriage really is. Particular cultures may have distorted it; individuals may fall short of it. It is to their cost in either case; for it reasserts itself as God’s creative intention for human relationships on earth” (69).

Christians hold to an understanding of nature that is founded on a divine revelation of moral guidelines. We do not see nature in terms of infinite anthropological transformation, but rather in terms of a bounded relationship to the Creator. Life finds its meaning for Christians on the foundation of how we relate to the revealed will of God. O’Donovan states,

A historicist account, on the other hand, must argue that this ‘natural good’ is not given transhistorically in nature at all, but is the product of cultural development peculiar to a certain time and place. (In developing the argument it will presumably lay stress on the variety of patterns of erotic relationship which have been maintained in other cultural milieux [sic] than that of classical Christianity). (69)

He goes on to suggest that a culture that has embraced historicism as its narrative will embrace particular social developments as a sign of a “natural” and legitimate progression in humanity’s development. He writes;

By making marriage an item of cultural history in this way, historicism necessarily raises a question about it. However well it thrives today, it is moving towards some kind of metamorphosis. Historicism makes all created goods appear putatively outmoded. So that if there are currents of dissatisfaction evident in a society’s practice of marriage, such as might be indicated by a high divorce rate or a prominent homosexual culture, they will be treated with great seriousness as signs of the evolution for which the institution is destined. (69-70)

Most of society skips along in consumption of popular culture without taking into consideration what it really means to have rights or to believe in marriage equality. Did the Founding Fathers believe in the unalienable right for two males to receive a social benefit from their sexual and domestic union? Well, first you have to decide whether or not you believe that what the Founding Father’s said is actually important or not. I believe we have come to a place in American culture where more people care about what their gay neighbor thinks than they do about what the Founding Father’s thought. I have a suspicion that this is exactly where the Founding Fathers were when they argued for unalienable rights that included “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It is interesting how they interpreted the pursuit of happiness in 18th century Colonial America. It certainly did not include many of the rights that so many Americans take for granted today, including giving New York gays the privilege of having their domestic unions designated as marriages.

I point out the historical discrepancies to suggest that if a culture is not going to form its morals based on a transcendent revelation from a higher being, such as is found in theistic religions, then the culture will have to admit that any social norms it seeks to legitimize are simply popular notions on how people should relate with one another at this time in human history. The culture would also have to admit that morality is not based on transcendent authority and therefore it would be ignorant to suggest that someone is “wrong” to think this or “intolerant” to think that. Ethical systems would, again, be based simply on the fluid whims of popular opinion, which are more than likely manipulated by a small percentage of the population who have figured out that they can wield much power over others by using culture to train the minds of those they have gained influence over. I realize that there are individuals in all political parties that practice this strategy of manipulation and am in no way suggesting that it is practiced more prominently by those who support gay marriage.

The take home from this diatribe is that there is no room to suggest that there is any such thing as “rights” unless one submits to an authority that transcends the self. If one believes that a bonded community serves as this authority then one would also have to admit that cultural wars are innately necessary in order for one side or worldview to gather enough support to stabilize the community where the conflict over polity or conduct resides. In simple terms, a view on marriage or homosexuality would simply be relative to whoever currently holds the ears of the populus. If, however, one does believe in a transcendent authority which is beyond the accumulated opinion of a community then one could argue with that authority, and on that authority, that marriage should continue to be tied to the boundaries it was given at the beginning of the age of humanity by the Creator.

The argument I have made here is in no way suggesting that homosexuals should not be allowed to have sexual relations or live together. What I am saying is that the idea of marriage and economic and social benefits that come along with its designation on a heterosexual union is a privilege, not a right. Communities, filled with Christians and non-Christians, have come together and made the decision to support the traditional understanding of marriage by giving couples economic and social incentives. Why, you might ask? Well, the reasons probably change slightly from time to time and place to place, but I would suspect that it is because most cultures recognize the healthy dynamic of the normative understanding of a male father and a female mother (I qualified the gender of the roles for the sake of avoiding confusion) joined together in a unified commitment to nurture progeny. I am not so ignorant to suggest that gay couples have not raised socially adjusted children, but I would say that there is nothing wrong within the context of a society with relative norms in suggesting that my way is universally healthier than your way. The difference is that I, like many others, tie my perspective of what is appropriate and not appropriate for humanity to what I believe is a transcendent revelation from the Creator of all that is.

J. Truett Glen, 6/29/2011

Works Cited

O’Donovan, Oliver. Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics. Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

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