Scotus Recasts Marriage, Sends Us to Our Knees … And Gives Us Hope?

gavelThe debate still rages about marriage rages on despite the Supreme Court’s recent decision. I know, I know, but hold on!  Same sex couples have been given the right to marry, but, as I’ve asked in different ways before so I ask again now, what exactly has been given in the extension of this right? What does it really mean to be at liberty to marry … to enter into the contractual and/or covenantal relationship of marriage? Again, as I’ve tried to point out many times before, as a society, particularly of Western culture, we have known (more or less) what marriage meant … at least generally speaking. What now do we know?

Writing for the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s June 26th decision making same-sex marriage legal across the nation, Justice Anthony Kennedy, perhaps, gave us an adequate answer:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.[1]

Touché! It is, in other more traditional words, that most “honorable estate, instituted by God, signifying unto us the mystical union between Christ and his Church,” in the words of the Book of Common Prayer.[2] And, of course, this is something with which Justice Kennedy is intimately familiar, as he is a lifelong, practicing Roman Catholic … which likely explains his very Christianesque language in describing marriage. However, as we have certainly moved well beyond our Christian-influenced heritage, language pertaining to marriage being “divinely instituted” might not do on the socio-cultural level; nevertheless, we are still left with an essential definition and understanding of this very ancient, bedrock union – or, perhaps better still, communion – of two individuals.

We obviously live in an utterly different society than our grandparents and older forebears – multi-religious, multi-cultural … an arguably philosophically shallow, muddled social disorder in which many lines are blurred. Now the traditionally biblical, Christian understanding of marriage, with all the attendant legal restrictions and prohibitions, has been challenged and overturned societally, but hopefully not without careful deliberation, good reason, and perspicacious understanding. Writing an editorial on democracy and the necessary underpinnings of a just society, George Weigel, Distinguished Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington D. C. notes:

St. John Paul II … insisted that of the three interlocking parts of the free society – democratic polity, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture – the cultural sector is the key to the rest. For it takes a certain kind of people, formed in the arts of self-governance by a robust moral culture and living certain virtues, to operate the machinery of democracy and the free economy in ways that promote decency, justice, and solidarity; not degradation, injustice, or new forms of authoritarian bullying.[3]

Of course, Weigel is opposed to same-sex marriages, noting that “the just state has (no) ‘duty’ under any circumstances to afford legal recognition to ‘homosexual unions’ as if they were true marriages to which people have a ‘right…’”[4] Nevertheless, we should all (or surely most of us) be able to agree with the principled idea of the just society actively promoting “decency, justice, and solidarity,” as opposed to “degradation, injustice,” marginalization and oppression. Hopefully, this is what the Supreme Court achieved on a socio-cultural level in its recent decision, yet there are those who are extremely disconcerted and even frightened by this ruling, most notably those of a more conservative religious bent.

As someone who has his own very definite convictions and perspectives, including where holy matrimony is concerned, allow me to submit my opinion that there is no reason for this rather extreme distress. And I say this for a couple of unrelated reasons: 1) we do live in a multi-cultural, multi-religious, varied philosophical society, and in any society, even the most uniform, many factors contribute to its constitutional nature, or make-up, and 2) religious adherents, most notably Christians, have not evinced any “lived-out” reason(s) for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples. Now, if you will, let’s take a look at these two reasons a bit more closely, beginning with a graph for the first:

culture_illustration[2]

For any stable society, there is an underlying worldview, to borrow phraseology from philosophy; that is, there is a fundamental orientation and integration of themes, values, ethics, and whatnot of the people of the society into, more or less, one comprehensive whole. However, as this worldview gives rise to faith-religion and spirituality, common history and heritage, jurisprudence and other areas and attributes, which in turn bring to life art, literature, music, education, entertainment, law and so much else; all of this also “turns around,” as it were, and informs and helps mold and shape the society’s foundational worldview. This is (hopefully) nicely illustrated above. Faith-religion is one part, one factor in the formation of society – and an important part, at that – yet it is only one part; there are others as well.

People of faith (religion) simply must realize and accept this; however, it need not be accepted grudgingly. After all, in our contemporary socio-cultural context, faith-communities and institutions are not being persecuted and, what is more pertinent to our current discussion, members of the clergy are not being forced to perform any marriages, homosexual or heterosexual, against their convictions. Should the day come when churches are taken over by the state, and their rites and rituals and services are dictated by the government, then I will be one of the first willing to voluntarily lay down my life in defense of religious freedom. (And something tells me there are a good many conscientious homosexuals who would do the same!)

There is something else to be noticed here: All elements that comprise the culture/society are interconnected; thus, people of faith are at liberty to enter into any and every field and profession, every art and discipline, and creatively contribute to such as much as any other member of society. Yes, it most certainly is difficult for people of faith, most obviously because the reigning mentality is one of naturalistic-materialism, so it’s an uphill battle. Still, there are plenty of religious-faithful in any number of fields and disciplines making inestimable contributions, such as, to list but a few examples:

  • Alister McGrath – theologian, priest, intellectual historian, scientist, and Christian apologist; Elaine Scarry – professor of English and American literature and language, and professor of aesthetics and the general theory of value at Harvard University; Joan Roughgarden – ecologist and theistic evolutionary biologist; Alvin Plantinga – analytic philosopher and Christian apologist; Thomas Kinkade, painter of popular realistic, bucolic, and idyllic subjects; Marilyn McCord Adams – historical theologian and professor of religious studies at Yale Divinity School; Robert White – geologist, geophysicist, and co-founder of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge; Wendy Alec – writer, TV producer, and film maker, the head of GOD TV and a director of WarBoys Entertainment; Francis Collins – American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project, and currently director of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland; David Gushee – ethicist, historian, public intellectual, and Holocaust scholar; Margaret A. Farley – Ph.D., American member of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy, ethicist and retired professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School; Robert P. George – professor of jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and serves on UNESCO’s World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology; Kathleen M. O’Connor – Old Testament scholar and professor emerita of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, widely known for her work in relating trauma and disaster, as well as present-day intercultural, ecumenical, and interdisciplinary issues to biblical studies.

In virtually every avenue, Christians (and adherents of other faith-religions) can creatively contribute, benefit society, and (perhaps most importantly) share genuine love and compassion that arise (hopefully) from their faith-belief, thus touching other lives in a most important way. There are plenty of venues through which to positively impact the local community, society-at-large, and indeed the world … all without becoming excessively distraught over two women, who love each other, choosing to live together in a committed relationship that is now validly recognized throughout the United States (as well as other countries.) Ah, but the mention of “committed relationships” brings us to the second point, that is: religious adherents, most notably Christians, have not evinced any “lived-out” reason(s) for restricting marriage to heterosexual couples … and this is a mighty sore subject.

The sad fact of the matter is, divorce rates among conservative evangelical Protestants is “significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than atheists and agnostics experience.” And this factoid comes from the Barna Research Group, a Christian organization.[5] George Barna, president and founder of Barna Research Group, commented:

While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.[6]

Well, not really an effective witness for divinely ordained and blessed marriage, now is it? This would almost make one believe Christians, especially “Bible-believing evangelicals,” hardly appreciate the traditional definition and understanding of marriage, much less the broader, more inclusive one offered by Justice Kennedy. What has marriage been for Christians in America over the last three to four generations?

Sweet be the glances we exchange;
Our faces showing true concord.
Enshrine me in your heart and let
One spirit dwell within us.

I wrap around you this my robe,
Which came to me from Manu,
So that you may be wholly mine
And never seek another.[7]

Have Christians captured this spirit of unity within the communion of holy matrimony? Has the world surrounding “Christian” marriages and families seen and sensed something decidedly different … otherworldly, divinely possessed and inspired, something truly blessed? Sadly the answer is “no,” and so His Holiness, Pope Francis, is quite right to place focused attention upon strengthening marriage and family within the Church – immediately the Roman Catholic Church, of course, but one would hope indirectly throughout the Christian family, particularly in the West. And, one would think, this should be the urgent work of Christians in our country now; rather than continuing the protest over homosexual marriage, which in our day and age is really more a socio-cultural issue than an ecclesiastical one anyway. To put it bluntly, it is far past time for us to “clean up our own backyard,” then, perhaps, traditional Christian marriage will be attractive simply for its own inherent sanctity and beauty. After all, marriage truly is, as Justice Kennedy said, “the highest ideal of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family …” in which “union, two people become something greater than once they were,” something divinely more.

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[1] Adam Liptak, “Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage A Right Nationwide,” as published by The New York Times, June 26, 2015

[2] The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, of course; cf. also Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green, eds., Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, 410-411

[3] George Weigel, “Now, the Kasper Theory of Democracy,” as published in The Catholic Week: Official Publication of the Archdiocese of Mobile, on June 26, 2015

[4] Ibid

[5]U. S. Divorce Rates for Various Faith Groups, Age Groups, and Geographic Areas” as published on ReligiousTolerance.org, accessed June 28, 2015

[6] Ibid

[7] Atharva Veda 7.36-37 (Hindu)

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