Marriage* is dead…and we** have killed it.
In so many issues and in so many ways, I shun the extremes. My doubting personality deprives me of certainty and surety, and as a result, I vacillate, never sticking firmly in one camp or another.
However, there are some issues as well where I have a position, and my doubt isn’t…self-aware..? enough to change that. At best, it gives me a curiosity for the way the other side lives and thinks. I can’t understand them; I don’t comprehend them, but I still try to engage them. That’s why I’ve blogged all this time; that’s why I blog at Wheat & Tares and hang around sites in the Bloggernacle that would probably much prefer if I’d stay away. I don’t understand what it means to believe in God — I truly don’t — but my doubt keeps me asking to find out something that could give me a hint for why people believe.
I feel that gay marriage is another such topic. My position is that I support it…and I support it in a way that I haven’t understood why people would oppose it. But my doubt lies in that I am uncomfortable with saying that everyone who opposes gay marriage must be doing so out of bigotry, or out of uncritical reasoning. Just because I haven’t been able to understand the reason, I still have tried to see why people believe.
Recently, as the result of reading several articles, and in processing my own thoughts and reactions to these articles, I feel like I’ve come to something of a discovery. I feel like I am starting to understand about what people worry when they oppose gay marriage. And as I see it, I can’t help but sympathize with them, because I feel that they truly are losing, and that’s something frightening. I see that what they view as marriage* is dead. It remains dead. And we** have killed it.
Let me try to explain…although I doubt I can get it out in one post.
When I posted my last post at Wheat & Tares, I was looking for people to offer explanation for why they believed from a Mormon perspective that gay relationships could still be opposed. Most of the responses from people who opposed gay marriage and gay relationships were utterly unpursuasive to me…it seemed to me to be the same question-begging assumption that homosexuality is bad just because the scriptures and the prophets have said it is, so there’s nothing more to discuss. (And how dare you suggest otherwise!)
But I was deeply unsettled by a comment that Bonnie had made. I was unsettled, because from a Mormon perspective, I can’t challenge it — I lack the experience in the temple even to see if what she says can be recontextualized. Whereas I had thought that the central issue of Mormonism was companionship, relationality, and community (where celibacy, singlehood, and even monasticism don’t make sense in the tradition), she introduced the point (that I guess I should have seen coming) that what is truly important is children. From a follow-up comment:
…I concede that all of us are different and that the superficial differences between men and women can as easily be ascribed to culture or something else transitory as to gender. Opposition, however, is a concept deeply embedded in our conversation with God, both in scripture and in the temple. Asherah and Elohim, with their offspring Jehovah, form an eternal triangle that is repeated throughout creation. We’re reminded that we participate in that triangle spiritually as child and then practice as parent. There is reason that the PotF is child-centered; the plan is child-centered. The purpose of parents, homes, and even all righteousness is *children* and everything revolves around that. It is his work and his glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of *his children* – we are the center of the plan. If we wish to participate in the fullness of the plan, we look forward to an eternity of child-centeredness. Because our biology is set up to require opposites to create children, our potential parenthood frames the entire debate about eternal union…
There was still (and is still) a lot to her comments that I didn’t like, or that I thought had issues. For example, I think that she overstates the “oppositeness” of male and female (something that I think paying more attention to the diversity and prevalence of intersex issues can cause us to rethink). Additionally, I think that she places too great an emphasis on the terrestrial and biological method of producing children that limits that there can certainly be other options for creating spirit children. (And investigating those other options is also a good way of addressing some major issues for Mormon women about the eternity. I think plenty of Mormon women are uneasy with the idea that spirit birth will require them to spirit gestate and spirit carry spirit children in their spirit wombs.)
But for now, there is simply the fact that children only occur as the result of the union between man and woman. There really isn’t a way to get around that.
What has marriage been and what has it been for?
(Notice that this section is written in the perfect or retrospective aspect. This is important.)
Sometimes, when I hear people oppose gay marriage, I hear them say that gay relationships simply don’t do what marriage is about. This has been curious to me, because with the understanding that marriage is about love (and the public commitment and public proclamation of such), I thought that they were arguing the preposterous — that gay couples don’t really love authentically.
When pressed about what marriage is about, I would sometimes hear something different…but their explanation of what marriage is for would either seem antiquated, or it would seem exclusionary in a way that we wouldn’t think about excluding it today. (For example, I think that when people say “marriage is about children,” we reel back, and wonder if they would say that infertile couples should not be able to marry. Or if they would say that nonprocreative sex acts and contraception are also immoral. [And to be candid, some people who take this position do believe that these things are improper...but they usually aren't trying to pass laws against contraception or the ability of the infertile to marry.])
What caused me to really think about this issue was a four-part series on marriage at Mormon Midrashim. While the entire series is very good (although I have some quibbles throughout), particularly relevant was part 3, wherein James discusses the purpose of marriage. In this part of the post, he describes marriage’s historical purpose as being about vertical relationships (inter-generational…between parents and progeny) rather than about lateral relationships (intra-generational…between lovers). He addresses the concerns about childless marriage by pointing out that widely, a childless marriage would have been considered tragic (in the same way that Mormons even today view childless marriages as such.)
I’m going to be frank. I have massive problems with this article. I have massive problems with parts of the series at Mormon Midrashim as well. When people say “Think of the children” as if gay marriage will directly harm children, that turns me off. When people say, “This is untested” or “We can’t afford to conduct such a huge social experiment with society,” I tune out as well. When people bring up Catholic Charities as an argument that gay marriage will harm religious freedoms, I’m not really sympathetic. (Protip: the difference between public and private.) But one of my main reactions to these points struck me.
I could agree that no-fault divorce (and a number of other aspects of modern society) had changed marriage, and as a result, it has led to a lot of troubling statistics regarding families and children. But my reaction was: this is already done, and it was straight people who did it. Maybe you should tell straight folks to value marriage more, rather than raging against gay couples who clearly value and desire it!
The thought that snuck into my head that changed everything was this...my opposition to their position that gay marriage would ruin marriage was basically a concession that marriage is already at rock-bottom, so there’s no way to go but up.
But from there, I had to wonder…will gay marriage reinvigorate or revive what opponents of gay marriage feel is marriage?
No. It won’t.
What people like James (of Mormon Midrashim) and David French (who wrote the 2010 post about his change in opinion) and Seth R (who posted said article on his Facebook page and clued me in to it) decry is the shift in marriage to this lateral, lover-and-beloved emphasis on the emotional well-being of adults. Gay marriage cannot help that because gay marriage makes sense primarily because marriage has so shifted predominantly to be an institution about lateral relationships.
And what’s more is that because most folks don’t even notice the shift (or, if they do, they don’t care about the shift or they don’t see the shift as negative), marriage remains dead. The pro-natal/vertical view of relationship is dead not because it was a living thing whose heart and vital functions have ceased, but rather because it ceases to inspire. What I’d argue (the essence behind it remaining dead) is that we cannot go back and revive it. We cannot go back to being sincerely and unironically pro-natal. The changes that we have made to cause the shift are too attractive to us…we are too modern for traditional marriage. To move back would only be seen as exactly that, a “move back” in terms of thinking and living. Perish the thought and implication. It is now that I understand why many religions oppose modernity and especially postmodernism so…Modernism and postmodernism have not only changed the rules, but they’ve made it so that we’ll never seriously consider (barring huge catastrophic shifts) changing them back.
But why is that, and in what sense have we** killed it? Who is the “we” that has killed it and what did they do?
Now’s a good as time as ever to CLIFFHANGER. See my thoughts there in part II. But I’ll give you a spoiler: I don’t think gay folks had anything to do with it.