June 22, 2009

Love Between, not Among

Over on the House of Bishops/Deputies list someone commented that loving same-sex couples should be allowed to establish and sanctify lifelong, committed, mutual relationships — in short, to marry. Nothing new (at least in our times) in that statement; nor was there anything new in one of the predictable responses: Why shouldn’t three or more people be allowed to marry if they love each other?

The reason this kind of question continues to rise to the surface lies in the failure on the part of those who take this myopic view to distinguish between the many meanings that can be borne by the word love, and even more importantly the particular significance of the word mutual.

A polyamorous or polygamous grouping of people may claim to (and perhaps actually) share a loving relationship among themselves. But “among” makes all the difference — it is not the same as between. Such a group or assembly may love one another, but they cannot love “each other” — that kind of reciprocal experience is limited to couples. A multiply partnered relationship cannot be “mutual” but must be “distributive.”

And this is why raising the question is irrelevant to the discussion of same-sex marriage. It isn't just “love” of any sort that is at issue, but the particular form of mutual self-giving love that is only possible between two people. This is, in fact, why the people of Israel, and the church, extolled monogamy — the former in spite of the provision for polygamy, and the latter as an understanding of what early church writers called the good marriage: a reciprocal and mutual undertaking in which “the two become one.” Not the three or four, or more; but the two.

Only a couple can form that uniquely mirrored partnership in which one gives all of oneself to the other, and receives the other in return, wholly and completely, without reservation, and “foresaking all others” without some portion shared outside the bonds that unite them.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Doug Worgul said...

Brilliant. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Does anyone know of any psychological studies that have been done on polyamorous relationships? What are the dynamics among the members of the relationship, but also what kind of potential dynamics are set up for any children that are raised?

I might be wrong, but it seems like the more people in this kind of relationship the greater the chance that a stricter hierarchy would develop. However, I don't for sure.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I'm sure there are studies out there; and I've seen a few reference over the years. My point here is only to note that whatever the dynamics in a polyamorous or polygamous relationship, they must be more multivalent than those in a monogamous marriage, and therefore of a different sort.

IT said...

The fact that you don't have to change any laws governing marriage, all of which are based on a couple, the fact that half the people in the country already have the right that I want (to marry a woman), should help give the lie to this polygamy canard.

There are, I believe, many studies showing that polygamy (and it is almost always polygamy) tends to disadvantage the women, as well as young men. It's inherently unequal. It truly is a foundational difference.

You don't have to change any concepts to how we deal with marriage to allow marriage equality for same sex couples. It's seamless.

But it shows that the Opposition can't really argue against the commitment of a same sex couple meaningfully. THey have to invoke polygamy, pedophilia, and bestiality as a "slippery slope" consequence. If forced to argue without religion and without the slippery slope (which is a logical fallacy) they have no argument at all.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, IT. You won't get any argument from me. Anyone who wants to live in a polyamorous relationship is free to make their case -- but it is a different case to the one for same-sex marriage, which only involves changing one variable.

Which is an important point.

This tendency to introduce additional variables is of questionable value in rational discussion -- any good scientist knows that you only explore one variable at a time. Yet the opposition wants to introduce or discuss variables of number, species, familial relationship, age, etc., instead of sticking with the one variable, gender, that is under discussion.

They will claim it is because the "love" argument could be applied to these other categories. But, of course, then you are talking, as I say here; about a different kind of love than that between two consenting, unrelated adults covenanting to a life-long, mutual, loving relationship; i.e., marriage!

G said...

Interesting. The latest crop of essays on the subject from our Primate's Theological Commission is in. One of the contributions, from a priest at my diocese's cathedral who is considered a "reasserter," emphasises that any rationale for same-sex marriage must build on our existing theology of marriage, rather than undermine it. I am in complete agreement with her on this point, and would consider this distinction the operative one in the case cited.

P Stanley said...

I'm not sure about the argument here. Polyamory has never been something that has touched me, directly or indirectly, and I don't think I've really thought about it sufficiently. I have no idea whether a multiple partnership can be "mutual" ... never having experienced one, and I'd be as reluctant to accept that this MUST be so as I wish others would be to insist that a gay relationship cannot be "mutual" because of the sad mismatch of tabs and slots. What do people in polyamorous relationships say about them? And if they say they are mutual, do we insist that they are deceiving themselves or us?

In short, I find the idea that these issues can be sorted out by the application of a rather disembodied logic to relationships fishy. Even when the logic comes from Tobias!

I would rather just rest on the obvious point that Tobias makes in response to IT: whatever arguments there might be for accepting multiply-partnered marriages in society or the church, these are obviously DIFFERENT arguments from the arguments for recognising single-sex marriages. A person can coherently accept the legitimacy of same sex marriage without accepting the legitimacy of polyamorous marriages ... and vice versa.

I'm more interested in asking why the argument for some connection is convincing to those who put it forward. Presumably it is because of a "finger-in-the-dyke" approach to moral standards, a deep suspicion that moral conduct is so artificial and fragile that the smallest deviation from traditional standards will lead to complete anarchy.

What seems to lie behind that is a deeply held suspicion that moral standards are actually completely arbitrary or irrational. Of course, given such a belief, constructive ethical inquiry is pointless, even impossible.

Erika Baker said...

I won't argue in favour of polygamy! But if you're right in your book when you state that it is the god-like self-giving in perfect love that elevates marriage to a sacrament, then should we not recognise that our image of God is a Trinity, where each of the persons gives all of themselves in perfect love to both of the others?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the thoughts, all.

Geoff, I'm looking forward to reading those articles. I've only taken a glance; and was very disappointed by the one on Romans, which repeats the iimprobable notion that Paul is talking about the order of creation, and justification by natural religion. Will have to comment at greater length about that. But I do agree that same-sex marriage has to be seen in terms of mixed-sex marriage, which has been my concern all along.

Paul, you raise important concerns. My issue here is "logical" -- polyamory is fundamentally different from marriage. And far from being "disembodied" I think it is precisely "embodied" in terms of mutuality. Think of a game of chess, for instance.

But you are also right about the fear-driven aspect of some reasserter's thinking. All of the talk of slippery slopes is based on a need to have some kind of monolithic and unchangeable moral edifice. Yet even a casual look at modern morals (even in places like the RCC) show fundamental shifts in attitude and teaching over the centuries. When one moves to Anglicans, the changes are even more apparent. So the resistance is largely irrational, unless some principal can be brought forth as a reasonable stay to the change.

Erika, I think the issue with the Trinity is that it is not mutual -- in fact, it is a good example of the incomprehensible dynamics that come up when you deal with three instead of two. The dynamics of the internal work and economy of the Trinity work one way: the Father begets the Son and is the Source of the Spirit. (Filioque notwithstanding!) The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father -- but the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the Holy Spirit is that love? I don't know; I just know that efforts to build the Trinity into a theology of marriage (I've seen a few) eventually seem to founder in one way or another...

IT said...

I think it is a mistake to let the debate on same-sex marriage equality be diverted into talk of polyamory. THey are not the same at all, and should be dealt with quite separately. This should be sternly pointed out to those who insist on using it as a seamless If-Then.

Erika Baker said...

I quite agree.
Also on that list is paedophilia and bestiality.

There "arguments" are like jack-in-the-boxes - everytime you think you've dealt with them conclusively, they pop up again.

John-Julian, OJN said...

I always liked to oversimplified old saw that the love between the Father and the Son was so perfect that it was a Person: the Holy Spirit. And I wouldn't mind seeing that same old saw applied to two humans whose love can (at least potentially) ALSO be so perfect that it is the Holy Spirit's actual self operative as "love" between the couple! (i.e., "ubi caritas et amore, ibi deus").

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, IT and Erika. I hope I've at least offered another tool by which to slay these upstarting arguments. I know on the HoBD list I've not heard a word since offering this... but who knows how long it will last?

Fr JJ, yes, as I say that's one way of looking at it. I fear though that it gets us into some sort of modalism or other -- all three persons of the Trinity are "Love" as each is "God" -- ubiquitously, as the old Latin song says! (Though I must admit I thought about the moon and pizza, too...)

Anonymous said...

I think your argument is strictly semantic: you posit a difference between "among" and "between" despite the lived experience of others to the contrary. I don't know that there are any polygamists reading this blog, but I think you have made the same "mistake" that you accuse the conservatives of making: making judgments about other people's relationships independently of obtaining testimony about their experiences. I personally don't know polygamists either, but I imagine many would deny your among/between and mutual/distributive mutually exclusive poles.

I'm not defending polygamy either: but the number "two" is proper to marriage because of the complementary nature of the sexes as revealed by the Genesis 2 account and the biological facts of human reproduction, not becuase of some mystical numerological significance.

written in great haste-- please forgive any typos/obscure readings


plsdeacon said...

There is only one variable changing now but the same arguments can be used. In fact, there is stronger scriptural warrant for polygamy.

Marriage is a sacrament because Paul calls it such. We bless marriages because God ordained marriage between one man and one woman in creation, because Jesus blessed a marriage by his first miracle at Cana and because Paul says that marriage singifies the union between Christ and his Church. Can you show me where any of those three are true of same sex unions? Can you show me where God ordaines SSUs or Jesus blesses SSUs or Paul speaks approvingly of SSUs?

While I am not against civil gay "marriage" (or "civil unions") at the secular level (providing it is done through the state legislatures and not forced on the state by judicial fiat), I don't believe that the Church has the authority to pronounce "blessed" what Scripture clearly calls "sin."

Phil Snyder

Marshall Scott said...

I think there is some distinction to think about between "between" and "among;" although that suggests that love is in this instance is a "zero-sum" game.

Now, that thought concerns me, and yet I find it important. Only God's love is infinite; and while our love in any relationship is an reflection of God's love, we hold it in earthen vessels, with limited capacity. So, some years ago when I read Carter Heyward's argument for the possibility of a truly equal polyamorous relationship (iirc in Touching Our Strength), my response was, "Her logic makes sense; but where are the perfect humans to maintain this perfect balance, this perfect equality, in the relationship?"

I think it's also important to specify that the call is to true balance, true equality in the relationship, and not simply to something that satisfies the participants. I freely acknowledge that few biamorous relationships (have I coined a phrase, or simply rediscovered something there?) achieve that balance perfectly. I would, however, assert that there is an inverse relationship between the number of participants and the approximation of balance that is possible. So, while we might discuss whether we're multiplying entities beyond necessity in this case, I believe strongly we're multiplying entities beyond capacity.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Father Michael, I'm always fascinated by people who use the word "semantic" in an effort to diminish the force of an argument.

I am not talking about people's lived or subjective experiences -- I'm talking about the objective difference between the number two and any number other than two. I acknowledged that polygamists may indeed share love among those involved in the relationship --- though in polyandry, strictly speaking the most common form of polygamy, it is the man who has a sexual relationship with each of the women, and they do not have such a relationship between themselves; in fact, they are more related as virtual "sisters." So, as I said, the relationship is not "mutual" but distributive --- shared among rather than between. Yes, these are words; and yes, they have meanings -- objective meanings. I'm surprised you would question the idea that there is an objective difference between monogamy and polygamy.

I appreciate that you feel obliged to recite the teaching of your church concerning "the complementary nature of the sexes." That is, of course, not what Genesis 2 or the biological facts of human reproduction necessarily reveal at all. One can perhaps derive such a concept from an isolated reading of Genesis 2 out of context (and in contradiction to Genesis 1 as well as in contradiction to the doctrine of the Incarnation); but the facts of biology quite go against it. (Modern biology, I mean. If you want to limit yourself to the biology of Aristotle, that's another matter.)

As you know, I devote several chapters of my book to this topic, so I won't expand upon it here.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Phil, on this we disagree on almost every point. I lay out my reasons in Reasonable and Holy, and I don't want to skew this discussion to other topics, many of them quite complex. I am, here, simply addressing the question so often raised as to "Why won't blessing SSU lead to blessing polygamy?" The "slippery slope" doesn't work in this case because there is a fundamental difference between monogamy and polygamy.

As Marshall points out, the difficulties inherent in balancing a tripartite or greater relationship will be far more complex than the admittedly hard task of balancing a relationship between two people! And even if it can be balanced, it will not be the same.

You might well argue (as indeed you do) that there is just as fundamental a difference between mixed-sex and same-sex marriage. That is, approving of the former does not necessitate slipping to the latter -- or to polygamy. I agree. This is not a matter of "slippage" but of exploring the ways in which same-sex marriage actually does meet those other criteria you mention here. And I do that in Reasonable and Holy.

plsdeacon said...


On a secular level, the same arguments that are used for same sex marriage can be used for polygamy. If we can change the legal definition of "marriage" from "one man and one woman" to "any two people" in society, why can't we change that to "any number of people?"

On a religious level, I agree that same sex unions do not lead to polygamous unions. The Scriptural warrant for polygamy is stronger as we have the witness of the Patriarchs in the Old Testament. Now I would argue that every case of polygamy ended badly and moved Israel or the Patriarch further from God, the cases are still there.

Right now, my reading list is about 10 books deep and my wife will be rather angry if I purchase another book without reading the ones on my list first. Can you give me an overview of your book (with scriptural citations) off line (Philip_L_Snyder shift-2 yahoo period com_. If they show promise, I will consider ordering your book.

Phil Snyder
Phil Snyder

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I'm not saying people might not make such an argument -- I'm saying the argument is not rational; that there is a fundamental difference, recognized not just in the church but by the state, between monogamy and polygamy. I address the idea that "a change in the law" must lead to "any change in the law" in my book. It simply doesn't follow. Laws create limits, and yes the limits can change; but each change must be looked at separately. Many of the same problems of inequity and complexity arise even for civil polygamy; so this is not necessarily a religious or moral issue.

As to the book, I can point you to the index of Scriptural and other citations. It is at the Reasonable and Holy blog in both pdf and as a post.

plsdeacon said...


read the post you mentioned and only found a list of scripture and other sources. Is there anyway you could point out the ones that talk about blessing same sex unions or that say the injunctions elsewhere in Holy Scripture do not apply to life long mutually monogamous unions between two men or two women? Just one or two will do.

Phil Snyder

Erika Baker said...

"If we can change the legal definition of "marriage" from "one man and one woman" to "any two people" in society, why can't we change that to "any number of people?"

Why should we automatically assume that a possible change of definition in one direction implicitly permits a change in another?

As for the content of the book, it follows the thoughts Tobias developed in his Sex Articles on this blog.

Daniel Weir said...

The priest with whom I worked after ordination observed that adultery and adulterate are releated. Love between requires a commitment that no one will get the inside track. Love among means that there will be continual negotiation about who has the inside track and even some collisions.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Phil, Erika is pointing you in the direction of the rough drafts of the early chapters of the book. Be advised that the final version is much more detailed.

However, I don't think this matter can be solved by "proof texts" which seems to be what you are asking for.

Anonymous said...

I think Fr. Weir's last comment gets to one issue I was seeking: among vs. between in terms of the "inside track." Thanks for that.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Well, Fr. Michael, that's what I was trying to address by the issue of failed mutuality and imbalance, and "distributive" affection -- in a poly-relationship there will always be some kind of negotiation and divvying-up.

I think the account of Elkanah and the troubles with the contest of affection between his two wives is a good biblical example of the problems inherent in polygamy. Which is not to imply that monogamy doesn't have its share of problems too... I also think of the dominical: "No one can serve two masters &c." The poly-relationship is always open to that element of competition or unfairness. (Again, not to say there aren't selfish monogamists... the the problem there, it seems to me, is individual rather than systemic.)

Anonymous said...

Fr. Tobias:

On looking back on your post, I do see where you made Fr. Weir's point. However, once again we (you, Fr. Weir, and I) are only speculating. We don't know from personal experience that this possible tension between "among" and "between" is any more damaging to a polygamous marriage than say, the stereotypical male temptation to have multiple sexual partners is damaging to a monogomous marriage.

In other words, while agape can (and should) exist between an individual and multiple other people, I believe you are asserting that eros cannot or should not exist in such a fashion. I suppose that polygamists would deny that assertion based on their own lived experience.

God bless,
Father Michael

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Not quite, Fr. Michael.

I am not in fact "asserting that eros cannot or should not exist" among multiple people. I am saying that the erotic love expressed between two people will necessarily be different in an objective way from that expressed among multiple partners. That is, monogamy and polygamy are different (and so is polyamory, which implies erotic connection of all three or more parties); perfect mutuality is difficult in both, but nearly impossible in polygamy. (That is not to say polygamy is wrong -- though one might make that argument on that basis; just as I think that monogamous relationships fail to the extent they are asymmetrical or disproportionate. But my point here is that polygamous relationships almost necessarily are asymmetrical and disproportionate.)

I would also suggest, in light of your comment, that the "stereotypical male temptation to have multiple sexual partners" does in fact constitute a form of polygamy, even if not acted upon, in keeping with Jesus' teaching on the subject at Matt 5:28; and that "alienation of affection" is indeed a recognized destabilization of mutuality in a monogamous relationship -- but to some extend, in my opinion, unavoidable in a polygamous one.

However, I am not primarily interested in engaging in a debate on the merits of polygamy, nor in reflecting on the quality of those relationships. I am asserting that the eros expressed in a monogamous relationship is not the same as the eros expressed in a multiple relationship narrowly considered in light of the number of parties involved. And thus, there is no necessary match in arguments leading to the support of monogamous same-sex relationships and whatever those might be in support of polygamy (any more than mixed-sex monogamy necessarily leads to polygamy), or a slippery slope leading from one to the other.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Tobias:

The slippery slope exists wherever marriage, as an institution, can be redefined by legislative majorities (as in NH and elsewhere) and judicial fiat (as happened briefly in CA). In a society like ours, where the connection between reproduction and marriage is lamentably lost, and where the understanding of the complementary nature of the sexes is lost, marriage as an civil institution is defined by whoever can cobble enough legislative or judicial power to make their own definition stick.

Once upon a time, no-fault divorce destroyed the ideal of "death to us part" from the law. Now, in some localities, the male-female basis of marriage has been lost. Both of these changes have been made upon the basis of individual "rights" and subjective understandings of the "good" in defiance of the last two thousand years of Christianity and the perceived good of the larger society to promote intact male-female marriages with children.

So how will polygamy be fought? When polygamists start parading on the streets and voicing their "rights," on what basis will polygamy be denied? Throw in the additional complication of Islam and it is not hard to see a mammoth First Amendment fight brewing in the next 15-20 years, a fight I fully expect to be lost.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr Michael, where you see a "slippery slope" I see a series of changes. In case you haven't noticed, polygamy was once part of the Jewish tradition, and is still technically permitted under Jewish law. The issues of the Mormons and polygamy long preceded any effort to bring same-sex couples under the legal definition of marriage.

In fact marriage has been redefined many times in human history, even in the history of the church. As you may know, there was significant debate in the middle ages as to what constituted marriage, and the history of the canon law is complex and discontinuous. All it took was "enough legislative or judicial power to make their own definition stick" that won out in the end. Your belief in consistency in the last "two thousand years of Christianity" will not bear close examination; and the discontinuities even in the present teaching (the mixed message on birth control as permissible if "natural"; Josephite marriage as undercutting the surmised "purpose" of marriage) have done as much to undercut the other historic teachings as have movement in the civil sphere.

If you are saying that polygamists will appeal on the basis of "rights" just as gay people have, you may be correct. But that wasn't what engendered this discussion: what began this discussion was the assertion that "love" between a monogamous couple and among the members of a polygamous or polyandrous cluster is the same. That is the point I contest; much as I would contest that love between spouses is the same as love between a parent and a child, or between siblings, or close friends. Love is, as the song says, a many-splendored thing; and not all love is the same.

And if the only basis you can come up for for denying same-sex marriage, or polygamy, is "it doesn't meet my definition" or "the traditional definition" then I think you will definitely find yourself on the losing side of any legal battle. Why should your tradition be exalted over and above others -- unless some objective harm can be demonstrated? (I think such harm can be demonstrated in the case of polygamy; but I fail to see how same-sex marriage differs in any objective way as to its nature or effect from an infertile mixed-sex marriage -- apart from the trivial observation that it involves two men or two women instead of one of each. Why society should care about that is the real issue -- and the reason the opposition is crumbling: as people with common sense can see,