May 20, 2012

Polynuptial equations

At some point in any discussion of the rightness or wrongness of same-sex marriage, or the reasons for and against it, the question, "What about polygamy?" is certain to arise. The odd thing is that the one raising the question often acts as if this is the first time the question has been raised, or that this is some new-found concern that needs to be addressed.

Well, the issue of polygamy has been addressed. It is addressed every time it comes up. I addressed it in my book on the subject of same-sexuality, available a click away in the sidebar. Just as polygamy is more or less as it has always been, the argument against polygamy is the same as it has always been. Same-sex monogamous marriage in no way opens the door to polygamy, any more than monogamous mixed-sex marriage did or does. And, let's face it, at least as far as Scripture is concerned, polygamy is a heterosexual phenomenon. As I noted in an earlier post, procreation has been a social pressure leading to polygamy; expressly in Jewish law, which understood the commandment to be fruitful and multiply as incumbent on all people, to the point of polygamy or even affinity incest being mandated in order to assure the preservation of a family line. (Our own church history was surely shaped by such a dynastic need, again even to the point of permitting affinity incest, and Henrician polygamy was briefly considered by his English advisors — as it was with Phillip of Hesse by the Lutherans!)

However, just to restate the point once again, the problem with polygamy is inherent in the plurality of spouses beyond a binary couple, because more than a couple cannot experience total mutuality. I hold this to be a problem from a moral standpoint, as an essential element of marriage is the mutuality of the couple. A trio or a quartet or whatever cannot have true mutuality — they may have a covenant or agreement worked out, but it cannot be purely mutual. In classic polygamy, for example, a man has two wives, with each of whom he has a relationship; but the wives do not have a relationship other than with the husband; and their own relationship is that of rivals or at best alternates. If polygamy or polyamory involves sexual relationships among all members of the trio, quartet, etc., there will still of necessity be imbalances, and normally some preferential treatment, as each interaction will differ from any of the others based on the participants. There is a fundamental difference between "two" and "three or more" that places such structures in an entirely different category. This is why the prefixes mono- and poly- are there, after all. The moral defect in polygamy lies in the very thing that makes it what it is.

If it is desired — either by the people in these plural relationships or by the church or state — to address the issue of whether people have the freedom or should have the right to enter such relationships, that is another question; one that the state or the church or the public is free to consider any time it likes. But it has nothing to do with monogamous same-sex relationships, any more than it does with monogamous heterosexual relationships, both of which are capable of and geared towards binary mutuality.

I think this is a sufficient answer to the question. If it is not, please say why not, and perhaps we could move forward from there. Or, even better, drop the whole matter of polygamy — as I have no interest in debating its approval.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Kaliputra said...

You don't, of course, want to say that a three-person loving arrangement is inherently unstable, etc. It is so for humans -- and earthly creatures generally, perhaps -- but that is not in its threeness, only in its fallenness. In theory, I suppose a form of polygamy might be possible, but people involved would botch it up.

Jesse said...

The same argument applies, I suppose, to the more extreme "slippery slope" arguments that are sometimes offered (paedophilia, bestiality, whatever). A child cannot have a relationship of mutuality with an adult.

Of course, we must admit that for most of history very few heterosexual marriages have epitomized mutuality! As Rowan Williams said in his (in)famous 1989 lecture "The Body's Grace":

These "asymmetrical" sexual practices have some claim to be called perverse in that they leave one agent in effective control of the situation -- one agent, that is, who doesn't have to wait upon the desire of the other. (Incidentally, if this suggests that, in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a "perversion" -- well, that is a perfectly serious suggestion....)

Marshall Scott said...

Carter Heyward's work has been valuable to me, but this was a point to which i could not go with her. She postulated that relationships involving more than one partner could be truly equitable. In the bstract, perhaps; but I could not imagine with real participants that such a relationship would be truly equitable or just.

Fr. Jonathan said...

I know that I’m going to regret taking the bait here, but I can’t help myself, perhaps because it’s so rare that this particular facet of the conversation about marriage actually gets addressed in anything more than a rhetorical way. I applaud you for taking the question seriously.

I think that the reason why the question of polygamy and polyamory follows on the heels of the question of the blessing of same-sex relationships is not that anyone seriously believes that gay and lesbian relationships and polygamous relationships are equivalent, but rather that the logic behind expanding the category of marriage to include same-sex couples does not easily preclude polygamous relationships. As you point out quite rightly, there is a difference here between the question of Christian blessings and the question of what the state does or does not permit and regulate. The case that you make above, on moral grounds, only really works with the question of blessings. In regards to the question of the state, the argument has been that marriage is essentially a contractual relationship and that anybody who consents to enter into such a relationship should not be stopped from doing so. There is more to it, of course, but that’s the basic premise, that the state does not have an interest in marriage as a good per se, except in so much as the state needs to protect us from coercion and exploitation. And if that’s the case, and three or four or ten people desire and consent to merge their assets and establish a family unit, who are we to stand in their way?

When it comes to the question of blessings within the Church, the matter becomes a bit more complex. Obviously, the Church has to have a vested interest in the moral character of any relationship that she blesses. And if what defines marriage as a sacrament, as you suggest, is a kind of mutuality, than I agree that it becomes difficult to see how this can be achieved in a polyamorous relationship, but that depends quite a bit on what you mean by mutuality. The relationship of the Trinity itself is marked by mutuality, even while it includes differentiation. I could certainly imagine a smart theologian coming up with a Trinitarian argument for why we should bless polygamous unions that is not terribly different from the arguments regularly advanced for blessing same-sex relationships: these people are inherently oriented to love in this way, these relationships are stable and faithful, there appear to be no ill effects for children based on the criteria that we have established, and these relationships reflect the character of the love of God. Does that mean that this has to happen? No, but once we have decided to remove from marriage the idea of complementarity, the roles of husband and wife as the Bible proscribes them, and the notion that pro-creation is somehow central to the institution, it is hard to see how we can meaningfully deny this same opportunity to other non-gender based unions. What would be the argument, for instance, for why two male first cousins could not marry each other?

JCF said...

Strictly to Play Devil's Advocate---

The subject of polygamy (or more particularly, polyamory, if the disputant thinks that polyamory is more au current, and has less of the historic baggage of polygamy) has both a positive and negative debating point.

First, the negative: that polygamy is no more a "fundamental" change, or "cannot have true mutuality", than does a same-sex relationship (both rooted in a procreative definition).

Then, the positive: the argument is that, um, polyamorousness is an orientation, no less than a homosexual orientation. If we say the latter is a Gift from God, how can we deny the same claim to the former?

Finally, I suppose the argument would be made that, while there could be such a thing as homosexual polyamory, a compounded problem in no way lessens the problem of each part!


I'm throwing all this out here (and I hope it makes SOME sense: it's late as I post! ;-/), simply because I wish to sharpen my own debating skills on these questions, Tobias. Hope to pick up some pointers!

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

Fr. Jonathan:

I'm a bit lost in your argument. How precisely does the Bible rule out polyamory, or at least polygamy, in light of Jacob's family, or Abraham's to a lesser extent? If "gender complementary" and procreation are central, how do these further rule out polyamory?

While I agree with Tobias' stake in mutuality here, and I find the Trinitarian argument tendentious, I fail to see how same-gender blessings open the door to polyamory any more than mixed-gender blessings do!

Tim said...

In the hopes of casting light over raising the temperature, I will offer a few brief comments based upon my observations of several groups of friends who have been in long term (hetero/bi-sexual) poly-relationships.

I have seen these relationships both at distance and in close proximity, wherein the individuals are either exclusive with each other or have an open relationship. By my observations, the open relations are all doomed to fail and a great majority of the exclusive relationships fail as well. I have looked at this for several years and conclude that it is because of three overlapping reasons - communication, trust, perceived fairness.

Having a long term relationship requires a lot of communication with your partner and for each additional person in the mix, the amount of communication required to keep things running smooth increases by nearly an order of magnitude.

Likewise, for two people to have a healthy relationship,there must be a perception that both people are being treated fairly and equitably. Once you increase the number of partners, the difficulty of treating everyone as they deem as fair becomes far more challenging.

The last issue is trust, which is hard enough to have between two people over a long time. For each additional person in the mix, it again becomes orders of magnitude more difficult.

In theory (and we'd all like to live in theory), poly- relationships can work over the long term. In reality, it happens, but rarely.

One thing I would mention. All of the poly-relationships that I have seen last have one thing in common - as many partners as possible were married to each other. I suspect that the additional glue afforded by societal affirmation of at least part of their union may contribute to the stability of the relationship.

Just my two cents, YMMV.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for all of the comments. Let me try briefly to address some of the issues raised. This will take two responses at least...

John Clifford, I think I do want to say that a plural relationship is incapable of complete mutuality, not just because people are involved. It is very easy to balance a stick across a finger, but not a plate or a ball – those have to spin. When a dimension is added it seems to me that the possibility of balance is diminished, or at least made much more complicated. (This is not to say all relationships have to be mutual, or that only mutual relationships are moral... more on this below.)

Jesse, yes, this also covers a number of other red herrings. And it is also the case that “classical” marriage was hardly based on mutuality. That, indeed, is one of the problems with it – if one wants to talk about the results of the Fall, it is the origin of male dominion over female.

Marshall, once again it is the abstract vs the real. Let me add here why I’m so fixated on mutuality / symmetry. For my money the moral code has to come back to “Do as you would be done by.” That’s the litmus test Jesus gave us, and it is a test I think same-sex couples can pass. In the plural arrangement, it might be possible, but it seems to be set up against it even in theory, and in practice not to work very well.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Continuing from before (and corrected to include a crucial “not”):

Fr. Jonathan, I’m glad you are willing to engage with this seriously. I don’t think “the logic” behind expanding the category actually works through, though, as the movement from two to three or more is not logical when one is talking about monogamy. Think of it in terms of changing variables in an equation: the “gender” variable is not of the same sort as the “number” variable. Moreover, you also have to deal with the fact that at least two of the party will be of the same sex, so the gender issue is included along with the number.

And yes, you are correct I’m talking about morality here, not the civil issue. One might observe that from a civil perspective religious orders are plural family units, at least as far as assets and life go.

As you raise the Trinity, I think it good to restate that the mutuality I refer to is about the Golden Rule. It is an ethical principle, one which I think is incumbent on marriage – as the union of two persons. There are other moral relationships that are not symmetrical: the love of parent for child and child for parent springs to mind. But that’s not marriage. As to the Trinity, I hold the orthodox view that the relations of the persons are not symmetrical: the Father is source of the Son by filiation, and of the Spirit by procession. I wouldn’t want to attempt a defense of polygamy on the basis of Trinitarian doctrine.

Procreation is not “central” to the institution of marriage, as both can exist apart from the other. Procreation is not of the essence of marriage, but is formally speaking a happy accident – something that happens but which is not essential for the marriage fully to be a marriage.

Actually male/female first cousins can marry in many states (or even closer in certain rare situations). If you want to know why I think, for instance, two sisters should not marry, I’d say (as I do in my book) that such a relationship may succeed on the level of mutuality, but incest introduces a multiplication of relationships, because the couple are both siblings and spouses; and the overlap of these relationships seems to me to invite other sorts of problems. Why do you think incest to be wrong? Simply on the basis of Scripture? Scripture allows cousin marriage, and even requires it in some circumstances.

JCF, I’m not following you here, at least on your first point. On your second point, orientation isn’t the problem. I don’t think one can make a robust argument that just because someone has an orientation they have an inherent right to satisfy it. That indeed would lead to all sorts of problems. It is the acting out of the orientation that has to be evaluated as moral or immoral, or good for or dangerous to society.

Thank you R.E. As I noted, the stress on procreation actually caused some of the patriarchal polygamy: see in particular Abraham, Hagar and Sarah; and Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah!

Tim, your experience matches mine.

Fr. Jonathan said...

Hi Richard,

I wasn’t arguing per se that the Bible prohibits polygamy and polyamory, though I think that this is true, but rather that the kinds of arguments which are made in favor of allowing the Church to bless same gender sexual relationships can also be used to argue that the Church should bless polyamorous unions. I agree with the premise that blessing same gender unions does not immediately or inherently lead to blessing other kinds of unions that most people still find morally problematic, at least for now. But what I am saying is that if and when the argument is made for the blessing of polyamorous unions, it will be very difficult for a church that has accepted same gender unions to object. Who am I to say that my polyamourous neighbors aren’t reflecting the love of Christ in their relationship? What grounds, if not scripture, would I turn to in order to make such a claim?

In terms of what the Bible actually has to say about polygamy and polyamory, that’s a broader topic than can be fit into a comment. The Reader’s Digest version is that the creation of marriage is rooted in Genesis 2 and God’s bringing Eve out of Adam so that the two might be bound as one flesh, so that the man might leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, creating a new family, through which the tangible fruit is children. This is what Jesus, Paul, and Peter all point back to in their writing on the subject. It is what gives meaning to Revelation’s description of the great wedding feast of the Lamb. Obviously there are times in the history of God’s people when this model is subverted. Abraham and Jacob are prime examples. In each case, the results are tragically outside of what God had intended. Though I would stop short of saying that polygamous unions are not really marriages. They clearly are marriages, but not as God intended. Jacob really was married to both Leah and Rachel. But in so doing, his family became divided and the witness made by his relationship was weakened.

Fr. Jonathan said...

Hi Tobias,

I do not mean to suggest that the “number variable” is identical to the “gender variable.” In fact, I would say that on the level of ontology—whether a relationship actually can be marriage or not—the polygamist has a much better biblical case to make than the person advocating for gay and lesbian marriage. Polygamy is a multiplicity of marriages, each of which involves one man and one woman. The women are not married to each other. This sort of relationship clearly runs counter to the biblical example of what marriage should be, the kind of “mutuality” that you talk about, which is seen in the mutual submission Paul describes in Ephesians 5. Nevertheless, the stress that the New Testament places on the roles of men and women within the marital relationship, and how those roles reflect the deeper reality of how Christ and His Church are united, is much more fundamental to the biblical picture of marriage than its singularity. Biblically speaking, polygamous marriages are disordered marriages, whereas same sex relationships are not marriages at all.

We could go back and forth at some length about the place of procreation as a central feature of biblical marriage, but I think we can leave that question aside for the moment as it distracts from what was the center of your post. You wanted to know the reason why those of us who advocate for (what we understand to be) the traditional biblical view of marriage so often make the case that broadening the definition of marriage inevitably leads to further broadening until the very notion of marriage becomes meaningless. The reason is that the very arguments used to advance the cause of gay marriage can (and have) been used to advance the cause of polygamous or polyamorous marriage. We are told that gay and lesbian relationships are stable. Well, polygamous relationships can be stable too. We are told that gay and lesbian relationships are built on fidelity. So are polygamous relationships. We are told that we must blessing gay and lesbian relationships because they so clearly reflect the love of Christ. Certainly, many polygamous and polyamorous relationships are equally loving in a self-giving, self-sacrificing kind of way. I agree that a Trinitarian argument is unconvincing because the relationship within the Trinity is of a different kind than that of the relationship between husband and wife, but the argument that the relationship between David and Jonathan or between Ruth and Naomi gives us an example of what a gay union should look like is specious on the same grounds, which has not stopped these same examples from being repeated ad nauseum.

I also agree with the reason you give for why brother/sister marriage is problematic. But for me that reason is only a working out and illuminating of what scripture makes clear. As a Christian under the authority of scripture, I am bound to accept God’s teaching there even when I do not understand it. I realize that opens a rather large can of worms about precisely how we come to understand scripture, but there we are. The place and authority of scripture is the fundamental divide in the Church which these more colorful questions about sex always seem to lead back to.

Jon said...

What you say does potentially make problems for the religious life, the monastic life, or perhaps it would be clearer to say that monastic life presents a difficulty for building a coherent theology of marriage. The difficulty is finding a way for both monasticism and marriage to be answers to the question, "What must I do to be saved? What does fidelity to Christ look like lived out?" Of course it's easy to distinguish the two, one set of relationships is celibate while the other is sexual (although, is sex a necessary part of marriage?), but that doesn't really get at the fundamental difficulty. If both monasticism and marriage are solutions what is the problem? Or does marriage actually have as little to do with the spiritual life as our other relationships? Mutuality doesn't seem like it really fits in this context, although it fine if the goal is to say why some sexual relationships are morally acceptable and others aren't. At least it works as long as sex is a defining feature of the relationship. If things get more complicated we would have to explain either why monasticism meets the mutuality requirement or why the requirement doesn't apply to similar non-sexual relationships.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jonathan, the problem I have with your POV is twofold:

1) the "arguments" which you say are advanced in support of SSM that are also capable of being advanced in favor of polygamy are what I would call "weak" arguments: they are so generic that they could apply to almost any situation at all. After all, stability, fidelity and love are in fact Christian virtues. So some other reason must be advanced as to why the other things are not acceptable.

2) But if your only response is a retreat to the dogmatic position -- only heterosexual monogamy is permitted -- you then have no particular argument to advance against polygamy, or any of the other things pressed for.

I am trying to take seriously the challenge to present a moral argument that is in a form other than a dogmatic "anything but X is wrong" to explore precisely why Y, Z or Omega are wrong. This is the movement from "taboo" to "ethics."

I've presented an argument for why polygamy is different from monogamy, and why the numeric difference has moral implications.

The anti-SSM advocates rarely rise to that challenge: all of the arguments presented (yes, ad nauseum) are arguments of "defect" -- that is, SSM fails to have one or more features of mixed-sex marriage. But once procreation is set aside -- and it has not been the teaching of the Church at any time that procreation is essential to marriage, but is conditional, and so must be set aside unless one is willing to forbid infertile marriages -- we are left with the unavoidable position that "there is something about male and female apart from procreation that makes their marriage the only form of marriage that can be morally accepted." And that "conclusion" is in fact the original premise -- so we are left with a circular argument.

Finally, I would have to say that your argument for monogamy from Scripture is not evident from the text, and so resting on Scripture's authority -- when it is clearly not of a single mind on marriage -- does not really solve the problem. I am perfectly willing to accept that Scripture points to heterosexual monogamy as an ideal; but to move from that to say that is the only morally acceptable form of marriage stretches the fabric of Scripture to the breaking point.

Jon, I think the model for monastic life is more familial than nuptial, so I don't think that is a problem. In classic Benedictine thi8nking the abbot is father to a large family of brothers.

Fr. Jonathan said...


To respond briefly to your objections:

1) I agree that the arguments which base the blessing of same-sex unions upon the values of stability, fidelity, and love are insufficiently vague as to make the case, but I don’t see how that even remotely begins to undermine my point. If the issue is that you reject these categories and would prefer to advance another kind of argument, that is something altogether different. But I believe these rather broad categories match the kinds of arguments that I regularly hear on the subject, at least within the Church, from the Chicago Consultation on down the line. It’s been a year or more since I’ve read your book, but my recollection is that these are fairly central arguments for you as well. Same-sex relationships are capable of holiness, as evidenced by their reflection of Christian love of the kind that Jesus mandates, ergot they ought to be celebrated and blessed. Isn’t that an integral part of your thesis?

2) I fail to see how my position is any more dogmatic than yours. I do not start with what scripture proscribes but with what it prescribes, the sexuality that scripture celebrates rather than what it forbids. That understanding has certain facets to it that inherently lead to the conclusion that some things are good and holy and some things are not, even if scripture had not said so explicitly (although, obviously, in many cases it has).

This is, as far as I can tell, exactly the same thing that you have advanced above in regards to polygamy: “The problem with polygamy is inherent in the plurality of spouses beyond a binary couple, because more than a couple cannot experience total mutuality. I hold this to be a problem from a moral standpoint, as an essential element of marriage is the mutuality of the couple.”

You advance here two dogmatic conclusions, that mutuality is one of the things that is necessary for a marriage to actually be a marriage and not something else, and that only monogamous couplings are capable of engaging in such mutuality. I am not sure exactly what you mean by mutuality, although in your book you talk about the sameness of those joined being more important than their differences, which I assume is part of the puzzle. But either way, you are beginning from a particular set of axioms about what marriage is and what it cannot be. That your axioms differ from mine and require a significantly different interpretation of the text of scripture do not make them less dogmatic.

Nor is your position any less “circular” than you accuse mine of being. Two men can get married because their relationship is capable of mutuality, whereas three men cannot get married because their relationship is incapable of mutuality. Well then, the smart question becomes, what is mutuality? And any reply given simply sets the stage for how the polygamist argues his next point. If mutuality is defined certain ways, the polygamist says, “Well, my relationship has that just as much as yours.” And generally speaking, the kind of mutuality that SSM advocates usually describe – fidelity, stability, equality, and self-sacrificing love – are entirely possible in polygamous or polyamorous unions. If, on the other hand, mutuality is somehow defined in such a narrow way that it is impossible for any grouping of people more than a pair to fulfill it, the polygamist can then say, “Well, mutuality as you’ve defined it isn’t actually inherent to marriage.” And then we’re left right back where we started from, because why should his definition of marriage be taken less seriously than yours or mine? If it is circular to say that marriage must be between a man and a woman because this is how scripture defines it, than it is equally circular to say that marriage must be between only two people because that is how scripture (or whatever authority we’re going with here) defines it.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr. Jonathan, I suspect we are talking at cross purposes here.

The point of my original post was simply to show the problems with polygamy, principally the problem of imbalance. It is true that I hold mutuality to be a key element in a nuptial relationship -- that is my premise, or dogma, if you will; but I hope it is a point on which you agree, based as it is on the Golden Rule! -- and that the lack of that, or the very great difficulty in sustaining that, is a key problem with polygamy. I hold that same-sex couples are capable of mutuality. The issues of fidelity, care, and so on, are subsumed in the general understanding of good actions of all sorts -- the issue here is the manner in which these moral equations are calculated -- relatively easily and directly by couples, not so easily, or perhaps even not possibly at all by trios, quartets, etc.

I think you miss the point of my book, and its arguments. It is not just that same-sex couples are capable of fidelity, love, care, etc., or even that they are capable of these things in a mutual fashion. That is only the beginning of the argument. The primary argument is that same-sex couples are capable of achieving the moral ends of marriage.

It is of course true that a polygamist could assert that his cluster of people are capable of mutuality, etc. But that assertion remains to be made. Most of the evidence I've seen testifies to the imbalances in polygamous relationships, not their mutuality. If a polygamist simply states that mutuality is not a value -- then we have a fundamental disagreement, or descend simply to the level of contradiction rather than argument.

That is really the extent of my concern here. People asked for an argument against polygamy, and I have presented one. If you actually disagree with the premise, or the argument, fine; but you appear to me to be wanting to maintain that the argument doesn't exist, in order to sustain your original point that arguments in favor of same-sex mono9gamy also apply to polygamy. You are only able to do that by asserting a contrary ("polygamists are capable of mutuality") or denying the premise ("mutuality is not a key element in a good marriage.") If you want to make the first assertion, where is your evidence? If the second, I think we are very far apart on the issue of ethical behavior.

Don't you find it odd that this puts you in the position of possibly defending, or constructing defenses for, polygamy? I should have thought you would welcome a cogent argument against it.

Jon said...

Certainly there's no problem as long as the argument is strictly limited to morality with no implications for theological anthropology or the spiritual life. I generally find arguing only at that level rather unsatisfying, however, partially because the conclusion takes the form "This is/is not permissible", which leaves me wondering what path is best, and partially because the arguments are so often fundamentally grounded in the ideals of a specific place and time and are almost incomprehensible to those from other places or times.

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

Fr. Jonathan,

To only magnify Tobias' point regarding Scripture, I know of no passages – in the NT in particular – that are critical of polyamory in Jacob's family, nor of Solomon's polygamy for that matter.

The symbolic appeal to Christ and the Church (and its OT parallel, God and Israel) could very easily be construed as the union of a singular (Christ/God) and a plurality (Church/Israel). Hence, I don't find this a decisive argument against polyamory at all. Jesus' appeal to Genesis and Paul's "two shall become one flesh" get us a little closer by themselves, but as you know, silence on polyamory does not equate with prohibition nor prescription. In short, the Bible does not rule it out unless we adopt your traditional hermeneutic. That's all fine, but for clarity of argument, can we call it an interpretation, however time-honored, rather than day in essence, "The Bible says x about polyamory"?

All this by way of saying, of course, the tradition's appeal to mutuality is more helpful. But I still don't buy into the sophisticated "slippery slope" fallacy you posit from SSM/SSB.

With the premium on celibacy in Paul's early writing for instance, would you argue he opened the door to polyamory when he gave permission to marry – and reluctantly at that? I doubt you would.

It does not follow that giving permission to one form of marriage opens the door to another. As Tobias has amply demonstrated, a greater argument must be made.

Erika Baker said...

To my untrained eye one of the differences is obvious.

Gay people cannot marry a partner of the opposite sex without suffering serious emotional and spiritual consequences that also affect their spouse.
The alternative of gay people not being partnered is enforced loneliness and the denial of all the goods of marriage.

The same cannot be said for polygamists who are quite capable of forming paired bonds but who have personal reasons for chosing not to.

There is no serious psychological harm resulting to would-be polygamists from being restricted to one partner.

I think if we do need to focus on the harm of not doing or permitting something at least as much as on the positive outcomes of doing or permitting it to gain a real understanding of the situation.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jon, I agree that what I'd call the "cultutal aspects" of the problem. I have addressed the aspect of theolgoical anthropology in my book -- in particular addressing the fact that at least one of the anit-SSM arguments is derived from a defective anthropology that ultimately violates the doctrine of the Incarnation. The "complementarity" argu7ment treats people as somehow "incomplete" without a mate of the opposite sex. As to the spiritual side, there is a lack of spiritul health evident in both judgment and duplicity. I'm not sure that is a "strong" argument, as it veers towards utilitarianism, about which more in a moment...

R.E., yes, this is part of the inherent problem with the thesis "Scripture says..." when it doesn't actually "say" what is suggested, at least not in any kind of direct or clear fashion. Even the "conservative" theologians who produced the paper for the House of Bishops admitted that Scripture alone will not provide an answer to the question of SSM -- it is a question that Scripture never was meant to answer.

Erika, this seems to me to be a utilitarian argument; not an ethic I can follow very far. Though, I agree, with Paul, that it is better to marry than to burn -- so you are in somewhat good company. To forbid SSM on the grounds that if falls below some abstract ideal based on a defective anthropology. Enforced celibacy or marriages of convenience are clearly inadequate responses -- less adequate, morally and theologically, than SSM.

Brother David said...

A thorough probing of the story of the humans in the garden in Genesis, especially a probing of the original language and the very specific Hebrew terms used to designate them, leads one to understand that the first human that God created and then later the companion God made so that human was not alone, were very different creatures than the two expelled from the garden "after the Fall." The help mate that God gave to the first human was identical to it, it was a clone. There was no death at that point in the story, and there was no need for procreation and there was no gender differentiation, and yet it was at that point that God gave one to the other as a pair bond. There was no complementarity involved, so that theory is based on misunderstanding.

Erika Baker said...

I do see it as an ethical argument because we always have to consider the ethics of two alternatives in order to come to a valid moral conclusion.

To insist that something is moral that causes demonstrable harm and that the alternative that does not cause demonstrable harm is the ethical alternative is to misunderstand what ethics are ultimately about.

dr.primrose said...

A couple of comments on points that haven't been mentioned.

First, as noted, the Bible mentions a number of cases of men have multiple wives. But Biblical texts also contains has rules regulating polygamous marriages. For example:

“If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.” Deut. 21:15-17.

Nothing in the text condemns polygamy. Claims that the Bible supports only marriages of “one man and one woman” are flatly contrary to the actual Biblical text.

Second, as Jonathan Rauch noted several years ago in his book on same-sex marriage, there are strong societal reasons for not having polygamy. In humankind unaffected by abortion or gender selection, children are born almost exactly 50% each for boys and girls. One man having five wives essentially results in four men having no wife. That situation results in significant social instability in a couple of ways, he says.

To begin with, unattached men tend to be less socially responsible and to engage in irresponsible activity, sowing one’s wild oats and all that. They generally become more responsible when they marry. Encouraging men to become involved in marriage, regardless of whethe the marriage partner is male or female, benefits society as a whole.

In addition, a polygamous society has serious problems figuring out what to do with the surplus men. In fundamentalist Mormon societies that practice polygamy, the solution has been to find excuses for kicking the excess boys out of the community in their late teens and early 20s. This is a horrible situation for the boys, who are then cut off from the only community they’ve ever known. This situation then increases the likelihood of social irresponsibility of unmarried.

There is therefore a social benefit of encouraging gay men in particular to get married to encourage greater social responsibility. By contrast, there is no social benefit – and in fact a social detriment – to permit polygamy.

Fr. Jonathan said...


As so often happens in these sorts of conversations, I feel rather like we must be missing each other, using the same words to mean very different things. We’re like two people from different tribes trying to construct a common language. Generally speaking, I find that I understand more of what SSM advocates are trying to say than many of my conservative friends and colleagues, having at one time held that position myself for most of my life. But there are still moments, like this one, in which I start to wonder if we are even discussing the same thing. I’m not naïve enough to expect that we’ll persuade each other to change our views, but I think the victory here would be for us to have some common understanding of each other.

So, with that in mind, before making any sort of attempt to respond again, let me see if I can restate your argument so that you can tell me if I’m not hearing you correctly. (And I have a couple of clarification questions as well.)

The argument goes thusly: SSM advocates (in the Church) are often accused by traditional marriage (TM) advocates of holding a position that inevitably leads to the need for the Church to bless all manner of taboo relationships, including polygamy and polyamory. However, one of the key facets of marriage, as you understand it, is mutuality, which polygamous and polyamorous units are definitionally incapable of sustaining. Same-sex couples, however, are capable of mutuality, hence the same prohibition need not apply. Therefore, it is wrong for TM advocates to insist that the same arguments used for SSM apply to polygamy and polyamory since you have just shown how they do not.

Do I have that about right?

Clarification question #1: What do you mean by mutuality exactly?

Clarification question #2: You said above that same-sex couples should have their unions blessed not just because they are capable of love, care, fidelity, stability, and mutuality, but also because they are “capable of achieving the moral ends of marriage.” What are the moral ends of marriage and how does the Christian come to know them?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Bro David, the mythology in Genesis 2-5 is capable of many different interpretations. I see the importance of the "likeness" of the couple as opening the door to an endorsement of same-sex companionship, for instance. You are correct about the procreation -- no need for that in Eden! (The Gen 1 story is a whole other narrative, of course, with different ends in mind.)

Erika, I'm not saying that a "harm avoidance ethic" isn't an ethic, it's just not the ethical philosophy I choose to employ, I agree with you from within that ethic that the harm done by enforced celibacy or fauz-marriage is better avoided. I find that most ethical systems in fact support same-sex marriage; about the only one that doesn't is a kind of "Divind Command" ethic that is very sure of its own understanding of the divine commands in this regard.

Dr. Primrose -- excellent points. Polygamy has many things against it.

Fr. J., yes I think you've summarized my view, at least in part. What you don't address is the concept of the "slippery slope" in itself, which I also find unacceptable as a form of argument ("this change inplies any change"). Each change has to be debated on its own merit, and to make one change need not imply a "free-for-all." So while in fact some of the arguments used for SSM would be arguments for polygamy, in the latter case those arguments fail because there are other reasons not to move to polygamy. An argument to lower the voting age to 18 need not imply lowering the voting age to 14, for instance. Other factors come into play, of which mutuality is just one. Dr. Primrose has highlighted some of the other problems with polygamy, indicating to what extent it is even unable (or unlikely) to achieve the notions of fidelity and care and love. So yes, you have it about right, if you add this into the mix.

For clarification, by mutuality I mean a fulfilling of the Golden Rule by two people towards each other; the gift of each to the other, for the good of the other and the good of the pair. Each member becomes the "end" for the other, as opposed to the seeking of an extrinsic end.

The moral ends of marriage are, as it is stated in the preface to the rite: in the "good marriage" each of the couple seek their mutual joy, help and comfort in adversity and prosperity, and when it is God's will the procreation and proper upbringing of children within a social context supportive of the Christian life. I think Christians best come to know these things by living them, which is why I think the movement to bless the marriages of same-sex couples, inviting them into the ascesis of this particular manifestation of the Christian life, is not only fitting, but necessary.

Thanks for your taking the time. I do hope this helps to clarify my thinking for you, and taht it is helpful.

Marshall Scott said...

It should be noted that there are historical circumstances when polyandry was practiced. Some years ago I learned that in the late Kandyan Kingdom in Sri Lanka all males inherited an equal share in the family's land. To prevent farms from becoming too small to sustain a family, several brothers would be married to one wife. Note that this was, IIRC, 16th Century, and while the Kingdom and most citizens were Buddhist, there were already European Christians there, trading and evangelizing.

Jon said...

Tobias, I'm very much aware of the problematic aspects of the conservative justification of keeping marriage heterosexual, I'm not convinced, however, that "liberal" arguments are free from any similar problems. For example, in suggesting that everyone ought to be married, Jonathan Rauch via dr. primrose implies that monastic life, or at least the eremitic life, is deeply undesirable (although there are also correlation vs causality questions to be asked with his theory). On other occasions folks arguing in favor of ssm talk as if celibacy was impossible to practice without warping one's heart or soul. Even in your theorizing, I'm ambivalent about the place of mutuality in the Christian life. The problem isn't the Golden Rule, it's language like "the gift of each to the other" and "each becomes the end of the other". In the second case, where does that leave God? The first case needs the proviso that the gifting doesn't include the deeper parts of the heart, in which each person is always alone with God and perhaps one's demons.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jon, I did not read Dr. Primrose or J. Rauch in that light. I think the critique is of unattached and promiscuous single men -- and I think there is clearly more to celibacy than simply not being married.

I think that chaste celibacy is not a very common calling, but I do know that it is a calling, and that some people are called to it. The problem from the SSM advocate's side is that removing SSM as a possibility forces celibacy as the only acceptable option upon people who may not be geared to or equipped for it. It is a vocation which "not all can receive."

As to the moral point, I think that God is served in and through the other. This is the part of the point of the Golden Rule, and both of Jesus' teaching, "As you did it to the least of these you did it to me" and the Johannine, "Those who claim to love God whom they have not seen while hating their brothers whom they have seen, &c."

Celibate community life can of course fulfill this mandate without marriage -- but the point is that the person is showing the love of God in the manner in which she loves her sisters.

Hermits are a special case, and to be blunt I'm not sure of the "morality" of that way of life, though I do not doubt its sincere devotion to personal holiness. Robert Graves once called such life "the most refined form of solitary vice." I wouldn't go that far, or even in that direction, but as a permanent way of life I fail to see how it relates to the gospel, or fulfills the commandment to love one's neighbor.

dr.primrose said...

Tobias, your reading of my comments is correct. It is a very far leap from saying that all gay people may NOT be married to saying that all gay people MUST be married. That's like saying that if ANY straight people may be married, they all MUST married.

The comments had nothing to do with those who choose not to marry for any reason, ranging from a call to monasticism to a desire to lead the most hedonistic life possible. That's a different issue all together.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, dr.p.

Jon said...

Tobias, I certainly agree that vocational discernment is a profoundly individual task, and that it's wrong to require, or even assume, that everyone in a specific demographic will have the same vocation. However, it's easy to dismiss the possibility of a celibate vocation by noting its rarity. (Although what percent of the American adult population is unmarried and/or never married? IIRC it's been going up recently.)

As the contemplative Christian vocation bears witness, God is the end of the Christian life, not service to others (although service is a tremendously important part of the Christian life for practically all Christians, as the Johannine teaching reminds us). If getting married interferes with God being the end and goal of those marrying, I have difficulty seeing how it can be a properly Christian vocation.

Personally, I'm in favor of ssm, but how we explain what's going on in marriage is tremendously important, and not just for those who are called to marriage, since such talk about how the world is and works strongly shapes what is possible.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Jon, from what you say here I don't think we are terribly far off from each other, but perhaps talking past each other.

I agree of course that our proper "end" is God; what I am affirming is that Christ teaches us that this end is not achieved apart from other human beings. This is also the teaching of the church in its definition of mission. There is, ultimately, no "individual" salvation or unity with God, only the drawing of "the whole world" to Christ. I would say that is the "catholic" view of things, as opposed to the more "protestant" view that seems to me to stress the personal over the corporate.

That being said, what I was speaking about above is ethics. I take it as a point of ethics that people are not to be treated as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. We are not to "use" people, but to love people. That love does not require marriage, but a marriage that lacks this element is not a "good marriage." I do not think it is the sole defining element of marriage, but a necessary component. And I think same-sex couples to be capable of it, and called to it. The problem with some of the "traditional" view of language is that it casts its form in those precisely unethical terms, in which the couple are means to some other extrinsic end: procreation, the good of society, etc. These may be good things, but they miss the ethical point about how the couple treat each other. So long as these are "goods" rather than "aims" the marriage can be good. But many marriages fail when certain "aims" are not achieved.

Peace to you and all good.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

ps. I did not mean to suggest that the rareness of celibacy was reason to discount it. But I am trying to make a distinction between vocational celibacy and situational celibacy. It is the former that I think is rare.