June 16, 2015

Love and Marriage: Thoughts before Utah

This has been a very busy few weeks in various Internet forums concerning marriage equality. Much of the conversation has been at a high level, so high that some have bemoaned the lack of a glossary; while others have just dismissed the theological speculations as having little impact beyond the few who are interested in such things. However, in the interest of continuing understanding, I want to draw attention to several of these essays -- many of them in response to the Report of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage (henceforth TF), or responses to those responses. I do this realizing that General Convention is almost upon us; and I regret not having had the time to draft this response earlier.

The Anglican Theological Review is hosting a conversation page with links to the original TF Report, as well as to a paper by Bauerschmidt et al (henceforth MCC both for the paper and the group of authors) and the responses to it from three academic theologians, and the further response and counter-response. The ATR link page is kept updated, so I simply link to it above, rather than to each individual item on the menu. I am grateful for the acknowledgment in Guiliano's response to Tanner that the original MCC's presentation of Augustine was really more Augustine-as-received-and-finessed by the later church. It certainly wasn't pure Augustine. More on that below.

More helpfully, Craig Uffman has written what I regard as a very helpful essay in constructive theology on the issue. I am particularly taken with his thinking on eschatology from an ethical perspective, shifting from the teleological/deontological split towards something more satisfying and in keeping with a theology that moves in a Godward direction (again more on ethics below).

Then my brother-in-Christ Thomas Bushnell contributed a long response to Craig's essay, in which I think he too advances the discussion in helpful ways; in particular as he raises issues about the unmentionable ("sex!") as central but neglected in the discussion, and provides a very good unpacking of Aristotle's language of causes, which has played a part in marriage conversation ever since the scholastic theologians retrofitted (if that's the right word for an ancient idea lost and rediscovered) Aristotle's notions onto an Augustinian substrate -- rather revising Augustine in the process. (This revisionism is part of what the MCC adopts; to my mind it produces an ethical disaster; but as I say, more on that anon.)

Finally, one of the MCC authors, Jordan Hylden has responded to my earlier piece in response to MCC, claiming that I just don't understand the issues involved. On the contrary, I think it is Hylden and the others in the MCC who fail to grasp the points that the Task Force paper was making, and read into it arguments that simply are not there. As is usual, much of his criticism of my paper asks why I didn't address things I didn't address, and alleges a failure to deal with the real issue, to which I will come very shortly. I promise.

Such pieces add little to the actual conversation, but I am grateful to Hylden for helping me to see where the real divisions lie. These are in areas of ethics and metaphysics, philosophy and moral theology. Which means they are important.

A philosophical difference
One of the chief differences in approach between the TF and MCC lies in the distinction between marriage as an institution and marriages themselves as real instances of a phenomenon. (Those familiar with medieval debates will recognize this as related to one in which William of Ockham was involved.) The TF made this point in its overall thrust towards focusing on the moral values that make a particular marriage holy, rather than in what might make marriage holy as an institution. The TF stresses that moral action is particular, not general, and that it resides in the human heart and will. This also plays into the distinction concerning the various goods or ends of marriage (about which more, from an ethical view, below). Philosophically, this is the difference between idealism and realism. And the MCC and the TF are coming at the issue from these profoundly different perspectives, respectively.

This comes to a head in the discussion of procreation, which appears to be, for many, the stumbling block. From the TF perspective, procreation can be understood as a purpose or good or end of marriage as an institution but need not be understood as such for an actual or particular marriage, and may be an impossibility for any number of specific actual marriages. It seems glaringly obvious to the TF that procreation can take place apart from marriage, and marriage from procreation. It is fine to say, as we have, joining the consensus of the church, that procreation should take place within marriage, but we have rejected the valuation of any given marriage as somehow being less than marriage when the couple do not, or cannot procreate. Many on the other side of the debate also appear to reject that valuation, but their rejection does not seem to follow logically from their basic premise, and to jibe with their rejection of same-sex marriage (at least in part) because it cannot ever even conceivably be "open to life" (as the Roman Church puts it; in a view that is at least consistent in also rejecting contraception.)

This distinction between ideal and real, universal and particular, seems to me to be obvious, and it is embedded in the BCP liturgy with its conditional language concerning procreation ("when it is God's will"). I have come to believe that some will not embrace this obvious reality, in part, because they do not want to cede anything that might appear to allow the marriage of persons of the same sex, for whom procreation is not on the table. But it is equally not on the table for a mixed-sex infertile couple, or a couple advanced in years (for whom even the Roman Church allows marriage, in the one non sequitur in its otherwise consistent teaching). There is a gap between an "ideal" (or virtual) fertility imputed to all mixed-sex couples and the "real" fact that not all mixed-sex or any same-sex couples can procreate. The fact that procreation is ideally a purpose for the institution or establishment of marriage has absolutely no impact on the fact of the a real couple's marriage being fully a marriage, whether they procreate or not. After all, even when procreation happens, it happens some time after the wedding; and there is no suggestion that the marriage isn't a marriage until it has produced offspring. On the contrary, the declaration that the couple are married comes where it does because they have joined hands, exchanged rings, and made their solemn vows -- this is what makes them married. And this is why the TF emphasizes the vows as constitutive of the marriage.

The idealist vs. realist divide is not so great as that between the Ptolemaists and Copernicans, but it is a distinction that runs through the discussions on marriage, and shows up in how the two sides treat the holiness of marriage. The TF holds that marriage as an institution is not our concern. The "institution" or "estate" of marriage is neither good nor bad in itself. (It should be obvious that the "estate" also cannot procreate!) The TF holds that the moral good of marriage is found in the actual marriages themselves, not in some ideal. The virtue of marriage exists in real marriages, or it does not exist at all. Which leads me, at last, to another look at the ethical issues.

The ethical divide
The Task Force sketched out an ethical basis for conversation that was summed up by Kant as treating people as ends-in-themselves, not solely as means-to-an-end. (Hylden wrongly characterizes this as a conflict between Kantian notions and utilitarianism, apparently due to his misreading of the word "utility" in the TF paper, where it is meant in the spirit of how Augustine speaks: in terms of a man's "use" of a woman -- a notion we find objectifying. However, utilitarianism is about a good deal more than mere utility or purpose, and wasn't even on our radar, though we would indeed rule it out as a satisfactory ethic for marriage.) And, of course, the TF is aware that Kant does not disallow the instrumental use of others -- a waiter serving my meal, for instance -- so long as we also respect that service, and that person as an end-in-herself. People may serve one another, but they are not to be objectified as mere appliances.

Part of me regrets that we ever brought Kant into the discussion. It was only because he phrases the ethical issue so clearly. The Task Force paper was certainly not arguing for a wholesale adoption of a Kantian system; for one thing, I don't think his Categorical Imperative on universal maxims is entirely satisfactory. But this one point on treating people as ends is an excellent expression of an idea that is central to Christian morality. We could have left Kant out of the discussion entirely, and simply focused on the same principle as incarnated in the teaching of Hillel, Jesus, Paul, Buber, and Bonhoeffer under a different (or the same) terminology. (Bonhoeffer neatly incorporates this Kantian principle into his social theology -- as essential to sociality -- and his Christology.) Or, in the language of the Baptismal Covenant, respecting "the dignity of every human being."

So this isn't a divide between modernism and tradition, but between a gospel ethic (about which more below) and one nourished by scholasticism.

Unfortunately the Kant reference sent some, such as Hylden, and Don Reed, a philosophy professor whose work Hylden cites, off into 18th and 19th century Enlightenment territory, and the portrayal of the whole discussion as a clash of world-views between classicism and modernism, or communitarianism and liberal individualism -- which is very far from what we intend, and also far from what we actually state, in ethical terms.

The real ethical divide is not between Kant and Bentham (whose utilitarianism -- "the greatest good for the greatest number" sadly forms a substrate of much of modern culture, popular and formal.) The real divide is between what is known as deontological ethics (focusing on duty), and teleological ethics (focusing on ends or goals). These are broad categories, and within each there is a range of thinking, some of it quite contrary even within the group. So, on the duty side you can find, for example, both Divine Command ethics and Kant; while on the goals side you can find utilitarians, but also those who, like the MCC tout a form of ends-based morality that is more or less redolent of Aquinas, based largely on Aristotle. Natural Law ethics falls into this category, and this seems to be the angle from which many on that side of the debate are operating. The MCC have, as I noted, followed Aquinas in dressing Augustine up in Aristotelian clothing -- but my contention is that this suit doesn't really fit, and is inconsistent with Augustine's thinking.

And the problem lies in the fact that the MCC doesn't distinguish between Augustine's original language of "goods" or "fruits" and the Aristotelian language of "ends" or "causes." So the TF and the MCC are speaking different ethical languages. MCC doesn't distinguish between "goods" and "ends"; yet this was the primary point of the TF paper, and it doesn't register in the MCC because they don't appear to see the difference as amounting to anything. Hylden's baseball analogy doesn't really help things very much, beyond perhaps revealing why he doesn't grasp what the TF is saying. He is focused on instrumentalities and levels of performance, about doing good things well, rather than being good and allowing happiness to flow as grace, rather than as the results of works. In this he begs much the same question as Aristotle, for whom it is obvious that justice, courage, and so on are virtues to be practiced, and that happiness lies in the skillful employment of these virtues. But this is not really quite the way Augustine sees things. There is a world of difference between arete and agape.

For it is one thing to speak of procreation, for example, as a goal or end, and quite another to accept it as a good that can, in most marriages, take place. The MCC seem to be presenting procreation as what Aristotle would call a final cause: this is the reason marriage exists. The problem with approaches using such causality, particularly final causality, as Brother Thomas points out in his very helpful examination of the failings of causal language when applied to moral issues, is twofold: it is difficult to fix the absolutely final cause (reason a thing exists) for many things or activities; and it is difficult to attach moral valence to that cause even when you can fix it. Does one play baseball so as to win games, to "play baseball well," or for fun, or for exercise, or to entertain, or to make a six-figure income? The "reason baseball exists" may include all of these things speaking of the institution, but for any particular player of baseball only one or two may apply; and the player may or may not achieve her goal, or be capable of achieving it, whatever it is. Perhaps that person shouldn't play baseball -- which seems to be Hylden's conclusion in his baseball analogy: same-sex couples shouldn't marry because they cannot achieve the principle end of marriage. But this is, as I hope most people used to following these debates can see, begging the question: the assertion that procreation is an "end" of marriage as an institution and in the actual marriages, in a causal sense. That is the very point we contest. We hold that procreation is a blessing that comes to some of those marriages in which it is possible. It is a purpose for the institution of marriage that may or may not be realized, as the BCP say, "when it is God's will." And as it is conditional, it simply cannot be final.

Obviously, it is easy to argue that procreation is not the final cause of marriage -- child-rearing holds a better claim. There is clear evolutionary evidence that marriage helps stabilize the child's environment for growth to maturity; ideally, that is. In the real world, the moral end is not just child-rearing, but, as the BCP stresses, raising a child in the knowledge and love of the Lord. It makes little sense to say, "Every child has a right to be raised by her biological parents," and a great deal of sense to say, "Every child has a right to be loved and cared for, and her parents have a duty to do so; but if they are unable so to do, the child has every right to an alternative upbringing." A good marriage is a context for good child-rearing, whether the child is born to the parents, or adopted. I will reflect below further on the question of the relative moral weight of these two options. And with that in mind, let me turn to the ethical principle that the TF has advanced.

A gospel ethic
The primary ethic the TF discerns in the teaching of Jesus and Paul is what I call Gospel Altruism. This counters the essentially egoist leanings of Aristotle, for whom the main focus is on happiness and "being good." For Aristotle, even self-sacrifice for the sake of ones friends is primarily good because it ennobles and leaves behind a good name -- these are the ends, the teloi.

The altruistic ethic of Jesus is different. When, for example, the rich young man asks Jesus what good deed he must do to inherit eternal life (Matt 19:16ff), Jesus affirms first that "goodness" is with God alone. He then cites duty to obey the divine commandments, expanding on some of the commandments from the Decalogue by adding part of what he regarded as the Summary of the whole Law, to love ones neighbor as oneself. Thus far Jesus in in perfect sync with a deontological ethic of Divine Command. When the man says he has done all this, Jesus ups the ante by saying perfection will only be found in abandoning all his wealth to the poor, and dedicating himself as a disciple. Only a total self-offering can perfectly save the self. In the altruism of Jesus, to lose is the only way to win -- at the end (eschaton) in the kingdom of God: to lose this world only for the sake of the next and final world.

This is the ethic of one who came to serve, not to be served. It is the ethic that stands in response to the ancient question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" It is summed up nowhere so clearly as in Jesus' own exposition of the Golden Rule. I have written extensively about this ethic elsewhere, so here simply note that it is oriented towards the other (altruistic) and positive: it is a commandment to do as one would be done by; not to do good to another so as to receive good in return. There is no goal of recompense in this formula; in fact, Jesus, throughout his teaching, sees doing good in order to get something in return to miss the point. For example, one with this worlds goods is to invite the poor to dinner, precisely because they will not be able to return the favor. (Luke 14:14) The "end" is in the act itself, and in the one to and for whom the good is done; the end and the good are one. (This is the import the TF were attempting to give by using the Kantian formula.) There is, of course, a reward for this good, but it is eschatological, not teleological. It is about the final cause, or ultimate end of humanity, why humanity exists.

Humanity came into existence as the earthly image of the transcendent God. The transitory purpose was to fill the earth and subdue it. But the ultimate end for humanity is "to enjoy God for ever," as one Catechism puts it. God is, of course, the perfect altruist. God is all gift, without any need at all. As creatures, humans do have needs, but the blessedness of God is expressed in human beings when they too give of themselves in mutual service to others, the abundance of one supplying the need of another, bearing one another's burdens in a shared life. In marriage, this is embodied not in the objectifying use of each other but the mutual gift of each to the other. We treat other human beings as ends in themselves because they are the earthly embodiment of the image of God, our final end.

As Augustine put it in his essay On the Trinity (8) the ultimate purpose of all human action is the contemplation of God. But the TF view affirms that as "no one has seen God" in this world, God has given us each other as images of God to practice on -- to take baby steps as children of God; to learn to love God by loving each other, as God loves us, altruistically. As the great theologian of love, John the Divine, reminds us, "Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen." (1John 4:20) And as the ultimate love of God is revealed in the Paschal mystery, so too human beings best express that love in acts that reflect that self-offering.

The principle applied to marriage
This is one reason that Paul picks up on Jesus' Summary statement, "Love your neighbor as yourself," as part of his excursus on marriage in Ephesians 5. As the TF noted, this excursus is not so much to show that marriage is an embodiment of the divine love, as that the divine love is the template upon which marriages should be based -- reflecting the sacrificial love of Christ. (The passage in question is part of a fairly standard sequence of moral advice to households, mirroring and expanding on that in Colossians 3; Ephesians does make more of marriage; but perhaps not so much as some people think.) The great mystery of marriage and its relation to the church is the mystery of self-giving love revealed in Jesus Christ, expounded on earlier in Ephesians (2:13-14) concerning another case of the two becoming one: how Jesus, in his own flesh, has broken down the division between Jew and Gentile. The Apostle's message for married couples, as for parents and children and slaves and masters, is the same as Jesus' own answer to the question about loving the neighbor: "Go and do likewise." That is Paul's conclusion, directed to husbands and wives before he completes the household table setting with advice to children and parents, and slaves and masters.

The original TF paper expounded on the significance of Ephesians concerning this ethic of altruism, but a few additional words are perhaps of use here, to take up, for example, the ethic that ought to inform Christian celibacy. If celibacy is approached as a kind of Aristotelian egoism -- merely to be noble from an ascetic point of view -- it is hard to see how it jibes with the Gospel value of altruism. Only when the celibate has made this choice so as to be of service to others, free from responsibilities to her spouse so as to serve the church, does it rise to the level of Christian virtue. As Paul counsels in 1 Corinthians 7, this is about having an undivided mind focused on "the affairs of the Lord." It is also a conscious choice not to procreate, but it has often in the Christian tradition been cast as a form of marriage, in which the celibate is married to the Lord -- sometimes explicitly so with a wedding band. And, perhaps it goes without saying, the estate of celibacy was held to be morally superior to that of marriage throughout much of the church's history. This is, in particular, an element of Augustine's world-view that scarcely makes an appearance in today's discussions.

Altruism is also important in how adoption, rather than procreation, figures as a dominant image in the Pauline corpus and the life of Jesus (as Virgin-born and foster-fathered). It could well be observed that a same-sex or infertile couple who adopt children and raise them are making an altruistic ethical choice superior to that of biological parents raising their own children; since in doing so one set of couples is fostering the future possibilities of someone else's genetic heritage, while the biological parents are sheltering their own. Again, as noted above, it is the quality of child-rearing that is ultimately important, and there is no question that good child-care is better than bad, and the insistence that children being raised by their biological parents has either an ideal or real virtue is spurious and unsustainable.

These are just a few of the additional implications to an embrace of an ethic of Gospel Altruism. The Task Force report tried to lay out some of this in relation to marriage, and some still seem unable to grasp how this works. I hope this further explanation helps to clarify.

What about sex?
Brother Thomas also said some very good things about sex in his essay. One thing he notes is that sex is usually pleasurable, or ought to be. We need not buy into an ethic of hedonism, however, since pleasure has its place in the "mutual joy" of marriage. The stress is on "mutual" and this fits in with an altruistic ethic when sex is understood not as the "use" of another (the language of much of the tradition), but as the gift of oneself to another. The greatest pleasure in sexual relations is the giving of pleasure to one's spouse, and as each make this gift to the other, "all their occasions shall dance for joy." Of course, the question of "what sex is for" presumes we know "what sex is." And that itself has changed over time.

One of the problems with sex, as with marriage, is attributing to it a final cause (procreation). In reality, procreation is one of the possible fruits of some sex. A Venn diagram would likely be helpful here and I'm sure you can picture it: the three circles are sex, procreation, and marriage. They do come together at the center -- but there is plenty of territory outside that center including some areas where there is no overlap at all. People can deplore sex outside of marriage, or sex within marriage in which procreation is avoided, but sex is still sex, and its ideal purpose or final cause may be different in different minds. So the Natural Law view that there is an intrinsic necessity that sex be open to procreation does not jibe with reality.

A little natural history is probably in order. There was a time when people didn't know that sex was connected with reproduction. The earliest humans likely just thought that most women naturally gave birth at a point in their lives. That was very long ago. Even Adam, still in the Garden, called Eve the mother of all living, and they had to wait to leave the garden and take up agriculture before they put two together to make up one. It was likely agriculture and animal husbandry that brought about the next great observation, connecting sex with procreation. But the theory that explained the process involved attributing the main responsibility for procreation to the male, who planted his seed in the fertile soil of the woman, where it would grow and develop. (Of course, they didn't know that seeds are actually embryos, and the real male contribution is pollen, but theories are theories and reality is reality.) What, under this theory, did the woman provide? Well, the wise observers saw that the flow of menstrual blood stopped with pregnancy, so it must be the blood that was used to construct the growing embryo. This was the dominant thinking in most human cultures for millennia, even up to the invention of the microscope, when the first to look at sperm thought they saw little cows and horses in the respective samples.

This "spermist" view was, to a large extent, the reasoning behind much of the opposition to things that might either confuse or waste the "seed." Polyandry, male homosexuality, sex beyond the time of a woman's fertility, and a man's "use" of other than the "natural" even with his wife came to be seen as wrong. (For the latter, see Augustine, Good of Marriage 12.) Sex was, for most of human history, something men did, mostly to women, sometimes to other men (Leviticus can't conceive of sex in any other way, so it condemns men treating other men like women.).

But as with Ptolemy and Copernicus, we now know that this isn't how sex works. I doubt that many today would support Augustine's doctrine on the mechanism of transmission of original sin (if they even know of his peculiar speculations about sex in Eden, and the willful membrum virile). Moreover, many Christians (even members of church bodies that teach otherwise) no longer hold that sex within marriage without the purpose of procreation is wrong, whether grave or venial. (The view that sex must have procreation as an intended end, and should cease at a certain age, was looked at as "one of those great things they did in the old days" even by Augustine, who admired the asceticism of his forebears; though even he saw that intimacy with one's wife "beyond the necessity of begetting is pardonable" [ibid.] though as with all sex in the postlapsarian world, marred with concupiscence.)

So a principle rationale for the condemnation of male same-sexuality in the tradition is based on a false premise, and a standard to which most no longer hold themselves.

Closing thoughts
Where does this leave us? I sense that the academic debates hosted by the blogs and the Anglican Theological Review and The Living Chuch are not likely going to convince anyone who has contributed to them, probably few that read them. There may, however, be some play among the deputies and bishops who will be gathering in Utah in just under a week. But I don't think it will be the essays or debates that change their minds, if they change. It will be the human face of love.

The claim has been that we must "do the theology" in order to make any changes in our discipline -- and whether you like it or not, the theology has been done, on both sides. I'm grateful for Brother Thomas' essay on the Emperor's New Theological Clothes for pointing out the obvious historical truth that the church does not "do the theology" before acting. Normally it is quite the opposite. After all, the church was content not to have a spelled-out theology of the Trinity for over two centuries, and a (literally) fleshed-out theology of the Eucharist had to wait almost a millennium, and even then the debates continued with sharp differences of opinion.

This is not to say that theological work should not continue, as it is important work. But it is after-the-fact work, work of explanation and understanding, not of action. And, it is hoped, the theological reflection is both rigorous and accountable to the actual evidence of reality, rather than spinning off into idealism. It is up to the church to decide between the world of scholastic categories and the ethics of the gospel. It will be in the lives of married couples -- mixed- and same-sex, that we will see the virtues Jesus valued; or not at all. One of the fruits of this debate is that many have come to grasp more about marriage from their experience of same-sex couples than they ever understood before. This may be how such couples best serve the church. To those who are aghast at such an assertion, I simply point out that it would not be the first time that the stone rejected by the builders proved to be just what was needed to hold the building up.

In the meantime the issues surrounding marriage may really be so simple a child can understand. For instance, here is a dialogue between a father and his five-year old child:

Child: Daddy, why do people get married?
Father: So that they can have children.
Child: But Uncle Jim and Aunt Barbara are married, and they don't have any children.
Father: Well, they love each other very much.
Child: Oh, that's o.k. then.

Is it really as simple as that? This is a dialogue I think St Augustine would have recognized and agreed with; even Aquinas in his better moments would have nodded and smiled. More importantly, so, I think, would Jesus. I would hope such a dialogue would find as friendly response in the episcopal palace and the academy -- for if it does not, I think those who inhabit those cloistered spaces may have missed the point entirely. I pray the point strikes home in Salt Lake City.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Peggy Blanchard + said...

Thank you for this elucidation, Tobias, it has been very helpful to me. It's been a long time since ethics and theology in seminary, but I was happy to be reminded of the various viewpoints. I must say, though, that what I appreciate most of all is your final example, in an adult/child dialogue. Unless all of us can remember (no matter how well-educated we are) that we are as children before God, and need to return to humility again and again in every theological discussion, we are in danger every time of presumptuous sin. After all, Divine Grace is God's final word, flowing from Divine Love. I hope those at GC will be constant in seeking that grace and in sharing God's love.

Rev. Peggy Blanchard
Harriman TN

Harry said...

But for a few of us Ptolmey's system is more beautiful than Copernicus's. The proposal of the eccentric is so devastatingly passionate that it moves me more than the elegance of Copernican simplicity. I actually wept on occasion when first working through Ptolmey, certainly at having to process everything in sexigesimal but more importantly to see Ptolmey's cosmos as one that simply teems with circles, both real and imaginary. It is where it fails that it is breathtaking.

I do wish that everyone could be instructed in Aristotle's "causes." It is quite instructive to explain them to almost anyone. It is rare that you won't see a light snap on as they realize there are different and concurrent causes and that we think as gladiators and not as philosophers.

As to procreation as a grace, isn't it rather like a manger suddenly being a place for the savior of the world to be born?