Sand castles look impressive – until the tide comes in. The tide is currently turning toward same-sex marriage. Traditional marriage is collapsing. Does this indicate that advocates for traditional marriage have built a sand castle?
It’s likely that the Supreme Court will rule on the same-sex marriage case this summer. Regardless of how the justices decide the Defense of Marriage Act, the tide is turning toward accepting same-sex marriage. Male-female marriage is being swept away. But this isn’t the end of the world. There’s a lesson to be learned. It has to do with sand castles.
Jesus once told a story about a foolish man. He listened to Jesus but doesn’t do what Christ did (Mt. 7:26). That man built a sand castle. Now consider one of the many things Christ did. He spoke in parables. He probably expected his followers to follow suit – to do this. The early church did. It communicated in pictures. But over time, language began to trump metaphor – argument over imagination.
The shift toward language began with the Greeks and was resurrected with Islam. The story starts with the vandals who sacked Rome, destroying much of the writings of the West, including those of the Greeks. The Greeks believed truth was “something proved by argument,” not metaphor.1 A few centuries later, Islamic scholars reintroduced Greek thought to the West.2 The importance of metaphor was forgotten.
By the time of the Reformation, metaphor was feared as well as forgotten. Iain McGilchrist writes that Reformation involved a shift away from the capacity to understand metaphor towards a literalistic way of thinking – a move away from imagination, now seen as treacherous, and towards rationalism. Rationalism ignores Jonathan Swift’s wisdom: you cannot reason someone out of a position they never reasoned their way into.
The Enlightenment exacerbated this trend – or more correctly, Enlightenments. Four differentiated Enlightenments hit America’s shores – the Moderate (1688-1787), Skeptical (1750-1789), Revolutionary (1776-1800), and Didactic (1800-1815).3 The first, the Moderate Enlightenment, provided many benefits, including the Scientific Method. The Skeptical and Revolutionary were short-lived and hardly influenced America. The final Enlightenment – the Didactic – was more consequential and detrimental.
The Didactic Enlightenment came from the Scottish “Commonsense” school. It’s highly rationalistic. Teachers teach. Pupils sit and take notes. The assumption is think right, act right. According to Henry May, this Enlightenment was marked by “second and third-rate thinkers” who put forward a version of epistemology and human nature that was easily incorporated into the burgeoning 1800s evangelical movement in America. The sermon replaced the sacraments as the centerpiece of the worship service. In time, the church came to “a kind of comfortable cohabitation” with this Enlightenment.4
It’s a costly cohabitation. Didactic Enlightenment clergy began presenting marriage as a series of facts, “principles,” and “concepts.” But people don’t live by concepts. The reality of marriage as a picture or metaphor for the gospel became an abstraction. People can’t live by abstractions. This might be why divorce rates in the American faith community are similar to those communities outside the faith.
The Western church has forgotten that facts are like grains of sand. Metaphor is the mortar holding facts together. People require both for something to be meaningful. The gay community gets this. Advocates for same-sex marriage operate in metaphors. In After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s, gay leaders tell us they assume that, “without reference to facts, logic or proof…. the person’s beliefs can be altered whether he is conscious of the attack or not.”5
For the faith community’s understanding of male-female marriage to be taken seriously, much work will have to be done. First, it would help if there were a larger percentage of outstanding marriages in the faith community. Second, it would be beneficial if more spokespeople in the faith community learned to communicate in pictures. There are indications of a growing number of believers learning about the power of metaphor. That’s good. But most appear to be merely doubling down on the Didactic bet. They teach others about metaphor. But they don’t speak in metaphor. Big difference.
Learning to communicate in metaphor requires coaches and crap detectors. Metaphorical thinking is mainly a function of the brain’s right hemisphere. By the age of 20, most of your neural pathways are set in place. If you are older than 20 and came to faith in a typical Western church, you’re operating mostly out of your left hemisphere. Hacking out new pathways in your right hemisphere will require re-scripting how you talk, crap detectors telling you when you unconsciously opt for the left, and lots of practice. Until that happens, you’ll talk about metaphor but will hardly talk in metaphor.
Re-learning how to talk sometimes calls for not talking – for a season. This is James Davison Hunter’s advice. In his book, To Change The World, Hunter notes how the church has turned to politics to try to be taken seriously. Politics has a rightful place, but the church has naively become politicized. Hunter suggests that the church and its leadership should “remain silent for a season.” That makes sense. Traditional marriage is being swiftly swept away. It appears we’ve built a sand castle. Better to start over. That might mean remaining silent for a season and learning to communicate in metaphor.
1 c.f., Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
2 c.f., Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995)
3 Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).
4 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 33.
5 Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s (New York: Plume, 1990), pp. 152-153.