Two-Dimensional Marriage

Michael Metzger

You don’t need a crystal ball to know where the same-sex marriage debate is heading. A simple understanding how GPS operates would however be beneficial. It would indicate marriage is becoming two-dimensional.

In late June the U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule on the same-sex marriage case argued two weeks ago. Regardless of how the justices decide the Defense of Marriage Act, attitudes are clearly shifting. As David Brooks recently wrote, “In 3,000 years of Western civilization, no major culture has shifted this fast to give gays and lesbians equality, as the U.S. and Europe have recently. It’s astounding.”1

It’s astounding because we live in an “unprecedented” age according to Philip Rieff.2 In every culture in the past, a sacred canopy more or less ordered the society’s social behaviors. I say more or less because, in reality, there are four contributors to shaping cultures. They include the sacred canopy, the resulting social mores, the state enforcing those mores, and the rights of the individual. Rieff believed our modern, or “third” culture, operated without a sacred canopy. That’s unprecedented.

Rieff arranged history under three different cultures. In the “first culture,” the canopy is fate. It includes the earliest pagan religions to “the complex rational world of ancient Athens to the enchanted mysticisms of aboriginal Australia.” In the second culture, the canopy is faith. It includes the great monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The third culture, prevalent in the West, is unprecedented. The canopy is considered a fiction. Fiction might make for fine reading, but most folks don’t see it as having a place in shaping public policy. That’s what we see happening in the marriage debate.

Advocates for same-sex marriage are not opposed to male-female marriage. Rather, they’re arguing for equal protections under the law, appealing to social mores, the state, and individual rights. Attorneys defending the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act took the same tack, forgoing any appeal to a sacred canopy. It’s telling that Justice Kennedy found their line of reasoning unconvincing, lacking any sort of “rational basis.”

This is exactly what Rieff predicted. Third cultures are committed to the leveling of all authority. Marriage can no longer be defined by including the “vertical,” such as “The Bible says.” Christians can claim to enjoy a “personal relationship with God,” but outside the four walls of their church and home, their faith is considered a fiction, a personal preference. There is in actuality no sacred canopy. The result is the U.S. and Europe operate in third cultures defined horizontally by individual preferences and, as Rieff predicted, “endlessly contestable and infinitely changeable rules.”

This makes for a mess. In his 1882 work, “The Parable of the Madman,” Friedrich Nietzsche writes of the madman announcing the death of God. He warns of a coming culture where we don’t know which way is up: “Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward in all directions, is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?”

This is like driving without directions. Third cultures operate without GPS. GPS is a tracking system that requires four coordinates, or four satellite signals. It’s simple physics that four fixed points, or coordinates, are necessary to see objects in three dimensions – height, breadth, and depth. That’s why GPS can provide car drivers and airplane pilots with reliable directions. Four coordinates. First and second cultures operate this way, with four coordinates – a sacred canopy, social mores, the state, and the individual. They provide a picture of marriage in three dimensions – its height, breadth, and depth. Third cultures cannot do this.

Third cultures flatten the image of marriage. Lacking a sacred canopy, they operate by only three coordinates. It’s simple physics that three fixed points, or coordinates, can only see objects in two dimensions. The institution of marriage in the U.S. and Europe is being reduced to a two-dimensional relationship – a privatized matter of social mores, state jurisdiction, and individual preference.

Rieff coined a word for third cultures – “deathwork.” This resonates with the Christian faith, as the Bible presents permanent, monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the most poignant picture of the gospel. The gospel is a matter of life and death. Two-dimensional marriage is the death of this crucial metaphor. That’s a significant loss, for, as C. S. Lewis rightly noted, “All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor.”3 With the dramatic rise of the “nones” – now more than 20 percent of the U.S. population – it is apparent that the Western church is not only not winning the marriage debate; it’s also not winning as many Americans to Christ as it once did.4

Rieff felt this is a war that, at present, cannot be won. “But it can be lost.”5 He wrote My Life Among the Deathworks in 2006 “in order to stop the losing streak.” So far, not so good. There are however steps that the faith community can take to restore the institution of marriage as it was historically understood. That’s grist for another mill. Or another column. Next week.

_______________________
1 David Brooks, “Marriage Security and Insecurities,” the New York Times, March 28, 2013.
2 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 7.
3 C. S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” The Importance of Language. ed. Max Black (Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), p. 50.
4 Michael Gerson, “An America that is losing faith with religion,” Washington Post, March 25, 2013.
5 Rieff, Deathworks, p. 20.

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13 Comments

  1. one of the best descriptions of our culture
    it scares me to see what the future will look like. We need to pray that the church will once
    again become vibrant demonstration of Gods
    wisdom.

  2. I was recently reading in the book of Jonah and it suddenly occurred to me that my mourning over the changing definition of marriage in the U.S. was not unlike Jonah mourning the loss of his gourd. I had nothing to do with the culture that I have become accustom to living in, but I was angry that I am observing its destruction. My heart was challenged to engage culture and to be burdened for those who do not know God. My heart is being challenged to not only pray for redemption but restoration.

    Same sex marriage is far from the only changing definition of marriage. I meet people every day who don’t view marriage in the way it was “historically understood.” Even among the evangelical community, marriages increasingly are but a temporary state that one can fall in and out of during our life on earth.

    I’m looking forward to next week and your thoughts on restoring the institution of marriage.

  3. An excellent analysis of context. Though techniquely by definition 2 dimensions only requires 2 measurements to position. The introduction of time/eternity would add a 3rd.
    Interesting concept to know how we would measure the dimension of our relationship to the Lord.
    From a position of light we struggle against those that deceptively feel they are free to choose their own authority.

  4. A classic piece. Further work should be done not on the implications of the deathwork culture on the “same-sex marriage” debate, but how these same factors are influencing “heterosexual” attitudes towards marriage. This culture cut both ways. We focus on the 2-3% problem, when the crisis is in the 97-98% of the society. What does it take to maintain a thriving marriage in the context of a deathwork culture? One can begin to see the corrupting implications in Shereen El Feki’s new book, “Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World,” which is reviewed today in The New York Times.

  5. Christ’s example of His love to man was He went to prepare a place for His bride, bride being defined as those who receive Him into their heart and follow his teaching. Same sex marriage was set into motion by a crafty series of political maneuvers. The objective one thing and that is to secure votes by politicians. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the second largest set of voters. Second set being those who back equality not morality. You can look at it from 26,000 feet or two feet or what ever dimension you like but the reality is what was once considered perversion by a majority is now considered coffee table conversation about the new neighbors…

  6. Powerful work Michael. I view this as further evidence that the church has clearly lost in our efforts to be salt and light in our culture. As other posts noted, it does little good to point out the error of homosexual marriage when heterosexual marriage, particularly that of those who claim to be Christian, is in such tatters.

    We are now clearly Christians in Babylon. Jeremiah’s word in chapter 29 are really resonating with me and what I am teaching my church. We must find a way to maintain a faithful presence in this time without moving into our own little Christian ghetto, but yet not giving up our tenacious grasp on the Biblical principles that Jesus taught.

  7. Good word, Carl. Max de Pree said the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. I agree with your assessment of reality – the church is in exile.

    Believer who share this assessment recognize that a whole panoply of paradigm shifts follow, including what we measure to assess whether the church is flourishing. As you know, it’s found in an exilic verse – Jeremiah 29:7: as the Babylonians flourish, so shall you. Until the church in exile figures out a way to make male-female fashionable to those in the wider world – not just the church – it cannot flourish.

  8. Right…marriage has become secularized. Are we surprised? We shouldn’t be. I base my perspective on Ronald Rolheiser’s in his latest column (April 7th). Permit to summarize: secularization is birthed from the Judeo-Christian perspective. Rene Descartes, the principles of the Enlightenment, the French, Scottish and American revolutions,the separation of church and state, and the idea that we organize our society on the basis of rational consensus rather than on divine authority were spawned/gestated inside the womb of these two great religious traditions. Rolheiser concludes, “Secularity then is more our child than our enemy.” I for one have seen a Christian community reluctant to provide living wages to those who work within its structures, lacking long term loyalty and care for its employees in the form of pension and medical plans–two things the secular world saw fit to provide. When it comes to marriage–same sex or otherwise, let us see it as a union between two persons who vow faithful love to one another for as long as they are physically alive. Let us side on the side of human rights and not on the side of tribal faith statements made centuries earlier by a limited and biased group.

  9. Right…marriage has become secularized. Are we surprised? We shouldn’t be. Secularism is a child of the Judeo-Christian perspective. Rene Descartes, the principles of the Enlightenment, the French, Scottish and American revolutions, the separation of church and state, and the idea that we organize our society on the basis of rational consensus rather than on divine authority were all spawned/gestated inside the womb of these two great religious traditions.(Based on Ronald Rolheiser’s column April 7th, 2013)I for one have seen and experienced a Christian community reluctant to provide living wages to those who work within its structures, lacking long term loyalty and care for its employees in the form of pension and medical plans–two things the secular world saw fit to provide those in their employ. When it comes to marriage–same sex or otherwise, let us be on the side of human rights and not on the side of tribal faith statements made centuries earlier by a limited and biased group.let us see it as a union between two persons who vow faithful love to one another for as long as they are physically alive–same sex persons are just as capable of such a commitment as are those who are heterosexual.

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