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.