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Who gets to define marriage?

(In response to Preston Yancey’s post, here.) ETA: Preston Yancey edited his post to point out he did not intend to communicate a conflation between legal and religious marriage. 

For most religious people, marriage happens on three levels: legal, religious and metaphysical. Let’s take a look at these three and sort through the implications of the distinctions.


The simplest distinction here is the legal marriage. People of any religion or race can enter a legal marriage. It requires applying at a courthouse, and signing a contract. The contract of a legal marriage, and the laws surrounding it, establish ownership, next of kin, and tax filing status. These items are all the domain of the state, and thus the state provides this legal marriage contract.


Most people are familiar with religious marriage. In Christianity, marriage is viewed as sacred; it is an analogy for the relationship between the church and Christ, and for the relationships within the trinity. It is a covenant and, in some denominations, a sacrament. These items are all the domain of the church, and thus the church forms this covenant between two people.


There is yet a third distinction, that is very much related to the religious marriage. It is however more basic, and more inexorable. Jesus points out the metaphysical relationship between a married couple in the Sermon on the Mount. He says:

“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

—Mt 5:31-32, ESV

The first part of this quote, Jesus is referencing the religious precedent as well as acknowledging the legal aspect of marriage. He indicates that the religious practice was to dissolve marriage through legal means. He then goes on to state that even if this divorce went through, the couple would still, in reality, be married. The permanency of marriage is inexorable no matter what the state or the religious institution have to say about it. Otherwise, how could marriage to a divorced person be adultery? It could not.

So what?

Preston Yancey states in his blog (and correctly so) that matters of the church are strictly not in the domain of the state. Therefore, he continues, the state should have no right to define marriage, much less redefine it.

The problem here is that legal and religious marriage have been conflated. The state cannot (and should never attempt) to define the sacred covenant of marriage. But ONLY the state can define the terms of the contract determining property rights, next of kin, and tax status. This is reciprocally outside the domain of the church.

And what about metaphysical marriage? There is nothing we can do to change it. Only God could alter the reality of marriage. If the state defines legal marriage to include two men or two women, not only does this not require the church to change its definition (whatever it may be for a given denomination) but it cannot even come close to having any effect on whether or not the legal marriage exists metaphysically.*

*Denominations disagree on the definition of marriage because they disagree about the metaphysics. Philosophically, it is possible that every single church has an incorrect understanding of the metaphysics, and yet the metaphysics are still unaffected. I strongly suspect this may well be the case.



Humans and Respect

One of the commenters on my last post helped me to see a major shortcoming in what I said previously regarding the level of discourse surrounding controversial and important issues, specifically regarding marriage equality for LGBT individuals. I want to be very clear about what I mean when it comes to respecting those who oppose marriage equality.

When we respect another human, we do not engage in ridiculing or belittling them. We do no name call. We do not tell them to go f**k themselves. We do not say they are inhuman.

But respect does not require that we allow them to continue without confronting them. I do not think we should simply agree to disagree, and move on with our own lives with our own point of view. “Well you have your opinion and I have mine, and that’s ok,” manages to avoid conflict, but that is not my goal. It may appear to be kind and respectful, but it is not: it is silence and mindlessness.

I have no intention of staying silent on the matter of marriage equality: denying civil rights on religious grounds comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of the US government at best. We live in a society where calling LGBT individuals devious, evil and threatening to society (to use the most diplomatic examples) is perfectly acceptable. Many in the church believe there is hope for these individuals to have their sin forgiven and their orientation changed, but simply do not understand how such treatments are at best ineffective, and often damaging. (Partially due to the fact that Exodus does not accept that being  gay is an identity, but rather an activity, lifestyle or struggle; thus their idea of being ex-gay does not have anything to do with changed identity. They admit they can change behaviors, but 99.9 percent of their ‘students’ do not experience orientation change.)

I do not want to encourage anyone to put down arms and walk away from controversy. The issue is far too pressing to abandon.

I want to stand up for equality, respect and the sacredness of being human: I cannot simply argue that these are upheld legally through marriage equality, but my actions and speech must also reflect and uphold these ideals.

Many of you may disagree with this approach. I hope I have presented my argument well and that it merits consideration. Of course I speak from a place of privilege on the matter. If you are interested in the matter and want to hear the opinion of someone who does not have the same privilege as I do, I highly encourage you to read this post from Justin Lee, head of the Gay Christian Network.

Ultimately, we must all follow our consciences.


Good News: You’re Going to Hell

Belief is not a cognitive activity. Going back to the problem of the a priori we find the basis of belief: it is fundamentally a pre-cognitive process. All metaphysical beliefs that defy falsifiability or verifiability not only cannot be argued about for the very same reason, but they also create the premises on which the rest of discussion is based.

This is what Christian apologetics fails to acknowledge.

Christians find themselves evangelizing to people whose premises are fundamentally different and cannot be argued. When someone believes a priori that there is no hell, no God, no sin not only are they within the same cognitive territory and acting with the same intellectual responsibility as those who believe a priori that there is a hell, a God and sin, their a priori’s cannot be argued away with a system of logic based on wholly different premises.

The church has tended to respond by attempting to first change the premises of the non-believer through argument and through the Bible. In order to spread the good news, the church finds it must first spread the bad news: you ARE a sinner, hell DOES exists and God WILL send you there.

When the church attempts to present the gospel by presenting these premises to the nonbeliever, they have already failed in the task of evangelism: Evangelism is fundamentally being the messenger of good news.

Take for example:

If you called me up to tell me my sister is alive and well, I would say “Did something bad happen? What’s wrong? Is everything OK?” In essence, you have brought me bad news.

If, however, I knew my sister to be alive and well, and I had just spoken with her, and my experience confirmed my belief, your news would be met with a simple “OK…?” Presume you did not find my response satisfying, and thus you proceeded to inform me that my sister was terribly ill or had been in an accident. I would still know my sister to be well and find your insistence that she was not to be cruel and manipulative, even if you followed it by declaring the good news that she is alive and well.

If, instead, I knew my sister to have been in a car accident, and I hadn’t heard anything, your news would bring great rejoicing.

The same news has a very different effect on the hearer, and can be good or bad depending on what their previous knowledge is.

Much of evangelism falls in the second category, though some falls into the first. In both cases the attempt disqualifies itself as evangelism. When the church claims it is evangelizing, it is not.

Do you think evangelism is fundamentally a failure of the church? Or do you think the practice has merit?

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Miracles and Science

I recently had the privilege of attending a lecture by Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga is known for reviving the presence of religion in philosophy, largely by countering prevailing attitudes that belief in God is not intellectually, philosophically or rationally plausible.

I learned about Plantigna as a college student studying philosophy of religion, so when I heard he would be lecturing in my town, I was extremely excited to engage with one of today’s leading thinkers. The lecture I attended focused on whether or not miracles, such as those recorded in the Bible, are necessarily and inherently untenable given the extent of current scientific knowledge.

Here is my summary of his argument:

Even in modern science (Newtonian) the world is not inherently or necessarily a causally closed system. Even Newton himself did not believe the system was causally closed. This means that something outside of the universe could act causally inside the universe.

We live, however, in a post-Newtonian world of relativity and quantum mechanics. The causal chains linking events are not as determined as we once thought. Everything is probabilistic. There is a probability that my computer could turn into a lamp. Or all the items in the room could bundle up into one small corner. The probability of any of these events is excruciatingly, mind-bogglingly small, yet the possibility exists. It is not impossible. It is not incompatible with science. There is nothing inherent within science that eliminates the possibility that if there is a God, that God could control these improbabilities.

The goal of Plantinga’s lecture was to dispel the myth that science and miracles are incompatible. His inclusion of post-Newtonian physics in his evaluation offers a much more satisfying clarification than C.S. Lewis’, though his treatment is a stimulating read.

Having recently finished Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I immediately thought of the improbability drive on the Heart of Gold. A fictional example, but great for analogy. God is able to participate causally in the universe such that quantumly improbable events occur according to his will.

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Beauty and Order

The woods are not beautiful because of the way they make us feel. Nor the sunset, nor the stars.

They are beautiful, in part, because of the mystery that perfect science has created them. There has been no artifice, no test tubes; only the purest workings of molecules subjected to their circumstances over time have created in this order these items.

The Romantic prefers to ignore reason, referring to rationality as an inhibition, something binding us and blindfolding the eyes of our souls. But this is not so. Reason is the eyes of our souls. Order, meaning, logic, structure, science, objectivity are what make beauty beautiful. A sentence without meaning can hold no beauty: a grammarless concatenation of letters/words could not create a poem, a novel, a classic. It could not change the world. It is grammar that makes the sentence, science—the grammar of the world—that makes ordered organisms grow according to some written standard, according to its law, that makes the tree beautiful.

Order is the alchemist.

So when we purvey the beauty thus created, we cannot then shirk order as an inhibition. We cannot imagine that beauty frees us from order. How can something so necessary for beauty be the very thing that beauty disallows? It cannot.

Even an abstract painting is the beauty of order. Take Jackson Pollock. It is our eyes that refuse to be dizzied and confused by his paintings that subsume the whole into a unit that causes the painting to be beautiful. And more so its place in the history of art, its grammatical response, its logical rebuttal to what preceded it, adds to its value.

It is not when our so-called inhibitions are eliminated that we discover the truest beauty. It is when the overwhelming power of order in the universe is reunited with semantics, with life, and with human creatures capable of beholding that power, when beauty is at its height. Beauty is the reunion of the disparate realms.


Beauty and the Existence of God

Arguments for the existence of God are abundant and largely inconclusive. Their coherence is encouraging to theists, but their apologetic value is limited. In my post the problem of the a priori I discussed what I see as the futility of philosophy, and many of the arguments for the existence of God (or the nonexistence, for that matter) are subject to this same futility.

This is not, I believe, reason for despair.

When I think of my own belief in the existence of God, I am not overwhelmed with my inability to prove it. On the contrary, all my efforts to shirk my belief in God have failed due to an inability on my part not to believe in God.

My inability has struck me as strange on several occasions. But during recent reading about the nature of art, I was struck by an analogy that gave me some clarity.

I believe that beauty exists. I cannot prove it. There are no arguments for its existence that indicate that belief in it is rational, necessary, practical or moral. And yet I believe that beauty exists. When I see it, I cannot deny it. I recognize it in art, in nature, in people, and though I cannot prove it I continue to seek it, to long for it, to devote my energies toward it.

My belief in the existence of God is the same. I am not worried by my inability to prove He exists. But when I see Him, I recognize it (though far less often than I could). At times I long for him, to seek him and devote my energies toward him. And when I hear arguments against the existence of God, it is like hearing arguments against the existence of beauty; How could any logic outweigh my experience of beauty?

So why doesn’t everyone see God where I do? I don’t know. And belief in God necessitates nothing about his relationship to humans, nor his character or nature.

Can we prove the existence of beauty? Is non-rational belief in beauty a hindrance to rationality?

Let me know what you think.


The Problem of the a priori

Two major schools of thought over the last century serve to reveal the futility of philosophy. Logical Positivism and Subjectivism are both highly problematic (sure, in practice but most importantly) foundationally.

Logical Positivism relies on empiricism, positing that in order for a belief to be meaningful it must be empirically verifiable or falsifiable. Ultimately, however, this philosophical tenet evaluates itself as a non-meaningful belief. The necessity of empirical validation cannot itself be validated, and so adherence to the belief is fundamentally a priori.  This a priori foundation is unnerving to the logical positivist, but seems to be unavoidable.

Subjectivism falls into the same trap. Simply put, subjectivism holds that there are absolutely no absolute truths. It is clear, however, that subjectivism is truly based on the belief that there is only one absolute truth; the absence of absolute truth. This system too cannot prove itself; it is based on the a priori acceptance of itself.

Given these examples, dependence on the a priori seems to be inevitable. It is in fact exasperating to attempt avoiding this dependence on an unprovable tenet, and yet is there any belief system that does not do so? And how can we be comforted knowing our beliefs are ultimately non-rational?

Let me know what you think: