Book Review: What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense

Introduction

In this review I summarize and engage What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (hereafter, WIM) by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.[1] Here are a few general comments before I present a more focused discussion below. First, I found the book immensely helpful as a logical argument in service of an apologetic for the traditional view of marriage (hereafter, TVM), even though it was tough reading at times simply because of the design of the work as a legal brief. The challenge was not that the book is unnavigable due to a lack of clarity or poor writing quality, but that I had to stretch my mind to think in the closely argued and sometimes tedious manner of legal parlance, though I did find the stretch quite enjoyable once I adjusted my expectations. Further, I had to remind myself (and a classmate!) that this book was not intended to provide a biblical or theological argument in favor of TVM, at least not explicitly, though the authors certainly provide implicit arguments for the value of general revelation and natural theology, which are both part of the Christian message. So, the apologetic benefit was primarily the role it serves in bolstering the traditional view of marriage through philosophical argumentation without appeals to special revelation. The book is nothing short of impressive simply as an example of the giftedness of the authors, especially Girgis, whose work on the book and in other contexts related to the TVM discussion reminds me that apologists come from varied backgrounds and sometimes appear in cultural and intellectual contexts that some in the church are tempted to conclude are territories long ago lost to the enemy. I have in mind here Girgis’ academic circumstances at Yale and Princeton, neither one a bastion of Christian orthodoxy or cultural conservatism, and yet, there he is defending the TVM.

Summary and Engagement

The authors begin by stating that, “What we have come to call the gay marriage debate is not directly about homosexuality, but about marriage. It is not about whom to let marry, but about what marriage is.”[2] Given the timing of the book’s release (pre-2015 and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States), I find something poignant about these words, especially since most of my experience as a pastor regarding the TVM debate has centered more on homosexuality and less on marriage. Only now have I and other Christian leaders realized we may have had our guns trained on the wrong target, missing the opportunity to focus on marriage and make a positive apologetic argument about it because it was too easy to pick-off the low-hanging fruit of homosexuality through a negative apologetic engagement with the more extreme advocates of same-sex relationships. It appears the enemy’s diversion was somewhat successful, especially as the Christian army now scrambles to reorient itself to the new realities it faces amid its waning influence on Western culture. Not that I have lost hope, but the task before us is daunting and fraught with difficulty, which makes WIM’s insight about the need to focus on the nature of marriage all the more pertinent.

            Thus, to help focus the discussion on marriage, the authors distinguish between two views of marriage: the conjugal view and the revisionist view. The conjugal view “is a vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished thus by its comprehensiveness, which is, like all love, effusive: flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity.”[3] The revisionist view offers “a vision of marriage as, in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it.”[4]

            There are at least two striking differences between these views. First, the revisionist approach to marriage—though sharing with the conjugal view an emphasis on the place of a loving bond within marriage—reduces to something that is ultimately subjective and impermanent, based on an emotional fulfillment that is sometimes ephemeral and at least given to wax and wane according to the challenges faced by the couple. Second, whereas the conjugal view implicitly entails a heterosexual understanding of marriage based on its emphasis on bodily union and family sharing, the revisionist view does not require any specific expression of human sexuality since the focus of the marriage becomes emotional fulfillment and nothing specifically procreative.

            These differences in understanding what marriage is provide the opening that advocates of same-sex relationships took advantage of in making their case for gay marriage by reducing the discussion to something that is both real and helpful for a relationship, i.e., the emotional bond, and around which a rallying cry was easy to develop: Who are you to tell me who I can and cannot love? The approach worked and an entire cultural norm has been changed, making sexuality and gender fluid constructs of little consequence in the rush to defend the value of emotional bonds as the locus of the marriage definition. As the authors of WIM labor to make clear, the problem is that the revisionist view introduces an intractable instability into its new definition of marriage. When emotional fulfillment becomes the determiner of permanence there is nothing permanent about marriage—feelings change, and relationships begin and end accordingly.

            The outcome, and one that becomes more obvious as the societal implications of the revisionist view work their way into everyday life, is that “any remaining restrictions on marriage [become] arbitrary” and “genuine marital union” is lost along with the culture dependent upon it.[5] At this intersection of culture and the revisionist view of marriage there are a number of pernicious implications, and this is where I find what I think is one of the most compelling aspects of WIM’s argument. The authors identify several outcomes from the revisionist view of marriage: spousal well-being declines; child well-being declines; the possibility diminishes for substantive friendships between those of the same gender; religious liberty is infringed for those holding the conjugal view of marriage; and the state’s role expands to intrusive levels.[6]

            There is a sense of clarity and foreboding that build as the authors make their case across the seven chapters of WIM: clarity regarding exactly what marriage is and what the revisionist view entails, and foreboding regarding the seeds of destruction sown by the revisionist redefinition of marriage adopted by the Supreme Court in the years following the publication of WIM. The authors make a penetrating and prescient statement in their concluding chapter, explaining that “there is no neutral marriage policy.”[7] Nor is there anything neutral about the conjugal and revisionist views of marriage, and this is the point of WIM—marriage is not some inconsequential ad hoc societal construct that one may take or leave based on preferences. “Almost every culture in every time and place has had some institution that resembles what we know as marriage…. Marriage understood as the conjugal union of husband and wife really serves the good of children, the good of spouses, and the common good of society.”[8]

Relevance for Apologetics

At this point I would like to highlight that the Christian apologist can learn a few valuable lessons about apologetics from WIM’s approach. First, regarding apologetic methodology, what WIM’s authors provide is a cumulative case approach to the discussion of same-sex marriage. Notice how their case builds based on clear definitions, well-thought out implications, and appeals derived from the positive and negative conclusions warranted by the discussion. Rather than a merely deductive approach, there is a certain appeal in the abductive build-out of the argument for the conjugal view of marriage; a certain let-this-sink-in-for-a-moment momentum that has a potentially powerful epistemic effect on all sides of the discussion. Christians concerned about this topic would do well to follow this pattern, especially in our increasingly affect-driven, truth-claim-suspicious culture.

            Second, by delineating the negative effects resulting from the revisionist view, the authors of WIM heed the biblical command to “answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:5) as they expose the unavoidable outcome of redefining marriage according to emotional fulfillment.[9] This aspect of the argument pairs nicely with WIM’s positive articulation of the conjugal view and its definition of marriage as “a comprehensive union of persons.”[10] In this regard the authors of WIM also obey the Bible’s command “do not answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4), as they make their strong case for the conjugal view. Thus, there is a certain apologetic flow to the presentation in WIM, moving from challenging the revisionist view by articulating the conjugal view, and then teasing out the implication of the revisionist view for individuals and culture.

             Third, and this is more of an ecclesial and less apologetic observation, as Girgis explains in a presentation to church leaders about the topic of same-sex marriage, the church has the answer that the revisionist definition seeks to address.[11] The church is the community in which meaningful emotional bonds can and should be formed, and the church has a special calling to those who think they can only find this type of relationship in same-sex marriage. It is the church that gives special significance to the ultimate and mystical meaning of marriage as an eternal bond between Christ and his bride, and it is within the context of the church that all other relationships have a place that is also ultimate and mystical, though marriage need not be redefined for these relationships to be enjoyed.

Conclusion

Sadly, since the publication of WIM, the revisionist view of marriage has won the day in the United States and the implications are staggering. Ironically, the very ones most concerned to see their welfare affirmed and their relationship freedoms enshrined will only continue to find that they are attempting to fetch water from a dried-up well. Thus, the views of the authors of WIM are as important now as ever, and the conjugal view of marriage can and should be explained, defended, and sought to be restored to the culture so dependent upon it. God, help us.


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T. J. shares a passion for the moral argument(s) and brings much to his new post. He is, in his own words, a “mere Christian with genuine fascination and awe for the breadth and depth of God’s gracious kingdom.” He became a Christian in 1978, and began pastoral ministry in 1984. He has worked as a youth pastor, senior pastor, church planter, church-based seminary professor, a chaplain assistant in the Army, and a chaplain in the Army National Guard. A southern Illinois native, T. J. is a graduate of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a BA in Political Science; Liberty University with an MAR in Church Ministries, an MDiv in Chaplaincy, and a ThM in Theology; Luther Rice College and Seminary with an MA in Apologetics; and Piedmont International University with a DMin in Pastoral Counseling. He is currently writing his dissertation on crisis leadership in the epistle of Jude for the PhD in Leadership at Piedmont, as well as pursuing a PhD in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty, hoping to write his dissertation on some aspect of the intersection of moral apologetics and the pastorate. He is the author of several books, including God Help Us: Encouragement for Evangelism, and Thinking of Worship: A Liturgical Miscellany, as well as journal articles on liturgics, pastoral counseling, homiletics, and apologetics. He and his wife have five children. T. J.’s preaching may be heard at www.sermonaudio.com/fellowshipinchrist.


Notes


[1] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2012), Kindle.

[2] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 70.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 78.

[5] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 162-169.

[6] Ibid., Kindle location 162-193.

[7] Ibid., Kindle location 1369.

[8] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 1411-1419.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982).

[10] Girgis, Anderson, and George, Kindle location 371.

[11] Sherif Girgis, “Better together: Marriage and the Common Good,” Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, podcast audio, August 23, 2016, https://erlc.com/resource-library/erlc-podcast-episodes/better-together-marriage-and-the-common-good.

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, Chapter 10 Obligation, Part III: Social Requirement

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part I: Sanctions and the Semantics of Obligation

Chapter 10, Obligation, Part II: Guilt

The role that our moral discourse marks out for obligation obviously has other features besides its relation to guilt. One of them is that obligations constitute reasons for doing that which one is obliged to do, and reasons for refraining from doing that which it would be wrong to do. One problem about the nature of obligation is to understand how it grounds reasons for actions.

As a nonconsequentialist Adams is skeptical that obligations are always happily attuned to the value of expected results. We think we may be obliged to tell the truth and to keep promises even when we do not expect the consequences to be good, and when we have no idea what the consequences will be. What would motivate us to do such a thing?

Adams, in accord with Rawls (and more recently Evans), argues that the idea the conscientious agent has good enough reason for her action simply in the fact that it’s the right thing to do seems too abstract. If we are to see the fact of having an obligation as itself a reason for action, we need a richer, less abstract understanding of the nature of obligation, in which we might find something to motivate us. According to social theories of the nature of obligation, having an obligation to do something consists in being required (in a certain way, under certain circumstances or conditions), by another person or a group of persons, to do it. So one reason or motive for complying with a social requirement is that we fear punishment or retaliation for noncompliance. What other motives does this account open up?

An alternative suggestion Adams wishes to pursue is that valuing one’s social bonds gives one, under certain conditions, a reason to do what is required of one by one’s associates or one’s community (and thus to fulfill obligations, understood as social requirements). The reason Adams has in mind is not one that arises from a desire to obtain or maintain a relationship, but rather that I value the relationship in which I see myself as actually having, and my complying is an expression of my valuing and respecting the relationship. This is a motivational pattern in which I act primarily out of a valuing of the relationship, rather than with the obtaining or maintaining of the relationship as an end.

A morally valid obligation obviously will not be constituted by just any demand sponsored by a system of social relationships that one in fact values. Some such demands have no moral force, and some social systems are downright evil. A moral conception of obligation must have resources for moral criticism of social systems and their demands. But Adams thinks there’s a premoral conception of obligation in which we can see social facts as constituting obligations independently of our moral evaluation of those facts.

It will be particularly important if we believe (as Adams thinks is plausible) that the actions of commanding, demanding, and requiring can’t be understood or identified apart from their tendency to create obligations. This is to avoid circularity. A premoral conception of obligation, on the other hand, identifies a kind of sociological fact, closely connected with such linguistic (and social) events as commanding, which can be used in explaining the nature of moral facts of obligation. So Adams claims.

There are cases of commands and presumed obligations that aren’t genuinely moral cases of obligation. Yet the people in question have the concepts of command and obligation that serve them effectively in describing their social system and living within it, and that we could use as anthropologists to describe the system. To be sure, we who do have a conception and practice of moral critique of our social systems wish to distinguish such cases as institutional or official cases rather than bona fide cases of obligation and duty, but Adams thinks the fact remains that much of our understanding of social and linguistic systems depends on our grasp of premoral conceptions of obligation.

To say a conception of obligation is premoral is of course not to say that it is totally nonnormative. Most of the persons within the social system in question still need to regard the indicated obligations as providing reasons for compliance. A conception of moral obligation, however, will insist on better reasons for complying. It will impose a certain kind of critique of reasons for complying.

Adams will next try to show that a system of human social requirements can go some distance toward meeting this requirement although, in the end, he believes the moral pressure not to make an idol of any human society pushes us toward a transcendent source of the moral demand. Several aspects of the relational situation are important to the quality of our reasons for complying with social requirements, and are relevant to the possibility of such requirements constituting moral obligation.

  1. Morally good reasons will not arise from just any social bond that one in fact values, but only from one that is rightly valued—that is, from one that is really good. How much reason one has to comply with the demands of other people will depend in no small part on the value of one’s relationship with them. If the relationship is with a community, the individual’s attitude toward the community and her participation in it make a difference to the value of the relationship. But the community’s attitude toward the individual is at least as important. Where community prevails, rather than alienation, the sense of belonging is not to be sharply distinguished from the inclination to comply with the reasonable requirements of the community. A “community” is a group of people who live their lives to some extent—possibly a very limited extent—in common. To see myself as “belonging” to a community is to see the institution or other members of the group as “having something to say about” how I live and act—perhaps not about every department of my life, and only to a reasonable extent about any department of it, but it is part of the terms of the relationship that their demands on certain subjects are expected to have some weight with me. And valuing such a relationship implies some willingness to submit to reasonable demands of the community—as an expression of one’s sense that one does belong and one’s endorsement of the relationship.

  2. Our reasons for complying with demands may also be affected by our evaluation of the personal characteristics of those who make them. Normally we have more reason to comply with the requests and demands of the knowledgeable, wise, or saintly.

  3. How much reason one has to comply with a demand depends not only on the excellence of its source and of the relationship or system of relationships in which the demand arises, but also on how good the demand is. Is the demand good and the sanctions implied in the demand appropriate? It also involves evaluation of the relational history of the demand itself. Does the making of the demand affect the relational situation for the better or for the worse? And what’s the wider social significance of the demand? It is particularly important that the demand, and the social system of which it forms a part, should be good in ways that fall under the heading of fairness.

  4. An objection might be that if we have the values of actions and demands, we don’t need the actual social requirements to explain the nature of moral obligation. But Adams thinks this is mistaken, because it matters that the demand is actually made. It is a question here of what good demands other persons do in fact make of me, not just of what good demands they could make. It’s fashionable in ethical theory to treat moral reasons and moral obligations as depending on judgments about what an ideal community or authority would demand under certain counterfactual conditions. But Adams is skeptical. First, he doubts that the relevant counterfactuals are true, partly because they seem to be about free responses that are never actually made. Secondly, he doesn’t think he cares much about whether these counterfactual conditionals are true because they’re motivationally weak. By contrast, actual demands made on us in relationships that we value are undeniably real and motivationally strong. The actual making of the demand is important, not only to the strength, but also to the character, of the motive. Not every good reason for doing something makes it intelligible that I should feel that I have to do it. Having even the best reasons to do something doesn’t amount to having an obligation to do it. But the perception that something is demanded of me by other people, in a relationship that I value, does help to make it intelligible that I should feel that I have to do it.

Social requirement theory can explain the connection with guilt, which is a main ground of obligation, and the reason-giving force of obligations—big advantages of the theory . Another test it passes pertains to its answers to what in fact is obligatory. It needn’t entirely agree with our pretheoretical opinions; a theory has for one of its purposes the task to challenge some of those opinions. But a theory can be quickly rejected if most of the obligations it assigns to us are to perform actions that have always been regarded by most people as wrong. There is a limit to how far pretheoretical opinion can be revised without changing the subject entirely. This poses no problem for social requirement theory.

Given that the role of moral obligation is partly determined by the obligations we actually believe in, it seems also to be part of the role of moral obligation to be recognized. Rightness should turn out to be a property that not only belongs to the most important types of action that are thought to be right, but also plays a part (perhaps a causal part) in their coming to be recognized as right; similarly for wrongness. This too comports with social requirement theory, for on any plausible moral sociology, actual social requirements play a large role in our coming to hold beliefs about moral obligation, and Adams thinks it plausible to suppose that our belief formation is sensitive to the values of relationships and demands that should play a part in a social requirement theory.

Adams admits such a theory is on weaker ground when it comes to objectivity as a feature of the role of moral obligation. I may wrongly think I have an obligation that I do not have. We’re not inclined to censure Huckleberry Finn for acting contrary to his erring conscience in not turning in a runaway slave. The question that arises at this point for a social theory of the nature of moral obligation is whether it is too subjectivist. Does it make it too easy for a society to get rid of its obligations by changing its demands? On social requirement theory developed so far, a society would be able to eliminate obligations by just not making certain demands, and that seems out of keeping with the role of moral obligation.

This isn’t just a disturbing theory. Moral reformers have taught us that there have been situations in which none of the existing human communities demanded as much as they should have, and things that were morally required were not actually demanded by any community, or perhaps even by any human individual in the situation. In this way actual human social requirements fail to cover the whole territory of moral obligation.

Where demands are made, they sometimes conflict, both as between different social groups and within a single society. Often, both sets of demands and relationships can manifest some degree of goodness, but a flawed goodness.

These are all reasons for thinking, as most moralists have, that actual human social requirements are simply not good enough to constitute the basis of moral obligation. More could be said, but for theists it’s somewhat unnatural to confine ourselves to that apparatus, since a more powerful theistic adaptation of the social requirement theory is available.