Monday, September 10, 2012

Redefining Terms

A friend of mine sat in his college class as the prof led them through a discussion about poverty.  In the best tradition of liberal arts education, however, the class was really about thinking.

The prof listened to his students debate potential solutions to the problem of poverty for almost an hour.  Right near the end of the hour allotted, he spoke up.  "We can eliminate the problem of poverty right here, right now, before class ends," he said.

Of course, he had the attention of every student in the room.  They had debated welfare, employment, education, food distribution, motivation, generational issues, and much more.  Five minutes remained in the hour.  How could they possibly solve the problem of poverty in that short time?

"All we have to do," the prof said confidently, "is redefine poverty."

Of course, the professor was absolutely right.  If you redefine poverty carefully, you can structure the definition so that no one is poor.

And of course, the professor was absolutely wrong.  You can redefine terms all you want and babies will still go to bed hungry, children will live without adequate clothes, and young men stifled by lack of meaningful opportunities will turn to violence, "poor" or not.

Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet.  What's in a name?  You can redefine things all you want, but it doesn't change their essential nature.

So when it comes to the "redefinition" of marriage, what really changes?  Two men or two women can pledge lifelong faithfulness to each other and call it marriage.  Is it?  Heterosexual pop stars stand in front of a Justice of the Peace and pledge love for each other and days later nullify the whole arrangement in divorce court, and we call it marriage.  Is it?

The question to be reckoned with is this: where do our definitions come from?  Are we submitted to some greater reality, some greater whole, than just our collective sense of language?  If we all agree that purple is really orange, does that make it so?

In some sense, one has to admit that this is in fact the way things work, from a purely linguistic point of view.  "Gay" used to mean happy, as any fifth grader singing Christmas carols can tell you.  "Don we now our gay apparel" causes a lot of blushing and giggling in the ranks!  You can think of many words that have changed meanings along the way.  "Intimate" these days connotes underwear or sexual encounters rather than heart-to-heart conversation.   Not too long ago "lame" referred to a defect in one's physical ability to walk and saying someone was "sick" meant they needed to see a physician.  "Prick" used to be a verb and a "dick" used to mean a private detective.  Thongs used to be sandals for walking on the beach.  The way we use words changes.

But that's not what we are talking about around the issue of marriage.  What is being proposed today is, in fact, quite the opposite.  With marriage we're trying to keep an older definition and fold a different kind of relationship into the older definition.

In times past marriage carried a great deal of weight and privilege.  When a man and woman got married, their relationship was legitimized in the eyes of society.  We still hear this idea in old movies where a promiscuous relationship is to be redeemed when the couple gets married -- characters sometimes referred to the act of getting married as a way to "make an honest woman of her" -- implying that promiscuity could be corrected or at least curbed through marriage, and that a tarnished reputation could be at least somewhat redeemed.  This is why the phenomenon of "shotgun weddings" was so common a few generations ago; a pregnancy out of wedlock (now there's an old term) carried a deep sense of social stigma.  I once heard a wag say that pregnancies can vary; the first child arrives unpredictably, but after that they usually take about nine months.  Marriage legitimized not only the relationship between husband and wife, but also the existence of children.  "Illegitimate" was a descriptive term applied to children, and too often accompanied by less civil insults.

This older, weightier definition of marriage opened the door to all kinds of tangible and intangible benefits.  A married couple automatically, at least in some states, had access to each other's money and property.  They were automatically granted beneficiary status on life insurance policies, and health coverage was automatically extended to them.  In the eyes of the legal system, the marriage relationship was the closest relationship in society, so that if a person died without a will, their worldly goods went first of all to their husband or wife.

Marriage was seen as the foundation of society, the most fundamental, stable building block of human social relationships.  Marriage was the foundation stone of the family, and the family was the building block of all other social institutions -- school, church, community, city, state, republic.  This is why couples wanting to be married apply to the state, not the church, for a marriage license.  The state has a vested interest in the stability of marriages because unstable marriages destabilize society.  So the state of Minnesota along with many others give discounts on the cost of a marriage license if a couple has completed a certain number of hours of premarriage counseling.  The state doesn't ask, "Do you truly love each other?" Instead it asks, "Have you put in the time and effort to prepare for this marriage?" because willingness to work, more than an emotional expression of love, tends to make marriages last longer.  As a nod to the fact that people's deepest understandings of human relationships are rooted in our understandings of our relationship with God, the state grants responsibility for "solemnizing" marriage vows to religious leaders.  But at the end of the wedding, the marriage has no legal validity unless the religious leader completes the proper forms and mails them in to the offices of the state.

Up until the very recent past, this has been society's definition of marriage.  It is not a religious concept; it is a civil concept.  It is not a shiny ideal; it is a practical, gritty reality of families, children and social groupings that moves toward the economic realities of home ownership, savings, compassion, and social consciousness.  The state has a vested interest in stability.  Today we as a society are dealing with the radical instability caused by the waning of this social concept of marriage.  Higher and higher percentages of children are born outside a family with a stable marriage relationship at its core.  Sociologists can tell you that where fathers are absent (the usual pattern when marriages fail or are nonexistent) children suffer and instability is the result, individually and socially.  A few years ago, a group of 22 inmates at a jail near my home were asked, "What one thing would you change about your upbringing?" 21 of these men answered, "I wish I had a father."  The other one answered, "I wish I had a family."  The sociologists can also tell you that statistically, becoming a teenage mother without a marriage relationship will, in the vast majority of cases, lead to children growing up in poverty.

So the concept of marriage has carried a lot of weight, and it has been in decline as an institution in our society.  But the idea, the term, still carries some of the legitimacy that it had a generation ago.  We still celebrate marriages and many of our legal -- and even a few social -- doors open wide to married couples.

The current move toward gay "marriage" is not a move to strip marriage of its meaning; rather, it is a move toward legitimizing homosexual relationships, giving them the same sense of dignity, stability, and viability as heterosexual marriage.  The idea is to fold homosexual relationships into this same weighty, legitimized definition of marriage.

Earlier I asked this question: Are we submitted to some greater reality, some greater whole, than just our collective sense of language?

The first time through that question, if you're a Jesus-follower, you probably answered with a resounding, "Yes! We are submitted to a greater reality!"  Christians believe that our definitions come from God.  Jesus-followers want Jesus and his reality to be our reality.  We are taught to pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Speaking in terms of society, our past definition of marriage comes from an old set of definitions rooted in the collective Judeo-Christian roots of western society.   The definitions were largely biblical, largely shared, and largely unexamined.  The definitions were part of the leftover Christendom that dominated western Europe for a thousand years or more.  As we have drifted farther and farther from those roots, the void of definitions and understandings has been largely filled from two sources -- darwinian biological understandings and psychological analysis.  Both of these sources, biological and psychological, start with the organism -- in this case the human -- and define things based on a hypothesis that attempts to find an accurate description of observed reality.

So in our current debate, we look at a man and a woman, or two men, or two women, and we say they're all acting roughly the same way.  They express feelings of love for one another.  They set up housekeeping together.  They raise children together.  They pool their resources, share sexual activity, and live out some measure of commitment to one another.  The society around them begins to treat them as a couple, a social unity.  Because we start with the organism and its behavior, we say, "These things are all similar -- why not call them all marriage?"

If we move toward defining homosexual relationships as "marriage," what we are not doing is starting with a preexisting definition from a source outside ourselves and testing to see whether the relationships fit the mold.  It may not seem like an important difference.  However, at issue is the worldview, the core assumptions about reality.

Which of the following statements do you most agree with?

1. Reality is created; it reflects the character and the desires of God.

2. Reality is possibly created or possibly random, but the source of reality is in the end unknowable.  In any case, reality is best understood through observation and hypothesis.

If you choose #1, you have to seek God and any way God may have revealed himself for the definitions.   If you choose #2, you're on your own, in the fullest sense of that expression.

The Jesus-follower in this culture has to recognize that the culture as a whole is choosing to act (whatever we may think we believe) based on #2.  A simplified parody of the scientific method -- observe reality, create a hypothesis, test the hypothesis (though we often leave this step out), and act based on the hypothesis -- has come to dominate our thinking about the larger questions of our day.

The trouble is, we are not very good at observing reality.  Instead, we accept what our friends post on Facebook or what we read on CNN as reality, and our hypothesis is usually just what makes sense to us without much examination or reflection.  Darwin would be appalled by our weakened apprehension of the scientific method.

For the Jesus-follower, much of the New Testament is coming into stark focus these days.  The writings of Jesus' earliest followers spoke of those who followed Jesus and those who belong to the world as two distinct groups of people. The New Testament assumes a tension between the world's ways and the ways of those who follow Jesus.  Jesus' followers are called to live in this world, but not to belong to it (see John 17).  Just before he was arrested and crucified by the rulers of Jerusalem and Rome, Jesus told his followers, "In this world you will have trouble -- but take heart, I have overcome the world" (see John 16:33).  For a millennium and a half, most Christians have lived under a system where the powers of the world and the powers of the church were in league, if not in fact one and the same.  Only in the last few generations have we started to see this marriage dissolve.  Today we live in a time when we in the West are rediscovering the tensions, renegotiating the definitions.  Those who hold to Jesus tighter than they hold the ways of this world are figuring out what it means to let him define things.

The question is about where the definitions come from.  We can make our own definitions based on what makes sense to us.  Or we can let God define things.  But we can't do both.

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