Epistemology,  Ethics,  Language,  Marriage

It Depends on What You Mean By “Marriage”

When marriage is debated the disagreement comes down to definition. I don’t mean what the definition of marriage is (that is what we disagree about). I mean how we get a definition in the first place. Is there some independent standard by which our definitions are proved good? Can we point at some authoritative definition and say, “see, there, that’s what marriage is.”? Can we look at a couple and say, “marriage is that”? Or is marriage something we purely stipulate? Does the Supreme Court have the power to construct a definition from scratch or should they merely recognize a preexisting entity and enshrine it in law? And is there any form of relationship that is called marriage that would be immoral? If so, should that figure into how we define marriage legally?

Some people think that the term, ‘marriage,’ refers to an entity with a particular essence. Marriage is the covenantal union between one man and one woman for the purpose of child rearing because that is the essence of marriage. Once marriage loses its essential attributes it ceases to be marriage. On this view, there is strictly no such thing as gay marriage.

What exactly is the essence of an entity like marriage? Can we discover it? Some have thought that essential properties are evident in reality. The world is a certain way and we have access to true propositions about the world that latch on to facts about the world. Those facts, in turn, rely on the uniformity of nature, a natural world governed by laws.

The essentialist might say that one can see that family consisting of a man and a woman with children is the most natural form of life. They might point to physical laws of nature, psychological evidence for the compatibility of one man and one woman or they may suggest that we can describe normative relationships in terms of well-being and common good. The grounds for defining marriage, on this view, is to recognize the most natural form of life.

Non-essentialists, in contrast, believe that the term ‘marriage’ carries meaning only because it is used in a particular way. There is no essence of marriage to which the term refers. Rather, definitions are more fluid; they change as we change the use of the term. Culture ultimately determines the reference and meaning has changed with changing culture, economics, societal structure and differing means to survive over history. Defining a term, on this view, is solely a matter of description and preference; essence has nothing to do with it.

The non-traditionalists thinks not that we have got the essence of marriage wrong, but that the term is being used in a way that needs to change with the culture. The non-traditionalist worries that someone–usually in power–gets to determine, through force or mass manipulation, what an essential property of a given entity is. They suspect that, up until now, marriage has been determined to mean one man and one woman for child rearing by supposedly an overly authoritarian ecclesial power or a power backed by a particular religion. They believe that we, the people, should get to decide.

Ironically, there is now merely another group in charge, determining for the rest of us what marriage means. Furthermore, the Court appeared to rule against democratically decided definitions, decided in a number of states, and overruled them. It appeared as if the people had spoken but the court told them to shut up.

Some people suggest that society should permit multiple definitions. A legal definition can reflect culture, according rights to those entering into a legal contract, whereas a moral definition can reflect a personal or religious meaning. The two should, on this view, co-exist in public and private spheres. Indeed, the court ruing contains a statement arguing that religious marriage could co-exist with its secular version.

It does, however, seem troublesome to say that there is no interaction between what is morally justifiable and what is enshrined in a nation’s laws. Some people may even think that the Court’s decision should be free of any religious or moral influence on law. But that doesn’t sound quite right. What other basis for law is there that can be appealed to seperately from moral concerns? Indeed, the arguments for the redefining of marriage were themselves made on moral grounds (“it is morally wrong to exclude certain relationships from marriage” etc.).

There are a few other problems facing the non-essentialist. First, one wonders how, if their view is true of all language, how we might know what each other are talking about. Referring to an object with properties that are essential to it is part of what makes it possible to communicate. The problem is not that we would loose the ability to use terms, but that one person would have no way of knowing if how he or she is using a term is the same as how I am using the same term. Our ability to communicate with one another is at best subject to good or bad fortune. Non-essentialists might be content to abandon any universal meaning for terms, but this would be unwise. While, as some have argued, the Supreme Court may have the right to make a word mean whatever it wants, consider what might happen if we all did that! No one would know what each other was talking about!

Second, it seems that even non-essentialists assume that there are some essential properties of marriage. For example, marriage should be freely entered into by adults and it should have something to do with love. A co-erced, non-loving marriage of children remains something most westerners, even the most liberal minded, are opposed to. This is, of course, inconsistent with their view. If meaning is reducible to cultural choice then there is no kind of marriage that is, in principle, wrong. Unfortunately, and rather obviously, arguments that paraded the court to redefine marriage this time are equally available to other kinds of relationships, even relationships that most people happen to find grotesque at this present time.

Many Christians who hold a traditional view of marriage appeal to a natural essence of marriage. They believe that all people should be able to see and accord their laws with the most natural form of life. However, not all Christians are essentialists.

Another view is that while the definition of marriage is determined by use, not any use will do. James K.A Smith, in agreement with non-essentialists, sees language and definitions in the sense of use determined by a community. But Smith suggests that truth is God dependent. God’s interpretation of the universe is the right one and he has made it known to his people through revelation. The community of faith are illuminated by God in order that they might think about the world in the same way God thinks about the world:

There is now no revelation outside the church because there is no meaning that is not ‘use.’… To be part of this tradition—by the grace of God—is to be enabled to see the truth about the cosmos. But seeing this truth is relative to the story of God’s self-revelation; being able to grasp this truth is dependent upon one’s inculcation into the community of the Spirit (James K.A Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, 112–13)

Smith’s view is that words mean what they do due to their use in community, but that not any old community has the right interpretation of the world. One community, in principle, has the right use of the word. If that community really does have a revelation from God it follows that their interpretation is the right one. Sure, you may not accept the antecedent to the conditional, but God, being always right about his creation has the authority to define it how he likes and in perfect accord with his design.

Saul Kripke

Consider how an entity is named. A word is “baptized” into use and designates some entity (to borrow from Kripke). On Smith’s view the naming of marriage is baptized by God (Gen 2; Matt 19). God defines a relationship–one man and one woman for life with the potential for children–and because it is God who defines marriage it is the authoritative definition of marriage for all people.

Marriage, on this view, has meaning not merely because of some independent essence that all can observe, but because God has determined a certain kind of relationship to be a married relationship. The definition of marriage is dependent, therefore, on God’s definition of marriage. Deviating from the marriage that we were designed for is not, therefore, reducible to deviating from natural laws, but a rebellion from God’s revealed moral law. It is to re-interpret the world according to our own selfish desires.

That’s an important point: If God exists and has defined marriage then his definition of marriage is the right one. If, on the other hand, the definition is decided by us without the involvement of the designer, then we are epistemologically in the dark. What determines our definition apart from our desires and who is to say that those desires are the right desires? A Supreme Court, as it has been pointed out, is not a Supreme Being.

Many non-traditionalists find the appeal to scripture implausible. Surely, they think, we need a non-religious definition for all people, religious and not. Essentialism may have been dominant in the past, but now we think in terms of use. Even if the non-traditionalist thinks essentialism was wrong he might think that, at the very least, it was possible to think of marriage in a non-religious way, open to everyone. Non-essentialism merely defines marriage in the most inclusive way. Indeed, the motivating factor in re-definition is to ground the definition in the liberal ideal of inclusivity.

However, Smith’s view entails that no interpretation of the world is religiously neutrality. In other words while one might want a different group to define marriage, only this religious group has the right definition. They hold to the truth of scripture and scripture is God’s word. But every other definition is just as religiously prejudiced. And isn’t this the point the non-essentialists wants to make? 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.