*Update at bottom of post
Even though the vast majority of people who have an opinion on gay marriage may not realize it, their opinion is ultimately shaped by their view of metaphysics (even if they’ve never consciously developed such a view). In metaphysics, especially in the West, there are two predominant views: Realism and nominalism.
For most of our readers, those two terms have no meaning, so it’s best to explain them before going on. Realism is the belief that things have a perfect form whereas nominalism is the belief that we give the form to things. Since there is no easier way to understand outside of an analogy, it’s best to use an analogy.
Think of a tree. We know when we’re looking at a tree even if we don’t know the type of tree. Realism teaches us that we know this because there is an ideal form of tree; there is an ultimate version of tree and all other trees are copies (albeit imperfect copies) of that ideal form of a tree. Nominalism says that there is that tree and other objects that look like it. There is no ideal form of a tree; each “tree” exists independently and we only call these objects “trees” because it makes it easier for us to categorize things. Thus, there is no absolute form of a tree, only our constructed view.
When applied to ethics, the issue becomes a bit clearer. Realism says that there are right things and wrong things independent of the human experience. Thus, murder is wrong even if a society says that murder is right. Nominalism, on the other hand, states that ethics are only as true as a society says. There is no absolute right and wrong, only mental constructs of what is right and what is wrong. Thus, murder is wrong so long as the people agree to say that it is wrong; once the people stop saying it is wrong, there are no moral implications to taking an innocent person’s life.
Thus, the realists look at marriage and say, “There is an ideal form of marriage to which all other marriages must achieve or attempt to achieve.” The nominalists look at marriage and say, “Marriage is what we say it is, we can define it however we desire.” And this is where we see the whole issue of homosexual marriage. Once we strip back the pithy responses, the strawmen arguments, and even the moral judgments, it is here we see the most basic level of this debate: Does an ideal to marriage exist and if so what is it?
What society, and many Christians, fail to understand is that to be a Christian (at least in the proper Christian tradition) is to be a committed realist. Christians believe that God created humans in His own image and that Christ came to restore us back to His image, which destroys the idea of nominalism right there. The Bible is replete with passages telling Christians to conform to Christ’s image, that Christ is the New Adam, that Christ is the perfect man, and so on. That means that for Christians, Christ is the ideal form of what it is to be human and we are to strive to conform to that ideal. That is realism. Nominalists would say that we determine what it is to be human, which runs contrary to Scripture; this is why Christians are committed realists (or should be).
This also means that Christians believe there is an ideal view of marriage. They get this view from Genesis and dumb it down to “one man, one woman.” And when reading Scripture it’s very apparent that God’s ideal for marriage is for it to be between one man and one woman. At the same time, we see other passages where multiple wives are allowed. Does this mean that the realist is wrong in his view of marriage? Not at all, it simply means that the ideal is not always realized. If the ideal were always realized then there would be no need for Christ. It means that God is willing and able to allow the ideal to be sacrificed to a certain degree in a fallen world in order; thus, war is not God’s ideal, but He allows it and orders it to counteract a fallen world. Polygamy and divorce are not ideal, but allowed within a certain context in a fallen world.
This is also why nominalists have such a hard time interpreting Scripture, they don’t understand the metaphysical commitments that Christians have made. They look at Scripture and say, “But passages concerning homosexuality are all in the Old Testament, which no longer applies!” or “But God allows polygamy, so it’s not ‘one man and one woman’!” Some will point to Romans and say that this is based on pagan practices in homosexuality and not homosexuality itself (which requires one to perform hermeneutical gymnastics to come to this conclusion). The realists look at these passages and say, “But these do not conform to God’s ideal of marriage” or “eating shellfish and wearing clothing of a single fabric has nothing to do with God’s ideal for humanity (as made clear in the New Testament), but how we conduct ourselves in marriage and who we choose to marriage has everything to do with His ideal for humanity.” And thus we see our metaphysical commitments interact.
The shorter version of this is Christians are against homosexual actions not out of ignorance, but out of the view that such actions do not fit within the ideal of marriage. The reason is that Christians also view men and women to have defined roles, or a defined telos to which they are ascribing. This is another issue where nominalists and realists speak past each other, on the role of men and women in society. Nominalists say that gender roles are a societal construct. Realists say that they have everything to do with our construct as humans. Reading Scripture one sees that realism is found even in how gender roles are defined. Thus, if one follows the realism of Scripture, one comes to the conclusion that men have an ideal and women have an ideal, that the two genders are different, yet compliment each other. If this view of realism is correct, then it only follows that marriage should be between one man and one woman because it fits within their respective telos.
Now, none of this speaks to the legal battle except to say this: One’s view of marriage is inherently tied to one’s religious views, which is exactly why the government should be forbidden from issuing marriage licenses. The ideal Christian marriage is one where a man and women come before God and are united as one. This view, however, is not shared by the populace. The government has no right to interject its opinion into the marriage issue. Instead, since taxes and other legal concerns do exist, the government should only issue civil unions and stop there. Those civil unions should exist for anyone regardless of beliefs or gender.
However, what I am saying does speak to the moral issue of homosexuality and how one approaches Scripture. I think it helps if we remove the façade of the debate surrounding homosexuality and reduce it to its metaphysical issues. Thus, while I still oppose marriage amendments that limit the rights of homosexual couples, I still view homosexual actions as going against the telos of humans, or against the ideal for humans.
All that being said, Christians need to understand their own foundations for beliefs as well. The way Christians have approached the homosexual issue has been utterly cruel and uncalled for. The lack of pastors speaking out against bullying, or adding a caveat to it is not only unhelpful, it’s contrary to the teachings of Christ. Viewing homosexual actions as a sin is consistent with Scripture, but treating them as subhuman is not; their sin is no different than a man who looks at pornography (in fact, pornography is in many ways worse) or a heterosexual couple engaged in premarital sex. Ultimately, the human ideal is found in Christ and we must understand that none of us have become as He is.
In the end, both sides needs to understand where each is coming from. We still need to have a discussion over these issues; after all, Christians could be wrong in their interpretation of the Scriptures. Maybe God’s ideal for marriage has nothing to do with gender (though this would mean that God doesn’t have an ideal for the genders either, which would be harder to prove). But comparing those who view homosexuality as a sin to Nazis or calling us ignorant isn’t going to get us to see your side. Likewise, calling people sodomites or treating homosexuality as some atrocity to befall us while ignoring other, bigger issues, isn’t going to convince people of the truth of Scripture. Both sides need to stop acting like children and instead face this issue with mutual dignity and respect.
* If you’re struggling to understand what I mean by “realism” and “nominalism,” you can replace “realism” with “universals” and “nominalism” with “particulars” and then read this post.