Friday, March 20, 2009

more about the word "marriage"

Robin Edgar makes some great arguments in a comment to an earlier post (see "what's in a name?" below) about whether gays and lesbians are following a failed strategy in insisting on having our relationships labeled as "marriage." Some marriage opponents have said they would be happy to grant us legal recognition and rights under a different name (although more and more this seems to not be true when the opportunity to establish civil union laws actually comes up). Edgar even brings up the UU buzzword issue of cultural misappropriation as an argument to say that the culture has for centuries defined marriage one way and that same-sex couples do not now have the cultural authority to use the word to mean something other than a male husband united with a female wife.

It's an interesting argument but I respectfully disagree.

I face a parallel situation very often in my ministry when I use the word God. As a theist the real existence of God is very important to my spirituality and I speak about God often in my sermons and elsewhere. But when I use the word God I don't mean an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, supernatural or manipulative old man in the sky. That's the traditional definition of the word God, but that's not how I use the word. I have, on occasion, been accused of being disingenuous. I'm told if that's not what I mean than I should use a different word.

But I reject that position. The word "god" is simply a pointing word that allows me to refer to the thing I want to talk about. The nature of God (whether God is properly characterized by all those things I listed above) is a theology. Although one theology has long been dominant and "traditional," theologians have always felt able to disagree with that theology in whole or part and still use the word God. There are limits to how far you can stretch the word, but the word God comfortably contains quite a number of diverse theologies.

I feel the same is true for the word "marriage." The essential aspect of a marriage is the commitments of two persons to bind their lives together in mutual support. I see a societal aspect of marriage that makes committed couples an asset to the state; a familial aspect of marriage that brings families together and creates strong foundations for future families, and a religious aspect of marriage that puts the couple at the service of the god of love. All of those essential aspects of marriage exist independently of the incidental aspect of the sex of the two persons.

God is still the right word even as we debate the theology that describes God. Marriage is also the right word even as same-sex marriage advocates point out that what had once seemed essential to the definition is actually unjust and unnecessary. Marriage without the restriction of opposite-sex partners is still marriage, just as a process theology God without omnipotence is still God.


Robin Edgar said...

It looks like we're both making some great arguments Ricky. It is genuinely a pleasure debating with you in a genuinely mutually respectful manner and I do hope that you realize that, in making the arguments that I am making here, I am trying to be helpful.

Best Regards,

Robin Edgar

Anonymous said...

There are all kinds of beds. Flower beds, day beds, procrustian beds as well as the common beds we keep in our bedrooms. Still, if somebody gave me a six paragraph definition of 'bed' that didn't mention 'sleeping', I'd think they were being too cute by half.

Day beds in which no one ever sleeps are still beds, tis true. Still...

The essential aspect of a marriage is the commitments of two persons to bind their lives together in mutual support.

I feel about the same for a six paragraph definition of 'marriage' that never mentions 'children.'

Joel Monka said...

I'm with you this, both about God and marriage, although personally I use "the Divine" to avoid baggage. But with marriage, there is also the issue of thousands of laws and contracts and insurance policies, et al that use the word marriage- to ensure equal legal coverage, you'd have to either use the word marriage for all domestic partnerships, straight or gay, or change all the laws and contracts piecemeal- a difficult proposition.

Bill Baar said...

Thank you very much for pointing out the importantance of what's meant by marriage.

So many UU's argue it's a right, but what UU's call marriage may be something very different than what the rest of the country means by marriage.

You see in marriage ...a religious aspect of marriage that puts the couple at the service of the god of love.

Square this though with can be found about marriage on UU websites:

A Unitarian marriage ceremony, is based on the personal integrity of the participants, rather than on institutional forms. Inclusiveness is highly valued and Unitarian ceremonies strive to honour different religious backgrounds and cultural traditions.

or identical word almost here

We're not talking about marriage as a sacrament e.g. "a rite in which God is uniquely active", while a good many others believe just that. We see marriage as a commitment between participants (only two?). I'm not sure many if not most UUs would see your service towards the God of Love here either.

It explians a lot of the conflict, at least the opposition. It's why so many people can be for civil unions but will vote no on same-sex marriage.

If we'd be a bit clearer on what we mean by marriage instead of making blanket declarations of "rights", I think we'd be far better off reconciling sides. It would be a step towards doing what I think UU's are uniquely qualified to do: reconciling belief with Sharia; showing how one can live a spiritual and sacred life in today's world.