Preaching to the deaf is a venerable prophetic vocation. Isaiah was told that his prophecies to the “dull of hearing” would only make them duller, and Jeremiah was warned that the “foolish and senseless” of Judah “have ears but do not hear.” Jesus quoted these passages to explain why he taught in parables, and so did Paul to explain resistance from Jews of Rome. The fact that one possesses what the philosophers call a “fully functioning sensory apparatus” doesn’t guarantee that one genuinely hears what’s said.
These passages have been on my mind in recent weeks as I’ve reflected on current debates about same-sex marriage. In a blog post on February 28, I pointed out that opposition to gay marriage faces a steep uphill struggle. Virtually all the cultural and political momentum is in the other direction. Arguments against gay marriage are theologically fraught, and Christians and Jews who try to mount biblically or theologically based arguments will find themselves ignored or denounced by secular gatekeepers precisely because they offer biblically and theologically based arguments. I concluded that “it will take nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard, much less to become persuasive.”
Some have found my diagnosis too gloomy, or worse, cowardly. In a very thoughtful, very long response, Alastair Roberts charges that I suffer from a “loss of nerve.” The defense of traditional marriage doesn’t, Roberts insists, rest on “partisan and fideistic grounds,” but can point to patterns inherent in “creational order” and the witness of history. Historically, there is a “virtually universal consensus” that
marriage is a public institution declaring the interdependence of men and women; formed around the natural realities of sexual dimorphism, of the procreative union between a man and woman, and of the bonds of blood; and providing a secure setting in which children’s bonds with the parents that bore them are honoured [he’s British] and upheld.
It’s not as if, Roberts says, we’re debating the intricacies of the Chalcedonian definition of the person of Christ.
I note that “creational order” is a theological notion, but put that to the side. My point is otherwise. Roberts concedes that marriage has been “deinstitutionalized” and rebuilt around “romantic and sentimental ideals.” We can no longer depend on nods of agreement when we talk of “sexual dimorphism,” even after we explain what it means. “Dimorphism” is so polarizing, and polarizing is oppressive.
Our reproduction rate indicates that the link between procreation and marriage has become tenuous, and technology allows us to reproduce without having to bother very much with “the interdependence of men and women.” It was nearly a quarter-century ago, in my first pastorate, that I first encountered families consisting of hers, his, and theirs. It’s true that over half of America’s children under the age of eighteen live with their biological parents (an estimated 68 percent in 2012), but that means that more than 30 percent don’t. Tradition has not carried much weight in public debate for centuries: Why, many will ask, preserve an archaic institution that has long oppressed women, excluded gays, and given free rein to brutes?
Of course, in the past “same-sex marriage would have been unthinkable or considered ridiculous,” but that’s just my point. When the current president and a popular former president both endorse something, it’s no longer considered ridiculous. And Obama and Clinton aren’t out on a limb (politicians rarely are). National Review Online’s Daniel Foster reports that “exit-polling data from the 2012 election shows that while support for gay marriage sits at 37 percent with voters 65 and older, 52 percent of younger voters support ‘freedom to marry.’” Other than white Evangelical Protestants, a majority of all religious groups in the U.S. supports same-sex marriage.
By all means, defend marriage, invoke the weight of tradition, make all the arguments you can invent with all the passion, compassion, and cunning you can muster. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking any of this readily touches the experience or intellectual habits of a majority. Even Roberts acknowledges that “few people are really listening, that the debate is politically rigged, that few people have the nerve or willingness to hold unpopular positions” and “the development of the culture over the last few decades has inured people to the creational realities.” He makes my point: Surrounded by the white noise of late modern culture, many regard marriage as Roberts and I understand it nearly as exotic as a confession of one person, two natures.
The truth will out, of that I have no doubt. People do, mysteriously, get persuaded. Cultural revolutions happen. No one can defy creation forever. Beauty is the best persuasion, so Christians should above all aspire to form marriages and families that are living parables of the gospel. The Spirit wins. Between the present and that victory of the Spirit, we are in for what may be an extended period of dullness, when truth about sexuality and marriage will fall on deaf ears until the obvious is relearned. It’s not a hopeless place to be, or even a bad place. It puts us in the good company of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Jesus and Paul.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.