C.S. Lewis was often passionate but seldom sardonic. A man deeply steeped in the premodern classical and Christian traditions, however, the way moderns think—or fail to think—could raise his ire. And so he wrote a little essay titled “‘Bulverism’: Or, the Foundation of 20th Century Thought,” in which he invents a hapless character, Ezekiel Bulver:
You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third—“Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.
Many of the responses to my piece of a fortnight ago on opposing gay marriage on rational grounds were pure Bulverism. “Oh you say that because you are a Christian.” One correspondent, a certain David Cary Hart, wrote a passionate but serious email in which he wrote:
Let me get this straight . . . You are the Director of the Christian Leadership Center at a Catholic College writing in a Christian Publication . . . and you suggest that opposition to marriage equality is not religious? [ . . . ] Frankly, it is intellectually dishonest to assert that this controversy isn’t about religion—first, last and always.
First Things is not a Christian publication, as many non-Christians have written for it, so we can dispense with that misconception. Now, I appreciate frank talk, but a charge of intellectual dishonesty is a different matter. Believers like me who take reason and nature seriously as categories for reflection on the common good simply aren’t trying to pull a fast one. Better to engage the substantive arguments we make (like those put forth by Messrs. Girgis, Anderson, George) and if you find us wrong, well, show us the flaws in our argumentation. Then you may explain why we are wrong.
But I see why the charge arises: Many find it inconceivable that opposition to gay marriage could be rational because they’re operating not only with a faith-reason split but also with a truncated view of reason. They see it rooted not in respect for nature but rather in the desire to conquer nature in service of human will. It’s a view of reason which can say little more than “the right to swing my fist ends when it meets another’s nose,” but until then anything goes so long as done among consenting adults.
The problem with making consent the sole criterion of the Good is that it’s merely a social convention. “Consent” is an idea forged in the wake of the widespread death of metaphysics and it thus lacks any ultimate grounding. It will disappear once a majority of the strong decides it’s no longer useful to their interests. Put differently, without robust reason reading nature rightly, we’re left with little more than power. Indeed, the postmodern turn to questions of power arises largely outside of Christian contexts as a reaction to the crisis of modernity, the failure of secular reason to secure its promises of human utopia on earth.
I would therefore call on gay marriage proponents to give a coherent account of reason and then explain how gay marriage is rational. I suspect it will be difficult. If one opts for a form of reason apart from nature and the physicality and concern for human traditions that nature entails (the sort of “reason” assumed by post- and transhumanists, which permits the molding of human nature through technology at will), then one will run headlong into the postmodern problems adumbrated above. If one opts for a form of reason that takes nature seriously, then one runs into the possibility that human nature comprising an ideal of unity body, mind, and spirit and the tradition of human marriage point us in certain directions and not others.
Not all responses to my piece were hostile or dismissive. Some gay persons responded with heartfelt appreciation, which gives me hope in these dark days. Since the shooting has already started (thinking of the recent incident at the Family Research Council’s headquarters), and since gays have long lived in fear and suffered horrific violence, we must find common reference points for real, substantive, charitable dialogue. I propose reason and nature.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Sherif Girgis, Robert George, Ryan T. Anderson, What Is Marriage?
Sherif Girgis, Robert George, Ryan T. Anderson, The Argument Against Gay Marriage: And Why It Doesn’t Fail
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