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marriage pledge

R. R. Reno writes in “Government Marriage” (December) that he “can’t see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for ‘Spouse A’ and ‘Spouse B.’” Then, in support of the Marriage Pledge put forward by Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz, he proposes that priests and pastors get out of the business of signing marriage licenses, barring simply crossing out the neologisms that might stand in for “husband” and “wife.” This solution flies in the face of what has been said in First Things before, including by Reno himself. Religion has a public voice and shapes politics as a consequence, whether the secularists like it or not. The comforting metaphor of rending now instead of sewing seems a shabby cover for another: taking one’s ball and going home.

If we ever want nominalist, legal positivism to show up as the banal tripe that it is, then I don’t see how not signing a semi-meaningless-though-legal document does this. Not signing misses a chance at witnessing to the truth. True, no presider who knows what marriage is should practically admit the existence of a separate, lower standard for conjugal union. This seems to be the premise on which Reno’s support for the pledge relies. But would it not be a better witness simply to ignore what a vacuously phrased license implies? What purpose of love or witness does preempting irrational behavior by the government serve? I see none, other than salving the conscience of the priest or pastor hung up on whether or not the words on a document are so imprecise as to be silly.

“Spouse A” and “Spouse B” may be ridiculous, but they do not, by necessity, mean that a presider signs something illicit. All that is required is simply not to marry those whom the higher standard (the true one) rules out and let the fairness police do what they will. If nothing happens, well, fine. If a real wedding is declared as an extralegal ceremony, let the government make that declaration. Don’t do Pilate’s dirty work for him. I find it cognitively dissonant to read support of this pledge alongside an article in praise of Cardinal George, who dramatically predicted the likely imprisonment of his successor. I don’t see whatever might account for that imprisonment if a policy of “rending” is enacted.

John Schlachter
hibbing, minnesota

Upon first glance, First Things’s sponsorship of the Marriage Pledge struck me as a noble endeavor, a brilliant attempt to distinguish between Christ’s challenging teaching about marriage and the flimsy requirements of the state today.

The problem is that this pledge—while humbly acknowledging the threat of divorce and the Church’s complacency about it—focuses its argument specifically around same-sex marriage. This smacks to many of a deep-seated hatred of homosexuals, rather than of a recommitment to biblical principles of marriage, especially in light of the small number of homosexuals who seek to be ­married in the Church compared with the large numbers of heterosexual Christians who have actively sought divorce.

If these ministers hope to reaffirm the biblical view and to avoid implicating the Church in a false definition of marriage, then they should make the focus of their pledge something more relevant to the vast majority of the people seeking marriage: the prohibitions against sex before marriage and the prohibition against two Christians divorcing. They should spend time articulating what it means to take a stand against fornication and cohabitation and divorce.

Yet as it stands, when the language of said pledge is more concerned about men being with men and women being with women than with Jesus’s own dictum that “what God has joined together let no man put asunder,” then it becomes difficult to view the pledge as anything more than a half-hearted attempt to disguise an implicit homophobia. I trust that the authors of this pledge and the editors of First Things can do much better than this.

The Church at this time needs our leadership to address the crisis of marriage for heterosexuals—between divorce and extramarital sexual activity—more than it needs a few ministers to take a stand against gay marriage. When we get the order backward, the Church comes off as being full of judgmental hypocrites rather than as being moved by thoughtful ministers of love. I sincerely hope and pray that you will consider revising the language of this pledge to make your full intentions clearer.

Jordan Monge
irvine, california

R. R. Reno and the authors of the Marriage Pledge, Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz, make a convincing case for the separation of government marriage and religious marriage. In spite of our efforts, it has taken barely a decade for the legal definition of marriage to be tortured beyond any resemblance to the natural institution. As all of this continues, it does not seem unreasonable to think that a time will come when ministers will be required to perform gay weddings in order to be allowed to continue to sign marriage licenses.

I have always said I would stop performing weddings if I were forced to offer the service to homo­sexuals. The pledge is a more proactive step. As Reno put it, “I can’t see how a priest or pastor can in good conscience sign a marriage license for ‘Spouse A’ and ‘Spouse B.’” He later corrected his use of “conscience,” but the spirit of this comment still stands. I do have qualms about signing such a document and allowing what God has created to be confused with something the government wants to create. Even without gay “marriage,” there are other reasons to make the pledge. I would become more than just a rubber stamp for couples. Those who want me to marry them will need to have a separate civil service, meaning extra work. They will come to me only if they are truly devoted to God’s purpose for marriage, and those are the only couples I would want to marry, anyway.

If all ministers with a love for the Scriptures decide to take it, are we admitting defeat? Are we signaling that secular culture has won? In some sense, yes. But surrender is not ­necessarily a vice. In fact, Jesus Christ surrendered himself to the forces of the world, which is precisely the way he conquered them in the end. Perhaps pledging to leave marriage licenses out of our duties is not only a surrender we can admit, but also a sacrifice we should be honored to make.

Stanley E. Pricener
herminie, pennsylvania

R. R. Reno replies:

I regret speaking of conscience when I wrote about the Marriage Pledge. There’s nothing illicit about a marriage license that specifies Spouse A and Spouse B, and I was wrong to imply that it would be intrinsically wrong for a pastor (or anyone else) to sign one. But of this I remain certain: A marriage license in jurisdictions that have redefined marriage gives legal form to something very different from what the Bible and church tradition call marriage. A priest or pastor is not “hung up” on mere technicalities, as John Schlachter suggests, if he decides that signing such a document conveys the false impression that government marriage today remains pretty much in accord with what reason and revelation have called marriage for millennia.

Moreover, there’s nothing in the Marriage Pledge that indicates “a deep-seated hatred of homosexuals,” as Jordan Monge puts it. Easy divorce undermines marriage. Cohabitation flaunts the discipline of marriage. Both are problems. But same-sex marriage denies that our bodies have an intrinsic moral meaning. If we can’t see how that denial touches directly on our faith in God as Creator, we’re in serious trouble.

I appreciate Stanley Pricener’s support of the Marriage Pledge, and I think he’s right to say that it reflects a recognition that secular culture now controls the legal definition of marriage. Many today see “marriage” as a social construct that we can reshape as we wish. And they’re exercising their political power—through judicial decrees, executive orders, and legislation—to do just that. What could be more radical than to say a man can marry a man, or a woman marry a woman? The Marriage Pledge may not be the right way to respond to this raw exercise of political power. But in my view we cannot simply carry on as if nothing has changed.

charles taylor

In “Tayloring Christianity” (December), Matthew Rose argues that Charles Taylor, in his widely discussed book A Secular Age, “denigrates the Christian past by seeing it merely as a dogmatic stage in our advance to the progressive present.” In this respect, Rose avers, Taylor “encourages readers to embrace a modern mode of faith that accommodates itself to contemporary culture.”

Appearing as they do in the context of vigorous debates among Roman Catholics about Pope Francis’s leadership of the Church, Rose’s comments are clearly meant to be taken not only as a criticism of Taylor but more specifically as the apology for “traditional” Christianity that Rose “regret[s] to say” he doesn’t find in Taylor. They are fighting words. No surprise, then, that Rose lines up Taylor in the sights of Pius X, as one of “the most pernicious of all the adversaries of the Church.” From my perspective, the essay is based on a highly selective reading of Taylor and, at a more basic level, on a problematic assumption that Christian faith may be “genuinely traditional” only if it never changes its form of expression. On both matters, Rose appears to skip right past possible commonsense interpretations.

Rose summarizes Taylor’s assessment of Christianity’s present situation as follows: “Christian life has been impaired by a theoretical concern with certitude and rational justification; its renewal, [Taylor] maintains, can be found only through a spirituality of transformative love.” Why is this a criticism, exactly? Because, for Rose, it articulates the dangerous view that “our relationship to the world is not theoretical, not something that arises from our capacities for rational insight and argument.”

Rose grants that the New Testament is not an introduction to speculative reason, but he thinks Taylor misreads its emphasis on “practical life” as a critique of the quest for knowledge of God as such. Taylor’s mistake is ultimately clarified by his Christology, according to Rose, for here Taylor “seems to mean that Jesus brought into human history something so mysteriously transcendent that it cannot be expressed in a philosophical system, formulated into a doctrine, or transmitted by an ecclesial authority.”

As Rose would have it, then, Taylor is suspicious of language and of rational understanding because religious truth is too “mysteriously transcendent” to be expressed in words. Rose calls this Taylor’s “modernism.” In Taylor’s actual view, ­however, the point is very simply that Jesus brought the truth into human history. Taylor’s is a basic incarnational Christology. The suspicion he practices in relation to language is not some business of “accommodation” to modern culture. Rather, it’s a suspicion based on an insight that is in some ways both premodern and postmodern: Language expresses experience; therefore, its truth always has something to do with its usefulness in ordinary life. Otherwise, what in the world would be meaningfully “true” about it?

To put this another way: Taylor’s “suspicion” of doctrine or, more generally, of speculative philosophical systems is not about the inability of language to express the truth of life. Instead, it’s about the human tendency to forget what Chesterton called the “sharp distinction between the science of mental relations . . . and the science of physical facts.” It’s about our willingness to take the logical tidiness of a particular formulation and find comfort in that, regardless of whether it resonates with us or illuminates our experience. It’s about insisting without fear that the Word has been made flesh.

Rose aligns Taylor with “many theologians” of the modern era who “set faith against dogma and love against doctrine.” It seems to me that the only people who actually do this are the folks who find it problematic that the concrete messiness of love’s practical imperatives will sometimes demand flexibility in our expressions of truth. I’m not saying there are not difficult questions that arise from such clashes. I am only saying that it’s hardly “modern” to claim that, because the word has been made flesh, our sensitivity to the concrete ought to trump the comforts of logical completeness in our systems. Indeed, how is this not both obviously Christian and utterly commonsensical? Just think of this strange moment in Rose’s essay: Rose objects to Taylor because the latter suggests that ­contemporary Christians are not wrong to “reject doctrines that ‘deny what is essential to our humanity.’” What would Rose have us do with such doctrines, keep them? Who was the Sabbath made for, after all?

To say that the words of our doctrinal formulations must resonate if they are to retain their constitutive power is not a modern invention. Even the earliest Christian formulations arose in their particulars only because they felt right at the time. If that sounds like a sinister progressivism to you, something hostile to “tradition,” then you’re probably the “modern” one, at least from Taylor’s standpoint. For him, modernity is characterized by, among other things, its rage for order and definitional certainty.

Let’s try the commonsense route again here. For something to become a “tradition,” it must retain its life-giving power even amid the dynamism of human history. Something that cannot countenance change in order to keep on being itself is not something “traditional” but something that’s not strong enough to give rise to a tradition. In this sense, though not in Rose’s, Taylor’s book is most certainly an apology for the Christian tradition.

Justin D. Klassen
bellarmine university
louisville, kentucky

The problem with Matthew Rose’s reading of Charles Taylor emerges with his opening false dichotomy: either Alasdair MacIntyre or Charles Taylor. Indeed, Rose poses the two as mutually exclusive: “Taylor intends to demonstrate the impossibility of the Benedict Option by showing the impossibility of being other than secular.” I’m guessing several proponents of the so-called “Benedict Option” would be surprised to learn it is antithetical to Taylor’s account of our secular age. Indeed, I think a number of folks who appreciate the call for such intentional, formative communities of faith emphasize this precisely because of what Taylor has diagnosed about our contemporary milieu.

With this dichotomous frame, Rose also shows his cards: He is entertaining the possibility that we could not be secular. What does that mean for him? Well, it’s not entirely clear, because he never really addresses what Taylor means by “secular.” (Rose puts a lot of words into Taylor’s mouth and quotes few directly from him. It was hard for me to recognize A Secular Age in Rose’s alleged summary.) Rose vaguely encapsulates Taylor as claiming that “believers can no longer enjoy a ‘simple’ or ‘naïve’ faith.” Well, Taylor’s claim is quite a bit more complicated than that. But fine, let’s let Rose’s summary stand. Does Rose really want to deny this? That would seem like a version of signing up to stick your head in the sand in the name of faithfulness and orthodoxy.

Taylor would say that in a secular age, where plausibility conditions have changed and our neighbors believe otherwise, our faith is “fragilized” simply because it is no longer axiomatic. But is this really the threat Rose suggests? The conditions of belief entail modification not of what we believe but rather of how.

I suppose Rose is worried that people are looking to Taylor’s A Secular Age as if it were some sort of encyclical issued by a progressive magisterium. But who would do that? Taylor is no bishop and obviously A Secular Age doesn’t come with an imprimatur. Does Taylor demur from some traditional orthodox formulations of the Christian faith? Yes. But his own idiosyncratic revisions of orthodoxy don’t at all follow from his analysis—nor does Taylor ever claim they do. In How (Not) to Be Secular, I push back on Taylor at just those points where he moves from the descriptive to the normative (which are rare and rather parenthetical). Not only is there nothing in Taylor’s diagnosis of our “secular” condition that entails such revisionism, but there are actually aspects of Taylor’s argument that mitigate against it. One could be a more consistent Taylorian by not following Taylor’s suggested theological moves.

Yet Taylor’s analysis has pastoral value, not as a theological pronouncement but as an ethnography of the age in which we bear witness and make disciples. And we ignore such analysis at our own peril, I think, because the alternative would be what I fear Rose commends: a “traditional” faith that (wrongly) imagines itself unaffected by tectonic shifts in how we believe. We do the Gospel no favors by pretending that the world hasn’t changed. Nor do we compromise the Gospel by recognizing that it has. Our Mars Hill is not Paul’s. That doesn’t mean that the good news needs to be revised, but it does mean that how we proclaim (and live) it must. We need not choose between faithfulness and secularity: Our burden is to discern how to be faithful amid secularity. The question isn’t whether to be secular. It’s how (not) to be secular as we make our pilgrimage toward the City to come.

James K. A. Smith
calvin college
grand rapids, michigan

Matthew Rose replies:

Justin D. Klassen and James K. A. Smith raise far more issues than I can pursue here, so let me try to isolate what I see as fundamental: Is Taylor’s understanding of secularism in principle opposed to Catholic Christianity? I argue that it is; Klassen and Smith argue that it is not.

On my view, the debate revolves around different answers to two questions. First: Is Catholic Christianity broadly committed to a number of philosophical theses? My article defended the claim that Catholic Christianity is indeed committed to certain metaphysical views about the nature of God, the natural world, the human good, and the capacity of human reason.

Second: How does Taylor stand with respect to this philosophical tradition? I did not criticize Taylor for failing to endorse or repeat Catholicism’s traditional philosophical arguments. I criticized him for adopting a philosophy that makes its essential affirmations virtually impossible.

One example must suffice. Taylor repeatedly argues that the affirmation of a “closed” universe (the “immanent frame”) made possible the discovery of certain human goods that could not have been cultivated otherwise. His argument—that we have learned at least some important things about nature, morality, and aesthetics only by rejecting God—may well be consistent with a revisionist form of modern Christian faith. But I do not see how it is consistent with the Catholic intellectual tradition.


In his article “Sex and the Religion of Me” (December), James Kalb pointed out several weaknesses of liberal religion, among them the tendency to falsify reality and the inability to strengthen the bonds of solidarity. I would add to that the much larger and more significant weakness that liberal religion lacks the ability to love.

This hit home for me recently when reading a Washington Post article about the media’s increased willingness to investigate and report on allegations of sexual assault. The article mentioned, amid several other examples, Jian Ghomeshi, who “was fired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. just before a story in the ­Toronto Star reported that [he] had punched, slapped or choked women without their consent during sexual encounters” (emphasis mine). The fact that it is necessary to add the qualifier “without their consent” in order to make the action sound inappropriate shows us exactly where we stand as a society. Toleration is the only moral virtue, and it is absolute. I have a right to do anything that does not violate another’s freedom, and anything that does not violate another’s freedom is morally acceptable.

All of this, however, provides a major problem for human hearts that are longing for love. True, it leaves enough room for eros, but deep down inside, we humans want more; we want agap?. We want a love that not only desires to be with the other, but also desires the good for the other. But how can we have such a love if we lack a definite concept of the good? How can I, as a separate, thinking individual, desire the good of another if that good consists wholly in her own self-will? I can cater to her wants as a robot would, but I cannot love her as a person.

As believers, of course, we know that love is what fulfills our human nature. This has brought us into conflict with a world that believes that happiness comes from within, and it will continue to do so. Yet we should also remember that it is the source of our strength. The followers of liberal religion cannot say, “It is wrong to choke a woman during sex, even if she agrees to it.” We can say that, and that is a message that a lot of people want to hear.

Martin Bordelon
richmond, virginia


In “Is Sex Necessary?” (December), Roger Scruton painstakingly analyzes the roots of modernism’s rejection of traditional sexual morality and describes a theory of sexual liberation that explains many of the political goals sought by those who believe, as he puts it, that “sex is not about love between people, but about friction between their parts.” His analysis of the writings of Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, shows how a secular philosophical principle has expanded in the years following to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of faith. But after erecting a fine-looking house of cards, Scruton piles on one too many in the last sentence. The last card is the word “instinct.”

Is there really an instinct that both men and women have to “make a lasting home for their children, and teach those children to make a lasting home in their turn”? In the biological sense, an animal displays instinctive behavior when that behavior appears spontaneously, without the assistance of social cues or learning. Men have an instinctive drive to have sex with women (most men, anyway); many women have an instinctive drive to care for their own offspring; but the formation of a stable and enduring traditional family is anything but instinctive.

Every stable society in history has featured a sexual moral code that calls on its members to use their intellect and free will to choose to remain married and care for the next generation. Scruton shows in detail how the secular liberal agenda of sexual liberation flatly contradicts such a code, and paints a pretty bleak picture of the future of marriage in the West when he likens it to Wittgenstein’s notion of repairing a spider web with your bare hands. But if our only hope that a sustainable sexual morality will once again become widely accepted in Western society is instinct, we hope in vain.

Karl Stephan
texas state university
san marcos, texas

Roger Scruton replies:

Karl Stephan is certainly right to suggest that it is not instinct, in the biological sense, that will ensure the continuity of the family, and I regret that I used that word. I say that “human beings remain as they were—creatures hungry for love and commitment, who . . . are looking for the forms of social life that make love and giving possible.” And by “forms of social life” I mean all that culture, morality, and religion have handed down to us by way of placing commitment in the center of our lives. It is through the forms of social life that we acquire the ability to do “instinctively”—by which I meant without reflecting—what we would hesitate to do as a result of rational argument.

Just how we regain the stable ­sexual moral code to which Stephan refers is a question that I find hard to answer. But surely the first move toward that code is to teach children that it is care for another person, rather than the pursuit of pleasure, that is the source of sexual feeling.


Much modern intellectual debate, particularly within the popular arena, centers on disputes between religion and science over such seminal issues as creationism versus evolutionary theory, or theological explanations of the origin of the universe versus the “big-bang theory” of the new cosmology. The role that philosophy plays, as expressed in the questioning, meditative, and “mindful” enterprise that Martin Heidegger called “thinking,” inevitably lags behind public awareness of such debates. In “Should Science Think?” (December), David Bentley Hart challenges Heidegger’s singular devotion to thinking, along with his claim that science does not think (“die Wissenschaft denkt nicht”).

Hart correctly emphasizes that for Heidegger thinking is an “attentive awaiting on the mystery of being as such,” while the sciences “are of their nature quantitative investigations of the physical realm” and thus concentrate on measuring extant “things.” But there is another aspect of Heidegger’s division between thinking and science, which originates with a lecture he delivered in 1927 entitled “Phenomenology and Theology.” Heidegger argues that chemistry and theology can be grouped under the same umbrella, because the focus of each extends only to a specific region of inquiry—whether the natural realm of chemical interactions or the supernatural domain of a creator.

By contrast, the phenomenological awakening to the mystery of being reserves a unique role for thinking, which both elevates and humbles its mission in contrast to any regional investigation. On one hand, thinking engages the “question of all questions” through a devotion that science (or theology, for that matter) cannot rival. On the other hand, the task of thinking is necessarily humble, because it cannot yield any practical results, particularly in comparison with natural science, whose insights provide the backdrop for engineering the myriad of technological innovations we enjoy today.

There is a danger that any merely regional inquiry may become blind to its own limitations and exaggerate the finality of its claims. The rise of ­science in the modern age—whether in the form of evolutionary theory, behaviorism, neuroscience, or the new cosmology—provides an example of this misguided tendency. Hart, however, fails to recognize the danger that when science seeks to think, it may inadvertently exceed its own boundaries and assert (or presuppose) the kind of “metaphysical” claims that Heidegger sought to overcome.

In his famous “Letter on ‘Humanism,’” Heidegger argues that philosophy can “overcome metaphysics” only by descending into the “poverty of thinking.” While thinking may be “poor” in its practicality, through its humility it remains steadfast in resisting the reductive tendency to monopolize the truth. Accordingly, thinking wields its “deconstructive” sword by challenging the presumption of ­science, as well as religion, pointing to the spirit of open-ended questioning prior to the finality of any theory or doctrine. Thus, the task of thinking labors under a unique paradox: Its mission becomes more important even as it becomes increasingly marginalized in the public’s eye.

Frank Schalow
university of new orleans
new orleans, louisiana

David Bentley Hart replies:

My thanks to Frank Schalow, though I fear I may have inadvertently sent him off upstream after a very red herring. I challenged neither Heidegger’s devotion to “thinking” nor his claim that it is an activity in which (modern) science does not engage. My concern was not really with Heidegger at all. But, the issue having been raised, I shall offer four observations.

First, Heidegger’s grand narrative of Western metaphysics, for all its beguiling fillips and momentary flashes of insight, quickly becomes preposterous if taken as much more than a fable with a simple moral. It is the sort of story that could have been invented only in the aftermath of the Hegelian system, and it is time we began reminding ourselves of the countless distortions and moments of willful amnesia by which the­continuity of its plot is sustained.

Second, Heidegger’s understanding of “regional” discourses, and most particularly of where the demarcations of the various regions lie, is remarkably modern (in a dismally post-Kantian way). It can do no harm to ask whether the boundaries might shift again in years to come, and whether it is something we need really fear (who, after all, truly gets to decide what is or is not a licit inquiry for the sciences, or whether the sciences themselves might not at times unexpectedly open out upon a contemplation of the mystery of the contingency of beings?).

Third, the “humility” of Heidegger’s “thinking” is a damnably false, Uriah Heep–ish humility, to be honest. It is the duplicitous modesty of a discourse that presumes—with no warrant save temerity—to be more “original,” more comprehensive, more piously hesitant than any other. The result of this is that the “thinker” occupies an altogether ­unassailable position, from which he is able to discern and pronounce upon the limits of every other discourse (scientific, metaphysical, religious, cultural, or what have you), without himself being subject to critique from any other quarter.

Fourth, Heidegger’s “thinking” is so yieldingly devoid of overt philosophical convictions that it produces neither any answers nor even any very interesting questions. His contemplation of the “ontico-ontological difference” is conducted from so absolute a posture of metaphysical surrender, and is so successful in its abdication of all enduring metaphysical principles and postulates, that it turns out to be capable of accommodating everything. It is simply a late version of that pernicious quietism that was always present in his philosophical project and that, quite predictably, made it possible for him to embrace any historical regime that might look to him like a genuine instant—“erring,” but also fruitfully revealing—of Being’s epochal “sending.” A few inflexibly enduring metaphysical or religious prejudices—a few answers rather than “open-ended” inquiries—might have saved him from the moronic evil of his political dalliances.