Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Marriage and Sex

I listened to the most recent 'Unbelievable' podcast yesterday, featuring Rob Bell and some random UK based apologist who was simply there to disagree with Rob's opinions on everything.

Eventually, and inevitably, their conversation landed on Rob Bell's much publicised recent affirmation of gay marriage. Listening to the conversation made me almost as annoyed as Rob sounded.

If you were to take the stance of the opponent here, it seems that marriage is all about sex. Indeed, sex defines marriage. I don't know if you've ever been married, but I have to say that in my experience of marriage, sex is only one part of the whole thing. Indeed, occasionally there are weeks and fortnights when sex is no part of being married.

So should we let sex define marriage, or should we let marriage define sex?

Consider the following (made up) example. Imagine there are two people who, for reasons we really don't need to specify, are physically unable to have sex. Indeed, let's go one step further and imagine them to have no sexual urges at all. Their relationship is entirely celibate. Yet they want to get married. Should they be allowed to?

Well, if marriage is all about sex, then clearly no. As they're not going to have sex, they shouldn't have marriage. Right?

If this couple was one man and one woman, then I can't imagine anyone would use this reasoning. We know marriage is not all about sex. Indeed, these days, sex without marriage is quite common and is merely frowned upon by some. But we would permit a marriage between two non-sexual people, if they were of different genders.

But consider this, suppose the couple was two men. Two celibate men, who want to live together in a mutually supporting relationship, without sex. Should they get married? Well, here you can't use arguments against homosexual sex to argue against male-male marriage (note, we're imagining them without sexual urges, so I can't really define them as 'gay' or 'straight'). What reasons are there for preventing this marriage? 

Oh, so you say that as they can't 'consummate' the marriage, they can't be really married? Once again, we're letting sex define marriage. It should be the other way around - marriage should define sex.

So at this point, someone will probably invoke the bible. But this isn't considered in the bible. So this is one of those places where we have to do some thinking, and work out ethics for ourselves. (Oh, and by the way, we know of several instances of celibate male-female marriages in the early years of the church, so we actually have precedent for not defining marriage using sex...)

Once the question of sex is removed, what barriers are left which prevent us from allowing same-gender marriage? You're basically left with convention and tradition. Neither of which are particularly strong reasons for preventing marriage.

So assuming that a celibate couple can have a 'real' marriage, without sex, why do the goalposts shift when we add sex into the equation? Is there something inherently morally wrong about homosexual sex? Well, some would say yes - it is explicitly condemned in the bible. Then again, so is wearing poly-cotton clothing and eating prawns, but never mind that, those things aren't really important, but this thing is. Apparently. Why?

Because its an 'abomination'...?

True, many English translations of the bible use that word in Leviticus. But then again, the same word is used for many things that we don't think twice about, such as eating any seafood that doesn't have fins or scales. The word 'abomination' is also a rather strong (mis)translation of a word that apparently means something more like 'mixing' or 'confusion' in its original language. Seafood that doesn't have fins or scales is a 'confusion' because it doesn't conform to our general concept of 'fish'. Sex between two people of the same gender is a 'confusion' because it breaks down the usual definition of gender roles - that is, one partner in gay sex is confusing his gender by assuming the female role.

Basically, an abomination is any animal or action that doesn't fit with conventional categories (see Mary Douglas's 1966 book 'Purity and Danger', particularly chapter 3 on 'The Abominations of Leviticus' - you can find copies online). And the Israelites were prohibited from 'abominations' not because these were bad for them, or because they were morally wrong, but to clearly delineate themselves as a people 'set apart' - avoiding 'confusions' was a way of ensuring that nobody could confuse them with the other nations. So if we're prawn eating, mixed fabric wearing, non Jews, in what way should these regulations apply to us?

But I seem to have digressed substantially from my original point. Marriage is not defined by sex. Sex is only a part of marriage. So we need to sort marriage out without reference to sex, and then - I expect - all the confusing ethical issues about sex might just fall into place...

Oh, and on a completely irrelevant note, I was also niggled by Rob Bell's use of the word 'birthed'. This is a word that I have only ever heard used by preachers. Nobody else uses this word. Just stop it, OK?

No comments: