N.T. Wright recently made some controversial statements in opposition to same-sex marriage. He begins his argument against same-sex marriage by observing the dangers of the sudden and prescriptive redefinition of key terms, remarking upon examples of extensive attempts to transform society through the changing of its language by groups such as the Nazis and Communists. Wright argues that an attempt to change culture through the changing of its language is occurring in our day with the redefinition of marriage.
Wright clearly wants to alert people to the dangerous company that supporters of same-sex marriage find themselves when they prescriptively redefine key cultural terms and make arguments about being on the ‘right side of history’. He is clearly not suggesting that advocates of same-sex marriage are just like Nazis, that they are driven by the same ideology, or that their ideas have the same sort of destination. However, certain political and rhetorical strategies should set off alarm bells.
This said, when I first heard Wright’s remarks, I thought them quite ill-advised. The point that Wright was trying to make was an important and a sound one and the Nazis and Communists may be the most obvious examples of attempts to change culture through the official change of language, but bringing them forward as examples has a proven tendency to backfire. Even where there is no actual reductio ad Hitlerum taking place, introducing Nazis and Communists into a conversation will almost invariably raise the temperature.
This is especially the case when, as I have argued in the past, people increasingly tend to understand texts in terms of the impression that they leave, rather than in terms of a literate comprehension of and careful engagement with the logic of their arguments. While such reading of texts is profoundly deficient, in its hyper-sensitivity to elements of rhetoric and imagery it does not entirely go astray. These are dimensions of texts too and, while pieces like this rightly observe the failure on the part of some of Wright’s critics fairly to represent his arguments, we should not paper over the problems in the unguarded way that he illustrated them.
However, my purpose here is to respond to Sarah Moon’s criticism of N.T. Wright. Within her post, Moon argues that in opposing same-sex marriage, Wright’s ‘bigotry’ causes him to be inconsistent with his own theology. Moon claims that, in arguing for the importance of the binaries of Genesis—in particular heaven and earth and male and female—Wright is flying in the face of his own argument in his book Surprised By Hope, in which he attacks the ‘heaven/earth dichotomy’. Moon writes:
When I left fundamentalism, N.T. Wright introduced me to the beautiful vision of a world where binary systems are dismantled in favor of a celebration of relationship and diverse creation. His work inspired me to seek out other theology that dismantled the “heaven/earth” dichotomy–a search that eventually led me to the discovery of queer theology.
This claim seems to take a particular appealing thread of Wright’s argument, rip it out from the wider fabric of his position, absolutize it and form a new fabric around it, then use it as a basis to blame Wright for his inconsistency. A ‘dichotomy’ is a rather different sort of thing from a ‘binary’: Wright attacks a dichotomy between heaven and earth, yet clearly retains a binary.
Furthermore, the notion that opposition to one dichotomy or ‘binary system’ must entail opposition to binary systems in general is a great example of lazy thinking. In The New Testament and the People of God (252-256), Wright develops an extensive taxonomy of dualisms/dualities, observing the dangers of conflating all forms of dualism/duality under a general disapprobation. Different dualisms/dualities have to be handled differently, some affirmed, others qualified, and many more resisted. The attempt to characterize Wright as a crypto-deconstructivist in his views on binaries will always founder upon a careful reading of his texts.
Let’s hear what Wright has to say on the matter at hand:
Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated for ever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth. Nor are they simply different ways of looking at the same thing, as would be implied by some kinds of pantheism. No: they are different, radically different; but they are made for each other in the same way (Revelation is suggesting) as male and female. And, when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forwards; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.
That quotation is from page 116 of Surprised By Hope, the book upon which Moon rests her claims about Wright’s inconsistency. There are some key points that should be registered here:
- Wright explicitly compares male and female with heaven and earth.
- He attacks a heaven and earth dichotomy—they ‘are not … poles apart’—and, by implication, a male and female dichotomy.
- He maintains a radical difference between heaven and earth and implies that male and female are also clearly different.
- Heaven and earth, like male and female, are nonetheless ‘made for each other’.
- The union of heaven and earth is compared to the wedding of a male and female.
- This ‘wedding’ is a ‘creational sign that God’s project is going forwards; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.’
Implicit within these points is very robust opposition to same-sex marriage. The male and female binary is clearly affirmed and upheld. This binary stands in opposition to the sexual ‘spectrum’ that Moon and Alan Hooker uphold. This binary finds its meaning in union: the telos of the clear difference between the sexes is most clearly manifested in the bringing together of male and female in marriage, which expresses in nuce the bringing together of the two halves of the human race more generally. Men and women were ‘made for each other’. Men were not made for men, nor women for women. Finally, God’s purpose is seen in fruitfulness, rather than the fruitlessness of same-sex unions. Wright’s allusion to the fact that the blessing upon humanity is one that focuses upon the fruitfulness granted to the union of the male and female binary underlines his point even further.
Within Wright’s approach the marriage of a man and a woman is a ‘creational sign’ of something far greater: the eschatological union of heaven and earth, of Christ and his Church. Marriage is a symbol of the fact that men and women were made for each other in their differences (a point that is revealed in the narrative of Genesis 1-3), of the union that is the telos of Christ and Church and heaven and earth, and of the fruitfulness that is God’s purpose for the creation. The redefinition of marriage attacks a central symbol of the human race and of God’s purposes for humanity and creation. This is one of the reasons why sexual relations between persons of the same sex are treated with such seriousness in Scripture: such relations are seen as an assault upon the image of God as male and female and upon marriage between man and woman as the ‘icon’ of humanity.
When same-sex relations are presented as ‘marriages’ the sin is compounded by a parody and distortion of the symbol of God’s creative purpose and order. As Richard Hays has suggested, homosexual acts are seen as an ‘antisacrament’ of rebellion in Scripture, a celebration of the breaking down of the created order. I believe that Wright would join him in seeing same-sex marriage and Christian marriage as existing in fundamental and inescapable antagonism as opposing visions of human nature and the purpose of creation.
Same-sex marriage eviscerates the Christian vision of God’s creational purpose and of the goodness of the male/female binary, as Wright understands them. For the glorious union in which the two halves of humanity are blessed with fruitfulness, it substitutes a fruitless relationship between two persons of a single sex, achieving neither the union nor its attendant blessing of the outflowing of life. Wright’s points here show exactly what is at stake in the same-sex marriage debates.