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May 9, 2006

Dear Concerned Citizen,

by Matthew B. O'Brien

side bar side bar side bar It is often remarked by church historians that the authentic development of theological doctrine does not occur until it is challenged by the advent of a new heresy. Something similar might be said about the development of traditional moral wisdom—such wisdom doesn't translate itself into explicit philosophical argument until it is forced to do so by some unsound innovation which challenges it.

Perhaps the most striking consequence of this challenge—for those who are willing to listen—is the cogency and persuasiveness of the growing intellectual defense of traditional marriage: reasoned argument on behalf of what was once tacit moral consensus. The best of this intellectual defense is on display in a recent book, The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals (Spence Publishing, 2006, 316 pp.) edited by University of Chicago professor of social and political ethics, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Princeton University professor of jurisprudence, Robert P. George.

The book is the result of a conference held at Princeton in 2005, organized by the dynamic new scholarly think-tank, the Witherspoon Institute. The Meaning of Marriage comprises eleven essays by an interdisciplinary team of leading academics. Together the essays consider the institution of marriage from a variety of fields, including history, ethics, public policy, law, economics, philosophy, sociology, and political science. As the book shows, the advent of legalized same-sex unions in recent years is only the culmination of a destabilizing trend which began at least five decades ago, and it is as much the result of unprecedented structural changes in the everyday life of modern societies as it is the result of ideological shifts in sexual morality.

In her introduction to the book, Professor Elshtain laments the shallowness of much of the contemporary public debate regarding marriage. Her complaint is surely correct, and in this regard the serious and measured arguments put forth in The Meaning of Marriage are a welcome change. Elshtain's introduction also provides a succinct summary of each essay, helpfully highlighting the key points. One of the most interesting (but demanding) essays is "Sacrilege and Sacrament" by British philosopher Roger Scruton. As Elshtain puts it,

... Scruton addresses marriage from a far-reaching humanistic perspective, highlighting important methodological considerations in the study of human practices. Scruton begins by contrasting the external, detached stance assumed by social science, and the internal, first-person perspective of lived human experience. Considered from the viewpoint of the former, marriage provides essential social functions for perpetuating society over time, and from the viewpoint of the latter, marriage sanctifies our sexual desire by elevating it into existential commitment to another person.

Social scientist Elizabeth Marquardt and University of Chicago professor Don S. Browning, in their essay "What about the Children? Liberal Cautions on Same-Sex Marriage," sketch a "philosophical anthropology" of marriage. They explore, as Elshtain puts it, "the similarities between the traditional views of Aristotle and Aquinas on the one hand, and contemporary evolutionary psychology on the other. These disparate sources concur on the importance of 'kin altruism' for effective child rearing, an insight overlooked by most same-sex marriage proponents." Another fascinating essay is "Changing Dynamics of the Family in Recent European History" by Princeton economic historian Harold James. Again, Elshtain:

John Maynard Keynes famously remarked, "In the long run we are all dead anyway." True enough for us the living, but not so for society's future generations—they are the long run. Economists, therefore, often search for 'inter-generational equity' and social mechanisms that can make reliable and legitimate transfers between generations…. Harold James argues the family is perhaps the only social institution capable of achieving inter-generational and inter-temporal equity. A living generation's concern for society's future stems largely from concern for the prospects of its own children. This concern provides the present generation with incentives to undertake projects and activities whose benefits they will never see, but which their descendants will enjoy.

James' essay provides a penetrating lens through which to see the current depopulation crisis plaguing Western Europe and Japan (and for that matter, "blue state America" as well): abandonment of the traditional family undermines the economic and political viability of entire societies.

Frequent tothesource writer Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse contributes a provocative essay entitled "Why Unilateral Divorce Has No Place in a Free Society." She analyzes rival conceptions of marriage and the family in economic terms and shows how a divorce culture, and a fortiori a same-sex union culture, diminishes personal liberty and enhances the scope of state power. In effect, Morse presents the libertarian argument for traditional marriage.

Maggie Gallagher and University of Virginia professor, W. Bradford Wilcox, each address marriage from a sociological perspective. Gallagher's piece "(How) Does Marriage Protect Child Well-Being" sketches the present state of marriage research and provides a helpful summary of the sociological data which demonstrate the superiority of traditional marriage for children. Wilcox's "Suffer the Little Children: Marriage, the Poor, and the Commonweal" details a sociological history of the family since the 1960s, stressing the destructive consequences of abortion and widespread contraception, and shows how divorce and broken families lead to material poverty. From this conclusion Elshtain points to an important lesson: "Wilcox's argument should dispel the common assumption that the plight of today's poor is simply a result of economic inequality and the cultural values and family structure are of secondary importance." On the contrary, cultural values and family structure are perhaps the dominant contributors to poverty.

The other essays in the book are also engaging, and each offers a distinct vantage point on marriage. Legal scholar David F. Forte's "The Framers' Idea of Marriage and Family" addresses how the American founding generation saw the importance of marriage and the family. Amherst political philosopher Hadley Arkes argues in "The Family and the Law" that legal endorsement of same-sex unions will likely mark the end of any public regulation of sexuality at all—even perhaps pedophilia. Once a principle is enshrined in law, he writes, it works itself out to its logical conclusion.

Robert P. George's essay, "What's Sex Got to Do with It? Marriage, Morality, and Rationality," makes a philosophical argument for the immorality of homosexual activity. George contends that only in the biological and psychological complementarity shared by a man and a woman can actual "one-flesh" unity be achieved. Sexual activity outside this context violates the basic good of marriage.

The contemporary situation in family law and its historical roots are the subjects of law professor Katherine Shaw Spaht's essay, "The Current Crisis in Marriage Law, Its Origins, and Its Impact." Political theorist Seana Sugrue rounds out the collection with "Soft-Despotism and Same-Sex Marriage," in which she addresses the family as a bulwark of civil society, drawing upon the work of Alexis de Tocqueville.

The Meaning of Marriage should be required reading for anyone who wishes to think seriously about the nature of marriage and the family and about their role in contributing to individual and social well-being. Proponents of same-sex unions and other inheritors of the sexual revolution will be confronted by a stiff challenge. Defenders of traditional marriage and family life will acquire a potent set of arguments on their behalf, none of which is dependent upon religious claims. In either case, Elshtain and George's The Meaning of Marriage will provoke.

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Responses to Da Duh Dinci Code:

There is no need to mock the title of The Da Vinci Code as you did in your last weekly email. It is more demeaning to your publication and the goals to which it strives than it is to Dan Brown's book. While your aim in debunking this atrocious novel is laudable, your approach in doing so is misguided. What is needed is a direct refutation of his many inaccuracies but done in a way that is not threatened by its content. Don't show your annoyance with the book. Be glad for the opportunity to dialogue with people who've never learned anything about the early centuries of the church. When we mock our opponents we give them far more credence than they deserve. So lighten up and just give the facts. - Chris Lang

Thanks for your good work. It is nice to be able to read the historically and otherwise academically responsible material you provide. - Craig Keener

Thanks for the email on Da Vinci Code. As a pastor I am devoting two of our worship services to the claims of the book and movie. - Den Slattery

Get a life! It's a novel... fiction! - A.

It's a NOVEL!!!! - M. E. M.

Though I agree with you and your ministry. What do you do with the statement in the beginning of the book that says all of this is a work of fiction? He doesn't have to be accurate? Are we Christians not selling his book for him? Nothing breeds success like controversy. We keep adding fuel to the fire. - Jim Peterson

It is unfortunate that so much print and space has been given to this book and any credibility given to it as a presenting facts. I think the generalization at the front of the book by Mr. Brown has to do with generalized descriptions of buildings, and existence of some documents. he also describes his work as a novel. At the get go, if someone were taking this as "gospel," it is incumbent on the reader to ferret out facts. Right at the outset of the book, dates were wrong. After having read his claim of "truth" at the beginning, then seeing the wrong dates and places, I immediately read this as a fictional work and then enjoyed it for what it was. Mr. Brown is reaping the benefit of writing a novel that has been read and discussed so much by so many that it compounds his riches. I actually think that "Angels and Demons" was a better book and was written in a similar vein. His other novels are standard espionage books. The coming movie of "The Da Vinci Code" cannot possibly do justice the fanciful writing of the book. As P.T. Barnum so aptly observed, " There is a sucker born every minute." I am amazed at how many have made an issue of this book. which is not the great American novel. Thanks for our columns about many topics that bring thoughtful people together for discourse. - Cortlandt Bender

As a Christian, I get nervous when other Christians rise up in righteous indignation. If Mr. Brown's sole purpose is to malign the Christian movement. . .of which I am a part. . .could he not have set forth a myriad of 'factual historical' stories involving the Inquisition, the witchcraft trials in New England, the participation in slave trade, the treatment of the Incas and on and on and on? Get a life. It is a work of fiction. Thank God he didn't go after the more blatant non-fiction. - Don Dixon

The Da Vinci Code works on a metaphorical level, not on an historical level necessarily. In other words, it works on the story level, but beyond that, I have no doubt that the Catholic church suppressed the feminine side of religion...look at nuns, having to wear hats in church, the whole patriarchal setup, and you have to agree that Brown has a point. Besides, why can't the marriage of Magdalene and Jesus be a theophany? A union of the natural, supernatural??? Read with imagination!!! It's a great book with a thought-provoking premise if you can stretch your minds a little. - Dianne Armstrong

Folks, So far, the people who write to "debunk" Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code sound just as far out as Dan does.... except for one thing: Dan Brown's book is fiction, and the panicy responses are alleged as facts. Many responses distort history to meet their own politically correct assumptions. That's no better than what Dan Brown offers! As Christians, we should be firm in our faith. The true, simple Christian message... the "Good News" gospel message... is the one thing that survives on faith, not on proof, and transcends all dogma, including fictional accounts of dogma. We Christians, and Christian leaders, should use the interest generated by The Da Vinci Code to focus on THE GOSPEL message. By getting caught up in the dogma... the nuances of Christian history, etc., we are simply demonstrating that we have nothing better to talk about than to argue with Dan Brown's yarn. What if our response would be, "Da Vinci Code? That's just a fictional story written to make money... let me tell you the real story, and the difference Jesus has made in my life!" That would be a story worth believing! - Bill C.

Why are all Americans movies so sex oriented. I have not seen the D.V.C. but your write up speaks of the worship of the divine feminine. This is so typically U.S. Even a children's movie about 10 year olds must have a love interest and at least a kiss between them. - Ed Brown

Responses to other tothesource articles:

Dr. Gerald Schroeder and Kelly Walker say that, "the phrase 'God set them in the firmament of the heavens.' 'Set them,' here means 'made them visible." I looked up the verb used on verse 17 and translated, "set" in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon and "made them visible" is not one of the meanings of this word. That meaning is based upon the assumption that they are arguing for, and that is that God did not create the moon and the stars on the fourth day. This assumption does not come from the text, but from their theory that seeks to harmonize unproven science with scripture. I just wanted to remind the readers that the translation, "made them visible," is completely dependent upon the assumptions of this theoretical harmonization. - Pastor Bruce R. Mayhew

First a correction to the writer when he writes that the sun and moon were 'created.' They were 'made,' not created. The Hebrew word for "create" does not appear in the accounts of the fourth day. There is a crucial difference between "making" and "creating." In Biblical phrasing "making" relates to producing something from something else that already exists. "Create" is an act only by God and is the addition to the universe of something from nothing.

However, the writer is correct in saying that the simple reading of the Text tells us that "God set them [the two great luminaries] in the firmament of the heavens" (Genesis 1:17) on the fourth day. The difficulty arises in what is meant by the act of setting.

The ancient theologian philosopher Maimonides believed that "set them in the firmament" meant "made them visible". He asserted this over 800 years ago, well before my proposed "theoretical harmonization" of modern science and orthodox theology. In his The Guide for the Perplexed (part 2, chapter 30), Maimonides writes that these luminaries were already made during the first or second day but were "fixed in their places on the fourth day."

Supporting Maimonides interpretation, scientific discoveries of the 20th century have only come to confirm that the young hot earth did indeed have a fog bound atmosphere. As the crust cooled, the atmosphere gradually cleared, and the sun and moon became "set", possibly meaning "made visible" in the firmament of the heavens. - Gerald Schroeder

Get you facts right. You made the statement That is because although the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon. The sun is MANY, MANY times more than 400 times bigger than the moon. Where did you pull this information? It hurts your credibility is other areas when you make such a gross MISstatement. I do enjoy you writings, but it helps for them to be accurate. - Pastor Tom Smith

Pastor Tom, I was not careful in my phrasing. I should have written that the DIAMETER of the sun is approximately 400 times greater than the DIAMETER of our moon. When I wrote "bigger" I meant to imply the visual size, that is the diameter. Thanks for the clarification. - Gerry Schroeder

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We live complex lives. We strive to sort out priorities that sometimes conflict or seem incompatible. A moral framework is needed to help us understand the reality around us. Our Judeo-Christian heritage provides a framework to help us comprehend the choices we make and the conflicts that arise over them. It is not only the main source of our spiritual values, but also many of the secular values we depend on.

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  Matthew B. O'Brien
Matthew B. O'Brien studied philosophy at Princeton University, where he received the Class of 1869 Prize for a thesis on Aristotle's ethics. He is currently a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.
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