Thomas Kadmon, ICR. Image courtesy of The Times of India.
How do we think meaningfully about marriage, sex and family in the interfaith space?
Yes, how, given the variety of conflicting perspectives, both religious and secular, that populate social and political life?
I come from a tradition that views marriage as a committed, exclusive, lifelong relationship between one man and one woman, and open to life (i.e. babies). That tradition is also 'pro-life'; it believes life begins at conception; that a child deserves to be raised by a mother and a father; and that the family is the basic building block of society. This view of marriage, sexuality and family can be found elaborated in a 2016 document from Pope Francis called Amoris Laetitia, meaning The Joy of Love. It's not my intention here to defend or critique Amoris Laetitia, but to find pathways of dialogue and conflict resolution, in a world where a multiplicity of views compete. First, let us consider whether and how this is even possible.
Marx famously said, 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it'. All who wield philosophical arguments today, in truth, are involved in changing the world. Let Marx' statement goad us to transparency. It would be disingenuous to say my purpose is merely to promote mutual understanding around issues of marriage, sex and family. There will always be consequences for political action. One's understanding will flow, for example, into support or resistance for overturning abortion laws; for regulating pornography, in vitro fertilisation, or the participation of 'transgendered' biological males in women's sports. One's bioethical beliefs have ineluctably profound political implications.
The life-force expressing itself in human sexuality is an awesome thing.
Emotional wrangling with, redirection and sublimation of this life-force shape an individual's sexual ethics. Those sexual ethics then seek strong mental and political safeguards. The forces of nature, the evolutionary survival instinct - and the reaction to them - play into a battle for dominance whereby proponents of various systems of sexual ethics vie to impose their values on society as a whole. Visioning this through a scary lens has inspired certain literature and its adaptations, like Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale. It is not new to claim that our politics express our sexuality or our 'suppression' of it. The Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution offered liberation from the strictures of bourgeouis marriage, contending that society could become enlightened and creative if people were free to have sex with whomever they pleased and the state itself take responsibility for the offspring of these couplings. The technocratic state, even a century ago, would know best (according to the Soviet communists) how to educate children in all the important things - like what sex is for. However they soon had to wind back these policies since they found their society was breaking down.
Wilhelm Reich linked the rise of nazism to a suppression of sexuality in the population. This resonated with Yoko Ono who suggested world history would have been altered if Hitler had different sexual experiences. Those who followed in Reich's vein promoted the sexual revolution to overthrow "authoritarianism", and liberate individuals for democracy. The Boomers, whom we associate with the 60s sexual revolution, offered the world this nugget: 'make love, not war', as though the key to understanding human violence was unexpressed love. And it might be. But the recipients of the message hear an 'amoris laetitia' which is indistinguishable from 'the joy of sex' in a free-love setting!
The progressives tend to see the telling violence on the battlefield, the traditionalists in the intimacy of
the womb and reproductive system.
The brave enquirer needs to ponder this question of violence in regard to marriage, sex and family. At the risk of oversimplifying, there is a polarity that needs to be traced. The progressive wing of this argument sees the bombs-and-tanks destruction of battlefield war as the cost of saying no to sex. The no starts at an individual level, to curb the multifarious sexual impulse, and then society takes it up a notch by demonising and marginalising groups that engage in sexual behaviour that is not considered normative. There is agitation for rights and protections around the less prevalent forms of libido and lifestyle. Meanwhile the same progressives are pointing at 'authoritarian' figures responsible for initiating the current wars and unrest. At one level, Putin's war can be thus seen as a resistance to the spread of 'enlightened' western values around marriage, sex and family.
Now, the side of the argument promoting traditional values around marriage, sex and family also is alarmed by violent consequences, but the violence it focuses on is in the intimate private realm, like the abortion of fetuses and the mutilation of transgendered bodies. These are gross manifestations, abortion especially. But the violence, it is argued, has subtler, insidious precursors, from contracepting the procreative force, to wrecking a sacred institution with easy, no-fault divorce, to violating the body through forms of "unnatural" sex, to chemically and surgically altering the birth bodies of the young while waging war with parents who resist the transitioning of their children.
Avoiding the meat grinder of polemics
Given such polarisation, is there any hope for a meeting of minds? What is the point of writing and dialoguing here? To persuade? Yes, eventually. But not at the cost of teaching lovelessness. If angry defensiveness is evoked, it probably means the interlocutors have overlooked something critical to understanding. It may be best to slow down and retrace one's steps. Has a psychological fact been overlooked, or a religious dogma? The depth of a childhood trauma, or a paternal abandonment? In taking up such an emotionally charged theme as this co-opted Amoris Laetitia, the first need is for dispassionate mutual understanding and a philosophical perspective, to save ourselves from being sucked through the meat grinder of polemics. The desire to 'win' the argument, the vote or the war, makes one grow impatient with rational persuasion and resort to "cancelling" one's opponents - a political violence in itself. The conversation begins by establishing the lie of the land, that is, broad agreement around the basic patterns that views tend to coalesce in. Is there respect, for example, that there is a more traditional, religious approach to this whole moral domain as well as a more secular, humanistic approach? From there, the complexity can be entertained.
I said at the beginning, "I come from a tradition that views marriage as a committed, exclusive, lifelong relationship between one man and one woman, and open to life (i.e. babies). That tradition is also 'pro-life'; it believes life begins at conception; that a child deserves to be raised by a mother and a father; and that the family is the basic building block of society". So what do I say to Muslims who practise polygamy? What do I say to some Jews and other sects who believe life begins at birth, when the soul is imagined to enter the newborn? What do I to say to secularists who have aggressively expanded the empire of same-sex marriage laws? And what do I say when a candidate for Supreme Court Justice cannot answer the simple question, What is a woman? ?