Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Response to Some Criticisms

Recently, Reasonable and Holy has been critiqued on three grounds:
  • First, that it is, as Ephraim Radner suggests, "a tissue of maybe," and hence not sufficient to make a case for change.
  • Second, that while it may effectively weaken the prevailing arguments against the licitness of life-long monogamous same-sex relationships, and indeed to some extent undermine the traditional limitation of marriage to mixed-sex couples, still, it does not provide an alternative positive theology for this innovation.
  • Finally, it is also suggested that the burden of proof lies on my side of the debate.
I see these grounds of complaint as related and I will try to address them in a single response. Part of this is because of the ethical understanding with which I come to the discussion. Not wishing to launch into a long essay on the various schools of ethics, let me just say that I would here espouse the ethical stand in the neighborhood of what are known as Probiliorism and Probabalism — as opposed to the more rigorous and inflexible Tutiorism. I am not alone in this, and in fact my position is the dominant model in contemporary ethics.

Tutiorism is a hard master, and requires that in any doubtful case, one must always follow the more secure or established rule unless the alternative can be shown to be so likely as to be virtually certain. In a legal context we might call that a standard of "clear and convincing" or perhaps even "beyond reasonable doubt." (Much depends on whether one is the plaintiff or the defense; bear with me!)

Probabalism and Probiliorism, respectively, require only that the alternative to following the standard rule be shown to be probable (or in the latter system, more probable) than the standard to allow for liberty. These would be something more like the legal standards of "showing reasonable doubt" or having the "preponderance of the evidence" on one's side.

I realize I'm mixing legal and ethical systems here, but I hope this helps make the distinctions clearer without bringing in too much subtle confusion. But I also do this in part because there is a forensic side to this discussion.

In short, from my perspective, some of my critics are calling for my side to provide clear and convincing evidence of innocence (or licitness) when all I believe we are required to introduce is reasonable doubt as to guilt (or illicitness). We are talking, after all, about the rightness of performing a certain action (or entering a certain estate), which the traditional side sees as a sin if not a crime. As I am on the defense side of the equation, and the burden of the "traditional" side is to show, beyond reasonable doubt, that the tradition is correct, I think I have done my job. Even Dr. Radner admits I present effective counter-arguments to much of the traditional case. In short, "maybe" is enough to cast reasonable doubt upon the air-tightness of the traditional case, and acquit those accused of improper action.

Now, when we get to the question of the church's blessing, a positive act on the church's part, the question of theology comes up. First, I must note once again that the church's teaching is that marriage exists prior to and apart from any "blessing" the church may offer. (The ministers of marriage are the couple.)

But when it comes to providing an alternative positive theology for same-sex marriage, I think my critics misunderstand me. I am not arguing for a separate theology of marriage different from the theology we already have for marriage — such as it is. (I add that proviso because any careful examination of the tradition reveals a number of variant theologies from the patristic era and up through the high middle ages and on through the Reformation. Anglicans tended in general to be closer to Luther's "a matter of the town hall" than to the Roman Catholic "sacrament," when they referred to marriage as "an estate allowed.")

However, I deliberately took the exhortation of the marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer as my model in examining a theology for same-sex marriage. I believe I have convincingly demonstrated that procreation cannot be held to be an essential element in marriage precisely because, according to the church's teaching, marriage is not forbidden to those who cannot procreate. That would seem to me to be a simple bit of logic (i.e., something not required cannot be essential), and incontestable as it stands. I believe I have also shown that all of the other characteristic "goods" or "ends" of marriage can be shared and realized by a same-sex couple. So whatever "theology" you wish to apply to marriage — apart from one that requires the capacity to procreate as essential, in contravention of the church's tradition and law — can be applied to a same-sex as well as a mixed-sex couple.

I hope that goes a bit towards addressing these critics. And I really do wish some of them would read the book instead of relying on Dr. Radner's review.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG