Posts tagged ‘Nietzsche’

The State Of Our Public Debate: Same-Sex Marriage As A Test Case

Red Equal SignWhen the Facebook page of the Human Rights Campaign changed their profile picture to a red and pink equal sign on March 25 in anticipation of the Supreme Court hearing cases on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex marriage in California, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which restricts federal marriage benefits to only opposite sex marriages, the response of many in the Facebook universe was nearly instantaneous.  By the time the Supreme Court was listening to arguments for and against Proposition 8 the next day, roughly 2.7 million people had changed their profile pictures to the red and pink equal sign.[1]

Welcome to the way we debate and discuss watershed issues in the digital age.  We post a profile picture.

As I have watched the national debate over same-sex marriage unfold, I have been struck by the daftness of so many of the arguments concerning such a monumental issue.  As a Christian, I have grave theological and moral concerns with same-sex marriage, but others have registered cogent concerns with same-sex marriage quite apart from the traditional moorings of biblical Christianity.  For instance, in their book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George offer an excellent argument for traditional or, as they call it, conjugal marriage over and against a revisionist view of marriage.  The heart of their argument is this:

If the law defines marriage to include same-sex partners, many will come to misunderstand marriage.  They will not see it as essentially comprehensive, or thus (among other things) as ordered to procreation and family life – but as essentially an emotional union…If marriage is centrally an emotional union, rather than one inherently ordered to family life, it becomes much harder to show why the state should concern itself with marriage any more than with friendship.  Why involve the state in what amounts to the legal regulation of tenderness?[2]

The authors’ argument is simple, yet brilliant.  Those who argue for same-sex marriage seem to define marriage based strictly on affection.  But there are many relationships that are affectionate, such as friendships, and yet are not state-regulated.  So marriage must be something more than simple affection.  But what more is it?  This is a question that proponents of same-sex marriage have a difficult time answering with any uniformity.

Sadly, the work of these authors has not been well received or responded to.  Ryan Anderson, appearing on the Piers Morgan Show to explain the arguments of his book, was attacked by Suze Orman who dismissed him as “very, very uneducated in how it really, really works.”[3]  Considering that Anderson is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation who received his degree from Princeton and is currently working on a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, I find it hard to believe that he is “very, very uneducated.”

In another example of supporters of traditional marriage being flippantly dismissed, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones took Ross Douthat of the New York Times to task for daring to suggest that an orientation toward procreation ought to be part of the definition of what constitutes a marriage:

It was opponents [of same-sex marriage], after realizing that Old Testament jeremiads weren’t cutting it any more, who began claiming that SSM should remain banned because gays couldn’t have children. This turned out to be both a tactical and strategic disaster, partly because the argument was so transparently silly (what about old people? what about women who had hysterectomies? etc.) and partly because it suggested that SSM opponents didn’t have any better arguments to offer. But disaster or not, they’re the ones responsible for making this into a cornerstone of the anti-SSM debates in the aughts.[4]

In his response, Douthat questions Drum’s account of the origin of the procreation argument for traditional marriage:

If gay marriage opponents had essentially invented a procreative foundation for marriage in order to justify opposing same-sex wedlock, it would indeed be telling evidence of a movement groping for reasons to justify its bigotry. But of course that essential connection was assumed in Western law and culture long before gay marriage emerged as a controversy or a cause. You don’t have to look very hard to find quotes…from jurists, scholars, anthropologists and others, writing in historical contexts entirely removed from the gay marriage debate, making the case that “the first purpose of matrimony, by the laws of nature and society, is procreation” (that’s a California Supreme Court ruling in 1859), describing the institution of marriage as one “founded in nature, but modified by civil society: the one directing man to continue and multiply his species, the other prescribing the manner in which that natural impulse must be confined and regulated” (that’s William Blackstone), and acknowledging that “it is through children alone that sexual relations become important to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution” (that’s the well-known reactionary Bertrand Russell).

Douthat ends his response to Drum with a brilliant one-liner:  “Once you’ve rewritten the past to make your opponents look worse, then you’re well on your way to justifying writing them out of the future entirely.”[5]

This line, more than any I have read in a long time, encapsulates the problem with our public debates – not just over same-sex marriage, but over many controversial issues.  No longer are people interested in debating a big issue with the kind of intellectual rigor or careful thought such issues deserve. Instead, we change our Facebook profiles to an equal sign.  Or we ridicule a Notre Dame Ph.D. candidate as “uneducated.”  Or we make patently false claims about the historical origins of our opponents’ arguments.  We try to write our opponents out of the future entirely.

We, it seems, are much less interested in intelligently discussing and debating an issue and much more interested in asserting our will on an issue.  We no longer care whether or not we arrive at the right position on an issue as long as others bow to our position on an issue.  And, lest I be accused of intimating that only proponents of same-sex marriage engage in such dubious debate tactics, let me be clear that I have seen opponents of same-sex marriage pull these same kinds of sorry tricks.  After all, they’re on Facebook too.  They host cable news shows too.  They write less than thoughtful columns too.

The nihilist Nietzsche seemed to take special delight in laying bare the basest corners of human nature.  In his seminal work Beyond Good and Evil, he summarizes his thoughts on the heart of humanity:  “A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is Will to Power.”  Nietzsche purported that people, at their cores, desire to assert Machiavellian power over others much more than they ever desire to converse with others.  This is why Nietzsche saw “slavery in some sense or other”[6] as necessary to human advancement.  Those who are strong must assert their wills over those who are weak.

As I have watched the debate over same-sex marriage unfold, I have become worried that Nietzsche just might be right.  In this debate, winning against the other side has become more important than discussing and reasoning with the other side to arrive at the right side.  And because of that, I can’t help but think that, no matter who wins, we might just all lose.


[1] Alexis Kleinman, “How The Red Equal Sign Took Over Facebook, According To Facebook’s Own Data,” The Huffington Post (3.29.2013).

[2] Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson & Robert George, What Is Marriage?  Man and Woman:  A Defense (New York:  Encounter Books, 2012), 7, 16.

[3] Jamie Weinstein, “Fresh off his Piers Morgan confrontation, Ryan Anderson explains his ‘un-American’ views on marriage,” The Daily Caller (3.30.2013).

[4] Kevin Drum, “The Gay Marriage Debate Probably Hasn’t Affected Straight Marriage Much,” Mother Jones (3.31.2013).

[5] Ross Douthat, “Marriage, Procreation and Historical Amnesia,” The New York Times (4.2.2013).

[6] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1907), 20, 223.

April 8, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Epicurus to Gilbert

“I know that God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy!”  I have heard these words time and time again over the course of my ministry, usually from people who wanted to make decisions that, according to the Bible, were sinful.  Yet, these people could not fathom a God who would ever want them to choose a difficult or painful path – a path that would make them unhappy – even if it formed in them obedient righteousness.

The search for human happiness was perhaps most famously forged by the fourth century BC Greek philosopher Epicurus.  Epicurus asserted that a truly happy life was characterized primarily by two features:  a sense of peace and the absence of pain.  If a person had these two things, he would be happy.  How did Epicurus accomplish such a peace-filled and pain-free life?  First, he sought self-sufficiency and second, he lived with a large group of friends.  Epicurus, it seems, was the original college student – venturing out from his parents’ place with lots of his buddies by his side.  And though Epicurus himself was actually quite restrained in his morality and actions, his philosophy eventually gave rise to hedonism, a way of life which recklessly trades that which is peace-filled and pain-free for parties and pleasure.

For our purposes, it is important to understand how Epicurus related his search for happiness to his faith in God.  For the relationship Epicurus establishes between happiness and God serves as an almost precise blueprint for those today who cannot fathom a God whose ultimate goal would be anything other than their personal happiness.  Epicurus says of a person’s belief in God:

Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with incorruptibility or with happiness; and think that a deity is invested with everything which is able to preserve this happiness.[1]

For Epicurus, God does not define what it means to be happy.  Instead, happiness defines what it means to have God.  If you are not happy, then, the problem is not with you, it’s with God!  God is merely a means to the end of your personal happiness.  He is not your sovereign ruler and creator, but your divine therapist whose fundamental function is to make you feel better.  He is a “happy pill” of sorts – a pick-me-up to help you avoid the painful realities of life.  Thus, if happiness eludes you, the solution is as simple as shifting your theological sensibilities: “Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with…happiness.”

Epicurus’ philosophy has been replayed over and over again throughout the ages.  It has been most recently and famously espoused by Elizabeth Gilbert in her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia.  Gilbert, by her own admission, was a woman who had it all.  She was married to a devoted husband and lived in a giant house in the New York suburbs.  The plan was, shortly after she turned thirty, the couple would have children – they would start a family.  As her story opens, she is thirty-one.  But on a cold November night, locked in her bathroom, she discovers what she has always intuitively known:  she does not want to have kids.  She doesn’t even want to be married.  Gilbert explains it like this:

My husband and I – who had been together for eight years, married for six – had built our entire life around the common expectation that, after passing the doddering old age of thirty, I would want to settle down and have children.  By then, we mutually anticipated, I would have grown weary of traveling and would be happy to live in a big, busy household full of children and homemade quilts, with a garden in the backyard and a cozy stew bubbling on the stovetop…But I didn’t – as I was appalled to be finding out – want any of these things.  Instead, as my twenties had come to a close, that deadline of THIRTY had loomed over me like a death sentence, and I discovered that I did not want to be pregnant.[2]

So how does Gilbert solve her crisis of marriage and motherhood?  Existentially, of course!  She divorces her husband and takes off globetrotting – to Italy, India, and Indonesia.  And it is during her international adventures that she comes to a conclusion about God that, even though it is altogether unsurprising in its substance, is jarring in its frankness:

I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God.  I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted…You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.[3]

Attach to your theology nothing which is inconsistent with…happiness.”  Gilbert falls lock step into a crassly Epicurean vision of God.  She is right at home with a “do-it-yourself” theology.  If one version of God doesn’t work for her – if He doesn’t bring her the happiness, joy, peace, and fulfillment she desires as she defines these things – she is perfectly comfortable redefining her theology as much as necessary to suit her longings.  God exists solely to make her feel good about herself.  God exists to make Elizabeth Gilbert happy.

No matter how attractive Elizabeth Gilbert’s custom made system of doing theology may first appear, it is fundamentally dishonest.  It was the atheist stalwart Friedrich Nietzsche who knew that theological cherry picking was a futile and academically vacuous pursuit: “Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea…one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces.”[4]  You can take it all or leave it all when it comes to theology, Nietzsche says, but you can’t take only certain parts.  Nietzsche left it all.  At least he was intellectually – and spiritually, for that matter – consistent.

There is a bitter irony for the person who believes in a therapeutic God who would never want him to be unhappy.  In a limited and carefully qualified sense, he’s right!  God does not desire the unmitigated misery of His people.  Jesus opens His famed Sermon on Mount with a series of blessings, widely known as the Beatitudes.  He declares:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted…Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-4, 10)

The word “blessed” is rendered in many translations as “happy.”  Though I prefer the translation “blessed,” “happy” is not altogether inappropriate, as long as the substance of Jesus’ happiness is properly understood.  But in order to properly understand Jesus’ happiness, we must first notice the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ statements.  Those who are poor in spirit…can be happy!  Those who mourn…can be happy!  Even those who are persecuted…can be happy!  People in seemingly very unhappy situations can nevertheless be happy!  But how?  True happiness, Jesus teaches, has nothing to do with a person’s external circumstances, or even with his desires, dreams, and feelings, but with his eschatological and eternal hope.  Those who brandish about the statement “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy” as a license to do what they want, regardless of whether or not what they want is sinful, don’t really care about God’s happiness for them because they really don’t care about how God’s happiness comes to them – for sometimes, God’s happiness comes only through personal suffering and prodigious sacrifice.

How are you happy?  Are you happy only if you get your own way?  Or, are you happy when Christ works His way through you?  The first happiness is nothing but narcissism.  The second happiness is comfortingly indelible, even in a broken and sinful world that relentlessly seeks to bring us sorrow.  This is why I find my happiness – no, my joy – in Christ.  As the prophet exhorts, “Find your joy in the LORD” (Isaiah 58:14).


[1] Diogenes Laertius, 10.123

[2] Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia (New York: Viking, 2006), Chapter 2.

[3] Gilbert, Chapter 70.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche in R.J. Hollingdale, Nietzsche:  The Man and His Philosophy (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001), 99.

July 16, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments


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