Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Friday, July 31, 2015

On Rights and Identity

There are two further points on issues in the gay marriage debate that I'd like to address. First we'll look at the idea of "rights" and then at the idea of "identity."

(Picture: Drafting of the Declaration of Independence)

On Rights--This is a tricky term in our modern English use, and made no less tricky by the now-current idea of positing a "right to marry." In reflecting on the matter, it seems to me that there are two different kinds of rights. First off, there are natural, God-given "rights." These are the sort of rights that Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence: "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Imagine a man who is completely alone, stranded in the desert or some such thing. Now consider what that man would be able to do, according to his own God-given powers. He would have life, and liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness within the scope of the life in which he finds himself. He would have the ability to worship in whatsoever way he pleased; he would have freedom to say whatever he pleased; he would have freedom of conscience to follow whatever he believes is right. These are natural rights, the sort with which all people are naturally endowed. But there is a second set of "rights," and these are socially-constructed rights--examples of this would be the right to bear arms and the right to a speedy trial--things which our society has determined are extrapolations of human freedom a step beyond natural rights, which uphold justice and personal liberty. We must remember that if there is any such thing as a "right to marry," it belongs squarely in the second category, not the first. A man, under his own powers, all alone in the world, does not have a "right to marry." This is for a very simple reason: marriage depends on more than simply the capacity of a man under his own powers; it requires the consent of a second party. Without that consent, no one in the world has a right to marry. To speak about a "right to marry" is rather like speaking about a "right to have a job"--naturally, we would hope that anyone who would like to have a job could get one, but few of us would consider it a right, for the very simple reason that it depends on the consent of an employer. This right to marry, then, as it now exists, is a social construct bound by the perspectives of our current culture and society, not something that we could consider one of the natural rights of man.

On Identity--Part of the difficulty of this debate is that our modern culture has accepted a theory of human nature which views sexual attraction as an essential element in what we call "personal identity." So, when Christians attempt to say that certain forms of sexual attraction are erroneous in view of natural law and Christian doctrine, and certainly ought not to be enshrined in such a sacred institution as marriage, it comes across as an attack on those people's very identity. It sounds to them as if we are saying that they themselves are hopelessly corrupt, perhaps even worthless. But that's not at all what Christians are saying. We are arguing from a tradition that begins with different premises than the ones accepted by current culture. The Christian tradition has never accepted sexual attraction--even heterosexual attraction--as an essential part of personal identity. Sexual attraction is part of human nature, certainly, but the Christian tradition views human nature as corrupt--not just in a small subset of the population, but in everybody. Thus, sexual attraction is something that is touched by that corruption, again, not just in a small subset, but in everybody. Further, sexual attraction is under the control of a person's reason and will--one need not follow it; one can dissent from one's own attractions and not follow them through into action. This means that it is not an essential part of personal identity, not on the same level as reason and will, spirit and soul. Sexual attraction is a natural appetite, given to us for the very good, God-given reasons of procreation and union. But we have other natural appetites, too, such as for food--again, an appetite that serves good purpose. Like sexual attraction, appetites for food can run in multiple directions based on which individual one is looking at. And, as all modern culture knows, appetites for food can also run awry from their natural purpose. And yet no one argues that a proclivity for fast food, leading to obesity, is an essential part of one's "personal identity"--not even if those proclivities are based in the ineluctable determinism of one's genetics. The Christian tradition has consistently held this very realistic position on human nature: most people have sexual attractions for the opposite sex, a few have sexual attractions for the same sex, and many people have sexual attractions, driven by their own human natures, toward pursuing multiple partners rather than practicing strict monogamy. And yet Christianity has never seen these trends as part of "personal identity"--rather, they are natural appetites which the person can either pursue or renounce, according to their reason and will. In fact, early Christianity felt that a person actually became more truly human--more truly oneself--when one submits one's attractions and appetites to the law of reason and divine commands. But unless the modern view of personal identity rediscovers the wisdom of natural law regarding human nature, we will unfortunately be fated to speak across one another rather than to one another; we will be operating under distinct premises, and, thus, we will be speaking different moral languages.

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