A few months ago, Piers Morgan conducted an interview with Ryan Anderson, one of the authors of the book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. After insulting his guest by having him sit in the audience while a homosexual businesswoman sat at the anchor’s table, he opened with the question, “Ryan, why are you so opposed to gay people getting married?”
Anderson’s response surprised him. “I’m not really opposed to anything in this situation,” Anderson said. “I think that marriage exists to bring a man and woman together as husband and wife to be mother and father to any children that union produces.”
Well, as news anchors are wont to do (especially CNN anchors), Morgan missed the point entirely and began attempting to browbeat Anderson into saying that he was, in fact, opposed to gay marriage.
Does Gay Marriage Exist?
Now at first glance, it may seem that Anderson was, as Morgan later accused him, “sounding like a politician.” After all, we’re good conservatives. We believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and we therefore oppose gay marriage, right?
Well, here’s the rub. If we believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, then how could homosexual marriage even exist? That’s like a “homosexual heterosexual relationship” or “a covenantal union between one man and one woman that is actually between a man and a man (or a woman and a woman).” It’s a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t make sense. If we truly believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman, then applying the adjective “homosexual” to it makes the concept incoherent. That’s why when Morgan told Anderson “you’re either in favor of it or you’re not,” Anderson replied “it’s like saying you’re against a square circle.”
Nevertheless, the misunderstanding continued throughout the course of the interview, and, at this point, I don’t think it was just because misunderstanding is a job requirement for working at CNN. This misunderstanding is entrenched much deeper in our culture than that.
Remember our discussion last week about the nature of essence? Well, if we believe, like good essentialists, that essence precedes existence, then when we come to a question like “what is marriage?” we start with the assumption that the institution of marriage has been imbued with essence by its Creator and has some purpose that it is supposed to serve. At that point, we can begin discussing what we think that purpose is, either by having the Creator tell us the point of the whole thing (through the Scriptures, for example), or by analyzing the institution itself and trying to figure out what its point is (similar to how a sane person, upon encountering a chair, would logically infer that it is an object for sitting on, not an object for drooping one’s self across).
But if we’re existentialists of the Sartrean tradition, we hit a snag. See, essence requires someone imbuing something with essence. It requires a Creator, dare I say, a God? And that would never do. So instead, we argue that existence precedes essence, that is, that the institution of marriage has absolutely no meaning save that which we choose to define it as. If that’s the case, then there’s no problem with “gay marriage.” After all, the decision that marriage is a union between one man and one woman was mere social convention, and it can change, right?
When Morgan and Anderson went at it on CNN, Morgan was demonstrating his existential presuppositions. He couldn’t conceive of someone arguing “hey, this is what marriage actually is, and trying to change it is like trying to make a square circle.” For Morgan, everything’s what you make of it. Under that theory, when a man and a woman say “we can get married,” they’re not actually entering into a covenant institution established by God and grounded in eternity. They’re simply crafting their own meaning under the label “marriage.” Denying a homosexual couple the right to do likewise is not seen as moral, but rather as hateful.
Well, now that we’ve got a working understanding of how the concepts of existence and essence relate to the marriage question, over the next couple of weeks we’re going to be discussing why existentialists believe what they believe, why essentialists think they can actually know what the essence of marriage is, and, essentially, why I am essentialist (and so can you!).
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Posted by Nick Barden