Thursday, April 11, 2013

Marriage, words, dinghys, and talking lions


Some think of it as religious, some as civil, some as both. When some say marriage can be treated in strictly secular terms, a usual counter-argument from some of my Christian conservative brothers and sisters is that this cannot be done; that once you take away the religious aspect out of marriage, then it is no longer marriage, and/or you cannot call it 'marriage'. This reminds me of this great phrase by Ludwig Wittgenstein: ...if a lion could speak, we could not understand him. Wait, what? Well, there are many ways to analyse this phrase but this is why I bring it up: what are 'words' and what is 'language'? 

Here is an example: think of the word 'happiness'. Alright, now: define happiness. Or, here is another: God. That's right, go ahead: define 'God'. Yes, indeed. For those of us in the Christian tradition we have many words, terms, and definitions about 'God' for over 2,000 years. 

So, back to the word in question: 'marriage'. Tony Jones writes about it in the following way, particularly how the word and the meaning of the word has change, regardless of arguments to the contrary that claim that marriage has just one definition that has never changed:

On a flight last week, I sat next to a conservative Pentecostal pastor. We talked about demons and miraculous healings. And, probably to the consternation of those around us, argued vociferously about “marriage.” He was, like so many conservative evangelicals these days, in favor of civil unions for GLBT persons. But not “marriage.” No, “marriage” is something totally different, he told me.
Of course, he’s wrong. “Marriage” is nothing more than a word, composed of an assortment of letter — symbols with correlated vocal sounds. The definition of that word has changed since it was first used in English, and it changed over time in the many other languages that preceded English.
He then quotes linguist Geoff Nunberg, from NPR’s Fresh Air when he noted that Lexicographers know they're on the hot seat as they confront the changing uses of the word 'marriage' and presents the example of the word 'love':

Until just a couple of years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary defined the romantic sense of "love" as "[a] feeling of attachment ... based upon difference of sex." But the English language has never precluded describing a romantic attachment between two men or two women as love. It's just that those relationships were officially invisible to the OED's Victorian compilers. And other definitions would have led you to conclude that only men could have girlfriends or pay court to someone. In fact, the OED still defines a "couple" as "a man and a woman united by love or marriage." No doubt they'll get around to replacing "a man and a woman" with "two persons" — not because "couple" has a new meaning, but because we can finally see what was really basic to the old one.

As I sail the fun/scary waters of Theology, Biblical Hermeneutics, Philosophy, Ethics, etc I believe that people will continue to agree/disagree/agree for years to come on this issue; I am only a newcomer to these waters and at best I can still only handle a dinghy ha ha. But one thing is certain: words as symbols (and the meaning that these symbols point to) will continue to challenge us and will continue to change, including the word 'marriage'.

I wonder what a lion would say about marriage....