Blogs > Cliopatria > Historians Against Literalism and Legalism

Jul 12, 2004 7:30 pm

Historians Against Literalism and Legalism

In celebration of a now-legal lesbian wedding, Religious Historian Karen Armstrong provides a brief historical survey of sex and marriage in the Christian tradition [thanks to Chris Pettit for the reference]. There's nothing particularly new there, though her view that marriage"is a spiritual process," in which"gender becomes irrelevant" is striking, particularly in contrast to the"rights and property" arguments that so dominate the arguments in favor of gay marriage in this country. She is, instead, tackling the theological arguments against gay marriage head-on, with a strong historical background (though she, like me, tends to view anything with a known origin as"recent" such as the seven-century old Roman Catholic tradition of priestly celibacy, and a half-millennium of in-church weddings) and, more importantly, a deep and abiding knowledge and faith in the value of"practical compassion, which mitigates the destructive tendencies of egotism and greed."

It's worth noting that Armstrong's A History of God is the book which crystallized my view of religious literalism as a perhaps the most dangerous intellectual and theological error of our time. It's not a centerpiece of Armstrong's argument, but it is clear that the increasing power of literalism in the 19th and 20th centuries (it certainly exists in earlier traditions) is in direct contrast to a long history of metaphoric and poetic readings of the bible, and interactions and exchanges between the theologians of the Western monotheisms (sometimes called the"Abrahamic traditions").

David Kyvig has a short HNS piece out today as well, arguing that the unintended consequences of an amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual (shouldn't that be"bisexual"?) pairs are another argument against enshrining our current hang-ups in law. As with most HNS pieces, the argument is OK, but the evidence spread very thin, but since Kyvig is the author of multiple books on the era of Prohibition and the unintended consequences of constitutional amendments we should, I suppose, give him some latitude.

My views on gay marriage are pretty well known to regular readers: it is the direction of the future, a patchwork approach will create more problems, anti-gay marriage arguments are rhetorically and logically unsound much as were the arguments against miscegenation, science continues to move us away from a procreative model of marriage.

Marriage is changing. That's not a statement about the present: it is a near constant. Our current religious, legal and emotional concept of marriage is very much a literalist, modernist, legalist, late-20th century romanticism. But it's the 21st century, now.

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