Colin Gunton, in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, notes “that the capacity of language increases by a process of de-synonymy; that is, the process whereby two words which are in the beginning synonymous take on different shades of meaning, and are so able to perform different functions.” (Gunton, 10)
Sadly, the opposite is also, too often, very true.
My children and congregations have long-wearied of my insistence that “Words mean things.” As a corollary, though, “for the thing you want to say, there is likely a word already.” As Gunton advises, there may, in fact, be several words that mean what you’re trying to describe. Unfortunately, very few others may ever have heard any one of the particular words for what you want to say. (And, although Webster is still selling dictionaries, most of us are happy to smile and nod until we find more comfortably convenient vocabulary in use.)
Frequently, though, a single, more common word may describe a broader, more complex reality, with the unintended result that, rather than one definition that fits multiple words, one word now has multiple definitions. These definitions may or may not overlap. They may even contradict each other entirely. But which is it?
“Which is it?” That is the central question remaining unaddressed in the current debate over what we have been calling “Gay Marriage.” Which “marriage” are we talking about?
Once upon a time, (c.1300, according to etymologists), we adopted a Latin term into English, not merely signifying the relationship between two individuals, but specifically referring, in both its verb and noun forms (“to marry,” and “marriage,” respectively) to the natural result that offspring were produced by the physical union of the two individuals.
Retroactively applying that term and its concepts in translation of Greek and Hebrew texts, it applies to the earliest such joining described in the Hebrew scriptures: Adam and Eve (Or, as would be fitting in Genesis 5:2, the two halves of “Adam,” a term identifying humankind as a whole, as well as the male individual of the original couple.) This resulted in a condition that, for most of twenty centuries, has been celebrated as a sacrament of the Christian Church in recognizing the intent of such couples to procreate. Thus, for most of Western cultural history, the word marriage was defined without much controversy.
As our story progresses, though, there were other issues to consider, not least of which were the benefits of such unions, their offspring, and the mutual care of these groups (we call them, generally, “families”) for one another. Over time, these groups were even seen to benefit the broader society, and were encouraged through social and financial benefits that were unavailable to individuals and/or other groups who did not conform to the scriptural pattern adopted. What became confusing (long before any discussion of “Gay Marriage”), however, is that the socio-political encouragements resulted in a state-sanctioned institution that has progressively deviated from the origins and character of the sacrament of marriage.
Today, then, the word marriage applies not only to the Church-ordained sacrament that reflects biblical descriptions of a particular relationship, it also has been applied to the legal/political status of a variety of other relationships, so long as they are registered with the state authorities in order to receive particular benefits in what could more accurately be called “contractually-obligated domestic partnerships.”
The confusion and consternation that surrounds the term Gay Marriage has resulted from allowing the word marriage to migrate in meaning to encompass at least two aspects of human relationships: one, a specific, narrow, religiously-constrained sacrament between two individuals who intend (and are presumably capable) to produce offspring; the other, a legal status afforded to some of those couples and others who register with the state in order to receive specific benefits.
In light of the above, perhaps it is still confusing to state, “There can be no such things as ‘Gay Marriage,’ in that the relationship celebrated in the sacrament involves two individuals who intend to produce offspring,” while maintaining that one’s socio-political belief in equal protection (and equal availability of benefits) under the law require their extension to any who are willing to register their “contractually-obligated domestic partnerships” with the state.
Granted, some will want to continue to offer preferential status to one or another category of these relationships as more or less beneficial to the purposes of the state. My view of our shared history is that these segregations have universally caused significant damage to our society as a whole, in its various segments, and to the individuals it comprises. I see a greater benefit to equal protections and benefits for all.
As one among many Christians who inadvertently perpetuate the confusion of marriage with “marriage,” as it applies to state-sanctioned benefits (In my defense, the IRS offers only the category of “Married, filing jointly” as the nearest description of my twenty-nine year relationship with Shelly Annette Myers.), let me reiterate my apologies as well as my repentance. Linguistically, the problem is not that we are calling “marriage” that which cannot be a marriage. It is that we have, for so long, used the term “marriage” to describe our enjoyment of preferential benefits as heterosexual couples who have registered their contractually-obligated domestic partnerships with the state.
We should stop. Or allow others the same privileges.