Aesthetics and Creation

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

And though the good is weak, beauty is very strong.
Nonbeing sprawls, everywhere it turns into ash whole expanses of being,
It masquerades in shapes and colors that imitate existence
And no one would know it, if they did not know that it was ugly.

And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they will still know how to say: this is true and that is false.

Thus finishes the poem ‘One More Day’, written by 20th century Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). Milosz, like Dostoevsky before him, realized the important role that beauty can play in helping us to discern between good and evil, truth and falsehood.

Truth, Goodness and Beauty Must Go Together

The interrelationship between goodness, truth and beauty is crucially important to us as Christians. As I argued last year in a piece about George MacDonald, goodness, truth and beauty may be distinguishable, they should never be divisible.

I once heard Douglas Wilson give a talk where he suggested that conservative Christians often excel when it comes to holding the fort for truth and goodness, yet are woefully lacking when it comes to beauty and aesthetics. Pastor Wilson went on to suggest that to have goodness without beauty is moralism. But to have truth without beauty is rationalism and lifeless orthodoxy. Equally, he argued, beauty without truth lapses into sentimental romanticism. (Wilson developed some of these themes with Douglas Jones in their excellent book Angels in the Architecture.)

I think Wilson is right. The area of aesthetics is an arena where we are obligated to think Biblically, yet as Christians we are often purely equipped.

Scripture is not silent on questions about art, beauty and aesthetics (I hope any specialist readers will forgive me for lumping these three categories together for operational purposes. I have given all the fine distinctions in my article ‘Music and the Objectivity of Beauty.’). Indeed, we receive insight in how to think about these topics right from the very opening pages of scripture.


Aesthetics and Creation

One of the striking features of the creation account is that God’s activity is not purely functional. He spends one whole day resting from His work and reflecting that it is very good (Gen. 1:31-2:2). The fact that God is able to sit back (so to speak) and appreciate His artwork tells us an important thing about His nature. It tells us that the Lord exercises aesthetic appreciation.

Even if it were not for the creation narrative, this same fact would be evident when, like David in Psalm 8, we consider the work of God’s fingers. When we look over God’s artwork, we see that not everything in our world has a purely functional or instrumental value. Whatever evolutionists may try to say, there are some things that God made just to look nice, to smell pleasant, and to sound delightful. This suggests that God puts a premium on aesthetic considerations.

Aesthetics and God’s Image-Bearers

When we read about the creation of mankind, we learn that men and women bear the divine image (Gen. 1:26-27). Whatever else this means, it means that we inherit many of God’s characteristics. Human nature exists as an imperfect reflection of divine nature. Thus, the things we see God doing in Genesis 1 and 2 – such as speaking (1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc.), naming (1:5, 8, 10, etc.), making (Gen. 1 & 2), reasoning (2:18) and, yes, exercising aesthetic appreciation (1:31) – are also qualities inherent to us as God’s image-bearers.

To be God’s image-bearers means that human beings can appreciate objects that are aesthetically pleasing even as God can. Adam and Eve were able to exercise their aesthetic senses to appreciate all the wonderful things God gave them in the garden, to enjoy the beautiful sunsets and vistas, to take delight in the music of birds and water, to savor the aesthetically pleasing aromas of flowers, and so forth.

Not only do Adam and Eve enjoy God’s creation; they also make their own works, engaging in what Tolkien called ‘sub-creation.’ For example, Adam’s appreciation of Eve led him to create an aesthetically pleasing artwork to describe his delight, namely the poem of Gen. 2:23.

Aesthetics and the Fall of Man

Eve exercised aesthetic appreciation when she noted that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6).  Significantly, Eve’s sense of aesthetic appreciation was one of the things the devil was able to exploit when tempting her to sin. The words of Genesis 3:6, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes”, has obvious parallels to Genesis 1:31 when God saw that everything He made was good. The devil appealed to Eve’s God-given ability to appreciate what is good and pleasant, but used this to entice her to sin.

Merely because Eve’s aesthetic sense was one of the things used to corrupt her does not mean that this area is bad or beyond redemption any more than speech should be discounted since the devil spoke to Eve during the temptation. But it does underscore the danger that arises when our sense of aesthetics (in the case, seeing that the tree “was a delight to the eyes”) becomes unhinged from considerations of truth and goodness. The tree that God created was good and was indeed a delight to the eyes, but Adam and Eve’s sin was to approach this good thing in a sinful way.

Aesthetics and the Dominion Mandate

Even after the fall, our ability to appreciate things that are delightful, creative and beautiful remains a central facet in our ongoing vocation as God’s image-bearers. But it also remains central to our task of fulfilling the dominion mandate given to mankind in Genesis 1:26-28 and reiterated to mankind in the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9.

When God instructed Adam and Eve to use the resources of the earth to take dominion (Genesis 1:26-28), He wasn’t just talking about farming. He was referring to using the earth’s resources in all legitimate callings. The dominion mandate was a challenge for man to develop the earth, which was rich with technological, cultural, intellectual and aesthetic potential.

Early on in the Genesis narrative we see family groups specializing in certain types of labor, with some focusing on using the earth’s resources to make artworks. We are told in Genesis 4:21 that Jubal who was descended from Cain was “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” just as Jabal had been “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.” (Gen. 4:20). No doubt other families specialized in metalwork, learning to make Jewry and other aesthetically pleasing objects.

Now fast-forward to the present day. The descendants of Adam are still taking dominion of the earth, and many still specialize in doing this through creating aesthetically pleasing artifacts. The only difference is that now our artistic creations have expanded beyond simply making harps and flutes like the family of Jubal. Adam’s descendants are now exploiting the earth’s resources to make cellos, oil paintings, novels, icons, orchestras, movies, recording equipment and opera houses. The list could go on and on.

It is true that given the reality of our post-fall world, these artistic artifacts are often tinctured with sin. The devil still uses our aesthetic sense to tempt us away from God’s commandments, resulting in beauty becoming divided from her sisters of truth and goodness. Yet this should not negate the reality that artistic production and appreciation remain crucial in the ongoing process of developing the earth’s resources to the glory of God.

Unnecessarily Little Extras

Of course, the area of aesthetics is not the only area, or even the most important, in which mankind fulfills the dominion mandate. But it is an important area nonetheless. It is true that few of us can make a living as professional painters, pianists, poets, film directors, sculptures, ballet dancers, novelists, architects or opera singers. For most of us, our involvement in art and aesthetics will be simply recreational, whether it be appreciating aesthetically pleasing artifacts that others have made, like movies, music and smells, or making small things ourselves like craftwork and music. But even when these things are simply recreational, there is still something profound going on. When we make something that is beautiful (whether it be knitting a sweater for a doll or singing a hymn), or when we appreciate an aesthetically pleasing artifact that someone else has constructed (whether it be watching a movie or enjoying fine clothes), we are exercising a faculty that marks us out as God’s image-bearers and gives glory to Him, provided that sin is not involved.

Similarly, the jobs that many of us are called to do which are not purely creative can still be permeated with subtle aesthetic considerations, thus underscoring the fact that human beings are not merely functional creatures. I am reminded of this when my wife takes a little extra time to set the dinner table nicely, perhaps by adding some flowers and candles, and putting on some pleasant music in the background. These additions do not have an immediate utility value. That is, they are not necessary for conveying food from the plate to the mouth. But they do add an aesthetic dimension to the meal experience that is part of what it means to enjoy the resources of the earth that God has given us. (And think, for a moment, of all the resources the descendants of Adam had to take dominion of throughout thousands of years just to get to the point of having CD players to add richness to our meals.)

When God created the world, He didn’t just make everything for its utility value, but He added ‘unnecessary’ extras to be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Similarly with our works of sub-creation: some artifacts are good, not merely because of what they do for us, but because of what they are in themselves as aesthetically pleasing objects.

Resurrection and the Sanctification of Matter (Gnosticism & Evangelicalism, 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst.” Acts 17:32-33

In 2003, Dan Brown’s publishing phenomenon, The Da Vinci Code, hit the world with a splash. The book popularized the ideas of Gnosticism, in addition to quite a few of Brown’s own ideas packaged in a pseudo-historical gloss.

I never read the book, but my wife and I did watch the film so I could write a review of it. Around the same time that we watched the film, I read in the papers that the National Geographic Society was announcing the publication of a new Gnostic document, the so called, Gospel of Judas.

Suddenly it was no longer merely historians and academics who were interested in Gnosticism. Everyone from the dentist to my neighbour seemed to be talking about issues of Christian origins and the historical Jesus.

Were the four gospels written to supress the truth of the real Jesus, who may never have even claimed to be divine? Might the historical Jesus have actually been an esoteric Gnostic sage whose true career was subsequently covered up by the church? Were the ancient Gnostics the true followers of Christ? These were the types of questions that I kept hearing people ask, prompting me to take an interest in this ancient heresy.

But there was another reason that Gnosticism captured my interest. Around this same time, an evangelical Christian writer and former mentor began publishing some magazine articles in which he suggested that maybe the church had got it wrong about Jesus and the four gospels. He speculated that maybe it was only because the church of the 4th century had colluded with political power that books like Matthew, Mark, Look and John came to take precedence over non-canonical works like The Gospel of Thomas.

A Fifth Gospel?

In the previous article of this series, ‘Salvation as Escape from the Body’, I explained that The Gospel of Thomas was among the discoveries made at Nag Hammadi in the mid 40s. Since its publication, scholars and lay persons alike have excitedly suggested that this fifth gospel offers a legitimate portrait of the historical Jesus quite distinct to the Christ of the canonical tradition.

They are right that the portrait of Jesus in Thomas is distinct from the Jesus of the Bible, but wrong that this helps us to understand the historical Jesus. There are actually good textual critical grounds for dating Thomas sometime in the 2nd century, which strongly suggests that the work is dependent upon the canonical tradition. (See the article at CARM, “Does the Gospel of Thomas belong in the New Testament?”)

But while Thomas is useless as a piece of evidence about the historical Jesus, it is extremely valuable in shedding light on some of the key themes of Gnosticism both in the 2nd century and, unfortunately, in our day.

Denigration of Matter

The Gospel of Thomas adopts a view of the material world that is deeply Platonic. But what do I mean by that?

We get a glimpse into the Platonic worldview in Acts 17 when we read about the reaction to the sermon Saint Paul preached at the Areopagus. The apostle expounded many truths at which an audience of Athenian philosophers might be expected to have taken offence at: God’s sovereignty, the need for universal repentance, the folly of idolatry and God’s coming judgement. Significantly, however, Luke records that it was the doctrine of the resurrection that incited particular mockery from Paul’s philosopher audience. (Acts 17:32)

This is not surprising. The bodily resurrection of Jesus challenged the deeply dualistic philosophy that many of the ancient Greeks held in common with Gnosticism. Echoing Plato’s statement “Soma sema” (“a body, a tomb”), many of the Greeks looked upon the material body as a prison house. Perhaps the clearest expression of this comes from Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates explains:

“We are convinced that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things in isolation with the soul in isolation. . . . If no pure knowledge is possible in the company of the body, then either it is totally impossible to acquire knowledge, or it is only possible after death, because it is only then that the soul will be isolated and independent of the body. It seems that so long as we are alive, we shall keep as close as possible to knowledge if we avoid as much as we can all contact and association with the body…”

It should come as no surprise to find an assortment of 2nd and 3rd century writers, especially those associated with either the Greek or the Gnostic tradition, trying to fit the doctrine of resurrection into categories consistent with the metaphysics of a Platonic philosophy. We see this in the Gnostic idea that the goal of salvation is not the resurrection of the physical body but disembodiment in an eternal realm of pure spirit.

By allegorizing the Biblical references to the resurrection of believers and making them an approximation for either a religious experience in this life or disembodiment in the next, the ‘Christian’ Gnostics were able to deny the literality (and hence the physicality) of resurrection.

This is exactly what the Gnostic writer/s of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas did. The work even employed some of the same symbolism for resurrection as the canonical writers but reversed the images. “I will destroy this house, and no one will be able to rebuild it” says the Jesus of Thomas, in a likely allusion to the removal of His physical body.

Elsewhere Thomas echoes the imagery of 2 Corinthians 5:3 where clothing is used as a metaphor for physical resurrection. But while Paul assured his readers that “by putting [our heavenly dwelling] on we may not be found naked”, the Jesus of Thomas tells his disciples “When you disrobe without being ashamed and take up your garments and place them under your feet like little children and treat on them, then [you will see] the Son of the Living One…” The clothes, it has been suggested by some scholars of Gnosticism, represent the physical body that one should seek to be released from, trampling it underfoot as something abhorrent.

The idea here is that there exists a complete antithesis between the soul and the flesh, as if the world of the spirit and the world of material stuff exists in competition to each other. No one has better summarized this idea than the Jesus character in The Gospel of Thomas, who is cited as saying, “Woe to the flesh that depends on the soul; woe to the soul that depends on the flesh.” In this context, ‘flesh’ does not refer to the sinful nature that wars against our spirit, but to our physicality.

This same idea runs like a thread through many of the other Nag Hammadi texts, which present the lower physical flesh as being in competition with the higher spiritual soul. In The Apocalypse of Peter we read, “But what they released was my incorporeal body. But I [Jesus] am the intellectual Spirit filled with radiant light.”

Similarly, in The Exegesis of the Soul (another Gnostic document found in the Nag Hammadi collection), we read, “Now it is fitting that the soul regenerate herself and become again as she formerly was. The soul then moves of her own accord. And she receive the divine nature from the Father for her rejuvenation, so that she might be restored to the place where originally she had been. This is the resurrection from the dead.” Notice here how ‘resurrection’ is re-described in non-physical terms.

The Acts of John describes how Christ left no footprints, and the character of John reports: “I will tell you another glory, brethren; sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal…as if it did not exist at all.”

The Divorce of Spirit and Matter

Economists use the language of a ‘zero-sum game’ to describe a transaction in which one person’s gain is directly tied to another person’s loss. The outcome will always be zero, with one side coming out in the negative and the other side coming out in the positive, unless both sides come out at zero. By contrast, a non-zero-sum situation is that in which the aggregate gains and losses of the interacting parties can be more than zero.

The ancient Gnostics didn’t know about game theory, but they tended to treat God’s glory as if it was a zero-sum contest between God and creation. The glory of God, they seemed to think, could only be maintained by denigrating the created order, or at least denying that anything of spiritual value could be derived from creation. Spiritual growth was thus directly correlated to being disencumbered with the trappings of materiality, so that final salvation for the Gnostics involved eternal release from the physical body.

Or we might compare the Gnostic way of relating spirit and matter to a billiard ball. If the Eight Ball occupies a certain part of the billiard table then, given the limitations of space and time, it is impossible for the White Ball to simultaneously occupy that same spot. If the Eight Ball moves away, then the spot is vacated for the White Ball to fill it, and visa versa.

Those whose thinking has been tinctured with Gnosticism tend to treat spirit and matter like two balls competing for the same important space on the billiard table. In order to really do justice to the spiritual, they think, one has to denigrate or minimize the physical. It was this type of thinking that compelled the Gnostics to abandon the physicality of the resurrection (both Christ’s resurrection and our future resurrection) for various forms of Docetism. Docetism is the view which denies that Christ had a corporeal body.

The Gospel of Judas gives an interesting twist to this. This papyrus manuscript portrays Judas as having betrayed Jesus in order to help his Master get rid of His physical flesh. The crucifixion enabled Jesus’ true spiritual self to be liberated. The cross is therefore important not because it enables the redemption of the world, but because the cross is the means to escape from this world.

Gnosticism Today

Sadly, much of the church today is polluted with this very same dualism between the spiritual and the material, as I hope to show during the course of this series of articles. But one of the clearest examples is in the common notion that salvation is about escaping from this world rather than the world’s redemption.

Or again, we see it in the perennial temptation for evangelicals to retreat into an insular ‘personal’ faith that, in the name of being ‘spiritual’, refuses to engage with the reality of what is occurring in the material world. Believing that the material world is beyond hope, many Christians think there is little point to confront and challenge corporate ungodliness and institutionalised evil. Instead, we should focus on ‘spiritual’ things and leave the physical world to its own devices.

Evangelicals who take this approach are probably not aware of it, but in many respects they are echoing the same vision that we find in The Gospel of Thomas. The Gnostic gospel gives esoteric insight into the spiritual realm, but fails to offer either vision or hope for the present world. Whereas the canonical gospels carefully chart Jesus’ ministry within the context of Israel’s story line, showing how Christ brings the narrative of Israel to its climactic fulfilment, Thomas completely neglects this larger narrative of redemption history.

The absence of a redemptive-historical narrative in Thomas is not surprising. For the Gnostics, there is no redemption history of the world because salvation is not about what happens in this world. Rather, redemption is about escaping from the world.

The Marriage of Spirit and Matter

By contrast, in the Biblical understanding, although spirit and matter are not the same thing (that is, they are distinguishable like males and females), they are not utterly divisible and come together as one under certain circumstances, even as men and women come together in the marriage union.

We see this principle operative in ancient Hebrew theology. The temple was the place where Heaven and Earth intersect, where the spiritual and the material merge together and become one. We find this notion implicit in passages like Exod. 15:17 and 1 Kings 8:27-30, as well as the various Psalms which speak of God literally dwelling in the temple in a way that God, though omnipresent, does not dwell in other places. The temple foreshadows the intersection of heaven and earth in the God-man and later in the church, both of which anticipate the final Eschaton when Heaven and earth are finally reconnected together in fulfilment of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:10).

In these passages we are confronted with the notion that the ordinary materiality of our world can, under certain conditions, be taken up and transformed into something higher. We find this same reality operative in certain objects that the scriptures treat as sacred, such as the Ark of the Covenant, Elisha’s relics (2 Kings 13:20-21) the garments of the apostles (Acts 19:12), or the transfiguration event (Mark 9:2-28), to name only a few. The point is that while all of the material world is good (Genesis 1:25) and in some sense spiritually-infused, certain sacred spaces can become conduits of spiritual power that set them apart from ordinary material things.

Resurrection is, of course, the supreme example of this marriage between the spiritual and the material. In the resurrected body of our Blessed Lord, spirit and matter were integrally joined in anticipation of our own resurrection one day.

But the implications of Christ’s resurrection go even further. When Jesus died and rose again, He reconciled the entire world to Himself (1 Jn. 2:2). This means that the material world does not belong to Satan, but to the God-man (Mt. 28:18). As ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19), the church’s vocation is to proclaim the Lordship of Christ into every area, from our Congress to our opera houses, from our hospitals to our schools, from our farms to our kitchens, and everywhere in between. Indeed, as Abraham Kuyper reminds us, we are called to declare publicly that Christ’s Lordship extends over every inch of the material world. Christ’s resurrection gives us hope in this project, since it points forward to a time when the entire physical cosmos will likewise be resurrected and renewed.

This is the vision that is missed by the Gnostic gospels. As Tom Wright once put it in a sermon,

‘The whole scripture, and with it all mainline Jewish and Christian thought, it based on the belief that there is one God who made the world, who made it good, and who will put it to rights at the last. Gnosticism declares, very explicitly in the ‘gospel of Judas,’ that the world was made by a lesser, low-grade divinity, and that the thing to do is to find the way to escape… …it cuts the nerve of working for God’s kingdom in the real world.’

 

 

How Gay ‘Marriage’ Became Plausible

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” Mark 10:6

A Christian lobby group recently hired me to write a little book on why gay ‘marriage’ is a bad idea. To jump start the project this morning, I took the subway to the British Library, checked out a bunch of books on marriage and same-sex relationships, and then opened a Word document. In the Word document I began listing as many reasons I could think of why legalizing same-sex marriage is a bad idea.

I hadn’t been working for very long before the whole project began to strike me as rather surreal. How has our world got to the point where it is even necessary to try to prove that marriage can only be between a man and a woman? For millennia of human history, the institution of marriage has always been understood as being between a man and a woman. Even in cultures where the practice of homosexuality has been widespread, if someone had suggested widening the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships, no one would have taken you seriously. So why now, all of a sudden, are so many states and nations jumping on the bandwagon to make marriage mean something else?

Plausibility Structures

To ask this question is to ask about something called ‘plausibility structures.’ The phrase ‘plausibility structures’ was coined by sociologist Peter L. Berger to refer to the conditions in a society that make certain beliefs seem reasonable or unreasonable. Why is it that a proposition which, at one time and place, might seem completely self-evident and not even in need of argument, will seem totally absurd in another time and place? Questions like this force us to be attentive to more than merely what people believe, but the plausibility structures that explain why certain beliefs feel normal.

To talk about plausibility structures is to talk about the broader sociocultural context in which our understanding of the world (including understandings which may be unconscious) make sense to us and seem plausible in the first place. It is to be attentive to what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has called “a context or framework of the taken-for-granted, which usually remains tacit, and may even be as yet unacknowledged by the agent, because never formulated.” Or, as Peter Berger explained it as follows when discussing the Christian worldview in his book The Sacred Canopy,

The reality of the Christian world depends upon the presence of social structures within which this reality is taken for granted and within which successive generations of individuals are socialized in such a way that this world will be real to them. When this plausibility structure loses its intactness or continuity, the Christian world begins to totter and its reality ceases to impose itself as self-evident truth.

In our present sociological context, if a journalist were to write an article suggesting that the definition of marriage be widened to include union between persons and animals, few people, if any, would think such a crazy idea was even worth arguing about. But that is exactly the type of reaction that advocates of same-sex marriage would have been greeted with even thirty years ago. What are the plausibility structures that make the former still seem absurd to the ordinary person while the latter increasingly no longer does?

Womanliness as a Virtue

Clearly, there is no single explanation, but I suspect that one key factor has been the persistent erosion of the gender polarity that occurred throughout the 20th century. Throughout the last century feminist writers kept telling us that gender is irrelevant in man-woman relationships, including the relationship of marriage. What happens if you consider gender to be a functional irrelevancy long enough is that suddenly same-sex marriage, in which gender is a formal irrelevancy, starts to seem a lot more plausible.

In what way did gender become functionally irrelevant within marriage? We can begin to answer this question by comparing how 20th century feminist writers spoke about gender with women writers in past centuries. Many female thinkers in the 18th and 19th century believed they were defending their sex precisely through maintaining gender distinctions. While they would sometimes offer appropriate challenges to our picture of what constituted conventional ‘feminine’ virtues and roles, most took it for granted that there was a significant difference between being masculine and being feminine. Moreover, these differences were seen to be central to the very the glory of being a woman or being a man. For example, the Victorian writer Elizabeth Wordsworth once noted that “In an ideal state of society we never lose sight of the womanliness of women…why should it be considered a compliment to any woman to be told she writes, paints, sings, talks, or even thinks, like a man?”

Womanliness as a Crime

By contrast, 20th century feminist writers begin to see themselves as defending women precisely through their attempts to homogenize the gender polarity. No longer is it uplifting to emphasize the womanliness of women, as Elizabeth Wordsworth had done; but neither is it uplifting to explicitly praise women for being like men. Rather, under the feminist androgyny and egalitarianism of the 20th century, the greatest gift we can give to women is to question the very category of womanliness.

This is exactly what writers such as psychologist Sandra Bem tried to do. “When androgyny had been absorbed by the culture”, wrote Melanie Phillips, paraphrasing Bem’s views, “concepts of masculinity and femininity would cease to have distinct content and distinctions would ‘blur into invisibility’”. Family therapist Olga Silverstein expressed a similar sentiment when she urged “the end of the gender split”, since “until we are willing to question the very idea of a male sex role . . . we will be denying both men and women their full humanity.” Susan Moller Okin was equally wistful when contemplating a future without gender.  “. . . [A] just future would be one without gender.  In its social structures and practices, one’s sex would have no more relevance than one’s eye color or the length of one’s toes.”

This is a far-cry from Elizabeth Wordsworth encouraging women to glory in their womanliness. For 20th century feminists, the womanliness of women is at best a social construction and at worst a moral crime.

Emptying Gender From Marriage

Some feminist writers who tried to be consistent with this went so far as to argue that because romantic love between the sexes helps to solidify entrenched gender roles, it too must be eradicated along with its correlate, marital intercourse. For example, Catharine MacKinnon, like other second-wave feminists, has compared sex within marriage to rape, saying, “What in the liberal view looks like love and romance looks a lot like hatred and torture to the feminist.  Pleasure and eroticism become violation.” Elsewhere the Harvard Press author commented, “The major distinction between intercourse (normal) and rape (abnormal) is that normal happens so often that one cannot get anyone to see anything wrong with it.”

Feminist author and journalist Jill Johnson was equally unbending in her antipathy to man-woman sex. Writing in 1973, she commented that “Until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution.”

Attacks like this on man-woman love were never mainstream. But what did become mainstream in the 20th century were pressures from feminists to remove all vestiges of differentiation between the sexes from as many political and social areas as possible. At the most basic level, this has involved attacks against women who feel it is honoring to God to look after their children instead of putting their careers first, or tirades against women like Zooey Deschanel who are perceived to be too feminine. (See Chuck Colson’s article ‘Barbie vs. Godzilla.’) But it has also involved an attack on Biblical ideas such as headship and submission. Thus, even those who acknowledge that there is a necessary connection between marriage and gender, will often deny that men and women have distinct roles or positions within the marriage relationship. Gender distinctions then function rather like the great Watchmaker of the deists: a necessity for getting the process of marriage going but pretty much irrelevant after that.

Coming Full Circle

Now here’s my point: as feminists continually downplayed the significance that gender had within society, reducing it to an irrelevancy like the color of a person’s eyes, it was inevitable that we would reach a point where gender is seen to be irrelevant in marriage too.

As the significance of gender was gradually evaporated from the outworking of marriage, it was inevitable that we would reach a point where it no longer seemed so strange for it to also be evaporated from the definition of marriage itself.

What started with feminism attempting to empty marriage of all gender roles, ends up with the homosexual community attempting to empty marriage of any necessary relation to gender whatsoever.

These prior ideas about gender created plausibility structures in which the notion of gay ‘marriage’ no longer seems so strange.

It follows that to work towards a society that rejects the notion of gay ‘marriage’, we must work to create new plausibility structures which affirm and rejoice in the God-given distinctions between the sexes. We must make the argument that men and women are not the same, that a woman cannot do and be everything that a man can, even as a man cannot do and be everything that a woman can. We need women like Elizabeth Wordsworth who once again rejoice in the womanliness of women, even as we need men who can rejoice in the manliness of men.