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Cosmic, Not Moral

I wrote recently, citing the wisdom of a Christian friend, that the reason orthodox Christians keep losing the marriage argument is because they fight moralistically instead of cosmically. Some of you asked in the comments thread what that meant. Reading this piece from Peter Leithart on First Things‘ blog today reminded me that I hadn’t answered you. Leithart was present last night for a debate on marriage between Andrew Sullivan and Douglas Wilson. Here, by the way, is the prepared text of Wilson’s remarks; if Andrew posts his, I’ll link to them here.

I thought Wilson did a great job, but I suspect that Leithart’s take on the event is spot-on. Excerpt:

I came away from a debate on gay marriage between Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan deeply impressed with the difficulties that Christians have, and will continue to have, defending a biblical view of marriage to the American public. It will take nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard, much less to become persuasive.

Sullivan’s is a rigid standard for public discourse [Note: requiring that all arguments be made without reference to religion — RD] that leaves biblically-grounded Christians with little to say. The claim that legalizing gay marriage will make the legalization of polygamy easier, as Wilson repeatedly argued, is coherent, but doesn’t have much purchase. Nobody seems to be much worried about a polygamous future for America, and making polygamy the centerpiece of opposition to gay marriage looks too much like fear-mongering.

That leaves Christians with the option of making theologically rich, biblically founded arguments against gay marriage. But do we have the vocabulary ready to hand? And even if we do, does the vocabulary we have make any sense to the public at large?


Wilson closed the debate with a lovely sketch of the marital shape of redemptive history, from the garden to the rescue of the Bride by the divine Husband to the revelation of a bride from heaven. In order for that to carry any weight, though, people have to be convinced that social institutions should participate in and reflect some sort of cosmic order. Who believes that these days? Wilson tells a cute story, many will say, but what does it have to do with public policy?


To believe Paul, we have to believe that God has standards of sexual behavior, that those standards can be known, and that He judges humans for their conformity to the standards. Who believes that these days?

Read the whole thing here. This is the answer to the question about “cosmic” versus “moral.” Leithart is pointing out that the metaphysical ground has radically shifted under our feet. The traditional Christian moral arguments depend on a metaphysical understanding that is no longer widely shared, not even by Christians.

UPDATE: The Orthodox Christian theologian David Bentley Hart’s column in First Things, explaining why natural law arguments don’t make sense in our world, is finally out from behind the subscriber firewall. It illuminates the cosmic vs. moral problem. Excerpt:

For one thing, as far as any categorical morality is concerned, Hume’s bluntly stated assertion that one cannot logically derive an “ought” from an “is” happens to be formally correct. Even if one could exhaustively describe the elements of our nature, the additional claim that we are morally obliged to act in accord with them, or to prefer natural uses to unnatural, would still be adventitious to the whole ensemble of facts that this description would comprise.

The assumption that the natural and moral orders are connected to one another in any but a purely pragmatic way must be logically antecedent to our interpretation of the world; it is a belief about nature, but not a natural belief as such; it is a supernatural judgment that renders natural reality intelligible in a particular way. I know of many a stout defender of natural law who is quick to dismiss Hume’s argument, but who—when pressed to explain why—can do no better than to resort to a purely conditional argument: If one is (for instance) to live a fully human life, then one must . . . (etc.). But, in supplementing a dubious “is” with a negotiable “if,” one certainly cannot arrive at a categorical “ought.”

In abstraction from specific religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will. There are, of course, generally observable facts about the characteristics of our humanity (the desire for life and happiness, the capacity for allegiance and affinity, the spontaneity of affection for one’s family) and about the things that usually conduce to the fulfillment of innate human needs (health, a well-ordered family and polity, sufficient food, aesthetic bliss, a sense of spiritual mystery, leisure, and so forth); and if we all lived in a Platonic or Aristotelian or Christian intellectual world, in which everyone presumed some necessary moral analogy between the teleology of nature and the proper objects of the will, it would be fairly easy to connect these facts to moral prescriptions in ways that our society would find persuasive. We do not live in such a world, however.

Hart says that even if you can demonstrate to someone that he ought to live a certain way to live in harmony with nature, there’s nothing to make him agree. To what does he owe nature, anyway? Hart:

Denounce him, if you wish, for the perversity of his convictions. Still, after all hypothetical imperatives have been adduced, and all appeals to the general good have been made, nothing would logically oblige him to alter his ideas. Only the total spiritual conversion of his vision of reality could truly change his thinking.

Which is precisely the point Leithart makes early in his review of the Sullivan-Wilson debate.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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