The Moral Value of Meanings of Words

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Jonathan Ichikawa raises some questions I've been wondering about since this post, but he puts it in a different enough way that I'd like to highlight his argument and then develop it in a different direction. It seems pretty silly to use the kind of rhetoric often found in the religious right over an issue as boring as what a word means in the English language. Linguistic matters really don't have much moral weight, especially given how rapidly natural languages change. That's why a charitable observer will try to find a more charitable interpretation of all the harsh rhetoric about this vast gay conspiracy to redefine the English language. How it could it be that immoral merely to seek for one word to mean something else? It can't just be about language. There must be some real moral issue behind the scenes.

For many, there is a deeper moral issue. I, for one, truly want people to retain the concept of marriage particular to Christianity. We've lost the biblical perspective on marriage and family that someone thoroughly versed in the Bible will tend to absorb as part of their conceptual background. Hardly anyone has much of an inkling of this now. This isn't about what any words in English mean. It's whether we have a concept of marriage that reflects Christian ideals, with any marriage (using the English word) that doesn't meet those ideals simply not matching up to those ideals. My neighbors' family doesn't fail to be a family simply because the mother wasn't the biological mother of most of the kids. Their biological mother died, and their father remarried. She raised most of those kids. My co-blogger Wink's family doesn't fail to be a family simply because his son is adopted. It's not what we hold up as the ideal, not in either case, though for very different reasons.

Maybe it's different if you think something immoral took place. Virtually no one thinks it's wrong to adopt or to remarry if your spouse dies. Many people think gay relationships are morally wrong, and I'm one of them. It might be helpful to think about another case many Christians consider morally wrong, divorce (not for reasons of unfaithfulness, spousal abuse, or whatever other exceptions there might be) with a resulting remarriage. It's pretty clear that the Bible considers it adultery if a Christian initiates such a divorce and then gets married to someone else. Is the resulting family a family? As the English word is used, the answer is clearly yes. So doing something Christians believe is immoral that can lead to family bonds being created doesn't make it not a family. It can't be that the immorality of gay relationships is what makes families with gay parents not families. [I'm wording it this way deliberately to show that the sentence makes perfect sense. You can describe a family with gay parents as a family, and we all know exactly what it is that you're talking about.]

So I don't know how anyone can claim that you're revising the English language to use the word 'family' to refer to , for example, a couple of lesbians and their legally adopted daughter. We use the word family much more loosely than that all the time, including talking about family units that involve more than the western concept of a nuclear family that most people in the world (including most of the people in the Bible) would consider a foreign concept. We extend it metaphorically all the time to include people who aren't related either by blood or legally. Why is it either a misuse or a revision of what the word itself means to say two gay men and their legally adopted children are a family? It just seems to me to be empirically false that that's a redefinition of the English word or a mistake in what the word means. The word's semantic range certainly includes things like that.

So the important issue making people mad must be over matters more serious than what some English words mean. Jonathan presents evidence to the contrary. He's found a radically revisionist agenda to try to protect a traditional view of what words like 'family' and 'marriage' mean in English. The reason it must be simply over what the words mean in English and not about some deeper moral views is that the kind of language they want to disallow is a perfectly normal, common practice that's been around for years, long before the vast gay conspiracy even existed.

Here's an email Focus on the Family sent out this week:

The guide itself treats the classroom as a family, defining a family loosely as any group that is bound by love and caring for each other. Sometimes, pets and imaginary creatures are seen as family.
That, while not specifically pro-gay, is cause for concern among pro-family analysts.
"For parents who look closely at the teachers guide and DVD, it is apparent that this is yet another example of the kinds of materials intended to redefine the family," said Marc Fey, director of worldview outreach at Focus on the Family. "This curriculum has one objective � to redefine the traditional view of a family."

As Jonathan notes, it's not just that this has nothing to do with a pro-gay agenda. This is a normal, metaphorical, extended use of the term 'family' in English. Two very close friends will consider each other as if family. Many families consider their pets part of the family. If the desire to prevent redefiniton is going to require removing long-standing uses of the terms in question, then it may be worth asking if the so-called redefinition is really redefinition or just another extended use of the term that doesn't go beyond its original sense.

I've been arguing that we have no reason not to count a family consisting of a gay couple and kids as a family. That's an empirical claim about what the English word 'family' means. I think there are also moral issues worth bringing in, and I don't mean moral issues about homosexuality. I mean moral issues about what Christians should be doing and saying. That's the only family those kids have, and I think it's evil and contrary to Christian ideals to suggest that they have no family. I say this as someone who thinks there's something deeply wrong with homosexuality.

I find people speaking disparagingly of using 'family' for a gay couple with kids or sarcastically putting scare quotes around 'family' when talking about that family. I feel so strongly about this because that just sends the wrong message to gay people and especially to children of gay people. Christians have an obligation to reach out with the gospel. Starting instead with a political agenda based on particular sins tells people that we value labeling them in negative ways more than we value caring about them as people, recognizing their relational connections as real and as important to them in the same ways that mine are to me. Sometimes I think that's what people want to resist doing when they say they're resistant to considering homosexuality as normal. To be sure, there's more that they're resisting, but I think some of them are resisting this too, as evidenced by the Focus on the Family letter and the post I linked to above. I think it's immoral to resist this, particularly in the name of Christianity.

I want to remind Christians reading this that nothing I've said should conflict in any way with thinking there's something wrong with gay people's capacities to form normal romantic relationships. It shouldn't conflict with believing it's morally wrong for gay people to make the choices they do given their tendencies. Even if we think being gay is a result of the fall, even if we think pursuing gay relationships and gay sex is against God's design and therefore a kind of rebellion against God, that should not cause us to refuse to recognize that gay people are real human beings who are fallen in the same way everyone has. It shouldn't lead anyone to consider the family bonds that gay people happen to have to be not families. I don't see how it's possible to recognize someone as human in the same way as we are if we insist on making fun of them and distancing ourselves from them by acting as if their relationships aren't real relationships and as if the bonds they form are of a different kind in every way from those of anyone else.

There are ways the analogy between attitudes about homosexuality and attitudes about race just doesn't match reality. Race is a socially determined category based on historically selected biological features. Homosexuality is a socially determined category based on someone's self-identification that in most cases is probably caused by some combination of biological makeup, social forces, and free choices. One thing that does turn out to be common to the two is in how some people have dehumanized people according to being of a certain race or being gay. In some of the worst cases of racism, people have dehumanized the other by treating the other's moral capacities and relationships as inherently inferior.

I don't think Christians who follow the Bible should reject the sense that there's something inferior about homosexual desire, since it's contrary to God's intent in creation and results in sinful behavior if acted upon. Still, this redefinition of families so as to exclude anyone who doesn't fit the ideal model of the family seems to me to have the implication of denying the full personhood of someone who is gay in denying their actual family relations the status of familyhood. Regardless of whether you want to count a gay marriage as marriage, which I think I said as much about as I will for now in the post I linked to at the very beginning of this post, I think Christians should at the very least acknowledge that the resulting relationship, at least if it involves children, is a family. There's something like that racist attitude going on if we don't acknowledge that.

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Lent: Day Thirty from Beyond The Rim... on March 16, 2005 12:11 AM

Today has been a strange but good day. I didn't get everything I wanted to done and I got drawn into a discussion with Jeremy Pierce of Parableman about The Moral Value of Meanings of Words. Our discussion focused down to love and the Greek words u... Read More

The 61st Edition of the Christian Carnival is being hosted here this week. I decided to break the posts up into several categories. In some cases posts could have fit in various categories so I placed them either where I... Read More

My Lenten Reflection, The Power of Negative Thinking, has been included in the 61st Christian Carnival, hosted by Christweb. Be sure to drop by and check out the very interesting entries by Joshua Claybourn, A Physicist's Perspective, Parableman, The... Read More

Parableman, too, offers some good advice regarding how we should approach those who do not share our beliefs when he states: Christians have an obligation to reach out with the gospel. Starting instead with a political agenda based on particular sins t... Read More

22 Comments

Jeremy, in the case of the term "family," I would agree that redefinition of the term is not what's going on, since Webster's Dictionary gives the following as a definition:

1. the collective body of persons who live in one house

However, I think several words are being subtly redefined by folks with certain agendas. I've been meaning to write a post about this.

I've been wondering, just how fluid is the English language? Can word meanings come and go? I would think that that would be terribly counterproductive. Surely we don't actually change word meanings, but rather add new ones to those already existing. In this way, a word cannot truly be redefined, and no one can steal the English language though they may ferociously try.

Languages change quite rapidly all the time. It's very easy to find examples of words that no longer mean what they meant even twenty years ago, but longer periods of time can show serious change. In Shakespeare's time, for instance, 'husbandry' could mean thriftiness in addition to managing livestock or being a head of household. We've lost the first meaning entirely, and the second is the only one I've ever heard used seriously. If the second occurs, it's probably being used as a pun.

An easy example of this is 'cool'. It has a classic metaphorical sense of being dispassionate and unexcited, going back to the 13th century even. This, you can be sure, was not its literal meaning when Beowulf wrote, but it now is a standard sense of the term. Someone can be calm and cool. This got extended to a certain kind of jazz with calmer features in the 1940s. Then you started to get people referred to as cool cats, combining the calmness factor with some sort of approval, owing largely to the popularity of cool jazz. It's still officially considered slang by many traditionalists, but calling something cool because you think it's great is a normal part of most people's English, whether they'd use it in a formal context (which is a sort of artificial dialect of English that we maintain on the side) or not.

People once used the word 'racism' to refer to an ideology that different races have different characteristics. This is a view that can be investigated empirically. It's quite obvious to any normal English speaker today that racism is now nothing like that. To most people, it's a bad attitude rather than an empirically falsifiable view. It's also come to refer to complex and non-deliberate phenomena in society that can be harmful along racial lines. That's a usage that academics deliberately coined, and it's quite easily been taken on by everyone who writes about this sort of thing. Institutinal racism is thus a normal part of the English language.

The word 'race' itself once meant groups with biological ties, and this could include the Irish race or the Jewish race. We're getting to a point now where it's borderline archaic to talk about the Jewish race. It's preferably to call Jewishness an ethnicity, and it's simply wrong to talk about an Irish race. It also once meant a set of one's descendants. You could talk about the race of Richard Pierce, who came to RI in 1654. I'm part of that race, according to this now-archaic usage of the term. This usage persisted until at least 1883. You could also call a current generation a race. There's also an attestation of this usage in 1883. As late as 1880, you could talk of a race of horses or grasses. The current idea of selecting historically dividing characteristics on a large scale and dividing humans into distinct races that are near-permanent and thought of as real divisions akin to that between poodles and German shepherds (though the genetic difference is much, much less).

Words change meanings all the time. Sometimes meanings are added. Sometimes meanings go. Sometimes they happen at the same time, and the word changes meaning. This is much more rapid where there isn't a written language, and it's even less rapid within cultures with mass media than it is with just some written language. Those factors make the process much slower, so you don't have a transition between Chaucer and Shakespeare over a very short time. You get Thomas Jefferson to us in about the same period of time, I believe, but the difference is much less drastic because of higher literacy and greater tendencies toward artificial conservatism about language meaning.

As it turns out, much of that artificial conservatism is actually just misinformed. Most of the things language purists complain about as new meanings or new usages turn out to be older ones that are still holding on but have become less common. This case of 'family' is just like that. In ancient times, terms for family and household both included slaves, and that continued into the 18th century in the United States, and even in the 19th century it could be used to refer to a larger ethnic group without much sense of exaggeration. Christians today still use it to refer to all disciples of Christ, and that started as a metaphor but has helped lead to the same extended senses that Focus on the Family seems to want to reduce.

You have similar expansions in 'marriage'. It's still sort of an extended sense to refer to two people as married if they've been living together for a long time without having ever had a wedding ceremony, but it happens often enough. The metaphorical used of a union or blending of any two things goes back to around 1400. We'll describe marriages of corporations, marriages between religion and science, marriages of body and mind, marriages of two minds, the marriage of Christ and the church, etc. A marriage between two men or two women seems so obviously within this spectrum and not even near the more radical end that claims that this is language revision just seem ridiculously ignorant.

Jeremy, I don't tell you this enough (at all?), but I always really appreciate what you have to say on these issues.

"Still, this redefinition of families so as to exclude anyone who doesn't fit the ideal model of the family seems to me to have the implication of denying the full personhood of someone who is gay in denying their actual family relations the status of familyhood.�

Personhood is typically defined in terms of rational autonomy. I think you're referring to dignity, which is a different notion. A gay or lesbian is not any less of an agent for my refusing to call his or her common-law relationship (assuming that SSM is not legal) a marriage (but I do not in fact do this).

Note that the FOF spokesperson refers to his preferred understanding of familial relations as the "traditional view". He may be willing to refer to alternative understandings as "non-traditional views". If such is the case, then he does not deny that a same-sex parented domestic arrangement (how's that for a neutral term) is not, *in any sense of the word*, a family. It's just not a traditional family.

Personhood is such a slippery concept. Everyone invents their own definition that allows for their particular view on abortion, whether God can be timeless and still personal, etc. The dominant understanding I can figure out that all these straings include is that somehow we want persons to have moral rights and then will define personhood in such terms as those things we don't want having rights to turn out not to be persons. That's why I was doing this in terms of recognition of moral freedom, in this case freedom to do what one might consider wrong but still human. Maybe a better way would be simply to talk about seeing someone as exhibiting less of what's fundamentally human. Does that capture both what you're saying and what I'm saying?

Note that the FOF spokesperson refers to his preferred understanding of familial relations as the "traditional view". He may be willing to refer to alternative understandings as "non-traditional views". If such is the case, then he does not deny that a same-sex parented domestic arrangement (how's that for a neutral term) is not, *in any sense of the word*, a family. It's just not a traditional family.

But he's even wrong about that, as I've shown. He's just completely ignorant about what the word has meant historically, going a long way back.

Jeremy, I guess the issue for me is the old axiom, "He who controls the definitions, controls the debate" so what words mean or have been redefined to mean can have serious consequences on our ability to address issues using apples and apples and not apples and oranges called apples.

I would point to you to research on Alexander Solzenitzen's writing, but the web seems bereft. Yet, I remember a conference in D.C. around 1980 (at which I met and sat with Malcom Muggeridge - a very fond memory), where it was argued that one the basic premises within Solzenitzen's writings was his attempt to redefine the communists' redefinition of basic Russion words, appropriating historic Russion sentiment and literature to their own end. This was the subject of several presentations.

Isn't this casualness towards meanings part of the fall (specifically Eve being tempted to know and thus define things for herself apart from God) coming home to roost in modernity where something means what the speaker wants it to mean? No wonder strict constitutional interpretation is out of style, it limits fluidity of definition and casualness of meaning.

Sometimes I feel like resisting the tide I see coming is like building sand castles on the beach. Save what/who you can and let God sort it out.

But are we talking about the senses of "family" or the senses of "traditional"?

I am willing to refer to a legalized same-sex matrimony as a "marriage" and a gay or lesbian parented (single or couple) domestic arrangement as a "family". This is so even though I oppose the legalization of same-sex matrimonies and even civil unions. Is there a way for folks like me to refer to said matrimonies and arrangements as "marriages" and "families" without suggesting that I morally approve of such units? By this I mean that I am prepared to accept that these units are indeed recognized forms of domestic life, even though I consider them less than ideal (and, clearly, I do believe that there are ideal forms of marriage and family, ones that the state has a compelling interest in privileging). Or is it the case that in describing these units as "marriages" and "families" we never offer *or* withold moral approval (but wouldn't that depend on the intention of the speaker? After all, when we use "marriage" and "family" metaphorically, we are *aware* that our speech is a metaphor). Language has more functions that that of description and reference, Wittgenstein reminds us. The moral impulse is also at stake here.

I'd like to continue this, but I'm being booted off the machine.

William: I don't see anything about defining terms in Genesis 3. Where do you see that?

I agree that we can say things in such a way as to control the debate, but that's manipulative rhetoric. I'm all for pointing out manipulative rhetoric. In fact, that's what I was doing in this post. What I'm against is saying false things to support your point, and that's what's been going on with this issue from the side of those who oppose gay marriage.

Clement: I'm not sure why we have to say these unions are less than ideal or immoral (whichever we might believe about whichever thing we're talking about in any particular case). If we want to say that, we can come out and say it. I'm not sure why we'd need to say that every time we want to talk about someone's family or relational union (whether we want to call it a marriage or not).

One of the things I'm questioning on this issue is why Christians need to declare that particular social relation inferior every time they talk about someone who has such a relationship. We don't do it with most other social relationships that we consider inferior or immoral. Is this one so bad in a way the others aren't, so as to justify every mention of the relationship as having that feature? When we say people are living together, we don't always describe it as living in sin, even though many Christians believe that's an accurate description.

Yet it seems the ideology behind the opposition to gay marriage is simply to retain the use of marriage as a superior institution so that every time it's used it can refer to that institution, as if every time you talk about gay relationships you have to mention that it's immoral or inferior. Why does this one sin get that treatment?

I'm not saying that 'marriage' is being used metaphorically in the expression 'gay marriage'. It's being used in an extended sense. It's sort of like calling a marijuana joint a cigarrette. It's not really what we usually call that, but it's the same thing. It just contains a substance that isn't the usual one. That's not a metaphorical use but an extended sense. When we started using 'rewind' to describe what we do with CDs and DVDs we see a similar phenomenon. It started out as applying terminology that wasn't literally true of what we were describing, if you think of rewinding as winding a tape backward. Yet 'rewind' had come to mean moving backward through the medium so you can pick up from an earlier point. You can do that with a CD or DVD, and you literally are doing that.

Jeremy, I understand your main point and agree. Maybe I need to clarify my concern. You said:

"... an issue as boring as what a word means in the English language."

Call me boring, but I don�t think this is a boring issue; I think sometimes it�s a moral issue!

�How it could it be that immoral merely to seek for one word to mean something else? It can't just be about language. There must be some real moral issue behind the scenes.�

What I was getting at was a distinction between honestly-occurring language change, misuse of the term �redefinition� as you were pointing out, and manipulative language redefinition. Language and its understanding is endlessly dialectical; it could be said that we each speak our own dialect. People misunderstand each other all the time because they use language a little bit (or a lot) differently from one another. Language can be used �creatively� in an edifying way or in a dishonest and manipulative way. (Like when Bill Clinton said, �I did not have sex with that woman.�)

It�s the attempt to hijack the meanings of words, such as �chastity,� that bothers me. Chastity can mean abstinence from unlawful sexual activity. Since the Catholic Church considers use of contraception in a marital relationship unlawful sexual activity, it defines such marital sex as unchaste. This definition differs from the common understanding of unlawful sex (i.e., extra-marital, or homosexual � which may be lawful or unlawful depending on what laws are in effect). Actually, maybe the word �chastity� is not being redefined (or extended, as you said) at all; what qualifies as �chaste� depends on what constitutes unlawful sexual intercourse according to what authority. And maybe the Catholic use of the word �chastity� is perfectly honest, yet I get the feeling that some use it in a manipulative sense, i.e., they are trying to more or less piggy-back off the virtue of the word as it is already understood.

The gist of my question is, for �mainstream� cultural lexicology excluding slang, such as encompasses the terms used by defenders of �traditional� family/marriage, is there no scruple requiring deference to any sort of standard, such as a dictionary? Such deference would represent a not-so-artificial form (and therefore a legitimate one) of what you refer to as �artificial conservatism about language meaning�, I would think. Why not conserve language meaning if there is good reason to?

It would seem that the proper way to deal with a new understanding would be to invent a new word, rather than add a new, potentially-confusing meaning to a word that already has established definitions. But I realize that language morphs.

When you speak of �words that no longer mean what they meant even twenty years ago,� you are referring to common parlance, which itself can get tricky to define. I suppose it�s determined by �popular culture� or the �mainstream,� meaning the usage understood by the greatest number of people. But who�s to say that�s where the buck should stop? What is the purpose of language? What is the ethical use of language? Those are my questions.

I don't have a problem with much of what you're saying. I hesitate about dictionaries, because they're attempts to capture language usage that often fail. Sometimes philosophical analysis is needed to discover that dictionaries aren't approaching things right, as in this case or with such notoriously difficult concepts as causation, personhood, morality, and other hotbed philosophical issues.

I have to disagree with you about what's going on with the word 'chastity'. I think the Catholics you're talking about and everyone else are using the word in the same sense. They mean the same thing by it. Where they differ is in which things they think the word applies to. This is clear in a moral general sense with any word assuming morality. Unchastity is immoral sex. All parties in this dispute agree on that. Catholics have a philosophical view that sex with artificial contraception is immoral, so of course they're going to call it unchaste.

Catholics also have a philosophical view that destroying embryos is immoral killing, so they call it murder. Someone who disagrees with them on that doesn't disagree about the meaning of 'murder' but about which things count as murder, which is a philosophical disagreement and not a linguistic one. Murder is wrongful killing no matter which kinds of killing are wrongful. The disagreement is over which kinds are wrongful, not over the meaning of 'murder'.

The same will go with whether it's immoral to use presidential authority to coerce your intern into having oral sex. Most of my colleagues don't think there was anything wrong with that, judging by the way they talk about it. They don't have to disagree with me about what 'immoral' means to say that. All they have to do is disagree about which things are immoral to disagree on that issue.

Now what Clinton did was different. He was disputing the meaning of 'sex'. He wasn't agreeing upon a common definition that involved a moral judgment and then saying it didn't apply because the moral judgment didn't apply. He was simply disputing whether oral sex is sex. I don't think he was completely without linguistic warrant, because people will contrast sex with oral sex, and by 'sex' they mean coitus. This is a good example for my point, though, because 'sex' is being used in an extended sense in the expression 'oral sex'. It's the same word, but it's not the core meaning. It's describing something related to the original meaning that's not in any way metaphorical, but it's not itself the central idea. That doesn't mean it's illegitimate to call oral sex sex, and Clinton was doing the same sort of thing many social conservatives are doing with the words 'family' and 'marriage' in denying that extended sense.

Whether that's immoral or just misguided depends on their motivations, how aware they are of their departure from the facts, and whether they should have known better even if they didn't. I believe Clinton did know better. I'm not sure social conservatives who are saying what I'm criticizing do know better, but I think they should know better, and the consequences of what they're saying are bad enough that what they're saying needs to be challenged.

Stellar post. It's always nice to see an analytically sharp post on such a loaded issue.

"I'm not sure why we have to say these unions are less than ideal or immoral (whichever we might believe about whichever thing we're talking about in any particular case). If we want to say that, we can come out and say it. I'm not sure why we'd need to say that every time we want to talk about someone's family or relational union (whether we want to call it a marriage or not)."

We don't have to say it at all. But the more often some of us refer to a domestic unit as a "family", the more inclined others may think that we regard said units as legitimate. You seem to think that the relevant terms ("marriage" and "family") are neutral between moral preferences, but this is something others would dispute. The moral connotations of words are at stake here, not such the semantics. Is it not possible that by merely referring to a domestic unit as a family, one may be conferring some degree of legitimacy on that relation?

You've already suggested that one whose refuses to call a same-sex parented domestic unit a "family" is taking away from the personhood of the gay and lesbian parent/spouse, and you've defined personhood is terms of moral agency. So are you not already using "marriage" and "family" to deny or confer some sort of moral status? We seem to have two considerations here.

A) Deciding whether or not a given form of domestic life is a form of family. Not all forms of domestic life are forms of family (two college guys renting an apartment together do not constitute a family, most of us would agree).

B) Regarding the forms of domestic life singled out in part A - in referring to these domestic units as "families", are we implying that we approve of said units?

For you, consideration A is not morally indifferent. It is a "threshold" matter. If I deny that the domestic unit headed by John and Jeff (a gay couple) is a "family", then I'm taking away from the personhood of John and Jeff. I would be saying that they do not have the moral rights of, say, heterosexual parents.

Is consideration B morally indifferent? Are the moral connotations of the relevant terms so weak that, in referring to John and Jeff's unit as a "family", I could not possibly be conferring *or* witholding moral status? So once we decide to call a given form of domestic life a form of the family, we are not going beyond reference and description and expressing moral approval (and hence remaining neutral between conceptions of the good)?


"One of the things I'm questioning on this issue is why Christians need to declare that particular social relation inferior every time they talk about someone who has such a relationship. We don't do it with most other social relationships that we consider inferior or immoral. Is this one so bad in a way the others aren't, so as to justify every mention of the relationship as having that feature? When we say people are living together, we don't always describe it as living in sin, even though many Christians believe that's an accurate description."

Again, are our uses of "marriage" and "family" simply referential and descriptive?


"Yet it seems the ideology behind the opposition to gay marriage is simply to retain the use of marriage as a superior institution so that every time it's used it can refer to that institution, as if every time you talk about gay relationships you have to mention that it's immoral or inferior. Why does this one sin get that treatment?"

But then we have to ask whether or not or use of "marriage" is just as morally neutral as our use of "relationship".


"I'm not saying that 'marriage' is being used metaphorically in the expression 'gay marriage'.It's being used in an extended sense."

I wasn't suggesting that this was your position. Rather, I was pointing out that when we speak metaphorically, we *know* that our speech is a metaphor. Likewise, when I say that my best friends are part of my family, they and I know that I am using the term in an extended sense. But when others hear me describe same-sex matrimonies as "marriages", do they know that I am neither positively nor negatively evaluating said relationships?

You're worried that a refusal to call certain forms of domestic life "marriages" and "families" could seriously impair the dignity of gays and lesbians. Others are worried that the more often they refer to the same domestic units as "marriages" and "families", the more often they will be understood as implying that said units are no less ideal than any others. The examples you've offered (calling a servant part of the family, calling polygamous arrangements families, calling a remarried mother one of the heads of the family) do not touch on the matter of whether or not opposite sex parental coupling is central to our concept of family.

As I said before, I am willing to refer to the unit headed by John and Jeff as a family and I am willing to refer to their matrimony as a marriage. I can't insist that opposite sex coupling is central to the concept of family if I have no problem in refer to a single parented unit as a family (since there is no other parent of either the opposite or same sex). But I'm not sure whether or not I can do all of this in a morally neutral fashion, even given the wide semantic range of the relevant terms (note that I am not looking for a way to express my moral *dissapproval*. Rather, I am looking for a way to *withold* moral approval and remain neutral in my acts of reference and description. There's a difference between the two). Once we are past the threshold step, Is there a way of doing this that remains impartial between different conceptions of the good?

I'm in Hong Kong right now, visiting family and taking a holiday. My thoughts are rather hastily strung together (I shouldn't be sitting in front of a computer on holiday!). If I had more time, I'd think the matter through more carefully.

There are two completely different elements of my moral motivation to want to call households headed by gay couples families. Keep in mind that the reason I consider more important has to do with their children. If John and Jeff have a son Joey, isn't it a little strange to treat Joey's relationship with John and Jeff any differently from any other kid's relationship with parents when at least one parent isn't a biological one? I've seen people making fun of the idea that someone can have two fathers in the context of gay couples, but it happens all the time in heterosexual contexts. Lots of kids have two fathers. One might be a biological father who raised them for years until their mom booted him and married another man, who may or may not have adopted them. It's possible that both fathers absolutely love these kids and see them as their own children. Why would it be different if the two fathers in question are in a gay relationship with each other? It's in cases like this that I feel the strong moral element to whether you call it a family. Not calling it a family means something to that kid, and that negative import has nothing to do with whether you approve of the gay relationship.

In the case of John and Jeff, I don't feel as strong a pull as your comments seem to be taking me to be saying. There's an element of personal relation that is common to gay relationships and heterosexual relationships. When two people decide to make that long-term with the kind of commitment involved in a marriage, there's a common core to both. If you stipulate by fiat that a marriage or a family needs to have the one thing that's there in the heterosexual relationship that's not in the gay one, then it seems to me that you're ignoring all the things that are common to both, and even if there's something dreadfully wrong with homosexuality there are clearly aspects of it that are perversions of something good, and therefore the something good is there. The movement to restrict these terms seems to me to be stem from a desire to avoid seeing anything at all good in gay relationships, and I think that's an immoral desire.

So if there are some elements of a recognition of something good by calling it a family or a marriage, then there are still two possibilities. One is as you've been describing it. Calling it those things means you can't withhold judgment on whether the relationship is wrong to begin with. The other is what I think is the case. Calling it marriage and family means you're acknowledging something good about it, but that need not be the good that those who have no problems at all with homosexuality would say is true of it. It may be just the things that really are good of it if it's a perversion of something good and thus contains some genuine intrinsic goods.

I have one argument why I think the latter is the case and not the former. We run into many marriages and families that are bad families and marriages, but we don't hesitate to call them families and marriages. Every family is dysfunctional to some degree, and some are pretty downright nonfunctional and anti-functional. That doesn't stop us from calling them families. They're bad families, but they're families nonetheless. The same is true of marriages. I can't imagine what Michael Jackson and Priscilla Presley's marriages was like, but I get the feeling it was an extremely bad example of what a marriage should be. That doesn't make it not a marriage.

So our understanding of marriages and families can allow things that don't come anywhere close to the ideal. That means that saying something is a marriage or a family does not in itself mean it's an ideal marriage or family. I may disapprove thoroughly of the very idea of two people marrying for the reasons they're marrying, of their living in the way they do while married, etc. That doesn't make it not a marriage, and it doesn't mean my calling it a marriage signals my approval of anything they've done. Why would the same not be true of a gay marriage?

[Clarificatory update: I want to say that I don't think what gay couples have has some of the most crucial elements of what marriage is biblically speaking. I've said this before, but I wanted to mention that now for anyone who hasn't read my previous posts. That means the word 'marriage' no longer means what Paul meant by the Greek words he used that we translate with the English word 'marriage'. But then that's pretty much true of any translated words between any two languages. There will always be differences in the sense of any two words, and this is often even the case with synonyms in the same language.

What I'm saying here is not that we should count gay marriage as what the Bible calls marriage. I'm saying that the English word 'family', and to a lesser extent the English word 'marriage', do accurately serve in an extended sense to refer to what we're now calling gay marriages.

Gen 3 starts with a redefinition by Eve of God's command and then Satan says -

"You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

Eve's (and Adam's)first response is to discover the meaning of nakedness and decide that by definition it needed to be covered. They gave meaning to the concept of naked. Who did they need to cover themselves from? Each other? God? Satan? The text doesn't explicitly say, but they decided on its meaning and what they should do with that meaning.

My argument is that God is the prime definer. When we define something differently or without reference to God we are following in the footsteps of Eve.

While some things are fuidly contextual - car for instance has changed its particular definition since the 1920's though it maintains a certain essence that is the same. That is not a problem, and is expected, since it is not absolute and moral.

I think there are other words, terms, concepts that have a more direct link to the absolute and can't be redefined without doing violence to that absolute meaning.

I guess love would be a reasonable example. It was primarily tied to God and from him to our relationships. It was primarily agape with some philios and sturge. In our culture today, it is primarily eros or passionate want of something, in essence a need. Its distortion is part of the redefining of God as eros within the liberal Christian church, thus since God is "love" eros is legitimize as a cover for all sorts of degredation in the name of God.

Eve took control by her sin of knowledge, what things mean, and how they are thought of and presented. Since then, that control has been ever at war with God and his definitions of what things mean, how they are thought of and presented.

I hope that makes sense and it may be a stretch but for a reason I cannot completely articulate appears to be completely logical and fit like a keystone in the arch of understanding for me.

I wish I were better trained in philosophy and then maybe I could better see the weakness in my arguments, but sometimes there is just a sense of discenred knowing and while I understand the danger of that (hence my willingness to expose my thoughts as best I can to criticism) it has often served me very very well.

The Greek terms for love are more complicated than that. Amnon's love for Tamar, his sister whom he raped, was referred to in the Septuagint as agape. I therefore hesitate to place much weight on any word for love in the Greek.

I think what Eve did was to take a philosophical view. I don't see a word whose definition she redefined. It's a stance about what follows from not having any clothes, not a redefinition of the word 'naked'. That's a Hebrew word in the text, and I doubt the author is claiming that the use of that term means Adam said that Hebrew word, when it's all coming before Babel. Adam described his nakedness to God, and God asked him how he had come across the sense of nakedness, which to the Hebrew mind has all sorts of connotations that Adam in his unfallen state wouldn't be worried about. I'm not seeing how that's a redefining of any word, though. This is about views and concepts, not about the linguistic level, which our text can't really be reporting about due to its being an account in what we should expect is not the same language.

agape/apagoa. The Septuagint basically used it as a generic substitution for aheb and it was the only choice outside of eros which would not work with God due to the sexual nature of the word. So, I would not attach too much to this pre-NT usage.

Agape finds itself defined in the NT. Some people tend to attach a lot of shades meaning to it and generalize those shades in all circumstances, which of course doesn't work.

Agape for me at its root means sacrificial giving, the giving of worth to the other, while eros is essentially percieving worth in the other, but usually with a sexual aspect, though some mystery religions used eros in an ecstatic without erotic sense.

I do not see a problem with aheb being used in 2 Samuel 13, since is a generic word and there was probably no problem for agapoa when the Septuagint was written since it was ill-defined. Even using my sense of the word, in that Amnon was willing to sacrifice everything for Tamar, it can fit the situation. So, when his sacrifice had been made he deemed the cost he paid unworthy, now that what had made her worth the sacrifice before, her unattainability and virginal state, was no longer worth any sacrifice at all. Her unattainability had been attained and she was no longer a virgin. Therefore his willingness to sacrifice turned to hatred at the memory of what he had lost and could no longer regain and she had nothing to offer him but a bitter memory.

Just a few thoughts from the rim...

"I have one argument why I think the latter is the case and not the former. We run into many marriages and families that are bad families and marriages, but we don't hesitate to call them families and marriages. Every family is dysfunctional to some degree, and some are pretty downright nonfunctional and anti-functional. That doesn't stop us from calling them families. They're bad families, but they're families nonetheless. The same is true of marriages. I can't imagine what Michael Jackson and Priscilla Presley's marriages was like, but I get the feeling it was an extremely bad example of what a marriage should be. That doesn't make it not a marriage.

So our understanding of marriages and families can allow things that don't come anywhere close to the ideal. That means that saying something is a marriage or a family does not in itself mean it's an ideal marriage or family. I may disapprove thoroughly of the very idea of two people marrying for the reasons they're marrying, of their living in the way they do while married, etc. That doesn't make it not a marriage, and it doesn't mean my calling it a marriage signals my approval of anything they've done. Why would the same not be true of a gay marriage?"

I was about to point this out. We are willing to refer to a domestic unit, headed by a single parent "by choice", as a family, even if not all of us consider it a an ideal family.

At this point, I have a related concern. Note that children are not always able to make ideal vs. non-ideal distinctions, especially when they are at the pre-critical stage in life. The more often children refer to John and Jeff's unit as a "family", the more they are led to believe that this unit is not morally different from other units. In British Columbia, one school district introduced library books that are designed to show that having two moms (a lesbian couple) is just as normative as having one mom (see http://www.culturalrenewal.ca/lex/lex-25.htm). But these books don't use moral language that allows children to make distinctions (for the authors realize that children are at the pre-critical stage). They just go ahead and call the same-sex parented unit a "family". The authors hope that the mere connotations attached to the word will lead the readers to regard both same-sex parented units and opposite-sex parented units as equally legitimate. Call it learning by moral osmosis or whatever. Childhood education is often like this.

Of course, once children are older, they can distinguish between what they consider an ideal family and what they consider a non-ideal family. But the school board hopes that by the time children have reached this stage, *they will already consider the same-sex parented unit an ideal family*. By describing the same-sex parented domestic unit as a "family", children will become, over time, more inclined to think that it is a normal family (what else explains the fact that gay rights activists have, in recent years, focused more and more on the educational context?). Is it any wonder then that FOF is concerned, given that they were talking about classrom instruction?

There are indications in Canada that this could become a nation-wide effort one day. This is why I still worry that a certain kind of idealized baggage is attached to the relevant terms. Now the folks at FOF insist on attaching the qualifier "traditional" to their preferred conception of family (and thus, as I previously suggested, they seem willing to acknowledge that a same-sex parented unit is, in some sense of the word, a family. It's just not a traditional family). You've suggested that they are mistaken in doing even this. Why? It's absurd to claim that the sense of "traditional" in "traditional family" is wide enough to cover instances like a same-sex parented unit or a single parented (by choice) unit, without undergoing any radical extension in meaning. Opposite-sex pairing is a defining feature of the concept of traditional family. If this were not the case, then "tradition" would hardly have any agreed to sense.

This will be my last post. I've enjoyed discussing the matter with you.

Now the folks at FOF insist on attaching the qualifier "traditional" to their preferred conception of family (and thus, as I previously suggested, they seem willing to acknowledge that a same-sex parented unit is, in some sense of the word, a family. It's just not a traditional family). You've suggested that they are mistaken in doing even this. Why?

I was just going by what Jonathan said, but he said they were saying you shouldn't even use 'family' in its classic extended senses, simply because that will make people think something can be a family without being a traditional family. I never criticized the idea of distinguishing between a traditional family structure and a non-traditional family structure.

William: The reason I'm resistant to this is I've been convinced by D.A. Carson's arguments in Exegetical Fallacies, his John commentary, and The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God that the different words for love can't be separated so easily. I just mentioned one reason with Amnon. There are a number of other examples in Carson's works. The evidence is fairly overwhelming that the biblical authors don't reserve one word for God's love and another for human brotherly love, especially in books like John where some people have tried to use the difference between these words to ground exegetical decisions that wouldn't be justified by anything else in the text.

For instance, 2 Timothy 2:10 says Demas loved the world and therefore deserted Paul. That's agapao. John 3:35 and John 5:20 are basically the same statement about the Father's love for the Son, but agapao is used in one case and phileo in the other. There's a lot more to be said about this, but those are enough to show that, even though the verbs don't have exactly the same semantic range, they overlap enough to be synonymous at times and enough not to have some core meaning for each that's exclusive to that word and not the other.

In English, the context tells us whether the love in question is platonic, romantic, self-sacrificing, altruistic, emotional, rationally aesthetic, etc. The Greek words don't seem to have as much range as the English (though some of them include some senses not in the English 'love', e.g. to kiss). Yet it's still true that the words can all mean a variety of things, and the context tells you what that might be. In many cases, they're synonymous.

It's also clear that there's nothing especially sacred or holy about one and not the other. There are historical reasons why one is more common in the NT when it comes to God, and that's got to do with the other beginning to be used in colloquial puns beginning a few centuries earlier to mean "to kiss". That wasn't its formal meaning even by the NT times, but it was reason to hesitate in its use. So the reason agapao is used more of God doesn't have anything to do with its meaning godly love as opposed to anything else.

So I don't see why we should think the Bible has given us THE definition of this word (not that I've seen a definition of it anywhere anyway, though there are plenty of places where it tells us how to love and which kinds of love are better than others, and it most definitely tells us what God's love is like; it's just that this isn't tied to one word exclusively, and that one word isn't tied to this exclusively).

I also agree that there is not a clean separation between the words being godly or human love. I do believe that God can love in all aspects, agape, philios and sturge to his creation but since eros focuses on the other it could only exist within the Trinity iself, from God's perspective, if at all. There is much to be said but not in this limited forum.

>2 Timothy 2:10 says Demas loved the world and therefore deserted Paul

Yes, Demas was willing to sacrifice for the world, what it offered, but not for Paul, so I have no problem with agape there. He was willing to sacrifice his faith for what the world had to offer, but not what Paul offered.

Father/Son. agape/philio. I have no problem with that either since it demonstrates two kinds of love within the Godhead, willingness to sacrifice and the joy of true friendship. If friendship cannot exist in the Trinity, how does it have meaning in our own existence since the Trinity models ideal relationships for us?

I disagree about the sacred or holy part. All love offered in righteous is sacred and holy and is modeled both within the Trinity and externally to us (except for eros as I said before).

I also disagree about agapao. One reason agape/agapao is so significant and is applied so universally to God is it is the root of the other two (philios and sturge) since without sacrifice there is no friendship and no family. It is more than that, but it is not less.

Additionally the great mystery of salvation has at its root sacrifice (agapao). There are no accidents in God's choice of words or in their context. We just have to let him explain it to us. They make perfects sense to me at a fundamental level, at a discernment level that causes the eternal puzzle to fall lovingly into place (pun intended).

I also believe that the bible does define things for us like love (agapao, philios, sturge) in how they are used and how they are used by God to reveal himself to us. There are no accidents and not a jot or tittle is misplaced. So to say that God is agapao is definitionally significant as well as spiritually and eternal so.

Thanks for getting me thinking about this again. It has been several years since I plowed this ground but I plowed it deeply for a good number of years. It is also good to be challenged, to once again clarify and resharpen my thoughts.

Just a few more thoughts from the rim...

Jeremy,
Nice post. I haven't read through all the comments, but I think you're raising a really important point. I have to admit, I've been rather loath to call gay couples a family, myself. After reading this post I did this simple thought experiment:
1) Would I call two Christian missionaries (for example) abroad who adopt some local children a family? Yes.
2) Would I call it a family if it were a lone missionary, male or female, who adopted some children? Yes
3) Would I call it a family if it were two Christian missionaries of the same sex, sharing a house, but not homosexual, who adopted those children? Yes.
4) Do I call it a family when a man and a woman live together and have children outside of marriage? Yes.
5) In view of 1-4, is it a family when two homosexuals living together adopt children? It seems that I am compelled to answer yes. Why? In point 2, I assume it's not necessary to have two parents in order to have a family. In point 3, I assume said parents may be of the same gender (at least when they are not engaging in sexual sin). (Note that I would say in this case it would be preferable that they be adopted by a married couple -- but there is such a problem with orphans in some countries that it's certainly preferable for them to have two women who act as parents than no parents at all). In point 4, I assume said parents can be parents even if they ARE engaging in sexual sin.
So, in order to answer no to (5), I would have to show that somehow homosexuality somehow disqualifies people as parents, when heterosexual extramarital sex does not. And I don't think that's true -- homosexuality is a sin, but so is heterosexual sex outside marriage. So I don't see how I could consider one a family and not the other, unless I think homosexuality is somehow worse -- which I don't.
However, that doesn't mean that I think that homosexuals should be allowed to adopt children, at least here... That's probably another issue. But at least in terms of the family designation, I think jeremy is right.

May someone answer me how one uses language ethically? Pls help me... i have a report on that.

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