Is ALL progress good?

In the words of the Mercury newspaper on Tuesday, August 28, “Tasmania is a step closer to becoming the first place in Australia to allow same-sex marriage after legislation was introduced to State Parliament.” 

On that day Labor Premier Lara Giddings and Greens leader Nick McKim co-sponsored the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012, claiming the “majority of Tasmanians believe the time has come for this change to occur.”

I don’t know about you, but I am somewhat bewildered by all of this. It raises many questions for me, among them the questions of whether the majority really know what’s best for the future of our community.

While I doubt the statement that the “majority” of Tasmanians believe it is time for a change, even if they do, does it logically follow that they are right? There is a fundamental question here: Can the majority be trusted to make decisions and behave in ways considered “moral” and “right”? I doubt it. One could argue that the majority of Tasmanians would like a change of government, yet no premier would willingly step aside because the majority believe it is time for a change. Even our politicians have doubts that change should occur just because a so called “majority” want it.

Across cultures and religions for thousands of years marriage has reflected the biological complement of the sexes and understood it to be the union between a man and a woman. This understanding existed long before our parliament was established. We can therefore legitimately ask what place parliament has in redefining something that has naturally existed for millennia.

Newly Married Couple

That our Premier believes such a redefinition is right and appropriate is predicated on an unspoken premise sitting at the heart of modern society: all progress is good. Such a premise suggests the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 is a logical progressive step in the maturity of humanity. Where for some, redefining an understanding that has existed for thousands of years would be a reason to exercise caution, in the name of progress it is heralded as a defining moment.

Not everyone shares their optimism. Karl Barth, the great Swiss Reformed theologian of the 20th century once noted, “The world does not know itself. It does not know God, nor man, nor the relationship and covenant between God and man. Hence it does not know its own origin, state or goal. It does not know what divides nor what unites. It does not know either its life and salvation or its death and destruction. It is blind to its own reality. Its existence is a groping in the dark.” (Church Dogmatics 4/3, p. 769).

Barth’s view is in sharp contrast to the confidence of the proponents of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill. Building upon God’s revelation in the Bible, he suggests humanity is blind to its own reality. It is not a surprise therefore that some people do not share such a positive view of “progress” that undergirds the proposed bill. For them, not everything heralded as “progress” is in fact “progress”. Karl Barth experienced it first hand living in Germany during the rise of the Nazis, and he eventually fled back to Switzerland.

Yet, belief in progress is so deeply cemented in today’s culture that anything old is more often than not considered morally offensive. We worship progress; it is self-evident and infallible; anything less is retrograde and backward and regularly ridiculed and scoffed at.

Marriage fits this category. The fact it has been around for millennia crossing cultures and religions means, by default, that it is viewed with suspicion and perceived as old fashioned and out-dated. It is implicit that any reasonable “progressive” person would agree with this premise, and anyone who disagrees is regressive, antiquated and ultimately a threat to society and progress itself.

But as Christians we beg to differ. Not all progress is good, and the majority is often not right (as in Nazi Germany, the debate on slavery, violent and wide-spread racism found across different communities, or among the crowd who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion).

We believe there is much at stake in the future of our society and our children than the proponents of the Bill are willing to admit.

We believe there is much at stake in the future of our society and our children than the proponents of the Bill are willing to admit. We reject the presumption inherent in the Bill that a child no longer has the right to be raised within their biological family. We reject the notion that this is progress. We reject the opinion that marriage is outmoded. We reject the claim that a majority want change, and even if they did, we reject this justifies such a radical redefinition.

That the majority is not always right is clear, and God’s revelation confirms it. While there are many in our community who believe the majority defines what is right, the sad reality is that in the end the majority is not always right. And this is one of the fundamental issues at the heart of this debate. How do we know what is good for us and our future? To suggest, in the case of marriage, that a “majority” of Tasmanians knows what is best for our community, even if it flies in the face of thousands of years of understanding and practice, is either a height of progress or the heights of arrogance.

It is important we pray for our community, not just for the impending vote on the Same-Sex Marriage Bill 2012 in the upper House of Parliament, but that we move away from faith in progress, to a faith in Jesus and develop a healthy scepticism in the ability of humanity to know what’s best for itself.

Stephen L Baxter

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4 thoughts on “Is ALL progress good?

  1. ludicrousity says:

    I agree that not all progress is good. I’m with you.
    However…
    I can find no Biblical mandate for legislating that people who do not choose God, follow his laws. There are countless things that are wrong, but that are not illegal. For me, same sex marriage falls into this same category. People are in same sex relationships anyway. Our view on right or wrong is really taking away their God given free will. God is clear on our ability to reject him and his ways.

    • Thanks for the thoughts.
      Glad you agree that all so called “progress” is not in fact “progress” as that was what I was endeavouring to explore. I ask whether some assumptions and reasons given for a redefinition of marriage (i.e. progress and a majority want it) are in fact valid. Exploring when, where and how governments should legislate I’ll leave for another time.
      Stephen

  2. Alan Austin says:

    Hi Stephen,

    This seems to be the key issue: “Across cultures and religions for thousands of years marriage has reflected the biological complement of the sexes and understood it to be the union between a man and a woman.”

    This is true. And cultures always will celebrate the union of a man and a woman.

    But different societies at different times have also welcomed and celebrated variations on this, haven’t they?

    The Tassie legislation will not impact a man wishing to marry a woman. Nor them rearing their children. But it will almost certainly replicate the positive experience here in Europe where those at the margins are permitted to share in the extraordinary blessing of marriage – especially Christian marriage.

    Many within the Church now believe God does not want those at the edges of straight society excluded any longer.

    Blessings, AA

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Alan.
      I totally agree that “God does not want those at the edges of straight society excluded any longer”. In fact God never has. The gospels constantly record how Jesus was comfortable with those society found uncomfortable and in conflict with the religious ruling elite, particularly around their lack of care for those on the margins. That the church has a long way to go to “be like Jesus” is plain and obvious. However, despite his radical redefinition of who constitutes the people of God (the first last, and the last first, etc), I’m not sure Jesus would endorsed a redefinition of marriage as a means of facilitating such inclusion, in fact the gospels would tend to suggest otherwise.
      Blessings to you too,
      Stephen

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