Much has been said about equality in relation to the debate about same-sex marriage.
So much so that we are intoxicated by it (see September EN, page 17). The problem is that equality is an idea not a fact. There is a good deal of discussion as to what ‘basic equality’ might be. Nobody has ever seen it or really knows if it exists. To believe in it requires a good dose of faith.
Liberty, equality, fraternity
The creed of well-meaning humanists today runs: Now abideth these three, liberty, equality and fraternity, but the greatest of these is equality. Originally the words ‘or death’ figured too, but no tolerant person would take things that far.
There’s nothing new here. These three abstract notions were enthroned by the French revolution when the goddess Reason replaced the cross on the altar of Notre Dame in Paris. Even if Napoleon soon put an end to that, the revolutionary trinity was enshrined in human rights.
There is also a dynamic at play here: liberty from oppression is the road to equality and equality is the service station on the way to social well-being and justice. Equality is the greatest because it’s the king pin. Equality exists when liberty has done her work freeing us from the entrenched interests of tradition or religion.
The limits of equality
Nature is the reef on which equality flounders, because the natural world is an ocean of diversity, even if it has order and structure. Whatever one thinks, we cannot escape the fact that male and female are two ways of being human, different in physical ability, mental and psychological make-up and bodily constitution. Adults and children are not equal, nor are those who are whole and those who suffer from terrible infirmities. Animals and humans are different, so are living things and inanimate objects. This is not Christian cant; all religions and cultures recognise it. Just consult the Tao of all things and you will find that in that system of thought reality is ultimately not one but two, that is, unequal.
In some areas real equality does exist of course, but they are quite limited. We accept equal opportunity for all in education or the work place, which is a good thing. However, no one takes it in an ultimate sense and thinks it would be a proof of equality if Wayne Rooney were to be put in charge of a nuclear power station. Equality before the law is a fundamental right too, because everyone should be treated the same. Equality most of all concerns weights and measures and things in which precision is essential. £1 is 100p and equal to 1.16 euros at a given time. But an apple is not an orange, a person with an IQ of 90 is not equal to one with 150, or a baggage handler to an airline pilot. To apply equality in some areas is a category mistake.
In public debate equality is the motor of progress. It makes what has been considered undesirable until now acceptable. Why is everyone mesmerised by equality, if it has so limited a function in reality? I think it’s for a religious reason. The idea of equality allows people to remake reality according to their desires and exercise a sort of divine control when the inequalities of nature, aided and abetted by human injustices, seem intolerable. The field is levelled by exercising control over the structure of social reality.
Evening-up the balance would be fine if it remained within the cultural mandate and served to limit human sinfulness. In that case equality would be an aspect of common grace. But the problem is that human autonomy and the desire for power gets out of hand. Social engineers, who think they know best, exercise control for the rest of us, as if they were gods.
Equality and progress
Equality is like the sacred calf of old. Everyone pays homage to it and no one seems to express reservations about it. People are not surprised when in the name of equality things that were illegal or unacceptable a generation ago are now fully legal. In fact equality helps turn the tables. In some cases the bad has become good and the good bad. Those who think differently are considered psychologically fragile and, likely as not, fascists or retrograde bigots.
All this is the case with same-sex marriage, which is a leap into the dark. The practice of cultures and ages is overturned with little understanding of the whys, the wherefores or the consequences. This is such an enormous change that future generations will wonder how it happened. Not even the ancient Greeks or Romans, who found same-sex paedophilia quite acceptable, thought of redefining the institution of marriage. And yet we act as though this were business as usual and back it up with the best of intentions and appeals to equal rights.
It has been suggested that same-sex marriage will support the institution of marriage, no doubt meaning that any form of social commitment is better than none. Heterosexual marriage, however, has such a bad track record in present society that there is little reason to suppose that its new counterpart will not reproduce the same problems in a new context. Sin remains sin and human nature remains human nature in any context.
So why the pressing need for new legislation on this question? The only reason seems to be that well-meaning people, politicians and other leaders, have to go all out in a politically correct society to prove that they are on the side of the goodies. They seem to think that any cause endorsed by equality shows that they are bone fide champions of progress.
This shows what a dangerous position we have reached in Western society, when policies are promoted for obscure reasons and not because they are morally justified. Vague notions like equality serve to hide the real issues which become impossible to speak about. The wages of spin is the manipulation of opinion with arguments that are smoke and mirrors.
From a theological point of view, public policies that have equality as their principle and goal give our leaders the unhealthy impression of power and how they can wield it as benevolent gods to cure the ills of society. In a sense, the humanist pursuit of equality is an attempt to solve the problems of sin and injustice without God. I think that is why debates on any issue in which equality is involved quickly turn venomous. These issues have, for the people who promote them, a pseudo-religious motivation that inspires their zeal and often intolerance of those who do not see eye to eye with them.
Ultimately the problem with equality talk is that it never was, never is and never will be something that belongs to created reality, apart from in a restricted technical sense. The foundation of the Christian faith is that God and man are different, and unequal. In the realm of personhood, equality exists only in the perfect oneness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, in the ‘unity of the Godhead… of one substance, power and eternity…’ (Westminster Confession, II.3). Real equality exists in God alone and where he establishes it according to his will and purpose, above all in the spiritual unity between believers who are united with Christ, and made one in him.
Paul Wells, is a teacher at the FacultŽ Jean Calvin, Aix-en-Provence, and lives in Eastbourne.