The controversy surrounding marriage has been a frenzied crescendo of rage against the Divine Institution of marriage. The obscene attacks on the definition of marriage leave most faithful souls confused. We find ourselves at a loss as to how we ought to confront the tsunami of propaganda which insanely calls morally ordered views of marriage hateful, racist, and bigoted. The terms and tenor of the “marriage” debate today demonstrate that an understanding of the nature of marriage and the marital act have been improperly subordinated to particular peripheral concerns.
There are many stumbling blocks for those who may wish to engage intelligently and morally in the marriage debate. Two preliminary philosophical issues in particular which stand between us and our Christian duty to defend proper marriage are an understanding of the nature of grammar and the problem of being vs. doing. In clarifying these two philosophical points, one can become equipped to apprehend what has so confused the world concerning marriage and the marital act and thereby become prepared to defend God’s truth concerning the sacrament of marriage.
The word “grammar” is an extremely important word coming from the Greek “grammatikí̱” (γραμματική) meaning “the art of letters,” but in its deepest sense it signifies literacy or the right read on things. It is both an art and a science. It is complex to master literacy and all its guiding principles. In Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome we are left records of men who called themselves grammarians. They mastered the arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric if they were to be worthy of their title. If we compare what the grammarians considered grammar in ages past with what people call grammar today, will notice a world of difference between the two.
Dionasius Thrax, an ancient Roman grammarian outlines the hierarchical structure of grammar from the least to the greatest. He begins with prosody, followed by an understanding of literary devices, followed by considerations of phraseology enhanced by etymology. At the upper reaches of grammar we find analogy and metaphor followed by the highest aspect of grammar, the art of exegesis. Exegesis has its etymological roots in a word that means “to demand” from a written work what it is most deeply trying to convey considering its origins, the authors intentions, the validity and value of its assertions, as well as the range, breadth, and depth of its knowledge. This understanding of grammar has long since been abandoned.
Grammar has suffered the same fate as theology and philosophy in this reductive age. Grammar has been cut off from its transcendent and philosophical roots. Grammar ought to embody the rules for the structure of language, which intend to reflect the hierarchical structure of reality. The lowest level of grammatical concern for the ancients has become the highest in the modern school. Prosody has gone under the knife of dissection to the point that literacy has become a sort of pseudo-linguistic analysis of the written word.
Prosody generally means “the defining feature of expressive reading which comprises all of the variables of timing, phrasing, emphasis, and intonation.” The ancient grammarians’ concerns have been replaced by the constituent parts undergirding prosody we now call morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, phonology, and phonetics. Added to these considerations are superficial nods to various parts of speech and reduced versions of some of the Ancient grammarian’s categories. One is reminded here of Gandalf’s keen observation to Sarumuan of many colors when he said “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” So like the frog on the dissection table who can reveal many minute details about his inner parts but cannot teach us about his vitality in his natural habitat, grammar lies dissected in the laboratory of the modern school dead to its vital concerns.
A recovery of the true nature of grammar is hardly likely, but let it suffice here to remind us that grammar has its roots in eternity and its arrangement of categories signifies the rules of existence as well as words can. In identifying the grammar of human existence there are two primary considerations, that of space and time which correlate to our two categories of being and doing. Being and doing are reflected by our speech categories we call nouns and verbs. In the entirety of language we can notice that all our linguistic constructions revolve around articulating things and what they do (nouns and verbs). Just so, we understand our lives in terms of being and doing correlated to space and time. All of our considerations revolve around what we are and what we do. It is of primary importance in living out our Christian vocations to know the nature of what we are, to understand the moral implications of what we do, and how these two categories are inextricably related. It is the philosophical problem of our age that we have abandoned a proper understanding of this relationship and it has obscured our understanding of how we ought to live.
The Problem of Being
We are created beings born into time and space. We are made in the image and likeness of God and gifted an intellect and free will and thereby we are impelled to act. These facts point to the most basic aspects of the human condition, being and doing. We are all beings and we all do things. But because we are rational and moral creatures, what we do requires knowledge and consideration. In order to act rightly in accord with our proper ends, it is necessary to discover the nature of our being. We find this nearly impossible today because have abandoned theology, the Queen of the sciences and her handmaiden philosophy and given primacy of place to the usurper empirical science. No longer do we rely on revelation and metaphysics to inform us about our being, but a recovery of these two sciences is vital for a rediscovery of the nature of being.
Ontology is a branch of metaphysics that studies what there is, the most general features of being and how universal principles correspond to speculative understanding of what really is. This age has narrowed its focus so tightly it has excluded the immateriality comprising the universal and unchanging principles of being. Instead, we focus almost exclusively on what is merely physical, knowable through the five senses and by its material nature constantly changing. But is there more than the material world? More than what we can perceive with the five senses? Many would say “no,” but the great philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would say yes! Metaphysics is the subject which is beyond-physics. Metaphysics is an exercise that begins with the senses but goes far beyond it to the proper use the intellect in a philosophical discipline known to the ancients as speculative rational science.
Metaphysics used to be called the “first philosophy.” It seeks to understand the permanent, immaterial and universal things pertaining to the nature of being. Theology and philosophy have been decreasing in importance in the university since at least the advent of nominalism in the 14th century. The biggest problem today is that we mistakenly consider that our best way of “knowing,” is by what we can apprehend with our five senses and as a result, our conversations about the nature of being are reduced to absurdity.
Three Stumbling Blocks
Many false beliefs follow the above described philosophical stumbling blocks, below are three:
- There are no universal truths about the nature of being… False! — Everything physical is in flux, and since we focus almost solely on the physical, we are apt to conclude by our simple observations that everything and everyone is different. Universals are no longer held to be applicable to being. From this error we can make neither truthful, nor accurate statements about the nature of being nor how such an understanding calls us to live and act as our Creator intends. Without universal truths, we become the arbiters of our own truths and the makers of our own rules. If we no longer admit of divine and natural law, we will have to become our own lawmakers. This error has been deadly. There are in fact universal truths about human nature, they are knowable and have been known by every generation until now.
- What we do is who we are… False! — We are apt in this scientific age to mistake what we do for what we are. An example of this is that we label ourselves by the things we do. I am a teacher. Actually, I am a human being, what I do is teach. He is an alcoholic. Actually, he is a human being who drinks too much. She is a lesbian, no she is a human being who may commit same-sex acts. If there is universal being, then we falsely conclude that we are what we do. People today refer to themselves as the thing they do. We have tried to change the definition of the human person from a human being to a human doing. This has had catastrophic results. The logical end of this error is to see people as means to be used (doing), not as ends to be cherished (being).
- Doing precedes being… False! — If we don’t recognize that the universal principles of being apply to all humans at all times, then we are inclined to invert the order of being and doing. Universal principles of being are meant to guide our actions. Without them we have had to turn elsewhere for guidance. We have replaced universal truths of being with regimens of action we believe will determine what we become. This is abundantly apparent in modern psychology, education and in politics. This is a grave error. In the order of reality it is precisely our habits of being both moral and intellectual which comprise the range of possible valid acts to which we have the potential to commit, not the other way around. We are apt to think in this confused age that what we do will determine what we become, when in reality, it is who we are that will determine what we do.
We have a duty to cultivate our minds and orient our hearts to our Creator. After the arduous labor of putting things in their proper order by cultivating the requisite moral and intellectual habits of being, we will act in accord with our station and intended ends. We will know that our natures are perfected by the graces to the degree we chose to cooperate. It is the development of our intellectual and moral habits that comprise the range, determinant source and predictive value of all our actions. Without these realizations, we live in delusion. If we are not in possession of intellectual and moral habits of being, we will not understand what has been handed on to us by our illustrious Magisterium, and will not be prepared to give a defense for what we believe.
We must recover an authentic understanding of the nature of grammar, especially where it applies to the grammar of human existence. It is also urgent that we solve the current problem of being. The confusion surrounding marriage and the marital act today revolves around the misunderstanding of the human person as it pertains to the inversion of doing and being. It is the wrong question to ask “who ought to be able to marry?”(question of doing) Instead of the right question “what is the nature of marriage?” (question of being) Out of the answer to the question about the nature of marriage proceeds the answer of who can get married. Let us advance beyond these two stumbling blocks of grammar and the problem of being, it is vital for the health of Holy Mother Church and an important step to put ourselves on the narrow path to salvation.