Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, “The Essence of Marriage,” I responded to a review of a book on marriage.1 The author of the book summarizes a variety of marriage systems throughout history, showing how the concept of marriage has varied over time and culture. The reviewer determines that because of this variety, we can conclude that “marriage has no ‘essence.’ There is no one function or purpose it serves in every time and place.” This conclusion appeals to those who advance the gay agenda because it justifies redefining marriage according to the latest whims of some segments of society.

The author’s summary of the differences in marriage systems throughout history, as well as the reviewers conclusions from the review, is the result of confusing descriptive characteristics with defining characteristics. For example, a pencil is a long, thin tool (descriptive characteristics), but that does not mean a paintbrush is a pencil, even though it is also a long, thin tool. And even if you find many pencils of various colors, sizes, and materials, as long as they have a graphite core encased in a solid material (defining characteristics), they are pencils. Variety in descriptive characteristics does not mean there are no inherent defining characteristics.

Imagine, for example, someone using such logic to redefine the social institution of meals, as depicted in this imaginary dialogue:

Meals are when people gather and eat.

No, that’s a rather artificial, out-dated social construct.

What do you mean?

Meals aren’t essentially about eating.

What! The very purpose of meals is nutrition.

Oh, you’re so sheltered and ethnocentric. Do you really think that every society sees mealtimes the same way?

Every society has mealtime. They always have!

Yes, but there’s an incredible variety of cultural views on meals.

What kinds of views?

Some societies see mealtimes as a sacred event, but some don’t. Some societies eat meals in private; for others, meals are a public affair. Some societies eat sitting around a table, others eat standing up. Even within the same culture, some meals are cooked in the home and others are bought out in public.

What are you trying to say?

Mealtime has no “essence.” There’s no intrinsic purpose that mealtimes serve that remains constant across all times and cultures; it’s all relative.

I’m not contesting the fact that there’s differences, but it doesn’t prove your point. Regardless of cultural variations, meals have always been about eating and sustaining the body.

No, a meal is a social gathering where people who enjoy each other’s company spend time together talking and laughing and fulfilling a variety of other purposes. It’s any mutually agreed-upon gathering. It’s not about eating. I mean, the Bible even defines it that way. Ecclesiastes 10:19 says, “A feast is made for laughter.”

Meals are intrinsically about eating food, not merely gathering. That definition has been a necessary part of life on earth for eons. How can any society survive if the people don’t eat meals? Every society has had this practice.

Yes, every society has had meals, but it’s not always about nutrition or sustaining life. Haven’t you heard about the Roman vomitoriums? They’d have huge banquets and then go to special rooms designed for purging. Then they’d go back to the banquet. You see? It’s not about nutrition. It’s about a social gathering for mutual enjoyment. That’s an example of an advanced civilization that didn’t meet your limited definition of “meals.”

The Romans civilization isn’t around anymore, is it?

Oh brother, do you really think it fell because they had these unique eating practices?

Not exactly, but I’m sure they didn’t help.


1. Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking); cited in Julian Sanchez, “Marital Mythology: Why the New Crisis in Marriage Isn’t,” Reason Magazine, 1 Jun. 2006.