WEIRDness, Ecumenical Councils and the Marriage Institution

    1. How WEIRD we are!
    2. Ecumenical Councils and the Marriage Debate
    3. Cornerstone or Capstone?
    4. De-institutionalizing marriage
    5. Here comes the groom, then and now


“WEIRD” If you haven’t encountered that acronym, get to know it now. It’s “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic.” And it’s us.

The most recent edition of Behavioral and Brain Sciences carries a remarkable review article by Joseph HenrichSteven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan, ‘The weirdest people in the world?’ The article outlines two central propositions; first, that most behavioural science theory is built upon research that examines intensely a narrow sample of human variation (disproportionately US university undergraduates who are, as the authors write, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, or ‘WEIRD’).

More controversially, the authors go on to argue that, where there is robust cross-cultural research, WEIRD subjects tend to be outliers on a range of measurable traits that do vary, including visual perception, sense of fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, and a host of other basic psychological traits.

(Neuroanthropology blog.) We are the world’s outliers in how we see, emote, evaluate and generally interact with the cosmos.

Keep that in mind when you see snotty liberals dissing social science by, say, Mark Regnerus. His study probably is flawed. But when you get right down to is, so are about 99% of social science studies, because of their WEIRD study samples, not to mention that social scientists with an ax to grind have been known to engage in conscious advocacy, including outright lying (as I learned to my dismay had been done by social scientists in Brandeis Briefs opposing the death penalty).


One might get the impression, from reading the likes of Dan Brown (I’m told; I have no personal experience of that), that as soon as Emperor Constantine decreed toleration of Christianity, a bunch of bitter, power-hungry Churchmen emerged from their lairs and implemented the nefarious plan they’d been hatching for centuries: to build a power structure for themselves by calling “ecumenical councils,” deciding of exactly what Official Christianity® would consist, and then living off the monopoly profits.

One might be ignorant if one did get that impression, but there’s no shortage of ignorance in the world. I was once ignorant on that topic myself, and adhered to a view that was at least tinctured with this sort of Romophobic myth.

One of my great surprises in Orthodoxy has been to see that the Ecumenical Councils were invariably convened because a heresy had appeared, contrary to the previous tacit understanding of the Church, and was leading many people astray. They were not held because the Church had a good year financially and the Bishops wanted an excuse to party at some exotic venue.

So, for instance, the First Ecumenical Council dealt with the heretic Arius and his Arian heresy, which denied the deity of Christ. The Third Ecumenical Council, at Ephesus, dealt with Nestorius, whose heresy also equivocated on the full deity of the fully-human Christ. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (and at this point, I’ve lost the Protestants, who follow historic Christianity only up to the Fourth Council – and that only equivocally) dealt with the propriety of icons, which is a topic surprisingly fraught with Christological implications: did God actually become sarx in Christ, so that He henceforth could be properly depicted?

In other words, what had been tacit, the Councils made explicit, reluctantly and only when needed. And there’s a lot of room to romp inside the boundaries they set.

We’re holding a secular regional (not ecumenical) Council in the Supreme Court chambers yesterday and today. The human race has always had a tacit understanding, even when there was no special stigma on sodomy, that marriage was a gendered institution. A man might contract many marriages, with many women, but what he did with boys (or other men) on the side was not “marriage.” Only our current age, beginning during Tipsy’s very own lifetime, has been WEIRD enough to controvert that.

There was an iconoclast council before the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The Emperor opposed icons and an assembly of Churchmen did his bidding. Today, our Emperor has come out as opposed to history’s understanding of marriage, which his administration will not defend. An it’s not always easy to reduce to a spoken formulation an understanding, however true, that has been lived rather than dissected and talked about. (The proponents of today’s novel notion of marriage have no plausible definition of their own, but they’ve effectively shifted the onus of persuasion to the traditional institution to justify itself against the demands of “equality.”)

It’s not at all clear that the universal human understanding (orthodoxy) will be vindicated rather than the novelty (heresy). But if SCOTUS decides that there is no remaining public institution of marriage, and therefore the state must open the private deal to everybody (a doozy of a nonsequitur), I’m reasonably certain that large parts of the world will ignore us, and that they’re the saner for it.

The main difference between the Church in the 8th Century and America in the 21st is that America has no divine assurance of survival.


Karen Swallow Prior, argues that getting married at a young age allows for the marriage to be the “cornerstone” of a life rather than the “capstone.”

(Mark T. Mitchell, The Case for Getting Married Young, hyperlink added.)

For mostly the wrong reasons, I almost married young (19). Fortunately, she broke up with me, yet again, and the scales finally fell from my eyes: the relationship was based on dreams I’d since abandoned, and without those dreams, the relationship made little sense. Moreover, the circumstances of my life led me, too much, to view marriage as a sort of capstone.

Maybe we two would have wised up and built on our marriage, but I suspect the marriage would have ended unhappily, and I’m glad that I resisted her desire to get engaged again and move forward with the original marriage plans.

But that’s not to say I disagree with Swallow and Prior. I think it’s still possible, with some effort, to raise children so that at 19, their feet are firmly on the ground. I knew a lot of young marrieds who fit that description during my brief job assignment in rural Oklahoma, some 37 years ago. The common denominator, in my mind, was that they had not been indulged by their parents in a self-indulgent, sow-your-wild-oats, party hardy, adolescence, but had known real work for some years before marrying young.

But that kind of upbringing is not WEIRD enough for us.


When commentators remark upon the ‘de-institutionalization’ of marriage over the last few decades, it is to … reorganization that they are referring: marriage ceases to serve a social purpose that transcends the couple, and reorients itself to be almost entirely ordered around their intentions. The abandonment of an institutional conception of marriage is perhaps the most noteworthy background for the same-sex marriage debate. It is this de-institutionalization that explains the focus upon and the persuasive power of the language of rights and equality in the present debate.

(Alastair Roberts, The Institution of Marriage, Same-Sex Marriage and Procreation, emphasis added.)

It seems to me logically that de-institutionalization – marriage ceasing to serve a social purpose that transcends the couple – should lead government to withdraw from regulating marriage instead of yelling “y’all come!” and issuing Love Licenses to all consenting adult comers. It’s disheartening to me not only that we are de-institutionalizing marriage, but that we’re so reflexively statist that we don’t see the logic (given the distressing premise) of consequently de-licensing and de-regulating it.


Andrew Sullivan was arguing for same-sex marriage long before it was cool. When he made the case for gay marriage in a 1989 essay in The New Republic“Here Comes the Groom,” he was attacked from the left by gay activists for selling out the cause of sexual liberation and slavishly acquiescing to bourgeois institutions.  How times have changed.

(Jonathan Adler, Volokh Conspiracy)

What do you think has changed? Have gay activists decided that selling out the cause of sexual liberation and slavishly acquiescing to bourgeois institutions is okay after all? Or have they decided that they don’t really need to give up sexual liberation to claim the jillion-and-one fabled government benefits for marriage?

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.