One of the 21st century’s biggest complaints with history is that it is the source of inequality. Such a sentiment is not new. It was already operative in 17th- and 18th-century deism. John Toland (1670-1722), for instance, couldn’t get over the fact that priests have been given the keys to revelation, and that he was therefore left out. To be fair to Toland, though, he managed to put his finger on a genuine problem. Toland was worried that the very idea of revelation made God guilty of promoting inequality on a universal scale. For Toland, it was repugnant to claim that God had reserved his revelation for the ancient Jews, let alone Christians. In contrast to an unevenly distributed revealed religion, his antidote was to promote the idea of natural religion, which he believed was accessible to all people by means of God-endowed reason.

Toland and his allies stirred up a firestorm, but the religious establishment managed to extinguish the blaze. As J.C.D. Clark puts it, “the response of orthodox churchmen was more widespread, more scholarly, and polemically more effective.”[1] Joseph Butler (1692-1752) arguably did more than anyone to quell the deist threat. What Butler saw so clearly was that Christianity needed a phenomenological defense. In other words, Christians needed to offer a satisfying explanation for why human life takes the form that it does. Butler argues that while history is, undoubtedly, the forum of human violence and suffering, it is also the arena in which justice is called for and exercised. This moral governance that humans experience, says Butler, points to the fact that God, the supreme governor, is providentially sovereign. “This little scene of human life, in which we are so busily engaged,” says Butler, has “a reference, of some sort or other, to a much larger plan of things.”[2]

The province of Ontario’s proposed Bill 28, the “All Families Are Equal Act,” is motivated by Toland’s conviction that it is a universal right to have access to what is good. And it assumes, again with Toland, that history is what gets in the way. What is good is parenthood, and what gets in the way is current legislation. Current legislation gets in the way because it uses traditional language, mother and father. Bill 28 thus removes mother 17 times, and father 23 times. In its place are the words birthparent and parent. In its current form it entitles each child born in Ontario to a (presumably female) birthparent, and up to three other parents, paving the way for open marriage.[3]

Government press secretary Clare Graham emphasizes what Christians would call the “pastoral intent” of the proposed law:

At the end of the day, this is about ensuring that all kids are treated equally by recognizing the legal status of their parents no matter if their parents are LGBTQ2+ or straight, and no matter if they were conceived with the help of a doctor.

Graham’s comment highlights two important assumptions underlying Bill 28. First, it takes for granted that our shared prenatal history (that is, the fact that we all originate from the union of a female egg and a male sperm within time, and are then formed within the female womb within time) is a fact that should be suppressed because it promotes prejudice.

It is hard to see how this history could possibly be equated with prejudice, however. This is one place where our common history would seem to work in the opposite direction. Our shared prenatal history is the basis of our common humanity. And it is difficult to see how teaching children (falsely) that they have come from different permutations and combinations of human relationships could do anything but compromise entrenched solidarity.

Second, Bill 28 trivializes the distinction between biological and adoptive parents. It does so because it takes for granted that, like prenatal history, a history in which a child moves from birthparents to adoptive parents evokes prejudice and should be suppressed. The argument is that since children will feel they aren’t affirmed if others know they have an adoptive parent, we should put the names of adoptive parents on birth certificates and thereby conceal the fact that they are “adoptive.”

This, of course, is wishful thinking. As history happens, some mothers and fathers inevitably disappear due to death or abandonment. Since the beginning of human society, communities have made provisions for the passing on of children from mothers and fathers to other members of the community. This transition takes place within history and is itself history for countless individuals. Adoption is the word we give to this history.

Adoption describes the fact that arrangements can be made to grant stability and sustenance to children who are no longer under the supervision of their biological mothers and fathers. It is a crucial term for Christians because it affirms that the fallen histories of children are not lost. But most of all, adoption is crucial for Christians because it figures in salvation history. It reminds Jewish Christians of their responsibility to promote Gentile inclusion. And it compels Gentile Christians to humbly accept their position as sheer gift.

Christianity has more descriptive power than secular egalitarianism since the latter’s universalist discourse prevents it from describing the world as it is with its inherent distinction between biological and adoptive parents.[4] The point, though, isn’t simply that the terms mother, father, and adoption are phenomenologically necessary. The point is that they are necessary unto salvation. When they are taken from children, children are stripped of their ability to locate their immediate experiences within the theatre of divine action.

Mother, father, and adoption must be retained because they describe the world the way it actually is, in all its inequality, and accordingly create the space for a providential view of history. Mother and father are the words Christians use to uphold the view that all humans are, at birth, unceremoniously thrust into the history of redemption. Adoption is the word Christians use to affirm that wherever history takes its children, into whatever family situation it takes them, they are never beyond the pale of divine grace.

Footnotes

[1] Clark, English Society, 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure, and Political Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 360.

[2] Robert Emory, Bishop Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed (Harper & Brothers, 1860), p. 190. David Hume helps us to see why Butler’s arguments have long been forgotten. For Hume, the problem is history itself. Historical particularity is prejudice. Thus the only way for a historian to overcome prejudice is to transcend historical particularity. Hume gives universality, but in the process, he obliterates historical difference. As Weinsheimer puts it, “in the process of showing how historical understanding is possible, [Hume] has shown it is unnecessary.” Joel C. Weinsheimer, Eighteenth-Century Hermeneutics: Philosophy of Interpretation in England from Locke to Burke (Yale University Press, 1993), p. 129.

[3] The bill prompted substantial criticism, and will probably be amended in some fashion. In this article, fertility lawyer Sara Cohen cites five ways in which Bill 28 is problematic for mothers, fathers, and their children.

[4] Secular egalitarianism and Christian anti-Semitism begin and end in the same place. They begin with ambivalence about the providential ordering of history, and they end by casting aside mother, father, and adoption.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. David Ney serves as priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Calgary, Alberta. He recently completed a doctorate in theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. His wife Jamie, a Taiwanese national, has patiently journeyed with him for over ten years of theological education but is looking forward to no longer being married to a perpetual student (although hopefully still to him). When David isn’t preparing a sermon, doing a pastoral visitation, or engaged in academic work, he can be found changing the diaper of his infant daughter, on his hands and knees playing “tars” with his three-year-old son, or accompanying his seven- and nine-year-old daughters on the cello and the violin.

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