Thursday, November 12, 2015

A different understanding of marriage

In a previous post on marriage a reader left this comment:
The traditional concept of Marriage in Christian (an indeed all major religious) tradition is of a social institution and not a personal relationship. Marriage, like other social institutions, must have a vision and goals which are in line with the common good of the society and families from which the bride and groom originate.

The principle functions of marriage are the procreation and enculturation of children, and the care of the elderly and the sick. Marriage does not, therefore, exist primarily to fulfil personal emotional or sexual gratification needs. Its primary purpose is the preservation and perpetuation of the social order.

The Christian view of Mary and Joseph as the model family requires that the righteous man marries within his own tribe. Husband and wife should, as Mary and Joseph, be of common ancestral descent. Thus the genetic heritage and gifts which God created in each ethnic group be preserved.

I do understand the point being made here. It is a reaction against the current failing understanding of marriage. When people marry now, they still often say the traditional vows, but do not really mean them. For instance, whilst it is undoubtedly true that women at their weddings want their marriages to succeed, what many are really vowing is to stay with their husbands as long as they still have a feeling of love toward them, with love understood as a romantic feeling. If the feeling goes, then the marriage was not "fated" to last, it simply wasn't meant to be, and it is then thought right to move on.

Obviously, this way of doing things means that many marriages will fail. It only takes one bout of marital weariness and it's over (see here).

My reader puts forward a different model, one based on an authoritative assertion of marriage as a social institution, rather than a personal relationship. Would it work? Well, one thing in its favour is that most people do follow whatever moral beliefs are authoritative in their society. So as long as the belief in marriage as a social institution retained moral authority, it would most likely be more successful than the current model.

Even so, I'd like to put forward a different way of framing marriage, one that ties together the personal and the social. First, for a culture of marriage to succeed there needs to be a sense of the "offices" of husband/father and wife/mother. These offices are part of what fulfil our created natures as men and women; they add a sense of meaning and accomplishment to our work in the world; and they bring a sense of fruition to our lives.

These offices are a deep expression of our manhood and womanhood and, as such, tie our personal identity closely to our social roles within the family. They also give us a reason to commit to marriage and family in a stable way over and above the romantic relationship we have with our spouse.

But these offices are no longer as effective as they once were in anchoring our family commitments. One problem is the emphasis in liberalism on "freedom as individual autonomy". If the aim is to be an autonomous, self-determining, self-creating individual, then inherited social roles, particularly those based on our unchosen biological sex, will be thought of negatively as restraints on the individual. So over time marriage will be reconceived as an increasingly personal union alone, minus the social offices.

A second issue is the feminist idea that the offices of wife and mother were constructed for oppressive purposes; i.e. that rather than being part of the fulfilment of a woman, or of a fruitful life, that they are the very opposite, a way of women being subordinated in society. Therefore several generations of women have been raised not necessarily to reject marriage itself, but rather the significance or worth of the role/office of being a wife and mother.

This is especially true of the wifely role which has been widely cast as being old-fashioned or disempowering. In contrast, there do still exist some women (including women with careers) who uphold some of the older culture attached to the motherhood role and this does help to cement their marital commitments. There are some women, in other words, who might not stay in a marriage for the sake of their husbands or societies, but who will do so for the sake of their children.

For a culture of marriage to succeed there also needs to be a certain understanding of love. Emotional feeling is not the only test of love; the love we are called on to cultivate in marriage is one that should be settled in the will and be expressed, in part, as fidelity and service. Nor should we see love as being passively fated, but rather as something that we are actively oriented to, i.e. that we will love the spouse we are with, with all that this entails (e.g. the emotional maturity to forgive).

Finally, our stable commitments to marriage and family can also be reinforced by our perception of the good. Our commitment to community or tribe or nation is drawn partly from the identity and connectedness we draw from them, but partly also from the good that we perceive in them. This good can be understood in a secular way (e.g. the positive role that family plays in the emotional development of the young), but also in a religious way, as a transcendent good, by which I mean a good that exists independently of human agency and which might be experienced as something like "the eternal in the moment of perception".

Romantic love can be experienced as a transcendent good (finding your "soul mate"), although this is not what anchors family commitments. But so too can the life and character of a family - this can be experienced as a unique expression of a transcendent good, something of inestimable value, that you would not then ordinarily choose to dissolve (just as you would not ordinarily choose to dissolve your own tradition if you saw in it a unique expression of a transcendent good).


  1. Hi Mark, you wrote: "Even so, I'd like to put forward a different way of framing marriage, one that ties together the personal and the social."

    Certainly I would argue that this approach as more biblical, for Ephesians 5:21-33, for one thing, very clearly marks the relationship between Jesus and the Church as the pattern for marriage, not Mary and Joseph (which is probably a more Catholic thought.). Mary was pregnant with Jesus (immaculately) before she and Joseph were in fact married, so somehow I don't think they present as a good model couple for marriage! Based on the Jesus model a Christian marriage must, primarily, be personal (vertical), then secondarily social (horizontal). The social aspect is established in the manner we make our vows. We make the commitment in marriage, in front of witnesses, who acknowledge the sealing of bond.

    The social aspect says we have marked these witnesses as our community and that we rely on them to keep us from stumbling in our marriage. Thus, the social aspect (especially within the church community) is a support network, centred around faith and Christ. We wear each other’s ring to symbolise the two becoming one concept.

    As Bible believing Christians, divorce should fundamentally be off the table, for Jesus says in Mark 10:9, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” It is passages with this sentiment that make divorce and remarriage such a problem in Christian circles, for we have made the commitment before God of “’til death do us part”, but in reality there is tension between canon law and secular law. I have a friend who attests to the veracity of divorce being worse than death, as he has experienced both. The death of a wife is a sharp severance; a divorce is a massive untangling.

    Jesus to father to mother to children, establishes the hierarchy and roles/offices you have already described. Thus, if my child asked who I loved most, I would say Jesus then mummy, then them. There should be no “friendships” in family (for friendships remove distinction). To my wife I am her husband, and to my children I am their father - very distinct offices f rom friendship. My children are sons and daughters, and between themselves brothers and sisters. The use of "partner" irks me no end; it’s ambiguous about which office. The secular world seems to think that everyone is everyone else's friend. That merely flattens the hierarchy and offices already discussed, making life in general very one-dimensional, and confusing too.

    (to be continued)

  2. (Continued)

    In family, Agape, Storge, Philia and Eros are appropriately ordered and attached to the relevant office in considered measure. This is probably more Catholic in sentiment, but it does capture the order of love in family. The secular world seems not to understand how unconditional and conditional love work concurrently. I think this is the direct result of the "flattened" understanding of love and relationships in the modern era (love is love is love – well…no!). I think this “flattened” understanding of love leads to confusion, especially where Eros is the order of the day. For example, the man who loves the child thinks there is nothing wrong with some sexual expression to this. Interestingly the father-daughter bond is 35-40 times less likely than stepfather-daughter bond to lead to incest. Thus, the blood bond ordinarily establishes strong bonds, but simultaneously strong boundaries. Blended families lose that blood bondage, and so lose the blood boundaries.

    Back to marriage! When the husband leads IN LOVE, and the wife submits IN LOVE, the idea of headship is sacrificial (family first, self last), and submission similarly so. It's a bottom-up structure which the secular does not understand, for it applies negative connotations to the two keywords- headship and submission. The bottom-up structure is how the family runs in practice, but in the relationships hierarchy of office is still retained. Thus, biblical Christian marriage is highly nuanced, probably too nuanced for the liberal mind to fully grasp; I think that happens because a rightly focused Christian marriage is 'other' focussed, when secular relationships are predominately self-centred. Marriage is about putting in, not getting out! I love to paraphrase JFK, “ask not what your marriage can do for your; ask what you can do for your marriage.”

    Traditional Marriage is three-dimensional, not the one-dimensional (it's only a piece of paper) argument as expressed from the SSM advocates. They just don't get the holistic, layered construct of family: marriage, procreation, parenting with obligation and responsibility. They often criticise traditional marriage advocates of using circular arguments, which frustrates them no end. But of course it is a circular argument, for marriage and family is a circular, layered and three-dimensional construct all rolled into one. I picture marriage and family as at least three interwoven Möbius strips. Fulfilled properly (for it is challenging to the best and worst of sinners), it is highly robust.

    A marriage is greater than the sum of its parts - at least in a relatively healthy one. The SSM debate disaggregates marriage from family. When your starting point for arguing in favour of traditional marriage is purely legal (as a counterpoint to the SSM debate), I think it will always miss the robustness of marriage. You don’t bring a knife to a knife fight; you bring a sword!

    I am not a fan of 'soul-mate', which, as far as I'm concerned, projects a perfect match concept. Biblically we understand as husband and wife, that we are not perfect (still sinners), and that we need to be sculpting each other (potter & clay imagery) to look more Christ-like on this journey of married life. Thus, for husband and wife, marriage should be part of our sanctification in our Christian lives.

    The “raised by the village” argument, from a biblical perspective, is that the “village” is Family (first and foremost), Christian Education (Private- or Home-Schooling), and Church.

  3. "I do understand the point being made here. It is a reaction against the current failing understanding of marriage."

    This assertion is incorrect and demonstrates your own failure to understand Catholic theology. The view which I put forward was not a reaction against the current state of marriage but a statement of Catholic teaching defined by logos, the word of God, unchanging for all time.

    The institution of marriage is clearly defined in Catholic theology as a social institution which serves the purpose of God. Its function is to perpetuate and strengthen Christian society by the procreation and enculturation of children, the care of the elderly and the sick. God is therefore the head of the Christian family. Given that marriage is a gift from God, to serve the purposes of God for all time, humans cannot alter or add to this model. Amen.

    Your attempts to "put forward a different way of framing marriage" are therefore inappropriate and pagan.

    Furthermore the Church affirms the model family for humanity,as that of Mary and Joseph, a couple of shared ancestry, descended from the House of David and obedient to the will of God despite difficult and hostile circumstances.

    The Bible further affirms that a man shall seek wives for his sons and fathers of daughters shall give their daughters in marriage. Hence marriage is a contract between 2 patriarchs to give their children in marriage. This is still the norm in traditional Catholic Europe. Marriage, a contract between 2 patriarchs of common ancestry, the sacrament between the bride and groom, given in marriage by their fathers.

    The contract between the 2 families is essential to support the new family socially, emotionally and often financially. Marital breakdown is rare.

    The Protestant world redefined marriage in pagan terms as a personal relationship, entered by choice rather than religious obligation and divorced from ancestral bloodlines. Romantic love was its basis and sexual intercourse its holy communion. The result is the social collapse of the Western world, far more serious than its economic and political collapse. Blood lines once destroyed or corrupted can never be recovered.

    The Gospel demonstrated the fickleness of human emotion and loyalties. When Jesus was crucified, his disciples all left him. Only his blood family remained his supports. This serves as God's demonstration to man that blood ties alone form the basis of human loyalties and non blood relationships will usually collapse at the onset of stress.

    The Protestant redefinition of marriage as personal relationship rather than a social institution of blood ties, brought about the collapse of family by unleashing human idolatory and sin and subverting the will of God.

  4. "Romantic love can be experienced as a transcendent good (finding your "soul mate"), although this is not what anchors family commitments."

    Romantic love is not a transcendent good and the attempt to define it as such is idolatory. Romantic love is infatuation. True love develops over a long period of shared experience and commitment. A couple at their marriage, can be infatuated, but they cannot love each other in the true sense of the word.

    The infatuation is dangerous as strong emotion overrides logic and precludes a serious and critical evaluation of a potential spouses' suitability as a life partner. This is the direct cause of the high failure rates of marriage. Emotional highs are not a basis for the formation of stable society.

    1. Anon, you would think that the main advantage a Catholic might have is the idea of marriage as a sacrament, which then logically precludes divorce. But Catholic culture has become too secularised for this to hold well. Chances are that a Catholic woman will have exactly the same understanding of marriage as a Protestant one, namely that you marry for love, that you go into a marriage hoping that it will last, but if it doesn't, you conclude it just wasn't fated and you try again with someone else.

      My own view about what message to push in response to this is obviously different to yours. I think it's a mistake to take an either/or position - that marriage is either about social obligations or about personal fulfilment. I believe the truth to be more complex than this (though I admit that sometimes simple messages work better).

      If personal fulfilment is thought of only in terms of romantic love, then of course there is a conflict between it and a stable family life. But modernity has pushed aside other aspects of personal fulfilment which do work together with stable family commitments, such as the roles of husband/father and wife/mother, which give us a sense of identity, a meaningful social role, and which fulfil very strong masculine and feminine instincts. It is something to be a husband and father within a family, entrusted with an important role that bears on the well-being of wife and children, community, nation and tradition. The office itself has weight and significance. At the same time, the "loves" also come into it: a paternal love of your children, a husbandly love of your wife.

      If love is wrapped up in this bigger picture of family life, then it makes sense not to see it passively as something that is either fated or not fated to last, but to be actively oriented to it - to try to nurture it as best you can, because you are committed to the ongoing office of being a husband and father, so you are committed for life so to speak, and therefore you will want to have the conjugal love endure as well.

      The modern understanding has slipped to a lower level than this, which then allows for a more casual attitude to divorce. As I tried to explain in the post, part of the reason for the slip is that women are no longer raised to believe in the significance of the offices of wife and mother - especially that of wife. Similarly, the higher understanding of family as uniquely embodying a transcendent good - i.e. as having spiritual meaning and goodness attached to it, has also been lost, which then makes the dissolving of families seem less against the order of nature.