OK, some thoughts on marriage in this little mini-series set off by reflecting on allegory and the Song of Songs.
Contemporary Western attitudes to marriage are complex and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is legally and socially less significant – a lifestyle choice ignored by increasing numbers of people. Yet, on the other hand, it is a status vigorously pursued as a legal and human right for those formerly excluded from a male-female heterosexual understanding of marriage.
Much confusion arises from different understandings of what marriage actually is. Modern views of marriage are, at key points, historically novel – radically so. Yet, such has been the cultural success of the modern concept of marriage, that it has swept all before it – including much Christian understanding and practice of marriage. The result has been that much Christianity in the West lacks the theological resources to imagine marriage, sex, and the body in radically counter-cultural ways.
So what is this dominant modern view of marriage? It is shaped by at least two major innovations:
Innovation 1: A revolution in the understanding of sex
- celibacy is incomprehensible (our previous post)
- being sexually active is an essential part of being human; repression of who we are sexually is harmful and oppressive
- sex is an activity detached from reproduction. (This is technically possible only in the blink of an eye historically. Remember that for the early church fathers sex was only legitimate if done for procreation. Sex for pleasure was a venial sin).
- Detachment from procreation frees sex to be a leisure activity – primarily a source of pleasure, fun and self-expression.
- Thus sex becomes an end in itself – a source of personal self-fulfilment and expression of identity
- Modern sex is therefore deeply linked to modern consumerism – it is no accident that sex is used to sell pretty well anything.
Innovation 2: Romantic fulfilment
- Everywhere in a thousand ways Western culture affirms that the path to individual fulfilment is through authentic romantic love
- Such love is equal, sexual, intimate and exciting. It is the Other who meets our needs and us theirs. It is ‘us’ and then the rest of the outside world.
- This vision of romantic love is also new historically – never before in human history has happiness, meaning, fulfilment and purpose been so invested in one relationship.
- The stakes are high – if the relationship doesn’t deliver exalted hopes then its future is in serious doubt
- Rising divorce rates suggest that our ‘all or nothing’ investment in marriage / the ‘perfect one’ / ‘true love’ as the ultimate source of identity, happiness and future hope is unrealistic and unsustainable. There are sadly a lot of broken dreams out there.
How has this framework impacted marriage ?
At least two ways:
1. You might think that it would undermine marriage and you would be right.
Marriage rates in Ireland are still high, but on the decline. Many places in the West are far ‘ahead’ in this trend. This makes sense – logically marriage is an optional extra, unnecessary to a fulfilling relationship. For increasing numbers people the thinking is, why bother?
Easier and quicker divorce also follows – if it is not working out, then get out. (I’m speaking big picture here. I’m well aware that many try heroically and self-sacrificingly to make a marriage work and it still fails with associated enormous heartbreak. It takes two to make a relationship function. But the trend is a devaluing of marriage as a life-long commitment).
2. If marriage is only about fulfilment, love, romance, sex, mutuality and happiness then gender also becomes logically irrelevant.
The reshaping of marriage in the West has been about the rights of two individuals ‘in love’ – so it matters not if you are heterosexual or homosexual or somewhere else on a spectrum of human sexuality. This explains the social revolution of the West’s rapid adoption of same-sex marriage. The speed that traditional norms have been abandoned is indicative of how firmly entrenched a romantic individualist view of sex and marriage has become.
Notice though that children are secondary to this pursuit of authentic love. In contrast to a historic, traditional understanding of marriage as the context for conceiving and raising children, the West’s reshaped understanding of marriage has largely detached it from procreation.
This also means that there is now no logical boundary to the pursuit of the perfect relationship. At the moment marriage is limited to two people, regardless of gender in an increasing number of Western nations; it is hard to see why Western culture will not widen its social experimentation to include other forms of ‘pure love’ – love between free, equal consenting adults in whatever arrangement they find fulfilling.
[Can’t remember where I read someone raising the ironical point that the West’s shifting views of sex and marriage, while totally alien to Islam, makes it difficult rationally to resist the argument for polygamy to be legalised. This both on the grounds of ‘free choice of consenting adults’ AND on the grounds of tolerance & inclusion of other ways of life.]
Challenges facing Christians
I said earlier that in the face of the West’s revolution in understanding of sex and marriage, that much Christianity is struggling to articulate a vision for and practice of marriage that is counter-cultural. That’s a big claim and these are blog musings – but what do you think?
I wonder if we are so impacted by Western culture’s revolutionary understanding of sex and romance that these implications follow:
- adoption of same-sex marriage by many churches and denominations in the West – eg the Scottish Episcopal church vote in 2017, the similar direction of travel of the Church of Scotland, continuing deep divisions in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the USA etc etc.
- assimilation of Western romantic individualism that marginalises the idea of marriage as a life-long covenant commitment. Here’s a favourite quote from Stanley Hauerwas talking about a minister doing a marriage preparation course and thinking it
..… interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.
- a subtle revolution in Christian understanding of and practice of divorce. I know this is a painful and complex area and this is not meant in a judgemental way. But it is here that a Christian understanding of marriage should be most counter-cultural. However we understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on divorce, it is crystal clear that it is a disaster; it should be practiced with the utmost seriousness and in limited circumstances. An easy divorce and remarriage policy and divorce rates similar to that of the wider culture would be signs that the church is losing its vision for Christian marriage. [For a very helpful resource on this see the work of Dr David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House here.]
- A marginalisation of the practice of celibacy. As I said in this post, while associated with some bad theology, celibacy was the default ‘best option’ in church teaching and life for hundreds of years. It is clearly the New Testament’s preference. Yet today, singleness is not valued as at least an equal option to marriage. While studies vary and stats are unreliable, it is also pretty clear that rates of pre-marital sex amongst young Christians are climbing due to enormous cultural pressures.
Question: do you think celibacy losing credence within the church as well as being incomprehensible outside it?
Of course, describing these trends is easier than saying how best to respond.
Four challenges come to mind:
i. At the very least these are issues we need to be talking about, thinking about theologically, and articulating in teaching and preaching an authentic Christian vision for sex and marriage..
ii. Too often the first response of the church has been to resist and oppose changes in the law enacted by secular governments as a way of ‘protecting’ marriage. Too often absent, has been a first response of looking at ourselves – how church practice and beliefs around sex and marriage have been profoundly formed by Western individualism and consumerism. It is when the church practices sex and marriage well that it will have most impact, not when it takes the Christendom option in a post-Christendom culture of fighting and losing legal battles in the courts.
iii. Almost finally! – there is a need to combine teaching and practicing that vision with listening to people who do not fit within modern church assumptions about the default best option being heterosexual marriage with 2.2 children; singles, people with same-sex attraction, people self-identifying as LBGT+ etc.
iv. Finally finally – let’s return to the Song of Songs. The two lovers are ‘perfect’ – their pristine love captured in beautiful lyrics. We don’t read of them getting older. We don’t read of imperfect lovers making mistakes and failing to love well. Theirs is a wonderful picture of idealised love. It both gives us an inspiring vision and reminds us that our lives and relationships are inevitably marked by sin and selfishness, and our sexual lives are no different. So in all our thinking and teaching about an ideal Christian vision for love, sex and marriage, we also need to practice forgiveness, compassion and tons of grace.
Comments, as ever, welcome.