Thoughts on “marriage” as a theological concept

Thoughts on “marriage” as a theological concept

marriage about loveFrom one perspective, today’s Supreme Court decisions in the DOMA and California Prop 8 cases move the U.S.A. much further down the road to full equality for same-sex couples and their civil liberties to freely live family life and enjoy the same benefits afforded different-sex couples under federal law. Delivering the majority opinion of the Court today, Justice Kennedy wrote, “[Same-sex marriage in New York] reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.” From another perspective, today’s decisions greatly erode the “traditional” definition of marriage between a “man” and a “woman” and thus erode the social institution of marriage as the “bedrock” social institution of civilization. Beginning his dissent from the majority in the DOMA decision, Justice Alito wrote: “Our Nation is engaged in a heated debate about same-sex marriage. That debate is, at bottom, about the nature of the institution of marriage.” Later, on page 8 of Alito’s dissent, he wrote, “The family is an ancient and universal human institution. Family structure reflects the characteristics of a civilization, and changes in family structure and in the popular understanding of marriage and the family can have profound effects.” From yet another perspective, today’s decisions are about “power,” namely, who has legitimate power to decide these complicated issues. Beginning his dissent, Justice Scalia wrote, “This case is about power in several respects. It is about the power of our people to govern themselves, and the power of this Court to pronounce the law. Today’s opinion aggrandizes the latter, with the predictable consequence of diminishing the former. We have no power to decide this case … The Court’s errors on both points spring forth from the same diseased root: an exalted conception of the role of this institution [SCOTUS] in America.”

So, even though the SCOTUS has rendered decisions in these two cases, we’re still left wondering what same-sex marriage is really about and what are to be its impacts on society? Is same-sex marriage about “equal rights?” Is it about the “traditional definition” of marriage and thus about marriage, thus defined, as the “bedrock” social institution of civilization? Is it about who properly has the “power” to govern? Same-sex marriage involves all of these important questions, but I suggest it involves at least one more question that has received virtually no attention in the mass media, and that is the very simple question, “What is marriage?” As a Christian pastor I want to ask more specifically, what is marriage in theological terms?

Despite long-standing controversy and matters of personal preference in referring to God as gendered, namely as “Father” and “Son” and with male pronouns (and in less frequent usage as female), there is consensus in Christian theology that God is not gendered categorically distinct as are most humans. This consensus holds across the hermeneutical and theological spectrums of Christian scholars. God is not gendered as we humans are. Therefore, if marriage has any theological basis as being solely between a man and a woman it must be on the basis of what we call theological anthropology, that is, a theological understanding of humanity, not on a theological understanding of the nature of God as a gendered being. This is important to recognize because the people that support traditional marriage on theological grounds usually do so on a particularized interpretation of Genesis chapters 1-3 that goes like this. God created humans male and female (1:27). The first man “clings” to the first woman. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24). “The man named his wife Eve because she was the mother of all living” (3:20). The Christian traditionalist view of humanity and marriage typically states that males and females were created as separate, equal, and distinct genders with complementary roles, which are rooted in Genesis 3 after the so-called “Fall:” The woman will have pain in childbirth, her desire will be for her husband, and he shall rule over the woman (Genesis 3:16). The man shall toil in the fields and return to the dust of the ground (Genesis 3:17-19). In these three verses we see the foundations of gender stereotypes: the man works, and the woman bears children and submits to her husband. These are the so-called complementary roles of men and women, and marriage is the uniting together of the two genders to form a family unit through marriage, which is the bedrock social institution of civilization to raise families. Marriage brings together two halves of what God created as a whole, humankind in two genders, so that humankind could carry out God’s first commandment to be fruitful and to multiply. In this standard traditionalist interpretation, marriage is based on the theological anthropology of humans as gendered, as having particular, foundational roles, and as fulfilling God’s creation plan. In fact, some scholars and traditions see in this interpretation God’s foreknowledge of the “Fall,” the first act of disobedience that stained humankind with sin, and teach that the gendered institution of marriage foreshadows redemption in the procreative function of marriage in what is called the “proto-evangel,” the reference in Genesis 3:15 to the offspring of the woman striking the head of the lying serpent that initiated the original sin. That offspring is Jesus. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church teaches this theology of the “Protoevangelium” (“first gospel”).

Traditionalists are faced with a dilemma. God is not like humans. God is not gendered. “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19). Yet, God created humankind in God’s own image and likeness (parsing these two words is beyond my scope here); God created humans male and female. Somehow, to overcome this conundrum, a theological understanding of humanity, and thus a theological understanding of marriage, must be rooted in something else in addition to God’s own nature. I suppose it is possible that human gender has its origins in God’s nature, if that nature is construed as diverse. This is not, however, the default view of traditionalists. There is no theology here that teaches God is gendered or otherwise ontologically diverse and that humans somehow reflect a complementary relationship of distinct and diverse “gendered-ness” within God’s self. We should ask ourselves, then, what do the Genesis accounts have to do with the traditional definition of marriage? What are the main theological themes of the Genesis accounts of creation and “Fall?” Traditional marriage?

In Genesis 5 we read of another creation story, a reboot of sorts, one focused on the descendants of Adam: “This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created” (5:1-2). In Genesis 1:28 we read about the first commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” and then in the rebooted version in chapter 5 we read of the descendants that fulfilled that command to multiply. Of course the list of descendants is focused on patriarchal descent. The patriarchal lineage of chapter 5 is a pseudo-historical bridge to the “Fall” story of Noah’s day: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (6:5-6). Chapters 2 & 3 present an allegorical construction of its themes through generic characters and abstract relations (e.g. a talking serpent, God walking with the first man and woman in the garden) and abstract ethical concerns about obedience, the responsibility of knowledge of “good and evil,” honesty, honor, shame, nakedness, and so on. Judgment is meted out from the bench, so to speak, and the sentence is carried out without collaborative process from the humans. Genesis 6-9 tells a very different story about sin and judgment. Confusing story of Nephilim aside, the text simply declares that the “wickedness of humankind was great” (6:5). And then there’s a long, complicated story of portentous judgment, instructions to Noah, bargaining between God and Noah, judgment, and then covenant. “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1). This covenant is not just with humankind. “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark’” (9:8-10).

The compilers of the Genesis material put chapter 1, with the LORD’s command to “be fruitful and multiply,” before the allegorical stories of chapters 2 & 3 outlined above. In the Noah story, God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” culminates the creation story of the flood and the covenant. Chapters 2 & 3 tell stories about creation as the process of an essentially lonely God looking for companionship, evident in the sterility of the creation depicted in 2:4-6 and the loneliness of the first man: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’” (2:18). Chapters 6-9 tell a story about God working collaboratively with humankind to judge and restore creation to its fruitfulness through covenantal living. So, the early chapters of Genesis tell several stories of the creation, bookending God’s and humanity’s primal needs for companionship, collaboration, and covenantal living with the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” which is expanded to all living things: “God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant [the rainbow] that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’” (9:17).

The end result of these beautiful stories in Genesis 1-9 is that allegory and pseudo-history depict a diverse and yet holistic account of how God seeks to promote the fruitfulness of humankind and, indeed, of all living things, through companionship, collaboration, and covenantal living. Scholars refer to these chapters of Genesis (1-11) as the “primeval history.” Starting in chapter 12 is the “patriarchal history,” which begins with Abram’s answer to God’s call to go out to a new land, a journey he started at 75 years old. What an interesting couple, elderly Abram and Sarai, with which to bring forth the multitudes if the command to “be fruitful and multiply” was all about sexual reproduction and gendered, monogamous heterosexual marriage. Of course we do not need to read too much further in the text to see polygamous sexual relationships and polygamous marriages as the standard practices of the day.

Now, by my analysis and interpretation I do not pretend to claim that the original authors and compilers that gave us the Judeo-Christian scriptures would have seen same-sex marriage as a legitimate form of marriage. That is not my point. My point is simply this, the scriptures of the primeval history of Genesis, so commonly interpreted as the foundation for traditional understandings of marriage, can be more fruitfully and faithfully interpreted to promote their primary theological concern for God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” by emphasizing the rich content of these stories as stories of companionship, collaboration, and covenantal living in the midst of messy and sinful realities of disobedience, judgment, and, yes, redemption.

To deny same-sex couples the same companionship, collaboration, and covenantal living latent in the bedrock social institution of marriage that different-sex couples enjoy is to deny the covenant God calls all living creatures into. The “fruitfulness” that God calls all life into expands far beyond the results of reproduction through heterosexual intercourse. Of course, no one would deny a place in God’s covenant for individuals who choose not to marry and/or not to have children, regardless of their gender and their relationships with others of the same or different gender. Everyone and all living things are part of the “fruitfulness” covenant. If same-sex couples choose to live out their desire for fruitfulness in a marriage covenant, then why would we and how could we prevent them from doing so based on gendered theological presuppositions about reproduction and sexuality, rooted in sacred poetic texts more concerned with the grand scheme of life than with a narrow definition of a single social institution of human distinction? Humans are the only ones that enter into marriage. Animals do not. I suppose the traditionalist will say at this point that humans are unique because we are made in the image and likeness of God, male and female. OK, but that begs us to recognize that humans bear the image and likeness of God who is not gendered, at least not in the ways that humans are. The questions, then, that we should ask should have more to do with what are the image and likeness of God (attributes like intelligence, dominion, conscience, morality, etc.) and not to be obsessed with human gender and sexual activity. Often the bottom line for traditionalists is that human marriage is a divinely-ordained institution with the purpose of reproduction and creating and maintaining a family. This point was underscored in several amicus briefs filed with the Prop 8 case. The focus on reproduction goes to the heart of Genesis’s focus on “fruitfulness,” that it’s all about sexual reproduction and, by implication, “traditional” families. The problem with this narrow interpretation of “fruitfulness” is that it excludes the broader, plain reading of the text (as noted above), and that it ignores the robust realities of reproduction and diverse family arrangements evident in the Bible and in everyday life to this day, not to mention the immense complexity and diversity of human civilization on a planet with 7+ billion people. Also, modern reproductive science and adoption extend to same-sex couples the same glorious possibilities for fruitful family life that different-sex couples enjoy, even if marriage was solely about reproduction and raising children, which, of course, marriage is about so much more.

The progressive movement of God’s creative and redemptive actions is toward inclusiveness and harmony. This is the heart of the Christian message, the “scandal of particularity,” that encapsulated in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ one human being could be the fullness of an eternal and universal God. Perhaps echoing the words of Colossians 1:19-20 and Philippians 2:9-11, St. Gregory of Nissa (335-390) wrote:

For it is evident that God will in truth be “in all” when there shall be no evil in existence, when every created being is at harmony with itself, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body. Now the body of Christ, as I have often said, is the whole of humanity … Participation in bliss awaits everyone.

Marriage is one way two people join together to fulfill God’s covenant with humanity and all livings things to “be fruitful and multiply.” Marriage is one way to live out a life of companionship, collaboration, and covenantal living. Marital “bliss” should be available to all who seek and desire it.

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