Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Ten propositions on marriage

by Kim Fabricius

1. Marriage, Edward Schillebeeckx writes, is “a reality secular by origin”; yet, as he continues, it “has acquired a deeper meaning in the order of salvation in which we live.” Because creation is in and for Christ, and because the apocalyptic shockwaves of the resurrection of Christ radiate both backwards and forwards, marriage must finally be understood Christologically. Although Jesus relativised marriage (e.g. Luke 18:29, Matthew 19:12), and although in the consummation there will be no marriage (Matthew 22:30), in his patience and grace God gives us marriage between-the-times as an intimate space for two people to be good and let be, and, for Christians, to bear witness to the new creation. At the marriage in Cana, Jesus turned water to wine – lots of wine! – his first and programmatic sign of the dawning new age (John 2:1-11). In the imagery of Ephesians 5:31-33, Christian marriage reflects the eschatological marriage of Christ and his church (cf. Revelation 19:7). With Bonhoeffer, the ultimate frames but does not negate the penultimate. It is therefore appropriate to speak of marriage as a covenant. To call it a sacrament, however, begs too many questions.

2. A marriage is not to be confused with a wedding. “A wedding is only the regulative confirmation and legitimation of a marriage before and by society. It does not constitute a marriage” (Karl Barth). A ceremony does not make a marriage, consent makes a marriage. And even in the ceremony, and even in the Roman Catholic Church, the ministers of the marriage are the bride and bridegroom, not the minister. Indeed it was only with the Council of Trent in 1563 that the Roman Catholic Church insisted on an ecclesial occasion, and mainly to ensure, through the presence of witnesses, that the marriage was, in fact, consensual. In short, a church wedding does not create a marriage, it recognises and blesses a marriage that already exists. Nor should consent itself be taken as a punctiliar act but as part of an ongoing project of mutual discovery and affirmation. It is always sad to hear a couple say that their wedding day was the happiest day of their lives.

3. If the heart of faith is friendship with God through Christ, active in the love of neighbour, the heart of marriage is maxima amicitia humana, the most intimate form of neighbour-love. This pre-eminent human friendship is normally both expressed and confirmed as a sexual relationship. While eros and agape are certainly to be distinguished (as Beethoven to Mozart, according to Barth – though, as Eberhard Jüngel winks, “We won’t ask what Mozart would say about that”), they must not be opposed (as Anders Nygren argued); nor is sex to be ruefully indulged (as Augustine held) but enthusiastically enjoyed (as Solomon sang). By the way, we should exercise word-care when we speak of “pre-marital sex”: what we usually mean is pre-ceremonial sex.

4. Yet corruptio optimi pessima: sex as the sphere of supreme tenderness and joy is also the sphere of desire at its most distorted (concupiscentia), indeed an arena of violence, as eros morphs into thanatos. In fact the libido dominandi is the regnant Pauline “principality and power” in contemporary western culture. Sex and the City is the iconic text of an age in which sex is everything – there are even parodic Virgilian tours of its virtual Manhattan Inferno – as we amuse ourselves to death-by-serial-fucking. Yet while we must speak of the body’s abuse, we may, in Christ, speak of “the body’s grace”. “The moral question,” writes Rowan Williams, “ought to be how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects.” If there is the civitas diaboli of Carrie and company, there is also the civitas Dei of Jesus and his friends.

5. Although marriage is complete without procreation (Genesis 2:24) and remains complete after the kids have left home, marriage is the God-given unit for the birth and nurture of children (Genesis 1:28). There is, however, a teleology to raising children, namely that they may grow up to experience the joy and freedom of faith. “This means,” as Bonhoeffer says, “that marriage is not only a matter of producing children, but also of educating them to be obedient to Jesus Christ,” so that they too might become friends of God. The obedience course begins by telling your children that Jesus loves them – even when they are disobedient. As for the learning curve (or slider!), I recommend a Hauerwasian pedagogy: “Start with baseball and also teach them to read. Don’t teach kids a bunch of rules. Help them submit their lives to something that they find to be a wonderful activity that transforms them.”

6. What about divorce? And remarriage? Reviewing the New Testament texts, Richard B. Hays concludes that “the fundamental concern in all of them is to affirm marriage as a permanently binding commitment in which man and woman become one…. At the same time, there are complex differences…. Mark and Luke categorically prohibit divorce, but Matthew and Paul both entertain the necessity of exceptions to the rule, situations in which pastoral discernment is required.” To be sure, mired as they are in the cult of feelings, the myth of sexual fulfilment, and the language of rights, the modern motives for divorce are usually hopelessly un-Christian. However the notion of “indissolubility” smuggles in a metaphysic quite alien to the Bible; divorce is not an ontological impossibility. Nor can or should remarriage be rejected tout court. “Indeed, ”with Hays, “if one purpose of marriage is to serve as a sign of God’s love in the world …, how can we reject the possibility that a second marriage after a divorce could serve as a sign of grace and redemption from the sin and brokenness of the past?”

7. Tina Turner puts the problem – and the question I always put to dumfounded couples whom I prepare for marriage: “What’s love got to do with it?” Stanley Hauerwas: “Christians have far too readily underwritten the romantic assumption that people ‘fall’ in love and then get married. We would be much better advised to suggest that love does not create marriage; rather, marriage provides a good training ground to teach us what love involves.” Thus, most provocatively, to disabuse us of conventional notions of Mr or Miss Right, Hauerwas’s Law: “You always marry the wrong person.” (As Henny Youngman jested: I married Miss Right. I just didn’t know her first name was Always.) Thus does marriage become Luther’s “school of character”, or, better, a “class of character” in the school of the church. Of course a relationship begins with the chemistry of attraction, but unless it does graduate work in the art of loving, it shouldn’t be surprising if it ends in an explosion.

8. Colin Gunton observed that marriage “is at once the most private and the most public of our institutions,” and we may expect marriage to contribute to the enrichment of society and the strengthening of community. The church, after all, exists for the world. Yet in much Protestant thought that takes marriage to belong to an “order of nature”, the conclusion has been drawn that marriage is a purely civil affair, a matter of state for which the church provides the altar. This Constantinian understanding of marriage is a disaster, the collateral damage of which includes the apotheosis of “family values” and the raising of children to be loyal citizens, not faithful Christians. Divorce itself becomes, not a personal tragedy or a failure of witness, but a threat to the “fabric of society”, i.e. the status quo. The church must certainly cease to be Caesar’s chaplain, but not by abandoning its ceremonies, rather by reclaiming them for Christ. Follow the trajectory to a status confessionis and the state would not sanction and regulate church weddings but declare them to be illegal.

9. Am I suggesting that the church restrict weddings only to committed Christians, or to “nominal” Christians only after thorough catechesis? That would seem to be the drift of the argument – except for one thing. John Wesley spoke of the eucharist as a “converting ordinance”, as a means of grace that may bring the baptised (back) to Christ. In my own experience as a minister, church weddings, on a not insignificant number of occasions, have performed a similar function – and not only for the couple but for members of the congregation. In fact, they have been, indirectly, evangelistic events through which some people have been drawn into the body of Christ. They may even be prophetic events. Of course marriage preparation is essential, and that will include catechesis as well as counsel, but I have always seen it fundamentally as an act of hospitality and care. Some may chastise me with Matthew 7:6. I take consolation in Matthew 5:45.

10. Finally, if the heart of marriage is friendship, if marriage is for procreation in a gratuitous rather than an instrumental sense, as overflow rather than essence, then do we not open the way for the blessing of same-sex relationships? I think we do, though I think the term “marriage” is unhelpful. (And by the way, whatever the social and legal conventions, homosexual Christians, like heterosexual Christians, may have a vocation as parents in the church.) This view presupposes that natural law arguments against same-sex relationships are otiose – but then I think that the concept of natural law is otiose in a theology of marriage too! The point is this: if Luke Timothy Johnson is right to suggest that “If sexual virtue and vice are defined covenantally rather than biologically, then it is possible to place homosexual and heterosexual activity in the same context,” it is also possible to see same-sex relationships, blessed by the church, as an analogue of the relationship between God and his people, and a model of the church’s own proper economy of grace. In short, nihil obstat.

Postscript: two clean jokes and a dirty one

  • Why did Adam and Eve have the perfect marriage? He didn’t have to listen to her talk about all the other men she could have married, and she didn’t have to put up with his mother.
  • A minister sent a tele-message to his goddaughter for her wedding day: “I John 4:18. Love, Uncle Jack”. Unfortunately, the telephonist omitted the “I”, so that the reference was to John’s Gospel. Check it out!
  • Finally, as an illustration that (pace von Clausewitz) marriage is the continuation of war by other means, an “order of militarisation”: Reviewing their marriage vows on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary, a couple had a furious row when they came to “as long as we both shall live”. He was so angry that in the morning he went out and bought her a tombstone bearing the inscription: “Here lies my wife – cold as ever.” In retaliation she went out and bought him a tombstone too. The inscription? “Here lies my husband – stiff at last.”


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