How can Christians preserve marriage if they can’t define it?
- Ed Vitagliano
(This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of AFA Journal.)
THE CONSUMMATION OF MARRIAGE
Why sex is critical to a proper understanding of matrimony
With a tip of the hat to Mark Twain, everybody wants to argue about marriage, but nobody knows what it is.
If you had to define marriage for your teenager, what would you tell him or her? There are a lot of people arguing over marriage nowadays, and everyone seems to have a different way of describing it.
According to David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values and author ofThe Future of Marriage, the sheer number of definitions cascading from the writings of pundits and critics is astonishing. Gregg Easterbrook of the New Republic said marriage is an “expression of love.” It’s a “sacred bond” in which two people “make an exclusive commitment to one another,” in the opinion of David Brooks, a New York Times columnist. Dawn Barron, another journalist, defined marriage as “a personal journey” and “a commitment of two consenting adults who choose to live their lives connected.” To writer E.J. Graff it’s “a commitment to live up to the rigorous demands of love, to care for each other as best you humanly can.”
For these and other people with an opinion, Blankenhorn said “marriage can hardly be defined at all. They see marriage as radically subjective and almost infinitely malleable – really nothing more than a collection of discrete relationships and private accommodations.”
Marriage has suddenly become something that does not exist in any objective sense, but rather exists in the eye of the beholder. It is a mushy blob of goo that can fit into and adapt itself to any contained one chooses to use.
The foundation of marriage
For Christians who desire to pass along to their kids a biblical – and rational – idea of marriage, goo simply will not do. How can Christians preserve marriage if they can’t define it?
Moreover, for a society that is arguing about whether or not to detonate a bomb like same-sex marriage, it would seem to be equally important for non-Christians to understand the realities of matrimony. After all, if marriage is anything we wish it to be, there is no legitimate reason that homosexuals should not be allowed to wed. Gay men and lesbians often do love each other, many can commit to each other in a monogamous way and order their lives in every way that heterosexuals can. And even if they cannot, what right does our society have to tell them they cannot even try?
Blankenhorn said it begs the question to argue, as did 30 professors of history and family law in a court brief for a case that was before the New Jersey Supreme Court, that “the history of marriage” is “a history of change.”
“Fine,” he said, “but what is the thing that is changing?” In order for something to change, there had to be a distinct something at the beginning of the change process.
These definitions of marriage are “radically insubstantial. Some of the words are sweet enough and true enough, but one searches in vain for any recognition of the fact that marriage might be something more than a private close relationship between two people,” Blankenhorn said.
So what is it? Is there an objective reality that most civilizations have recognized as marriage – a reality to which Americans should want to cling?
According to Blankenhorn, these “highly abstract definitions” of marriage “all conspicuously fail to utter the secret word. That secret word is ‘sex.’ Having sex. Being sexually jealous and sexually exclusive. … Marriage is about many things, but until about five minutes ago, among certain let’s-don’t-say-it commentators, hardly anyone in the world ever pretended that marriage is not fundamentally about socially approved sexual intercourse.”
Christians should be the least surprised at this, for the biblical foundation of the marriage union is, in fact, sex. Genesis 2:24 states: “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh ….”
A ‘one-flesh’ union
However, this concept of marriage being a physical joining of a man and a woman is more than simply a Judeo-Christian thought. It has been evident to countless cultures throughout human history.
Hadley Arkes, a professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College, said it is clear to see how marriage came to be defined as being between a man and a woman – and then how family came to be defined as an outgrowth of that.
It was, Arkes said, the result of “the hard fact that it took two people, not three, that it required a man and a woman, to beget a child. The sense of a one-flesh union seemed clear …. [T]here was the clearest correspondence between the coupling of bodies of a man and a woman, and the generation of that new life that would embody the features of both partners, or make into one flesh the partners who form the ‘wedding.’”
In fact, it is highly unlikely that many people who get married even think about the very word “wedding,” which as Arkes implied, is not merely a title for the ceremony. It is the designation for what is happening to two separate people – they are being wedded together as one.
Thus, Arkes referred to “the solemnity and seriousness of marriage, as a one-flesh union …”
It’s not that love and commitment don’t enter into the idea of marriage. They certainly do. But love and commitment characterize a number of potential relationship combinations – parent/child, sibling/sibling, friend/friend, etc. – which are not marriage. So while love and commitment may lead people to get married, it is the joining of a man and a woman in sexual union that weds them together. It is why the sexual act is called consummating the marriage. When that happens, in the eyes of most cultures, a marriage has occurred.
This view of marriage as a union of two-into-one-flesh makes it something that is valuable in its own right. Whatever else marriage may give to the coupled husband and wife – companionship, sexual satisfaction, help with the chores, children – the union is its own blessing.
Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a co-editor and contributor to the phenomenal book, The Meaning of Marriage: Family, state, market and morals, argued that our postmodern culture has chosen to jettison this reality.
Instead, marriage is seen as a means to an end. Because many couples entered into the marriage with the expectation that it would do something for them as individuals, they felt justified in quitting when the marriage didn’t produce the desired results.
“People casually violate their vows to ‘forsake all others’ and ‘cleave to each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part,’ because they no longer hold securely a conception of marriage in light of which the content of these vows makes sense,” George said. “Only if marriage is understood to be an end-in-itself, and not merely a means to other ends, do people have intelligible reasons for respecting its norms of permanence and exclusivity even in the absence of the satisfactions that marriage can indeed, when all goes well, be counted on to produce.”
Not just any old sex
There is something unique, however, about the type of sex that joins a man and a woman into the special union that defines marriage. George said marriage is “a one-flesh communion of persons that is consummated and actualized by acts that are reproductive in type….”
These he called “marital acts,” in which “a man and woman, as complementary bodily persons, unite organically (and thus interpersonally) by jointly performing a single act – single in that it is an act that is oriented to procreation, though some other condition in the agents may prevent procreation from occurring.” (Emphasis added.)
Such marital acts are the one thing that a husband and wife can do by which they are joined as one. As Catholic theologian Germain Grisez said, “Though a male and a female are complete individuals with respect to other functions – for example, nutrition, sensation, and locomotion – with respect to reproduction they are only potential parts of a mated pair, which is the complete organism capable of reproducing sexually.”
George insisted that the male and female sexual organs are reproductive in nature all of the time, even if one of the partners is sterile, or the couple is past the age of bearing children.
“The central and justifying point of sex is not pleasure (or even the sharing of pleasure) per se, however much sexual pleasure is sought – rightly sought – as an aspect of the perfection of marital union; the point of sex, rather, is marriage itself, considered as an essentially and irreducibly (though not merely) bodily union of persons – a union effectuated and renewed by acts of sexual congress – conjugal acts,” he said.
Such a view has profound implications for a postmodern culture awash in sex outside of marriage. Promiscuity means that people are literally joining themselves to others in serial unions; the sexual images used to sell everything from cars to chewing gum are profaning what is intended by God to be a sacred act; and the claim that homosexual acts are the same as marital acts becomes an obscenity.
Although everyone might have an opinion about marriage, it is clear from both nature and Scripture what marriage is. No amount of wrangling or wrestling with that reality will change it. Like other aspects of reality, however, we ignore it at our own peril.