Background to a Theology of Marriage

I think that it was in Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" that I first ran across the idea that humanity had thousands of years of existence before there was much culture, in which people acted according to their genetic code, or instincts. What we are "hard-wired" to be. He summarized what I am sure is a mixed lot of anthropological theories to the point that we, probably, functioned as a small group animal with some variation of what we see in other small group animals.

I have taken this insight as the starting point of the anthropology upon which I based my theology. Rather than starting from the position that human beings are essentially good, or human beings are essentially evil, I try to start from the point that human beings are essentially small group animals, with all the virtues and vices of small group animals. What seems to us to be best about human beings: cooperation, altruism, self-sacrifice, capacity for love, compassion are all the emotional qualities that exist within the small band. What we see as human cruelty is what is often the qualities we show to the outsiders of our small band: violence, suspicion, intolerance, murder, predatory rape.

Human beings also show a persistent tendency to create ever more complex systems and structures to avoid deadly conflict. My guess is that the development of marriage was for the purpose of avoiding the endless conflict between males for social dominance and sexual access to females. (Why am I suddenly thinking back to high school days now? But, I digress.) That it also made patriarchical inheritence of surplus wealth possible is an added bonus, h/t to Frederich Engels.

So the creation of systems to avoid conflict has created a larger and larger human community and culture, which is in conflict with our hard-wired small group loyalty. Hence most of our moral issues pit some form of "widening the circle" against some from of "smaller group loyalty".
Our biological evolution was driven by survival and brought us so far. Human beings, on a biological basis have not changed significantly in tens of thousands of years. Our cultural evolution is driven by the desire to accumulate surplus wealth and to avoid conflict, and moves very quickly. Culturally, we are very different than we were 100 years ago, much less 5000 years ago.

Religion, Philosophy and spirituality are the venues in which humanity tries to consciously grasp the meaning of our common evolution and to shape the cultural evolution that is occurring today. It is bigger than science, since it deals with the meanings we draw from reality and the moral conclusions that we draw about our actual nature, and the possibilities that humanity sees for itself.


  1. Anonymous9:23 PM

    I've been virtually eavesdropping on this set of discussions for a while, thinking about what the value of marriage is in the UU tradition. Unlike many religious denominations, we typically don't pass judgment on couples (or more) who live together outside marriage. So why marry, and what's the religious significance of the act of marriage and of the commitment to a marriage? Why not just live together?

    When I married, after many years of a monogomous, committed relationship, I gave some thought to the meaning of the ritual itself. We had given our private promises to each other, but one of the significant aspects of getting married was the public expression of our commitments to each other. We were going on the record, letting our families, friends, and community know. In addition, like in the baby dedication ceremonies in UU churches, we were asking all those in attendance to stand up for us-to help us through tough times and honor our commitments to each other.

    Personally, I think there is meaning in the ritual of marriage-in the UU theology, I think it reflects the partnership of the couple, and the true honoring of their individual and partnered worth and dignity.

    What are the commitments UUs should make to each other when they marry? Personally, I think that marrying commits you to your best efforts toward a lifetime intimate relationship. Along with parenting, it's as close as we humans can get to unconditional love for each other. I know there are limits, especially those involving violations of personal safety, dignity and dishonesty, but I do take the lifetime nature of the commitment, through thick and thin, quite seriously. Marriage commits you to a deep honoring of your partner, with respect, compassion and honesty. It commits you to listening, and commits you to supporting your partner in whatever ways you can. I also think that a marriage should ask for a commitment to monogamy, as an honoring of this relationship as the most honored and important relationship. There's something on this list about laughing together, too.

    For me, these are theological issues. We're all subject to human frailties, and some marriages need to end. However, a marriage should reflect our attempts to live the underlying values of the UU principles of human relationship.

    You can see I've set a tough standard. As a person, I don't always live up to my ideals in a way I would like-thus the importance of the ceremony--knowing that others will support us in our attempt to make our life together as we will support others.

    "Together" for 30 years, married for 3. And seriously surprised at how important it was to get married. Nothing changed and everything changed. It was a lot more than health insurance :)

  2. hafidha sofia7:28 PM

    After reading this and the preceding post several times, what I am most unclear about is what is especially theological about these posts. Does a theology of marriage arise out of the experiences and opinions of ministers, or does it come from God?

  3. Hadifha Sophia,
    In the two posts which actually use the words "theology of marriage" in their title, I make almost no reference to the practical experience of ministers in my argument.

    I do not believe that "theology" consists of trying to determine what the revealed intentions of God are. I think that all attempts to cite God as an external authority are, by nature, human bids for power.

    I base my theology of marriage quite explicitly on my understanding of human nature, an understanding based on the most true story of human origins that I know: our hardwiring as a small band animal.

    As I said, the overarching movement of liberal religion is to move theologizing from the reliance on "external authority" to the reliance on "internal authority as tested in the covenanted community."

    Some might say that once you choose to not rely on the external authority of God, you are no longer doing theology, but simply reflecting on experience, a statement which might be true. I, for one, think that our collective human experience includes the wisdom captured in the world religions, and so reflecting on our experience in the light of that body of wisdom is important and crucial.

    In many other posts about MPR's, I do rely heavily on the experiences of other UU ministers, as I understand them, in sorting out what is real and not real about the claims made by MPR advocates. I think that I should do so, as part of the testing of truth in the covenanted communities of faith that are at core of liberal religion.

  4. hafidha sofia10:52 PM

    Some might say that once you choose to not rely on the external authority of God, you are no longer doing theology, but simply reflecting on experience ....

    I think this is what had me confused, but now I see why you use the word theology.


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