Thursday, July 12, 2007

Toward a Theology of Marriage

These are more notes toward a theology of marriage.


People are not naturally monogamous. In the state of nature, before culture, we lived as herd or pack animals with a sexual system similar to apes, chimps, horses, dogs etc. Alpha males, alpha females, subordinate males and females, unequal sexual access.

With the rise of culture and religion, people developed more ordered sexual systems, including marriages of all types. Religion is also a product of the same development and, among other purposes, provides a moral and ethical authority for the new sexual systems.

The fact that we are, by nature, one way, and have chosen, by culture, to live another way is the source of our divided selves – temptation, sin, etc.

Marriage systems keep changing to fit the needs of the culture, while retaining a moral aspect – however the marriage and sexual system changes, humanity cannot go back to the state of nature regarding sexuality, hence there will remain a moral component to thinking about sexual relationships and activities.

We live in a time of tremendous cultural upheaval – the changes in global economy, post industrialism, global urbanization etc. etc. means that much is up for grabs. This is creating a moment of creative crisis for sexual relationships and marriages as we step into uncharted territory. There is more freedom about life arrangements than ever before, and hence more potential healthy and unhealthy consequences.

The downside of the present moment is seen in a wide variety of social ills. The upside is seen in a wide variety of good things happening. It would take lifetime to list them and sort them out.

Our religious perspective, the Living Tradition of liberal Religion, has one overarching direction: the replacement of a religious and cultural systems that are based on external authority and cultural conformity with religious and cultural systems based on internal sources of authority and conscious covenant making between people. To counter the natural chaos, should people rely on coercion, or on covenants? We are heirs to a tradition that consistently reinterprets the Western religious heritage as culminating in personal freedom and covenantal community formation.

I also see signs of a return to a technologically facilitated state of nature, in which no commitments must be kept. On an individual basis, the moral self-discipline to keep commitments of sexual fidelity is constantly challenged. It feels natural and liberating to act upon all of one’s sexual desires and fantasies.

As tempting as it might be, a return to a state of nature of uncommitted sexuality would be a nightmare. The highest human potential, what we seem intended to be, is the result of the process of enculturation. Love, solidarity, empathy, compassion all grow in the cultural space created by our agreements to not just live together, but to live together in arrangements that we learn, remember, teach, pass on and make into tradition.

Because we are liberals, we take a critical view of traditions and are willing to experiment and revise them in an evolutionary process of cultural development.

We are not just “on the side of love.” We are on the side of covenanted and committed love, because we know that uncommitted love does not reach its full depth and meaning.

Our theology of marriage is that we are in favor of it, because it is the current cultural form of covenanted love. We are in favor of it for not only heterosexuals, but also gays and lesbians. My critique of our weddings is that we focus, often too much on love, and not enough on commitment. People fall "in love" all the time; we honor when they move from attraction and affection to lifelong commitment, because we know that attraction and affection are not enough to last a lifetime. More perfect love comes in the aftermath of disappointment and the temptation to quit.

When it comes to extending marriage rights to more than groups of two people, we say “no” at this time. While much of the rhetoric about polyamory is full of the language of commitment and fidelity, we are not sure at all that the small polyamory movement represents a step forward to wider forms of covenanted love, or whether it represents a step back toward the state of nature from which humanity came. The crux of the problem to me is that Polyamorists seem to claim that some people are, by nature, “poly people”, and hence, unable to make successful monogamous commitments. But, my understanding is that all of us are naturally “poly people” in that by nature, we are not monogamous. If that is true, than polyamory becomes a rationale for eroding the cultural commitment to monogamy, not just for a few, but eventually for everybody. Time will tell on where multi-partnered relationships will lead. The social and culture environment in the USA these days permits almost any sort of social experimentation.

Final theological note: I am a Christian with a modern and scientific outlook. When we look at that moment in prehistory when humanity began to create arrangements that were not instinctual, but learned and taught, one might say that it was an intervention by God, that created humanity.


One could also say that humanity projected onto the empty sky a deity who directed their activities to add weight to the traditions being created. Either way, the religious traditions have provided the moral authority behind the human culture that we create. As such, they have played reactionary and revolutionary roles at different points of history. Those religious traditions speak to the most vexing areas where we have to guard against following our instincts back to the state of nature: sexuality, money, wealth, power and violence. Christianity is a vast system which explains this contradiction in our natures, and more importantly, offers deep insight about how to live with the inevitability of failures and shortcomings, of sin.

14 comments:

Chance said...

I'm having a hard time with the way you're describing the state of nature. Do you have sources that you're relying on for this? What our state of nature might have been seems like it would have to be a matter of speculation.

Our cousin species, if I remember correctly, have various sexual practices, ranging from monogamy to polyamory, so we can't go from that. I don't see how we have any way of knowing what that state of nature was for our species. (My hunche is that monogamy is our state of nature, for what it's worth.)

I think you'll find firmer foundations in the goodness of covenantal relationships and the value and joy of the struggle to be in them.

Mark said...

LT:

I am mostly sitting here saying "bravo! bravo!" to your exposition of a theology of marriage. In our culture, love as sentiment is all too often privileged over love as commitment--love as service.

Where my theology differs from yours (big surprise!) is that I don't see where polyamory represents a return to a natural state of uncommitted sexuality, where "anything goes." The contention that some people are poly by orientation is not that they are unable to be monogamous, but rather that their lives bear more fruit when their moral self-discipline is applied to being ethically nonmonogamous instead of struggling with constant shame, fear, and rigidity.

Does making such a claim about oneself open up opportunities for abuse and undue license, which could be avoided by "resisting temptation"? Most certainly. But my Christian theology says that perfect love (see above about my views on love) casts out fear. It doesn't and shouldn't cast out caution, but it does cast out fear. I don't believe that relationship structures are more powerful than the grace of God, any more than I believe that--going Biblical here--the trappings of idolatry are more powerful than the grace of God. Idols are something to be cautious about, not afraid of.

I don't know how to frame that in broadly accepted UU terms. Maybe: human nature is a constraint, not a trap? I don't know.

(Disclaimer: I limit myself here to speaking theologically, which always raises the rarely straightforward question of "okay, now how to live that out?" I mean, look how complicated something simple like "love your enemy" turns out in practice...)

Anonymous said...

As my mother has said to me on more than one occasion: "that's the great thing about being an adult; you can have these feelings and NOT act on them." That's how I feel (rightly, but most likely wrongly) about polyamory: it gives people a pass to act like an adolescent when they are supposed to be adults. I would like to see that focus on committment played up in society. It is a small pool, but it is deep.

hafidha sofia said...

It sounds as though you're saying that we are all capable of being in love with multiple persons simultaneously, but this is wild and undisciplined behavior. Monogamy is superior because it challenges us to leave our baser selves behind, and commit to unbreakable bonds.

Is this correct?

Turtle said...

Chance said, "I think you'll find firmer foundations in the goodness of covenental relationship and the value and joy of the struggle to be in them."

Amen. A theology built upon the assertion that marriage is needed to save us from "the state of nature from which humanity came" -- i.e. our inherent sinfulness -- doesn't strike me as very UU.

I hope that someday we will learn to judge relationships not by the number of people in the relationship (nor by their gender, or race, or age once adult), but by the quality of the love and commitment within the relationship.

Philocrites said...

Turtle, I think the key point is that *culture* is needed to shape people into human beings, and that marriage is a central cultural crucible of commitment. One could add that liberal religion emphasizes particular features of *liberal* culture, including egalitarian rather than authorian marriage. But several features of marriage remain central even as marriage liberalizes, including fidelity and lifelong commitment.

There is a strain of liberal theology that insists that people are innately good and that it is culture that deforms them. I think this view is not supported by the evidence. The task for religious liberals isn't simply to liberate people from oppressive society; it's to shape society in ways that form free people. And that means that we must be more alert to cultural institutions.

Christine Robinson said...

Hopefully, all of us are "poly" by nature, that is, able to love several or many people at once. Like Pro-lifers and Pro-choicers, Polyamorists have named themselves misleadingly. They would be more accuartely called poly-partnerists or some such thing, as the issue at hand is not the ability to love many but their desire that their polypartner relationships be recognized by society as equal to couple relationships. It seems to me that the theological task here is one of demonstrating the justice of why couple relationships should be privileged in a society. I think that can be done...but not today.

For my part, if people want to try to live in polypartnered relationships, well, people often try things that I think are foolish, and sometimes those foolish things work out quite well. That doesn't mean I think that this is overall a good idea for society, and the lack of respect I feel for people who take this path is similar to the lack of respect I have for people who put their desires above the good of the fragile social order that holds us all.

Anonymous said...

Philocrites said, But several features of marriage remain central even as marriage liberalizes, including fidelity and lifelong commitment.

"Fidelity" to someone is often taken to mean "being in a sexually exclusive relationship" with that person.

Is what you mean by "fidelity" here? I want to check, because I'm no mindreader.

"Fidelity" can also mean being trustworthy, reliable, true to one's word... (which is why whoever coined the term "polyfidelitous" didn't see it as an oxymoron at all).

I realize the way some folks see it, no matter how loving, honest & consensual my relationship may be with my partner, if we are not emotionally/sexually exclusive, then we are by definition "unfaithful" to one another. Well, I like how Turtle put it--I'm looking forward to the day we'll judge relationships not by the number of people in the relationship, but by the quality of the love and commitment within the relationship.

PolyHeartRachel

hafidha sofia said...

The task for religious liberals isn't simply to liberate people from oppressive society; it's to shape society in ways that form free people.

Quote of the day! Though I must say it doesn't have to do with poly/mono choices at all, just a general principle.

Mark said...

christine:

"Hopefully, all of us are 'poly' by nature, that is, able to love several or many people at once... Polyamorists have named themselves misleadingly. They would be more accuartely called poly-partnerists or some such thing..."

Well, it's a pretty widely accepted concept that there are distinct forms of love, commonly discussed within the Ancient Greek framework of eros, philia and agape. In English, "amorous" is pretty consistently associated with eros...imagine the expected reaction to a statement like, "The grandmother gazed amorously at her grandson."

"It seems to me that the theological task here is one of demonstrating the justice of why couple relationships should be privileged in a society."

This is a reasonable goal, on its face. However, the question would remain of what is meant by "privileged."

In our society, couples with children are privileged over couples without children in many ways--as childfree activists are quick to point out. I can see the possible appropriateness of privileging couple relationships over multi-partner relationships, following that model.

In contrast, licensed medical professionals are privileged over unlicensed folks in the provision of medical care, i.e., there are active social and legal punishments for providing medical care without a license. I don't think that would be a just model for privileging couple relationships.

James said...

I'm not sure I have much worthwhile to contribute to this thread, but I do think about the issues and have some preliminary thoughts.

I'm pretty sure, together with a number of people who have reflected here, including LT, that there is no natural configuration for human relationships. So, how to decide what's worth supporting and what's worth rejecting? What's good for society is an important consideration, I wager. Also, what's good for the people involved needs to be factored, including any hypothetical children.

Practically, it appears that it is increasingly difficult to form a lasting and deep relationship as you increase the number of people from two. Two is real hard all by itself. But, I also think more than two can form a lasting and loving relationship that is more than friends with benefits, as the young say. And I am uncomfortably aware that many, maybe most of the arguments against multiple partnership are used against same sex partnerships.

So, tentatively, at this moment in time: I feel I could officiate at the blessing of a multipartnered relationship that had been in existence for a number of years.

Speaking of pastoral bleeding into theologial, perhaps this would be a good way to handle all blessings of marriages - wait a decade and see if its the real deal.

Tammy said...

Anonymous said: "As my mother has said to me on more than one occasion: "that's the great thing about being an adult; you can have these feelings and NOT act on them." That's how I feel (rightly, but most likely wrongly) about polyamory: it gives people a pass to act like an adolescent when they are supposed to be adults. I would like to see that focus on committment played up in society."

yes, most DEFINITELY WRONGLY. Poly people aren't out looking to reenact their adolescence with multiple partners. If commitment is what you seek, then I would think you'd be MORE in favor of people who can and do commit to more than one person... hey, it's more commitment... you should be thrilled!

Christine Robinson said: "That doesn't mean I think that this is overall a good idea for society, and the lack of respect I feel for people who take this path is similar to the lack of respect I have for people who put their desires above the good of the fragile social order that holds us all."

Thank you for completely dismissing and disrespecting my free choice. It doesnt' harm you in the least that my family includes me, my boyfriend, his wife (my girlfriend) and their 2 kids... so exactly why the disrespect? You don't see me going around saying that anyone who doesn't love more than 1 person is being selfish, withholding love from someone else and therefore is a detrement to societal order?

James said: "Speaking of pastoral bleeding into theologial, perhaps this would be a good way to handle all blessings of marriages - wait a decade and see if its the real deal."

Hmmm... are you going to use that criteria on monogamous heterosexual marriages too? After all, how many of those last past the decade mark?

James said...

Dear Tammy,

In my small contribution to this conversation I was trying on the idea of blessing multiple partnered relationships. I've stated much of my reservations, and also stated that I believe such relationships can be worthy in every sense of that word.

As such I believe without worrying too much about legal niceities, that there are circumstances under which I should be willing to bless such unions.

Still, I have so little contact with people actually living in polyamorous relationships. And it does seem because of the novelity, that some evidence of serious commitment seems a reasonable hope of my part as a potential officiant. Something like a decade of actually succeeding in this relationship strikes me as one such way that could be accomplished.

While, for various reasons, some possibly legitimate, I don't hold couples to that test before blessing their unions, I think it could be a good general principle, and wouldn't mind our churches having such a stance for everyone.

This, of course, would demand a new reflection on the theology of marriage...

Alan said...

William James (19th-century founder of modern psychology) had a lot to say on love and the natural human state, and one passage in particular has stuck with me. In fact I've posted it on my wall as sort of My Poly Credo:

Every Jack sees in his own particular Jill charms and perfections to the enchantment of which we stolid onlookers are stone-cold. And which has the superior view of the absolute truth, he or we? Which has the more vital insight into the nature of Jill’s existence, as a fact? Is he in excess, being in this matter a maniac? or are we in defect, being victims of a pathological anæsthesia as regards Jill’s magical importance? Surely the latter; surely to Jack are the profounder truths revealed; surely poor Jill’s palpitating little life-throbs are among the wonders of creation, are worthy of this sympathetic interest; and it is to our shame that the rest of us cannot feel like Jack.... Jill, who knows her inner life, knows that Jack’s way of taking it — so importantly — is the true and serious way; and she responds to the truth in him by taking him truly and seriously, too. May the ancient blindness never wrap its clouds about either of them again!... We ought, all of us, to realize each other in this intense, pathetic, and important way.

If you say that this is absurd, and that we cannot be in love with everyone at once, I merely point out to you that, as a matter of fact, certain persons do exist with an enormous capacity for friendship and for taking delight in other people’s lives; and that such persons know more of truth than if their hearts were not so big. The vice of ordinary Jack and Jill affection is not its intensity, but its exclusions and its jealousies. Leave those out, and you see that the ideal I am holding up before you, however impracticable to-day, yet contains nothing intrinsically absurd.


-- from "Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life's Ideals," 1899.