Posted by: dacalu | 18 September 2012

Sex and Marriage

I’ve touched on marriage tangentially a couple times recently, so I wanted to take a stab at explicitly saying what marriage is to me.

First, I should say that I think marriage is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  In other words it is a ceremony and a commitment that participates in a larger gift of God; found in the world and made easier to see by the church’s recognition.  Further, I see it as a particular sign of an ubiquitous grace.  I think that God freely gives us good gifts and that we learn to appreciate them better by holding up examples.  The example is not the only place the gift may be found, but it should be a good one.

Marriage represents the gift of unity.  God said “It is not good that the human should be alone.”  We recognize a gift of togetherness and communion amidst the chances and changes of life in the Eucharistic sacrament – in the sharing of bread and wine.  We look for a greater communion with God, however, called very unsubtly “consummation” in that moment after death when we come fully into the presence of God.  To know fully as we are fully known.  There’s no “polite” way of putting this, for it genuinely claims a kind of complete and total intimacy with the Divine that we have trouble grasping without sexual metaphors.  It’s no surprise that we should use a sexual relationship, with romantic and parental overtones as a symbol of this anticipated grace.  This is why the religious idea of marriage is so important and why so many people get vexed about how we understand marriage.  It not only represents, but participates in that kind of togetherness that Christians say is the best end of all humanity.
Having said we use this kind of imagery, I do not contend that marriage is about sex.  It is about unity and the kind of complete honesty required to create that unity.  Marriage is all about the removal of barriers and genuine openness to another person.  I believe God has given us sexual attraction not only as a desire to reproduce, but also as a prompt for intimacy. The two may be found together, often are found together, and reflect upon one another.

We all put up walls around ourselves emotionally, for healthy and unhealthy reasons.  We learn to think of ourselves as independent individuals and yet this will always produce anxiety.  No person can truly say they are independent.  We rely on one another daily for food, shelter, and support, not to mention companionship, love, and forgiveness.  We live off of one another’s work and thrive on one another’s imagination and creativity.  So we find ourselves in emotional boxes – quite rationally protecting ourselves from the dangers of other people’s wills, but also tragically separated from the relationships that support us and make life worth living.

There is a danger, however, because openness to others is dangerous.  Revealing yourself to another human being means taking down physical, emotional, mental, even spiritual boundaries.  It means allowing another person to help you define yourself.

There are countless ways of forming intimate relationships.  We do so with our families, with close friends, with colleagues in important endeavors.  Common interests, common goals, even common enemies can bring us closer together.  Above all, I find that true intimacy takes time.  It takes the space to have seen someone act and even just exist in a number of circumstances.

Sexual attraction – and sex – can facilitate and accelerate this kind of bonding.  It can, both rationally and irrationally, cause us to lower barriers and invest the time and effort needed to come to know another person.  In this way, I think that sex and sexual attraction are a gift.

As with any good gift, they may be used well or poorly, and the more powerful the gift, the more damage it can do when used poorly.  Christians have always been extremely cautious about sex because we know that every unhealthy attempt at unity – every abused vulnerability, every confusion between power over and communion with, every codependency – makes true unity harder to achieve.

We define marriage as a relation ship in which true unity may be seen – though perfect unity cannot be achieved in this lifetime.  Marriage ideally provides an example in which full intimacy (yes, often represented through sex) appears possible.  Marriage, then, requires a full commitment to one another.  It means saying to one another, before God and others, that your love for each other is so great that it comes before your love of any other individual.  Their concern for you will never be subordinated to any other concern.  Total vulnerability is possible because total care has been promised.  We say “forsaking all others.”

That, at least is the ideal.  It has some important edges, though, the must be mentioned.  Most individuals value something above self.  That may be children or God, justice or antique model airplanes.  OK.  That last was a bit of a joke, but it’s worth thinking about what people give their life to.  A healthy marriage will involve two people who’ve seriously explored – with one another – where their priorities lie.  They – as a couple – will often come to the conclusion that their love for one another must include the love of something else – a care for God, a care for children, a care for justice,…  They, together can make that commitment.  It will always be difficult, though.  It will always mean “your sacrifice” or “my sacrifice” has truly become “our sacrifice” in imagination as well as action.

Several conclusions fall out of this understanding of marriage.

1) Marriage necessarily requires the will of the couple.  Their commitment to love, care for, and be open to one another forms the core of the sacrament.  Attraction, romance, affection, friendship may all be there, but the will and commitment make the marriage.  For this reason I favor the Western tradition that says the couple marries one another with the church and state as witness only.  I abhor any form of coercion and distrust gate keeping (though I do think it worthwhile to have a priest and a counselor advise the couple).

2) Marriage is difficult.  It means holding to a perfect ideal in an imperfect world.  To always put another person first takes sacrifice, courage, and imagination.  It usually requires daily negotiation of needs and wants.

3) Marriage must be between exactly two people.  The math doesn’t work any other way.  As soon as there are multiple wives or multiple husbands, we find preference.  One spouse gets more attention than another and the assumption of total care necessarily dissolves.

4) Marriage must be equal.  The commitment of one spouse to another must be perfectly (as possible) reflected.  Otherwise you have subordination.  Subordination cannot be consistent with total care because it sends the message that one partner is more equal than the other.  [In the world to come,  I think we will find God’s will is the best version of our will and not, as some would have it, the ruler of our will.  In both human and human/divine marriage the end is realization that there is only one will.]

Having said these things, I do not doubt that grace has been found in unequal marriages, polygamous marriages, unfaithful marriages, even forced marriages.  For that matter, we say that grace may even be found in Hell, as when Christ broke open the gates to free the dead.  At the same time, the goal of the church is to bless and sanctify small parts of the world, so that the people in it may learn that all of it is holy.  Marriage is the type and example of full intimacy and the church should only bless those unions that represent it well.  The manner of marriage that best displays grace must be open to change with time and careful – oh so careful observation.  The underlying grace remains the same.

We say, likewise, that the best example of sex is within the confines of marriage.  I would not say that all sex outside of marriage is wrong.  (Nor would I say that all sex inside marriage is right.)  The measure of sex must be the same as the measure of marriage – indeed the measure of all human action for Christians.  Does it show love?  And does it participate in the love it demonstrates?  The church endorses only the narrowest range of activity, but (at least for Anglicans) allows every person to work out their own salvation.

So, in the end I see humans suffering the challenge of intimacy.  How do we form healthy relationships?  How do we lose our lonelieness, ego, pride, and individualism?  Christianity holds up love as the solution and marriage as the ideal example of that love in this context.  Christians use the example as exactly that – an example.  It is neither idol (eternal and perfect) nor law (definitively decreed).  It is a helpful commentary and template.

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