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Marriage

 

 (FAITH TODAY October 2003)

Marriage

 

“Is it a boy or a girl?” The first question asked concerning a newborn seems pointless since we do nothing with the answer but immediately discuss something else about the babe. But in fact the question is profound, for everybody knows, deep-down, that gender-specificity is essential to our humanness. If the question, “Boy or girl?”, were answered, “Neither”, the questioner would wonder if the neonate were actually human.

A careful reading of Scripture’s creation narratives informs us that the distinction between male and female is the only distinction (among all that differentiate people today) that God has embedded irrevocably in the creation itself. Other distinctions — alienating differences, for instance, of economics, learning, social position — can be overcome and should. For this reason the distinction between learned and ignorant is overcome by socially-sanctioned public education; that between rich and poor by government-mandated income tax and financial redistribution.

In the Genesis accounts the creation of land, water, vegetation, planets and animals is pronounced “good”, whereas the creation of man and woman is pronounced “very good” and is “blessed.” In other words, the man-woman complementarity (“complementarity” by definition restricted to two, and therefore always different from a “mutuality” that accommodates more than two persons of the same gender) is built into the creation, cannot be eradicated, and must not be denied or disdained. This complementarity isn’t an accident of history or a social convention.   Neither is it evil or inherently inhibiting. Marriage, rather, is a God-ordained relationship that can’t be duplicated. It penetrates to our innermost core as no other human bond can. Its companionship is uniquely our creaturely comfort and consolation.

According to God’s plan and purpose marriage is the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong bond that death alone terminates. Marriage is God’s provision for that utterly intimate and intense, consistent and constant human community that humankind craves. Many alternatives for this community may be pursued unwisely even as no substitute for it can be found. While married people are certainly part of a wider community (church, friendships, society) that presupposes inclusivity, exclusivity remains essential to marriage: “open” marriage is a contradiction in terms, since “complementarity”, unlike mutuality, permits only “two” to become “one”, “one flesh.” (“Trial marriage”, like “trial parachute jump”, is a contradiction in terms. The parachutist is either still in the plane — in which case she hasn’t jumped at all — or else she’s in the air — in which case “trial” is inappropriate. “Trial marriage” is simply no marriage at all. As much could be said about common law “marriage.” Marriage entails a legal bond that is publicly attested.)

In a mystery that, like all mysteries, is a commonly experienced reality so very profound as to be beyond explanation, sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not merely expresses such a union but effects it. Scripture’s horror at sexual promiscuity is rooted in its conviction that sexual intimacy is far more than appetite and its relief; sexual intimacy pertains to the binding of two persons to each other, not simply to the linking of body parts. Scripture, of course, concomitantly recognizes the absurd yet sad polygamy/polyandry that promiscuity occasions. For this reason marriage requires an exclusivity apart from which there is no “coupled” unit that simultaneously participates in the inclusivities that God has ordained.

“One flesh” means one, unitary organism of body, mind and spirit. It doesn’t mean that we become clones of each other or mere functions of each other. It doesn’t mean that personality and individuation have been surrendered. Yet neither does it mean that our new union can be likened to two blocks of wood now glued together. For regardless of how tightly glued they might be they never interpenetrate each other. A “one flesh” union, rather, must be likened to a tree-graft. The graft occurs when two living organisms are opened up to each other, are allowed to pervade and suffuse each other, immerse themselves in each other — and thereafter are fused forever. As this occurs a fruitfulness appears that otherwise never would. (Lifelong friendships may appear similar but of course lack crucial features: gender-complementarity, public attestation, legal sanction, and “one flesh” specifically.)

When two trees are grafted together each is first slashed sharply, thereby exposing what was previously hidden and laying bare the innermost substance of each. In this development what each possesses uniquely is made available inimitably to the other. At the same time the slash undeniably renders each tree vulnerable. Plainly, vulnerability is the condition of any union worthy of the description, “one flesh”. If two people are to be married in that union of which our Lord speaks then there must be defenceless openness and self-forgetful self-exposure, together with the sober recognition that the fearsomeness of this rent is the condition of the fusion’s fruitfulness. And at the same time it must be recognized that once a tree-graft has occurred, separation of the parties to the graft is nothing less than dismemberment. Divorce, even when necessary, remains a manifestation of death.

  Everyone’s marriage is molested by sin. Individually and collectively our humanity is distorted by depravities within and dangers without. Then marriage remains resilient, in the face of such depravities and dangers, only as it “borrows from” God’s undiscourageable, undeflectable love for Israel, which love God speaks of as “marriage. Christ himself speaks of his self-renouncing bond with the Church as the model and inspiration of marriage. And since when the faithfulness of the Triune God meets our sin it assumes the form of forgiveness, marriage thrives as we extend a pardon that has been quickened by the greater pardon we’ve already received. We must recall God’s covenant-faithfulness to us whenever our proximity to each other fosters friction and magnifies irritability.

Then marriage endures by self-renouncing faithfulness. The current myth is that it endures by sentiment. Marriage must continue to thrive even on those occasions — whether short-lived or protracted — when two people are feeling less than enraptured.

A corollary to faithfulness is patience. When grass turns brown in the summer sensible people don’t tear up the lawn; they know that in another month the heat will pass and the lawn become green again. Impatience here is not only inappropriate but destructive; it indicates not so much silliness as folly.

   Finally we must remember that while marriage promises what is to be found nowhere else in the creation it cannot provide what it was never meant to; namely, that profoundest contentment found only in God. To expect husband or wife to provide what no human partner can; to expect husband or wife to give what only God supplies is to burden marriage unrealistically.

And we should remember too while unmarried people are deprived of marital intimacy, their deprivation of this creaturely intimacy in no way disadvantages them before God or renders them less usable in his kingdom. Their singleness, offered to God in the spirit of self-renunciation, is a sacrifice he most surely honours.

The truth is, all of us, married and unmarried, always need to hear and heed and cling to him whose burden is light, whose yoke is easy, and whose name is the only name given to us whereby we may be saved.