Political Theology Today A Forum for inter-disciplinary and inter-religious dialogue among clergy, scholars, students, and activists

The Problem with Marriage

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Marriage equality is a hot topic in Christian communities. Recently, Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop, came to Fuller to talk about the freedom to love. As a result, many students at Fuller are beginning to rethink their heteronormative understandings of marriage. While I am all for LGBTQ equality in all arenas (anything else is shenanigans), the resurgence about the right to marry and marriage as an existentially important institution worries me. It seems to be less predicated on Christian doctrine and more about maintaining capitalism in a depressed and lonely society.

In the 1930s, the Roman Catholic Church dramatically changed their theology of marriage. Before, the Church’s official position on marriage was that it was for only for procreation. However, with changing social mores of the 20th century, the church proclaimed marriage as sacrament, intended for procreation and pleasure. Christian couples now could talk openly about their sex lives; it became a public feature of theology. While on the surface this appeared to be a positive development for the Catholics, Louis Althusser, a French social theorist, suggested otherwise in an essay called “On Conjugal Obscenity.” Althusser had no problem with the public nature of marriage or the sexual/spiritual juxtaposition, but showed how the new policy reinforced Roman Catholic reactionary emphasis on marriage by transforming it from a duty to a celebratory act. The glorification of marriage, in his opinion, ensnared otherwise liberated women through false claims of spiritual and sexual equality in marriage. In other words, just as women were beginning to escape the confines of the home, the church used theology to draw women right back to the domicile. Althusser’s essay argues that what appears to be advancement can actually be the inverse.

Just as in the 1930s, a sector of Christianity – albeit a liberal one – is advancing marriage by opening it up to same sex folks. The movement is in fact piggy-backing off a general political trend to make marriage accessible to all. In response, a host of conservative Christian groups are fighting back and have developed a defensive theology of marriage based on scarce scriptural resources. Consequently, vehement battles have erupted in denominations, but these are more about gay ordination. In the political arena, there is constant bickering about the definition of marriage and the meaning of biblical marriage. The problem with these kinds of disagreements is that they prove to be a maelstrom for Christians: we are being drawn down a whirlpool that we shouldn’t be going down to begin with. We are fighting over an institution that is both non-biblical and completely a function of state-capitalism.

To be clear, while there a lots of examples of hetero-marriage in the Bible, the New Testament clearly argues that marriage is an incidental concern for Christians. In the gospels, Jesus rarely talks approvingly about marriage  and constantly subverts his follower’s understanding family. William Williamson refers to Jesus as “the home wrecker” who challenges the nuclear family (and by implication marriage). Jesus is more concerned with creating an egalitarian community outside the immediate family, saying all those who love God and follow him are his brothers and sisters. Paul is even clearer, arguing in 1 Corinthians that although those who are married or are really horny should get and remained married, it is better to serve God by being single. In Ephesians 5, he continues his argument and while he seems to be talking about the beauty of egalitarian marriage, he really is using an ideal marriage as a metaphor of Christ’s relationship with the church, not actively supporting the idea of marriage itself. Overall then, marriage is not a major concern of New Testament and is often subverted in order to integrate people more fully into the church.

In our culture, marriage has become a tool to deal with our constant feeling of alienation. Althusser in another essay called “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses” argues that most cultural institutions become a function to maintain the logic of capitalism. In other words, our hobbies, cultural interests, and activities allow us to get back to work the next day, so society supports them. Marriage helps us to continue to work in mindless, dead-in jobs where we are disconnected from human interaction and sit in front virtual horizons of simulacrum.

Before we really enter the workforce, we are surrounded by social interaction: the glory of the teenage years and the experimental years in college insures that we are constantly meeting new people to satiate our need for community. When college ends, we become members of the cognitariat, as Franco Beradi termed it (cognitive proletariat): we sit in front of computers for eight hours a day and return home for beer and Chinese food. Aside from those with money or good looks, most live a lonely and boring existence. This is how most romantic comedies begin: someone too attached to work finds love. Once love is found, their life is complete; the marriage gives their lonely and boring existence meaning again. The problem with this presentation is twofold: the relationship is insular and doesn’t address the larger problem of one’s alienation in the work life. The marriage is meant to solve the frustrations of work life and the grind of capitalism, but that puts too much pressure on the marriage. Then, because marriage is overburdened, people end it and seek a new lover, not realizing that the problem is not with the other person, but with the emptiness of the rest of life. Marriage is not the problem, but when it becomes a replacement for the promise of salvation and the community of the Church, it threatens to destroy our souls.

We need to return marriage to its proper place as a subordinate institution within the collective life of the church. Instead of an insular relationship that exists outside the body of the church, marriage, if it is to continue to be relevant to Christians, should be integrated into the larger salvific goal of the church community: communion. I am a minister’s son and was practically born in the pew. I was at church most of the week and I don’t think I can distinguish between “church life” and “home life” because they were so symbiotic. My parent’s day to day was wedded to maintaining relationships with people from the church. Their marriage wasn’t insular, but part of the collective existence of a people working to heal those poisoned souls from nihilistic work life. Marriage as a tool for the church is something I can get behind. So maybe we should talk a little less about marriage and more about a constantly schisming of denominations and divided politics. Then we might be on the right track.

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