I have been thinking a lot about marriage lately. As many of you know celebrating marriage ceremonies is seen as a privilege of religious communities, but I'm concerned with the disconnect between marriage and religious practice. I want to spend a few posts exploring this topic.
First we need to understand the term marriage. You won't hear me talking in terms of traditional definitions - because those tend to beg the question: traditional to what? Plus there is a movement that is really about excluding homosexuals from marriage that claim the term traditional but really mean what has come to be the normative experience in North American society (although I think those notions are internally challenged in ways these groups do not care to admit and they often ignore the emerging normative experiences of marriage). Actually I am more interested in a functional definition and from that seeing what, if anything, a religion like Christianity can bring to marriage.
We could start with the assumption that marriage is the foundation of the family unit. Let's leave aside that society has often given up on this as a reality. But if we think about family units they consist of people bonding together to form a corporate whole that is more than the individuals on their own. This includes some sort of commitment as well as expectations. This would seem to jive with the civil notions of marriage. These notions are codified by the state in order to allow for legal ramifications if the marriage contract is violated or dissolved. I happen to thing this is good, even though it can be expressed poorly in society.
Where the notion of a contract is helpful is when such a bonding (marriage) leads to internal growth (offspring, adoption, integration). It ensures, civilly, that the least capable of fending for themselves are protected in the event of such a contract breaking down. I like that safety feature because I love my kids and would want them to be protected no matter what. Also as a pastor I've seen how adults, in the midst of marital breakdown, can behave like real jerks - it is painful all around. So that is something that is important to me. But this civil union is more about how we navigate society and not necessarily a religious reality.
So what about religion? Is marriage just some leftover sacrament that is no longer necessary? Here is where we need a theology of marriage. We need to know what God thinks (as best we can know the mind of God) of marriage. We need to know where God is made present in marriage and where God can be edged out of the picture. I'll turn to this next.
But first - do you think marriage is fundamentally a contract? if not why? Also do you think that marriage is the fundamental building block of the family?