Some Preliminary Remarks
Philosophical reasonings are not mathematical demonstrations and therefore one should not expect strict deductive rigor in such matters. (In fact, it would be unreasonable to expect absolute agreement and uniformity in philosophical matters in general as Peter Van Inwagen has once noted.) As such, this post will be more of a philosophical account and not so much “proof” of the Christian practice of marriage. It would attempt to explicate and justify Christian marriage in philosophical terms without explicit appeal to Christian narratives.
Deciding on a philosophical system is more like deciding what movie to watch, what book to read or what instrument to play, rather than a matter of scientific judgement. Just as the works of Shakespeare, because of its intrinsic merits, or what it is about, recommends itself to readership, so likewise I hope that an explication of the internal logic of Christian marriages, would recommend itself, based on its intrinsic merits.
So in a sense, this is a sort of Hegelian exercise in philosophical argumentation, an a priori exercise of explaining the internal meaning and life of Christian marriages. As such, there is no point appealing to nitty gritty empirical facts as to the success or failure of Christian marriages. The logic must be internal to the practice, justified by its intrinsic ends rather than some extrinsic function. Although it is true that playing the piano may improve mental abilities, but that the practice of music is not justified by its external function, but by the intrinsic beauty of music. Likewise, the beauty of the flowers or plants is not diminished, by the failure rates of these plants to flourish or reach maturity.
The Distinctives of Christian Marriages
Christian marriages are unique in the history of mankind, a very distinct, and I hope to prove, and great cultural achievement of Western civilisation. As such, I will give a speculative philosophical account of the distinctive features of Christian marriages which are (1) Life-long union, (2) Entry by Indissoluble rite (3) Exclusive Sexual Activity (4) Child-bearing fruitfulness
(1) Life-Long Union
Despite the prevalence of divorces, there remains a very much embedded assumption in our culture that marriages are meant to be life-long unions. Thus the question why life-long?
We have to realise that this understanding only became self-evident in Christendom. Roman antiquity did conceive of marriages as a distinct legal estate, to be recognised by law, but even they did not conceive of marriages as eternal unions. They were merely legal codifications of a mutual intention to live monogamously together, and they could be ended by simply declaring that the affectio maritalis had ceased (an ancient version of our contemporary “no fault divorces”.) . Divorces were easily obtainable and although in later Christian Rome the Emperor Justinian tried to penalise consensual divorce, it is clear that antiquity struggled with the idea of marriage as an existential change of life-long significance.
So, why should marriage be for life? It is perhaps rooted in the existential truth of degeneration. As it is commonly said, there are two things certain for life: Death and taxes. And of course, within the truth of death is the truth of degeneration. We will grow old and lose our youth. We will not retain our beauty, our life, our vigour and our passion as we age. The life-long unions gurantees a living link and continuity to our past youth. After having spent the most youthfully intense, passionate and happy moments of our life with the spouse of our youth, those shared experiences is retained and carried over into our aging years, a living continuity to our older selves. Even though we may later grow feeble, have diminished sex drives, etc, but yet the times when we were not so feeble and much more passionate are not times which are “lost forever”, but still lives in us together, and provides a living resource to endue our dying years with vestiges of our more youthful days.
True, one certainly cannot “re-live” one’s youth. The fact of mortality cannot be covered up, not even with mutual memorial re-enactment which can but be a shadow of the past. But yet, I cannot think of a better way to preserve the life of youth then mutual shared experience, retained and made present in memory. This especially becomes all the more evident today where modern society suffers from a deep denial of death. Today we rarely dare face the fact of degeneration. We look at old people as objects of “pity”, for us to be (condescendingly!) charitable to. But none of us have dare to stare full in the fact of the existential horror, to enter into their life-world, and to realise that we have lost something which can never be returned, and that we have no one around who have preserved it, that we might draw some comfort from it in our dying days.
The song “Young Forever” captures this spirit of our denial of death very well.
Let us die young, or let us live forever
Forever young, I wanna be forever young
Do you really want to live forever, forever…
“Let us die young or let us live forever”. We are terrified of degenerative aging. We are terrified of becoming old and losing our youth. We much rather die than age. This is not surprising. When the living continuity to our older shelves have been severed and lost forever, and life is seen as a discrete sequence of experiences with no continuity or unity; then the diminishment of experience and pleasure at our old age spells the diminishment of all meaning of existence. Kill us now. We have no more reason to live.
Live-long unions is the only way I know of whereby a person can retain dignity in his old age in the eyes of at least one person, his spouse of his youth, who knew the partner in his or her more youthful days, when they were full of life and energy. And though the watching world may look down upon them condescendingly as old people to be “charitable to” or to pity, at least in the eyes of their spouse, they retain their dignity, as persons who have life, because their past youth, remains a living truth for them, even though in the present their life may be diminished.
“Mid-age crisis” is a particularly modern phenomenon. We suddenly realise that we are approaching the threshold of the cessation of growth and the start of degeneration. We fight desperately to retain and hold on to our youth despite the inevitable march of mortality. We buy sport cars, we sleep with younger woman, as if we could vampirically absorb their life into ours and make us young and alive again. We go for plastic surgery, feel good seminars and engage in all kinds of wild activities, all in the desperate bid to deny and shut out the thundering declaration, that indeed, we are degenerating.
Life-long union is an ancient tried and tested method for retaining dignity in old age, and a comfortable support which allows one to face mortality and degeneration without fear or terror, and without resorting to desperate youth retaining methods.
(2) Entry by Indissoluble Rite
It is important to understand that this point is not merely that we hope that the marriage will last a life time. It is much stronger claim that marriage is an objective state which transcends above our subjective feelings and intentions, to which bond and obligation our subjective state conforms to. This stems from the idea that that what God has joined, no man may put asunder, not even the contracting parties themselves.
There is also a related point, the idea that a marriage is made by a wedding rite. It is important to understand that in most cultures, the “wedding ceremony” or contract is mainly about transfer of property. It normally a social ritual for “transferring” the woman from her parent’s family, into the care of the groom, and that they now exercise joint-ownership of their property. Even the Anglican marriage would retain the Roman “property transferal” idea in its marriage rite, whereby the groom says to the bride
WITH this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The idea is that the groom would “endow” or transfer all his property to the bride. (So for the women, if you got married by the traditional rite, technically, your husband’s property is yours, but not vice-versa!)
But of course, today when people are leaving homes before they get married and have a much greater control over their own lives and their own property, it seems that a social ritual to formalise a transfer of property is completely superfluous. What is the point of a wedding rite then? Why should it, and not say, buying a HDB flat together, mark the transition from singlehood to the marriage estate? The answer is captured by the Hegelian idea of a contract to transcend contract.
As Lee Kuan Yew once noted, in Western societies, people marry the ones they love, in Eastern societies, people love the ones they marry. The consent or desire (love?) of both parties to live together in the estate of marriage is the necessary precondition for entering it, but this consent or contract is transcended by the wedding rite. In the Christian tradition (in particular the Eastern Orthodox), the couples submits their consent to God through the priest, and the priest blesses the union and seals it with God’s authority. The Anglicans in particular have a beautiful ritual whereby after the couples have exchanged their vows, the priest tied their hands with his stole (the scarf like thing that he wears) and declares, “Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.”
Thus, the couples transit from being mere couples with a desire to live together, to being husband and wife, joined by God. Why is this “third party” (i.e. God), which transcends either party, necessary for union? Isn’t a mutual consent enough? It is essential simply because of the fact of the mutability of the self. Only a third party who transcends and is sovereign over both parties, can guarantee the future unity of both the selves of both parties, and their remaining joint. That’s why the vows include,”for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part”. Thus, as every married couple knows, people change after they get married. They aren’t quite what you think they are, especially when you start living with them! But yet, no matter how great the change in the subject of your love, whether your spouse becomes better or worse, rich or poor, more ugly, sick, etc, ultimately, both of your selves are held together by the initial act of God through the priest, on the very day you were married, and that transcendent act of God holds true and good, no matter the flux and flow and changes of life, or how greatly changed either party becomes, the union is a constant and transcendent fact, held by God, a transcendent fact which transcends the initial act of consent. Before, they marry because they love, now, they love because they are married, an immutable joining by God.
This explains the necessity of the wedding rite, and for a (transcendent and eternal!) third party to join both parties. If marriage were “merely” a contract or promise, and not a contract to transcend that contract, then the “life” and force of the contract is dependent and contingent upon the parties who made it. Once the promise becomes “dead” to one of the parties and no longer a living force (because desire grew cold, or may be because he or she has changed so much), then the promise simply dies with it. Contracts and promises are by definition dissoluble and contingent upon the parties making it, whereas vows before the immortals are not. As Roger Scruton puts explains,
The difference between a vow and a promise is profound and metaphysical. For a promise is fulfilled in time. And when the promise is fulfilled it is also finished. But a vow is never fulfilled in time: it is endless and changeless, and there is no point at which the account is closed. Those bound together by vows are bound eternally; which is why the immortals must be present, to seal the vow and endow it with a more than earthly power… promises and contracts can be undone by agreement, after which no obligation remains. Whereas a vow, once knit, can never be untied, but only dishonored.
It should be quite obvious by now that if the truth of life-long unions is to be preserved and maintained in a world of constant change and flux, and of course in the face of the inevitable change of aging, then only the practice of marriage vows, which unites couples by the action of the immortals who transcend the flux of the world, can seal and guarantee such a union.
(3) Exclusive Sexual Activity and Monogamy
It is actually very difficult nowadays to justify sex only within marriage. But this section must also answer a much broader question. In Roman antiquity (and older chinese society), the concubinage system was well in place. Even if Romans may not practice polygamy (which the Jews and Chinese did), concubines were common enough, woman slept with man in exchange for economic security, and Roman man were not expected to be engage sexually exclusively with their wives, as Elizabeth Anscombe, a Roman Catholic philosopher, puts it warily, “Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be”. Even the great St Augustine who lived during Christian Rome had a concubine once he reached adulthood and even had a child before he was made a bishop.
So, what is the justification for exclusive sexual activity only within the marriage estate?
It has of course to do with the unity of the self. There is of course no doubt that eros or sexual desire is a deeply felt force in the human psyche. But the question is whether that force can be reconciled to every other aspect of our lives, or shall it be simply an alien fact of ourselves, wild and free, but having no significance in our broader lives? The question then becomes, is it to have any meaning? As Rowan Williams the Archbishop of Canterbury puts it,
In a strange way, in this society we have underplayed the reality of eros. Odd to say that, isn’t it? Because we often think that eros, in the form of sexual imagery, is absolutely everywhere, and so, alas it is. But it is eros in the sense of the profound desire that makes me who I am, that makes the whole of my life drawn-towards something beyond myself which gives meaning, the other person that I love, the God I seek to love, that’s not quite so clear in our society. We privilege the consumer mentality and we also fail to ask some of the deep questions about the direction of the desire at the root of our being.
The question then becomes whether we incorporate eros into the wider web of meaning of which we are part of, to be part of the union which I have with my spouse, or shall it simply be a tasty food item to be “sampled”, with different meats (read: prostitutes), but having no significance beyond that. This questions becomes all the more acute, when we have to remember that it is our shared experiences with our spouse, which shall be carried forward into our old age, and to not share one of the most passionate and deep experiences of our lives with our spouses, squandering it instead on strangers whom we shall never meet again, is surely a sorry waste of our passion.
As a side line, one can justify the inhibitions to pre-martial sex this way: Is it the whole person which one is consummating within sexual desire? Or just a fragment of the person, a “time-slice” of the person as it were, most probably just the present slice? Only after God have joined the two parties in his infallible act, do the two parties truly and wholly “belong” to each other. Before that act, they only have their desire, and to consummate that desire, is merely a satisfication of lust, or pleasure, and not a consummation and participation in the whole person, since that person does not wholly and completely belong to you, not having been completely joined to you by God.
How about polygamy then? Again, I would appeal to the unity of the self. The shelf would be fragmented between various persons, and there can be no accumulated shared experience or historical resources, for the building of a future and preservation into old age. Only a fleeting experience with each spouse you have, but a deeper desire, rooted deep in the history of the other, there is none, since that desire has been diminished by being separated between the various parties.
(4) Child-bearing fruitfulness
If this point is correct, then it would explain why only heterosexual unions are an intrinsic part of the Christian understanding of marriage. To understand this point, we would first look at it from the parent’s point of view, then it would be helpful to look at it from the point of view of the child.
One of the main goals of any sexual desire, elevated by a marital union with one’s spouse, is the incarnation of that union in flesh (literally!) in the begetting of children. Perhaps the evidence that this is sexual desire’s ultimate goal can be found in popular culture’s crude expression of one person’s love to another that goes something like, “I want to have your children.” Crude though such as an expression maybe, but yet, such an expression goes to show that the begetting of children is the ultimate goal and incarnation of love which exist between two people.
From the point of view of the parents, the act of beholding their child is an experience of the unity between their erotic love and parental or familial love. Between the parents, there is both the knowledge and experience that what moves them at their deepest (the experience of their erotic and sexual strivings towards each other), is fundamentally connected to its expression and incarnation in this child, which is theirs. The sense that their child belongs to them and is a part of their love is rooted in their erotic desire. Thus what this means is the love for their child has its ground from what forms such a vital and important part of themselves, their erotic and sexual love.
From the point of view of the child, our biological body forms an important part of who we are and the existential question for us is, why have our biological being come to be? As the Pope Benedict XVI has said once,
Life is not governed by chance; it is not random. Your very existence has been willed by God, blessed and given a purpose!
According to the logic which I have described, it is vital for us to know that our very existence, our very being, has its cause in what is such an important part of the human reality, the reality of erotic love. Our existence has been willed by our parent’s love towards each other, and we come to be, because of one of the most significant force of the human condition.
A final vital point as to why child bearing fruitfulness is an intrinsic part of marriage as it connects the significance of erotic love to the wider world. It is the link which breaks out of an enclosed and inward looking circle of desire of the spouses, with eyes only towards each other, and directs that erotic love outwards towards the wider society and humanity, in the service (and sacrifice!) of raising a child, an incarnation of their eros, to one day grow up and leave their home and contribute and service the wider society. It connects eros to agape, it links one of the most significant and fundamental experience of the human condition, to outward sacrifice and giving of a new life and being to the wider world. It can be said without exaggeration, that the sacrifice of raising children is perhaps our most charitable service which the married couple can render to society, greater than any other social volunteer work or political activism we can ever do.
I have developed elsewhere an argument as to why gender difference in sexual relationship is a necessary dialectic to maintain the objective nature of the sexual and romantic union which one can access here.
I have no doubt that Christian marriages, is one of Western Christiandom great cultural achievements, ranking high up there with rule of law, systematic science and mathematics, and Bach’s music. And I would contend that few other conceptions can match the beauty and coherence of Christianity vision of marriage, in its reconciliation and understanding of the human condition.
Perhaps it is a cultural artefact of such beauty because it is not invented by man, but it is instead a gift of God to the Church, prepared from the very foundations of creation itself.