Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
~ Pete Seeger

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Definition of Marriage

In his book "The Future of Marriage," David Blankenhorn devotes an entire chapter (pp. 91 to 125) to the definition of marriage. He traces the history of marriage, the biology of marriage, different forms of marriage in different cultures, and focuses on fatherhood as the core meaning, or definition. Even so, I don't have the sense that he's entirely satisfied with his definition. It's terribly ironic, because there is a simple definition that has been written down for millennia, which really sums it up. That definition is found at the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis 2:24: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."

I always read this as meaning that they become one in sexual intercourse. But that's not what it means. You can have sex and not be married. It happens all the time. For that matter, you can be married in the physical, social, legal sense of the word, and not be married in the spiritual relationship that it is.

The key point, the crucial word, in this simple definition is "one." "They shall be one."

Marriage is a spiritual relationship, not a physical one – though it does have a physical component, which is embodied in the sexual relationship, but which is probably not necessary to consummate in order for the marriage to occur. In fact, marriage is probably the spiritual meaning or embodiment of sex, but that spiritual relationship is not contingent on ceremonies or legal documents or property exchange, or even a vow. It is an aspect of family, but family is more inclusive. Children are an aspect of it, but they are not necessary to it. Some "marriage defenders" put "responsible procreation" only within the boundaries of marriage, and in the spiritual aspect of it, I think they are right.

The problem is that Blankenhorn and other "marriage defenders" have limited the definition of marriage to the physical, social, and legal sense of the word. They have mistaken the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.

Notice the simple phrases that make up that one sentence definition. "A man [shall] leave his father and mother." A child, growing up, separates from his nuclear family, from the unity to which his mother and father belong. "…and shall cleave unto his wife." I emphasize "and" because it's not enough to separate from mom and dad. The adult child must also form a new relationship, which has a sexual connection or aspect – what Blankenhorn calls "pair bonding." "… and they shall be one flesh." Again the emphasis on "and," simply because there is no way to separate the two aspects. The "one flesh" is spiritual unity. By pair bonding in this way, those two people literally become one unit. That unit is marriage. It's like an molecule of water – atoms of hydrogen and oxygen bond to create a new element. And, like water, that element can be re-divided into its individual parts; but when that re-division happens, the element no longer exists. (That is divorce. And that spiritual divorce can happen with or without dissolving the physical-social-legal aspect of marriage.)

That spiritual unity, whole unto itself, is basic to humanity. It is part of our spiritual biology. Growing within it is the spiritual and emotional birthright of children, and that birthright should never be intentionally taken away.

In this, the "marriage defenders" are absolutely correct.

But what "marriage defenders" don't understand, is that the physical form of marriage is only the physical manifestation of a spiritual entity. The social institution of marriage, in whatever form it is manifested in the different cultures of the world – patriarchal, matrilineal, whatever – is how society honors, acknowledges, and recognizes this spiritual entity and unity. The form doesn't matter. And while the social institution of marriage is important in honoring and sanctifying the spiritual entity of marriage, in supporting the child and the child-rearing unit, it is not vital to it. Marriage will continue whether it is recognized by society or not, because it is at heart the joining of two individuals into one unit – and it is inherent to our species.

What they further don't understand is that gender is not a defining aspect of it. That sexual-spiritual unity exists among gay and lesbian relationships, and in my experience as a witness, is very common to those same-sex relationships. In other words, like it or not, gays and lesbians do marry, in the basic, spiritual-physical aspect that is the genuine entity of marriage – literally, the marriage of the Bible. The Bible puts it in terms of man and woman for good reason; by far the most common marriage relationship is between a man and a woman, and that is the form of the marriage relationship that produces children entirely within itself, and until the recent advent of IVF gestation and surrogate motherhood, the only way children were brought into being inside a married, family-childrearing unit.

So the first question we must ask in the marriage debate is whether we are going to define marriage as a purely physical relationship, or as the spiritual relationship it is. The health of the social institution of marriage is directly proportional to society's value and recognition of the spiritual entity of marriage.

The second question in the marriage debate is whether we as a society are going to find a way to honor those relationships between same-sex partners with a social institution, or whether we will continue to throw gay and lesbian families – gay and lesbian marriages, and their children – under the bus.

Then lets talk about how, within that framework, we are going to ensure that every child possible is raised with the birthrights of both family-childrearing unit and biological heritage intact.


Black Diaspora said...

Seda, I'm thoroughly impressed and blown away by your thoughtful discussion of this sometimes divisive, and contentious, subject.

I'm impressed further with your insights on what constitutes marriage, using the Bible and Genesis as your basis.

I don't mean to belabor the obvious, but the "cleaving" that is done is directed to the man, and not the wife.

Although the statement suggests that as long as the man cleaves (is fully devoted, without exceptions), the marriage unit is maintained and is not threatened, placing the greater burden on the man to maintain it.

Looking at the passage differently, it appears that the "wife" (not woman) is the one to whom the man must cleave, clearly suggesting a subtle shift in power and responsibility.

Notwithstanding that Eve (Adam's helpmate) was taken from his body (a rib bone), the union occurred at the time of Eve's creation.

At that point, the two were married. She became flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone.

What that suggests to me is that too many marriages go astray because men and women select helpmates that aren't compatible with their spiritual, physical, and mental nature--that is, not flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone.

I hope that I haven't read too much into this.

And I like your emphasis on the "one" aspect of the marriage bond, and the spiritual component--one that is too often overlooked, or suppressed.

And I like your statement: "Marriage is a spiritual relationship, not a physical one...."

Great stuff! It should be in a book, with a huge ad budget. Think about it. I think it would help clarify a lot for those looking for clarification.

Fannie said...

Marriage as a spiritual union. I like it. Beautiful post, Seda.

Seda said...

Thanks for your thoughts! Intriguing, they are. I like "too many marriages go astray because men and women select helpmates that aren't compatible with their spiritual, physical, and mental nature--that is, not flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone." That's probably part of it - things that keep the "one" from developing, or that make it unsustainable over time.

As for the cleaving and so forth, I'm not a Christian, so I don't read the Bible as being perfect in any way. To me this sentence is a spot-on definition written by a patriarchal ... um, man. (Words like "jerk" come to mind all too easily.) So the way he says it comes off wrong. Man and woman - or woman/woman or man/man - in a genuine spiritual bond of this kind are inherently equal, and I think you can see this in relationships through history and cultures, where, even in Taliban country, I'm betting that there are many relationships of this kind that are recognized, between the two involved, as equal, even though the social culture oppresses the woman cruelly.

I mean, seriously, if they are "one," how can one be superior than the other, or have greater power or responsibility.

The beauty of it is that marriage itself is safe. It cannot be destroyed or broken, because it is spiritual. However, it can be supported in a way that makes it more likely to occur and more likely to form the child-rearing unit that the social institution was created for. Social equity or equality between sexes is one way that this can happen, I believe.

Thanks! I like it, too. Mostly because it's true!

Black Diaspora said...

"I mean, seriously, if they are "one," how can one be superior than the other, or have greater power or responsibility." Seda

Absolutely right. A thing cannot be superior to itself.

"The beauty of it is that marriage itself is safe. It cannot be destroyed or broken, because it is spiritual."

I like that. What I hear is that "marriage itself" exists apart from the physical union as an indestructible ideal, or a spiritual reality.

And I agree. Spiritual marriage precedes physical marriage and forms the basis, or should, of All That Follows.

"I'm not a Christian, so I don't read the Bible as being perfect in any way."

Yet, it seems to me that you may be a student of this ancient text.

You offer some good insights into that portion of the Bible that you do cite.

David Carrel said...

Marriage is great. Thought the timing of the post is great too Seda cause it gives me a chance to write that my wife is going to have a baby! Isn't that awesome? Anyway, thought you would want to know.
As far as the responses go, I just wanted to say I would disagree with the "wife" part of it being anything other than "woman." I guess I have not looked it up in the Hebrew, but I think it is safe to assume that wife there is referring to a woman and not just companion. Am I wrong on that? I know your point Seda that the man was just not considering gays. (I am only writing my disagreement because I wouldn't want you to just assume my silence means that I agree with that interpretation of the text.)

Anonymous said...

You have so many deep thoughts on this topic. I think I agree with you that some marriages are more of a spiritual connection, but I'm wondering if marriage cannot actually BE defined?

What it is to some, it may not be to others. For some people, their marriage is that connection on a spiritual level, but for others, marriage means security. Marriage means a lot of things. I think it varies in definition just as it varies in form. Ceremonies are different worldwide.

So are the meanings.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on my most recent post about divorce. Thanks for always keeping the discussions going, even on the sensitive topics.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
~Helen Keller

Reading List for Information about Transpeople

  • Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green
  • Conundrum, by Jan Morris
  • Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein
  • My Husband Betty, by Helen Boyd
  • Right Side Out, by Annah Moore
  • She's Not There, by Jennifer Boylan
  • The Riddle of Gender, by Deborah Rudacille
  • Trans Liberation, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transgender Emergence, by Arlene Istar Lev
  • Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transition and Beyond, by Reid Vanderburgh
  • True Selves, by Mildred Brown
  • What Becomes You, by Aaron Link Raz and Hilda Raz
  • Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our