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Why Marriage Is (And Isn't) The Point
In the hours following yesterday’s Supreme Court rulings, the conventional wisdom concerning the future of marriage has been put forth in the public square. It is seen as a victory for marriage equality and an erosion of traditional marriage. Despite disagreements about whether or not this is a positive development, there is a shared perception—publicly acknowledged or not—that same-sex marriage will soon be legal in most, if not all, 50 states. Accordingly, many posit that those who care about the future of Christianity in America should disengage from the marriage debate and focus on issues more central to faith.
It is time for thoughtful people to engage the marriage debate more vigorously, because what is all-too-often passing for marriage in the United States—traditional or same-sex—is a hollow disservice to the institution of marriage. We need healthy marriage now more than ever, and the current debate is doing marriage a disservice.
The culture wars surrounding the definition of marriage will continue to be vigorously waged—but when one considers the recent victories for same-sex marriage in the UK, France, New York, Maryland, and Rhode Island, to say nothing of the upcoming shift in California, it is understandable why so many believe the battle is all but over.
It’s also easy to understand why so many believe the battle over the meaning of marriage among Christians will end the same way. Many denominations have revised their theology to include same-sex marriage, with many pastors and congregations following suit. Yesterday’s decision will increase pressure on those who wonder whether opposing same-sex marriage places them on the wrong side of history. Given how badly the church got slavery and race wrong, there are few who wish to be associated with such a mistake. But before anyone joins the stampede to judgment, from a faith perspective or not, we would do well to take a longer look at the reasons for this shift.
Neither yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions nor recent legislative victories for same-sex marriage are the turning point in the redefinition of marriage. The tipping point occurred decades ago. The embrace of same-sex marriage rests on a revision of our culture’s understanding of marriage, love and sexuality beginning in the 1960’s.
When we understand this then we will also understand that one of the primary rationales for the cultural shift on marriage is not connected to same-sex issues but rather our new understanding of the place of sexuality in human relational and personal fulfillment.
Beginning with the generation that came of age in the 1960’s, it has become commonly understood that a person needs to be (or have the option to be) in a consensual sexual relationship in order to experience the deepest and most fulfilling relationships. Accordingly, any of us ought to have the right to engage in a consensual sexual relationship with an adult and if both parties deem this relationship to be of lasting import, should have the right to be married as long as they both shall choose.
This conception of marriage and sexuality forms the foundation of our present relational landscape and has for decades. It is the rationale for the hook-up culture, no-fault divorce and the increase in cohabitation. Our society is logical enough to realize it should extend to any adult sexual relationship, including same-sex relationships.
The irony is that at the same time society embraced this new sexual and relational ethic, marriage began to implode as an institution. Young people are delaying marriage longer then ever before in American history—it’s possible we have now come to place where a majority of Americans will never be married. Over 40 percent of our children are now born outside of marriage and when children of divorce are added to the equation, a minority of children spends their entire childhood living with both biological parents.
We live in a society that is losing faith in marriage.
We live in a society that is losing faith in the notion that you can be in a life-long relationship that remains healthy and vital.
The crisis of our day is not a crisis over the definition of marriage; it is a crisis of relational hope. Our decline in relational hope is so acute that fewer of us believe we will be married for life, or that it is worth trying.
I submit that our willingness to expand the definition of marriage is not rooted in what we believe is best for marriage, but rather out of a sense of relational despair. We can almost hear the following said from every corner of our culture, and many corners of the church …
If someone can find happiness in this world, I don’t want to stand in the way. Sigh.
Hardly a ringing endorsement of marriage, same-sex, or not.
Moreover there is nothing in yesterday’s court rulings that would lead us to believe marriage has been strengthened by it. Instead it’s easy to see we have broadened the definition of marriage at the same time as the institution has become increasingly porous.
The relational crisis of our day is the loss of relational hope. This is not an issue that some of us face, but rather one facing all of us. In fact, if anyone is guilty of undermining marriage it is the Christian Church. Those that most stridently profess to believe in marriage are as apt to divorce as anyone else.
The Christian Church has recently taught and behaved as if marriage is the most important and fulfilling of all relationships.
It isn’t and it never was.
No wonder it hasn’t lived up to its expectations.
Thinkers as old as Aristotle taught that there are relationships as profound—or more profound than marriage—such as friendship.
And by the way, the Bible does too.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Bible does not teach that being married and being in a sexual relationship is necessary for human fulfillment. Rather we are created to live in a constellation of healthy, intimate relationships, with marriage being a possibility for all of us, but not a necessity or a certainty for any of us.
Sexual relations are not a foundational requirement for human relational fulfillment.
I have yet to meet the person who has been in a sexual relationship for 7 years and believes sex is the foundation of fulfillment within that relationship.
Sex is neither a foundational need nor a relational necessity. Sexuality is not an essential component of intimacy. The Bible does not assume everyone will be married, nor that being married is an essential part of human fulfillment.
The Bible teaches that marriage is good, but only one of many relational goods and not of the highest order. We are made to love and be loved, we are made for intimacy, we are made for relationship. Family matters, extended family matters, friendship matters, the worshiping community matters, the universal church matters. All of these relationships are made better by observing the sexual and relational boundaries described by Scripture.
Ever since the 1960’s we’ve been involved in a radical revision of what it means to be human and to be relationally fulfilled. A new understanding of the role of sexuality in human fulfillment has become our guiding light. Yet despite our present optimism, it is a light that is rapidly growing dim and is in danger of being extinguished.
Marriage matters, but the family matters even more. Not all of us will be married, but all of us will be part of a family until the day we die. The quality of our family life is foundational to the quality of our entire lives. Marriage matters, but the church matters even more. Not all of us will be married, but all of us will be part of the church until the day we die. The quality of our church life is foundational to the quality of our entire lives.
The crisis of our day is a crisis of relational hope. The crisis of our day is the impoverishment of the entire relational landscape. So, yes, let us engage the marriage debate with vigor because marriage does matter. But let us also engage with equal vigor a reclaiming of significance for the myriad of human relationships.
Dale S. Kuehne
(PhD, Georgetown University) is professor of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at Saint Anselm College and founding director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. Kuehne is the author of
Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship Beyond an Age of Individualism
. Follow him on Twitter:
Editor's Note: This photo by Ludovic Bertron, posted under Wikimedia Commons license.
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