Contrary to what we hear incessantly, marriage is not a right; it is an estate, a condition. There are conditions of life that have nothing to do with rights. One doesn’t have a right to go through puberty. One either does or doesn’t. What is the condition of being married, and what makes it possible to attain it? Franz Rosenzweig’s anthropology—in which religion is a response to man’s sentience of death, and the sentience of death is not only an individual but also an communal characteristic—may help answer that question. Humankind fights mortality in two ways. The first is to raise children who will remember us, and the second is to seek eternal life through divine grace. The estate of marriage involves both.
“Why do men chase women?” asks Rose Castorini in Moonstruck. “Because they want to live forever.” The data suggest that we marry and have children for just that reason. When we cease to hope in eternal life, we no longer marry and no longer have children. That is the terrible lesson that the triumph of secularism has taught us. In industrial countries where atheism triumphed in the form of communism, fertility rates have fallen to levels barely half of replacement. The fertility of Eastern Europe in 2005 was only 1.25 children per woman, according to the United Nations Population Prospects. Japan stood at 1.3. In secular Western Europe it was 1.6. In industrial countries where most people profess some form of religious faith, however, fertility remains at replacement levels or above. America’s fertility in 2005 stood at 2.1, and Israel’s at 2.9.
The concentration of childbearing among people of faith is evident not only from international comparison but also within countries and religious denominations. The clearest data are available for the different Jewish currents. As Steven Bayme wrote March 24 in Jewish Week, “Orthodox Jews constitute at most ten percent of the total U.S. Jewish population. Yet twenty-three percent of Jewish children are Orthodox, according to a United Jewish Communities report. Among affiliated Jewish homes 197,000 children are Reform, 153,000 are Conservative, and 228,000 are Orthodox. The smallest of the movements (Orthodox) contains thirty-eight percent of the children of affiliated Jewish homes.”
These observations suggest that when we talk about nature and marriage, it is a peculiarly human nature that is at work. It is not the nature of some of the other mammals to breed in captivity; it is not the nature of homo sapiens to breed in the absence of the hope of eternal life. The first principle of Augustine’s anthropology, that we are made for God and restless until we come to him, coheres well with what we observe in societies that abandon God. Our restlessness in that terminal case can reach levels that tear us to pieces. It is entirely possible to devise other means of perpetuating the species than marriage, for example, the collective raising of children as in Plato’s dystopia and the various attempts to realize some of its features. But none of them has taken, not even for short periods of time. They have no interest for human beings. It is not only that people want to raise their own children, rather than the state’s children: Without the expectation of eternal life within a faith community, mating couples do not evince interest in reproducing at replacement levels. An often-cited exception to this rule seems to be Sweden, where only sixty percent of women will marry at current rates (compared to eighty-five percent in the United States), and fifty-six percent of births occur outside of marriage, compared to thirty-five percent in the United states. Twenty-eight percent of all Swedish couples cohabit without marrying, compared to eight percent in the United States. Swedish fertility, to be sure, is an unsustainable 1.6, so the problem will liquidate itself over time.
Marriage as an institution that fulfills our nature: It is a holy estate that permits the mating pair of humans to embed their reproductive activity in the eschatological hope of their faith community. The propagation of the species in its animal characteristics is united with the continuity of the people of God. If, as observation seems to confirm, the willingness of humans to form mating pairs and to bear offspring depends in the first instance on eschatological hope, then it is marriage as a sacred institution that makes possible the perpetuation of human life.
In the words of the Christian wedding ceremony that we know from the Book of Common Prayer,
Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honorable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.
It is the mystical union between Christ and his Church that is primary, and marriage is instituted by God to allow a human mating pair to emulate it.
Not dissimilar are the Seven Blessings of the Jewish marriage service. It is because of the image of God planted in each human being that the perpetuation of humanity is possible. Each bridal pair recreates the bliss of the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden:
Blessing Four: “We bless you, God, for forming each person in your image. You have planted within us a vision of you and given us the means that we may flourish through time. Blessed are you, Creator of humanity.”
Blessing Five: “May Israel, once bereft of her children, now delight as they gather together in joy. Blessed are you, God, who lets Zion rejoice with her children.”
Blessing Six: “Let these loving friends taste of the bliss you gave to the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden in the days of old. Blessed are you, the Presence who dwells with bride and groom in delight.”
Blessing Seven: “Blessed are you, who lights the world with happiness and contentment, love and companionship, peace and friendship, bridegroom and bride. Let the mountains of Israel dance! Let the gates of Jerusalem ring with the sounds of joy, song, merriment, and delight—the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the happy shouts of their friends and companions. We bless you, God, who brings bride and groom together to rejoice in each other."
The human bride and bridegroom unite in mystical emulation of God’s espousal of Israel, and the very mountains of Israel dance in joy with each wedded pair.
Husband and wife join together as a microcosm of the union of God and his people. It is the union of God and his people that makes possible holy matrimony. The pagans of the ancient world had marriages to ensure legitimacy and inheritance, and the reproductive relationships of wedded pairs stood under the sign of the civic gods. In that respect all societies have sanctified marriage after their own fashion. But only the passionate God of Israel by espousing his people makes possible the union of khesed and ahavah, of agape and eros, that is, the union of the biological erotic impulse and of the uniquely human desire for eternal life. It is not the love of the bridal couple that defines marriage. Love comes in many forms, some of them pathological. It is the fact that the love of the bridal couple seeks to conform to the eternal image of covenantal love—between God and his people—that uniquely defines the estate of marriage.
Marriage is celebrated before a holy congregation; it is the entry of the bride and bridegroom into the holy congregation in their new condition as husband as wife that makes the marriage holy. Civil marriage never quite replaces marriage before a holy congregation, but it serves a similar purpose where the predominant religious culture makes civil marriage an imitation of sacred marriage.
This may be the first time in Western history in which the sacred foundation of society, whose irreducible fundamental unit is the family, faces explicit opposition. If militant secularism succeeds in banishing the sacred from social life, we will lose heart and perish, as the tragic victims of communism are perishing. There is nothing to be done for the infertile, aging peoples of the former Soviet empire. The best thing one can do for them is not to be like them. Secular Western Europe already has one foot in the demographic grave. If we lose the sacred in the United States, we will follow them into Sheol. We might as well make a stand now over the sacred character of marriage, because there is nowhere to fall back from here.
David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things.