The debates about marriage make clear part of our problem as a society: We’ve lost track of the meaning of marriage. There’s lots to be done to clear up this confusion. One way is to think clearly about what marriage means, both in its natural form and in accord with its supernatural symbolism.
Natural form: St. Augustine identified two ends or purposes for marriage. The first is procreative. Marriage provides the stable context for begetting and raising children. The second is called the unitive end. Marriage joins together men and women into covenants of intimacy, establishing a particularly intimate friendship.
St. Augustine didn’t need to speculate in order to come up with these two defining purposes. They jump off the pages of the first chapters of Genesis. After creating the first man and woman in his own image, God blesses them and says, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
Then, in the second account of creation, God forms Adam from the dust of the ground. But the lonely man longs for a companion, and God fashions Eve from Adam’s rib, evoking from him a beautiful cry of longing that sees its fulfillment: “This at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” It’s this longing for union that the Bible then gives as why “a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they both become one flesh.”
Some commentators say that we’ve romanticized marriage, making it into merely an affective bond based on love. That’s true, but only half true. There are many genealogies in Scripture, and they consistently evoke the elongation of time. Yes, we are born and we die, but our children carry us forward, and then our grandchildren, and then their children, and on and on and on. This is something that every traditional culture affirms in one way or another. Therefore, we should read “be fruitful and multiply,” and the resulting long lists of “begats,” as arrows pointing toward eternity.
The Bible sees a similar natural sign of eternity in the intensity of Adam’s longing for Eve. The classic expression of this can be found in the Song of Songs, a love poem that aches with longing (and with the agonies of separation, something perhaps inevitable given the profound differences between men and women). Song of Songs evokes an infinite, unquenchable desire. And so the poem draws a metaphysical conclusion: “Love is strong as death.”
Like our reproductive potency, which seems to transcend death, men and women are drawn to each other in a way that seems to tap into the power of immortality. Love sums up these two dimensions, as the novels of D. H. Lawrence often make explicit: We make love and beget; we’re united in a love that conquers our atomized individuality.
Our romantic views of marriage become a problem when the fertility of love drops out, as it has over the last century. We now see love between men and women as feelings of affection and desire that may feel strong but aren’t necessarily permanent. That’s because we’ve unraveled amorous feelings and the potent power of sexual desire from the enduring, permanent fact of new life. Marriage requires both if it’s to shine with the luminosity of eternity, which is what most who marry desire, even if they can’t articulate or even identify it.
Supernatural symbolism: Because love’s fertility and unquenchable desire serve as natural signs of eternity, St. Paul draws upon marriage to illuminate the covenant between God and his people. In Ephesians 5, he offers his readers what seems like marriage counseling. But that’s not the case, at least not in the modern sense, which often involves trying to manage differences so that we can get along and avoid conflict. No, as the story of Adam’s response to Eve indicates, the often painful chasm can be overcome: A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
Here the differences between male and female are crucial. Our sexual difference gives rise to the complementarity that uniquely suits us to reproduce. Together we’re capable of the miracle of new life. The same holds for the relational bond between a man and woman. The intensity of our sexual desires, which are mixed with strong impulses toward emotional union, bind us together, and this in spite of the deep, permanent, and often disturbing emotional differences between men and women. In that sense there’s something miraculous about the bond of marriage. Men and women are not suited for companionship—and yet in marriage they become “one flesh.”
It’s these miraculous qualities of marriage that lead St. Paul to draw an analogy between marriage and our salvation in Christ: “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.” Just as men and women are separated by a chasm of differences, all the more so is the eternally begotten Son of God from finite creatures, to say nothing of creatures fallen into sin. The coming of the Righteous Judge into our sinful world? What could be more unfruitful, for the natural assumption to make is that the Judge will condemn and destroy. The Crucified Savior? Haven’t we rejected and denied him, making union with him impossible?
But it is not so. Just as the mystery of marital union overcomes the male/female difference, so does the mystery of Christ’s love of his Church overcome the difference between God and creature. The Righteous Judge is judged in our place. As we die in his death by way of baptism, we participate in his resurrection, the fullness of life toward which the natural fertility of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman points. And though we may stumble again and again, though we may deny him, opening up a chasm infinitely greater than the differences between men and women, Christ’s love is strong enough to secure our union with him. Though we may be unable to cleave to him, he cleaves to us.
Our society seems determined to redefine marriage. To a great degree that’s already completed. Contraception has largely removed fertility from the sexual unions of men and women. No-fault divorce has allowed the vagaries of our affective unions to control the meaning of marriage rather than love’s desire to achieve a union from which we cannot withdraw ourselves. Now we’re poised to jettison the male/female difference that makes marriage a natural sign of a supernatural grace: the miracle of human fertility and its power of new life, and the miracle of a lasting peace in the war between the sexes.
These developments bode ill. Our society will have greater difficulty seeing flashes of eternity in sexual desire and in emotional unions between lovers—a disenchantment very much to be regretted. And the natural sign of God’s love will lose some of its power. Without the male/female difference, there’s no natural mystery to illuminate the supernatural mystery of God’s offer of matrimony to us in Christ.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.