I have recently had the pleasure of exchanging a few emails with Episcopal Bishop Pierre Whalon, whose book on marriage (Made in Heaven? How God acts in marriage, Theology for Everyone Books, 2016) makes use of GA’s originary hypothesis in demonstrating the anthropological basis of the marriage institution.
The point of departure for Dr. Whalon’s study is the fact that marriage has been from the first a somewhat embarrassing topic in Christian theology. Understandably, the interpersonal nature of sexual desire makes the tension between its “natural” and “cultural” elements far more problematic than in the case of our other appetites, and these tensions are reflected in what Dr. Whalon notes as the conflicted nature of the Christian conception of marriage.
For one thing, the institution predated Christianity, and the marriage bond was particularly loose under the Roman Empire, where divorce was frequent. For another, the first Christians, anticipating Jesus’ return, were not focused on the need to preserve the species, and saw marriage, in contrast to celibacy, as at best a compromise with worldly desires.
The most important mention of marriage in the Gospels is negative: Jesus’ rejection of divorce in Matthew 19, where he also praises chastity “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). To this we may add Paul’s well-known judgment in 1 Corinthians 7:9 that “it is better to marry than to burn.” Whence the question mark after Made in Heaven?
Dr. Whalon’s book discusses the Church’s difficulties throughout the Middle Ages in dealing with the tension between the liberal “consent” notion of marriage, inherited from the Empire, and the “contractual” marriage-relationship introduced by the “barbarian” invaders, for whom the woman was essentially a piece of property. A detailed summary of the Roman Catholic and subsequent Protestant views of marriage over the centuries clears the way for a positive theology of marriage that can deal realistically and optimistically with today’s sexual and psychological realities.
This book is meant to serve Christians and others as a guide to realizing Holy Matrimony, as prefigured by the unity in difference of the persons of the Trinitarian God. The Trinity complicates the simplicity of Hebrew monotheism in order to offer an articulated model of the transcendence that is synonymous with the human, in which God/Father creates Man/Son, but as “always already” implicit within Him, along with the Holy Spirit through which they communicate. As Dr. Whalon demonstrates, the advantage of such a transcendental “model” is that, like all significant doctrines derived from religious revelation, its capacity as a source of understanding of worldly phenomena is not limited by prior historical experience.
Unlike the semiotic elements of culture, conjugal relationships in some form may well have preceded the origin of humanity. Monogamous “families” exist among birds and mammals; in contrast to language, there is no obvious necessity of a prior collective event to inaugurate the human family.
Given that the neoteny and large brain of humans are more a consequence than a cause of the emergence of cultural sign-systems, we may assume that prehuman and early human family structure, whether monogamous or polygamous, would have been less rigid than any historically known form of human marriage. Women not protected by a specific male during pregnancy and lactation might have been part of a female collective, for example.
But we must also assume that once humans emerged, along with language, the sacred, and deferred desire, human development, beyond making the time of reproduction from pregnancy through early infancy longer and more difficult, would have increased the mimetic dangers associated with sexuality, and consequently, that the necessity for formal marriage rules and ceremonies would have emerged as the symbolic elements of early human culture developed. All known societies have marriage as well as “coming of (pubertal) age” ceremonies, as well as communally respected interdictions of incest and adultery, however exactly defined.
Dr. Whalon’s innovative use of the Trinity—long narrowly confined to purely theological discussions, rather than applied to God’s relationship to humanity “made in his image”—as a model for the marital love-relationship allows him to claim that:
God the Holy Trinity is a dynamic Lover—a perfect Communion of Love—reaching beyond “Self” to create and re-create, to free us by binding us to love—“in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.” [quoting the Anglican Book of Common Prayer] [Chapter 6: “Sketching a theology of marriage”; page numbers not available in Kindle edition]
The central thesis of Dr. Whalon’s theology of marriage is found in the following passage:
. . . the image of God as male and female is not just about a marriage of a man and a woman taken individually. The image of God is the myriad communities of women and men that all humans at all times and all places must live and die in. . . . An individual marriage is therefore a special empirical example of a general reality. . .
This community begins theoretically with the covenant of a man and a woman to live together in order to ensure the other’s well-being and thus create a common good. Therefore the image of God is among other things a woman and man in covenant with each other, though it is derivative from the whole community as the primary imago Dei. Furthermore, each person, married or not, participates in the imago as covenant-maker and -keeper.
This assertion rests upon the fundamental Christian understanding of the nature of God: God is Love because God is Trinity. God is the originator of covenanting because this creative activity is itself derivative from the relations that constitute the Godhead. [Ibid]
As I understand it, the mutual spiration of Father and Son within the Trinity is an internal relation (not “relationship,” as the author points out) that should serve as a model for the mutual love of the two partners in marriage—including arguably same-sex partners.
The revolutionary aspect of Dr. Whalon’s theology of marriage is the freedom with which he lets his religious intuition expand the conception of the Trinity rather than attempting to restrict it from what we may dare to call an “originalist” perspective. Unlike the US Constitution, what is essential in the Trinitary conception of God is not what was in the minds of the originators of the term, for they must be understood to have conveyed a divine revelation in language available to them, but that does not exhaust the Trinity’s potential applications to historical reality.
Were it limited to its literal terminology, or to the conception of it in the minds of the clerics of earlier generations, the Trinitary exchange between the transcendent Father and divine-human Son could not include within it the sexual-reproductive nature of marriage. The absence of Mary from the Trinity is a clear sign that her specifically human holiness, which the Catholic Church has increasingly emphasized, with the Immaculate Conception accepted as dogma in 1854, cannot be assimilated to that of God.
But Dr. Whalon’s world is not that of ancient or medieval theologians. It reflects the cultural evolution that he is not afraid to assimilate directly into our understanding of the Trinitarian God. The ideal of love in Holy Matrimony begins with the circulation of love within the Trinity, but its specific historical manifestations have developed within secular culture.
The “courtly love” ideal that began with the troubadours and the dolce stil nuovo is the historical source of the Western notion of “romantic love,” an attempt to understand sexual love in transcendental terms that took our culture a giant step closer to Dr. Whalon’s aim of bringing marriage into the sphere of the Trinity.
The courtly love tradition began in opposition to socially imposed marriage. The object of the troubadour’s poetry was typically the wife of a noble, presumably away at the Crusades. As a more spiritually oriented extension of this, befitting the dolce stil nuovo, Dante’s Vita Nuova expresses love for Beatrice, a young girl, as a desexualized version of non-marital love. It provides no path from virgin to wife, as there would be in later versions of this paradigm.
Courtly love and Mariolatry were parallel institutions. In the worship of Mary, the sexual element of courtly love, already highly sublimated, disappears. Indeed, Mary has always been an object of devotion to women more than men, and never an object of desire.
In the later development of romantic love (which may be said to have been anticipated by the marriage of Abélard and Héloïse; see Chronicle 13), the problematic/mimetic nature of the relationship is entirely mastered by each lover’s devotion to his/her partner, who is presumed to satisfy both sexual desire and the need for mutual recognition.
Social acceptance of the romance-marriage synthesis had to await the “early modern” era. This normalization of the synthesis of the erotic and the transcendental provides the chief story-line of the modern novel. In contrast with the picaresque “adventure-novel,” which is essentially a series of separate incidents, the novel as such is almost inevitably structured around the love-life of one or more characters. (Don Quixote is in this context very much a transitional work.) Its premise is that the protagonist’s life goal is the achievement of a unique love-relationship, normally in marriage, with which the work typically concludes, leaving the couple to live “happily ever after.” (The French equivalent emphasizes the element of progeny: Ils vécurent heureux et ils eurent beaucoup d’enfants.) But the relationship itself is more important than its social form—and the production of children is rarely more than suggested, save to provide the material for one or more sequels.
English woman novelists developed a genre that might well be called the female Bildungsroman, beginning with Eliza Heywood’s 1751 History of Betsy Thoughtless, where the plot, as in the whole family of similar novels including those of Fanny Burney and of course Jane Austen, centers on the woman’s quest to reject false appearances and find true love with the right man. Readers of Girard have pointed out that the resolution of a novel like Pride and Prejudice is not at all opposed to the “conversion” Girard finds in the tragic novels he discusses; the “happy ending” results from Elizabeth’s rejection of an unhealthily mimetic attraction to Wickham and conversion to “true love” in marriage with Darcy.
The process of cultural evolution, as of any form of evolution, increases the number of degrees of freedom in the system. The physical world evolves in its way, but has no mechanism other than life for conserving anything other than physical quantities such as momentum, mass, energy, and the “low-tech” structures that occupy the studies of astronomers.
The advent of living creatures allowed a selection process, greatly accelerated by sexual reproduction, to continually improve their durability and capabilities, and human cultural evolution raises this to a higher plane. This is not to minimize the dangers of mimetic conflict. But as Steven Pinker and others insist, in the long run, humans keep getting less violent and more creative, or as Martin Luther King put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In today’s world, major readjustments of the relation between the sexes in as short a time as one or two generations—my grandmother was a mature woman before she could vote—are necessarily fraught with difficulties. It is in this perspective that we can appreciate Dr. Whalon’s choice to link marriage to the Trinitarian structure of the Christian God.
Man and wife are not “like” Father and Son, but what the two relation(ship)s have in common is that from the seemingly absolute difference between the divine and the human, they create mutuality. In the past, the Trinity was understood essentially as a relationship of male filiation. But God has no gender, and the progress of social mores illustrates the unanticipated wealth of human possibilities that can be figured by this transcendental relation.
The social function of religion, from revelation to theology, is to reveal, in the ever-changing human world, each generation’s possibilities for creating a loving community, if only out of the faith that God’s will for humankind is that it prosper. This truth is brought closest to home in Holy Matrimony, because the marriage bond in its various forms is necessarily the fundamental level of human social organization.
Hence we should see marriage as always capable of allowing a broader set of options, including homosexual marriage, the subject of Dr. Whalon’s final chapter. I find it hard to see a serious future for “polyamory,” but not long ago “gay marriage” didn’t seem to me such a good idea either.
The movement toward expanding degrees of freedom remains the fundamental principle of life and of the human in particular. Dr. Whalon’s choice of the Trinity as model, far from narrowing the definition of marriage, universalizes it to whatever limits are consonant with the spiration of the Trinitarian Father and Son. In the Trinity, the One God offers himself as an interactional model of human love, of which Holy Matrimony is the highest expression.
In his faithful application of the Trinitarian model to what he as a Christian understands as our fallen but redeemed world, Dr. Whalon’s book succeeds in its ambitious aim of reconceiving Holy Matrimony as an authentic sacrament.