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Memo to Cardinal George: “Redefining” Marriage.

re: Your statement on “redefining” marriage :

Everyone has a right to marry, but no one has the right to change the nature of marriage. Marriage is what it is and always has been, no matter what a Legislature decides to do; however, the public understanding of marriage will be negatively affected by passage of a bill that ignores the natural fact that sexual complementarity is at the core of marriage.

A truly "traditional" Biblical family?

Please check some Church history. This is not the first time that the nature of marriage is being “redefined” – the church itself has done so frequently.
  • In Biblical Israel, marriage was polygamous, arranged exclusively between men (the groom, and the fathers of his wives). The Hebrew patriarch, if he could afford it, would also keep concubines as well as wives.
  • In classical and medieval times, marriage was not a contract between two people based on love to raise children, but a financial and legal arrangement to protect property and inheritance.
  • In the early Christian church, there was no obligation for couples to marry in church – unless the groom was a priest.
  • There was, on the other hand, provision for same sex unions to be blessed, in church, by formal liturgical rites.
  • The idea of marriage as a “Christian Sacrament” came relatively late in Church history. The popular Western understanding of “traditional marriage” is a very modern invention, dating mostly from the nineteenth century.

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10 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Repeal_DADT_NOW, weldonterry. weldonterry said: Memo to Cardinal George: "Redefining" Marriage.: http://wp.me/pKyrg-Co […]

  2. How does the constant, exclusive use of I-thou language re/intimate relationship in the Bible fit into yet-another-dictionary list of martial variety?

    • ? I completely fail to understand the question. (I assume that “martial” should read “marital” – but still do not see the point).

      • I think I may understand Mark, Terry.

        I suspect he’s pointing to the fact that using the scriptures in a literal way to yield some kind of patent ethical statement on contemporary issues like condom use or homosexuality is patently fatuous, given the way in which the martial traditions of the scriptures are littered with I-thou commands.

        E.g., Exodus 9:15 and Deuteronomy 28:28 put God in the position of one who smites God’s people, while Matthew 5:39 has Jesus using the same phrase used in the preceding passages–“smite thee”–to instruct his followers that when anyone smites thee on one cheek, one must turn the other cheek to be smitten. But, then, of course, Psalm 45 instructs the holy people to take a sword and “smite thine enemies.” As does the Book of Revelations, for that matter.

        I suspect Mark is rather brilliantly noting here how absurd it is to take the multivalent testimony of the biblical texts literally, rip out a few passages from them, and claim to have formulated an adequate ethic to address a complex contemporary problem about which the biblical writers could not even have had information, or thought much at all, since they lived in a thought world entirely different from ours.

        If I have misunderstood you, Mark, please feel free to set me straight.

  3. Naw, Bill, I’m not nearly as smart as you (or I) give me credit for. Nuptial imagery is all over the Scriptures, and those images are always (I think, I haven’t checked each and every reference in context) one-to-one – woman & man, husband & wife. Even in cultures where polygamy was normative.

    The closest thing I can find to prescriptive references to polygamy, as opposed to descriptive references (e.g. “Soloman had 1,000 wives) are references to “widows & orphans.” I think that “male privilege” in ancient, Semitic cultures was preceded by “male responsibility” for those without protection, provision, of social standing.

    A transient form of marriage was polygamy; if it is practiced today (e.g. Mormon sects, some Muslims in the United States) it is not practiced today, for the same reasons that the ancients did it. The constant ideal is how a wife and a husband – a man and a woman – are in relationship.

    So, if that ideal, expressed in I-Thou language, is carried forward today, why can’t it be the ideal for same-sex relationships? I suggest it can’t because of another constant ideal we bring, and that is “male and female He created them.”

    I’m not making a shallow, literal reference to one of the creation accounts in Genesis. I suggest (pace The Context Group) that a better reading of Genesis is explaining how the *social* world came to be, and what right relationship in that world is, rather than biological origins.

    How would an ancient Jew answer the question “How was the world made? Where did plants, animals, humans and men & women come from?” The response would have probably been a cuff on the head and hearing “What a stupid question. The Almighty made everything, sustains it in existence and (the key statement) gives all of them a place in a social structure, and a role & job within that structure.”

    Genesis doesn’t tell how the world was created. It tells how the SOCIAL world was created, within which humans understand the world, their place in it, and right relationship to that world, the things in it, and the people they were most closely related to. After The Context Group, there are some critical bounds on behavior and role in that world:

    – honor & shame
    – competition for scarce resources
    – sickness, disease & early death
    – limited good, never “enough” of anything
    – for the Jews, constantly being overrun and ruled by foreigners

    As I think about ancient Jewish households, where the patriarch was the “outward” face of the family, and the matriarch was the “inward” face of the family, I wonder if this isn’t a kind of codification of something very, very, very old: male & female roles in primate family groups.

    Now that is a very big stretch, from the theological use of culture anthropology to physical anthropology and primateology (sic). I mean, what do I know, I’m just a librarian, without a Ph.D.

    I’ll close with a paraphrased quote from Genesis about the meeting of male & female: they were naked and felt no shame. That is a significant statement in an ancient culture whose pivotal value was honor (actually the acquisition of social position which made one better able to acquire scarce resources) and shame (the maintenance of both social position & allocation of acquired, scarce resources for use by the immediate & extended family).

    Jumping forward to Jesus time, I think Jesus (sounding kind of Buddhist) would offer his follows the example of the ideal householder – Abba in the ‘Our Father’ – and ask this question: who’s not your sister, your brother, your child? And how should you act towards them?

    • Sorry I misunderstood you, Mark.

      I’m fascinated by your argument. You say, “Nuptial imagery is all over the Scriptures . . . . ”

      And here I thought you wanted to point out that martial imagery is all over the scriptures! As it clearly is.

      And it’s just as ambiguous as is the nuptial imagery that you’re entirely mistaken to conclude is “one-to-one – woman & man, husband & wife.”

      For thousands of years, the model of marriage in Jewish culture–reflected in the scriptures–was one-to-many–man to women, husband to wives.

      Please re-read the Old Testament before you conclude, altogether too simplistically, that the scriptures yield a “one-to-one–woman &man, husband & wife” normative image for marriage.

      • To quote Sonny & Cher, the lyric reads “You and me babe,” not “You and me babes.” Lets both read, say, the Song of Solomon. I believe we’ll find it refers to something like a woman who is a wife – singular, not plural – no matter how many “wives” the male persona in the poem may or may not have had.

        That’s where I get the idea(l) of one-man-one-woman marriage, and not polygamy, polyandry, or the ever-popular serial-monagamy.

        • Correction, Mark. The Song famously describes a woman – who is not described as a wife. There is no reference, anywhere (as far as I know), to their being married.

          But if you re-read my original post, you will find that I was not discussing scripture. I was discussing Cardinal George’s claim that gay marriage proponents are redefining marriage – and reminding him that in fact, marriage has been constantly redefined, during biblical times, in the Roman and Byzantine periods, the medieval and renaissance eras, and the Victorian. Frequently, the church has been at the forefront of these redefinitions. The principle of redefining marriage is not a new one, nor unique to the modern gay marriage debate.

          Gay marriage itself is not even a uniquely modern idea. A form of gay marriage was a feature of many classical societies, in Rome, Crete, Mesopotamia, China and elsewhere. Even the Christian church, for over half its history, had and used liturgical rites for formal blessing in church of same sex unions. Agreed, these were not strictly comparable to the modern marriage we known today – but neither were the opposite-sex unions of the day comparable to modern marriage – the meaning of marriage has been regularly redefined in the intervening period.

  4. I think Mark has an interesting point about the OT, especially Genesis, being a description of socialization rather than creation. The problem I have with it, is that women would have written something quite a bit different–if they had been given a voice, which of course they weren’t.

    • I think the ancients read Genesis, and similar texts, as descriptive (this is how our social world is organized) and prescriptive (this is how our social world SHOULD be organized).

      As a modern, I want to be aware of the ancient descriptive & prescriptive reading but not uncritically bound by it – an interesting statement coming from me, no? The same is true of modern eisegetical readings of the ancient text. Us moderns can, too, be descriptive, prescriptive and proscriptive, but I am not reflexively bound by those narratives either.

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