Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is Marriage Sacred?

Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use in public gatherings with attribution of author and blog site.

At dinner with a close friend during a time when I was writing a book on same-gender marriage, I was stunned by his blunt rebuke to my musings about the spiritual dimensions of marriage.

“There’s nothing sacred about marriage,” he said matter-of-factly.

Now, granted, I wrote in my book that author Jonathan Rauch said at a book-signing that he believed the one thing that most prompted resistance to marriage equality was people’s association of marriage with something sacred, even if they weren’t religious. And thus I spent pages in my book deconstructing the notion of marriage’s association with the sacred, which makes the rethinking of marriage a deeply held taboo. Variants on what is held up as “traditional marriage” are thus suspect to the dominant culture, especially those of same-gender love, yet another taboo.

But I had come to the conclusion that marriage is, in fact, a spiritual discipline attempting “to give a future to a present love,” in the words of Christian ethicist Margaret Farley. Just like joining a spiritual community, cultivating a prayer life, developing an ethic of justice and mercy, or following a vocation, committing oneself to marriage is a means to grow spiritually.  In the book I quoted a romantic “chick flick” in which the protagonist, a woman, says regarding her relationship, “It’s not so much about monogamy. It’s about focus.” Spiritual disciplines are about focus, or, to use the Buddhist term, mindfulness.

As I reflected afterwards on my friend’s words, it occurred to me that their ability to jar me came from my very different view of the world. I see everything as sacred, or having sacred potential. As Henri Nouwen wrote in Creative Ministry, “The whole of nature is a sacrament pointing to a reality far beyond itself.” The mystic Meister Eckhart said that even a caterpillar is so full of God a sermon would prove unnecessary!

That’s why I so readily see the sacred or sacred potential in the marriage of same-gender couples as well as opposite-gender couples, and why I fail to comprehend those whose vision of the holy fails them when it comes to same-sex marriage.

Martin Luther called marriage a “divine and holy estate of life” and “church of God” that was to take in and care for strangers much as monasteries and cloisters did. John Calvin claimed marriage as a vocation equal to all religious vocations, containing a holiness closer to the reign of God than a cloister. Anglicans held that marriage was a little church that served as a “seminary of the Church and Commonwealth.”

I concluded in my book, As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage, that “we might best view marriage as a little monastery, a contemplative order of the partners in marriage themselves, who have reined in conflicting desires in order to focus on one another (and their children, if so blessed) to love and honor and in some sense obey, obey as in mutually trusting one another’s spiritual leadership.”

Such definition does not exclude Luther’s understanding of marriage as providing hospitality to strangers, Calvin’s understanding of it as a calling, nor the Anglican understanding of it as a church and seminary where worship and education occur.

Nor does it exclude same-sex couples.


Chris is available to give presentations and workshops on marriage in the Bible and Christian tradition as it relates to same-sex marriage. For more information, click here.

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  1. A wonderful post, Chris, with which I completely agree!

  2. Congratulations on thinking about the sacred in us!
    I realize that the big question is:
    Who defines what is sacred and what is the definition of sacred?
    My friend, all the time, we dare to define the divine wills, when they try to define who God is.
    We are so small for such questions ...
    For me, love is not defined.
    is experienced!
    Defining something is to reduce something.
    To Try speaks by itself.

  3. Discussing anything in terms of sacred or not sacred initially strikes me as moot, as not everyone believes in the same god nor the same definition of marriage. The historical facts regarding the ever-changing definition of marriage, both in religious and societal terms, show that there has never been a truly singular all-encompassing definition of the tradition and institution. As an autodidact, former lay pastor turned atheist with a penchant for etymology, marriage has only recently in human history been deemed "sacred" by Christianity. Until around 1600, the vast majority of marriages around the world were arranged by the parents of the couple. It was with the romantic period of literature that marriage was made "sacred". "Traditional" marriage previous to that was arranged without input from the couple to be wed. Even up to the turn of the 20th century arranged marriage - not exactly "sacred" - were commonplace, even in the U.S.

  4. To "Not Your Average Guy": Many of the points you make are found in my book. I don't associate "sacred" with church designation. Sacred to me is that which is spiritually vital or offers spiritual vitality. However, since my blog is "Christian" I use Christian traditions. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply!