February 19, 2013

Marriage as an Image

In cultures, social and theological, where women were seen to be essentially or circumstantially inferior to men, and in need of male possession or protection (by father and then husband), the imagery of Christ and his bride, the Church, made a good deal of sense. As cultures have changed to a more equalitarian view of the relationship of men and women, in marriage and in society at large, the resonance of this imagery, and perhaps its relevance, comes under question.

This is to some extent a cart and horse phenomenon. That is, marriage had long existed as an institution in which husband was "lord" over the wife — reputedly from the time of the Fall! — and so it was a natural image for God's fatherly and spousal protection of Israel, or Christ's headship over the church. In other words, the Hebrew and Christian authors were making use of a well-recognized social institution as an analogy for the relationship between God and the People of God. (And obviously drew on other analogies, such as the relation between king and people, master and slave, and parent and children.)

However, as it has been said in a similar context, it was not so in the beginning. Had the Fall not happened, bringing with it the dominion of male over female, the original equality of the man with the woman as the helper suitable to him — literally his clone, taken from his side to stand at his side, and neither above him nor below him — would have been maintained, and another image for the relation of God to the People of God (as God's image and likeness?) would have prevailed.

So it is with the slow emergence of notions of the equality of the sexes, it may well be time to find both (1) how the image of a more "equalist" marriage might still well mirror the relationship of God to the People of God, and (2) how this marks a return to the state of life in the Garden, where God was walked with as a friend whose image and likeness one rejoiced to share.

Seen in this light, marriage as it has evolved reveals deeper and perhaps more redemptive truths than those to which we have been accustomed, in particular in our relationship with one who has told us we are not to call him "lord" but "spouse" (Hosea 2:16), as we are no longer servants, but friends. (John 15:15).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Deacon Charlie Perrin said...

Musing on this it occurs to me that this may also serve to explain persisting attitudes against same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships in general.

I'm pretty sure that a survey would show that those who cannot see marriage as an equal partnership will also be against same-sex marriage.

And on further musing, perhaps seeing marriage as an equal partnership gives such imagery as used by the Church through the centuries a new dimension; a dimension strongly suggested by the Incarnation. Through Christ, God deals with humanity on an equal footing. Through the ressurection and ascension we are raised with Christ to his higher plain.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Charlie, I think you are right on both counts...

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

I also think we need to re-think (and rewrite!) the introduction to the current BCP marriage rite. Did Jesus _really_ "adorn[ed] this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee"? Just because Jesus liked a good party and/or did what his mother said and/or prepared a foretaste of the Kingdom of God does not mean that he necessarily "adorned this manner of life," I don't think. Pretty thin theology. I think we can find better biblical examples of God's blessing of marriage that don't require a water-to-wine miracle.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Amen to that, Tom. As you likely know, the revisers of the 1785/9 BCP wisely trimmed the long 1662 prologue even to the extent of deleting the reference to Cana. The reference was restored in 1892, I suppose out of the felt need to give some indication that Jesus approved of marriage --- thought it occurs to me that Jesus might well have said concerning it what he said to his mother on the occasion: "What is that to you and to me"!

Deacon Bill Cusano said...

Once stained by the presumption of inequality, regardless of the reason (sex, race, creed, etc.), how do we put Pandora back in the box? Since that is clearly not possible, as Nicodemus discovered when trying to comprehend how to go back in the womb and start over, I think we need to envision ourselves in a new relationship with God and with each other. What if, instead of going back to Scripture to discover how we should behave toward and treat one-another, we do as Jesus said and start with the relationship? In other words, Love Myself, Love Others, Find God.

IT said...

As I have cited before, marriage scholar Stephanie Coontz argues that same sex marriage is not nearly as revolutionary as the concept that partners in opposite sex marriage are equal. As Judge Vaughn Walker also wrote in his Prop8 decision, marriage is no longer a gendered institution.

But you are right, many of the opponents have very traditional views of the role of women. Brian Brown, leader of the National Org. for (straight-only) marriage, has a stay at home wife who home-schools their 7 children.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

So true, Bill. I think we need to pay more attention to what Jesus actually taught on such subjects as to how people are to relate to one another. My reason for casting a glance at Genesis is based on realizing that much of what people declare to be "God's intent" in terms of male headship over women is actually a part of the "curse" that we as Christians hold that Christ reversed. So I think Scripture offers us guidance even if it has to be engaged with in our present context -- and isn't that true of any historical reality?

IT, indeed so. I think egalitarianism worries some people. I recall CS Lewis (whom I admire in so much else) coming down on a male authoritiarian position basically on the excuse, "Well, someone has to have the final say!" This begs the question as to whether a final say is needed, when what may be needed is life with some level of provisionality instead of finality -- again, some people don't want to live with ambiguity of any kind -- spiritual, social, or cultural. Perhaps that is at the root of our dilemma after all: these novel ideas upset fixed and secure roles.

JCF said...

[IT, I'm pretty sure BBrown (and the missus) has at least 8 kids by now]

CS Lewis (whom I admire in so much else) coming down on a male authoritiarian position basically on the excuse, "Well, someone has to have the final say!

To paraphrase Mary Daly ("If God is male, man is God"), perhaps CS Lewis feared a slippery slope: "If a man isn't supreme over a woman in his home, how can God be supreme over humans?" (and vice-versa).

[I love dogs but...] Some people are like dogs: always GOTTA KNOW their place in the pack (Who's superior? Who's inferior?), or they freak out.

I don't think God has such insecurities (though the Biblical authors projected same---"You will have NO Other Gods before ME!"---upon God).

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes, JCF, we have a sad ability to make God in human image rather than accept the converse. This is particularly problematical when it is arsenomorphic -- God as male.

Much of the imagery of God as "Father" is a result of the cultures not knowing that women contribute more to the creation of the child than mere substance. The "creative" male and "passive" female was never a fact, yet it became an enduring "meme." How much of culture is based on such faulty understandings of reality!?