Why we now need a renewed conjugal theology
Equality is politically effective. Its message is immediate and, in a mature democracy, one that most understand. But it is also a blunt tool, riding roughshod over some crucial, subtle issues about what it is to be human. Now that the Church of England bishops appear genuinely to have offered us a chance to explore the nature of marriage openly, my sense is that we who have deployed the language of equality to get thus far, need now to develop ways of talking that go theologically deeper; much deeper.
We must rest on the richest conceptions of what it is to be human. And a good place to find that is with the notion of soul.
By soul, I mean something implicit but simple: the quality of being alive, and knowing you’re alive – with longings, connections, movement, hope. It’s soul as Genesis 2:7 has it: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” It’s soul as is used dozens of times in the New Testament, and also translated as life, heart, breath, mind. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with your all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matt 22:37).
This is not soul in distinct contrast to body, as if the soul were that naturally immortal part of ourselves that floats off when the body dies. That’s neither a Biblical nor, I think, an ancient Greek understanding of things. Rather, it’s the feature of being human that we know as a felt sense of another’s intimate presence; or can gain when feeling the aliveness of the sunrise. Embodiment is the tangible expression, the physical manifestation of soul. It’s why the soul gradually reveals itself as, say, laughter lines on a face; or is glimpsed in the eyes of someone who is inwardly free. It’s similar to what Charlie Parker said about music: “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Soul is your experience, your thoughts, your wisdom too.
Holding in mind this felt sense of soul – its subtlety, its vitality, its reliability – is invaluable because without it arguments about life and love, gender and sexuality become abstract and dry. But sensing soul, you can sense what’s at stake in these debates. Same-sex attraction becomes same-sex love; ethical problems become people to be blessed. The language of soul also reveals how much of human worth is at stake in the theology of marriage.
The merging of human and divine
The theology of marriage sits within a wider attempt to express what is possible for we humans. And what is possible is, ultimately, nothing less than knowing God.
It’s Jesus’ prayer in John’s gospel: “On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me and I am in you.” (John 14: 20). It’s the meaning of the incarnation that was felt by Athanasius when he pithily wrote in, On the Incarnation: “God became man so that man might become God.” Augustine knew it too, when his soul finally found its unity with God and so could call God “deeper in me than I am in me.”
Marriage matters because it is known as a prime experience of this unity. It’s a sacrament. Marriage is not just a human right or legal contract, though it is. It is not just for society and family as a basic unit of stability, though it is. The truth of two becoming one and the sanctity of conjugal love is in the “merging of the human and the divine”, as Catholic teaching has it. The merging happens at the soul level within us because soul is the meeting place for human physicality and God-kinship; and it’s the meeting place at which two individuals join in love, becoming one in an ecstatic echo of God’s union. It’s why John Paul II said of marriage that “there is no more perfect, more complete image of God, Unity and Community. There is no other human reality which corresponds more, humanly speaking, to that divine mystery.”
It’s a tremendous vision. Without it, arguments about marriage rapidly entangle in biological technicalities and knots of Biblical dispute. Without it, sight is lost of the spirit in a fixation on the letter of the law.
Men and women
Catholic teaching and, for different reasons, Anglican teaching argue that this vision of marriage is shown only between a man and a woman. In Catholic teaching, the insistence is much mixed up with anxieties about the need to redeem the presumed fallen nature of sex. Anglicans left that particular concern behind when, for example, the church sanctioned contraception. But still, officially, Anglicans insist on the meeting of different genders to realise the mystery of marriage. Usually, the reasons presented for this doctrine revolve around the presumed binary and complementary nature of the sexes.
So it can be shocking, or liberating, to learn that such gender binaries are a modern invention. In the ancient world, women were regarded not as from Venus, with men flown in from Mars, but as less well “cooked” men, to borrow Aristotle’s unhappy metaphor. They’d both come out of the same oven, only women were half-baked. To put it more technically, the natural world was thought to display a hierarchy of being, with God at the top and humanity somewhere in the middle, and men placed significantly higher than women.
This hierarchical vision of gender difference, as opposed to the complementarity one, is embedded in the second creation myth of Genesis. It carries the verse, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” Hence woman is formed, “taken out of man” (Gen 2:23). It also lies behind the Letter to the Ephesians’ metaphor for marriage as a relationship of a man and a woman that parallels the relationship between Christ (fully renewed) and the church (putting on the new). Note the hierarchy, the reason the author can also state: “the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church” (Eph 5:23).
This is clearly an understanding of gender that is alien now. Where it is taught, it gives rise to offense. But the hierarchical teaching holds a wisdom that helpfully subverts the complementary account of gender, and further, it can be articulated without the old prejudice.
The complementarity model is essentially biological and scientistic. Scholars such as Thomas Lacquer, in his book Making Sex, have shown how gender complementarity emerged in the early modern Enlightenment. Anatomists then began presenting genitalia as fitting into each other, rather than being versions of each other. The significance of this shift for the theology of marriage is that it presents gender as not to do with soul but as determined by physiology. It’s gender as a science of the body that is blind to the living reality of the soul.
However, imagine what happens if the ancient prejudice against women is dropped and the hierarchy of being model is revisited. Instead of human diversity being determined by biological differences, it can be seen as expressions of different qualities of soul. What are culturally called masculine or feminine, and which convention hooks onto male and female, can be known as attributes of inner life – how we can all be receptive and generative; rational and godly.
The upshot is that biological identification becomes, theologically, a secondary issue. I believe this is intimated in the New Testament in the instances where women are regarded as equally rational as men and so also apostles and witnesses (Rom 16:7; John 20:1-18); and in ancient Greek thought when women are celebrated as philosopher queens alongside philosopher kings by Plato. In these moments of inspiration is seen that what most fundamentally matters is fullness of soul – the capacity of all to exercise all the human qualities that are at other times labeled masculine or feminine. It’s why, I suspect, androgynous language emerges in the Bible too, when female metaphors are applied to Jesus as a hen, say, in Matthew 23:37; or when John declares that the word was made flesh, a non-gendered description to express the full soul truth of the incarnation, filling-out the gendered descriptions.
In short, the erotic union of marriage, and its capacity to carry the sacramental truth of our kinship with God, does not depend upon a literal adherence to biological difference. Indeed, today, a rigid definition of marriage as between a man and a woman probably distracts from the tremendous, incarnational vision held by traditional theology. A doctrinal doggedness in an equal society risks reducing marriage to a nominalist contract blown about by the winds of shifting gender constructions.
Our eros for God
There’s a further, final dimension that a soulful understanding of marriage opens up. It has to do with those who are not married too.
Conjugal love is so important because it reflects the eros of God, which the Greek Fathers also came to realise is central to understanding the incarnation. You can read of it in Gregory of Nyssa’s teaching on virginity, as Sarah Coakley is inviting us to contemplate in her recent writing – in particular God, Sexuality, and the Self, and also, The New Asceticism.
Virginity was an arresting subject for Gregory to turn to because he was happily married. But what he argues is that true virginity is not about a legalistic abstention from sex. Rather, it is about cultivating a pure directedness of passionate desire for God, a transformation that is also a becoming open to God’s desire that is so passionately directed towards us.
Godly erotic longing can, therefore, be nurtured as much in marriage as in celibacy. The complex context of a relationship is as good a school of love as the complex context of singleness. Again, this truth is understood only at the soul level because, then, eros is seen as not primarily to do with sexuality, but as to do with intentionally channeling all of life’s energies towards God.
Gregory read Plato. The ancient Greek philosopher had a number of useful suggestions as to how to picture such divine-seeking eros. It is typically awoken when someone first falls in love. But it needs then to extend from the longing for another to the longing for God, perhaps also shared together in an on-going relationship. It may lead to the procreation of children, that joyous overflowing of love shared. But it can equally precipitate in what Plato called “offspring of the soul” – those creative, expansive, life-enriching activities that bring the human and the divine closer together, regardless of marital status. To switch back to the Christian vision: it’s the vocation of all, to resonate with God’s incarnating act within us and within the cosmos. It’s the groaning of the Spirit that Paul knew (Rom 8:26).
To put it another way, Anglican theology has recognised that marriages don’t need children to be marriages, in the same way that God doesn’t need creation to be God – though, as it happens, creation is the possibly inevitable spilling-over of divine love into more and more and more. So too, individuals can equally be single and participate in the generative power of God’s eros and their own.
The necessity of renewal
All this depth of our three dimensional humanity is captured in the theology of marriage. At their best, marriages experience the soul-truth of knowing another as you are yourself known, a relatedness that is in turn experienced as a sacrament of God’s incarnational knowing us. Further, in marriage, this union is not only experienced but is publically celebrated as being blessed.
So equal marriage is not just a matter of equality. Far from it. I’d go so far as to say that to save Anglican theology from the scientistic reductionisms of the complementarity model, as well as to renew the dynamic sense of life as soul in all its fullness, marriage should now be celebrated equally for all in permanent, stable and faithful relationships.