uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Christians and Marriage: From Disease to Divine Design

Paul and Thecla, 6th century fresco,
in the Cave of St. Paul near Ephesus
“The hilt of a sword is smooth and handy, and polished and glittering outside; it seems to grow to the outline of the hand; but the other part is steel and the instrument of death, formidable to look at, more formidable still to come across. Such a thing is marriage.”

The above quote is not from some godless, 21st century culture warrior trying to “undermine the institution of marriage.” No, it’s by Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century bishop and saint.

Indeed, for anyone familiar with the early history of Christianity, there is perhaps nothing more dissonant than hearing modern Christian leaders talk about marriage as the central, lofty institution they believe it to be, most especially when they view it as under attack merely by its extension to same-sex couples.

Thus, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship theological seminary, has said that “we were made for marriage, we are called to marriage.” And here in the Twin Cities, Archbishop John C. Nienstedt recently wrote that the marriage amendment that would constitutionally ban same-sex marriage “deserves our support ... for reasons that are theological, biological and pastoral.” Maggie Gallagher, who heads up the National Organization for Marriage, has routinely suggested that changing marriage would mean the end of "civilization."

Indeed, almost any religious argument against same-sex marriage (and they all are, really, at heart, religious) will include some notion that marriage has been such-and-such “for millenia” and that changing it would in essence bring down civilized society.

But such fretting would have seemed peculiar to the early church fathers, who almost universally, in the tradition of St. Paul, prized virginity over marriage. Throughout not only the writings of the church fathers but also the apocryphal literature of the early church, talk of marriage typically involved its rejection, certainly not its embrace and elevation to civilizational salvation.

One of the most popular literary Christian works of the early church was the Acts of Thecla, a novella very similar to the Greek novels I study and whose namesake went on to become a venerated saint. Thecla, upon hearing the preaching of St. Paul in Iconium, abandons her family in pursuit of her new faith, angering especially her fiancé, whom she refuses to marry. Several attempts to execute her are made, but she escapes thanks to God’s protection.

Early Christian writers did not just make up the theme of abandoning one’s family for the faith – they found several witnesses for such an action in Scripture, most notably Luke 14:26: "If anyone comes to me, and doesn't hate his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he can't be my disciple."

Among the church fathers, the theme of exalted virginity was nearly ubiquitous. Jerome’s Epistle 127 is most famous for describing the sack of Rome, but is prompted by Jerome’s desire to tell of the virtue of Marcella, a Christian widow who devotes herself to chastity and spurns attempts at remarriage. And both John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa wrote treatises called On Virginity. In addition to Gregory’s clever quip above, he suggests that marriage, no matter how sweet it seems, is always on the verge of pain and despair: “Gaze only upon the tragedies that are being enacted on this life's stage; it is marriage that supplies mankind with actors there. Go to the law-courts and read through the laws there; then you will know the shameful secrets of marriage.” 

Finally, he compares marriage to a disease: "Just as when you hear a physician explaining various diseases, you understand the misery of the human frame by learning the number and the kind of sufferings it is liable to, so when you peruse the laws and read there the strange variety of crimes in marriage to which their penalties are attached, you will have a pretty accurate idea of its properties." (De Virginitate, 3) Rather than as a “gift from God,” Gregory sees it as humankind’s original curse:

“We, then, who in our first ancestor were thus ejected, are allowed to return to our earliest state of blessedness by the very same stages by which we lost Paradise. What are they? Pleasure, craftily offered, began the Fall, and there followed after pleasure shame, and fear, even to remain longer in the sight of their Creator, so that they hid themselves in leaves and shade; and after that they covered themselves with the skins of dead animals; and then were sent forth into this pestilential and exacting land where, as the compensation for having to die, marriage was instituted.

“... Marriage, then, is the last stage of our separation from the life that was led in Paradise; marriage therefore, as our discourse has been suggesting, is the first thing to be left; it is the first station as it were for our departure to Christ.” (De Virginitate, 12)

Marriage is necessary for procreation? Gregory addresses that too – procreation just allows for more death: “If you do not throw into the fire wood, or straw, or grass, or something that it can consume, it has not the force to last by itself; so the power of death cannot go on working, if marriage does not supply it with material and prepare victims for this executioner.” (De Virginitate, 13)

Sound pretty foreign to modern ears? It sounded that way to ancient ones, too, thus the conflicts Thecla continuously encounters in her devotion to virginity. Christians of this stripe were indeed the countercultural revolutionaries of their time. Those devoted to sexless, unmarried lives in the rest of classical literature are viewed suspiciously and typically painted as wild, untamed (and thus undomesticated) individuals outside the accepted precepts of civilization. This is typically conveyed by making said characters hunters in the manner of the virgin huntress (and goddess) Diana, like Callisto, Atalanta, Narcissus, Hippolytus, and others – hunters who, in addition to shunning sexuality, also shunned the home and the city for the wild. To embrace virginity was thus seen as anti-civilizational, a disruption of the expected social order, so one can see why early Christians devoted to virginity – and the numerous spokesmen who venerated their choices to do so – were viewed with mistrust and contempt.

How ironic, then, that 2,000 years later, the inheritors of these virginal Christian not only promote marriage as the most treasured gift from God, but also accuse those who want a share of it of bringing about the end of civilization.

No doubt their chaste forebears were accused of the very same thing.

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