God reveals Himself primarily as Father. What does that mean for our understanding of marriage?
Even in Christian culture, marriage is often seen primarily as a romantic and erotic union between a man and a woman. Thus, it has become more and more common, when we want to speak theologically about marriage, to talk about the image of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church.
Moreover, the widespread availability of contraceptives has made children seem a somewhat secondary, and voluntary, addition to marriage. Christians are not as inclined to reflect deeply on the connection between marriage and children as earlier Christian generations did.
Although the Catholic Church has continued to oppose contraceptives, those arguments have not had a lot of influence in the pews. And even among Catholics who defend the Church’s teaching on contraception (I’m thinking particularly of Christopher West here, but he is hardly alone), many have focused more on trying to convince Catholic couples that contraception will damage the unity of their marriage—that in blocking fertility, they are withholding a part of themselves from their spouse.
Maybe this is true—I have no strong intuition one way or the other on this question. But it seems to me that very few couples who use contraception understand their decision as a rejection of conjugal union. A man who uses birth control is not primarily saying to his wife, “I do not want you to be my bride.” What he is saying, above all, is “I do not wish to be a father (at least not at this time).” A woman who uses contraception is not primarily saying to her husband, “I do not want you to be my bridegroom.” What she is saying is, “I do not wish to become a mother (at least not at this time).”
This rejection of parenthood should be a serious concern.
First, Christ reveals God the Father to us far more frequently than He reveals Himself as bridegroom.
More important, God is Father essentially. Even if the Trinity had not chosen to create (in which case titles like “Creator” or “Redeemer” or “Bridegroom” would have been meaningless applied to God), God the Father would still have begotten God the Son. Thus, God is Creator, Redeemer, and Bridegroom only contingently: it was His free choice to take on these identities, and He could have chosen to be otherwise. But the Father is Father essentially: He begets the Son necessarily, and the relation of Father and Son is an essential constituent of the Godhead.
If we are created in God’s image, what have we lost from our understanding of that image if we focus more attention on the union between bride and bridegroom, and less on the relation between father and son?
All images limp, of course. Our understanding of Fatherhood in this “valley of tears” is sure to fall far short of the Divine reality. But given the ontological priority of God’s Fatherhood, we unnecessarily limit our understanding of God if we do not meditate on and attempt to understand His Fatherhood. And I suspect that the more we think about Fatherhood and Sonship, the less inclined we will be to view romantic or erotic union as primary and procreation as a secondary, possibly voluntary, add-on to marriage.
In the real world, as opposed to the world of romantic imagination, love for children is often the glue that binds together a marriage that has lost its romantic “spark.” And sometimes, after time passes, the spouses rediscover their love for each other and come to have a much deeper experience of nuptial intimacy and commitment—but this later and deeper experience only occurred because their parental love sustained them through a “dark night” when spousal love could no longer sustain.
This is not exactly an argument against contraception (or, even, by extension, an argument against the romantic view of marriage which underlies the contemporary push for same-sex marriage). The Catholic Church’s reasons for allowing NFP and rejecting contraceptives turn on much subtler distinctions than the broad brush-strokes with which I am painting here. The Church recognizes the legitimacy of marriages by couples who are infertile, or past childbearing age. It recognizes reasons why couples who are fertile might choose to delay or even completely avoid procreation.
I am also not opposed to the romantic or erotic imagery either to describe marriage or to explore our union with Christ. My concern is rather to put it in its proper place in the hierarchy of God’s creation. The problem with our culture is not that it values romance and eros in marriage. The problem is that it idolizes romantic and erotic love. And, for a variety of reasons, it values parenthood much less than previous generations did. The result is that when we speak of love, we have our emphásis on the wrong sylláble.
This fascination with the romantic and erotic is obviously an important factor in the push for what is called “marriage equality”: if we see love in primarily romantic and erotic terms, then we have difficulty seeing any difference between gay relationships and straight relationships. And so drawing our attention to the ontological significance of the parent-child relationship may help us begin to understand more deeply those aspects of the Christian faith which make the Christian tradition’s seemingly exclusionary teaching on marriage intelligible.
I certainly don’t think that making these arguments would dramatically affect the debates about sexuality in contemporary culture—they would largely fall on deaf ears in our culture, because although we do have a concept of fatherhood, it’s radically inadequate. So such arguments would seem to most to be trying to establish the Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality on that incomplete concept of Fatherhood, which likely wouldn’t help much.
My idea is a little bit different.
Once we recognize the theological point that “Father” is arguably the most important predicate there is (far more important that creator or redeemer or bridegroom or even liberated adult), we will realize that a lifetime is far too short to reflect on its meaning and value. Nevertheless, trying to trace it out, and to see how many different aspects of the world and our own image of God reflect the signature of the Father, is a supremely worthwhile task. And when it is pursued, I think it yields significant insights into human relationships, including the true meaning of human sexuality.
Note: See this follow-up post for some clarifications.