The Never-Changing Case for Marriage

June 1, 2012

In 1949, Elton Trueblood published a short book on The Common Ventures of Life: Marriage, Birth, Work and Death (New York: Harper and Row).  “The purpose of this book,” he says in the Preface, “is to help puzzled men and women to prepare for the intelligent and reverent facing of those experiences which are so central to man’s life that they have seemed supreme in all generations and in all cultures.”  Marriage is the first of those “common ventures” that Trueblood discusses.

Rather than the Bible (which has relatively little to say in depth about marriage), Trueblood finds an anchoring statement of this crucial “revelation of the grace of God,” in a sermon of a renowned 17th century English preacher, Jeremy Taylor.  Wrote Taylor in his “Sermon of the Marriage Ring:”

“Marriage is a school and exercise of virtue; and though marriage hath cares, yet the single life hath desires which are more troublesome and more dangerous, and often end in sin, while the cares are but instances of duty and exercises of piety; and therefore if single life hath more privacy of devotion, yet marriage hath more necessities and more variety of it, and is an exercise of more graces. …

“Here is the proper scene of piety and patience, of the duty of parents and the charity of relatives; here kindness is spread abroad, and love is united and made firm as a centre: marriage is the nursery of heaven …

“It lies under more burdens [than the single life], but is supported by all the strengths of love and charity, and those burdens are delightful.”

These passages are from what Trueblood quotes from Taylor.  You can find the whole Taylor sermon at http://www.prnd.ca/PRNDmarriagetaylor.html.

Taylor argues that the single life can lead human beings astray because of desires that may well up and become dangerous.  Marriage puts those desires to good use.

“Marriage is the nursery of heaven,” says Taylor.  What a lovely phrase, that is, and I think it statement that gets at the true importance of marriage.  In marriage we learn about the possibilities of the love to which God calls us.

The picture of marriage that Jeremy Taylor provides could, it strikes me, just as fully describe a same-sex marriage as an opposite sex one.  In both, the partners are pressed to learn piety and patience, duty and charity, kindness and uniting love.  The lessons come from commitment and fidelity, not from anatomical specifics.

True, Elton Trueblood’s chapter on marriage in The Common Ventures of Life considers only opposite sex marriage.  Indeed, the whole book makes no mention whatsoever of homosexuality.  Trueblood says of marriage that it is “relatively independent of changing manners and customs,” so it is beyond imagining that he would have been comfortable with same-sex marriage despite the gender-inspecific, spiritual understanding of marriage that Jeremy Taylor provides.

However it is also striking that Trueblood’s description of marriage assumes fixed roles for men and women, roles that make the husband dominant and the wife subservient.

Trueblood says, for example, “Both of the partners give up a great deal when they unite their lives.  The woman usually gives up further chance for academic training and worldly independence.  Especially after children come along, it is idle to speak of her as free to do whatever she likes.  Frequently she is so encumbered with trivial and even menial duties that she has no opportunity to keep up her intellectual interests.”

Or consider this from Trueblood: “The economic problem may be even harder for the wife, who, prior to marriage, may have had money of her own and now suddenly finds herself dependent upon another, whom she must ask for whatever she needs.”

Whatever may have been the gender assumptions of 1948, few of us would accept such a conception of marriage today.  Reading these passages, one can scarcely accept Trueblood’s assertion that marriage is “relatively independent of changing manners and customs.”  Over the past six decades, we have seen a tremendous upheaval in gender roles in marriage, a loosening of fixed expectations that allows men and women (both) more freedom and more equality.

Marriage roles have changed, and yet marriage’s essential core has not.  That’s why Trueblood is right to quote Jeremy Taylor at length.  The never-changing case for marriage does not rest upon fixed assumptions about ‘men being men’ or about work or sex or any other activities of the flesh.  It rests, rather, upon the lessons of love that we can learn best by committing ourselves to faithful partnership with another person, one man and one woman — or two men, or two women.  Those lessons of love make us more able to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and to love God with all we have.

Taylor’s case for marriage makes it clear why we should not ask gays or lesbians to live as chaste, single people, trying hard to throttle their natural desires.  To deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to marry is to pointlessly deny them “the nursery of heaven.”

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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