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Gay Christian Marriage in American Civil Society: Beyond Natural Law Theory, in Response to Carl Braaten


[1] Gay marriage! It's not about sex you know! It is about ethical and legal Love.  When our children come home to announce they are "in love", and intend to be married, we examine them very closely. "It's not just about sex, you know. Are you in love with this person for her or himself? You might have sex with anybody. You don't marry them for sex. Do you love this person's Self, Soul?; Does he or she love you for your true Self? Think, think, think!"

 [2] Our contemporary task is to present an ethically relevant view of marriage, because the social conditions of the past do not hold for marriage today. That task has as its goal a common life share equally by two persons. The view of marriage as a form of life in community means that marriage contains within itself its own purpose. This statement involves a criticism of traditional teachings about marriage and touches on the heart of the contemporary debate. Again and again the attempt to define marriage in terms of specific goals has threatened marriage and brought it into crisis. That the view of marriage as an ethical legal community of loving persons contains its goal is beyond dispute, because it exists solely in their shared life together. A living marriage involves all the aspects of an individual's life, including the making of responsible decisions about conduct. Marriage as a continuing relationship involves the entire span of life and all its contents, because a person does not bring to the marriage specific goals that are to be realized with the help of marriage, but brings themselves. That is the reality of a life that is not at an individual's own disposal for the accomplishment of certain goals, but is rather the totality of the individual's own personal life.

 [3] Anyone who enters into a marriage undertakes to build and form a community that has not existed before in this distinctive and individual form. A marriage partner forms a new reality, not for or by himself or herself, but in and through community. Marriage constitutes something that might be called a trans-individual biography for the individuals who enter into it. This approach explains how it is that although marriage has been made to serve various goals that have changed through the course of history, the ethical structure of marriage could not be made ultimately dependent on these goals. Only the autonomy of marriage understood in an ethical sense enables us to understand how and why marriage can involve such differing goals. The traditional understanding of marriage has often been stated primarily in terms of its purposes. These include procreation, the continuation of an extended family, the amassing and preservation of property, and the formation of an economic unit. In the moral tradition, especially in the ascetic-sacramental tradition of confession, marriage was taught as an instrument for the regulation of sexual activity, the prevention of promiscuity, and the control of unchastity. The various doctrines of the purposes of marriage are extremely informative because they show that it is not possible to single out and establish any one purpose, or even any clear priority of purposes that could serve as a basis, that could serve as a basis for marriage as a living community. Rather, the opposite is the case. Any purpose that has been or could be mentioned can actually be established and achieved in some other way than through marriage.

 [4] The identification of goals, whatever form the goals make take, is not a sufficient basis for the meaning of marriage. Goals always presuppose that meaning. It is beyond question that marriage always serves goals and can be made to serve specific goals, but it is another matter to try to derive its ethical meaning and its true authority from such goals. The damage that is done by adopting a basis for marriage that is oriented to toals is that in every case in which the goals can be achieved by other means the reasons for marriage as a permanent, living community, disappear. Thus marriage becomes merely a means to an end and not a living reality, and it should surprise no one if a goal oriented concept of marriage contains the cause of its own crisis. Ethical discourse must show that marriage as a living community is the way by which one comes to share in a reality of life that no one has or can have alone.

 [5] Marriage in recent American family experience is an ethical-legal institution founded on the idea of sacrificial love. Formerly, in natural law systems, attention was paid only to the biological side of marriage. Consequently it was treated as a consummated sexual relationship between a man and a woman. This focus barred the way to its other and more essential characteristics: lifelong ethical commitment, fidelity, trust, common goods, education of children, preserving the family property. In the old natural systems, as often as not, the parties were bound by a contract of mutual sexual caprice, and marriage was sometimes degraded to the level of a cynical contract for reciprocal use. Today the institution of marriage in its fullest Christian and ethical understanding is founded on ethical love, not sexual experience, not just falling physically "in love." Sex with a person is not sufficient, since the latter is a feeling exposed in every respect to contingency; a guise which the ethical life may not assume. Marriage is more precisely characterized as ethical-legal love between persons, and this eliminates from marriage the transient, fickle, and purely selfish aspect of sex.

 [6] Ethical love means in general terms my consciousness of unity with another person. I am not in selfish isolation, but win my spiritual self with the renunciation of my independence. I know myself as the unity of myself with another self, and of the other self with me. The first impulse of love is that I do not wish to be a self-subsistent and independent person, and that, if I were, then I would feel defective and incomplete. The second is that I find myself in another person, that I count for something in the other, while the other in turn comes to count for something in me. We live together loving the good of the other person equal to loving our own good. Thus, love is the most tremendous paradox. Analysis cannot resolve it because there is nothing more stubborn than this experience of the autonomous self, which is overcome by the marriage relationship. Love is at once the propounding and resolution of this paradox. As a resolution, love is union with another ethical person. Marriage is not based on an arbitrary, accidental sexual feeling for an object; rather, it is feeling in the form of something larger than the egoistic individual, but which is, nevertheless, my substantial self. I need the other to be myself. True freedom is being at home with myself in another.

 [7] The ethical aspect of marriage consists in the parties' consciousness of this unity as their substantive aim, thereby, in the love, trust, and common sharing of their entire existence as individuals. When the parties are in this frame of mind, and their union is actual, their physical passions sink to the level of a physical moment, destined to vanish in its very satisfaction. At the same time, the spiritual bond of union secures its rights as the substance of marriage, and rises, inherently indissoluble, to a plane above the contingency of passion and the transience of particular sexual caprice. In this union, right and duty coalesce, and being in the ethical order, a person has rights in so far as they have duties, and duties in so far as they have rights.

 [8] The ethical order is also a legal entity, to be recognized by state, church and community. The solemn declaration by the parties of their consent to enter the ethical bond of marriage, and its corresponding recognition and confirmation by the state, the family and the community, constitutes the formal completion and actuality of marriage. The knot is tied and made legal only after this public ceremony where, by the use of signs, the substantial thing in the marriage is brought completely into being. As a result, the sensuous, sexual moment, the one natural to physical life, is placed in its ethical setting as something only consequential and accidental. It belongs to the external embodiment of the ethical bond, which may also subsist exclusively in reciprocal love and support. Marriage differs from all other types of sexual unions in as much as the other types may be chiefly concerned with the satisfaction of the natural drive, whereas this drive is made subordinate within marriage. That is why within marriage one may speak unblushingly of natural function which in extra marital relationship would produce feelings of shame or guilt. It is also the reason marriage should be regarded as indissoluble in itself, for the end of marriage is the ethical end, which is so exalted that everything else appears powerless against it and subject to its authority. Marriage should not be disrupted by passion, for the latter is subordinate to it. Still it is indissoluble only in itself, for as Jesus said: "divorce is permitted because of the hardness of your hearts." Since marriage contains the moment of "falling in love," it is not absolute, but unstable, and it has within it the possibility of dissolution. But all legislations must make such dissolution as difficult as possible and uphold the right of ethics against caprice.

 [9] Today, we also recognize that both the several moments of physical sensuality, falling in love, as well as the subsequent moments of the desire for ethical marital love, are experienced by persons whose sexual orientation moves along a Bell curve between homosexuality and heterosexuality, suggesting that physiologically, some persons are simply born more homosexual than others. It is "natural" for them to be sexually attracted to the same sex. The family relationship is the natural union of persons. The bond of this natural society is love and trust, the knowledge of this original union of loving persons and of action in accordance with it. The moral relationship to others generally is based on these original identities of human nature, which may include the possibility of ethical-legal love between persons of similar sexuality. The outcry against homosexuals ignores the fact that under the constitution of the United States, they are above all, persons, citizens free and equal to other citizens of different religions, social classes, and sexualities. This personhood is no mere abstract quality. On the contrary, it is itself the basis of the fact that "civil rights" arouses in them the feeling of themselves counting in civil society as full citizens with rights to children, property and marriage. To exclude the homosexuals from civil rights would rather confirm the isolation with which they have been reproached-a result for which the state refusing them rights would be reproachable, because, by so refusing, it would have misunderstood its own basic principal: each person, created equal with inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.



© December 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 12