A section of the continuing reflection on sexuality begun with Where the Division Lies.
In this essay I will examine an additional feature of marriage: its use as a metaphor or symbol for the relationship between Christ and the Church (or between God and Israel). This will include a reflection on the nature of symbolism, the extent to which reliance on such symbols can be helpful as well as misleading, what it is about marriage that serves as a symbol of these relationships, and whether that quality can be applied to same-sex relationships as well.
The ambivalent nature of symbols
Much has been said and written over the years about the nature of symbols, and their relationship to what they symbolize. Part of this discussion involves sacramental theology. It is fair to say that all sacraments are symbols, but not all symbols are sacraments. Beginning with the broader category, I accept the standard definition of a symbol as something that stands for something else. Symbols (in order to function as such) have some likeness or relationship to what they symbolize, and/or some common context which allows them to be understood as signifying something other than themselves. Thus, a king and his royal authority can be symbolized by a crown, a crest, or a throne — though none of these would be effective as symbols in a society that had neither kings, crowns, crests or thrones. The degree of relatedness between a symbol and its object — for example, between a king and his headgear — can be quite remote as long as the culture understands the connection between them. But outside of the culture in which a symbol makes symbolic sense, it may be unrecognizable, or require explanation — and thus be ineffective as a symbol.
Moreover, one symbol may have a different or even contrary meaning in another culture, and other cultures may have different symbols to represent the same object. One need not go as far afield as the Cargo Cults or the mysterious soda-bottle of The Gods Must Be Crazy to find examples of ambivalent symbolism. It is well known that hand gestures (as a form of active symbol) are just as variable as language — and a gesture that is acceptable or innocuous in one society can be obscene or offensive in another. Symbols are as often conventional (not “natural”) as they are ambiguous (not “clear.’)
A sacrament, for the purpose of this discussion, is a symbol that does more than effect a mental recognition in the observer, but actually effects a real change. Even here the “natural likeness” is not essential for a sacrament to do its work — wine is visually more like blood than bread is like flesh, yet both serve in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Yet in some cultures bread is an unheard of novelty rather than a daily staff of life, and wine may similarly be an exotic substance. And as one ecclesiastical wag once put it even in his Western context, “I have no difficulty in believing that the eucharistic host is the Body of Christ - but I do have difficulty recognizing it as bread.”
Picking up the royal imagery above, and recalling all of the fuss and bother concerning its misplacement in The Prince and the Pauper, the Great Seal of England in a real sense embodied a kind of sacrament — the real present power of the monarch in an efficacious manner — yet the Pauper used it to crack walnuts! The crucial note here is that even with a sacrament, its sacramental nature must be discerned. Even so-called “natural” symbols can be misunderstood apart from a cultural context, through which they are invested with efficacious power.
It is not my concern here to debate the question of whether marriage is or is not one of seven sacraments (as in the Roman Catholic teaching), but rather to reflect on the function of the marital relationship as a symbol for the relationship between Christ and the Church, or in the Hebrew Scriptures, between God and Israel. I think at the very least we can recognize that unlike the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist, a marriage does not effect the real presence of the relationship between Christ and the Church; rather the grace of marriage (if we are to take it as sacramental) concerns the love and fidelity of the couple, which is analogous to or metaphorical of the love of Christ for the Church. This is, in short, a poetic symbol.
Finally, it must be acknowledged that symbols — even sacramental ones — have clearly defined limits. Even in the undoubted sacraments, we do not believe that all bread and wine is holy because Christ instituted that some bread and wine should be the means to experience his anamnesis. I raise this as a preventative to any suggestion of idolatry, in which the symbol comes to supplant what it symbolizes. Idolatry, as someone once said, is treating things like God and God like a thing. I would also suggest that idolatry can consist in treating things about people as if they were divine, and treating the truly divine image of God in humanity as if it were merely a thing. In the present context, it is possible both to make too much of marriage, and too little.
Marriage as ambivalent symbol
Several biblical authors use marriage as a symbol for the relationship between God and Israel, and Christ and the Church. But, as with many of the issues surrounding sexuality, the picture is far more complex than mere equivalence. Not only is marriage only one of many symbols for this relationship, but the marriage symbolism itself is ambivalent, capable of standing for both good and bad relationships between God and God’s people.
There are many earthly phenomena — and Jesus assures us (Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25, Luke 20:35) that marriage is an earthly phenomenon! — that the biblical authors use (in addition to marriage) to represent the relationship between God and Israel or Christ and the Church: monarch and people, tree and branches, father and children, shepherd and sheep, master and slaves, head and body, cornerstone and building. These symbols all depend on the cultural understanding of those to whom they speak. As noted in an earlier portion of this series of essays, the Letter to the Ephesians collects and intertwines a number of these symbols, in addition to marriage. As Paul himself recognizes, his blending of these symbols gets a bit confusing, as he spins out the various cultural themes of leadership and authority, the relationship of one to many, the nature of organic or bodily union, and love and care.
Thus the Scripture does not single out marriage as a unique symbol for the divine/human relationship — and one can carry the analogy or symbol too far — as some have suggested Paul does — as if women should literally treat their husbands as if they were God. Nor should one carry away from this symbolic usage the notion that because marriage is a symbol for the divine/human interaction it is therefore in itself divine — it remains, according to Jesus, a terrestrial phenomenon. (Luke 20:34-35) So to confuse the symbol with what it symbolizes is a category error. More than a few theologians have of late wandered off in a direction more suggestive of pagan notions of hieros gamos than is warranted by strictly orthodox theology. This includes suggestions that the relationship of a male and female somehow more perfectly embody the imago dei than either does individually. This is very shaky theological ground upon which to tread, as I noted in an earlier section of this series, for it undercuts the doctrine of the Incarnation. Much as I may disagree with him on other points (especially when under the undue influence of Aristotelian science), this is a matter on which I am concur with Aquinas. (ST I.Q93.6d)
It is also important to point out that in addition to the multiplicity of symbols for the relationship between God and people, Scripture uses all sorts of marriages as analogies for equally various divine/human interactions. While Paul uses the marital relationship to reflect the love and care of a husband for his wife (“as his own body”) in Ephesians, there are less positive images to be found elsewhere.
Perhaps most importantly, the prophetic literature uses polygamy as an image for the relationship of the one God with many worshipers, or many peoples. Thus God is portrayed as a Middle Eastern “Lord” (Ba’al — the Hebrew root for marriage is related to this word for “Lord,” explicitly contrasted at Hosea 2:18 with “my man.”). As such a Lord, God is portrayed as having more than one wife in Jeremiah 3 and Ezekiel 23. These relationships, as well as Hosea’s relationship with Gomer and the (possibly other) woman of Hosea 3, reflect the failure of God’s people in the failures of these various sexual relationships. So close is the affinity (in the Hebrew mind) of idolatry with harlotry that it is on occasion difficult to tell when the text intends literal harlotry rather than figurative. (The most frequent use of the root for harlot in the Old Testament is as symbolic of or in connection with idolatry.) We ought also to note that the putative author of the Song of Solomon was notorious for the range of his sexual interests — yet that did not prevent the Rabbis and medieval churchmen from spiritualizing the account into a rhapsody for the devoted soul’s love for God. The male in this analogy is free (as he was under Jewish law) to have multiple female partners, but each woman is to be singularly devoted to her husband. In the medieval Christian adaptations of this text, it was not found at all strange for men to cast themselves as “The Bride” of Christ.
The use of this symbol
The question is: Given that heterosexual relationships can be used as such multivalent symbols, positive or negative, single and plural, and even with a degree of sexual ambiguity, can faithful, monogamous, life-long same-sex relationships also serve in symbolic capacity — towards good? I will explore the negative imagery in later reflections on Leviticus and Romans, but will note here that the same linkage between idolatry and harlotry is made there between idolatry and some specific forms of same-sexuality. But what might a faithful, loving same-sex relationship (as opposed to the cultic activity described in Leviticus or the orgiastic in Romans) stand for as a symbol — not in the cultures of those times, but in our own?
It is clear that the prevailing biblical symbol for heterosexual relationships is intimately (!) connected with the assumption of male “headship” — thus the related analogies with master and slave, head and body, and so forth, assume a cultural notion of male authority, likened to the authority of Christ over the church. So powerful is this imagery that men become “feminine” in relation to God — as C.S. Lewis noted in his emendation to the conclusion of Goethe’s Faust.
But what of Christ — who voluntarily (and temporarily) assumes the position of a subordinate — not only in the great kenosis of the Incarnation, but in the symbolic act of the Maundy footwashing — while remaining Lord and God? When Jesus assumes the position of a servant to wash his disciples’ feet, he is also assuming the position of the woman who washed his feet with her tears. It is no accident that Jesus uses this powerful acted symbol to show his disciples the danger of assuming the position of authority over rather than assuming the position of service to. (It is perhaps ironic that in the Roman Catholic Church only men are to take part in the Maundy ritual as either foot-washers or as those whose feet are washed. How much more powerful a symbol it would be if a bishop were to wash the feet of women?)
Jesus is secure in his knowledge of himself, yet is free to set aside the role of authority to assume the role of a slave, a role played elsewhere in the passion narrative by a woman. As is obvious, in a same-sex relationship there are no stereotypical sex roles for the partners. They are, like Jesus, free to take upon themselves, in a dynamic interchange, various opportunities to love and to serve. This flexibility is no doubt one of the reasons same-sexuality is seen as a threat to entrenched systems of automatic deferral to culturally established hierarchies. Like Christianity itself, same-sexuality “turns the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) by challenging the “natural” roles assigned by culture. Same-sex couples are thus capable of being truly natural symbols for the mutuality of equals, free from the traditional roles assigned by the culture to men and women. Whether the culture sees this as a threat or a promise will depend upon what they value.
Further, as procreation is not an end for same-sex relationships, the relationship itself become the locus for its intrinsic goodness: that is, it is not dependent on the production of a result extrinsic to the relationship itself. Thus the partners do not serve as means to an end, but as ends in themselves — all being done for the good of the other, in mutual submission and love. Thus same-sex unions can be symbols of mutual dedication to the beloved, rather than as utilities geared towards some other goal or end. In this sense, same-sex unions function analogously with celibacy as signs of an eschatological end to “how things have always been” — upsetting the old dichotomies of “slave or free, male and female.”
Nothing in this is to suggest that all same-sex couples are successful in this kind of mutuality, or that a mixed-sex couple is not equally capable of it (when they are willing, like Christ, to set aside the presumptive roles granted by culture). My purpose here has been to show that, as with marriage, it is the quality of the relationship, not its mere existence, that serves as a symbol.
We find the locus of that symbol in the moral purpose of sexuality, which resides in mutual joy and respect, and the enhancement of society both between the couple and in the larger world. This is an enactment of the human moral mandate towards love and fidelity, mirroring the love and fidelity of God; and this is a moral value of which same-sex couples are capable. Procreation, on the other hand, does not have any moral value in and of itself, though it can be accompanied by the moral values I have just elucidated. But in itself it is a biological process, not unique to human beings. Procreation alone — divorced from its moral context as part of a loving human relationship — does not symbolize anything of moral value.
Thus the symbol we have before us — the union of a loving couple regardless of whether they are fertile or not — is consistent with the Gospel, with its mandate to love one’s neighbor as oneself. As this mandate can be applied to marriage (Eph 5:28) so too it can be applied to faithful, monogamous, life-long same-sex unions. Such unions can be symbolic forces for the upbuilding of society based upon this divine mandate. It is to that upbuilding that I will turn in the next section of this series of essays, as I examine the final traditional “good” of marriage.
Tobias Haller BSG
The series continues with 7. Remedial Reading.
Further Update: This post and those that follow, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.