Day 8: Marriage as Spiritual Practice

A few miles from my home is the border that separates Illinois, a state that is currently working to broaden the definition of marriage, and Indiana, the state where I reside that is actively working to limit the definition of marriage. In many ways the two states represent the tension that is present across our nation in legislative houses. The battle within individual states to legally define marriage has created much conversation about the role of government in this matter. While it is helpful to discuss the ramifications of how we legally define marriage, surely marriage, which involves the complexities of human relationships, cannot be reduced to a mere legal matter. As the legislative battles go back and forth, where is the voice of the church addressing the spiritual aspects of marriage?

Within the body of Christ there are individuals and congregations already raising their voices loudly on the issue of marriage. Unfortunately, many of them have offered rigid and exclusive understandings of marriage. The narrowness of their views, which often includes beliefs that are condescending towards women and hostile towards people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered has turned many off from a spiritual understanding of marriage. Regrettably, those who turn away often do not receive an opportunity to hear the voices of more open-minded congregations that define marriage in more inclusive ways. As a pastor who considers himself an open-minded Christian, I must confess that I rarely talk about marriage. I read the obligatory scriptures during weddings and often insert a healthy dose of theology in a wedding homily, but I know that it mostly falls on deaf ears in the midst of the wedding excitement. Along with many others, I have not raised my voice in the public sphere to offer an understanding of marriage that connects with those seeking a deeper and more life-giving spirituality.

The lack of these voices is disappointing because recent research has shown that younger generations, particularly the Millennial generation (ages 18-33), are choosing to postpone or forgo marriage. In comparison to older generations, like the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, Millennials are significantly less interested in marriage than their elders were at their age. There are various reasons one could use to explain why Millennials are disinterested in marriage, but I can’t help believe that one of the main reasons is the church and other religious organizations have failed to give them an understanding of marriage that contains spiritual depth. Perhaps it is too strong of a statement to say that progressive Christians have abandoned the debate on marriage, but it does not seem a stretch considering the current landscape. We have conceded territory that we should rightfully reclaim in speaking to younger generations like the Millennials. How then can the church talk with young adults about marriage as a spiritual practice?

While the church has made an effort to challenge unjust marital laws and it has provided biblical scholarship that challenges faulty interpretation of marriage related scriptures, it should also be charged with the task of providing an understanding of marriage that is based in spiritual practice. The church can present marriage as a spiritual conduit through which the love and grace of God flows allowing individuals to grow more fully into the people God created them to be. Enjoying the fulfillment of becoming the person God created us to be involves us letting go of our false self and embracing our true self. Thomas Merton, the great spiritual writer and Trappist monk, wrote “every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.” In his spiritual classic, New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton describes this illusory self as the “private self…who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s’ will and God’s love–outside of reality and outside of life.” According to Merton, our devotion to the false self, which is rooted in our egocentric desires, leads us to sin and prioritize worldly values such as power, prestige, possessions, pleasure, and popularity over God’s values.

The power of a healthy marriage is that it helps us identify the delusions of the false self and moves us closer to the person God desires for us to be. A committed relationship acts like a mirror as the other person reflects back to us the parts of ourselves that are self-centered and disconnected from reality. Through the intimacy and vulnerability we experience in a deeply committed relationship, the false self and its destructive tendencies are brought into the light of our consciousness where God can help us address them. This holy process of allowing someone we trust to help us name the illusions we live under leads to transformation. Marriage is a beautiful witness to the power of committed relationships over time and their potential to enrich our spiritual lives so that we may become our true self and live more fully into our identity as a child of God.

Of course, many people will struggle to recognize marriage as a spiritual practice; not all marriages are healthy and some become emotionally and spiritually damaging for reasons we cannot control. It would be naive to think that every marriage will be a blessing; however, the church can still articulate an understanding of marriage as a spiritual practice that gives individuals in committed relationships the opportunity to identify the sacred movement between them. The church should care about marriage because it is a gift that reveals God’s love and truth in powerful ways. For this very reason marriage should be available to all who desire it because God’s love embraces everybody. If the church is standing in the way of God’s love then it needs to move over and recognize that our role is to be facilitators of God’s love that encourages a hurting world to discover their true identity as a child of God.

Why do YOU think the church should care about marriage?