Krista's Journal: Fresh Perspectives on Modern Marriage and Family Life

July 5, 2007

Our culture's rituals of marriage are infused with religious, largely biblical, language — such as the beautiful, exacting description of love from 1st Corinthians that is so often read at weddings: Love is patient, Love is kind… Yet in discussions of the "crisis" of marriage in our society, religion is often invoked to proclaim rights and wrongs, rules and ideals. The problem behind the "crisis" of marriage is precisely love — or rather, the limits of our human capacity to love well, to get it right. The very language we use in our time — love as something one "falls into" — sets us up to stumble. The "desert fathers and mothers" of the sixth century, whom I think of as our earliest mystics and psychotherapists rolled into one, taught that love is not a starting point but a goal. It is not something we start out knowing how to do; it is something we spend our whole lives long learning. There is nothing romantic in that statement. And, in fact, the older I grow, the less patient I am with pronouncements — about love or religion — that smack of romance. On the subjects of marriage, divorce, and family, I've wanted to hear voices in our public life that are at once faithful and honest. I've wanted to hear a new conversation that avoids extremes of moral pronouncement or moral permissiveness, that instead frankly explores the virtues and failings of intimate human relationship. Elliot Dorff convinced me, when I interviewed him for this week's program, that Jewish tradition is a good place to start. Yes, the Hebrew Bible contains a fundamental blessing on marriage and offspring and it forbids adultery. At the same time, it is peopled lavishly with matriarchs and patriarchs who knew the spectrum of sex, love, betrothal, betrayal, and fidelity. Rabbis across the ages have considered the sweep of human experience as they speculated on God's designs and desires. In this tradition, Rabbi Dorff proposes religious words and ideas that are not new in themselves, but don't appear in the rhetoric that often surrounds debates about marriage in our time: compassion, mutuality, an ancient concession to divorce as forgivable, and an ancient command to grieve divorce deeply and sufficiently. At the heart of Rabbi Dorff's theology of marriage is a persistent — and infectious — delight in the divine gift of companionship. By contrast, Luke Timothy Johnson convinces me that the New Testament sends deeply conflicted signals about marriage and family, and that these found expression in the life of Jesus and his closest followers. At the same time, he says evocatively, "the same texts that confuse us are the ones that give us life." Insisting that biblical language would open up our culture's diminished imagination about the nature of love, Luke Johnson proposes three words from the New Testament Greek in place of the one word we have in English. There is eros, romantic love. Our popular culture limits itself almost exclusively to eros and its connotations. But the more common word translated as "love" in the New Testament is agape. This is the love Jesus preached and modeled. It can be translated as "practical love" — not a matter of feeling, but of doing. Finally, Johnson throws into the mix of married love — in between eros and agape — the critical New Testament virtue of filia as part of community. This is the love of friendship, and he calls it the most essential form of love to the enduring community of marriage. Luke Timothy Johnson's analysis of Christianity's layered and ambivalent teaching suggests new ways for understanding why, in America's Christian-influenced culture, marriage is so puzzlingly troubled an institution. Rabbi Dorff's explication of Judaism's sensitivity to the human realities of marriage across the ages provides a salutary contrast to that. Each of these men is in some sense more conservative than liberal when it comes to theology, but they offer creative ways to imagine the hard realities and the deepest virtues of modern marriage. Interestingly, neither of them feels comfortable talking about the institution of marriage in our time without including some reflection on committed homosexual relationship. Steeped in sacred texts, history, and living tradition, such religious voices would generously reframe our civic discussions about the real crises and promises of modern marriage and family life.

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is a rabbi, author, and Rector and Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University.

is R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins in the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and author of The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation.