How traditional is traditional marriage anyhow?

Supposedly, you don’t fool with Mother Nature. Never mind that we fool with Mother Nature all the time. We eat all sorts of genetically modified foods. Perhaps you had some seedless raisins with lunch. Many also see gay marriage as fooling around with Mother Nature. Mother Nature has decreed that only a union between one man and one woman is natural. No exceptions allowed! Consequently, Mother Nature does not want a man to marry another man, or two women to marry each other. Nor does Mother Nature endorse polygamy or polyandry.

Or so we think, although these so called natural laws may not be all that natural. Biologists have discovered all sorts of unusual parings among animals that suggest that serial monogamy is hardly the norm. Among humans, social scientist Margaret Mead documented decades ago that the one man-one woman marriage thing we define as traditional marriage is just one natural variation among humans. Across the world, Mead documented numerous cultures where all sorts of arrangements are sanctioned: “traditional” marriage, polygamy, polyandry, polyamory as well as the tribal equivalents of gay marriage. If Mother Nature opposes them, she is turning a blind eye.

The Bible sure tells us deviations from traditional marriage are sinful, right? Not exactly. Depending on which books of the Bible you believe are divinely inspired, these deviations are either permitted, not specifically addressed or are seen as abominations that could even subject you to capital punishment. Polygamy was acceptable in Abraham’s time. According to the Bible, Abraham had multiple wives, as did many of the Jewish elders and kings whose lives are chronicled in the Old Testament. Apparently, the more wives you had the more status you had in the community. Polygamy also served the useful evolutionary purpose of spreading the seed at a time when humans were an endangered species. Mother Nature might have thought it necessary. Abraham reputedly lived to some impossibly old age. Yet, Yahweh apparently saw no abomination with Abraham’s polygamy. While polygamy is unlawful in today’s America, it remains legal in much of the Muslim world and is explicitly permitted in the Quran.

During the last election, California voters decided by a four percent margin that gays should not be allowed to marry in the state. Members of the Mormon Church in particular felt a call to spiritual arms and contributed $22 million toward a campaign to overturn court ordered gay marriage in California. This is curious because Mormons were traditionally polygamists and only relatively recently decided this aspect of their theology required some amending. In fact, the tradition of polygamy is much older than the idea of marriage as between only one man and one woman.

What are Jesus’ thoughts on gay marriage? Jesus actually has little to say on the issue of marriage except he said God did not allow divorce, a teaching most Christians are happy to ignore. According to the Bible, Jesus never married, so it clearly was not a high priority for him. Many religious scholars suspect he actually was married or had an out of wedlock relationship with Mary Magdalene but that part was scrubbed from the Bible.

St. Paul had a few things to say about marriage, and they were not particularly nice. In his mind, good Christians completely abstained from sex, since sex itself was sinful. He did belatedly suggest that if you could not abstain from sex you should marry because it is better to marry than to go to hell. In his view, marriage suggested some sort of moral failing, but a minor one. In his opinion, since sex was part of marriage, it was hardly worthy of sanctification. However, St. Paul also appeared convinced that the second coming of Jesus was not too far away, so there was little point to procreation.

If history is our guide, what constitutes “real” marriage should be a confusing muddle, not an issue of clarity. If we strictly adhered to the Biblical interpretation of marriage, most of us would find it unacceptable. As this diarist on Daily Kos points out, the Bible tells us that polygamy is okay (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5). It also suggests that is okay to shack up or have live-in lovers even while being married (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21). However, marriage is forbidden if the woman is not a virgin. In fact, if for some reason she isn’t, she can be stoned to death (Deut 22:13-21). (Maybe this is where the Taliban got it from?) However, apparently there is an escape clause because a man must marry his brother’s wife if his brother dies, provided she has no children (Gen 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10). Also, sorry, divorce is not allowed, no exceptions ever (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9). So, if you find yourself an abused spouse, deal with it. Maybe prayer will move some mountains in your marriage.

I don’t know about you but if this is “traditional” marriage, I don’t want any part of it. Nor do I particularly think that marriage between only one man and woman is the only form it should take. Yet, so many of us are certain that only marriages between one man and one woman are moral, and therefore only they should be legally sanctioned. I am left to conclude that while I respect those who support “traditional” marriage, there is no sound Biblical or natural rationalization to support it.

Supporters of “traditional” marriage are loath to admit it, but marriage, like most human customs, has morphed over time and will continue to do so to fit the needs of people. Another one of these shifts in the definition of marriage now seems underway. Just as divorce and mixed-race marriages are now legal, it is likely that within a few decades gay marriage will be legally available within any state of the union too. Moreover, most of us will simply be indifferent to it.

One response to “How traditional is traditional marriage anyhow?”

  1. It confused many especially me on what is the real meaning of marriage since the issue of same sex marriage relationship broke out. I wonder what will be the definition of this term in the coming days. I thank you for your post, it serves us a reflection on a marriage should be.


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