TBLA(9): the idolatry of romantic love (i)

This is slightly out of my intended sequence, but it is prompted by something I found here which I think is extremely well-expressed: “What nearly all modern Christians have done is place romantic love above marriage. Instead of seeing marriage as the moral context to pursue romantic love and sex, romantic love is now seen as the moral place to experience sex and marriage. This inversion is subtle enough that no one seems to have noticed, but if you look for it you will see it everywhere. Lifetime marriage, with separate defined roles for husband and wife and true commitment is what makes sex and romantic love moral in the biblical view. In our new view, romantic love makes sex moral, and the purpose of marriage is to publicly declare that you are experiencing the highest form of romantic love.”

This is why we have become so snagged on the arguments around gay marriage. If we take it that pair-bonding romantically is the esse of a marriage, then there is no substantial reason to deny marriage to gay couples. It is simply a matter for individual choice. If, in contrast, marriage in its esse involves the raising of children, then the structuring of the marriage bond has to reflect that. That is the traditional Christian and biblical view (of which Dalrock is an exponent).

What the idolatry of romantic love has done is to distort all our values on this subject. Romantic infatuation is well known to be fleeting, and the neuroscience involved is becoming increasingly well understood. The effects of this value shift – structuring our understandings of marriage around romance – are all around us, in the form of divorce and shattered families and all the havoc that has followed.

This is not to say that romance doesn’t have its place, it is to say that we cannot structure a society on the basis of something so shallow. Life, and most especially the raising and forming of new life, is too important to be left to that.

13 thoughts on “TBLA(9): the idolatry of romantic love (i)

  1. When I hear this argument put forth: that “marriage in its esse involves the raising of children” then I wonder at the consequence: can someone who knows they are permanently infertile by whatever cause never (morally) seek to marry?

    And does this say anything to gay couples who are indeed seeking marriage as “the moral context to pursue romantic love and sex”?

    It seems to me that the larger battle has already been lost – society for the most part does indeed see marriage as a celebration and sign of “the highest form of romantic love”. This is a moral disaster which has already occurred.

    Refusing now to open marriage to gay couples will not bring back the horses which have bolted, but only perpetuate an injustice – that gay couples are not able to make the same moral commitment before God that a religious marriage would entail. They are not able to place their romantic love within the same “moral context” as other couples. This I fear forces them unnecessarily into the idolatry of romantic love we’d like to avoid.

    I’ve not yet seen an anti-gay-marriage argument that logically doesn’t boil down to “we feel that gay relationships are somehow inferior (and/or disapproved of by God), and we’ve come up with a number of disjointed reasons why, but embarrassingly these reasons actually apply to a larger or smaller number of heterosexual marriages as well.” It’s a prejudice that is not only unjust but also actually counter-productive if the desire is to encourage everyone to see God as the heart (and the source and the goal) of all relationships.

  2. “What nearly all modern Christians have done is place romantic love above marriage. Instead of seeing marriage as the moral context to pursue romantic love and sex, romantic love is now seen as the moral place to experience sex and marriage.”

    Sounds like an argument for arranged marriage to me.

    As an (another) aside, if romantic love is just a drug it should soon be possible to manufacture the mythical love potion. That would make both the Left and the Right happy. The Right can structure society around parentally approved/arranged marriages, while the Left can distributive love pills, contraception pills and anti-depressive pills to keep everyone happy.

  3. That either “romantic pair-bonding” (I agree with you about romance) or “the raising of children” is the esse of marriage strikes me as wrong.

    The esse of marriage is the stability of life-long companionship. It was instituted in these forms of words in “the time of man’s innocency”: “It is not good for man to be alone.” And the form of contract is best expressed by Ruth, though to her mother-in-law, “And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” The Old Testament perhaps suggests in places that marriage and good parenting correlate. And I think the impacts of rivalry between wives on children is one reason that polygamy gradually died out in Israel. Aquinas, too, is reasonable to note that long-term human pair bonding is necessary, since our young remain helpless for so long.

    However, one must be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Marriage is a moral place to experience sex, because it assures stability if children are conceived, not because its final cause is children.

    As for where romantic love is moral, this is difficult. The sense I have is that God’s aim is a conversion of love to love that is a type of His own, agape . It’s certainly prudential that this process occur in stability: marriage, monastic life, vowed solitude (the latter two being eschatologically more progressive states), but all of these estates/manners of life should not be entered into without a period of discernment. If you would like the church to reform the means of discernment for its members, so that it doesn’t start when they sign up for marriage preparation, I’d love to see your plans.

    Pagans, like Lucretius, recognized that eros alone was not a good basis for marriage and recommended something C.S. Lewis would have classed with storge . The revolution of our era is not that romantic love has taken over marriage that it is now more possible than ever to base marriage on philia , a friendship based on common interests.

  4. First of all, I feel as if I’m reading a completely different set of Scriptures than the ones discussed here. My book, as far as I can tell, says little if anything about “separate defined roles for husband and wife.” Jesus, in particular, seems utterly uninterested in anything along these lines; he said, in fact, that those who didn’t hate their children and parents could not be disciples. He said “those who do the will of my Father are my mother and brothers” – and he was referring to his disciples, not his blood kin.

    Second: people used to marry as a means of property exchange; is that the “non-idolatrous” and “traditional Christian and biblical view” of marriage you’re referring to? (This doesn’t even touch on the fact that all of the Biblical patriarchs were polygamists.)

    Lastly: it’s clear that people often do marry for the “wrong reasons.” Isn’t the job of the church, at that point, to help them understand the “right reasons,” and assist them in trying to live that understanding out?

    Christ came to save sinners, after all; he came to redeem every aspect of fallen human nature, without exception. “What is not assumed is not redeemed,” as the formula goes. That includes “idolatrous” relationships of all kinds, doesn’t it?

  5. Romantic love. Marriage. Wouldn’t touch either with a barge pole mate.

  6. Thanks for all the comments, which I’ll take in turn.
    Tess, I refer to my PEG/PROC distinction in an earlier post. I’m ambivalent about which one is ‘marriage’ – in fact I think the discussion will proceed much more clearly if we abandon that word – but I would reiterate two things: (i) a PEG can be a vehicle for holiness; (ii) a PROC is not the same as a PEG and requires a different moral framework (and social framework). I’m not in favour of perpetuating injustice – but I also think that the needs of the vulnerable need to be taken account of (ie the children) not just the interests of those pursuing their romantic dreams.
    Observer- yes, there is a good case for arranged marriage which follows from this; and yes, I would expect ‘love drugs’ to be on sale within a decade or so.
    Caelius – I need to think more about your comment, especially this: “Marriage is a moral place to experience sex, because it assures stability if children are conceived, not because its final cause is children.” My talk about the esse was a short-hand; as I say to Tess above, it’s really the esse of a PROC relationship which I had in mind. Perhaps I need to stop using the word ‘marriage’ at all! I think that I very much WOULD “like the church to reform the means of discernment for its members, so that it doesn’t start when they sign up for marriage preparation”
    bls – apologies for a slightly misleading text – the ‘traditional Christian and biblical view’ is Dalrock’s own self-description of his perspective. I wouldn’t go along with it completely, although I do think that it contains much of merit that is ignored in present church and society.

  7. Is it fair then to argue gay marriage is perhaps unfairly caught up in a wider debate over the role of marriage in modern society? Christians have their own idea of what marriage should be which is quite different from how marriage actually is in the year 2013.

    When Christians try to argue against gay marriage in public they argue for ‘what should be’ justified by the ‘common good’. This leaves Christians open to charges of bigotry and homophobia because they are inevitably challenged to explain the consequences of gay marriage but their answers are vague and unpersuasive. In other words when Christians claim marriage is between a man and a women for the purpose of child rising they are wrong. At best that is what marriage should be, not what it is.

    • The abuse of a thing does not invalidate the thing itself.

      IF there are people who assert that “gay marriage” is a natural right, the fact that they are wrong doesn’t therefore mean that natural rights don’t exist.

      If “marriage” in our day fails to live up to its definition, then this doesn’t invalidate the definition.

      Why children? This really isn’t that difficult. Without children, a society has no future, literally. If resources are scarce (be those resources oil, water, food, whatever….) a society needs to concentrate on preserving itself, and passing on its resources to the next generation, not consuming them all before it’s too late, and so the environmentalists make the argument against birth control and for the nuclear family.

  8. Observer, I think you’re right. Perhaps Christians would be best off simply abandoning the use of the word ‘marriage’ for a season (I’ve seen it suggested that the season should be for 100 years…) What would be a better word than ‘marriage’ to describe ‘solemn and sacred covenant with child-raising at the heart’??

    • I’d still be anxious to have marriage described rather as a ‘solemn and sacred covenant’ and ‘the best framework in which to raise children’.

      To describe marriage instead as having by definition ‘child-raising at its heart’ would exclude all those who wish to dedicate and vow their relationship before God as ‘solemn and sacred’ and lifelong but who are unable to raise children.

      It seems to me that the frequent attempt to link the definition of marriage specifically to the raising of children is being used not to support the raising of children per se, but rather to exclude gay people from the ‘solemn and sacred’ aspects of marriage, and in that sense it is a disingenuous argument with an ulterior motive.

      Personally, while I can understand the argument of those gay men and women who wish to have their partnership described as ‘marriage’ lest it be considered inferior or open to discrimination (especially in the church), I’d be content if civil partnerships might at least receive sacramental blessing which would demonstrate to all that these relationships are not to some degree disapproved of by our loving Father who takes such delight in us.

      warmest regards as ever, Tess.

      ps Sam you were the one who convinced me that I didn’t need to be antipathetic to homosexuality in order to be a ‘sound’ Christian (when I was coming from a conservative perspective), so it surprises me that I find myself more support of Marriage Equality than you are :). Or am I somehow missing your point here? It’s certainly winding me up 🙂

  9. Ok., I’ll bite.

    Traditional marriage is the only institution which intentionally binds a man and a woman to each other for life. The purpose of this binding is NOT hatred or bigotry, as is sometimes supposed, and I think the observation that before we ban sodomite marriage we should think about divorce is an important reason to address the long-accepted but utterly untenable promotion of divorce.

    Marriage does, indeed, exist as the best environment for the begetting and rearing of children, despite what some statisticians claim. Remember that statistics are, frequently, an excuse to shove ideology down someone’s throat. The case of a chancellor of England from the 1530s comes to mind: all the minds in England in the 1530s vs. all the minds in Christendom for the preceding 1400 years.

    Marriage does, indeed, exist to protect women and children — because men can “sow their wild oats” in all sorts of places, but this gives women the societally sanctioned way of saying “you’re responsible for this, with me”. If the mothers are protected, their children are better tended. This isn’t rocket science or brain surgery.

    Sure, property transfer is a relevant issue, but this doesn’t weaken my case. Instead, it strengthens it. Who shall inherit? Only those who are the legitimate children of the family. Legitimacy involves the bonds of marriage, and therefore the accepted responsibility for the children. If a woman is married, then, by societal taboo, the children she bears are presumed to be those of her husband.

    What purpose does the sex drive serve? To create children. Can it be pleasurable? Yes. Is the pleasure bad? No, unless it is outside of marriage. Does the pleasurable aspect exist to promote the creation of children? Absolutely. The fact that it is (often) pleasurable is pointing us to the idea of many children. [Since this conversation is about marriage, attempts to drag this last point completely out of this context will be rebuffed.]

    God bless,


  10. Whether Marriage is statistically successful in rearing children is not the point (Chris), the point is that is the INTENT of the social (civil or religious) arrangement that has evolved. The only reason for the state to take an interest is as the custodians of future good of future generations (who have no individual say in the marriage arrangements of their parents). State interest in other forms of public declared relationship is just contract law in terms of liabilities of the partnership (party) individuals (parties) involved.

    As an atheist I agree with the thrust of Sams point. The cart has got before the horse. Yes, the biological drive behind romantic love, is concerned sex and progeneration, but as social animals our society has turned evolved traditions into cultural (social and intellectual) interests on top of biological interests. In the marriage debate, it has become so knotty – all exceptions and no norms – because the original INTENT has been forgotten.

    (Yes we can legislate for exceptions – like gay relationships intent on adopting and raising kids, etc, and yes there can be partnerships of any kind – and why stop at two, etc. – but the base case for marriage has been wrongly forgotten.)

    (Did several posts about the trivialisation of these debates in the last few months, wasting parliamentary time etc. Sam. And PS, glad to see you made the switch to WordPress.)

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