Friday, September 25, 2015

The Meaning of Marriage

This is part 7 of my series "Cultivating a Heart Open to Life"

“When has marriage ever been about having children?”

 These words, spoken over the radio, stopped me mid-stir. I was making dinner for my family and listening to the news on NPR. The news coverage was about the legal battles that had been going on in California over the gay marriage issue. This man, who was preparing to be married to his male partner, had just given a long list of reasons why there were no reasons that anyone should be opposed to same-sex marriage. When asked by the reporter about the rights of children the man ended his argument with those words,

“When has marriage ever been about having children?”

His words rocked me to my soul and I realized something that completely changed my perspective on same-sex marriage.  I think, like many of my faithful Christian friends and acquaintances, I had been confused about why the LDS Church (and other Christian churches) has taken such a strong stance in opposition to same-sex marriage. It seemed to me that two adults should have the same right as any other adults to live however they felt made them happy. Why do we need to take a stand against that?

Yet in those moments in my kitchen I had a wash of understanding and clarity and I saw that much of my confusion came because we, as a society, have lost an understanding of what a marriage really is about.

To most Americans the word "marriage" now means something like this:
“The commitment of two consenting adults [insert gender-specification if you are conservative; exclude gender-specification if you are liberal] to cohabitate under the sanction of legal and/or religious institutions.” 
When one views the marriage relationship like this, as merely a loose contract between two adults who love one another and want to commit to each other then it does get confusing about why a church, or even God, would be opposed to such a thing. I mean if a same-sex couple loved and cared for each other as much, or more, than a hetero-sexual couple what could be the problem? It doesn’t really affect anyone but them, right?

Yet I think what I understood that day in my kitchen was that marriage is about so much more than love, sex, or even commitment. Marriage, as it has manifested itself is all successful societies,  is about two things: unity between men and women and the creation of new human life.

As Latter-day Saints we know that before we were born our spirits were male or female and that after we leave this world we will continue to be male or female. In The Family: A Proclamation to the World it states, 

All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

Our gender is an essential part of who have been, who we are, and who we will be.Yet I think that in discussions about  gay marriage, and gay issues in general, that it seems like people base their whole identity not on their gender (are you biologically and eternally a man or biologically and eternally a woman) but rather on who they are sexually attracted to. I'll admit that sexuality is important, but I don't think it defines who you are. Our maleness or our femaleness is an important part of who we are and it is SO much more than who we are sexually attracted to. I loved these videos put out by Humanum that elaborates on this theme.

Men and women are opposite and complimentary in so many ways and marriage gives us the opportunity to learn to create peace, harmony and unity between male and female energy. Think of it like a battery, where in order to create electrical power there needs to be a flow between two opposite charged ends. Electricity is only created when the batteries are aligned in a way in which energy can flow between the female (negative charge) and the male (positive charge) ends. If you put two female ends together or two male ends together no power or energy is created. When male and female energy is combined it creates the world's greatest masterpiece-- human life. Even in couples that struggle with fertility the combination of male and female power is a powerful force for teaching, shaping, and creating righteous families and societies.

It is powerful to remember that as Latter-day Saints we believe that God is a not just male, but that God is composed of both our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother; two exalted beings who are perfectly unified. I think we can see this in a temple marriage ceremony, which is God's ideal situation for marriage. God takes two fully "charged" or endowed beings, beings who individually have been given active male or female spiritual power,  and then seals them together with the express purpose of creating life-- mortal and eternal. In fact in Moses 1:39 God states:

“For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” 

The earth was created to create and nurture mortal and eternal life, and marriage and the creation of families is the means by which that work is carried out. In God's eyes marriage is certainly about love, but a certain type of love. Marriage is about learning to have love like our Heavenly  Father has for our Heavenly Mother and love like our Heavenly Mother has for our Heavenly Father, love whose fruit is new life.
Yet I think it is safe to say that for much of western society the idea of marriage doesn't center around the perpetuation of life but instead centers around adult individual interests and their pursuit of romance. As Robert A. Johnson says in his book “WE” our society has a bad case of “romance addiction”, a belief that personal fulfillment and happiness is the most important goal of a society. He says,

“The cult of romance legislates a new definition of “good” and “bad”. Our new morality says that there is nothing so important as to be “in love,” to feel that intensity and ecstasy, to believe that one has once again found one’s missing soul… Believing this we could not but enact a new standard of right and wrong: Whatever comes from being “in love” is “right”; whatever serves my passion is right, and whatever stands in the way of my passion must be shoved aside for the higher “good.”  (“We”, pg 100)

I think that understanding that the purpose of marriage is not just about romantic love but is intricately linked to the continuation of life (mortal and eternal) is the key to understanding what the word marriage really means.

Words are powerful symbols. God tells us in the scriptures that it was by His "word" that the universe was created. The words we use help us create and shape the world we live in. Satan knows this and he works hard to distort and corrupt key symbols to confuse God's work. I think this is exactly what is happening with the word "marriage". Which is why I think it is important that even though the Supreme Court in the US may have changed the laws governing marriage, and even changed the very meaning of the word,  that we work hard to teach our children what "marriage" really is.

Because the truth is that same-sex couples will never be able to either one of the two key parts of what marriage is really about-- creating unity between men and women and creating new human life. In fact, I remember that on the day that the US Supreme Court ruled  gay marriage was constitutional I read an article in the New York Times in which it talked about all the rights that gay couples would now have under the law. Honestly, most them I really didn't have a problem with (like being able to visit each other in the hospital, to inherit property, etc,)  but there was one that I couldn't quite get over. The article said that one of the rights that gay couples would now have was to have their names put on their children's birth certificates.

The illogical nature of that statement floored me. How does one put two men's names or two women's names on a child's birth certificate? No matter how you try to arrange things a child will always only have one mother (the person who gave birth to you) and one father (the person whose chromosomes you carry) and there isn't any other way to configure that. It seems like such a basic, biological, indisputable fact to me and it boggles my mind that a society thinks that we could change something like that just because of a vote.

Even so,  I think that the root of our society's problem with the word "marriage" goes even deeper than just gay marriage.  In many ways our society no longer views marriage, even between male-female couples, with the purposes for which God created it. We have taken the “perpetuation of life” out of the center of the picture and replaced it with “romantic love”, “personal happiness”, and “sexual fulfillment” for adults. This was really evident to me several years ago when I was doing historical research for "The Gift of Giving Life" and was reading through historical documents about birth and midwifery in early frontier America. In one of the old magazine articles I read it stated something along the lines of, “The greatest desire of all newly married couples is children, and so it is rejoiced at when they come quickly and abundantly.”

That line stood out to me because it seemed so different than things are today. I could only think of a handful of newly married couples that I knew whose greatest desire when getting married was children. I know that I certainly wasn’t one of them. I think that I, like most newly married couples today, was thinking mostly about myself and about my romantic relationship with my husband. That certainly wasn’t completely wrong, love and companionship is a huge part of a good marriage and it is something a couple should be focused on. Yet I think too often we now think of marriage as being primarily about a romantic relationship and forget that from the very start children are just as much an integral part of marriage.

As Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained:
“From the perspective of the plan of salvation, one of the most serious abuses of children is to deny them birth. This is a worldwide trend. The national birthrate in the United States is the lowest in 25 years, and the birthrates in most European and Asian countries have been below replacement levels for many years. This is not just a religious issue. As rising generations diminish in numbers, cultures and even nations are hollowed out and eventually disappear…
Two scholars of the family explain: “Throughout history, marriage has first and foremost been an institution for procreation and raising children. It has provided the cultural tie that seeks to connect the father to his children by binding him to the mother of his children. Yet in recent times, children have increasingly been pushed from center stage.”

A Harvard law professor describes the current law and attitude toward marriage and divorce: “The [current] American story about marriage, as told in the law and in much popular literature, goes something like this: marriage is a relationship that exists primarily for the fulfillment of the individual spouses. If it ceases to perform this function, no one is to blame and either spouse may terminate it at will. … Children hardly appear in the story; at most they are rather shadowy characters in the background.” ("Protect the Children, October 2012)
The perpetuation of life is at the center of our purpose here on earth and when collectively a society looses that understanding they write their own death sentence. Not only because they are unable to physically reproduce themselves, but also because they are in direct opposition to God's moral law concerning marriage and sexuality. The laws of the universe are not something we can change, or even argue about, any more than we could argue against the laws of aerodynamics.

I know that position doesn’t make me popular or politically correct in today’s world, but it is Truth with a capital “T”, and I am sticking to it like I would a parachute.  Marriage, that aims for unity between a man and a woman and the creation of life, has been at the heart of every successful and viable civilization since the beginning of time. So my resounding answer to that man I heard on the radio is, “Marriage has always been about having children. ”

A better question to ask might be, “Why isn’t marriage about having children any more?”


  1. Overall, this is a fabulous post with which I very much agree. However, I have to take issue with the following statement. (I'm sure hoping it was an oversight on your part.) "No matter how you try to arrange things a child will always only have one mother (the person who gave birth to you) and one father (the person whose chromosomes you carry) and there isn't any other way to configure that." Ouch. My children are adopted. They have two mothers and two fathers. They have a mother who gave birth to them and a father whose chromosomes they carry. They also have a mother and father who have raised them, sacrificed for them, and loved them since they were newborns and to whom they are eternally sealed.

    1. Lisa, good point. After your comment I went back and did a bit of research and I found that when a child is adopted that the original birth certificate (with the birth parents names on it) is sealed and new "revised birth certificate" is issued with the adoptive parents names on it, so it looks as if they were the ones who gave birth to the child. That is neat, and was something I didn't know. It makes a lot more sense to me now why the New York Times article would have mentioned about adoptive same sex couples being put on a birth certificate. I get that now.

      But still, whose name do you put as the mother and whose name do you put as the father? Or do they have two mothers and two fathers? It still seems like a bit of a leap of logic in my opinion :)

      Thanks for the comment, I didn't mean to imply that adoptive parents are any less real parents to their children. I was just trying to point out that EVERY person born has to have a biological father and biological mother, and that is something that we can't change and is an important part of what marriage is all about.

    2. We will be finalizing the adoption of our son in December, and someone was telling me that one of the things the judge will tell you when they finalize your adoption is that your child is now yours, as if they had been born to you!

      Just the adoptive mother's and father's name will be on the revised birth certificate. Only our son's birth mother is on his current birth certificate (she chose not to include the birth father's name on the birth certificate).

    3. Yes, my husband's and my names are on our children's revised birth certificates; the original birth certificates are sealed according to law (I believe this depends on the state.) I actually have mixed feelings about this; I don't feel like I need to have my name on their birth certificate, and it feels deceptive to me. I don't need to pretend that my children were born to me in order to be really their parents. But that's a discussion for another time.

      Heather, I agree that everyone person has to have a biological mother and biological father; it was the way you worded it ("only one mother, the person who gave birth to you") that gave me pause, since in my experience giving birth only one small part of being a mother. Otherwise, I completely agree with the sentiment you were trying to express.

  2. One thing another friend pointed out to me that I hadn't considered before is that a homosexual marriage stalls a person's progression to eternal life. For example, think of a missionary who comes across a very interested couple in learning more about the gospel of Jesus Christ. This couple is not married, but live together. As time goes on they wish to be baptized and strive for the temple. But in order to align their life, they must first be married. This type of dynamic happens often in the mission field, and those who desire to further their commitment to the Lord usually go forward with marriage. But how does this relate to the homosexual couple? They can not be married as it is contrary to the laws of God. They can not stay together as it is contrary to the commandments. They can not strive for an eternal progression with their same sex partner.

    Take it a step further and focus on the next life and you can see a bigger issue--they aren't able to have the potential of progressing with their partner as it is again, contrary to the laws of God. Their children (should they adopt here on Earth) can not be sealed to that family as that marriage won't exist in the next life. Their progression is quite literally stalled, and their children can not inherit all the blessings, specifically a sealing to their parents. If you take a look of homosexual marriage in the eternal perspective, it makes sense why the Church has been so strong in their stance---this type of lifestyle does not offer the opportunity to grow and develop with your spouse in the next life like a heterosexual relationship can and may do. For me, who also struggled with the Church's firm stance, it made a lot of sense. We are always talking about the eternal perspective in this Church, and in this case, you can see where it can cause a big problem to ones eternal progression, both individually and collectively as a whole.

    1. From the official church website, "Though some people, including those resisting same-sex attraction, may not have the opportunity to marry a person of the opposite sex in this life, a just God will provide them with ample opportunity to do so in the next."

      We can't make blanket statements about the way God will judge because His ways our higher than our ways. He alone knows about eternal progression because He knows each and every individual.

      Every individual deserves hope. We don't know the reasons why people are gay (or born gay). But what we do know is that God loves all His children and is merciful.

      Eternal progression for gays is possible. Whether they are married or not. We are not God. And we can only go by the words of His prophets.

      Again, "Though some people, including those resisting same-sex attraction, may not have the opportunity to marry a person of the opposite sex in this life, a just God will provide them with ample opportunity to do so in the next."

  3. Yes, yes, yes and YES! I had to come to this same realization a couple of years ago. I had supported my parents in campaigning against Prop 22 and later Prop 8, but hadn't fully gotten it. I sorta went along because the church supported it and my parents supported it and that was good enough for me. I finally had to sit down and think about why we even cared, and I realized that I totally did not get what marriage was... and I'd been married for awhile, and we even had at least one of our kids by then! As I sat down and thought about it I realized that the reason the government cares about marriage is that it is the institution for raising their next generation of citizens. The government (as I see it) is most important to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Children are the first that come to mind. Governments don't care who you love or hate or like spending time with, they care about that contract that you make together to create new life and care for it. Once I understood that my entire perspective on marriage and families shifted. I hope I can pass that along to my children, but I suspect they'll have to have their own conversion moment on that principle too.

    1. I agree, everyone has to have their own conversion moment when it comes to understanding what marriage, sexuality and our eternal gender as male or female is about and how it factors into the plan of salvation you can't really force that on anyone. Its something they have to feel and see for themselves. But I think that you are right, that children are the center of understanding that perspective and that when we turn our hearts towards the future it opens up a whole new level of perspective that I think is often lacking from most conversations.

  4. President Packer's last talk was about the Plan of Salvation and how key procreation is in it. He said "The power of procreation is not an incidental part of the plan; it is the plan of happiness; it is the key to happiness."
    Your post actually helped me clarify that talk in my mind. (We had it as a 3rd Sunday lesson and I didn't quite get it at the level I wanted.)

    1. As I have been studying this topic for the last several years I found that president packer has been the most out spoken of all the apostles on this topic. It was fun to see that some of the things he said in last conference were the exact same things he was saying back in the 70's :) I am going to miss him!

  5. Much of what you said here resonates with me.