Thursday, March 16, 2006

Marriage as a Sacred Vow

[In the next set of posts, I will work through the essays in a rich new book, The Meaning of Marriage, edited by Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain.] [Sorry for the delay - Blogger was down.]

Roger Scruton, a noted British cultural commentator, starts his analysis of marriage from sexual desire. He says our culture is debasing sexual desire into a game of physical sensation pursued for pleasure. Really, though, sexual desire is a desire for the other person. Further, men and women are so contrasting and complementary in their natures that something as strong as sexual desire is necessary to bridge the gap, to make us desire the Other person.

Desiring the other person who complements us opens the way to becoming a new kind of being, different and in some respects greater than we would otherwise be. But to become this new status, it is not enough to be joined merely physically, and it is not enough to be joined for a moment.

Marriage, in its inner nature, says Scruton, is a vow. It is not just a promise, and it is certainly not just a contract. Promises are for a time; contracts can be fulfilled. A vow, though, is an eternal change of status. This is why marriage is sacred in its internal meaning, because through marriage we participate in an eternal transformation.

Scruton is a famous curmudgeon in Britain, and in the manner of British curmudgeons, expects the worst from America culture. He knows he is arguing against the grain of elite opinion in our society, even if most people feel the sacred sense of marriage as he does. He expects that the courts will impose a different definition of marriage, under which "marriage" is whatever contract for sex individuals want to make. Moreover, he expects that once this elite opinion has been imposed in law, it will be imposed just as thoroughly by the thought police of political correctness.

I am not as pessimistic as Scruton (I am more gruntled). I am impressed, though, with his deeper reading of sexual desire and the vow of marriage. I also think he is right that we are on the verge of enshrining in our law a much shallower, more self-serving and hedonistic understanding of sex and marriage.

Which is why we need to have a clear and open discussion of the deep meaning of marriage, without thought police and political correctness.

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