Monday, November 13, 2006

The Unwritten Sexual Constitution of Our Civilization

Allan Carlson, one the leading conservative marriage proponents, uses this phrase in his new book, Conjugal America. The foundation of this unwritten constitution, he argues, is procreative marriage. Tying procreation and marriage firmly together is, he argues, the cultural achievement on which the rest of Western civilization rests.

Carlson frames the creation of the unwritten sexual constitution in the chaos at the end of the Roman empire. The ancient Roman republic had had a stern marriage code. By the early years of the church, though, the decadence of empire had eroded that old standard to an "anything goes" sexual culture. Making babies and being married had become disconnected.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, Carlson argues, "the Fathers of the Christian Church crafted a new sexual order." They were arguing not only with pagans, but also with two Gnostic strands within Christianity. The Gnostics thought they had a secret knowledge that set them apart from ordinary people. One Gnostic group took their specialness to mean that no sexual rules applied to them, that gospel freedom meant all sex was fine. The other, more intellectually potent brand of Gnosticism argued that sex and procreation were bad, that living in our material bodies is a trial and an imprisonment. On the one hand, sex and babies without marriage. On the other hand, no sex and no babies.

The leaders of the early church took a middle path. They saw, as Genesis says, that Creation is good. Babies are good, and thus sex has its place. The great achievement of the early church, Carlson argues, is to promote an ideal that put sex in marriage for making and raising children. Children, as his first chapter title proclaims are the "first purpose of marriage." Carlson credits Augustine with the most enduring formulation of the Christian ideal of procreative marriage. We sometimes think of Augustine as anti-sex, but really he was promoting a high standard of sex within marriage because sex has such a strong potential to lead us astray.

"And," Carlson writes, "as articulated by Augustine in the year 400 AD, this moral order lasted for another 1,500 years."

I think the idea that there is an unwritten sexual constitution to our civilization based on marriage and children is a powerful one. In fact, I would go a step further, and argue that procreative marriage is Article I of the unwritten constitution of every civilization.

13 comments:

Mark Smith said...

What does this say to couples (like me) who choose not to have children?

Gruntled said...

I think he is talking about a civilizational ideal. Any given couple may have good reasons for not wanting children. I think most Christians (at least) could agree that if a whole society chose against children, that would be bad.

Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

I must voice my sympathy with Mr. Smith. I've met people who were married, but abstained from having children. They viewed it as being a contribution to society, given the currently high level of population. Some of their friends viewed it as "selfish" for not contributing more children to society. I guess you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

Marriage as an aspect of "civilization" goes back to the beginnings of slavery. In fact, it was the basis of all other forms of slavery that came afterwards. The enslaving rules of civil marriage is one of those unspoken aspects of the institution that we would be better off confronting, rather than sweeping under the rug.

There are those who see slavery as an essential aspect of "civilization" and of human existence. There are others who prefer to face the truth in order to become free of that dehumanizing aspect of what masquerades as civilization. Let's not forget that opponents to abolition taxed the Bible heavily in their support of chattel relationships. Their god was not a liberating one.

Gruntled said...

What is the connection that you are drawing between marriage and slavery?

Anonymous said...

"The enslaving rules of civil marriage is one of those unspoken aspects of the institution..."

I honestly don't get this, either, Sophia.

Help me understand.

Sophia Sadek said...

Perhaps you are more familiar with the liturgical aspects of the institution. Legally, one spouse is the property of another spouse. Traditionally, it has been the wife who is the property of the husband. More modern law codes have altered this to make the husband the property of the wife. Also, the children are the property of their parents, until the age of majority.

Anonymous said...

"Legally, one spouse is the property of another spouse. Traditionally, it has been the wife who is the property of the husband. More modern law codes have altered this to make the husband the property of the wife. Also, the children are the property of their parents, until the age of majority."

=============================

I'm sorry to be so dense.

I'll take your word for this, especially since it seems highly plausible.

Given that, then...

Since modern law evidently does not think of this kind of "property" in the same way that it thinks of "property" like one's car or home (i.e., I'm ignorant of anyone attempting to sell their spouse, let alone successfully (lol))... and...

Since both "properties" "own" one another... and...

Since, conventionally-speaking, both parties decide to become "owned" by their own self-determination (in the U.S., anyway)...

How does any of this remotely smell of the ugliness of what we ordinarily consider to be "slavery?"

This is what I'm missing.

It seems more like a game of word labels, choosing to describe the circumstances/parameters of current-world marriage using word labels from a less civilized age, in order to portray it in a dark way.

Is that an unfair observation? Or, maybe I'm off in left field? (Sorry.)

Anonymous said...

"I think he is talking about a civilizational ideal. Any given couple may have good reasons for not wanting children. I think most Christians (at least) could agree that if a whole society chose against children, that would be bad."

============================

Not to mention, most humanists, and certainly most evolutionists.

*wink*

Sophia Sadek said...

Yeah, you're right. There's no similarity between spousal slavery and any other kind. For example, a spouse would never be beaten by their "master" for doing something offensive. Nor would a child, for that matter.

There are those who say that the purpose of marriage is procreation. This is not the case. Marriage is a property relationship whose purpose is to determine the legal heir of material assets (earthly treasures). Procreation does not depend on that relationship, and vice versa.

Mark Smith said...

Sophia,

Thanks for your sympathy.

Unfortunately, my personal experience doesn't tie out with your description of marriage as slavery. Carolyn and I don't really own each other. We think of it more like a really cheap long-term lease. Shoot, we can barely tell the difference between "my" stuff and "her" stuff - it's all so blended now.

The reality is that it's a recognition that together we are better than the sum of the two of us. In fact, each of us is better because of the other than we would have been alone.

We also left the word "obey" out of our vows. It happens, but it's more like the obedience of a cat - we recognize that either 1) it's a good idea, or 2) the downside is bad enough that we might as well listen. #1 most of the time, #2 seldom.

From what I can see, the same holds true for both sets of our parents.

Alan said...

I'm not understanding the whole spousal slavery idea here either. Seems fairly heterosexist, actually.

However, my neice at the precocious age of 5, while trying to figure out my relationship to my husband did once ask him, "So....are you Uncle Alan's slave?" :)

Chairm said...

There are those who say that the purpose of marriage is procreation. [...] [The] purpose is to determine the legal heir of material assets [...] Procreation does not depend on that relationship, and vice versa.

You seem to be making the common error of confusing the legalistic shadow of marriage with the social institution of marriage which casts that shadow.

The purpose or marriage is not merely procreation.

The core of marriage is the combination of 1) sex integration (aka complementarity) and 2) responsible procreation (i.e. conceving, bearing, and raising one's children).

Property is inherited, sure, but that is not the core of marriage.

You appear to mistake the protocols of custom and various legal schemes with the core of marriage. The thing being recognized, marriage, is a social institution and not merely a property relationship.

Property relationships come in a variety of forms, including the nonmarital. But the conjugal relationship has always integrated both sexes and combined that with the contingency for responsible procreation.

The protocols of a given society, culture, or legal system may varying considerably -- with various levels of success in protecting and preferencing the social institution.

The concept of an unwritten sexual constitution is probably what queer theorists describe as the heterosexist flaw of marriage in modern society. But that's pretty thin fare.

Gruntled said...

Chairm:

Which is the thin fair -- the sexual constitution, or the flaw?