Now I’ll try to redeem through non-legal dimensions marriage and maybe even weddings, though the latter are so culturally dominated that they’re pretty hopeless. In fact, marriage is pretty much shaped by religious institutions and general cultural conventions, too, but I’ll try to get down under to basics. I’ll start with a generalization.
Marriage is an embodiment of an emotional bond between two people, most often but not necessarily a man and a woman. One aspect of embodiment is physical enjoyment of each other, which may be connected to procreation, but maybe not. It could be delight in being in the same room together. Certainly sex is an overwhelming drive and this has persisted because it makes the species survive. Also, arrangements which tend to keep females in a protected or group environment also tend to protect children, which is species preserving, while for the same reasons men who are encouraged to be good warriors and hunters serve the same purpose. But these things that are good for the group may destroy or twist individuals.
Embodiment is individual-to-individual and therefore persists because of the value of the bond to those specific persons. (In the final aggregate, the culture benefits.) Endless stories tell us what happens when the personal desire for connected intimacy comes into conflict with the larger culture or with implacable events. In these cases the married people may not save themselves even though they could if they gave up their pair bond. When they have bonded truly, the preservation of the bodies gives way to the preservation of identity and that will include the relationship to the other, even if the other is not there anymore.
Religious institutions want people to bond to THEM that way, which is why Catholic religious are supposed to be married to God. If they break their vow of celibacy, they are denying their spiritual marriage to what is called “God,” but is really the religious institution that guides them. Church and marriage are competitors. The recent failure of institutions to eject vow-breakers is probably good for individuals in the short run but will not tend to preserve the institution -- though, paradoxically, that’s the intention. In fact, the failure to defrock would not happen if the institution were not already failing. Let me be more clear: an institution that is not strong enough to eject predatory priests -- even after they are identified -- is not strong enough OBVIOUSLY to protect the children of the institution.
The same is true of the social institution of marriage, which is going the way of the harem, for much the same reasons: the present understanding of marriage doesn’t tend to support that particular variation on pair-bonding rules. Again, let me be clear. A marriage that does not protect the pair-bond and the children it produces is not a marriage. Pair-bonds raise hell with harems. They are as likely to form between two of the women as with the Caliph.
There are no social rules about pair bonds now except media-promoted emotion. Probably it was birth control that broke the previous procreation-based arrangements or maybe it was being able to tell who hit-and-run inseminators are or maybe being able to manipulate the creation of a new person so completely through in vitro, surrogates and so on that babies are reduced to products. Maybe it was economic. There has been none of the necessary evolutions in social arrangements that would tend to preserve the species, particularly the quality of the species. Day care, sequential marriages, blended families, therapists -- not enough.
Instead the failure of families to support loyal pair-bonding has caused embodiment to veer off into romance and pill-ecstasy, producing hordes of children -- broken, uncherished, desperate children who tend to weaken and could destroy the species. They are human vectors, not just of disease (which they are) but of despair and destruction. Saving them as individuals is heart-breaking work, but how can we not attempt it?
So there’s Isaiah one, the danger. Now for Isaiah two, the salvation.
In the face of all chaos, the human heart yearns for intimacy and finds it in unlikely places between individuals who are far from ideal or typical. Many of these relationships are “virtual,” with no physical contact, and can go bad if they become obsessive or parasitic. But those are not embodiments, just some of the undercurrents that can affect pair-bonds. Too new to really know what the consequences of the Internet will be.
They tell us that when two people are in close physical proximity, the exocells (bacteria, viruses, skin parasites, worms) migrate back and forth until the pair shares the populations equally. We are told that these exobeings contribute to the functioning of the basic cell-community of the body, and one of their functions may be to bring two people into closer harmony with each other, since they can affect behavior.
Beyond that, the neuro-theorists say that the cutting edge of evolution for the whole species is the capacity to closely interact with other humans, often described as “empathy” with certain cells specifically identified as the carriers of this ability. The ability to be intimate is not universal, but for those who have it, life is enriched and survival is enhanced, as is the survival of offspring. When one is sick, hurt, or non compos mentis, the other copes. When one is out of work, the other one earns. When one is getting nutty or distracted, the other one gives him or her a sharp rap. When one is trapped, the other works to free him or her. When one is away, the other person maintains the place in the home for the return.
So now for some ceremonial elements that aren’t just words. We already do the bits of lighting candles and sharing wine or mixing salt with sugar and the kiss and rings or crushing wineglasses. In the Blackfeet sign language community some will respond to an excellent speech or prayer with a gesture of extended arms drawn back to cross over the heart. It means “All that you say, I take to my heart.” Once I taught this to a small fellowship and a man in the group stood up to reverse the gesture, as though he were finding something in his heart and holding it out. “All that is in my heart, I give back to you.” Not a bad symbol for a wedding.
The trouble with these signs and symbols is that they acquire “misplaced concreteness” through marketing (ever more fabulous rings, dresses, and cakes) and competition. I once had a bride throw a hizzy fit because her wedding cake was in the same cooler as a bride to be married later in the day. This church had a huge commercial cooler and a spacious kitchen because so much of their income was from wedding rentals. Another bride made so much fuss about little things that I finally told her to stop pretending. “Just have your debutante ball downtown in a fabulous hotel. Then come by the church together some quiet afternoon and we’ll perform a wedding ceremony.” Neither of these brides were members of the church.
And that’s what’s missing when embodiment pair-bonding is only between individuals: what I call the “holding community” of family and friends, who were originally there to see that the ceremony is an honest proclamation between people acting in good faith and also to pledge their help if things get tough. My premarital counseling always included the question, “What will you do if this marriage gets into trouble? What are your strategies and resources for getting back to normal?” Some knew.
For other emergencies and dilemmas, it is the embodied relationship that responds. That’s what marriage is about, an embodied intimacy dynamic enough to endure and thrive.