Marriage, Fertility, & The Tribe
Yesterday my neighbor, who is moving, let me into his library to have the pick of some books he doesn’t want anymore. Great neighbor, eh? One of the paperbacks I picked up was Cosmos And History: The Myth Of Eternal Return, by the great comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade. I don’t know the book (the edition I have was published in 1954), but I know Eliade’s reputation, and it sounded like the kind of thing I would like. I flipped through the book yesterday, and it gave me an insight into our anxieties over same-sex marriage — perhaps an insight that will not be validated by a close reading of the entire book, but one I wanted to raise here for the sake of discussion.
Eliade begins by saying that the main difference between archaic and traditional man on one side, and modern man on the other, is in the way they seem themselves related to the Cosmos. The former, says Eliade, “feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos and the cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter, with his “strong imprint of Judaeo-Christianity,” feels that he is only connected to History. Eliade says that for archaic man, the point of life is to re-enact sacred history — that is, to re-present through rituals the founding myths of the Cosmos, and through this repetition of mythical events and paradigms regenerate the Cosmos and the communion of all who reside within the community.
For societies so constituted, places and acts have meaning only insofar as they relate to the founding myths of the Cosmos. One must repeat the gestures that were first done by the gods, mythological heroes, or ancestors. One must construct one’s buildings and sanctify one’s environment according to the transcendent model. This turns chaos into Cosmos, and is the purpose of life and the substance of being. “Man constructs according to an archetype,” Eliade writes.
Now, the “repetition of Creation” is “the pre-eminently divine act,” he writes. Every ritual has a divine origin, especially marriage, which “reproduces the hierogamy [sacred marriage], more especially the union of heaven and earth.” The point for our purposes here is that to traditional man, the rituals in which he participates are, for him, ontological. They are about conforming human behavior to transcendental reality, and participating directly in that reality. To unite heaven and earth — in the temple, in the marital bed — is necessary to circulate sacred energy, and thereby to keep the cycle of life going throughout the Cosmos. To fail to perform the rituals is to risk the dissolution of the Cosmos into chaos, and to lose oneself in the maelstrom. It is to be conquered by time.
Eliade says the Hebrews, and later, the Christians, changed all that. The Hebrews, he says, were the first people to conceive of God not as a creator of archetypes, but as a personality who intervenes in history, and with whom one has a personal relationship. The Israelites didn’t do away with traditional archetypes completely, but they came to see their own history not as fixed and cyclical; rather, it was linear, beginning with particular historical events, and moving toward a culmination at the end of time, with the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of paradise. As Eliade puts it, “Periodic regeneration of the Creation is replaced by a single regeneration that will take place in an in illo tempore [in that time] to come.”
For Eliade, the distinction of Judaism and, later, Christianity, is that it ended the fatalism intrinsic to the older religions. God was a god of History, one who valued the individual person, and who entered into their story. There was only one cycle of cosmic history, and all events, including suffering, were opportunities to see God’s will, and return to communion with Him. Faith becomes the bridge to the divine and the cosmic, not rituals and sacrifices. Rituals and sacrifices are still performed, of course, but they do not have the same qualities that they did, and do, to archaic man. The sacrifice of the Mass, for example, is central to Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, but to fail to perform it will not cause the universe to collapse.
From all this came a way of thinking about History as linear, as one of progress. The contemporary English political philosopher John Gray, in his book Black Mass, credits (and strongly criticizes) Christianity for introducing into the consciousness of Western man the idea of history as progressing towards Utopia. The various secular Utopias that emerged from the Enlightenment all owe their existence, in Gray’s view, to the Christian idea of history as progressing towards a cosmic culmination and the restoration of paradise, i.e., a state of perfect peace and contentment.
OK, so what does this have to do with the same-sex marriage debate? Before I tell you my impressions, I underscore that these are only impressions based on a very quick and superficial reading of Eliade’s book. I welcome your own thoughts and constructive criticism.
Many people today who support same-sex marriage (SSM) think that it is obviously right and just, and that everyone who was free of prejudice, the result of Christian indoctrination, would agree with them. And to some degree, they’re correct. As I wrote in TAC earlier this year, SSM is not just a social revolution, but a cosmological one. Eliade’s words from over half a century ago underscore that point. We do not believe that our sexual acts require sacralization. We in the West have not believed for a very, very long time that sex and marriage are the key to keeping the cosmic cycles going, but we have believed for Christian reasons that marriage is ordained by God as part of His plan for human flourishing. We are participating in the divine plan through marriage and reproduction, but not in the same way, or for the same reasons, as archaic man. We still believe that the creation of new life is “the pre-eminently divine act,” which is why we constructed a sacred archetype around the fecund union of man and woman.
But we no longer believe that, not as a culture. It’s not that we don’t value marriage at all, but rather the connection between marriage, fertility, and cosmic order has been severed by modernity, which entails not only technological capacity to manage fertility, but moral changes that destroyed the Christian view of marriage. From my TAC article:
This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force?
Though he might not have put it quite that way, the eminent sociologist Philip Rieff would probably have said yes. Rieff’s landmark 1966 book The Triumph Of the Therapeutic analyzes what he calls the “deconversion” of the West from Christianity. Nearly everyone recognizes that this process has been underway since the Enlightenment, but Rieff showed that it had reached a more advanced stage than most people—least of all Christians—recognized.
Rieff, who died in 2006, was an unbeliever, but he understood that religion is the key to understanding any culture. For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.
You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality. This is the basis of natural-law theory, which has been at the heart of contemporary secular arguments against same-sex marriage (and which have persuaded no one).
When a Christian says that same-sex marriage is wrong “because God says so,” or some variation of such, what he is really saying is that it profoundly violates one of the fundamental archetypes established by God for his Creation. This is why pro-SSM claims that Christians are irrationally stigmatizing homosexuality over other things they consider sinful are so off-base. Eliade’s discussion of the way primitive and archaic cultures considered marriage and fertility illuminates the profound concerns many Christians today have about same-sex marriage, but cannot articulate, even to themselves. To abandon the Biblical model of marriage accepted by Christians is to violate perhaps the most fundamental taboo of all, long pre-dating Christianity: the belief that the meeting of heaven and earth, and the perpetuation of the cycle of life, depends on sacralizing the fecund union of male and female.
Now, no anti-SSM Christian would say that the cosmos will fall apart if gays are allowed to marry. But it is entirely rational to fear that society will fall into chaos if marriage is decoupled, as it has been, from its connection to cosmic order, most importantly to the creation and nurturing of new life. Look at what has happened to many in the African-American community, where marriage among the lower classes has more or less ceased to exist, and the community is not thriving. The sanctity of marriage, which entails the demand that childbearing only take place within marriage, is a critically important concept for the stability and perpetuation of society. When it ceases to exist — that is, when marriage is understood as serving some other primary function (romantic fulfillment, say) other than the begetting and raising of the next generation — we are in trouble. Gay marriage can only exist in a society that has severed the connection between marriage and fertility. This, as many have pointed out, occurred among heterosexuals long before anybody thought about the possibility of gay marriage. It is hard for many Christians in our country to defend what they instinctively know to be true because they themselves have essentially lost the felt bond between marriage and fertility.
It would be absurd to say that homosexuality, or extramarital sex, was unknown in traditional cultures. The important point is that what a culture called “marriage” — and it differed across cultures — was the sacralization of the generative act, and the conditions under which it is ideally to be performed. If marriage by definition has nothing to do with fertility and, more broadly, with cosmic order (whether in a primitive, magical sense, or in the Judeo-Christian sense of participating in the life of God by obeying his commandments), then its ultimate meaning is not fixed or bounded except as we choose it to be to suit our desires. There resides in most of us, I think, memory of an ancient taboo that has been part of human practice for almost all of its history. We don’t believe in these things anymore, and so radically has the belief been undone that for many Americans today, the thought that anybody could doubt the obvious rightness of same-sex marriage is perverse.
The question is this: on the question of marriage, fecundity, and cosmic order, was there wisdom in the species? Can cultures and societies survive a nominalist conception of marriage? We won’t know for a long time yet.