I’m supposed to give a talk for an Eastern Orthodox audience next month, and in preparation I’m reading Stages on Life’s Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics in the hopes of roughly familiarizing myself with the Orthodox tradition. I came upon one passage, in the chapter on “The Covenantal Aspect of Christian Marriage,” that I thought was just beautiful. I may have to read more Orthodox theology!
Orthodoxy considers both the unitive and procreative aspects of marriage to be important. Yet it finds the ultimate reason for conjugal union in a higher truth. Husband and wife are joined in marriage to participate in a self-giving love of transcendent origin. That love, which creates mutual desire as it brings forth a new reality of “one flesh,” finds its sublime expression in the longing the couple shares for eternal life in communion with the Holy Trinity. In addition to procreation and committed union, Orthodoxy understand the ultimate purpose and meaning of marriage to be soteriological: through it, husband and wife are called and enabled to work out their mutual salvation. To grasp the mystery of one-flesh union as God intended it, we need to approach it from the perspective of the Church’s theology, rather than, for example, from that of the medieval conception of romantic love or the modern psychotherapeutic notion of love as a means of self-fulfillment.
A more appropriate model for expressing the mysterion, or sacramental quality, of conjugal love is provided by Martin Buber’s profound insights into the human person expressed as the relationship between I and Thou. In marriage, he affirms, two I’s, man and woman, enter into the transcendent world of Thou, to perceive in each other unique value and meaning. Each becomes for the other a veritable symbol, a reality that brings together the temporal and the eternal. Yet because they dwell in the sphere of time and space, each spouse tends to lapse into an objectivity characterized as the sphere or world of It. Conjugal love in all its complexity, which encompasses every aspect of the couple’s being, has as its basic function to lead the objective He and She back to a relationship of I-Thou.Anglican theologian Derrick Bailey expresses this theme in a passage of his book The Mystery of Love and Marriage that underscores the difference in perspective between an onlooker and the couple who are united as lover and beloved. “To the onlooker,” he says, “the beloved belongs to the world of It, and she is accordingly assessed by conventional standards at her ‘face value.’ But to the lover she is Thou: through the relational event of falling in love, with its vision of perfection, he has seen her, not as she is, but as she may become by the grace of God — and he cannot forget what he has seen. She has been revealed as God made her to be and wills her to become, and she is loved both as she is and as grace may remake her.”
Perhaps the most important way to maintain conjugal faithfulness is to love the other precisely as he or she truly is, yet also as grace may remake them. To encounter the other on their own terms, as God has created them and has willed them to become, is to engage in a unique meeting with the other. It is to root the marriage relationship in all the harsh reality of daily life and struggle. Yet at the same time, it is to constantly transcend that reality, to discover in the other the beauty and perfection of the person, who bears the divine image and likeness. While they enjoy all the fruits and joys of erotic love, the couple thereby grows together in a deeper eros, experienced as a hunger for eternal union with God.
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