Wednesday 17 April 2013

Marriage as eternal


I think that one of the reasons that mainstream Christianity has done such a poor job of defending marriage is that this is an area of fundamental theological weakness - such that marriage does not have a sufficiently secure or central position in the mainstream Christian mode of life to enable it to survive the kind of determined secular-hedonic onslaught of the past century or so.

The root of this weakness is that mainstream Christian marriage is perceived as a merely this-worldly, hence temporary and expedient, institution.

By contrast, the Restored Gospel of the Mormon (LDS) church has been exemplary in its defence of marriage, as well as family; and this is substantially a consequence of its regarding marriage as (potentially) eternal.

Thus eternal marriage is not a defence of 'traditional' marriage - because traditional marriage is a much weaker thing than eternal marriage - the Mormon doctrine of marriage is radical, not traditional.


From Adam S Miller Rube Goldberg Machines: essays in Mormon theology  (2012)

Traditionally, marriage is not eternal. Rather the traditional meanings of marriage can be broken into two segments, both of which are rooted in finite interests:

1. Marriage as a hub of economic exchange and social productions, and

2. Marriage as an expression of preference in the pursuit of personal satisfaction.

These traditional meanings are not bad in themselves, but they are certainly not eternal...


...The difference is this. In [mainstream Christianity] eternal life is singular. In the context of eternal marriage, eternity splits and pluralizes eternal life into eternal lives.

[Eternal] marriage transforms human sexuality from a merely biological difference into a truth that is both spiritual and eternal...


Human sexuality is not reducible to biology; rather, human sexuality is irremediably grounded in the symbolic, spiritual dimension of the 'word'...

Gender, as the Proclamation on the Family ^ reminds us, is 'an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose', and, as such, it is fundamentally a spiritual, rather than a biological, distinction...


...Sexuation, in order to be thought as a truth, must be more radically rooted in two discrete relations to... symbolic order.

In relation to the symbolic, there is both a masculine position and a feminine position and these positions are incommensurable...

the feminine mode of grasping the symbolic, the feminine way of knowing the world, is fundamentally different from the masculine position, and vice versa...

Eternal marriage, rather than being the mutual satisfaction of sexuated interests and preferences, is an interruption or a calling into question of these preferences by the incommensurable logic of the other sexual position. 

Love is an experience of the nonrelation of sexual difference. It is an exposure to the gap in being human that is human sexuality. 


In sum, for Mormon theology, our souls are, and always have been, and always will be, gendered: to be a man or a woman is part of each person's essence.

Eternal marriage has sexual identity as a primary and irreducible metaphysical reality (or assumption) - which makes eternal marriage between man and woman the most profound unit possible (i.e. the ultimate unit is a dyad).

And from this eternal perspective flows, as consequence, the essential or ideal nature of marriage in this mortal world.


 The Family: a proclamation to the World. 1995.



Bruce B. said...

Jesus says that marriage is not eternal. His teachings trump Joseph Smith’s.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - That is begging the question. The obvious response is to reformulate your sentence as 'our current translation of the Bible has been assumed to mean'... The basis of Joseph Smith's work was that there have been (since the time of the death of the Apostles) *some* (but significant) errors of scriptural translation and/ or interpretation which since early times distorted the Gospel; and these are being corrected since the 1830s. The whole thing hinges on whether or not you regard Joseph Smith as a legitimate, inspired prophet who was charged with the 'Restoration' of the Gospel.

But this posting sets out to explain why Mormons are holding firm over marriage, while other denominations are weak, wobbling, or fallen.

George Goerlich said...

Mormons certainly assert the eternal natural of marriage as a central part of their theology, and also reason for having large families.

Orthodox beliefs may not be so different:

In 1 Corinthians 7, St. Paul gives detailed guidance on virginity and marriage. He also commands that marriage should be preserved.

"Thus, marriage is holy, blessed and everlasting sacrament in the sight of God and His Church.

Finally, history closes with marriage of the Bride to the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9), thus fulfilling the earthly marriage in the heavenly, showing the eternal nature of marriage."

josh said...

Unless something changes, Mormonism will fall like the rest. I've known too many Mormons to believe otherwise.

Bruce Charlton said...


The talks at the recent General Conference seem very solid - round-up at:

Nobody knows what will happen; but the point of this post is that Mormons have a very strong metaphysical and theological basis for marriage - in a way that is lacking from mainstream Christian denominations.

For example, Catholic traditions value celibacy, monasticism and the life of a religious more highy than marriage; but even in conservative Protestant denominations, marriage is conceptualized as being *for* the achievment of various this-worldly purposes.

The Book of Common Prayer (by which I was married) says:

First, [Marriage] was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.

Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. Into which holy estate these two persons present come now to be joined.


This is great, but all of these are expedient - and each element can (in theory) be separated out and provided for my some other means: e.g. children might be artifically generated or bred by other people, modern people don't believe in sin and expect to get sex outside marriage, and 'society, help, and comfort' might be sought in freindship, serial love affairs, or formal institutions and communal living...


But the LDS church stands or falls on the basis of marriage - if marriage was abandoned, then that would simply be an end to Mormonism.

So, it seems clear to me that the LDS church could *perhaps* be BROKEN and DESTROYED over the issue of marriage; but the church has zero space for theological, doctinal or behavioural compromise.

Quite the contrary. Marriage and family are more-and-more a focus of Mormonism; and the 'mystical' or other-worldly aspect of marriage is more-and-more emphasized and encouraged with the constant increase in the number of Temples - having provision for baptism of the dead, eternal sealing of marriages and families etc.

ivvenalis said...

"...the church has zero space for theological, doctrinal or behavioural compromise."

How much space does e.g. the Catholic Church have? It seems to me that the problem isn't doctrine but adherence.

The Mormon church hasn't been explicitly targeted by secular authority or philosophy recently. You note the importance of marriage to them, but the Mormons have already been coerced into altering their theology on this significantly by secular authorities: they renounced polgamy. We'll see how well they weather the inevitable offensive by homosexualists.

Also, Bruce B. is right. This particular teaching flatly contradicts the words of Christ, and I really don't see any reason to trust Joseph Smith over e.g. the received Orthodox tradition.

josh said...

I agree that what I mean is that mormons will be broken and destroyed. Mondern Mormons appear to be more and more interested in being seen as "mainstream". I knew quite a few in public school (US meaning).

On the other hand, isn't this a worrying avenue for compromise?

Bruce Charlton said...

@I - "This particular teaching flatly contradicts the words of Christ"

I wouldn't be so sure about a flat contradiction.

Since the teaching on eternal marriage has been a core of Mormon doctrine for about 170 years - if it 'flatly contradicted' Christ's teaching, one would expect *by now* to have *some* evidence of this in terms of unChristian marriage among the most devout Mormons - yet the opposite is the case.

I infer that this teaching does NOT in fact 'flatly contradict' Christ's real actual views on marriage; and that the Bible passages whoch appear to contradict eternal marriage have been misunderstood or perhaps misrecorded.

Matthew C. said...

Marriage can be an eternal spiritual bond (if both parties grow towards God together). Or it can end at death, or even before, if the parties do not have that eternal connection in service to God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - Absolutely. What we are talking about is the ideal.

Bruce Charlton said...

A general comment on comments about Mormons - I do find it rather bizarre that so many people seem so willing (keen?) to predict the imminent demise of the LDS church when it has been doubling in size every generation for 180 years, now at about 8 million in the USA and 6 million elsewhere - and this continues (half of growth by fertility, the other half by conversion). At present there are about 60,000 full time missionaries - more than ever before...

Who knows what the future will bring, but this doesn't look like a church on the verge of extinction.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

I wouldn't be so sure about a flat contradiction.

According to Matthew 22:28-30, you probably should.

However, if marriage is not 'eternal,' love is, like in this beautiful saying from André Frossard: A love that does not feel eternal has not in fact begun.

Adam G. said...

I'm a Mormon myself, so 'yay Mormons' etc. However, I'm also a 'mere Christian.' I would like to see a stronger theological basis for marriage in mainstream Christianity. I wonder if mainstream Christians are improvidently neglecting some bases in their own theology for giving more weight to marriage?

For one, God identifies himself in scripture as male. For another, in the person of Jesus Christ, God *is* male. Sex identity is therefore a fundamental part of the very eternal nature of being. And marriage is the ultimate expression of sex identity.

C.S. Lewis has a moving passage in Perelandra where he talks about seeing male and female spirits who have sexuality that is more fundamental than mere sex organs, where the complementing differences between the sexes are part of the great, eternal dance.

Adam G. said...

The Mormon church is a divine work, I believe as a Mormon. But even so, it is a mortal institution and like any mortal institution, failure is an option. So I won't say that its continued health is guaranteed.

But some of you are too pessimistic by half. You don't realize the fundamental strength of truth. Nations fall before it. Mountains move. Every imposing superstructure of force and falsehood is built on an unstable foundation of human hearts that were made for different and better things. A beat, another, and like the satanic Soviet empire they are gone from one day to the next. I have seen bitter haters and persecutors break down into tears because the Holy Ghost descended like a pentecost. Do you think the odds are longer now than those faced by a handful of rural fishermen whose leader had just been executed? Those fishermen overturned the world. Do you think the modern world is any less believing and perverse than the England of the late 16th and early 17th, which was followed by the most prolonged and effective evangelical revival the world has ever seen?

"Therefore the [king of Syria] sent thither horses, and chariots, and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city [where Elisha was] about.

And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?

And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.

And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha."

One man on God's side is a majority. Unseen angels surround us. Victory is sure.

"All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have ccommanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world"

ivvenalis said...

It may just be that the error isn't that important. Better to act righteously under an errant (not totally) doctrine than to know the truth and disregard it out of pride (the latter state seems to remind me of something else...).

I suppose I do find it plausible enough that some connection remains between a husband and wife after death.

George Goerlich said...


"Interpreting Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees in an erroneous way, some have claimed that marriage has no follow-up in heaven. But with his reply Jesus rejects the caricature that the Sadducees present of heaven, a caricature that suggests that it is a simple continuation of the earthly relationships of the spouses. He does not deny that they might rediscover in God the bond that united them on earth."

The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1799).

In essence, the Mormon position is the Catholic position.

George Goerlich said...


Marriage is a holy sacrament.

We learn: For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.

And we know God's will be done "on earth, as it is in Heaven" through Holy sacraments.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees legalistic understanding of marriage, which is a divine and spiritual institution, not a merely material or legal institution. We do not know what may have been lost in translation, or the full context of this relatively brief dialogue, but a present-day reader attempting to understand this passage as if Jesus was speaking in modern english to a couple atheists without any further context does not follow Catholic tradition.

MC said...

"but the Mormons have already been coerced into altering their theology on this significantly by secular authorities: they renounced polgamy."

The Book of Mormon, which was published years before polygamy was practiced among the Mormons, explicitly states God's general disapproval of polygamy except in limited circumstances:

Thus, while Mormons did abandon the practice of polygamy (presumably practiced under such limited circumstances), no "theological" change was necessary. The same cannot be said for homosexual marriage.

Catherine said...

Maybe the LDS church conceived of marriage this way because it came late enough in history for the idea of a romantic love bond in marriage to have been firmly established.

I imagine that a lot of Christians throughout history (including a number of female saints) would have found the idea of eternal marriage pretty horrific.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Catherine - Well, eternal marriage is the ideal, and not for all - rather as the monastic life was the ideal in Catholic Christianity - practiced only by about one percent of the population - and among monastics the life of a solitary (eremitic) was the highest aspiration.

But such ideals, however rarely achieved, have a very powerful structuring effect on the religious life of the mass of devout people

Bruce B. said...

Do the LDS allow remarriage if one is widowed? How does this affect their idea of eternal marriage? Can there be eternal threesome marriages? I’m asking because I don’t know.

Bruce Charlton said...


Do the LDS allow remarriage if one is widowed?

(From my reading on the subject) Yes

How does this affect their idea of eternal marriage?

This is uncertain, as I understand it. The second marriage may be made for Time but not for Eternity. Or both marriages may be sealed for Eternity... (see below for continuation)

Can there be eternal threesome marriages?

I think this is uncertain and subject to some dispute.

One idea is that eternal marriage is 'monogamous' and God will therefore decide on the pairing in the case of more than one sealed marriage on earth (I think this may be a majority view).

Another idea is that there may be plural marriage (with more than one spouse) in Heaven.

But the best answer is that there is apparently no definite official LDS doctrine on this matter - if it becomes necessary to know the answer in more detail, perhaps there would be further revelation at some point.

Wm Jas said...

Those interested in the Mormon response to Matthew 22:29-30 can go to this page and scroll down to the second question.


1. The question posed by the Sadducees (who did not believe in resurrection) was not a sincere one, and so Jesus' answer cannot be considered a definitive doctrinal statement.

2. Jesus said only that no new marriages would be made in the resurrection. He did not say that couples married in mortality would not continue to be married.

3. In context, the hypothetical woman the Sadducees described would have been a Jew like themselves, without access to the Melchizedek priesthood and therefore without access to eternal marriage. "They" do not marry in the resurrection, but perhaps others (Christians/Mormons) do.

Adam G. said...

BC is right about LDS remarriage practice.

NJ said...

Missionary numbers doubled very recently: