A New Heaven and a New Earth
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”
The reading from Revelations today contains within it a meme that has been -enthusiastically – adopted by people who are trying to maintain an exclusionary definition of marriage as “one man and one woman.”
This symbolic illustration of the Church “coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride all dressed for her husband” has become literalized in what is really a political narrative of explaining what God’s design for marriage supposedly is, and the people who employ it do take it very seriously. They honestly believe that this is what the Bible says about what marriage is.
First of all, the language leaves no doubt that this is metaphor. To illustrate just how odd it is to literalize it, let’s look at some other metaphorical language, a kind of language that’s very common in the Bible. From the Song of Songs:
How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!
Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
descending from the hills of Gilead.
Okay. Obviously her hair is not, literally, a flock of goats.
Imagine that you are a shepherd, a good steward, and your pride and joy is the enormous, healthy herd of goats you have built up. There they are off in the distance – their beautiful glossy black coats gleaming in the sun, streaming down the hillside. This image would be very complimentary, as a metaphor – but no one would ever take its meaning as something more than that.
Yet, with the passage from Revelations, people to whom this exclusionary definition of marriage is very important have taken very similar metaphorical language and read into it a literal prescription by God for what marriage is, and – more importantly – what the relationship between men and women is supposed to be.
These individuals find the symbolic idea of the “husband” as Christ and the “bride” as Church very appealing. It provides a predictable authoritarian structure in which everyone has their role predetermined for them, and in which there’s no uncertainty or ambiguity. Everyone knows their place in this structure – and there are people who find that comforting.
Finding that predictability comforting for themselves, though, doesn’t explain why they are so intense and apocalyptic in their opposition to two men or two women getting married. Straight people often express bewilderment to me at the die-hard opposition in some circles to same sex marriage. Why do they care so much about whether you can get married? How does this affect them? I don’t get it. That’s a reasonable question – and it may be a question that many of you have asked. And I think that for the people who don’t get it, they don’t get it because they really don’t think about relationships between men and women, and relationships in general, in that authoritarian, dominationist frame. That way of seeing relationships is just truly foreign to them.
But there’s a reason that some people are so attached to a exclusionary definition of marriage as a man and a woman, and not two men or two women, and there’s a reason that they link that definition to the metaphorical relationship between “God” and “the church.”
Is there a loving relationship between God and the church in this authoritarian way of looking at the world? Sure there is. But is it a partnership between two equals? Absolutely not. And this is exactly the point. However you interpret the passages in Ephesians 5 that many find so controversial, Paul is applying the metaphor much more explicitly – “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
Savvy evangelicals today who hold this view are very careful to tell you that this doesn’t mean that they consider women to be inferior to men. Women and men are equal to each other, they will say, they just have different God-ordained roles. It’s true that different doesn’t necessarily mean inferior, but in this case there can be no pretending that the “difference” isn’t defined in terms of unequal authority. There is a “head,” and there is a “body” that is to “submit to” its authority.
Rather than ‘Christ and the church,’ a more accurate metaphor here might be an empire and the people living in its territories, or maybe an adult and a child – but in any case it is most definitely not a relationship between equals. Whatever the appropriate metaphor is, it’s a dominationist model.
Now here’s where the “one man-one woman” definition is vital. As long as the relationship called “marriage” is, by definition, between two irreducibly different kinds of person, the inherent inequality, and the dominationist nature of the relationship, can be justified (even if not very convincingly to many of us). But when two men or two women can marry, when that irreducible difference between the marriage partners is removed from the definition, there’s no longer any excuse or basis for unequal authority between partners. Instead, what we have is a model for genuine equality between marriage partners, including between women and men. That scares the pants off people who are dependent for something on the idea that there must be rigid, divinely ordained roles for men and women in the world and in relationship with each other, and on a domination model in general.
What that “something” is that people get out of this is a question I’m not prepared to answer. For some, certainly, it’s preserving authority and power for themselves, but that’s not always the case. I think it’s a question we should ask of people who hold this view, because it’s part of their story and we need to understand it.
But I would also suggest that a model of marriage that is defined by gender difference and prescribed inequality doesn’t reflect what most straight people are trying to create when they get married. Insisting that marriage be defined this way in law, and insisting that this is “God’s design,” is in fact harming the institution of marriage – and I think there’s no denying that the institution is in trouble.
For these religious literalists, the focus on gender difference has become a bizarre and vulgar form of idolatry, no matter how flowery and romantic and sentimental the language used about it may be. They often describe marriage, for instance, as the “two great complementary halves of humanity coming together,” an image which only underscores the belief that each of these “halves” is not, and cannot be, a whole person by his or herself.
The trouble is that a partnership based on prescribed, inherently unequal responsibilities and authority isn’t really a partnership at all, it’s an arrangement – and it’s an arrangement that too often truncates the full humanity of both participants. If this were really the essence of “God’s design for marriage,” that the individuals within a marriage cannot not be whole persons by themselves, frankly I would have to say that the institution of marriage deserves to be destroyed.
But fortunately I don’t think that’s what’s happening. Except within some isolated subcultures, what straight people are looking for in marriage is not that kind of dehumanizing arrangement, and to the extent that same sex marriage refutes the idea of built-in gender based inequality being a necessary ingredient, it frees straight people from what remains of the influence of that idea.
Finally I will just add that Don pointed out to me a few days ago that he had checked on the various meanings of the Greek word for “new” used in the passage from Revelations, as in “The world of the past has gone…Now I am making the whole of creation new,” and one meaning that stood out was in contrast to the meaning of “old” as obsolete and no longer of any use. This seems to me to be an excellent description of the definition of marriage which excludes some couples on the basis of their gender.
As Noah Berlatsky put it in a recent essay, in which he discusses the damage done within marriages by the authoritarian model I’ve been discussing,
Gay marriage is not just about straight people accepting gays into our institutions. It’s about gay people teaching us what those institutions mean. The gay community has given straight people a lot over the years, but surely gay marriage is one of the greatest gifts it has offered us.
So, straight people: You’re welcome.