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Ask Dr. Cobb

April 2005 Question

"How does process theology understand the covenant of marriage?"

Dr. Cobb's Response

In what ways can process theology help us deepen and energize the lifelong process journey of marriage? How can we enable our mainline denominations to be in clearer support and ministry to marriage in the 21st century?

At one level the answer to this question as to many others must be that people influenced by process thought can responsibly differ. We read the history of marriage differently, and we understand its sociological role in various ways. Some regard the institution of marriage is irredeemably patriarchal. Others believe that we are bringing into being a new form of marriage, one of equals voluntarily committing themselves to one another.

Probably the deepest difference is between those who especially appreciate Whitehead’s emphasis on individual freedom, on the one side, and those who especially appreciate Whitehead’s emphasis on how we are constituted by our relationships. Since both emphases are genuinely important to Whitehead, perhaps we can work toward a balance or a more inclusive view.

Let me unpack the paragraph above. For many people, especially women, throughout the ages, marriage has been a form of bondage. Women have often not been free to choose their husbands, and even when they were given some choice, once the marriage took place, they had no choice but to accept the consequences, whatever they might be. Over against this system, where a single decision made for one by another, or even a decision one made oneself, binds one irrevocably to a demeaning life, Whitehead’s emphasis that there is some new possibility in every moment comes as a relief. A person cannot finally be defined by past decisions. There is novel creation in the present. Hence, Whitehead’s thought supports a woman in the decision to leave an oppressive and destructive relationship.

Hence, I believe that Whiteheadian thought definitely supports the notion that marriage is not irrevocable. It definitely supports the institution of divorce. It allows also for remarriage. The covenant of marriage is not “sacred” in the sense of “absolute.” When divorce is truly the best alternative, God calls us to act accordingly.

On the other hand, Whitehead’s thought strongly supports commitment to relationships. Our very being is constituted by our relationships. Social order depends upon them. Casual and fleeting relations cannot build strong persons or societies. When people seek freedom by avoiding committed relationships, the freedom they attain is only the absence of impediments; it is not the positive freedom to shape one’s life in significant ways. Occasions of experience among those who are not participants in genuine community tend toward triviality.

Thus far, I think, a Whiteheadian must go. But the questioner is focusing on one particular kind of commitment and relationship: marriage. This is surely important. I know of no society that has not institutionalized some form of marriage. But we must remember that the reasons for its importance have been partly bound up with the desire of the male to be sure of his paternity by denying access to one woman or many to other men. Whiteheadians will formulate a defense of marriage today in other ways.

The reason for singling out this pair bonding from among all of the relationships that constitute us is twofold. First, we judge that this is the healthiest and wisest way for sexuality to be expressed. This is a large and controversial topic, but most of us believe that mutual sexual faithfulness between two people is superior to any other pattern of sexual activity. Second, we judge that the kind of mutual commitments, beyond sexual ones, that two people make to each other in marriage can be effective only between two people. These two reasons are mutually reinforcing. Sexual relations cement and undergird other commitments and other commitments provide the context for the best sexual relations.

The marriage we affirm today is a relationship or bonding between two people who commit themselves to one another sexually and in other ways. For many, but certainly not all, purposes, they become a single couple rather than two separate individuals. On many important questions they commit themselves to making joint decisions. In most cases they commit themselves to jointly bringing children into the world and committing themselves unconditionally to their nurture and well being. They commit themselves to making every effort to work through disagreements and personal tensions rather than using them as occasions to go their separate ways.

The importance of these commitments is heightened by the breakdown of most other forms of community in our society. The nuclear family based on these commitments has replaced the extended family and the village as the context for caring for one another and for children. But the social context that intensifies the importance of the marital commitment also works against its success.

          Our society pushes nuclear families to move frequently from one context to another. These contexts rarely constitute close communities. The task of raising children falls heavily upon the couple. Also each member of the couple is forced repeatedly to break patterns of relationships with others and rely only on the bond with the spouse. It turns out that the stress that all this places on the married couple is often more than it can bear.

The pressure in our society for both partners to have jobs intensifies the difficulties. It reduces the ability of the parents to give full attention to their children. It makes the decisions about moving more difficult and sometimes leads to extended separations. In short it both reduces the family to nuclear proportions and also threatens its unity and ability to perform its function.

The romanticization of marriage adds to the problem. Many people expect too much of it. Marriage is usually hard work, requiring real sacrifice on the part of both spouses. It works better when both partners have their own support systems as well as shared ones in a larger community. But that larger community is eroding.  

For marriage to work it is as important to surround it with community support as to strengthen personal commitment. Focusing on this one relationship has led us to give too little attention to the complex of mutual commitments that make up a healthy community. Hilary Clinton rightly renewed the recognition that it takes a village to raise a child. Sadly, the high mobility of our culture makes it harder to find such “villages.” Marriages in the context of villages are likely to be more successful, more satisfying, and more stable than marriages in which the whole burden lies on highly mobile nuclear families.

The fact that a Whiteheadian naturally draws attention to the many forms and levels of community does not reduce the value of the bonding of two people. Since there is no way we can readily return to village life or even extended families, this intense, tiny community is of immense importance. The more stable such bonding can be, the better. However great the support of the lager community may be, the survival and deepening of pair bonding depend on taking the covenant relationship with great seriousness.

One major problem in our society is that, alongside all the social changes that work against the success of marriage, there is the ideology of individualism that discourages personal sacrifice for the sake of the relationship. Process thought offers a way of affirming the freedom of the individual without minimizing the crucial importance of cherishing relationships and the communities they form. It helps us recognize that to be part of any community requires subordination of one’s purely individual preferences to the good of that community. The most important of these communities today is the nuclear family based on marriage.

Today, any discussion of marriage must ask whether this is a relation limited to heterosexual couples. In part this is a matter of terminology and of legal arrangements. I believe it to be unfortunate that the debate so often focuses on the term “marriage.” This term has historically negative as well as positive connotations and is not the only way to refer to committed pair bonding recognized and supported by society. The process approach focuses not on the legal form or the terminology, but on the importance of the bonding. The kinds of bonds that can be forged between two women or two men serve most of the same needs as heterosexual bonding. Society and the church are called to repent of their systematic discouragement of this form of bonding by homosexuals and their pressure on those whose sexual orientations are toward member of the same sex either to form unsatisfactory bonds with members of the other sex or to remain socially isolated. The result is immense suffering and a great deal of unhealthy promiscuity.

It may well be that the general ideal in a society should remain the faithful, lifelong bonding of a man and a woman intending to bring their own biological children into being and to nurture them. But to identify this as “ideal” does not condemn all other patterns. In some cases a man and a woman may decide not to have children for good reasons. Or they may not be able to have children and choose to adopt them. These may not be “ideal” but they may be the best decisions possible for them.

Sometimes a first marriage fails and a second one succeeds. This may not be ideal, but it is better in most cases than remaining in a failed marriage or giving up on marriage entirely. Sometimes one partner falls short of complete faithfulness. This is certainly not ideal, but a marriage that survives such crises also deserves respect and admiration.

The faithful bonding of two women or two men may not be society’s ideal, but it may well be the best possible choice for the people involved. Sometimes it is best for them to adopt children, sometimes not. All these decisions should be open to them.

There are others, whether heterosexually or homosexually inclined, for whom the choice of celibacy and singleness is best for whatever reason. Jesus and Paul both recommended this option. To use the ideal of marriage in such a way as to demean those who make this choice is unacceptable. Instead, the task is to create contexts of community in which the commitedly single also can flourish.

My overall Whiteheadian argument is that, whereas we affirm the freedom of individuals to break out of oppressive relations and establish new ones, we affirm equally strongly the vital importance of community based on committed relations.

This includes pair bonding as expressed historically in marriage. But we recognize that pair bonding outside the context of a community of committed relationships cannot bear the weight that society has increasingly placed upon it and that there are those in our society for whom it is not the best option.

This means that one important role of the church is to be a larger community in which pair bonding is encouraged and supported while many other forms of bonding are also offered. The church can be something of the village or the extended family that our society no longer offers to many of its members. In the community of the church, those who are single but still looking for mates should find the opportunity to meet possible partners. Those who expect to remain single should find rich relationships, including relationships with children, which benefit both them and the nuclear families with which they relate. The elderly should find opportunities to interact with youth. And in this inclusive community, couples should experience nurture and help both in bonding more fully with one another and in finding space and relationships that help each grow personally as well. This whole church family can serve as the village within which children grow up.

The church has still another task. It should question the general direction that an economistic society is moving. Based on the view that mobility is required for maximum economic growth, social pressures compel nuclear families to move repeatedly. This works against the participation in a larger community, so necessary for the flourishing of marriage. It makes it very difficult for local congregations to become the sort of community people need. Although the church must minister to people in whatever context it finds itself, it also has the responsibility to call into question the worship of wealth that dominates our society and makes healthy community, including especially the pair bonding that is at the heart of marriage, so difficult.

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