I preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 7 today, calling it “Marriage Matters.” The double entendre was intended. Paul addressed matters of marriage that Christians need to embrace; and the text reminds us that marriage is wonderfully important. The chapter also illuminates the weak status of marriages both in and outside the church throughout human history. Paul wrote about marriages because they point us to God’s ultimate gift: himself.
What I’ll offer here in light of Paul’s lessons to the Corinthians is not the standard fare found among Christians today. Why not? Because the Christian community has been divided since the early centuries into at least three parallel and somewhat overlapped, but fundamentally opposed traditions. The main groups are the rationalists, the mystics, and the lovers. Let me introduce each very briefly before I embrace and say more about the third, the strand of lovers. Each portrayal can only be suggestive in a miniscule way, yet I hope to note their separate trajectories so that readers may recognize and trace them at their leisure.
The rationalists look mainly to the Greek tradition dominated by Aristotle, with Plato treated as a useful but less reliable teacher. They see life as a complex web of cause-and-effect relations that can be analyzed, labeled, and placed in categories. Call it the “billiard ball” theory of life as we are seen to be something like individual billiard cues called on to apply logic in striking as many of the billiard balls on the table of life as possible. Acute logic offers foresight in seeing how varied categories and events of life are explained and controlled—in effect, how to strike our targets effectively. Every encounter offers a chance to pocket a ball or two in order to run the table of our unique circumstances. Those who know the angles, who have the best touch, and who can anticipate secondary impacts, are dominant.
Rationalists gravitate to places where the most balls are bunched—mainly in the academy and the business world—and they are very successful in the tangible aspects of life. As one of their prophets, Boethius (d. 526), explained, a person is “the individual substance of a rational nature.” We are, then, objective, thinking instruments seeking to control our space in life. There are many of us and our mutual encounters are complex and can be mutually disruptive, even a bit threatening. God offers us principles of wisdom for deciding how best to navigate life with as much success as possible—to strike others while not being struck ourselves (that is, to be causes rather than effects).
The mystics, on the other hand, rely on the Greek tradition of Plato as later expressed by Plotinus (d. 270), and then baptized into Christianity by Dionysius, the pseudo-Areopagite (6th c.). In this view of life everything centers on God as the indivisible “One” in whom all true forms or ideas reside. Everything outside God consists in mere shadows of the ultimate, absolute and overwhelming ideas in the One. Yet the One offers a dual cycle of emanation and return—with his mind and soul extending sequentially outward into the shadowlands of dependent reality before returning back into the One. As I read of this version of God I picture a two-tongued solar flare leaping out of the Sun before both fall back again to the great globe of light. When Dionysius adapted this version of God to Christianity we find the Father as the One; and the Son and Spirit are his twin emanations who process forth and then return into the indivisible unity of the One. And the notion of oneness is critical—in “One” there is no “other” present to offer any basis for dialogue or conversation. The One, instead, offers pure, unadulterated experience—with no discourse.
The mystics are those who, in seeking God, long to enter into union with the One. What kind of union? Who knows! And that’s the point: no one can ever speak of the Unspeakable One. Any true union will, by the nature of the One who is encountered, be ineffable. Distinctions are swallowed up by indistinguishable “apophatic” unity. This sets out the basis for attaining spirituality to be non-materialistic, and non-content-based passivity—or a “quietism”. The main stages of this are an ascent that begins with denial: purgation. Next, as the senses and mind are purged of disruptive thoughts or movements, comes the prospect of inward illuminations—I picture a surfer catching the wave of the Spirit as it flows back into the One; and then (hopefully) union with the One.
Have I lost you by now? Hang with me, please! I know that most of us never encounter these historical distinctions conceptually, but I promise you that they underlie and shape our experience of Christianity today, depending on which strand we embrace. Let me review each at a reduced level: we can distinguish the rationalists as dealing with complexity and the mystics with simplicity. One trajectory is overtly anthropocentric—with the focus on our thinking and choosing—and the other is covertly anthropocentric—with a focus on achieving a personal experience of the One. One trail takes us into the classrooms of the scholastics in the academy and calls us to memorize God’s attributes; the other into the cells and mazes of the monastery and the quietist disciplines and mind-stilling repetitions of liturgy.
The lovers are the biblical strand who met at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and clarified the Triune relationality of God in the face of challenges being brought to the faith by Arius who insisted on God’s absolute oneness. This group was heavily influenced by the Platonic strand at first but began to break free from it as they examined the relationship of the Father and the Son. They realized that, biblically, God has always existed as the Father-Son-and-Spirit God “from before the world was created”, and that the union of God is rooted in his eternal communion—“my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” The notion Arius held was that the Father is the source of deity, with the Son coming later in order to create the world. God, in effect, created the world through the Son as his sub-creator. This was treated as nonsense from the devil whose ambition is to portray a self-absorbed version of God—namely what Satan wanted to be himself. The different expressions of oneness offered by both Aristotle and Plato were of this ilk, even if they differed over complexity and simplicity.
The core reality of the Father-Son-and-Spirit God is that he is eternally bonded by a shared mutual delight and glory. This is what John meant when he wrote, “God is love.” And this is where marriage came on the scene and why marriage matters. Marriage is the human expression of God’s triune oneness. So when God spoke, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” he was using the paradigm of his own Triune reality—the dyad of an indivisible “I-and-other” bonded by the eternal presence of the communicating Spirit whose business it is to search the inmost being of both the Father and the Son and to exchange or “pour out” the love of each to the other in an eternal reciprocity of creative delight. Marriage, then, is the human version of the divine relationship in a human union: of the two who are one, by the bonding presence of the Spirit in each.
This, too, explains Paul’s call to the Corinthians to recognize that, by the Spirit, we are also united to the Son whose Spirit it is that comes to our spirit in a marital union:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! … For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 1 Corinthians 6:15-17
And, elsewhere, we see that it was rooted in the greater purpose of marriage: to bind us who are united to Christ together as the collective “bride of Christ.”
For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery: I am saying that this verse refers ultimately to Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:29-32
The reality was understood by Martin Luther. It was held by John Calvin. Yet most Lutherans today have joined the Rationalists. And so have most of the Calvinists. Yet we can be sure that the lovers are those whom God really loves. Why? Because it is his love poured out into our hearts by his Spirit. [Romans 5:5]
So marriage matters. And the greatest matter of marriage is not in this life—the point I preached in today’s sermon—and a devoted follower of Christ is free to remain single. The point of life is to live as a holy and blameless member of the body of Christ, united to him by his Spirit as his eternal bride, bonded to him by his love which we freely reciprocate. As God’s lovers we have the proper path and the better portion!