Two weeks ago, it was announced that LDS First Counselor of the First Presidency Henry B. Eyring would speak at a colloquium on marriage and the family held by the Vatican. Like some others, I wasn’t inclined to be all that optimistic about this colloquium, as its subject — the complementarity of man and woman in marriage — excludes many folks from the get-go.
“In our day, marriage and the family are in crisis.” The “culture of the temporary” has led many people to give up on marriage as a public commitment. “This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.” The Pope said that the crisis in the family has produced a crisis “of human ecology,” similar to the crisis that affects the natural environment. “Although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well, slower in our culture, and also in our Catholic Church. It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology and advance it.”
To do that, the Pope said, “It is necessary first to promote the fundamental pillars that govern a nation: its non-material goods.” He noted that the family is the foundation of society, and that children have the right to grow up in a family with a mother and a father “capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.”
OK. I can theoretically be on board with this (although I suspect that really, what’s happening is that our economic and socio-political reality is evolving, and our ideals about social constructs to support this reality is lagging behind). So, what about President Eyring’s comments? Well, the transcript is now up on the Mormon Newsroom.
Eyring’s talk is a personal testimony of how marriage has affected him and his life. Though it is personal, he hopes his testimony can serve as evidence “that a man and a woman, united in marriage, have a transcendent power to create happiness for themselves, for their family, and for the people around them.” He announces himself as an “eyewitness of the power of the union of a man and a woman in marriage to produce happiness for each other and for their family.”
The talk isn’t too long, so definitely read it, but the basic story goes like this:
The evidence I offer begins when I was a single man, living alone without any family near me. I thought I was happy and content. I was a doctoral student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My research work was going well, I was serving others through my church, and I found time to play tennis often.
An assignment in my church took me to a morning meeting in a grove of trees in New Hampshire. As the meeting ended, I saw in the crowd a young woman. I had never seen her before, but the feeling came over me that she was the best person I had ever seen. That evening she walked into our church meeting in Cambridge. Another thought came to my mind with great power: “If I could only be with her, I could become every good thing I ever wanted to be.” I said to the man sitting next to me, “Do you see that girl? I would give anything to marry her.”
We were married a year after I first saw her. The wedding ceremony was in a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The words spoken in the ceremony included a promise that we might be husband and wife in this life and for eternity. The promise included that whatever descendants we might have would be bound to us forever if we lived worthy of that happiness. We were promised that after this life, we could continue to enjoy whatever loving family sociality we could create in life.
My wife and I believed those promises, and we wanted that happiness. So we acted to make it possible through the great variety of circumstances of life. There was sickness and health, struggle and some prosperity, the births of six children, and eventually the births of 31 grandchildren, and on the day I arrived I was told we had the first great grandchild. Yet with all the changes, there have been consistencies since that wedding day more than 52 years ago.
Most remarkable to me has been the fulfillment of the hope I felt the day I met my wife. I have become a better person as I have loved and lived with her. We have been complementary beyond anything I could have imagined. Her capacity to nurture others grew in me as we became one. My capacity to plan, direct, and lead in our family grew in her as we became united in marriage. I realize now that we grew together into one—slowly lifting and shaping each other, year by year. As we absorbed strength from each other, it did not diminish our personal gifts.
Our differences combined as if they were designed to create a better whole. Rather than dividing us, our differences bound us together. Above all, our unique abilities allowed us to become partners with God in creating human life. The happiness that came from our becoming one built faith in our children and grandchildren that marriage could be a continuing source of satisfaction for them and their families.
You know, I am personally touched by this narrative. I totally am happy for how Eyring’s marriage, his complementarity with his wife, the differences between the two of them, and so forth, have improved him and his life.
These are principles and values and experiences with which I can totally be on board.
I don’t see how any of this depends on having one man and one woman.
The reason these principles and values and experiences resonate with me is not because I have been in heterosexual relationships, but because I think that any relationship involves these sorts of dynamics. It’s not just that “men” are different from “women,” but that people are all individuals, and each individual is different from another. Yes, our differences combine as if they were designed to create a better whole. But no, this isn’t something uniquely found only when a man loves a woman.
Eyring continues to say:
You have seen enough unhappiness in marriages and families to ask why some marriages produce happiness while others create unhappiness. Many factors make a difference, but one stands out to me.
Where there is selfishness, natural differences of men and women often divide. Where there is unselfishness, differences become complementary and provide opportunities to help and build each other. Spouses and family members can lift each other and ascend together if they care more about the interests of the other than their own interests.
If unselfishness is the key to complementary marriage between a man and a woman, we know what we must do to help create a renaissance of successful marriages and family life.
We must find ways to lead people to a faith that they can replace their natural self-interest with deep and lasting feelings of charity and benevolence. With that change, and only then, will people be able to make the hourly unselfish sacrifices necessary for a happy marriage and family life—and to do it with a smile.
We can definitely see that some marriages are unhappy, even while some are happy. It’s important to note that marital status is not a determinant here, but perhaps more important to note that even the composition of the marriage is not the determinant here. Even Eyring says that the factor that stands out to him is unselfishness.
But selfishness isn’t just a problem between the sexes. It’s not just a problem with relationships between one man and a woman. Selfishness is a human problem. It’s a problem with relationships among friends, heterosexual monogamous romantic relationships, homosexual monogamous relationships, polyamorous and polygamous relationships, and so on.
If unselfishness is a good (which certainly seems reasonable), why focus solely on unselfishness as a key to complementary marriage between a man and a woman rather than unselfishness as a key to all forms of relationships?
Look, I’m not even going to knock (at this time) having a single, solitary ideal such as marriage (even though this intrinsically has implications for single people). But it just seems to me that even if one is advocating for marriage, then they should want that for as many people as possible — people who may have different circumstances, different desires, different orientations.
Or at the very least, if they are going to advocate for a more narrow ideal, at least use arguments for it that are narrowly tailored to that narrow ideal.
Becoming partners with God
There is one line from Eyring’s quotes above that I believe provides the backbone for the narrower argumentation:
Above all, our unique abilities allowed us to become partners with God in creating human life.
Notwithstanding childrearing — for example, in cases of adoption, in cases of foster care, in cases of surrogacy, it seems that the big selling point for marriage being defined between a man and a woman is a focus on the ability to create human life. In this view, all other aspects of marriage become appendages. James from Mormon Midrashim describes it as the difference between marriage as a focus on vertical relationships and marriage as a focus on lateral relationships.
But is this enough to justify the limited definition? Is it enough to pin marriage on the biological fact that men and women create children (regardless of who ultimately ends up raising those children, or who is in each situation best equipped to raise the children)?
Here are a few questions:
- From President Eyring’s comments, do you agree that marriage is about complementarity between men and women?
- Can other relationships cultivate unselfishness, complementarity of personalities, differences binding us together?
- Are marriages primarily about childbearing?
- Are marriages primarily about child rearing?
- Are birth mothers and fathers always the best people to raise children? If not, should the people who are raising a child be married?
- Should we have a single ideal that is inapplicable to some people? Would suggesting multiple ideals be confusing?