Friday, 10 July 2015

Let Love Speak Up Itself

Ok, so I've been participating in the debate about same sex marriage, in a desultory sort of way.  I'm for it.  I don't feel that strongly about it, but if people really want it I can't see why they should be refused.

I'm not enjoying the debate though.  It seems to be so black and white, as if it was clear what marriage is and it's just a question of who has access to it.  Like cornflakes, or the internet.  I'm longing for a discussion which actually talks about the question in a meaningful way.

Recently I got a taxi home from the airport, and the driver was a young Indian man, as most of them are now in Brisbane.  He had just been married over in India, and was hanging out for the day when his wife's visa was approved so they could be together.  He was more than happy to talk about the whole thing at length.


Like a lot of Indian marriages, this one had been arranged for him.  His uncle had gone looking, found a girl who he and other relatives thought would be suitable, and negotiated the marriage with her family.  The couple then met via Skype (he in Australia, she in India), decided they thought it could work, and the marriage went ahead.

For me, this sort of marriage seems really risky.  I can't imagine myself ever contracting a marriage that way.  However, I have heard that Indian arranged marriages have a lower divorce rate than love matches.  I asked him why he thought that was so, and he said it was because both extended families have arranged it and so if the marriage breaks down you shame your family.  You have taken on a collective responsibility, it is not just about you.

This is fine for Indian people, but it seems totally foreign to 21st Century Westerners.  In our culture, marriage is a matter for the couple.  Boy and girl meet, they fall in love, they decide this could be a lifelong partnership, and they announce their intention to marry.  Their families may like the idea, they may not, but it's really not up to them and in the end they just have to live with it.

This is not how marriage has always been in our culture, but it is now so deeply embedded that it would be really difficult to do it any other way.  We are so strongly trained for it.  It shapes the way we see the word 'love', the idea of love, in a way that is so embedded that it seems natural and we don't recognise it as a cultural artefact.

Gottfried von Strassburg describes our view of love brilliantly in Tristan and Isolde, the tragic tale of the lifelong affair between Tristan and Isolde, wife of his uncle King Mark of Cornwall.  Tristan is sent to Ireland to contract Mark's marriage with Isolde, daughter of the Irish king (yes, an arranged marriage brokered by relatives).  In order to ensure a happy marriage for her daughter, the Queen of Ireland entrusts Isolde's maidservant with a love potion to be served to the couple on their wedding night.  Due to a mix up Tristan and Isolde drink it on their voyage back to Cornwall instead, and fall hopelessly and permanently in love.  The marriage goes ahead as planned, but disaster follows as Tristan and Isolde have a long running affair.  They can't help it.  Love has a hold of them and will not let go.

Von Strassburg describes love as like a limed twig, used to trap birds by sticking them to the branch.

...a lover's fancy acts like a free bird which, in the freedom it enjoys, perches on a lime-twig; and when it perceives the lime and lifts itself for flight stays clinging by the feet.  And so it spreads its wings and makes to get away, but, as it does so, cannot brush against the twig at any part, however lightly, without the twig's fettering it and making it a prisoner.  So now it strikes with all its might, here, there and everywhere, till at last, fighting itself, it overcomes itself and lies limed along the twig.  This is just how untamed fancy behaves.  When it falls into sad love-longing and love works its miracle of love-lorn sadness on him, the lover strives to regain his freedom: but love's clinging sweetness draws him down and he ensnares himself in it so deeply that, try as he may, he cannot get free of it.

In von Strassburg's day this kind of love was not yet linked to marriage.  Instead it was linked to infidelity and ultimately ended in tragedy.  Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere , Matty Groves, The Trumpeter of Fyvie, you name it.  Marriage was a matter of business and dynasty.  Love, on the other hand, was a disruptive force that could get you killed.  A sweet poison.

Some say that what changed this was the Industrial Revolution.  Its disruption of traditional family and community life led to a steady increase in the importance of the nuclear family.  When I was growing up my grandparents, and all my aunts, uncles and cousins, were on the other side of the world.  Even there they were fragmented.  For us, it was mum, dad and the kids.  All my friends were the same.  They had grandparents and aunts and uncles, sure, but they didn't live with them, they may not even see them much.  We all lived as little family units in our little suburban houses.

In this situation, everyone chooses their own life partner.  The wise and mature deliberations of parents, aunts and uncles are replaced by the passions and preferences of the couple themselves.  We live in the age of Love, the age in which von Strassburg's lime-covered twig is no longer seen as a trap, but as the guiding force of our lives.

In this age we have all come to talk of love as von Strassburg does.  You can see how this works in a little song by The Beautiful South called 'Let Love Speak Up Itself'.



Did you notice how it begins?

Don't whisper love and dream of wedding bells
Don't do all the talking
Let love speak up itself


And a bit later.

And let it rise up in the morning and take us for a walk
And let it do the talking when we're too tired to talk, oh
When we're too tired to talk


Richard Thompson has the same idea.

If love whispers your name
Breathes in your ear
Sighs in the rain.

Love is no longer merely a feeling or an attitude, or even a trap.  It is now a living entity.  It has its own voice, its own thoughts.  It can speak for itself.  Love has become a thing over which we have no control.  It is much like the Spirit in Jesus' illustration to Nicodemus - "the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it comes from, nor where it goes to".  We don't choose it, it chooses us.  Elvis Presley's song expresses it perfectly.

Wise men say only fools rush in
But I can't help falling in love with you.
Should I stay, would it be a sin?
I can't help falling in love with you.

Like a river flows surely to the sea
Darling so it goes, some things were meant to be
Take my hand, take my whole life too
I can't help falling in love with you.

Right or wrong doesn't come into it, because you have no choice.  The wise men, the uncles and parents who once arranged our marriages, have no say in the matter.  It's as natural and inevitable as the river flowing to the sea.  Fortunately, unlike Tristan and Isolde, Elvis is not constrained by family or dynastic considerations.  The couple, and all the couples at whose weddings this song is sung, are free to promise their lives to each other.

But of course this also has a downside.  Despite our best intentions, love may choose to stay away, like in Mumford and Sons' 'Winter Winds'.

And my head told my heart, "let love grow",
But my heart told my head, "this time no, this time no".

The poor woman, who has been strung along in a passionate affair all winter, gets no say.  She just has to get over it.

But if your strife strikes at your sleep
Remember spring swaps snow for leaves
You'll be happy and wholesome again
When the city clears and the sun ascends.

The fact that he causes her pain is regrettable but unavoidable.  It's not him, it's his heart.  In other words, it is Love, speaking up itself.

If love is a thing in itself, there is another problem.  Just as it comes unbidden, it may leave unbidden.  It may die before us, leaving us bereft.  This is the sting in The Beautiful South's song, the downside of love speaking up itself.

So when you feel a little tatty and unhappy with your face
Let it breathe into us and put you back in place
Let it breathe, let it breathe
From the day it came into us
Till the day it wants to leave for it will, it will go
And it will not say goodbye just like it didn't say hello


Just as love can whisper our name, it can fall strangely silent.  It can rot away, or it can simply disappear.  That will be it.  Just as we can't either summon or refuse it, when it chooses to leave there is nothing we can do to hold it.  We might as well try and catch the wind, as Donovan famously sang.

In 1984 Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro starred in a movie called Falling in Love.  Both of them are married, as happily as any of us are, and neither is looking for an escape or an affair when they meet by chance.  Across the movie they keep meeting, first by accident then increasingly by design.  Love ensnares them despite their best intentions, sweeping them into a chaste but intense affair which finally ends both their marriages.  Love has spoken and they are powerless to resist.  Their partners, their children, their promises at the altar all have to give way before its power.  Love, as von Strassburg tells us, is the pain that gives pleasure and the pleasure that gives pain.  Either way, it reigns supreme.

You may think that this is merely poetic fancy, but it has even found its way into something as prosaic as Australian family law.  In 1975 the Whitlam Government passed the Family Law Act which, among other things, enshrined the concept of no fault divorce into Australian law.  Other Western countries passed similar legislation at around this time.

Prior to this, to obtain a divorce one or other of the couple would have to sue for it, citing grounds.  Someone had to have seriously breached the terms of the marriage - for instance, through infidelity or cruelty.  The other party could contest it, denying culpability, and if the accusation was considered unproved divorce could (at least theoretically) be denied.  

The law always lags behind the culture.  Fault-based divorce is quite appropriate for the type of marriage practiced by my Indian cab driver.  As long as everyone in the relationship (the couple, and their in-laws) behaves with basic kindness and decency there is no reason to divorce.  Just as romantic love is not a precondition for marriage, its absence is not a reason for divorce.

No fault divorce, on the other hand, is tailor-made for a marriage system based on romantic love.  If love is like the wind that comes and goes as it pleases, if it has its own voice and its own will, then if it has gone that is no-one's fault.  It's sad, but inevitable.  All of us, even the august judges of the Family Court, have to bow to its will.

How are we to view this as Christians?  Well, what we have in society now is neither 'Biblical marriage' nor 'unbiblical marriage'.  Of course, you only have to google 'Biblical Marriage' to find memes telling you that this idea itself is diverse and variable, including monogamy, polygamy, levirate marriage, compulsory marriage of a victim with her rapist and other variations on the theme.  Romantic marriage is notably absent from these memes.  

When Paul says "husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church" he means something quite different.  The Greeks had a word for the kind of love I have been describing, eros, romantic or sexual love.  This word does not appear in the New Testament.  Instead, Paul uses the word agape, selfless and altruistic love, the love that gives without expecting anything in return.  This is the love he describes in 1 Corinthians 13.

Love is patient and kind
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant
It does not insist on its own way
It is not irritable or resentful
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing
But rejoices in the truth
It bears all things, believes all things
Hopes all things, endures all things.

This is the love Christians aspire to, although we constantly fall short.  But it is not the love around which 21st century Western marriage is built.

Does this mean that 21st century marriage is wrong, or sinful?  I don't think so.  It just is.  It is no more or less sacred than arranged marriage, levirate marriage, polygamy or dynastic marriage.  All of them are cultural institutions, evolved or designed to meet the needs of their communities or societies.  Romantic marriage does not appear in the Bible because no-one had thought if it yet.  It is the custom of the industrial and post-industrial societies we inhabit.  As long as we are part of this culture, we will practice it too.  Just as Paul taught his followers to practice agape in their arranged marriages, we need to do so in our romantic marriages.  This will, perhaps, make them 'Christian' or 'Biblical' in the New Testament sense.  Without it they are not, they are merely cultural.

But to come back to where I started, same sex marriage.  If love is a wind which blows where it will, an independent power over which we have no control, then same sex marriage is simply a logical consequence of this, an integral aspect of romantic marriage.  If love chooses to ensnare two men, or two women, in the same net this can no more be helped than if it ensnares a man and a woman.  Wise men may counsel otherwise all they like, but it is as inevitable as the river running to the sea.  A man or woman so ensnared will never manage a 21st century heterosexual romantic marriage, no matter how much they want to.  

Love has spoken up itself.  We can only deny it by denying the whole basis of marriage in our society.

No comments: