Is marriage biological, social, or spiritual?
Answer: All of the above. Not to mention divine.
Yes, we humans have the same biological drives to mate and reproduce as the rest of the higher animals. And yes, marriage does help to provide social stability and a healthy environment for raising children—assuming the marriages themselves are healthy.
But marriage goes far beyond biology and sociology. At least it does according to Emanuel Swedenborg, who published a controversial book on the subject back in the eighteenth century. Marriage, says Swedenborg, is a spiritual and eternal relationship because it comes from the very nature of God.
What? Is God married?
Yes . . . but it’s not what you’re thinking! There is not a marriage between male and female deities and a whole family of little gods and goddesses running around some celestial Mount Olympus. Instead, there is a marriage of divine love and divine wisdom. From that marriage comes everything God says and does, including all of creation.
From its origin in God, marriage goes down through every level of a human being. And when marriage is a spiritual union of two people who share common loves and common values, it becomes heavenly, spiritual, holy, pure, and clean on all levels, from the spiritual right down to the physical.
Get the book banned in Sweden!
I’m talking about Emanuel Swedenborg’s book Marriage Love, published in 1768 and promptly banned (but not for long) in his native Sweden. Its direct, practical, and spiritual perspective on marriage and sexuality was too much for the religious authorities of the time.
Today, attitudes toward sex and marriage are much more open-minded. Yet these are still among the most sensitive, hotly debated topics in our society. If anything, with the roles of men and women changing and traditional marriage being questioned in many quarters of society, the debate has only increased.
What can a book published over two hundred years ago add to the subject?
In a word: spirit.
Most of today’s discussion about men, women, and marriage revolves around biology and social roles. In those areas, Swedenborg’s book on marriage is dated. But when it comes to the spiritual side of marriage, what he wrote still goes beyond most of what’s available in today’s society. In fact, it traces the origins of marriage right back to the very nature of God.
Let’s take modern look at what this classic book has to say about marriage.
Is marriage spiritual?
From a materialistic perspective, marriage is simply a human cultural and legal manifestation of the biological urge to mate and procreate—which is one of the most basic drives throughout the animal kingdom. Like other mammals, humans come in male and female. The continuation of the species depends on the two coming together and mating, and then protecting, nurturing, and raising their young through the greatly extended time that human infants take to reach maturity. A long-term commitment between the two parents is one of the best ways to make sure that happens. Marriage is the result of all that.
But from a spiritual perspective, everything in the material world—including the realms of biology and human culture—is an expression of deeper spiritual realities. And since humans come in male and female, and the two are clearly designed to mate, produce offspring, and raise them to maturity, this also must reflect a spiritual reality.
The divine marriage
Swedenborg tells us that marriage reflects even more than a spiritual reality. It has its origin in the very nature of God, from whom all things come.
In the first chapter of Genesis we read:
And God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” . . . So God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27)
If humans, both male and female, are created in the image of God, and they are created to become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4–6), this means that the origin of both male and female, as well as the origin of marriage itself, is in God.
Marriage, Swedenborg tells us, comes from the core “marriage” in God: the marriage of divine love and divine wisdom. These two, perfectly united in God, are God’s being and essence. And from this divine marriage comes everything God says and does. So the entire created universe is a “child” of the marriage of love and wisdom in God.
In human beings, marriage love is one of the primary expressions of the union of love and wisdom in God. And if human marriage is an expression of the nature of God, clearly it goes beyond the biological and social to the spiritual.
Is there marriage in heaven?
Unfortunately, over the ages in which humanity has existed on this earth, marriage has most often been considered a mere coupling for purposes of childbearing, political and social advantage, sexual pleasure, or other worldly purposes. For men, a common reason for marriage historically has been to secure a woman (or several women) almost like property so that her labor and offspring would be exclusively his. For women, being married was a source of security and of status in society—especially if she bore sons for her husband.
Marriage was commonly viewed this way in Bible times. However, Jesus rejected this view of marriage. In an often misinterpreted passage he said:
The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. (Luke 20:34–36)
Did he mean that there is no marriage in heaven, as many Christians believe? I don’t think so.
The idea of marriage as a spiritual relationship between equals as we can conceive of it today simply did not exist among the people Jesus was talking to. And that is not what they would have understood when Jesus used the word “marriage.” In essence, what he was saying to them in their language was, “In the spiritual world, marriage as you understand it does not exist. Women are not married off nor given in marriage to men almost like property, to be owned, controlled, and sent away at will. That is not how things are with the angels.”
Some people may think this is stretching Jesus’ words. But if marriage is not eternal, when the Pharisees asked him if it is legal for a man to divorce his wife for any cause, why did Jesus say:
Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. (Matthew 19:4–6)
What God does is not temporary, but eternal. So if God joins man and woman together in marriage, it is a relationship that can last forever.
If we interpret Jesus’ earlier statement in Luke to mean that there is no marriage in heaven, we create contradictions in his words. But once we realize that he was referring to an unspiritual form of marriage, the contradictions disappear. If we put together all of Jesus’ statements about love and marriage, we can see that he wanted to break those traditional, worldly views of marriage and point us toward a more spiritual, God-given ideal of marriage. That is the kind of marriage that continues after death.
Swedenborg reports that angels in heaven have happy eternal marriages. If we have been involved in real, spiritual marriage with our partner on earth, our marriage will continue in heaven. If we have been mismatched on earth but long for a real marriage, after death we will find a partner suited to us, and get married before heading to our eternal home in heaven.
And yes, marriages in heaven are complete on all levels from soul to body, just as they can be on earth. The only difference is that no children are born in heaven. The spiritual “children” of marriages in heaven are the new love and new insights that are “born” in course of the eternally growing marriage relationships there.
What is spiritual marriage?
Spiritual marriage goes far beyond the old, materialistic forms of marriage in which one partner dominates and controls the other for personal advantage and pleasure, or both use the other to achieve their own goals. It involves building marriages based on a deeper ideal of mutual love and service in which there is no thought of dominance, ownership, or expediency, but instead a deep, heartfelt desire to do what makes the other happy.
This ideal of marriage is based on the origin of marriage in God. We are not male and female simply because this is an effective method of biological reproduction for a complex species. We are male and female because both express the nature of God. When two people unite in marriage, this also expresses the nature of God.
The nature of God is the union of love and wisdom, giving birth to an active life of loving and serving others. Marriage is not about getting something for ourselves. It is about actively, intelligently loving the other person. This kind of love is not just a feeling or passion inside us. If it is true love, it involves doing things day in and day out, year after year, to make our partner happy.
It may seem obvious to say that marriage is about love. But it’s not so much about being in love, as in the popular romantic view of marriage, as it is about loving someone . . . and loving everyone around us, too.
In fact, everything we do, including marriage, is driven not by some external force of attraction that we might call “passion,” but by love within ourselves that moves us to do what we do.
Yes, I know. There are many things we do each day that we don’t particularly love to do. Yet even then we have some motive for doing them—and our motives involve achieving the things we love.
What moves us most? When do we feel the most alive? Isn’t it when we are doing the things we truly do love? And don’t we feel most alive when we are with someone we love, and the relationship is flowing strongly and fully as we each find joy in discovering the joys and pleasures of the one we love, and entering into those joys and pleasures with him or her? Isn’t it when we are with the people we love, working together, playing together, getting to know each other in a closer and deeper way?
At our core we are beings of love. That’s because we are created in the image and likeness of God—and God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). The love that forms the heart of God is the same love that flows into us, through us, and between us and the ones we love.
True love is not a physical urge based on hormones, biology, and instinctual reproductive drives. It is not based some outward attraction, or a realization that this person fits well into our plans for social and financial advancement. It is not even the discovery of common interests and talents.
All of these things do have subordinate roles in the complex relationship we call marriage. But true love is a presence, a force, a substance that comes to us from God and forms the deepest core of our existence. It is an inner, living, moving reality that motivates us in everything that we do. If it is true love, it is a desire focused on discovering what makes other people—and what makes that special other person—truly and deeply happy, and doing what we can to help them find and experience their happiness.
In doing so, we find our own happiness as well. When we are using our God-given knowledge, wisdom, and talents toward the happiness of others, we are also expressing our own deepest self.
The labor of love
This does not happen easily or automatically in life or in marriage.
Fairy tales often end with a wedding and the parting line, “And they lived happily ever after.” But for those who get married in real life, the story doesn’t end on the wedding day. It keeps right on going. And somehow the “happily ever after” part doesn’t always turn out exactly as advertised. When we are living at close quarters with another person, our social veneer soon wears thin. We come face to face with the real person underneath—and I’m speaking not only of our spouse, but of ourselves.
This is when the labor of love begins. At their root, the struggles we have with our marital partners are not battles between us, but battles within us. As the Apostle James said:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? (James 4:1)
When our own self-centeredness and self-absorption rears its ugly head, that’s when we butt heads with our partner. Learning to love and get along with our partner requires us to overcome the faults within ourselves. Our labor of love is to fight our inner battles against putting ourselves first, while still being true to our own best values and acting from a position of self-respect.
It is also the struggle to unite our heart with our head. It is the effort to find a balance between our emotions and our understanding. It is the work of becoming motivated by a deeper love and guided by a deeper wisdom in everything we say and do.
Only as we fight these inner battles and create a spiritual marriage within ourselves will we be able to experience a full, deep, and happy love in our marriage with our partner. And when we have gotten married in our soul here on earth, we will be prepared for eternal marriage in heaven.
In other words, if we want a happy and loving marriage, we must have the same kind marriage inside ourselves that exists within God: a marriage of love and wisdom in our souls. After all, that’s where marriage comes from.
Marriage is a forum for spiritual growth
Marriage in its healthiest form fits perfectly with a spiritual life. It comes from the very nature of God. Angels in heaven are happily married if they want to be married. And marriage is one of the best ways to experience spiritual growth.
Because in order to be in a healthy and growing marriage, we must do the work of laying aside our own self-absorption, and of learning to value others just as much as we value ourselves. We must also do the work of expressing our deepest beliefs and making our own unique contribution to the world from a position of inner strength.
If we do engage in the work of spiritual growth, we will become a person who can experience a full, rich, and deep marriage that continues growing to eternity.
This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden
For further reading:
- Real Marriage vs. Legal Marriage
- How to Know if Mr. or Ms. Right is Right for You: Pointers from Gloria and Emilio Estefan
- What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?
- Didn’t Jesus Say There’s No Marriage in Heaven?
- Can you Fall in Love in Heaven if you Haven’t Found Someone on Earth?