It seems to me that marriage has a very specific historical and cultural, specifically religious, understanding that has never, at least until very recently, had anything whatsoever to do with interpersonal love and the like. Marriage, for most of human history, has been about child bearing, community building, legitimacy, and inheritance—affairs of the state, so to speak. Of course, within the Church, which was the state in the West and the East for a time, marriage was also symbolic, of salvation, divine love, the Trinity, etc, but even still St Paul thought it of little worth “it is better to marry than to burn with lust.” (1 Cor. 7.9)

Indeed the RCC didn’t make it officially a sacrament until the 12th century. The Reformers didn’t even think it worthy of being made a sacrament when they broke from the Church as it didn’t meet their requirements of being founded by Jesus, preserved by the Apostles, and codified by the early Church. And, moreover, outside of marriage’s symbolic function in the Church, while spiritually refreshing, was miniscule in importance when compared to the weightier matters of inheritance and procreation, which were the primary drivers of marriage’s societal significance.

So, this rather modern idea that marriage is about romantic love is nonsensical. It’s not. Never has been. Of course friendship and interpersonal love have a part to play in marriage, no question, but only insofar as they accompany any relationship worth having, sexual or not. But romantic love is to be distinguished from marriage in much the same way that a person’s appearance is to be distinguished from that person.

However, what is happening in modern society is the secularizing of a religious custom by re-defining marriage as solely constituted by romantic love, as if the historical, cultural, specifically religious, context matters not, and all the responses in protest to this idea by means of natural law and the like miss the boat entirely, for that approach concedes the initial assumption—that marriage is, entirely, about earthly or human love, that is, interpersonal love, romantic love, eros. Given that assumption, there is no compelling secular argument against gay marriage, unless I am unaware of persuasive sociological data that clearly demonstrates the adverse social effects of gay sexual relationships (some recent data has been interpreted as demonstrating the adverse social effects of gay sexual relationships, but it is not clear to me what that data says).

Of course, there is no need to concede the assumption because it is plainly false, not only as a matter of history and culture, but also as a matter of a logically consistent metaphysics. For romantic love, not only in marriage, but in itself, only makes sense within the context of a sensible metaphysics with an accompanying spiritual symbolism; that is, when sexual and interpersonal love is directed toward some transcendental end, some deeper truth—the Good, for instance.

Indeed the irony here is that the best articulation of marriage being about romantic love is a distinctly Christian or, at the very least, religious or Platonic or what have you apology. That is, human love apologetics is a coherent elucidation of marriage only within a sufficiently religious or mystical metaphysics, where the destination of all love and desire is love and desire as such, that is, Love itself, the Good itself, Beauty itself, that is, God, properly understood.

Now, sure, the religious symbolism of marriage can be appropriated for secular purposes, as much religious symbolism has been over the centuries, but love, as modern society understands it, only makes sense when operating within some appropriate metaphysical system, where the signposts of that system point, beyond themselves, to deeper, more transcendent truths. Otherwise, love is mere sexual attraction or the gratification of desire or sensual pleasure or what have you. Consequently, it is no longer love, at least not the sort of love that modern society talks about in bad novels and superficial magazines and dreadful romantic comedies—unifying, conquering, social-norm-defying, dignity bestowing, and so on, love, the love of the Beatles song lyric, “all you need is love,” the supererogatory, extraordinary, non-obligatory kind of love.

Naturally, most of modern society agrees—“these are consenting adults who love each other” is the popular sentiment amongst folks of my generation concerning marriage, love and private choice being emphasized here.

But that sort of love, the dignity bestowing kind, is not a lucid and coherent concept when stripped of its metaphysical referents, love is not a metaphysical signification that can be situated in just any old metaphysical system. For instance, how could a naturalistic, materialistic understanding of love preserve the popular, common sense conviction about marriage as a dignity bestowing, love obsessed, eternal institution? It could not, at least not and remain logically consistent.

Indeed it is not so much that marriage, as a legal and social custom, bestows dignity on the persons being married—that is not the secular understanding of marriage at all—but that interpersonal love, romantic love, constitutes marriage as such, and, as a result, bestows dignity on married couples. Modern society thinks that marriage is synonymous with human love, with some legal documents and societal rituals attached. And, although in practice that statement is difficult to justify, I understand the sentiment—in the Orthodox Church, for instance, marriage is not a legal contract. But my point is simply that that understanding of love and marriage is only clear and coherent within the appropriate metaphysics, particularly a religious metaphysic.

However, what I am not saying is that people cannot be non-religious and be in love or religious and not be in love or what have you. I am merely stating that any proper understanding of love, be it romantic or not, must have some element of the transcendent; some final end or purpose, some telos, towards which it is striving, and this directedness toward the Agape immanent in and beyond all things can happen for atheists and theists alike, if it could not, it would not be love.

But to strip love of its metaphysical referents is to strip love of its meaning and its power. It can no longer bestow dignity, mend broken families, give aid to the poor, help the sick, and so forth, because that sort of love requires some non-natural element, some Logos or Agape immanent in all things or at least some transcendental end to be the ultimate destination of all desire as such. For instance, we don’t say that sexual attraction or the gratification of desire or sensual pleasure is dignity bestowing or can change the world for the better, do we? No. In fact, we probably say the opposite. But we do say that love can do those things.

If love is nothing more than biology, it cannot be what we think it is, and it cannot do what we want it to do. It cannot change the world, because it can never point beyond itself to the true reality; it cannot fundamentally alter our vision of the world; it cannot escape the baser instincts and selfish tendencies of our species; it cannot act as our better angels.

Of course, evolutionary origins and genetic analysis and brain mapping may one day explain the neurophysiology of love, but that is just chemical sensations and neuropeptides and what have you, that no more explains love, properly understood, than a bicycle explains how to ride a bicycle. Love inspires self-sacrifice and total commitment to others. Love asks us to go beyond the call of duty, to act in ways that are not morally obligatory, to do the extraordinary, to do things that are not self-serving or instinctual. Indeed love asks us to rebel against our natural drives—to help the poor in Liberia or the dispossessed in Syria or criminals in prison; to love our enemies; to give to those who would steal from us; to love God and man. But scientific theories cannot ask these things of us because science cannot tell us what we ought to do. Scientific theories can predict and explain and unify natural phenomena, but scientific theories cannot act as the Cross on a hill pointing beyond itself to a world filled with love.

But if love carries with it ultimate significance, as the Cross intimates, then its power is limitless, on this point the modernists align themselves with Christ and St. Paul and St. John—love is a world-changer in the appropriate context.

Simply put, human love is not about Eros so much as it is about Agape. Eros is merely an instantiation of Agape, that is, Eros images Agape, Eros participates in Agape, to borrow from Plato. Agape is the essential nature of Eros; agape is the human loves’ essence. Human love, at least the common sense understanding of it, only makes sense within this metaphysical context. And, as such, any conception of marriage must account for this understanding of human love—one cannot infer the desired conclusion from any old set of premises. One cannot get the love of Christ, for instance, from naturalistic premises. And one cannot get marriage as entering a new reality without Christ—no matter the vows; no matter the promises; no matter the contract; no matter how much one person loves the other person.

However, modern society wants to do precisely that: to keep all the good stuff about love but not the metaphysical principles that justify it. Alas…any understanding of marriage that is built on so flimsy an understanding of love is doomed to collapse at the slightest breath of reality.

Of course, I should not be surprised at the banality of our age, where the insatiable thirst for more and more things and more and more desires is shaped and sustained. We are a society obsessed with buying stuff; with gratifying desires; with removing more impediments blocking the gratification of such desires. In such a society, ultimate goods give way to immediate goods. And such a society is, at least implicitly, non-Christian. Our holy texts are bad novels and Amazon; our religious duty is shopping and sex; our faith is private choice.

God becomes just another impediment standing in the way of our pleasure seeking. Christian virtues give way to greed and pride; lust and envy.

Transcendent values have no place in such a society, so they are replaced by price tags and pleasures.