The Most Beautiful Idea in the History of Civilization

National Organization for Marriage

Dear Marriage Supporter,

A couple weeks ago, I wrote to you on my way back from the historic interreligious colloquium at the Vatican: the Humanum event that brought scholars of all creeds together to reflect on the beauty of God's design for marriage in the complementarity of men and women.

You'll find me returning to the output of this wonderful conference frequently over the weeks and months ahead, because I don't know that the full impact of this truly remarkable event has been fully felt or appreciated yet in the congregations and communities whose leaders attended.

I've already quoted several passages from one of the great speakers at the colloquium, Rev. Rick Warren. But today I want to highlight one of the most celebrated speeches given at the colloquium: the rousing address by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.

You can watch Lord Sacks' presentation here:

A full text of the speech has been published here by Aleteia; however, you really should watch and listen to the talk if you have the opportunity, as it was a great rhetorical presentation in addition to the fascinating content of the talk.

One of the aspects of Lord Sacks' talk that I most enjoyed was how he unwaveringly and unapologetically got right to the point that marriage is about the creation of new life. He says this is "the story of the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world."

As he goes on to tell that story, he accomplishes a scholarly feat of concision, boiling down an entire cultural anthropology course into a single lecture. He speaks about how the human race together, and men and women separately, are evolved and adapted to the task of rearing families, and how the institution of marriage is itself part of this development.

For example, he notes how human beings' relatively larger brains – and thus larger sized craniums — combined with the fact that human beings are bipedal and stand upright meant that the gestation of human babies would be shorter than the other primates, whose pelvises are adapted for a different kind of walking and are able to allow larger babies to be born:

[H]uman babies had to be born more prematurely than any other species, and so needed parental protection for much longer. This made parenting more demanding among humans than any other species, the work of two people rather than one. Hence the very rare phenomenon among mammals of pair bonding, unlike other species where the male contribution tends to end with the act of impregnation. Among most primates, fathers don't even recognize their children let alone care for them.

Elsewhere in the animal kingdom motherhood is almost universal but fatherhood is rare. So what emerged along with the human person was the union of the biological mother and father to care for their child.

The rest of the lecture is a tour de force, detailing six other pivotal moments in the "story" of how marriage has become the mark of humanity, the means of bringing about new life and safeguarding its progress.

But from there, Rabbi Sacks turns to "what has changed" and why marriage and culture are in crisis today, and he puts it very succinctly:

I wrote a book a few years ago about religion and science and I summarized the difference between them in two sentences. "Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean." And that's a way of thinking about culture also. Does it put things together or does it take things apart?

It should go without saying that Rabbi Sacks isn't here simply making some kind of "anti-science" judgment: the whole of his speech is filled with good solid science of various disciplines, from social science to biological anthropology. He clearly has more than the average appreciation for the merits of science.

But he warns us that in the modern, scientific era there has been a cleavage in the synthesis that marriage accomplished in human history:

For a whole variety of reasons, some to do with medical developments like birth control, in vitro fertilization and other genetic interventions, some to do with moral change like the idea that we are free to do whatever we like so long as it does not harm others, some to do with a transfer of responsibilities from the individual to the state, and other and more profound changes in the culture of the West, almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care.

He goes on to detail just some of the terrible consequences of this breaking apart, from poverty levels to school drop-out rates among children to development of mental/emotional disorders in adolescence for those who are deprived of stable home nurturing.

All of this, Rabbi Sacks says, is due to "one of the tragic instances of what Friedrich Hayek called ‘the fatal conceit' that somehow we know better than the wisdom of the ages, and can defy the lessons of biology and history."

That fatal conceit, in this instance, is in particular the attempt to design new norms for men and women's relations and for family life to replace the divinely ordered and humanly sensible institution of marriage. Rabbi Sacks passionately explains why this is folly and calls us to defend marriage against these attacks:

The family, man, woman, and child, is not one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love. It is where we learn the delicate choreography of relationship and how to handle the inevitable conflicts within any human group. It is where we first take the risk of giving and receiving love. It is where one generation passes on its values to the next, ensuring the continuity of a civilization. For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children's future, we must be its defenders.

The Humanum colloquium would have been a success if all that had come out of it was just this one spectacular talk! Fortunately, though, plenty more was offered. Please check out the Humanum website to watch the videos of the other speakers' presentations and to watch the beautiful Humanum documentary series.

Marriage Supporter, I hope that you will find enlightenment and encouragement in the words of a wonderful pro-marriage champion, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and that you will share his brilliant and inspiring message with your family and friends.

God bless you, and please keep NOM in mind in this season of giving and charity. Your financial support, and of course your prayers, are very much appreciated.


Brian S Brown

Brian S. Brown
National Organization for Marriage

Brian Brown

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