During the past few years I have noticed that whenever my fellow pastors and I get talking about our frustrations in the ministry, the discussion inevitably turns to the apparent death of marriage. In my last parish I “presided over” more divorces than marriages. Keeping track of the divorces, near divorces, trysts, breakups, and swaps sometimes seemed almost like a full-time job. I increasingly found myself ministering to people in all sorts of open or clandestine “arrangements” outside marriage. And it seemed as if a time of cohabitation had replaced (or supplemented) the traditional engagement period. My fellow pastors report the same kinds of experiences.
At a recent conference on worship in my denomination, a number of participants called upon the church to develop new rituals through which it could solemnize amicable divorce, “homosexual marriages,” and the public union of two heterosexuals who are “committed to each other but not for a lifetime arrangement.” There seems to be a war against the traditional institution of Christian marriage, and many in the church are ready to enlist.
Other Christians plead for a return to the “sanctity of marriage” stand. As it was in Israel’s culture, marriage is the cornerstone of Western civilization, they say, a foundation without which our culture cannot survive. In their eyes, the taboo against sex outside marriage is as valid as ever. The Church must hold the line against this subversion of marriage.
I wish to argue that, instead of being merely a vestige of the past, or a dreary relic from a sinking bourgeois culture that we must labor to keep afloat, Christian marriage has a future, one that cuts to the core of our shallow, selfish, hedonistic culture. In a world gone crazy with its own self-delusions and falsehood, Christian marriage has become a subversive activity.
It was predictable that marriage would become a focal point of the revolt of the sixties. To subvert the institution of marriage, to call its values and mores into question, to uncover marriage as a tool of an oppressive society, was rightly seen as an attack on the very core of decadent “bourgeois morality.” There was a focus on the hypocrisy of many marriages, the drabness of many marriages, the tragic enslavement of women in many marriages. Many of the criticisms were valid, and for the Church to ignore or defend these weaknesses is unpardonable. (Of course, all this had been said before. Marriage has always been a prevalent but not a particularly popular institution in Western society. The Roman antinomians, the European Romantics, the Jazz Age flappers of the twenties—these and others had questioned the value of marriage.)
The first thing one notices about the current revolt against marriage is its failure to be truly revolutionary. To be revolutionary is to be radical, to cut to the root (Latin: radix = “root”) of a society. But the “revolt” against marriage seems only to accentuate and perpetuate the very worst elements of twentieth-century Western culture.
This revolt seems to have gone the way of many other so-called revolutionary expressions of the sixties. A true revolution is difficult to maintain in our society: the communications media quickly cheapen it before there is time for its meaning to come fully into focus. We become sick of it by satiating ourselves with it. Today’s revolution becomes tomorrow’s Pepsi commercial. The youthful exuberance of the defiant teen-age couple living in extra-marital bliss in Love Story becomes grist for tomorrow’s soap-opera sequel. What begins as a genuine symbol of revolt becomes the commercialized property of the herd. “Open marriage,” “living together,” “trial marriage,” “the amicable divorce”—these have become jaded symbols of a merely ersatz revolution.
The so-called revolution against marriage is no revolution at all. It is merely one more example of our modern Western craving for instant gratification. We want everything right away, without risk or investment—from instant oatmeal to instant sex. We are a society of instant hedonists. The pursuit of pleasure, companionship, and sexual joys for their own sake is in fact an unconscious collaboration with “the system” at its worst rather than a rejection of it. Immediate gratification is the fundamental value that sustains the dream world of advertising. Advertisers are constantly telling us that we can have what we dream of and have it now if we just smoke this, or swallow this, or smear this on our faces. Sex is predominant in advertising because it is so successful in selling the magic potions that promise to give us what we desperately want (popularity, immortality, happiness, perpetual youth, and the like).
The “revolt” against marriage serves only to reinforce the inhumane values that lie at the heart of the worst excesses of consumption-oriented systems. We live in a throw-away economy in which waste is a virtual necessity. Things must be thrown away to make room for the new and improved model. In such a system, carried to its logical extreme, not only every thing but also every person seems expendable. The need for labor (people) is controlled merely by supply and demand. People are of value only as long as they are useful in helping us to get what we want. Sex becomes recreation, quick gratification with no messy leftovers.
Spokesmen for the new hedonism as institutionalized in the so-called revolt against marriage would like us to think they are offering something new and important. They aren’t. What they offer is the inhumane values—disposability, expendability, instant gratification—that make up the darkest side of the “system” itself.
A truly revolutionary concept for our age is the Christian idea of marriage, of a sex relationship based on lifelong total commitment. According to Christian theology, marriage entails risk as well as commitment. It asks a person to venture out, to expose himself to the complex reality of another human being. It is risky to dare to link your future with another person’s, to accept all that person’s strengths and weaknesses. This element of risk will always be unpopular. “Liberation” in our world too often means liberation from responsibility for anyone else but oneself. We are, classical Christian theology maintains, basically self-seeking, self-gratifying individuals. The ritual of marriage itself is realistic about human weaknesses and limitations. It says that what we would do “naturally” is not always the best that we could do.
I am fond of a phrase (long since deleted) from the original marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer in which the minister warns the couple not to enter into marriage “wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts.…” I sense a naïveté about human nature in many current “alternatives” to marriage. Advocates of the “open marriage” and the extra-marital “arrangement” assume that a feeling of “love” (abstractly and vaguely defined) is enough to ensure mutual trust and consideration.
The Christian marriage ceremony illustrates the belief that a deep sexual and emotional encounter between two people requires a revolution in which both turn away from self-centeredness. To be united to another person means to risk oneself in a rite of initiation and passage (as anthropologists call it) that entails a death of the old self and a resurrection of the new. Within the ceremony there are numerous images of this death and resurrection, such as “for this reason a man leaves his father and mother” and “the two become one flesh.” To remain your same old self after you are married is not enough. Many marriages fail because the partners fail to comprehend what a transformation is demanded of them.
Related to our fear of risk is our fear of permanence. To say that sex is best when experienced within a lifelong, unconditional commitment is to challenge some basic assumptions of modern society. We are obsessive “neophiles,” lovers of the new. We have a low tolerance for repetition, pattern, sameness. “Love” becomes an ecstatic experience of release occurring in a moment of bliss that cannot be duplicated. In fact, repetition or duplication somehow seems to rob this so-called love of its significance for us. Anthropologist Margaret Mead says she has seen this fear of repetition and permanence in no other society on earth. In other cultures, what is permanent and trustworthy is what is valuable. Perhaps our fear of permanence is due to our technology and its rapid-fire change, or our uprootedness, or the shallowness and youthfulness of our culture. Whatever the causes, it is a striking characteristic of our nation.
Karl Barth has said that the love of Christian marriage is love in its most mature and Christ-like manifestation. God has covenanted with us to be for us in a permanent relationship that transcends changes of time and circumstance, and marriage is meant to be a human equivalent of this divine covenant. Love is best in marriage because in the context of promised permanence and fidelity, love is truly free. Many couples report that the worst time in their relationship is the engagement. In each person’s mind are questions about the rightness of the marriage. There is always the possibility that each argument will be the last, that when the other person walks out and slams the door in a huff, he or she will not come back.
Marriage should change all this because, once permanence is promised, each person is free to be his or her real self. There is no longer a need for the games, the masks, the little falsehoods.
As Barth once said in another context, no one can truly repent or be truly honest about his shortcomings and sins unless he is first absolutely convinced of the security and permanence of God’s love. Any repentance and confession before this is just play-acting. What is true of the divine-human relationship is true of the human relationship of marriage. The covenanting of two people brings a sense of security and openness that is found almost nowhere else in human encounters. Only in this long-term relationship can the honesty, forgiveness, acceptance, and healing take place that make life together possible.
Marriage has suffered partly because the word “love” has been emptied of significance. “Love” has been commercialized, sentimentalized, and cheapened. Christian marriage affirms that love is more than a feeling; it is a conscious decision to yoke onself with another person through thick and thin (“sickness and health, richer and poorer, till death us do part”). In the marriage ritual the minister asks not “Do you love this person?” but “Will you love this person?” The faith assumes that loving is something one can decide to do. It can be an act of the will. I have often reminded couples who come to me to discuss divorce because “we don’t love each other anymore” that they once stood before God and the church and promised to love.
The shallow, gushy “love” of our contemporary world is pagan love that loves only the lovely and the lovable. It is a feeling and nothing more. It is the love of the white person who loves black people only when they conform to white expectations. It is the love of rich people who love poor people only when they are the “deserving” poor. Such selfish, on-again off-again affection falls far short of Christian love.
In the old Book of Common Prayer, one of the three reasons given for the divine ordination of marriage (the other two were “procreation of children” and “to avoid fornication”) was “for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that one ought to have the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” The uniting of two people in marriage is thus a paradigm of the manner of life that God intends, not only for these two people but for the world as a whole. The Puritans used to speak of the family as an ecclesiola or “little church.” They were right. In the Family of God (church) or in the Family of Man (humanity in general) there is a continuing need for permanence, mutual concern in times of joy and sorrow, openness, and risk. Marriage is God’s doing with one man and one woman that which he is always trying to do within the world as a whole.
Marriage will probably continue to be unpopular, and people will probably continue to search for “alternatives.” Many people’s dissatisfaction with marriage may be related to the fact that it is difficult and demanding, calling forth from us the best that we have. Its values challenge many of the values we have accepted over the past few years. In a world of flux where everything and everyone seems to have a price, where few dare to link themselves with other people for a moment much less a lifetime, where TV tells us we can have anything we want with no risk and have it right now, where people are used and disposed of almost as easily as soft-drink cans, marriage is a revolutionary, downright subversive activity! As revolutionary as the love of Christ himself.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.