Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Looking at Marriage

At the recommendation of my bishop, I read a sobering article written for Time Magazine by Caitlin Flanagan entitled, "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" It paints a grim picture of what's going on in our society. Here are some excerpts:

In the past 40 years, the face of the American family has changed profoundly. As sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin observes in a landmark new book called The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, what is significant about contemporary American families, compared with those of other nations, is their combination of "frequent marriage, frequent divorce" and the high number of "short-term co-habiting relationships." Taken together, these forces "create a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else. There are more partners in the personal lives of Americans than in the lives of people of any other Western country."

An increasingly fragile construct depending less and less on notions of sacrifice and obligation than on the ephemera of romance and happiness as defined by and for its adult principals, the intact, two-parent family remains our cultural ideal, but it exists under constant assault. It is buffeted by affairs and ennui, subject to the eternal American hope for greater happiness, for changing the hand you dealt yourself. Getting married for life, having children and raising them with your partner — this is still the way most Americans are conducting adult life, but the numbers who are moving in a different direction continue to rise. Most notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in May that births to unmarried women have reached an astonishing 39.7%.

How much does this matter? More than words can say. There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers' financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation's underclass.

The poor and the middle class are very different in the ways they have forsaken marriage. The poor are doing it by uncoupling parenthood from marriage, and the financially secure are doing it by blasting apart their unions if the principals aren't having fun anymore. ...

America's obsession with high-profile marriage flameouts ... reflects a collective ambivalence toward the institution: our wish that we could land ourselves in a lasting union, mixed with our feeling of vindication, or even relief, when a standard bearer for the "traditional family" fails to pull it off. This is ultimately self-defeating. It is time instead to come to terms with both our unrealistic expectations for a happy marriage and our equally unrealistic beliefs about the consequences of walking away from the families we build.

The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it — given the game-changing realities of birth control, female equality and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized — simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now: there probably aren't many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good times consists of being yoked to the same romantic partner, through bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually dies in harness.

Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function — to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation's own safe passage into adulthood? Think of it this way: the current generation of children, the one watching commitments between adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply can't be bothered to marry each other and who hence drift in and out of their children's lives — that's the generation who will be taking care of us when we are old. ...

What we teach about the true meaning of marriage will determine a great deal about our fate.

Read it all.

Reading this article, I found myself wondering what role the Church plays in challenging or aiding and abetting our "collective ambivalence" about the institution of marriage.

Many questions come to mind. For instance, do we in the Church, perhaps unwittingly, support the reduction of marriage to yet another consumer venture ("We don't belong to any church, but we want to be married in your church because it is so beautiful!")? By not adequately dealing with the pervasive issue of divorce, do we tacitly bless the cultural norm of serial monogamy and the broken relationships that norm entails?

In response to such questions, some might say that making it easier to get married in the Church provides opportunities for evangelism. Perhaps that's true in some cases. But in my experience, it rarely works out that way. If the couple was not very involved in the life of the parish before the wedding, they tend to not be very involved afterwards. And the couples who aren't very involved tend to make the most demands about what they want with their wedding, even if what they want happens to be completely out of bounds when it comes to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church. (For example, I was recently asked: "Can we write our own marriage vows? It would mean so much to us if we can do that!")

More questions: is it really helpful to think of marriage as a right? Does construing marriage in terms of "rights" - as something to which I am entitled by virtue of baptism, or because it is something I desire, or simply because I am a human being - provide an adequate framework for understanding what the Church means by calling marriage a sacrament?

I sometimes think that perhaps a better way to think about marriage from a Christian perspective is to think of it as analogous to making monastic or ordination vows. It's more about self-sacrifice and discipleship than about personal fulfillment or satisfying my "rights." It's a spiritual discipline for transformation into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ. It's a "school" for cultivating the virtues. And if that's the case, then marriage understood in a Christian sense is a way of life that's more about making us holy than making us happy (as least in terms of how our culture generally understands "happiness").

Here's how Gary Thomas talks about it in his book Sacred Marriage (Zondervan, 2000):

For the Christian, marriage is a penultimate rather than an ultimate reality. Because of this, both of us can find even more meaning by pursuing God together and by recognizing that he is the one who alone can fill the spiritual ache in our souls. … If that relationship [with God] is right, we won’t make such severe demands on our marriage, asking each other, expecting each other, to compensate for spiritual emptiness. ...

Just as celibates use abstinence and religious hermits use isolation, so we can use marriage for the same purpose – to grow in our service, obedience, character, pursuit, and love of God. ...

I believe it is possible to enter marriage with a view to being cleansed spiritually, if, that is, we do so with a willingness to embrace marriage as a spiritual discipline. To do this, we must not enter marriage predominately to be fulfilled, emotionally satisfied, or romantically charged, but rather to become more like Jesus Christ. We must embrace the reality of having our flaws exposed to our partner, and thereby having them exposed to us as well. Sin never seems quite as shocking when it is known only to us; when we see how it looks or sounds to another, it is magnified ten times over. The celibate can “hide” frustration by removing himself from the situation, but the married man or woman has no true refuge. It is hard to hide when you share the same bed.

In comparison to the attitudes towards marriage described in Caitlin Flanagan's article (especially attitudes among the affluent), Thomas' perspective is deeply counter cultural. That may explain why, when I've talked about this sort of thing with couples in premarital counseling, I often get blank stares. Regardless of their membership status in the Episcopal Church, most of the time they haven't a clue as to what I'm talking about.

I sometimes wonder: should the Church simply get out of the marriage business? Should we tell people to get civil marriages, and then, if they feel called to what the sacrament of Holy Matrimony means, undergo a time of discernment (akin to discerning for monastic or holy orders) which may or may not lead to the blessing of their civil marriage? Would that be a more faithful way to live into the Christian meaning of marriage than allowing anyone to marry who desires it because, by virtue of their baptisms, they have a "right" to it?

Postscript: There are a number of interesting articles up at The Washingon Post website in response to the questions: "What is marriage? Is it a sacred rite or a civil right? What role, if any, should religious institutions, traditions or beliefs have in the legal act of marriage?" Read them all.


BillB said...

Should we tell people to get civil marriages?

A resounding NO. It is living in sin if they are Christians or at least claim to be. That would not be the right thing to do.

Your second part of the question is better rephrased as a statement:

"If they feel called to what the sacrament of Holy Matrimony means, they undergo a time of discernment (akin to discerning for monastic or holy orders) which may or may not lead to the Sacarment of Marriage"

In the meantime they can live apart but participate in life together as part of the discernment.

Also if anything is to be done in the secular realm, it would be the removal of no-fault divorice from the law.

Bryan Owen said...

BillB, I note that The Book of Common Prayer includes a rite entitled "The Blessing of a Civil Marriage." I don't know what Christian church you belong to, but civil marriages are not viewed as sinful in the Episcopal Church, otherwise we would not be authorized to bless them.

Michael Barham said...

Enjoying your blog, I found myself this morning desiring to comment, I think for the first time :)

I think the matter of the language or "rights" stems from the fact of *assumption*. Society has presumed marriage and indidivuals have, therefore, merely assumed it as a matter of fate.

The challenges before the church have caused us to rethink these assumptions. So, *rights* has been a helpful language to the extent it challenges us to think beyond our assumptions (which have been exclusive and abusive at different points in history, especially to women).

I agree with your use of ordination vows/sacrifice imagery, but I think that the words that resonate with me on this issue are committment/covenant (not to suggest that I support a denominational instrument as such... that's another conversation). But I think the reason for such problems in relationships as we face today is the assumption that we will be married, or society's presumption that marriage is the due course, has led us to a certain complacency about marraige.

That is perhaps why people find shmaltzy syrupy self-written vows more favorable than the traditional vows. The terms of the covenant of marriage are difficult. They'd rather write their own more agreeable conditions.

Those who do not have the right to marry in our society - a certain segment of our population who are most loudly using the terminology of "rights" - are the ones who I suspect most keenly appreciate what you are saying about sacrifice. They might have a one-up on the traditional family. Having been denied the *right*, they are in a position to be far more appreciative of the responsibilities and sacrifices that come with it.

Those who have had the *right* seem to be the ones who have forgoteen that "rights" is not what it is about.

Yes, I am a total liberal, so I might propose that same-sex couples, as well as monastics, actually have a better sense of the terms of commitment/covenant, because they are the ones who have had to sacrifice so much for the sake of the integrity of their covenants/commitments to one another. So, I think we should not eliminate concerns of justice from the conversation about marriage, but we must couple it more expanded views of marriage that are rooted in our baptismal covenant. The church has a great wisdom to offer this complex aspect of our human life together, one that can include issues of *rights*, but that will not allow that term to be the dominant thread.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Michael. You've offered some very good and helpful reflection on important matters that expand and deepen the conversation (which is one of the reasons why I posted this, and closed with questions rather than answers, in the first place).

plsdeacon said...

I read this on a blog somewhere, but cannot remember where. It was a politically conservative blog and the author was discussing gay marriage. He said something like "why not let the homosexuals have marriage? We heterosexuals aren't using it?"

The advent of "gay marriage" will not cause nor even hurt heterosexual marriage. Gay marriage is the result of soceity's distruction of marriage. We no longer understand what it means to be married and we tend to think that marriage is like an outfit. If we don't like this one, we can go get a new own.

I believe that this the the triumph of the great American heresy of Individualism. "I am what I am and no one is the boss of me. I am as good as the next man and better than most." This leads us to want the Church's blessing on our third and fourth (and 5th!) marriages.

Phil Snyder