A blessed feast of St. John the Evangelist to any readers I happen to have. That's today, which happens to be the third day of Christmas. And here's a really cute way to tie the feast day to the topic of this post: It is only in St. John's Gospel that we find the story of the wedding at Cana! So I managed to find an excuse for putting up this post on this particular day. Rim shot!
In real fact, the topic is on my mind because of a debate on Facebook. (What else, right?)
The approximate question at issue was whether or not Christians in the (approximately, evangelical Protestant) church make an "idol" of marriage. Plus assorted other questions such as whether an emphasis upon marriage and questions to young people such as a parents' asking a young man, "When are you going to get married?" understandably make the recipient of the question feel like he is insufficiently valued as an individual.
Now, I don't go to a lot of Protestant evangelical churches, because I'm a member of a continuing Anglican church. So one could argue that I lack information. That is perhaps true, but I do keep in touch with the evangelical scene through a host of friends, through activities like concerts, and through the Internet. And I just don't see this "idolatry" of marriage. On the contrary, I see too many evangelical and other Christian young people not taking an intentional stance toward marriage, not openly talking about their desire for it, not treating it as a normal part of life, and in particular (and in this last point I'm thinking chiefly of young men) not pursuing it actively. Not asking girls out, not getting on a dating site (if your local region is really that devoid of local talent or if you've been having difficulties finding someone), not asking yourself if your standards of physical beauty are artificial and unrealistic. I see late marriage becoming a norm without any excuses given. Very late marriage among the heathens makes a certain amount of perverse sense, because the heathen aren't waiting for marriage for sex (of some kind or another) and often don't value forming families and having babies. Or they consider waiting and then undergoing elaborate fertility treatments to be normal. But for Christians, a failure of intentionality about marriage is not terribly defensible. Even an open, "Gee, I'd like to find a girlfriend and get married, but the economy stinks, and I don't have a job. What should I do?" would be better than the sort of taboo that seems to surround talk of marriage. And in Christian circles there is the additional oddity of what I might call "millenial prudery." Some millenial Christians may tell you that the F-bomb is just another word, but try telling the guys that they might want to get married for reasons of chastity and you've apparently said something dirty and unspiritual.
So I admit to just not seeing this "marriage idolatry" that I'm hearing about.
But here are some further questions: Given that Christians are supposed to find their all in all in Jesus Christ, do we need to be teaching more young people that "Jesus is enough" and doing more to affirm the value of the single individual? Is there a real danger that the kinds of things I said in the last paragraph will a) teach people (if they listen to them) to be too "earthly minded" or b) wrongly encourage people to place their true worth in whether or not they are married?
To answer this, let me first say that I think the Catholics are right to have a separate value for celibacy (and even virginity) that is its "own thing," separate from the value for marriage. This seems to me to be clear-thinking and robust. Like extreme poverty, singleness may be a special, difficult, and powerful way of testifying to and serving the kingdom of God. So by no means am I saying that anyone who doesn't get married, or even (more radically) anyone who deliberately chooses not to get married, is doing something immoral. St. Paul makes it very clear that some people legitimately remain single for reasons of being wholly devoted to serving the Lord. He even hints that this is in some sense the better way. Hence the Catholic idea of monks, priests, and nuns who embrace celibacy deliberately.
But that sort of singleness should be highly intentional as well. Choosing singleness as a stony but valuable way of serving the kingdom of God doesn't look like this: "Well, all the godly women I happen to meet these days aren't very attractive, and all the highly attractive women I meet aren't godly, so I guess I'll just go on my way for the time being, continuing not dating anyone and being single."
Moreover, the people who are truly called to singleness, in the sense of being especially suited for it, are and should be in the minority in the human race generally. God has set up marriage as the glorious way by which mankind is formed into families, by which children are born and nurtured and the human race continued, and by which society is created. Not to mention God's having created sex and intending its satisfaction in marriage. When marriage becomes the minority outcome in the church and in the world, we have a problem. And the problem in Western society generally is the falling-off of marriage for pagan and perverse reasons, so it is all the more important that the Church not fall into the ways of the world by ceasing to value marriage. The married state should be considered the norm. The state of lifelong or even long-term celibacy while young, embraced intentionally for God, should be the exception, though a valuable one.
But what about people who just aren't finding that marriage is "happening" for them, despite legitimate efforts? What about young men who keep getting turned down for dates, or who have had their hearts broken? What about young women whom no one asks out? What about people who are unattractive? What about a person who has some disability (e.g., alcoholism) that he needs to get taken care of before he is a legitimate candidate for marriage himself? Is it not cruel to assert that marriage is a norm and to promote it? Might it not hurt those people's feelings and make them feel un-valued?
One harsh but true fact is just this: Any recognition of normativity is (probably) accidentally going to hurt some people who are unable, through no fault of their own, to achieve the norm. If a society rightly values babies, infertile people are probably going to feel bad. If a society rightly values having a job and not living off of your parents, a disabled person who cannot get a job, or a man who is unemployed for some other reason that he can't help, is going to feel bad. And if a society or even a sub-society like the church values marriage, unmarried people may feel bad. That is a price we pay for having norms at all. It comes with the territory, and it's a bad idea to ditch the norms just to make sure nobody feels bad. For one thing, such feelings are actually helpful for distinguishing between those who are willfully avoiding the good thing for no good reason and those who truly can't help their situation. A culture or sub-culture that highly values children puts pressure on couples not to get married with the deliberate intention of never having children, for no particular reason, just because they don't want to. A culture's high value on work and self-support can help to put pressure on the man who is "failing to launch" and not really trying to be employed, living on his parents for no good reason. Putting a high value on marriage can motivate young people to seek marriage actively, which they (especially young men) should do if they are not specially called to singleness, rather than sitting around passively and then saying that it just didn't happen. In other words, social norms rightly create social guilt in those who willfully flout them. The sadness experienced by those who don't willfully flout them and are debarred through no fault of their own can then be dealt with separately, but in a culture that is trying to denormalize a particular valuable and normal thing, the higher priority should be hanging onto the norms. In short, hard cases make bad law.
Note, too, that you can't really decide whether or not an emphasis on some good thing is too much or exaggerated unless you have some idea of how valuable that thing actually is. Hence, the question of whether or not an emphasis by some group or individual on marriage is excessive is intimately bound up with the question of how much importance should be placed on marriage. The two questions can't be separated. It would be tacky for your uncle to say, "Hey, when are you going to get that plastic surgery to get your nose made perfectly straight?" That's because having a perfectly straight nose is not really very important, especially if one's nose is not visibly deformed. An uncle who said that would be weird. But an uncle who asks a 25-year-old nephew who shows no signs of doing so and doesn't seem to be debarred from marriage in any way, "Hey, when are you going to get married?" is reflecting the legitimate priorities of mankind throughout all of human history.
But okay, then, how should we help those who genuinely are single through no fault of their own, who are saddened by it, and who don't want to be made to feel that they lack value?
It seems to me that the first step is acknowledging that their sadness is legitimate and understandable--a real grief, in fact. I think Christians, and Western society generally, do fairly well at this for infertility. There's plenty of talk about the deep grief of infertility. But there is less talk about the deep sadness of singleness. One is forced to conclude that such grief is viewed as "drama queen" territory, as over-the-top, etc. But as one insightful Facebook friend pointed out, the two are bound up together. If grief over infertility is legitimate, it seems like grief over singleness must also be legitimate, since getting married is (morally) a prerequisite to having children. And as I pointed out in this post, if a man is planning to get married and wants to have children, then his future wife's biological clock is his own biological clock, even if he doesn't yet know who she is. There are still some men who, like Jim Elliot whom I quoted in that post, realize that and are pained by it as they continue to be unmarried. Certainly most women cannot avoid thinking about it.
The second step, in a Christian context, is promulgating a deep theology of suffering. If someone does not seem called to singleness by temperament or special task but nonetheless is single for some reason beyond his control, then he is suffering a sadness and a privation and has to learn the hard lesson of offering that pain up to Christ and living with loss. In the total set of lessons to be learned as part of a theology of suffering, the lesson that "Jesus is enough" is indeed one, but the phrase sounds like a cliche and hence is not wisely put front and center. Would you say to a man who had lost a limb, or a child, "Jesus is enough?" Probably not. In the course of his grief for his limb or his child, he does need to wrestle with and grasp the truth that we are ultimately made for God and seek union with God as our highest end. But the very profundity of that truth is degraded by applying it like a bandaid. Normally the man would walk through life with all of his limbs, with his wife, and with his children and would find union with God in part by way of these human goods, not by being deprived of them. When one of these normal human goods is either taken from a man or not vouchsafed to him in a timely way, finding more perfect union with God through the way of suffering and negation is extremely tough, and holding a Bible study in which we gather the single people and say earnestly to them, "You need to find your value in Jesus because he's enough, not in marriage" probably doesn't make much more sense as either a pastoral strategy or a theological approach than doing something similar with the infertile couples or the severely disabled.
Ironically, those most likely to be "helped" by being told that Jesus alone is enough are those who don't actually admit the strong normativity of marriage and who prefer (for whatever reason) to take no steps to that end themselves. They are likely to be soothed by being told that it's all those others promoting marriage who are wrong and idolatrous, tactless and hurtful, and that the young people are pursuing a higher and more spiritual way by letting the matter slide and getting on with single life while, at most, vaguely "waiting for the right person to come along." (Again, to be clear, as a complementarian I place more of an onus on males to be pursuing than on females, though there are also steps that females can take to show interest, etc., in a ladylike fashion.) The person who is really in most need of pastoral assistance because he (or she) is genuinely grieved by the single state may (I would guess) find the "Jesus is enough" pep talk cold comfort indeed.
Third, I think we should suggest to people in that situation that they be open, as befits a given context, about their desire to be married. No, I'm not recommending going on your Facebook status all the time and loudly bewailing your single state to all the world. But here are some recommendations: When there are people in your life who do reflect that legitimate priority on marriage (see the uncle example above) and who are close enough to you that they have a legitimate interest in knowing, be willing to communicate with them. If you're dating someone or even "sort of" dating someone, don't treat this as some dark secret. (The strange taboos of different generations are something of a mystery.) Tell your uncle, "Well, there is a young lady I'm getting to know and praying about. We'll see if anything comes of it." More painfully and vulnerably, if someone is "on your case" about not getting married and this is painful because there is some problem that has beset your efforts, instead of getting mad at this person who doesn't know the circumstances and developing a theory that "the church is idolatrous about marriage," be willing to sketch those circumstances for him: "Uncle Paul, I would really like to be married and have tried dating, but unfortunately the girls are not interested in me, and I'm not getting anywhere." If a hearty and tactless Uncle Paul then responds, "Nonsense! Why would any girl not want to date a handsome fellow like you?" then that really is Uncle Paul's problem. But if Uncle Paul is a reasonable, sensible, and minimally sensitive man, he'll express sympathy and offer to pray with you for God's will in the on-going situation. On the other hand, if you think that God is calling you to some difficult and dangerous path where you can't take a family, so you are intentionally remaining single, you can explain that as well. If you think none of this is Uncle Paul's business, fine and dandy. Maybe it isn't. But in that case be prepared to have Uncle Paul lack understanding of your situation, which probably has nothing to do with idolatry.
This recommendation of openness between the generations also helps (I'll admit) to "smoke out" those who just want to be left alone and who aren't actually seeking a spouse and having no luck. After all, if what you could in honesty tell Uncle Paul isn't that the girls are turning you down or that the guys aren't asking you out or even that you're recovering from a broken heart but rather something vague like "I guess I just haven't run into the right one yet" or "It just isn't the right time yet" or other anodyne and uninformative phrases, Uncle Paul may correctly conclude that you and he have quite different ideas about the value of marriage itself.
Again, let me emphasize that these thoughts arise not out of a lack of empathy for the unwillingly single but precisely from empathy with them. We live in a dysfunctional society, and nowhere more so than in the area of sex. The less marriage is considered a norm, the more situations we will have where people are discontentedly or unwillingly single, because it takes two suitable people, together, to get married! If there are fewer chaste, marriage-minded young women, the chaste, marriage-minded young men will have fewer options. If there are fewer chaste, marriage-minded young men, the chaste, marriage-minded young women will have fewer options. Hence the most practical way to help the unwillingly single is to promote both chastity and marriage-mindedness among the members of the opposite sex who are in contact with the unwillingly single. And the most spiritual way to help the unwillingly single is to admit their sadness, admit the problems of our Western society, admit their sense that the fallenness of the world is, one way or another, hitting them, and help them to find the help of God to comfort and sustain them along their way.
May God be with us all, the married and the unmarried, strengthen us, and bring us at last to his heavenly kingdom.
Related post here.