Suspicion, Sin, and Marriage
Listening yesterday to an interview with Dick Keyes on the latest CD of the Mars Hill Audio Journal (an excellent audio journal, albeit from a chiefly Protestant perspective) discussing contemporary cynicism and its poisonous effect on Christian life. Though the interview entire was quite good, Mr. Keyes made a fine side point that I thought worth sharing here.
Cynicism, in his estimation, is part and parcel of a contemporary unreal idealism that arises from a media culture celebrating convenience and selling perfection, coupled with a widespread loss of understanding of the effects of Original Sin. No better place, he went on, could this contrast between today and previous, more healthy, cultures be seen than in attitudes towards love and marriage. In traditional wedding vows, typically amidst joyous festivities and with hope and optimism, the focus is nonetheless on the worst case scenario. "Ah yes," the vows seem to say, "you love her now, young and beautiful and whole, but now you must take the extra step, and see in this young woman a diseased hag or nagging companion in abject poverty: and yet promise now to love that woman as much then as you do the pleasant one before you now." This is the wisdom of the Church, knowing that sinful man will not, on his own, endure hardship well: but God nonetheless can give the grace, through the sacrament of marriage -- or even through natural virtues and marriage -- for that same deadbeat to care for and love his decayed and aged wife, with the aid of such vows, founded as they are in proper suspicion. This is the antidote to cynicism, which is bred when foolish moderns say first, with Joni Mitchell, that they "don't need some piece of paper from the city" to keep them together; then, burnt after those weak and non-binding promises fail, fall cynically into denials of the possibility of fidelity or marriage.
This, the perceptive Chestertonian (such as my wife, who pointed it out to me) will recall, echoes a similar sentiment expressed by GKC, in his well-known Defence of Rash Vows, with which I shall conclude:
Let us turn, on the other hand, to the maker of vows. The man who made a vow, however wild, gave a healthy and natural expression to the greatness of a great moment. He vowed, for example, to chain two mountains together, perhaps a symbol of some great relief of love, or aspiration. Short as the moment of his resolve might be, it was, like all great moments, a moment of immortality, and the desire to say of it exegi monumentum aere perennius was the only sentiment that would satisfy his mind. The modern aesthetic man would, of course, easily see the emotional opportunity; he would vow to chain two mountains together. But, then, he would quite as cheerfully vow to chain the earth to the moon. And the withering consciousness that he did not mean what he said, that he was, in truth, saying nothing of any great import, would take from him exactly that sense of daring actuality which is the excitement of a vow.
The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words -- 'free-love' -- as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.
go to main page