Tish and I have just started giving marriage counseling to some engaged friends of ours. In our first meeting last week, they noted at one point that it is an extremely precarious time to be getting married. Some of their close friends have just gotten a divorce after being married for less than two years, and it’s really shaken our friends up. Over half of the marriages in American culture, not only among atheists and agnostics, but among evangelical Christians, end in divorce. That is a sobering statistic reflecting a crisis in the meaning and practice of marriage in our American culture.
In Western culture, as the legal scholar John Witte, Jr. has noted in various places, various conceptions of the meaning of marriage have predominated. Two central ways of conceiving marriage – as sacrament and as covenant – have predominated in Catholic and Reformed thought, respectively. These two ways of conceiving of the meaning of marriage have, in different ways, imaged this ostensibly ‘natural’ institution as a Christian mystery, as a means of participation in divine life in the body of Christ. It therefore came to be conceived of as an institution that had its basis in the church and which for that reason was an extension of the mission of the church.
The conception of marriage that has dominated the west since the early modern period is marriage as ‘contract’. This transition in the conception of marriage is one of the unfortunate consequences of the sixteenth century alliances forged with magistrates by early Protestants. The contractual theory focused attention on the mutual consent of the parties to the marriage and made the connections between the couple and the church less clear. In the process of secularization over the following three centuries, the ties could be and often were severed altogether. But the consequences of this severing have been devastating, because it has removed the raison d’etre of marriage. Marriage is not simply about procreation, social stability, or less still the mere happiness of the parties involved – at least happiness conceived in modern terms as fleeting emotional buoyancy rather than in its classical sense as life lived in accordance with the proper end of the human being or in its Christian sense as ‘blessedness’. It is one form that the common mission of the church takes, and as such it must be oriented not only by eros, ‘need love’ in C.S. Lewis’s famous distinction, but by agape, ‘gift-love’, that unites the couple in a common vision and mission that transcends the bounds of their relationship. Catholic theologian David Matzko McCarthy writes this about marriage in the West:
Modern marriage is comic in some respects, but the picture given by the typical sitcom is ultimately tragic….This is the tragedy: marriage endures only if we never grow up, if our love never moves beyond the immaturity of dating. From the point of view of Christian love, it is indisputable that love will last, but the enduring love is not romantic. In this respect, the sitcom perpetuates a comic deception: for love to endure the foolish lovers must remain romantic fools. Christians, in contrast, are called to a higher love of friendship with God….Romantic love makes promises (‘till death do us part’) that it cannot keep….Friendship sustains the promise, and this difference between romance and friendship is why marriage is superior to dating and living together. Romantically, we desire to give ourselves over to another. In friendship, we are called to live side by side, animated by a common vision and progressing toward a common goal. If romance draws individuals outside of themselves, friendship draws the pair outside of ‘the relationship’. The friendship of God draws us to a love that we cannot sustain on our own in our private moments of loving face to face. We are called to join together to increase in faithfulness. The friendship of God draws us to a life where love is actually found (rather than undermined) in hard times and through the pedestrian activities of home. The wonder of grace is that comes not only to the blessed or the misfortunate, but into the ordinary people who gather in God’s name. (The Good Life: Genuine Christianity for the Middle Class, pp. 56-7)