Even as Supreme Court justices hear the case for gay marriage, others question whether the institution of marriage in any form is doomed, warning of the coming “marriage apocalypse” and noting that marriage “doesn’t work anymore.” What’s interesting to me, as a Christian, is to think about what shifts in economics, culture and psychology have brought us to the point where marriage doesn’t seem to work.
As Wendell Berry puts it, “I don’t think modern society is a proper context for evaluating marriage.” In other words, it’s not only that marriage is a timeless, free-standing institution. Rather, we need to ask what, in our modern culture, leads us to the point where people feel marriage just doesn’t work.
One of the most telling quotes in CNN’s “marriage apocalypse” piece is this: “Marriage should be for love, not a matter of expectations, routine and everyday practicalities.” Notice that love and marriage are understood as what you have when you subtract expectations, routine and everyday practicalities. Does this strike anyone else as strange? This view of love explains why Berry says we don’t even have the context to evaluate marriage - because, in our context, marriage has nothing to do with the necessities and practicalities of life and has been reduced to a romantic, sexual, and/or therapeutic connection with another person.
If we take Genesis 1 and 2 seriously, however, marriage joins a man and woman to the task of caretaking - for one another, for creation and for the children that result from their union. That will entail, by definition, having clear expectations (hence the marriage vows), routines (as if human life and relationships could avoid them) and everyday practicalities (marriage is not an endless Bachelorepisode, after all).
If we take Genesis 1 and 2 seriously, marriage joins a man and woman to the task of caretaking - for one another, for creation and for their children.
As Berry points out, households in agrarian communities, such as those in Genesis, are the focus of economic production, not simply consumption. Husband and wife both work at home because the home is a place of cultivation and culture. Children play a key role in that as well, learning to be culture-makers from a young age. By contrast, Berry says, “the modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming.” In other words, marriage doesn’t work in our culture in part because we don’t work together in the context of a mutually enriching and productive household. The consumptive rather than productive household also helps explain why people are waiting longer and longer to have children. We have created a society and economy where children are solely consumers (up to and including the college debt cited as a key reason not to marry), rather than participants in the culture-making of a household economy from an early age. The industrialism that first exploited children in labor now renders them a useless and unnecessary burden.
But Alexander Schmemann points out that our marriage problems are not merely because of economic and cultural structures but idolatry. As Schmemann aptly summarizes, “the real sin of marriage today is … the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. …It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it.” It’s not merely the work of everyday life, but the work of seeking first God’s kingdom that will unite our marriages and families.
If marriage entails a cross, though, it’s no wonder that a post-Christian, therapeutic culture would reject it. In our context, Christians need to affirm more than ever that marriage will work, ultimately, only when we rest in the grace of God both for our self and our spouse and commit to the work of daily taking up our cross. If we do that, we just might find that a good marriage is one of “all these things” that are given to those who put God’s kingdom first.