To much surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court recently refrained from taking up cases involving gay marriage bans in five different states. As it stands, same-sex nuptials will remain legal in at least 30 states. There’s little doubt the rest of the country will eventually follow.
Gay marriage is coming in full force. Whatever remnants of traditional marriage remain have been vanquished by the grinding march toward “equality.” It’s now considered counter-culture to believe marriage is reserved for one man and one woman.
As the nation debates the virtue of same-sex matrimony, the divorce rate continues to inch upward. After a rise following the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the number of divorces filed flattened during the Reagan years. Since then, it has continued to climb, in concurrence with a culture that is becoming more liberal – even libertarian – in almost every way.
Changing family dynamics have even forced Pope Francis to convene a synod to discuss the church’s role in familial matters – including communion for divorcees who remarry.
The fight over gay marriage has largely distracted from the divorce trend. It’s gotten to the point where divorce – the splitting of a sacred bond – is done blithely, as if it’s the severing of a business relationship. Contracts can be nulled for a fee that’s less than a student loan payment.
Couples are making the decision to split based mostly on feelings of passion. When the flame dies, so does the marriage. The unfulfilled promise left in its wake has broader implications than just that of children raised outside a two-parent household. It helps drive society away from the idea of everlasting commitment.
The rising acceptance of divorce as a normality can be traced back to the decoupling of marriage from transcendent meaning. There was a saying in the Woodstock Era: if it feels good, do it. That ethos isn’t just widespread today, it practically defines what it means to live in a tolerant, socially liberal society.
Medieval Christians had a way of viewing the world that is completely foreign to the post-modern worldview. They pictured themselves taking part in a grand design; a kind of narrative in which everything played a part. The good life is a path laid before us. It’s up to our free will – created by God – to guide us to an eventual reuniting with the Lord in heaven.
The idea of a narrative-filled live has been lost through the centuries. A combination of the Enlightenment, Lockean natural rights philosophy, and the idolizing of science all helped diminish the influence of transcendent truths. The world no longer appears as an enchanted place with a set purpose. It’s more of a stark place devoid of any meaning outside of cold utilitarian calculation.
Marriage has fallen prey to the same functional considerations. The bond is no longer seen as sacred. It is no longer meant to sanctify a union that is to be both permanent and selfless. In the context of homosexuality, it’s no longer meant to provide a loving foundation for child-rearing.
Today, marriage is simply an agreement by individuals (not necessarily between two) who want a formal recognition of their sexual relationship. It has ceased to have any attachment to a metaphysical conception of duty or morality. Holy matrimony is no better or no worse than taking out a mortgage – in some cases, it’s a lot less complicated.
Participation in a larger order is something modern American culture no longer reveres. Autonomy of the body is now a god that’s worshipped. Restraint is the antithesis of liberation, so it must be conquered to achieve genuine freedom.
The results of this post-modern way of life are ominous. Robbed of higher meaning, pleasure maximization is the only real goal in secular materialistic society.
The focus on bodily gratification distracts from the greater role marriage is supposed to play as an institution. The commitment was never supposed to be about affirming erotic love. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership made to order desire in such a way that is conducive to human flourishing. The pledge to faith is about focusing on the spouse; to assist in the trials and tribulations of an uncertain future. That includes the often thankless task of parenting.
In a letter to his son, novelist J.R.R. Tolkien warned against courtly love. A Narcissus-like fascination with romanticism, Tolkien cautions, “inculcates exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life, and unrelated to will and purpose.” The “Lord of the Rings” author described true, selfless wedlock as a joining of “companions of shipwreck.” I can think of no better description for a partnership meant till death.
The socially conservative apprehension against gay marriage isn’t always based on bigotry, and it certainly raises just concerns based on deontological law. But people worried over same-sex marriage should perhaps lend some of that disquiet to the slowly rising divorce rate. Saving the union may, in the long run, resuscitate the true meaning of matrimony.
If you believe your life belongs solely to you and to you alone, it makes sense to treat marriage like any other contract. That means easy separation, with no messiness involved. As with anything else, there is a tradeoff. Efficient divorce leaves marriage, as an institution, standing on a less-than-solid foundation.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, author Marilynne Robinson identified the core failure of the human condition: “Excellent people, well-meaning people, their lives do not yield what they hoped.” Despite setbacks, most people carry on with living, even when, as Robinson says, “their grief is enormous.”
Failure and loneliness are permanent aspects of life. They can’t be conquered; only mitigated. How much better are we when we have a partner in marriage to help us navigate the storm of the unexpected? I would argue a whole lot.
And it’s better in some cases to stay the course even when the water gets choppy.
Reprinted from the Press and Journal (Image source)