Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Why get married, why have children? The reason must be very strong (as well as believed)

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Given the multiple alternative satisfactions and the many-many reasons for saying 'not yet' (delaying and delaying...), to get married and have children (in the modern world, and especially for those who are in higher social classes) means to put this at the centre of life: as number one priority.

So the reason for the whole needful M&F package of remaining chaste until marriage, getting married young, staying married, having children, having as many children as can decently be raised without the probable need for extra-family assistance - to do all this in a world which encourages and rewards and accords status to doing pretty much the opposite... well, the reason has to be a very strong reason indeed.

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But - quite aside from whether or not people believe them - for many or most people the traditional mainstream Christian reasons for getting married are just not strong enough in today's context.

The traditional reasons are true, and they used to be strong enough; but now they are true but not strong enough - because the forces of secular hedonism have grown and grown in power and pervasiveness, and now overwhelm the traditional rationale for marriage and family. 

These traditional reasons are (in no particular order) 1. Sex without sin. 2. Companionship. 3. To have children.

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1. Sex without sin... most modern people don't feel sin in relation to sex, and sin can be repented, and marriage does not necessarily lead to sex - or at least not of the quantity and quality which is desired...

But more fundamentally, many traditional Christians believe that sex is sin, and the ideal is not to have sex.

Eastern and Western Catholic traditions therefore believe that marriage is a second best to celibacy; a compromise between an ideal of no sex and the actuality of uncontrollable lust. So, on this basis, married Christians are being asked to put a second-rate compromise at the centre of their life! Hardly an inspiring prospect...

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What about Protestant traditions? Protestants reject the religious life - that is to say they reject the existence of an organised celibate life in the Church (among Priests, Monks, Friars, Nuns etc)  - which would presumably imply, indirectly, that Protestants embrace marriage as the primary life path.

Yet the actual grounds given for marriage are almost-wholly negative - the Protestant attitude is that the life of 'a religious' is bad, rather than that marriage is good in and of itself. The grounds for the primacy of marriage are therefore stated in terms almost identical to the Catholic perception of a second-rate compromise, but without any alternative provision for the celibate life.

In sum, the only sense in which Protestants have a 'higher' valuation of marriage than Catholics is that nothing higher than marriage is acknowledged as valid - i.e. Protestants do not (in practice) acknowledge that celibacy is higher than marriage.

So marriage has ended as 'top of the heap' only because celibate monasticism has been knocked off its perch; and not because marriage is more highly valued by Protestants than Catholics.

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2. Companionship... but marriage is not needed for this; nor does modern marriage undermined by unilateral no-fault-divorce-on-demand provide a strong guarantee even of companionship.

And (according to mainstream traditional Christian doctrine) the companionship of marriage is, at most, until death - so it is at best merely something to help you get through until death. And you might die soon.

And however long mortal life may be, in comparison to the hoped-for eternity after life the span of a human life is almost nothing.

A concept of marriage as companionship-unto-death is not - surely? - the kind of ideal that would inspire really significant here-and-now, this world, life and lifestyle sacrifices.

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3. To have children... this usually reduces to some argument based on social statistics that the average marriage makes a better environment for raising kids than the alternatives - but these are just averages; and anyway, who bases their whole life on data derived from social science research?

And young people nowadays don't want to have children - or at least 'not yet', and not many; and anyway, there is about a 1/10 chance that you won't be able to have children even if you do get married.

And the argument is circular: we marry in order to have children, whose main function in life is... to have children.

To defend marriage primarily on the basis that it is a means to the end of having children, or to creating a good environment for children, is therefore an argument full of holes and exceptions.

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Marriage as merely a second rate compromise to celibacy; marriage as merely an insecure means to the end of a restrictive form of companionship to get you through to death; marriage as merely a statistically probably beneficial means to the end of children...

None of the traditional Christian reasons for marriage (and the behavioural package that marriage as a primary priority entails) have much traction against the prevailing mainstream secular imperatives such as money, formal 'education', fun, sex, license/ freedom, distraction and so on - all of which counsel not yet, the risk is too great, first you need to..., pie in the sky, wait until...

For Christians, therefore - in the environment of today - it is not necessarily enough merely to have people believe and therefore take seriously the traditional arguments in favour of marriage and family.

Because even if people do believe and believe these arguments, they are not very strong arguments as compared with the powerful incentives of the societal situation working against them.

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To recapitulate - the reasons for making marriage and family the focus of earthly life need to be strong enough to justify what will be perceived as numerous sacrifices of worldly goods. In fact, since marriage ought normally to be by the early twenties, young Christians are being asked to take a very different life-path than their contemporaries - and this especially applies to women, and especially intelligent women.

Intelligent women are being asked not to place college and job at the centre, but to constrain and even forgo these opportunities in so far as they conflict with the M&F imperative - to do this, reasons must be strong.

Even if intelligent women do - for a while - follow the mainstream path in relation to college and careers - they are being asked to forgo the mainstream 'recreational lifestyle' - the lifestyle focused on sex and relationships, fashion and gossip, parties and travel, getting attention and participating in emotional psychodramas - which lifestyle is the near exclusive focus of life among modern young women outwith the realms of education and career - and the staple of fiction, news, soaps and the mass media generally.

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So the question boils down to this: what kind of a thing, what kind of ideal of marriage and children might in principle make it worthwhile for able and intelligent young women to forgo almost the whole life and lifestyle package of secular modernism, and instead opt for an extremely different (and socially disvalued) alternative path?

Given the lack of any guarantee and the probability of falling short and failing - the hoped for ideal of marriage and family must be commensurately stronger:

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The ideal married union must be more powerful, more intense and more enduring than mere companionship until death; the hopes in relation to children must be more profound than mere genetic replication, and hopes for their future of greater significance than 'mere' health, happiness and fertility.

This is what is needed: a way of presenting marriage and family as not just the highest available Christian path; but a Christian path potentially of intense and permanent significance - one which it is well worth having as the focus of earthly life.

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That's the theory - but how plausible is it to make such vast claims for the ideal state of marriage and family - above and beyond the explicit claims of mainstream traditional churches?

Is it just made-up, wishful thinking, pie in the sky?

The answer is that it is very plausible in the sense that there are significant numbers of people for whom this ideal is a matter of personal reality and observation; albeit, like all ideals, only known temporarily and glimpsed imperfectly.

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So there are people who can put their hands upon their hearts, and say with a certainty borne of direct experiential knowledge, that this extraordinarily elevated view of marriage and family is both possible and true.

Not all such people are Christians, not by any means; but those who are Christians may find themselves in the regrettable position of being unable to explain their deepest and most convincing 'intimations of immortality' (or intuitions of Heaven) in terms of their Christian faith - but must instead regard their most powerful life experiences un-Christian or non-Christian, and may indeed come to disregard and undervalue them.

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What is needed is to conceptualize - simply and clearly and powerfully - the best experiences of marriage and family in a fully Christian context, so that young Christians planning their lives can be influenced by the truths known by older generations of Christians.

So they can recognize that the sacrifices are potentially worthwhile, because it is a matter of personal experience and certain knowledge that in many people's lives nothing on earth can exceed the rewards of marriage and family.

That is a fact; what I am saying is that the fact needs to be made explicable to Christians.

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