Understanding Ourselves In Marriage

Anytime you establish a world of your own,
you get thrown.

I’ve been thinking about marriage the last few days, and how it is a place where we get to put flesh and bones on the Sermon on the Mount.

The Both’s album is probably my favourite of the year so far. After Aimee’s beautiful opening line, Ted answers later in the song by singing:

Anytime you establish a need to atone,
you’re prone.

They say, and by they I mean opinion columnists in newspapers who have a deadline approaching, that marriage is under threat. Heated debates rage about who gets to be married and statistics indicate that fewer people are getting married and lots of people who are married decide that they no longer want to be married and end up divorced. The societal ambiguity towards matrimony can be found everywhere we look. It is summed up by the comedian Chris Rock who quips that men don’t settle down, they surrender. Marriage here is seen as a female plot.

This hesitancy about marriage isn’t new. Bertrand Russell argued that it was time we progressed beyond this institution way back in 1929, in his book Marriage and Morals (which he claims was the reason he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950). He conceived it as a male plot to subjugate women. He wished that society would in the future design things so that our institutions and our moral conventions would keep expectations about self-control to a minimum.

The use of self-control is like the use of brakes
on a train.

This, I think, gets to the heart of the objection towards marriage. We are suspicious of the discipline it imposes on us, what Russell revealingly mis-describes as self-control. After all, what he advocates for is just that – that the autonomous self would be free to do whatever they liked, unencumbered by the claims made on them by others. This is the opposite of marriage, where a couple encumbers each other with the claims of the other. It can seem like the Bertrand Russell’s of the world have won the day and marriage is an outmoded way of doing things. I presume this is why in this country and in others, Christians expend a great deal of energy “defending marriage”, constructing a final bulwark against change.

But the Sermon on the Mount might be a good place to think about what we are talking about when Christians talk about marriage. Whether marriage is suspected as a matriarchal trap to bind men or imagined as a patriarchal plot to oppress women, the funny thing about contemporary scepticism about marriage is how romantic they are. Marriage is a problem because it limits possibilities, and arrangements should be developed that do not close out our options like this.

In other words, if only we are free to be who we truly are, we would be happy and satisfied. The simple, single-shot solution to human discontent is nothing if not displaced romance.

We read the Sermon on the Mount and it doesn’t look like it is talking about us. We are not the poor in spirit, we do not hunger and thirst after righteousness, we are not merciful, pure in heart or peacemakers. The last thing we are, even Christian bakers who refuse to make wedding cakes for gay couples, is persecuted because of our righteousness.

For centuries we have idealized the Sermon on the Mount away. That doesn’t apply to us in a straightforward way, we say. How could it? Look at us! We could never live up to it.

But the romanticism of the opponents of marriage and the advocates for spiritualising the Sermon on the Mount meet at this very point: they imagine we know who we are. They think there is no great mystery about who we are, where we are, why we are and what we want. They just look inside themselves and find the answers to those questions. The marriage-sceptics look inside and conclude that impositions from outside are confinements. The Sermon on the Mount-sceptics look inside and conclude that Jesus is just pointing us towards some unreachable standard as a teaching aid to grasp grace more fully. Neither thinks the problem facing them actually includes them.

But in my experience marriage has been most excellent at least in this area: it has shown me how little I know myself. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for when I wed my bride, even though I was as wise as one needs to be to make that decision. Marriage has revealed to me the complex ways in which I am not my own. I did not make myself. To misuse Whitman, I contain multitudes, from my parents and my siblings and R.E.M. and Douglas Coupland and my next door neighbours growing up and of course, my wife. Who I am isn’t answerable from looking within myself. Where I am can only be located by reference to others. Why I am cannot begin or end with myself and what I want is greater than any answer limited to whatever falls under my humble “I”.

Even though I didn’t know myself, nevermind know what I was doing, when I said yes to Wife-unit, a world was opened up to myself where I could discover the meaning of what I had done and in the process, uncover something of what it means to be myself. There is something so fitting here about the Biblical idiom for sexual union being “to know one another”. I said yes to Wife-unit and by extension said no to everyone else in certain ways. My yes was yes, and my no was no. If only in that moment, I spoke with a truthfulness that lived up to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:37), even if I couldn’t know it at the time and only know it now by faith.

So in marriage I discover I am different from the person I thought I was. I am more flawed and more broken and more able to change than I could have imagined. And in the Sermon on the Mount I find that the person I am called to be is very different from the person I am. I am an adopted son of God, hence peacemaking is my vocation. I will see God, hence I will be pure in heart. My righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, but it will. I haven’t stood by my wife in sickness and in health, until death us do part, but I will.

Individualist accounts of humankind are especially toxic to Christians because we do not simply have to learn to insist on the social embededness of our being like everyone else. I am made by my wife and my friends and my family of origin as much as I make myself. But we go further and insist that the society that shapes us most primarily is the community we call Trinity. Marriage can be a plot to bind men and it can be a trap to oppress women and it can be a place where God sets us free to actually discover who we were made to be. In that, marriage is not the template for the Christian life. Singleness can be a way of life that similarly exposes the reality of things. But marriage in the New Testament is a constant illustration of the meaning of existence. The Scriptures begin with a wedding in a garden and end with a wedding in a city.

Aimee Mann, not even close to singing about this particular claim says that every-time you establish a world of your own, you get thrown. If we try and fabricate reality, it will hurt. Ted Leo sings in response, every-time you establish a need to atone, you’re prone. But being vulnerable in the confession of our weakness is closer to reality than anything than even Bertrand Russell has managed to say about marriage. To repent is the truest thing a human can do. The logic of marriage and the logic of the Sermon on Mount meet at just this point. To declare we are poor in spirit is to begin to tell the truth.

Your Correspondent, Talking about a profound mystery