When couples come to ministers to talk about their marriage ceremonies, ministers think it’s interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years. – Stanley Hauerwas
In 2001, Time Magazine named Stanley Hauerwas, “America’s best theologian”. I don’t know how Hauerwas felt about that, but I can imagine that being named the best theologian in America would ruin most people’s day. Being named the best theologian in this country would seem a bit like being named the best hamburger: It’s a practical admission the public will never appreciate you as much as they do the cheaper fare at McDonald’s.
Take for example that a great many Christian politicians, pundits, and preachers today appear to be concerned about “traditional Christian marriage”, but – still speaking in hamburger terms here – their notion of what constituted a traditional Christian marriage often seems to consist of more bun than meat. For one thing, few of them acknowledge, as does Hauerwas, that such traditional marriages were generally unconcerned with whether the couple was in love.
When Hauerwas dares to assert that “Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love”, he seems to be asking Christians to bravely return to the good old days when in fact their marriages were not about love. But if that’s so, then it’s still a question of just how much of a return Hauerwas wants them to make?
For most of our history, marriages were usually arranged by the parents of the spouses, and they were mostly about obtaining financial stability through family alliances. As Elizabeth Abbot explains in A History of Marriage, “Because it [marriage] was a financial arrangement, it was conceived of and operated as such. It was a contract between families. For example, let’s say I’m a printer and you make paper, we might want a marriage between our children because that will improve our businesses.” I am no authority on how Hauerwas thinks, but I suspect he’s is not advocating for a return to genuinely traditional marriages.
Rather, I suspect Hauerwas is merely advocating that people make a commitment to each other which will endure even in the absence of romantic love.
Most of us in the West these days regard romantic love as, at the very least, a make or break condition for a good marriage. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, feel that couples who do not love each other are justified to divorce. But I think Hauerwas doesn’t see it that way. I’m guessing that, in his view, couples should remain together even if and when they no longer love each other.
Perhaps oddly enough, I think he has a point. But the point that I think he has might not be the same point that he himself thinks he has. For, you see, I am of the generally unsound and crazy opinion that couples today routinely expect too much of each other.
They expect themselves to mean everything to their spouse, and their spouse to mean everything to them. They want each other to be their best friend, their closest confident, their most reliable partner, the greatest love of their lives, and their only sex partner. And to top it off, they want all that to last a lifetime.
I believe those demands are generally unrealistic. Few, if any, marriages can live up to expectations like those. And it seems to my simple mind silly to place such a burden of expectations on one single person, rather than spread out those functions among a few people. I would not, for instance, expect my wife, if I had one, to necessarily be my closest confident. If she was, and if it worked out well, that would be a plus, but it would not be something that I’d expect or demand of her.
Speaking only for myself, I would not even expect my wife to be the greatest love of my life. And if I found that I had fallen out of love with her, I would not automatically bring about an end our marriage on those grounds alone. In that respect, I think Hauerwas and I might agree on something.
However, I don’t think we would agree on much else. Among other things, my ideal marriage is an open one. I also have no desire to impose one form or standard on all marriages, and Hauerwas is, for instance, opposed to gay marriage. But what business is it of mine what form my neighbor’s marriage takes?
The one thing I most admire about Hauerwas is his bravery in declaring that Christian marriage is not about love. There seem to me few Christian thinkers today who acknowledge that, traditionally, that is the truth about Christian marriage. Given the prevailing low standards for intellectual honesty in our society, he is likely to get more flak for that admission than respect. But I also see Hauerwas as something of a quaint figure.
I could be very wrong, but I suspect that, on some level, Hauerwas sees the past as holding the proper standards for the future, and sees most deviations from those standards as corruptions of them. Hence gay marriage, for instance, is not to be embraced as progress, but to be opposed as corruption or decadence.
But I see our age as an adolescent age: An age in transition, just as an adolescent is in transition between youth and adulthood. It is not certain to me that our adulthood will be better than our youth, but it is certain to me that we have within ourselves the opportunity to make it better.
Then where are we headed? I am fairly confident the expectation and demand that our spouses be everything to us will not endure forever, and yet I am even more confident that the institution of marriage will still be around in the future. But in what form(s) will it be around? Whatever the form(s) future marriages take, I do not think the form(s) will necessarily be decadent should they depart from past standards.