In all the conversations around the decline of marriage I wonder if we are paying enough attention to the old-fashioned concept of sacraments.
Christians have traditionally understood marriage as more than mere contract, more than mutual agreement, more than partnership. The church understands marriage to be a sacrament. That is to say, though not exclusively, a dispensation of God’s grace for the transformation of the recipient.
The endgame with sacraments is union with God by growing in Christ. Look for a moment at two examples: baptism moves a person into relationship with God and his church, while the eucharist gives us the life of Christ so we can become more like him.
Marriage is the same way. The apostle Paul speaks of marriage as a “mystery” — the very same word that the Eastern Church uses for sacrament. Our marriages have the power to transform us into the likeness of Christ. But sacrament is not a category many of us think about anymore, and the effect on our understanding of marriage is profound.
Marriage is now primarily a relationship for the betterment and self-actualization of two individuals. Two are stronger than one. Two individuals together can gratify each other’s desires and fulfill each others needs — right up until the moment they no longer seem able or willing of course.
None of that is false, so far as it goes. But when you take that understanding of marriage and place it within the context of a self-indulgent culture like ours what you create are marriages between two people looking to get the most out of the relationship for themselves.
University of Virginia sociologist Sarah Corse and Harvard sociologist Jennifer Silva, for instance, describe the rise of “therapeutic” marriage, which centers on the “happiness, equality, mutuality, and self-actualization of individuals.”
When the couples involved think they can get more for themselves outside the marriage, they cheat or “consciously uncouple,” to use the new morally beatific euphemism for divorce. “[W]e don’t divorce — or have affairs — because we are unhappy but because we could be happier,” explains therapist Esther Perel.
The union exists for the individual to maximize his or her bliss — to hell with the rest. That’s not true in every marriage, but it seemed true in my first marriage, and let me underscore the word first. How could it last with all my self-seeking?
Christians are affected as much by this culture as anyone. Not only do many of us no longer regard marriage as a sacramental union, in which individual gratification is not the main thing. But in the vacuum we have perpetuated the values of the wider culture (as in most everything else we do).
Compounding the problem, Christians approach marriage with expectations that seem appropriate on the surface but which are really just self-indulgence baptized and proof-texted. True love should wait, but the point of marriage isn’t to have — as we often sell it to young people — the most amazing sex ever.
Others have written about the problems with this approach, but the obvious one is that distorts the purpose of marriage before the pair even steps up to the altar. Everybody loves a good orgasm, but marriage is more about enabling another to grow in union with God. Not only does marriage help display the relationship between God and his church, it helps us actualize that relationship.
If marriage is to survive as any meaningful sort of institution it will only survive to the extent that we recapture the vision for what a sacramental marriage can be.