An Outward-Oriented Marriage

I received a free review copy of The Sacred Search by Gary Thomas as part of the Patheos Book Club.

At a recent lecture, the speaker explained the difference between apologetics and theology.  In apologetics, you are writing for the unconverted, so you have to make sure to explain your reasoning and make an aggressive case.  In theology, you’re writing for people who share the basic tenets of your faith, so you can skip over the background and just plunge deeply into your tradition.  Although it’s written in a more informal style than academic theology, The Sacred Search by Gary Thomas takes mainstream Christian thought as a starting point, and is probably only of interest to the Christian readers of the blog.

But I hope there are some good secular alternatives, since his advice is pretty good.

There’s a tendency in some Christian writing about sexuality and marriage to try to match some of the rhetoric of personal fulfillment and pleasure.  Godly sex is really really awesome sex!  This is unfortunate, as the sheer pleasurability of sex isn’t really the ultimate end of marriage.  It can certainly be a component, but it shouldn’t be your primary optimization criteria.

A marriage isn’t two people finding ultimate fulfillment in each other; it’s people joining up as partners to pursue some higher good together, helping each other along out of love for the other, and love for the shared telos they are pursuing.  So, Thomas advises, instead of just thinking about how your partner makes you feel, you should think about how well you work together, and whether you’re trying to pursue the same projects.  (This tack reminds me of Pope John Paul II’s focus on pedagogy and stewardship as the heart of familial and marital relations in Love and Responsibility).

If you wouldn’t want to be assigned to work with your beloved on a project, then you’re probably headed for some trouble, however much you like zer jokes and smile.  The responsibility that Thomas is looking forward to is childrearing.  One of his more interesting strategies he mentions is to think of the rough spots in your relationship not as something that you will manage to work around, but as something you are signing up your yet-to-be-born children to accommodate.  Better to address the issue now, instead of planning to keep routing around it.

Thomas does a good job encouraging his readers not to set their expectations sky-high and wait for the ideal person to come along and match them, but to talk to a partner frankly about how both people need to grow and adapt to see if they could manage a marriage.  And, if you’re shying away from addressing and solving those problems now, you won’t have had any good experiences of discussion to fall back on, when the stakes are high.

– — –

Of course, I guess I could say that this boils down to the advice I gave a friend who was unsure of whether he and his girlfriend had a future together.  “You should build a trebuchet together,” I said.  “If you can’t build a siege weapon as partners and enjoy it, then how can you expect to enjoy forming each other’s character and raising children?”

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • paul

    Nice post Leah , i’ll have to put this book on my reading list. I have a book recommendation for you. It is on the same topic as the book you reviewed here.

    Check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Human-Sexuality-Nuptial-Mystery-Jeal/dp/1606089447

    Written by a number of anglo-catholics in my City.

  • deiseach

    As a life-long single person I shouldn’t be commenting on this, but I will mention about the notion of baiting the trap with the lure of ‘fantastic sex!!!’ – when you’re older, it’s not the sex you are so concerned with, it’s intimacy and just someone to be there with you when you need help or company or just the sound of another voice.

    Someone to do up your dress.

    Can you see yourself holding the flashlight for them as they try to change the circulating water pump stuck in an awkward spot under the sink, without one or both of you losing your tempers? (Tip: if you can’t, then consider can you see yourself delegating flashlight-holding duties to one of the kids)? Believe me, that’s the kind of thing you’ll be a lot more concerned with, rather than finding the absolutely perfect soulmate who will make you feel the fizziness of romance every single day of the year.

  • http://unhappilyagnostic.tumblr.com/ Unhappily Agnostic

    Haha, so true about godly sex as awesome sex. Great point.

    There does definitely seem to be two sort of ways of thinking about marriage. On one hand, some people seem to think that it would be nuts to think about marriage as in most respects like a close friendship, with the addition of sexual intimacy. (If I am not mistaken, Dietrich von Hildebrand, in a small work on marriage whose title I am currently forgetting, says that you _definitely_ shouldn’t think of marriage this way. He really wants to separate it off from friendship as a different kind of thing.) On the other hand, you have those who are more apt to assimilate friendship and marriage, and speak about how in both one is pursuing some good outside of the relationship itself. Leah seems to tend more towards the latter, obviously.

    I suppose another way to put this, to use an old metaphor, is to say that some people see marriage more as the side-by-side thing, where one is pursing some other thing with someone else, and other people see marriage more as the face-to-face thing, where you’re interested in and fascinated in the other. Obviously you don’t want to set up an either-or, and both almost certainly should be there, but people tend to emphasize one or the other. I used to think the latter was correct, but now I guess I incline more towards the former. Or rather, I guess I would say I don’t see how you ever really could get to know someone else in a real fashion unless you both loved the same things.

    • Erick

      “Friends” don’t have to commit to each other at all. Friendships are basically relationship happenstances. I think part of the charm people see in friendships is this fact that people stay around and are there for each other even though there’s nothing in the relationship per se to hold them together. It’s probably why people cherish friendships that have lasted them a long time or have seen them through tough times.

      I often think of my best friend, who is married. Yes, we always find time and interest for each other. But I know, in the back of my mind, that when push ever comes to shove, he’ll always choose his wife over me.

      • Bill M.

        I think Simone Weil likened friendship to parallel lines, which meet in infinity.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~jim522/site James schanne

    I think marriage is the ultimate project two people can Pursue , hopefully it lasts a lifetime and is made up of many little daily projects that help you form the habits you need to learn to. Cooperate better and better as time goes bye, always learning more about each other

  • http://thoughtfulatheist.blogspot.com/ Jake

    A marriage isn’t two people finding ultimate fulfillment in each other; it’s people joining up as partners to pursue some higher good together, helping each other along out of love for the other, and love for the shared telos they are pursuing. So, Thomas advises, instead of just thinking about how your partner makes you feel, you should think about how well you work together, and whether you’re trying to pursue the same projects…. The responsibility that Thomas is looking forward to is childrearing

    This position strikes me as too simple. It is true that it’s not enough to be enamored with your beloved at the expense of everything else- but it is also not enough to be good lab partners. Children are not enough, a shared cause is not enough, having things in common is not enough. The (secular?) view of gaining fulfillment through each other exists for a reason- it’s really important- but it is also not enough in and of itself. It takes a huge number of factors for a marriage to be successful- and it’s probably a different set of factors for each couple. Most theological views of marriage that I’ve heard tend to whitewash those differences away in favor of a one-size-fits-all model, which I think is a mistake

    Thomas does a good job encouraging his readers not to set their expectations sky-high and wait for the ideal person to come along and match them, but to talk to a partner frankly about how both people need to grow and adapt to see if they could manage a marriage

    Certainly expecting perfection from your partner is unreasonable. But marriage isn’t a duty, it’s an option. I think it’s really dangerous to advise people to settle. Some people may be more charitable than I, and be able to be happily married to lots of different people- but there are many who must choose between waiting for the (a) right person and being unhappily married. Convincing them to settle – and robbing them of the potential for a happy marriage later – is going to make their lives worse.

    But you can absolutely never go wrong building a trebuchet. That is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard.

  • http://www.2catholicmen.blogspot.com Ben @ Two Men

    Advice I would give a couple unsure if they had a future together….try hanging wallpaper together. Did it with my wife once (did not go well). You’d be surprised ….

  • Cam

    “You should build a trebuchet together”
    Haha, awesome! I like this.

    As Jake said its not one-size-fits-all. There’s probably nothing to be said about marriage or other enduring relationships that wouldn’t be wrong for somebody. I’m also uneasy about defining marriage (oh hasnt that phrase been dragged out too much these days!) as a discrete type of relationship, when relationships can blend between marriage-like things, and things not commonly associated with ‘marriage’ at all. But this is obviously based on atheistic assumptions.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    I don’t think a marriage should be outward oriented. The idea is that agape love can never stop at the beloved. It always spills over and blesses the larger community. But that spilling over should not be the focus. The focus should remain the beloved. It is like our love for Jesus. It has to be the center. Sure it should cause us to love others better but always with Jesus in the center. Once the love of others becomes the center we lose it. We get into pride and presumption. It is not good.

    The role of sexual pleasure in marriage is also complex. It depends if you are talking about orgasms or if you mean the larger set of physical and emotional pleasures that come with sexual touching. The sexual climax is something our marriage should always be able to do without. It is amazing when it is available but there are going to be long periods where it is not. That is yet another reason why sexual intercourse while dating is problematic. You end up with a marriage that has sex as a central ingredient rather than icing on the cake. Then you try and implement NFP or survive a long illness and you get in trouble.

  • barb

    “But I hope there are some good secular alternatives, since his advice is pretty good.” I think this is unlikely since the cover alone ostracizes anyone outside a male-female relationship.

  • http://sylvietheolog.wordpress.com Sylvie D. Rousseau

    …the difference between apologetics and theology.
    Apologetics is a branch of theology. If the tone and style can be adapted to the audience as any other scientific subject, it is as serious as dogmatic theology (it seems that is what theology means for your lecturer). In fact, apologetics uses dogmatic theology all the time, notably in comparing the Catholic dogmas with other teachings, exposing error and falseness.

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