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.
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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?”