Monday, February 14, 2005

Love and Marriage...

...go together like chalk and cheese, at least in the past, according to this New York Times op-ed essay by historian Stephanie Coontz.

A couple of interesting quotes:
In fact, Christian veneration of married love is hard to discern in the first 1,500 years of church history. As one 12th-century authority wrote, no one "disapproves" when "a gentle and honest sentiment" softens the bonds of a marriage, but "it is not the role of marriage to inspire
such a feeling." Similarly, it was not the role of such tender feelings to inspire marriage.

I have long suspected that, historically, Christians have been more interested in the love of "brothers and sisters" (i.e. one's compatriots in the church) and the love of friends than of husband and wife as husband and wife.
In the Christian hierarchy of respectable womanhood, the virgin ranked highest, the widow next and the wife last. The church upheld the authority of men over their wives, but husbands took their lumps too. One medieval church pamphlet tried to encourage young women to take vows of celibacy
by warning them that marriage would drag them down "into the thralldom of a man, and into the sorrows of the world," locking them to a husband who "chideth and jaweth thee and mauleth thee as his bought thrall and patrimonial slave."

Interestingly, on this count the church might almost be reckoned proto-feminist.
Popular celebrations of Valentine's Day gained ground in the late 17th century, but not until 100 years later did most Europeans and Americans begin to agree that marriage should be based on love and
young people should freely choose their own partners. Even in the 19th century there were still many defenders of traditional marriage who predicted that the new vogue for "marriage by fascination" instead of hardheaded negotiation would undermine the social order, and that high expectations of marriage would lead only to discontent.

I'm not positive that I agree with all of Ms. Coontz's conclusions -- I simply don't have enough information -- but I think two conclusions are worth drawing out:

First, the individualist and Romantic (not merely sentimental, but influenced by the Romantic movement) notions of love which we usually find commonsense and natural are neither commonsensical or natural. They are historical, social constructs, just like previous notions of love. This doesn't mean they're not real, anymore than earlier ideas were, but it does mean they might not be best, and they can be changed. Personally, I have long found the present, "commonsense" idea of love to be problematic. I think it is usually emphasized to the exclusion of any other sort of love, such as friendship, or familial love; and, annoyingly, it is reinforced in a thousand ways (think of virtually any animated Disney movie).

Second, I think this essay -- and a thousand bits of other evidence -- might give us reason to be very cautious whenever someone might claim that it is a primary task of the church to support and protect the "traditional family". Usually the "traditional family" means "nuclear family" which is pretty much the invention of the industrial age and (especially) the post-war age in the West. But through most of the history of the church it has not supported this sort of family, or even held up the sort of relationships which lead to it as an ideal. The church's ideal is of lives given to God for the good of the world, situated in an adoptive ecclesial family. This is a far cry from the suburban, white-picket fence, "I get all my news from Colorado Springs", sort of pablum that sometimes passes for a Christian domestic ideal these days.


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