Romance, Human Bliss and the Changing Place of Marriage in Our Culture

87665In the introduction to his classic book, Orthodoxy, the famous G. K. Chesterton says that he wished “to set forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance.”

This quote baffled me at first sight. How can a “mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar” in Christian thought and practice, or orthodoxy, be called “romance?”

Romance refers, at least most commonly, to a love affair. It especially describes an intense and happy affair involving young people. It can also refer to an inclination, or spirit, for adventure, for excitement, or for mystery; e.g. one rooted in love and deep, intense feeling.

Chesterton juxtaposes ideas like “strange and secure” as well as “wonder and welcome” to describe the yearning he believes lies behind all human pursuits. This is the hunger that we have to climb the next hill, or peer around the next corner, and to gaze longingly into another face, to see the true home which we long for so deeply. Chesterton was saying, I believe, that Christian orthodoxy – right worship, right glory – is God’s revelation of himself in Jesus, both in his earthly life and his body, the church. We are to have “good cheer” precisely because in Jesus Christ “we have overcome the world.”

I thought about Chesterton’s words last week as I blogged on the same-sex marriage debate. I realized, in writing and thinking about this hot topic, that everyone wants to enjoy bliss, experience romance and plunge into deeper and growing joy. The Christian soon learns that this will never fully happen, at least in this life. The non-Christian learns the same but pursues it intently as if it is only to be found in this life. Here and now can such romance be fully known.

The average non-Christian pursues meaning, or what Chesterton calls romance, as deep and intense feelings of joy in things passing and temporal. The problem is that most modern Christians do the same. Too many of us are doctrinally Christian, at least in our belief system, but dogmatically we live like pagans. By this I mean there are two kinds of believing; e.g. believing doctrines and believing dogmas. The two terms are literally synonymous; one is Greek (belief) while the other is Latin (dogma). They both denote teaching. But the word dogma has a rather ugly connotation for many modern Americans, even for many Christians. In its adjectival form the word becomes “dogmatic.” Few of us like dogmatic people. We see them as people who want to shove their beliefs on us whether we want them or not. Nevertheless, dogma simply means teaching.

But for the sake of thinking about Christian marriage, as I did in my posts this week, let us distinguish between doctrine and dogma, at least in a certain sense. I propose that this can help us make a distinction that is worth understanding. Doctrines are those beliefs that have some evidence, or reason, behind them. We will defend our doctrines if they are challenged. We even say, “He is mistaken in his doctrine.” There is some evidence for a doctrine that we can appeal to as true.

Dogmas, however, are different. As we now use this word dogmas are deep, fundamental assumptions that we make about the nature of reality. We don’t try to prove our dogmas. Dogma gives shape and structure to our thinking. Let me illustrate.

A child asks, “Mommy, why does water run downhill?”

Mommy says, “It’s because of gravity.”

The child asks, “Mommy, what is gravity?”

Answer: “It’s the fact that water runs downhill.”

“I know, Mommy, but that’s what I asked. Why does water run downhill?”

Mom, in exasperation says, “Well, honey, it just does!”

Whenever you get to “Well, honey, it just does” you’ve arrived at the stage of an argument that I am calling a dogma. Most dogmas we accept without even realizing it. When someone disagrees with your dogma you say, “He’s mistaken!” You might even say, “He’s crazy.” Disagreements over dogma run deep and often lead to anger, even hostility.

images-1What we have going on about marriage in our culture, even in the church, is a debate about dogma, not just a redefining of doctrine. If it was simply about doctrine then people who read my words last week could have a reasonable and rational conversation without passionate response. But most people simply cannot do this. Their dogma is too strong. And their dogma is shaped as much by their culture and experience as it is by their doctrine.

When it comes to what we want out of life, and this whole idea of romance and what brings human satisfaction, most of us are dogmatists. We are people who quest for rapture, joy and deep fulfillment. Almost every argument that results in deep passionate dogmatic disagreement is ultimately rooted in this romantic pursuit. This is why we defend our dogma so passionately.

This is why love songs dominate our culture. And this is why many young adults do not mature beyond this notion. If they are Christian then they change their dogma to fit with doctrines and thereby create new dogmas in the process. We look at something as mysterious as sex and say, “I’ll respond to this as a Christian but then over time I feel otherwise.” Why? I am, like most people, a romantic who is seeking for joy and bliss. I’m also the product of a culture that has placed this pursuit deeply within me.

In previous ages, when Christendom was as dominant as a cultural ocean that we swam in day-to-day, we followed our impulses. Most of us restrained ourselves sexually because of the presence of Christian teaching and doctrine even if we were not deeply Christian. In so doing we followed, even unconsciously, the dogmatic assumptions of Christianity regarding culture and society.

The problem now is that this kind of culture no longer exists. We say, “I do not get along with my wife. I’ll leave her and find another or just be single.” Or we may say, “I have strong feelings/impulses about this or that drive/impulse. It is only right that I act on this since I am designed by God to be fulfilled in life, to know true happiness, bliss or romance.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard the argument that God would never give a person a desire and then not allow them to act on it fully since God gave this desire to them in the first place.

Because we are looking for this bliss in life, and because the closest we will ever get to experiencing it in this life is in some bodily fashion, we have made sexual orgasm a huge part of our dogmatic pursuit of fulfillment, thus of deep romance. We sing about it, read about it, watch it and, seemingly, think about it nonstop.

We all grew up listening to various music and songs, most of which was filled with ideas about romance. We may consciously carefully pay attention to the lyrics of these songs or we may just accept the songs without thinking deeply. We feel something for someone and believe we must act on it. You must follow where your love leads you, even to the death. (Have you ever noticed how much love and death are linked in romantic stories, lyrics and poems?)

What intrigues me about this kind of romanticism is that it evolved from ancient mystery religions. These religious ideas never went away, they simply went underground with the advent of Christendom. Paganism was always there but from the 4th century to the 14th century the church built up a synthesis of the Christian religion within every aspect of day-to-day human life. One reason the church was called “catholic” was because the whole of Christ’s teaching has some application to the whole of human life and culture. There is a Christian way of educating, of doing politics, of doing business, etc. There is most certainly a Christian way to marry, to have children and to nurture a family. But what happened in the last forty years is now quite evident– centuries old expressions of dogma broke down in one to two generations. No part of society has more directly, and more tragically, been lost in this whole process than the meaning and power of marriage and family.

Marriage, in the Christian West, was worked out through Christian influence. This influence now has little impact on people’s dogmas even if their doctrines remain the same outwardly. The irony, an irony easily missed by many in the same-sex marriage debate, is that the institution of marriage is still considered to be fairly important. The reason many same-sex couples want to legally marry is because they believe in the ideals of a marriage. (Remember, this is a divorce culture!) The result of this dogmatic shift is that we have a lot of people who want to keep the institution of marriage but they also want to adapt the institution to new romantic realities and ideals about how they can discover bliss. Public pressure is now squarely aimed at changing the institution of marriage since the argument has been framed around fairness and civil rights. Christians are caught with a doctrine that many still (try to) believe but the dogmas these doctrines require can no longer be sustained in our culture without courage and solid formation. Now what?

 

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