For nearly ten years, I was part of a pastoral team that conducted a program for young couples preparing for marriage. My job was to give the talk on the sacrament of marriage. The scenario was always the same. We would meet, about fifty couples and myself, in church basement on a Monday evening. There would be the standard introductions and then I would give a fifty-minute lecture on the theology of marriage, followed by a question period.
The first question was always the same: “Why do we have to take this course?” This was fair enough given that, of the fifty or so couples present, only about four or five of them actually wanted to be there. The rest were there conscriptively, with reluctance, meaning they came only because they had been told that if they didn’t take this course they could not get married inside of their respective churches. So their first question usually reflected this resentment. But it reflected something more as well, namely, the near total absence in them of any sense of the corporate body of humanity, of our interdependence in that body, and of the body of Christ. Invariably they would justify their reluctance to be there in this way: “Why do we have to take this course? Whose business is this anyway? Why are my parents, the church, and society trying to interfere in my life? This is my life, my choice, my marriage, my honeymoon, and skin off my teeth if it doesn’t work out! This is not your business, the church’s business, my parents’ business, or society’s business! What’s your stake in my life?”
In that objection one hears the lonely voice of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), all those centuries ago, settling on the one thing that he could be sure of and build upon: “I think, therefore I am!” These young people, for all their sincerity and goodness, were, at least at this stage of their lives, more children of Rene Descartes than of Jesus Christ.
Rene Descartes, the seventeenth century French philosopher whose ideas helped to shape both the enlightenment and many of our modern ideas, began his philosophy with the idea that the only thing we can be sure of as real is our own reality (Cogito, ergo sum). We are inside of ourselves and our own reality is massive, real, and undeniable. Everything else appears less real and is real mainly in relationship to us. In common sense language, what this says is: I am real. My life, my thoughts, my feelings, my heartaches, my headaches are real. Everything else is outside of me and less real. I can relate to it, but it is separate from me. I am independent of it and it is independent of me. In the end, we are all separate from each other, lonely little subjects floating in space, able at times to temporarily penetrate each others’ reality, but ultimately separate, alone, independent. What’s real is me – my life, my experience.
In the Western world today, we are very much the children of that idea. Moreover it has its positive side: Our belief in this idea is one of the reasons why we cherish and defend equality and individual rights. Western democracy and the various charters of freedoms that we so much take for granted have, to some degree, been underwritten by Rene Descartes’ influence within Western history. For this we should be grateful. However Descartes’ emphasis on individuality has a less healthy underside. This is reflected in the false freedom and lack of a sense of interdependence that is so manifest in the objections those young people have to being asked to take a marriage course. In their minds, nothing is necessarily owed to family, community, and humanity. Why should there be? After all we stand independent of these and we can decide, all on our own, to what degree we want to buy in, get involved, give ourselves over, participate in, and acquiesce to others’ expectations of us. Others have their lives and I have mine!
We see this, in spades, in the cavalier attitude people (of all ages) have towards marriage today: “Why do we need to get married? This is just between the two of us. We have our own commitment to each other and that is enough. Who needs a piece of paper? This is nobody’s business but ours.” Such an attitude could be valid, if we weren’t in our very make-up social beings, irrevocably bound to each other for life itself. How different from Descartes and the modern world is the Christian idea that we are all parts of one body, a single organism, within which one part can’t say to the other: “This is my life and it is no business of yours?”
Two voices, two choices, two visions of individuality … Rene Descartes and Jesus Christ: One speaks of freedom, loneliness, and private reality; the other of interdependence, community, and shared life.