Most of us who are over 35 were raised on a certain morality regarding marriage, sex, and family. In brief, we were taught the ideal of one sexual and marriage partner for life.
We didn’t always live up to this ideal, but, if we didn’t, we saw that failure as a certain falling away, a fracturing of the norm. Moreover, this was not just something that we felt was morally non-negotiable; it was our romantic ethos and part of the very infrastructure of Western imagination. Not only did our churches teach this, our romantic novels glorified it.
Today that concept, that the ideal way to express sexual love is within a life-long married commitment, is under siege. The challenge comes first of all from practical life where more and more the norm is not sex inside of marriage and life-long commitments, but sex outside of marriage, infidelity within marriage, divorce as normal, and various forms of temporarily living together in non-institutionalized and non-sacramentalized ways. More significantly perhaps, this ideal is today being challenged theoretically, both as a moral model and as a romantic ethos. Let me cite just one salient example.
In her new book, Revolution Within, Gloria Steinem, suggests that the old moral and romantic idea of marriage and the place of sex within it are both flawed and harmful. Among other things, she argues that its basis is not morality or true romanticism, but an unfortunate historical accident which (she more than hints) religion helped bring about for its own fearful and patriarchal purposes. Thus, for instance, she writes …
“We still think of love as ‘happily ever after’. That was a myth even in the nineteenth century, when, as Margaret Mead pointed out, marriage worked better because people only lived to be fifty. (Charlotte Bronte [who idealized romantic love] herself died at thirty-nine of toxemia during her first pregnancy.) Though an average life span is now thirty years longer in many countries of the world, we haven’t really accepted the idea of loving different people at different times, in different ways. It’s possible to raise children with a loved partner and then move amicably on to a new stage of life, to love someone and yet live apart, to forge new relationships at every phase of life, even at the very end – in short, to enjoy different kinds of love, in a way that doesn’t hurt but only enriches. [Love has such resiliency, here she quotes Alice Walker, that] the new face I turn up to you no one else on earth has ever seen.” (pp. 282-283)
Futurist, Alvin Toffler, and many other social analysts today, suggest the roughly the same thing.
What’s to be said about this? Is the old moral and romantic idea of marriage, in the end, dysfunctional and repressive? Could Christianity morally sanction a whole different way of living out sexuality and marriage? Should our romantic imagination be radically restructured?
Hegel suggested that thought makes progress through dialectics. We have today, both practically and theoretically, an antithesis to our classical idea of sex and marriage. Steinem’s expression simply articulates what millions of people today in fact believe and live. Are they right? My own belief (and I say this rather categorical) is that they are not, neither morally nor romantically. However, their critique, despite this, offers things that need, as an antithesis, to be integrated within the classical view of sex and marriage.
Where it is corrective morally is in its insistence that love and sexuality are complex, evolving, and almost infinitely resilient. Sometimes we didn’t emphasize that sufficiently in the past – namely, that falling from the ideal of love leaves scars that are permanent, but not fatal; that love gives us more than one chance in this life; and that we are asked to deeply love more than one person, even within the ideal of monogamy, life-long commitment, and sex only within marriage … and not everyone who doesn’t fit the norm or who has fallen from it is tainted, fallen, second-best, or (like the rich young man) must go away sad. Romantically it also offers something positive, namely, not to put so much stock in the Romeo and Juliet ideal (one man – one women … destined from all eternity to be salvation and wholeness to each other) so as to render real marriage an institution which can only chronically disappoint.
God writes straight with crooked lines. In the current antithesis to the traditional idea of sex and marriage there is a positive moral and romantic challenge.