In his seminal work, After Virtue, philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre argues that the abandonment of Aristotelian ethics lies at the heart of modern society’s slide into moral decadence and decline. Having abandoned an ontological, “is-ought” conception of the world, MacIntyre maintains that society now lacks a foundational vision to guide and order itself. Individualism, reigns supreme.
Nowhere is the truth of MacIntyre’s observation more readily apparent, perhaps, than in the precipitous decline of marriage. What was once venerated as a holy, sacramental institution is now considered an optional, if slightly outmoded social convention, a stultifying but necessary financial convenience. This week’s Washington Post illustrates that proposition. In a recent article, the Post discusses the increasing number of couples opting to have a friend rather then a religious officiant preside over their wedding ceremonies.
Seeking to distance themselves from any prescriptive religious connotations that may cling to marriage, self-proclaimed “hippie types” are redefining the institution along highly personalized, pseudo-spiritual, distinctly non-sacramental lines.
From the article: “Members of the American University crew shared a love of jam bands, including Phish and Moe, as well as a passion for environmentalism and nature. Their wedding ceremonies often reflected those interests.
"Some of them talked about vigorously scrubbing the word 'God' from their rituals; instead, readings came from environmental poet Wendell Berry or novels, such as Einstein’s Dreams, which explores human beings’ relationship to time passing.”
This trend may seem innocuous enough. After all, what does it matter how a couple chooses to conceive of their marriage? Whether ordained by God or inspired by Wendell Berry, either way they are making a commitment to each other and that’s a good thing, right? What’s more, it’s their marriage, and they should be the ones to decide what words are spoken over their union, and by whom.
There’s one glaring problem with this perspective: Because the conception of marriage as a fungible institution is not rooted in anything deeper or higher than the whims of human emotion, it’s not capable of sustaining and propagating human society in the manner it was intended. As we’ve seen over the past several decades with the explosive growth in the rate of divorce, the marginalizing of the role of fathers in the lives of their children and the mainstream celebration of “alternative” lifestyles, a society that spurns the traditional obligations of marriage is certain to reap a bleak harvest.
Statistics bear this out, for anyone interested enough to read them. Traditional marriage (specifically, Christian marriage) has through the centuries served as a critical civilizing force in society. It has been, quite literally, the glue that holds communities and peoples together. As traditionally understood, the bonds of marriage are forged not by man, but by God. They are not merely legal, physical or emotional, they are spiritual and sacred. Yet the desire to wrench marriage away from its religious roots continues.
Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it this way:
“Modern societies seem absolutely determined to undermine their own foundations. This is especially true of intellectual elites who see the traditional structures of society as repressive rather than essential. Thus, overthrowing these structures becomes an exercise in self-defined liberation. Sadly, what inevitably results is disaster.”
Undoubtedly, the siren song of “liberation” is alluring to many. However, when you view marriage as nothing more than the mutual stirring of emotion accompanied by a few lines of poetry, or as the mere “making-it-official” formality that comes after years of cohabitation, or even as an excuse to have a good party with great friends, you are depriving it of its full force and power as a foundational social and cultural institution. Try as you might to spin this shortchanging as an “enlightened” understanding of human relationships, you are tearing at the fabric of God’s design.
It is a symptom of the malady of this modern age that influential figures within our popular culture have fallen subject to this degraded notion of marriage. Only recently, rock singer Jack White and his wife announced that they would celebrate their sixth anniversary of marriage ... by getting divorced. The soon-to-be-separated couple is hosting a party in Nashville, Tenn., to mark the auspicious occasion.
A society based upon this kind of self-centeredness and self-delusion is not a society that can thrive for long. We’ve already reached the point where divorce is just as common, if not more so, than marriage. A renewed commitment to the institution is necessary if we have any hope of healing the many wounds that currently plague our society.
Ken Connor is an attorney and co-author of Sinful Silence: When Christians Neglect Their Civic Duty. He is also chairman of the Center for a Just Society.
Publication date: September 26, 2011