Thursday, April 19, 2007

"Whole nations now philosophise,

And do their own undoing now.--
Who's gained by all the sacrifice
Of Europe's revolutions? who?
The Protestant? The Liberal?
I do not think it -- not at all:
Rome and the Atheist have gained:
These two shall fight it out--these two;
Protestantism being retained
For base of operations sly
By Atheism."

--Melville, from _Clarel_

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The connection between celibacy and marriage, with help from Gabriel Marcel

It is often asserted in Catholic circles that a failure to understand celibacy or virginity for the kingdom of God will lead to a failure to understand marriage. It is true that cultures without monastics generally have lousy marriages. But why is this the case? What is the connection?

I've been reading a bit of Marcel recently, and I think his distinction between the realm of mystery and problem can help. A problem is something we can solve, but which makes no necessary demands on the solver. The Pythagorean Theorem makes no demands on me--I am the same before and after I think about it. Mysteries are not problems, but demands: “A mystery is a problem that encroaches upon its own data, that invades the data and thereby transcends itself as a simple problem.” (Concrete Approaches to the Ontological Mystery, p 178) Mysteries reveal that there is a transcendent dimension to the world, something that cannot be measured or verified, but nevertheless both answers our deepest need and utters a call to us.

How does this relate to marriage? It is the modern tendency to reduce all to problems, not mysteries. We seek objectivity in all things, even in the realm of love. We treat love like such an object, something we can examine, without ourselves being in it to the gills. We say things like "Love just means what makes you happy" or "Love is just an expression of the procreative drive" or "Love is just chemistry." Beware whenever anyone uses the word "just!" This means that we attempt to explain love simply in terms of drives or interests of the people involved. I am attracted to someone, and I call the attraction love.

The monastic life, the life of celibacy for the Kingdom, resists this analysis, since it involves renouncing an interest, giving up the exercise of a drive. The only reason why one would want to do this is because of mystery, because of the impinging of what Marcel calls "being" on one's life. A man gives up sexual intercourse for life; why? Because he recognizes that there is something greater than the satisfaction of one's desires. It is in this greater that the key to understanding marriage lies.

Marriage for life is not able to be explained in terms of interests, drives, or desires (I use the words somewhat interchangeably). I may enter into a relationship for a period of time because it satisfies my desires, but desires are transitory. What happens if they change, or if they are no longer satisfied? Should the marriage end? We see it happen all the time, as people break marriages for the sake of some new person who presumably satisfies the desires better. The only possible ground of a lasting, till death do us part, in good times or bad, in sickness or in health marriage is a recognition that there is something beyond my desires, that makes a demand upon me. Marriage is only possible on the horizon of mystery.

This is the connection between the celibate life and marriage. Both require a recognition of the transcendent. Those who understand monks, understand marriage, since both require one to realize that there is more to life than just desires.