Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Adventure of Monogamy

The great English essayist and possibly best prose writer of the twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton once remarked to a man who claimed that Christianity had been tried and found wanting that, on the contrary, “it had been found difficult and left untried.”  He might have been speaking of any number of aspects of Christianity, whether belief in the Incarnation and crucifixion, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles or idea that the humble and poor are blessed rather than the rich and proud.  To some significant extent, I rather suspect that he was speaking in large part about Christian beliefs on human sexuality.  

In no age have Christian sexual teachings been popular.  It is sometimes claimed today that Jesus gave commands that kept with the spirit of his time, but do not fit with ours.  This is nonsense.  Jesus’ concept of human sexuality was no more popular in his age then than today.  He rejected divorce in an age that demanded it with the same vehemence with which modern society does.  He and apostles always assumed that marriage was between  a man and a women, even Paul writing to a pagan Roman society that was no more sympathetic to Christian sexual teaching than pagan modern society (Rom 1:26-27).

The strange thing about modern distaste for Church teaching on monogamy is that in demanding monogamy without divorce, the Church, as C.S. Lewis, remarked in Mere Christianity, does not demand people do something utterly foreign to them.  The Church did not force Romeo to promise Juliet eternal constancy and love, he did that one his own.  Songs, poems, love stories, both modern and ancient, are full of promises of eternal love and fidelity.  Songs promise that “I will love you forever;” they never promise, “I will love you until next Tuesday.”  For all the commonness of modern divorce and promiscuity, man cannot easily escape at least the ideal of fidelity.  The Church does not impose this ideal, it simply demands that man keep it.  

At the lowest level, keeping this promise of fidelity is a matter of integrity.  When a man does what his conscience tells him that he ought do, promise his love forever, he makes an oath that it is a simple matter of honesty and integrity to keep.  Robert Bolt’s Thomas More, in A Man for All Seasons, on being asked why he would not take an oath to save his life, replied that he would not take an oath that he could not keep.  He explained that “when a man takes an oath, he takes his own self into his hands, like water, and if he opens his fingers, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”

Keeping to one woman (or man), though, is not simply a matter of honesty or integrity, but adventure.   As Chesterton remarked, there is simply no fun in taking an oath that I cannot be kept to.  There is no adventure in keeping an promise only when it is easy to do so, or following a road only until the trail darkens.  What adventure would it have been in Lord of the Rings had Fordo turned back at the first sound of a black rider’s footsteps or if Hector fled when the first Greek ships approached Troy?  What if St. Francis gave up at his first hunger pangs?   What if Christ turned back to Galilee at the first shrieking devil?

This comes to the final point.  Frodo did not turn back at the first sounds of a black rider’s steps.  He saw his quest through fire and foes, through darkness and thunder, through fear and doubt and back home.  And he did not come back the same.  His enemy, Saruman, on his return said to him in awe, “you have grown... you are wise and cruel, you have robbed my revenge of its sweetness and I must go hence, indebted to your mercy...”  No one comes through trials the same.  Fulton Sheen liked to remark on the spiritual law running though the universe that “no one shall be crowned unless first he has struggled.”  The adventure leaves no man (or woman) who sees it through the same, if only he have the courage to undertake it.   

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