Louis R. Tarsitano on the Christian Destruction of Marriage
Devoted readers of Touchstone may recall that in 1998 I wrote a longish piece on “plausible people”: the replacement of traditional argumentation based in facts, ideas, and reason by people who serve as living images of various sorts of sentiments and emotions. Thus, the more compelling the image, the more likely that members of the general public, indoctrinated by the movies, television, and the Internet to believe that images are the reality, would be to find the sentiments and emotions being represented “plausible”—that is, as likely and desirable models for their own sentiments and emotions.
My original interest in plausible people grew from what many people might consider a prejudice. I firmly believe that the Holy Scriptures are not merely a set of images, impressions, or emotions, but God’s Word Written. Divine Revelation is a matter of objective divine content, inspired and preserved by God the Holy Ghost, rather than a collection of subjective, human religious emotions.
Human emotions, of course, are not evil in themselves, but they are fallen and fallible. When, for example, my emotions tell me that my neighbor’s wife is greatly to be desired, the objective commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” interposes itself, with the help of God’s grace, to redirect my emotions to a disciplined, sinless end. I can, after all, love God more than I cherish my immediate emotions and appetites, and I can love my neighbor’s wife without adultery if I follow God’s explicit directions as to how I may love honorably and unselfishly in imitation of my Lord Jesus Christ.
As Christ teaches, I must love all, including my enemies, but I may love only one in all the world as a husband loves a wife, as one created a man is called to love one created a woman, being one flesh with her by the grace of God. Of course, achieving such singularity and particularity of love is not easy. Otherwise, marriage vows would not stipulate “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” In marriage, especially in a long marriage, it becomes clearer day by day that “love” is not a set of transient emotions, but rather a commitment to act a certain way, in Christ’s way, towards one other and then towards all others.
Images, sentiments, and dramatic emotions, the whole machinery of plausibility, are useless in maintaining a Christian marriage. Self-dramatization and sentimentality always work to convince us that we are entitled to receive “true love” in some self-fulfilling way, rather than obligated to give love as well as we can. A plausible adulterer or fornicator may elude discovery or public scandal, but he is no one’s lover until he repents.
I had originally applied the concept of plausible people, as a source of distraction, weakness, and confusion, to the topic of evangelism in general, and many of my fellow pastors were kind enough to let me know that they had found something useful for their work in my discussion. I had also suggested that while faithful Christians could not become plausible and remain faithful, they could in a legitimate way respond to the popular hunger that made plausible people such a force in contemporary life, by being “credible.”
Credible missionaries for Jesus Christ will provide visible images of faithfulness and divine love, what used to be called “good examples,” as part of their witness, but the images they present will not be a Potemkin village of facades with no reality behind them. Behind the appearance of sincerity will be a genuine sincerity: a life-defining commitment to the objective truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, received through the grace of God by a complete human being, possessed of a body, a soul, and a mind. The credible missionary’s greatest strength will be his ability to assimilate into his own life the thought and worship, the faith and practice of two millennia of his fellow Christians, all of whom he takes seriously as persons known, loved, and saved by God, and not just as the shadows of his own imagination or reflections of his own ego.
A credible missionary, certainly, must seek the perfection of his Father in Heaven, but he cannot, as the plausible person does, live and die by his image. A plausible person caught in a contradiction will deny that contradiction with his final breath. A credible missionary, however, must be prepared to admit that he has violated an objective moral code given by God—that he is a sinner, and that he has sinned.
In the short term, the plausible person will seem to have the advantage with his denials, as opposed to the credible missionary’s admission of guilt, but reality functions with or without human permission, and ultimately the plausible person’s denials will be revealed as the empty defense of an empty image. On the other hand, the confessions of a credible missionary will finally be seen as a principled consistency. St. Augustine’s Confessions remains part of the bedrock of Western literature, while the press releases of emperors, kings, and rock stars go unread after a brief flurry of interest.
I have been drawn back to a consideration of the plausible versus the credible by a variety of recent events, all having to do with the virtue of chastity. Chastity is both a divine gift and a divine commandment of sexual discipline and moral purity in whatever state of life it has pleased God to call each one of us.
The list of these estates is rather shorter than most people imagine. There is the marriage of one man and one woman for life, as established in the Garden of Eden and confirmed in the gospel. There is the celibacy of the unmarried, open to the vocation of marriage, if God should offer this calling. And there is the dedicated celibacy of those who have received a specific vocation to forego the intimacies of an earthly family for the sake of the kingdom of God.
One need not be addicted to the 24-hour news channels to recognize that a great many Christians of late have been anything but credible in regard to chastity. Divorce and remarriage are so common among people calling themselves Christians that the pastor who resists the torrent of divorces at all is considered “odd” or “mean” (I know). This wholesale abandonment of marital seriousness and discipline is then employed by those with various special interests as a justification for the breaking of other vows and other divine commandments. “Everybody’s doing it” may seem an empty argument to a mature Christian mind, but it is quite powerful for those swayed by the dramatics of plausible persons.
Worse still, the watering down of marriage, after so many centuries as both a divine and a human institution, calls for some sort of an explanation, and that explanation takes the form of a claim to a universal human “right” to sexual pleasure and self-fulfillment. It was essentially on the basis of this “right to sex” that the United States Supreme Court voided the Texas anti-sodomy laws, just as on the basis of the same “right” a majority of the nice middle-class people of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention found it impossible to reject a potential bishop simply because he had left his wife and children to find love in the arms of another man. Various churches are already, formally or informally, blessing same-sex “unions,” and more and more people are beginning to nod their heads at the assertion that heterosexual and homosexual pairings are interchangeable and ought to be equally recognized by the civil authorities.
As any beat cop will tell you, sex and violence are often connected, whether through ordinary lust, violated intimacies, or guilty consciences. In the case of the violence, rhetorical or not, of the so-called “Christian reaction” to the growing accommodation of the homosexual lifestyle, I would suggest that the key factor is a guilty conscience. Having given themselves permission to violate the order and sanctity of matrimony in what amounts to a divorce culture, a fair number of Christians have suddenly rushed like furies to the defense of the marriage bed.
Let me be clear: There is absolutely no justification for treating homosexual relations as anything but forbidden by God and a sin. The problem is, the same can be said for most of the divorces and remarriages that take place in the context of our churches. It is not credible to oppose the one without also opposing the other.
I was invited to a rally in one of Savannah’s public squares, supposedly for the purpose of witnessing to biblical marriage. My grown sons went with me, and we watched the planned rally form from the other end of the square. My sons saw the problem right away. For whatever reasons, there was no organization, no order, and no clarity of purpose. People with signs advocating the quixotic impeachment of two-thirds of the justices of the Supreme Court stood next to people with signs with quite ugly messages about “queers” and the rights of “real Americans.”
I didn’t like disappointing the people who had invited me, they had been quite kind on the phone, but I decided my sons were right when they said, “Time to go.” The organizers of the rally may finally have put things right, but I doubt it. What I am sure of is that venting emotions, mugging for television cameras, and creating a hateful image of Christianity may satisfy those content with being plausible persons, but they just are not enough for a credible Christian witness.
If Christians truly desire to make a stand for biblical marriage, they will be able to make that stand in only one way: by providing credible examples of Christian marriages, of Christian families, and of Christian self-discipline according to God’s Word. Marriage discipline in the Church is the instrument that God has given Christians to influence the world outside the Church. Salving our own guilty consciences by berating other sinners is worse than a waste of time since it only serves to make the smiling advocates of anything but Christian marriage more plausible in this confused and stumbling world.
It seems, then, that I am stuck with my own advice. I simply can’t compete for plausibility in a shouting match in a public square. I can, however, do everything that God will give me the grace to do to present a credible gospel in the parish where my vocation has brought me. We may eventually make it back to that public square with some honest credibility, but in the meantime, my parishioners and I will have to make certain that we are a household under the rule of God, in all things, including love and marriage.
Louis R. Tarsitano is a priest of the Anglican Church in America and rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Savannah, Georgia. He is the author of An Outline of an Anglican Life (Classic Anglican Press), and co-author with Peter Toon of Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer & Public Worship (Brynmill Press, Ltd., 2003).
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“Credible Marriages” first appeared in the April 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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