The Journey series
It may seem ironic to include a marriage blog in my series on autonomy, but this week's Mustard Seed includes an autonomous definition of marriage. One that conforms marriage to the will of those who wish to call themselves married rather than any objective nature. Confusion and disagreements arises in discussions about marriage because, although they use the same word, people are discussing very different concepts.
A common secular view of marriage is as social recognition and legal protection for people committed to living together in a loving, long-term, and mutually consensual romantic (read sexual) relationship. It is something more than roommates, but the participants are free to determine their own rules. Heterosexual or homosexual; monogamous or open; couple or throuple (is there a limit?). The wedding is a public announcement of intentions that is recognized by the state.
A utilitarian view of marriage is as a cultural custom that evolved to regulate procreation, socialize the young, and provide for the dependent. Its purpose is to make humans more effective in the competition for survival amongst rival species. Scientific advances and social reforms change its nature. Contraception, abortion, artificial insemination, divorce, childcare, public education, apprenticeships, welfare, old-age homes, euthanasia, and other social programs may soon evolve this form into extinction. The wedding is a ceremony which exacts social pressures for the union to endure.
A religious view of marriage is as a covenant ordained by God. After creating Adam, God saw it is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18). God created Eve from Adam's rib as a suitable partner. In marriage, husband and wife become one in a bond that can't be severed. One man and one woman give themselves freely and exclusively to the other, in good times and in bad times, in sickness and in health, until death. Marriage is the cradle for the creation and nurture of new life. Since marriage is created by God, its form can't be altered by man. The wedding is a covenant vow that invites God's grace to strengthen the union.
Though all three are called marriage, they are clearly not the same thing. In theocentric marriage, we discern and obey God's will. In Sociocentric marriage, rules change to optimize competitiveness in Darwin's survival of the fittest. In egocentric marriage, participants set their own rules – marriage is what they say it is.
Most people recognize marriage as good and desirable. It is good and desirable largely because it places limits. When one relaxes the restrictions to suit their desires rather than restricting their desires to suit the limits, goodness wanes. The more the legal definition of marriage changes to accommodate the desires of the people, the less willing people will be to curtail their desires to accommodate marriage. The true goodness of marriage lies not in getting what we want, but in complete gift of self to spouse and family.
Next week: Chastity
“Charles’ dad says give and take doesn’t work; it only works when it’s give and give,” Jason said, remembering. “Pops said husband and wife both get more than they give, but they’re not allowed to take it. He said the only time you should take anything is when you forget to give; then you’d better take cover because bad things are coming at you!”
— excerpt from The Last Bachelor of Ales
This week's Mustard Seed examines how we make decisions. Every choice we make, whether consciously or not, balances perceived costs against perceived benefits. We spend our time, talent, and treasure where we expect to gain the best blend of peace, pleasure, possession, power, and prestige.
While attending college in California I took a Career Development Course. The first month entailed a battery of experience, interest, aptitude, and ability inventories. Then we studied a World of Work map which plotted careers according to the activities they require. An asterisk showed where my test battery results placed me on the map. The authors of the exercise proposed we would be happiest in the careers nearest our own plot.
My asterisk lay amidst orthopedic surgeon, college professor, and Church minister. What I wanted to be – eccentric philosopher – wasn't on the map. I notice many other things missing as well (mother, father, ditch-digger, garbageman, toilet scrubber). Chefs were there but short-order cooks weren't.
We were in the same class discussing the same lessons but our perceptions were far from the same. Our professor saw us each being guided toward a suitable career. Most classmates saw an easy A. My group knew this exercise wasn't for our benefit. Instead of finding a beacon guiding us to a satisfying career, we saw a beacon warning us away from shoals that would ground us somewhere in The System. We recognized Big Brother molding us into cogs for Big Business. We were enlightened youth preparing to battle a brave new world. Experience held no sway. Older and Wiser was a euphemism for submissive to a mysterious them.
Even though I eventually decided to follow the lessons learned in my Career Development Course, my life never did. Faith, family, and fate led me in much different directions. I sometimes think of things that might have been had I been a little less of a rebel in my college days. Those on the outside looking in might have thought me more successful. I – as the person I might have been – might have thought myself more successful. From my perspective as I am, I wouldn't risk the blessings I've received for any potential other life.
Now that I'm much older and perhaps a little wiser I see things differently. The course tried to predict which career would offer each student the most satisfaction, best security, and highest income. Its test battery reduced years of experience to a few hours of psychometrics. With no need to trudge through years of low-paying menial jobs to find our way, we could progress directly to high levels of productivity and income. How can one argue with that?
It set the wrong priorities. It set one's career as their end. One's career should support, not rule, one's life. There was no discussion about family, faith, or friends. We live within a family, a community, and an environment at a particular time. Any one of them is likely a better master than one's career.
Neither the costs nor the benefits of our choices accrue solely to our self. What we want must be tempered by the needs and wants of others. Discerning how we might best serve God, family, and community whilst protecting our environment will leave everyone better off, including our self, than seeking to maximize personal gain.
Goals focused on self have a short life and small impact. The things really worth doing have a much bigger aim. A group of Barcelonans began building a cathedral in 1882 though no one knew all the costs, nor how they'd be paid. They proceeded toward their goal in faith. If no one started, no one would finish. When Antoni Gaudi agreed to accept oversight of construction the next year he understood it would not be completed in his lifetime. When an interviewer pointed that out he replied, "My employer is not in a hurry." Still awaiting completion, la Sagrada Familia has already become one of Spain and mankind's greatest treasures.
Next week: Limits and Consequences.
This week's Mustard Seed examines justice. Justice is good but not sufficient. Justice exists between individuals. Just as no man can be truly autonomous, neither can justice exist isolated from other goods.
The fundamental good that precedes all else is to be. Without being, all else is moot. We can't autonomously bring our self to be – we exist by the grace of God, our mother, and our father. For our first nine months we live inside our mother's womb and are completely dependent on her. For the next several years we are dependent on our community, primarily our family. We observe and mimic those around us. Those around us observe our progress and form us according to the talents they recognize in us. Original actions or thoughts are extremely rare. When they do occur, they are interpolated or extrapolated from observations of that which lies outside our self.
Despite the current demand for autonomy, no one truly wants it. Rather, we each produce an abundance in areas we excel, contribute our excess to a common pool, and draw from the common pool according to our needs and desires. We are considered independent once our level of production meets or exceeds our level of consumption.
That independence, however, is dependent on a sufficiently functional society. Ideally, all needs will be satisfied and there will be an equitable distribution of what remains. Our society relies primarily on a mix of free market, taxation, and regulation.
The free market recognizes the right of ownership by individuals. Wealth is created by applying effort to resources and ideas to change their form and/or their location. Wealth is consumed by existence and recreation. Every individual is free to keep, consume, or trade their possessions or effort as they choose. Value is set by mutual agreement between the giver and receiver.
Taxation pays for common goods such as administration, education, transportation networks, water and power distribution, etc.
Regulations promote communal benefit and curb abuse. Because some costs and benefits accrue not to individuals, but to the community, equitable transactions can't be fairly determined solely by the individuals directly involved. For example, we all share our environment. It is the concern of the whole community who extracts how much of which resource from where, and in what manner. How will the resource be sustained? What compensation is due to the community? How and where may waste be disposed of? Some regulations restrict monopoly and collusion from distorting supply and demand, while others purposely distort supply and demand to compensate for local anomalies. Other regulations codify socially acceptable behaviour.
These things, when properly conceived and applied, create a just society. But justice is not enough. Even the most just society cannot flourish without love. Justice is transactional, good given for good received. Love is charitable, good given for the sake of the other.
No society can survive without charity. Continuance begins with the free gift of each spouse to the other in the conjugal act. A mother bears nine months of gestation with no thought of recompense from her child. Parents nurture their children without counting a return. What manner of citizen would emerge from an upbringing absent their parents' love? How could the physically or mentally challenged, the sick or disabled, or the young and the elderly survive without charity from the community? How could anyone survive the vagaries of life without the ebb and flow of charity?
Likewise, no society can survive without mercy. None of us are perfect. Each of us fails at times and needs mercy. Look at the frenzy of cancel culture. Statue after statue is toppled at the discovery of one fault. All the good done by our heroes is negated by one misstep. Who would remain standing under such scrutiny of their own life? Not me. All would be outcasts. Can we not celebrate their virtues while acknowledging and learning from their errors.
We travel many crooked roads to reach our destination. If we find potholes in the road, we do not erase it from the map. We patch the potholes. If we simply erase our forbearers from history we will be left wandering. We will be doomed to repeat their errors. We can't chart a proper course unless we know where we are, where we've been, and how we got here. Mercy does not condone or excuse bad actions. It recognizes and seeks to amend imperfection.
God created us from love for love. Yes, justice is good and necessary. But it is not sufficient. It must be tempered by love. Justice divorced from charity and mercy begets tyranny and chaos.
Next week: What is Marriage?
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”
They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”
In last week's Mustard Seed I claimed anyone who says you can be whatever you want to be is lying. I laid out how what we are is largely determined by nature and nurture long before we are even aware we must choose. So what's with this week's topic?
There are limits on what we can be. There are no limits on what we can want. If we set our goals beyond the limits of what we can be, we will not succeed. We can only be what we want to be if we want to be what we can be.
I'm reminded of a time I ran the cabinet shop for a large construction company. The owner asked if I had enough leftover wood in the shop to make a boardroom table. I told him I did. a few days later he came with a plan for a nine-foot by four-foot boardroom table. It had a walnut parquet top framed in maple with maple legs and skirt. He told me to build it. I said I didn't have the materials. He became irate. "You told me there was enough wood to build a boardroom table!"
"A table – yes," I replied calmly. "That table – no."
He stormed off demanding the table he designed be built from the materials on hand by the time he returned from his trip.
I had seventeen days. I looked at his plan, I looked at the boardroom, and I took stock of my materials. I had nine-foot oak boards but no maple boards longer than six feet. Oak wouldn't match the maple cabinets in the board room. Joints in straight nine-foot lengths would be unacceptable. I changed the shape from rectangle to elongated hexagon so no side would exceed the length of the boards I had. The ends were slightly narrower than Hans' design and the middle was wider.
When Hans returned he reluctantly admitted the table I built was better than the one he designed. He particularly noted that the angled long edges afforded better site lines between the participants.
Adhering to Hans' original plan would have doomed the project to failure. It would either not have been built or it would have been built in a way Hans would reject. He would not have his table and I would be out the door. Instead, I assessed the projects needs and limits. I modified the design to suit its functional, structural, and aesthetic requirements while fitting within the limits of materials I had on hand. Adhering to the limits even incurred a providential benefit.
The same principles apply to what we want to be. If we stubbornly cling to our original inclinations even though they are beyond our limits, we will fail. If we separate our needs from our wants and develop a plan which lies within our limits, we can succeed. If our plan hits a new limit we need a new plan.
God created each of us according to His plan. Limits are not accidents, they are guideposts. We will be happiest when we want to be what we are created to be. What we should be is better discerned than decided.
Next week: Cost/Benefit Analysis
This week's Mustard Seed begins a look at who we are. You can be whatever you want to be is commonly promised to motivate people. It is not true.
For the first nine months of our existence we don't have a capacity to want. We reside inside our mother. Her choice of partner, activities and diet, affects what we will be. Her circumstances and environment impact our development. Her health and emotional state determine which hormones run through us.
As infants, we still do not want anything, rather, we do not want distress. We cry in reaction to uncomfortable sensations. Our caregivers then assess whether our distress is due to hunger, gas, poopy diapers, or something else and determine what we need. We have not learned to want. We can achieve nothing for our self.
It is not until well after we leave our mother's womb that we learn to want. We must first experience our environment and form associations. We must learn to control our motor functions. We must learn that if we push our spoon over the edge of our high chair it will drop to the floor and Mommy will come to pick it up. We must learn that if we mimic certain sounds Mommy and Daddy will smile at us and cheer. We must learn permanence, consistence, and cause and effect. But we still won't want to be anything.
It takes several more years for us to learn that our communities operate by people contributing in various capacities. We learn that, to remain in a community, we are expected to contribute in some way. Only then are we able to imagine what type of contribution we might offer. By the time we face that decision we bear many physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and sociological traits, unchosen by us, that constrain our choices.
Some restrictions can be overcome by effort, others can't. A favorite maxim of the basketball coach at my sons' high school was You can't teach tall. No amount of desire or effort will prevail in a five-foot-two college student's struggle to captain the LA Lakers. Desires that lie too far outside what we are by nature, nurture, or circumstance are delusional.
Some restriction reside not in the nature of the self, but in the nature of the role. Every four years many people strive to become the president of the United States. Only two wind up on the ballot and only one is elected. Who becomes president depends not on what the candidates want, but on what the voters want.
Circumstance often trumps desire. Many are thrust into or denied roles by unforeseen events. Years of effort may be thwarted by chance encounters with fate. Sometimes we find our self doing what must be done not because we want to, but because we are there when it needs to be done. Acts of nature or the deeds of others often prevent us from being whatever we want to be.
The multiplicity of roles we must play further complicates our quest to be whatever we want to be. We must satisfy many roles – there are even roles within roles. Husband, father, provider, mentor, friend, and neighbour. All are worthy goals and each takes precedence according to time and circumstance. We cannot be all things at all times. We must juggle our efforts in response to the vagaries of our environment more often than than according to or desires.
It may seem a pleasant platitude, but being whatever we want to be is not attainable. Those who chase that dream find it's a moving target. As we approach our wants, they move on to become bigger and grander – and farther away. Always just beyond our grasp.
Next week: How to Be What We Want to Be.
Peter T Elliott