More Lasting Unions

Overview

A powerful reassertion of the social and spiritual significance of marriage and the family.

Many recent social theorists maintain that marriage and the nuclear family are not particularly important to the fabric of our culture. In this powerful refutation, grounded in both Christian teaching and social-science data, Stephen G. Post asserts that the bonds of marriage and family are fundamental to our social and spiritual well-being. Unique in the field for its wide treatment of ...

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Overview

A powerful reassertion of the social and spiritual significance of marriage and the family.

Many recent social theorists maintain that marriage and the nuclear family are not particularly important to the fabric of our culture. In this powerful refutation, grounded in both Christian teaching and social-science data, Stephen G. Post asserts that the bonds of marriage and family are fundamental to our social and spiritual well-being. Unique in the field for its wide treatment of relevant issues, More Lasting Unions also takes up these important topics:

the special needs of children and of aging parents;
adoption as an alternative way of family building;
the perils of family self-indulgence and consumerism;
balancing family commitments and concern for neighbors.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Those who think that marriage and family have lost their impact on individuals in particular and society in general will be challenged by Post's detailed, thorough examination of history and current demographic trends.... General readers and professional alike will find this book, which effectively reinforces the importance of families in today's society, both enlightening and instructive.
Bonnie Miller-McLemore
Stephen Post draws on an amazingly wide array of biblical, moral, theological, and social resources to make a strong case for the immense value of lasting marital commitments. Most helpful, he elaborates the ‘genius' of Christianity— its holding together a reverence for parent-child, husband-wife, and brother-sister familial love along with the extension of this intimate love beyond the family to our neediest neighbors.
Cameron Lee
In the last decade debate over the family has shifted from wrangling over what values we should hold to deeper questions of why. Drawing on both social science and Christian tradition, Stephen Post succinctly articulates the importance of covenant fidelity in marriage and parenting for the welfare of both our children and our nation. More Lasting Unions is an auspicious beginning for the Religion, Marriage, and Family series.
and John Wall Don S. Browning
Post not only brings both theology and the social sciences to his assessment of the meaning and consequences of divorce, nonmarital births, fatherlessness, and single parenthood; he also advances the most powerful theological justification for adoption available in the current literature.... A powerful new contribution to serious theological thought about marriage and family.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Those who think that marriage and family have lost their impact on individuals in particular and society in general will be challenged by Post's detailed, thorough examination of history and current demographic trends. Post (The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer Disease and Spheres of Love: Toward a New Ethics of the Family) is professor of religion, philosophy and biomedical ethics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. In seven chapters, Post reviews the positive effects strong nuclear families have on society. Specifically, the author discusses marriage and family in relation to Jesus' teaching, the spiritual value of families, the importance of adoption, intensive family care-giving for the ill and elderly and the impact of loving all of humanity unconditionally. Each topic is addressed from a prophetic, ethical standpoint, reflecting Post's belief that love and justice must actively be employed to care for the neediest people. Post shares some basic principles for developing healthy, strong families: place children's needs first, practice monogamy faithfully and behave with equal regard toward all family members. Citing studies and statistics on family welfare, he reveals the high cost of centering life around the exclusive goal of meeting one's own needs and argues that poverty, crime, teen pregnancies and child abuse result when families lose their strength and solidarity. General readers and professionals alike will find this book, which effectively reinforces the importance of families in today's society, both enlightening and instructive. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802847072
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 4/27/2000
  • Series: Religion, Marriage and the Family Series
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 0.49 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 9.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Marriage, Family, and Society: A Social-Scientific Perspective


When men and women marry and bring children into the world, they migrate into new spheres of mature love that will both challenge and change them. Conjugal love and subsequent parental love form the basis of the "family" as I consider it here, however extended it might be beyond this essential biological core. The high moral expectations connoted by the term "family" are often best fulfilled in the context of the surrounding extended family, of which the nucleus is frequently our last remnant. If this domestic window to the sacred is to succeed, it must inevitably be shaped by patience, kindness, forgiveness, trust, hope, perseverance, and other features that Christians associate with agape, after the words of Saint Paul (1 Cor. 13:4-7).


Marriage and Family at a Crossroads


What is a family? In the modern Western world, the term "family" most commonly refers to a group of kinship-related persons who share a home. In this context, the family consists of a kinship system whose members belong to it by marriage, birth, or adoption. Some persons consider themselves to be a family because they live communally and have caring relationships, and this metaphorical notion of the family is certainly to be respected and appreciated. My focus, however, is on the family as a biological community within nature that is defined by sexual differentiation, procreation, and kinship descent; it is the social unit in which children are born, protected, supported botheconomically and emotionally, and socialized. This entity is termed "nuclear" when parents and children live in an independent household, and "extended" if the household includes grandparents and/or other relatives. Parental, filial, conjugal, and sibling responsibilities define the biological family. As Lisa Sowle Cahill writes, the family "has a basic and constitutive relation to biological relationship (including reproductive partnership to produce the next generation), for which other relations, however valid, are analogues, not replacements."

    Marriage is widely understood in the Western world and, for the most part, cross-culturally as the stabilizing foundation for responsible procreation. Certainly the monotheistic religions of the Western world have clothed marriage with the garb of sacred vows. It is only very recently that the concept of marriage as being merely optional prior to procreation has become thinkable. From a Christian perspective, however, the emerging advocacy groups for optional marriage in the United States and Great Britain must be viewed critically. Optional marriage is a very different phenomenon than either justified divorce or single-mother parenthood due to the death of a husband because it creates fatherlessness by choice rather than by undesired contingencies. (A child who has lost his or her father due to untimely death will not feel abandoned by choice or neglect.) Recent studies show that more than half of American children and growing numbers of European children now spend significant periods of their childhoods without fathers. An unmarried woman who chooses to have a child without a social father does form a biological family in the sense of a mother-child bond; this arrangement does not, however, provide the child with the usually enhancing dyadic husband-wife foundation. There is much sensible wisdom in the old rhyme "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes junior in the baby carriage."

    Optional marriage is unlikely to overwhelm traditional common sense — if only for the practical reason that having four hands is better than just two. But there is far more than tradition and practicality at stake here. I will argue throughout this book that Christians, for both theological and empirical reasons, must view cultural challenges to the norm of marriage as the necessary foundation for procreation as a high-stakes issue worthy of their full attention.

    While optional marriage remains a somewhat marginal practice, it could not have arisen as a socially acceptable possibility without the increasing moral and theological minimization of the time-honored importance of lasting marriage. This minimization began in the 1960s in both American and European societies. The law, which was historically allied with Christian expectations for the family, has now much diminished its previously robust statements about responsibility and accountability in marriage and parenthood. Political philosopher Michael J. Sandel points to the radical deflation of moral expectations in these spheres, both in the United States and in Europe, and to the steep rise of the self unencumbered by moral judgments or concerned with the family's stakeholders. Legal diminishment and the privatization of conscience work hand in hand, and one of the consequences is a rising divorce rate. Nine out often Americans eventually marry, and half of the marriages entered into since 1970 have ended in divorce; thus, an estimated 45 percent of American adults will experience the breakup of at least one marriage. Institutionalized monogamy has mutated into serial monogamy. The question, then, is not whether monogamy can be saved; the question is whether it can be restored in a manner most fully respectful of human dignity, equality, and love.

    Since the 1969 Divorce Reform Act in Great Britain, the divorce rate has risen above 40 percent, the highest in the European Union. Many British Christians are concerned about the new confusion that strips meaning from the trinity of mother, father, and child — a trinity beautifully sanctified in late medieval paintings of the "holy family." Prompted by a desire to bring spirituality into the home so that families might be better sustained, European Christian thinkers have established the International Academy for Marital Spirituality (INTAMS). Marriage Resource, a Christian charity in Britain, was responsible for the launch of the first National Marriage Week in February 1997; this event involved 600 churches and 45,000 individuals, and captured great media attention. But the struggle to influence the wider culture and law with regard to marriage and family is difficult; scarcely any residual dignity remains when marriage is entered into without high purpose and lightly dissolved without justification.


Christianity and the Public Square


Most people are somewhat ambivalent about their familial experiences. Families can be oppressive or abusive at worst, and even at best they will surely be imperfect. Even in harmonious families, the adolescent may well have a heightened ambivalence about the family as he or she breaks free of the parent-child axis in order to assert an independent identity. Jesus of Nazareth himself broke free of his family in order to begin his ministry. Christianity is not naive about the imperfections of family life, including the problems of myopic insularity, consumerism, and overindulgence that ignore wider spheres of moral and spiritual commitment. Yet Christianity nevertheless powerfully endorses the overall value of the family as the human context for faithful marriage and procreation shaped by equality of the partners and covenant love for children. As I shall argue, this endorsement is a profoundly essential one to Christianity and must inform its endeavor to positively affect culture and society.

    There are certain moments when the Christian must speak as a Christian to address a high-stakes public issue about which the tradition is clear. The Christian must choose these moments carefully if his or her voice is to be taken seriously. Precisely the same caution should be exercised by feminists, deconstructionists, African-Americans, Marxists, and many others who have meaningful voices in a pluralistic and liberal polity. A liberal polity enables those different voices to create alliances when they happen to agree practically (though worldviews and epistemic priorities may vary). Any voice that lacks intellectual rigor or that displays imperialistic arrogance, incivility in discourse, or lack of attentive listening to other voices will ultimately have no impact. In the words of George M. Marsden, all religious perspectives should be welcome in the academy and in the public square "so long as their proponents are willing to support the rules necessary for constructive exchange of ideas in a pluralistic setting." Without this pluralistic mix of voices, public discourse becomes dreary and uniform rather than creative, challenging, and tolerant. The value of democratic pluralistic discourse is that it does not require participants to privatize their core convictions.

    Critics of the religious voice insist on the single language of secular monism in addressing matters of the commonweal. While the believer can address many issues in the purely secular, rational language necessary for public policy, there are times when he or she should use specifically religious language in public. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was deeply theological in many of his public utterances; Martin Luther King Jr. built his "I Have a Dream" speech around scriptural references to the prophet Amos. Surely both Protestants and Catholics should have spoken out against Nazism from their theological traditions much earlier than they did; Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an eloquent exception whose voice was silenced only by death in a Nazi prison. Often the religious voice plays a constructive role without which public dialogue would be impoverished.

    With regard to the current extraordinary circumstances of cultural, political, and legal trivialization of lasting marriage and responsible motherhood and fatherhood, the Christian must enter the public square armed with rigorous rational arguments, informed appeal to established empirical fact, and specific religious reasoning. A robust pluralism imposes no silence in modern nations and universities who have long been committed to pluralism and disestablishment, and for whom fears of religious establishment at this point in history are no longer grounded in reality.

    Indeed, it would be impossible to replace the distinctive themes of Christian thought in the public debate. One distinctive theme, for example, is the impassioned prophetic critique of the bourgeois or aristocratic family that serves as the local and national agent of class hierarchies, unacceptable economic disparities, and racism. Latin American liberation theologians have criticized the family that contributes to political and social oligarchy. Such ruthless control of wealth and power was precisely the object of prophetic criticism in the Hebrew Bible. Prophetic social analysis must disagree with the libertarian bourgeois assertion of unlimited family accumulation put forward by some social theorists. In emphasizing that the family is the seedbed of virtue and the vital institution which socializes and restrains without recourse to the potentially oppressive force of the state, certain scholars have been less than fully attentive to the injustice of the sometimes philanthropic but still self-indulgent family. The family that contributes to injustice and oppression ultimately harms a free commonweal. A certain form of non-Christian pro-family thought is, as John Rawls suggests, equivalent to being against justice for the needy.

    In speaking publicly for the family, Christians must be extremely careful not to assert stereotypes about any particular ethnic group. In this culture, African-Amercians are particularly vulnerable to stereotyping: black men are frequently labeled as absent or uncaring husbands and fathers, and young black women are targeted as representative of the growing problem of unwed teenage mothers. But there is much to be learned from African-American men who are faithful to their wives and children despite overwhelmingly adverse circumstances. Furthermore, out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy is a problem that exists in all races and cultures.

    Christians must also avoid criticism of same-sex relations. These relations are complex and deserve the excellent treatment that better-qualified thinkers than I have already afforded them. Procreation as the union of a biological mother and father, in a manner that combines the genetics of two biological creatures with the social experience of raising children who appear in their physical likeness, is not possible in the same-sex context. It is the centrality of creation and subsequent procreation in Judaism and Christianity that makes an emphasis on the blessings of heterosexual marriage and family unavoidable. But this should never result in intolerance. At no point in the Gospels does Jesus indicate intolerance of homosexuality.

    On this point, personal history is relevant. As an adolescent, I quickly learned to accept the bisexual orientation of my older brother, a successful popular writer in New York City who died of AIDS in March 1983. Like many families, my family understood that his sexual preferences were what they were. The simple fact is that some men fall in love with other men. It is not my intent to contribute in writing to anything other than understanding in this regard. My working experience has only increased my sense of the need for greater acceptance in other areas of human difference as well. After college, I worked as a research assistant at New York Hospital—Cornell Medical College in the field of pediatric endocrinology and hermaphroditism. I have long questioned the ethics of forcing persons into binary male-female categories of physiology through surgical and endocrinological support. Nothing I write on behalf of permanence in marriage as a basis for optimal child rearing should obscure my respectful attitude toward human differences in sexual and gender orientation. The Christian voice in the church and in the public square, while affirming the centrality of marriage and family consistent with freedom, equality, and justice, must avoid co-option by intolerant and uninformed forces.

    The commonweal is served well by a respectful, civil, and pluralistic discourse that does not diminish the contributions made by specific traditions of understanding and commitment. True democratic discourse celebrates pluralism and refuses to silence the content of the religious voice to assert a draconian secular monism. Edward Shils points out that "The first entry on the agenda of the Enlightenment was ... to do away with traditionality as such; with its demise, all the particular substantive traditions would likewise go." Traditions have in many ways stood against moral progress, but they can also be critically appreciated for their accomplishments and wisdom in presenting "the ideal of a morally ordered universe in which some things [are] sacred." Furthermore, traditions such as Christianity are always engaged in the process of gaining additional empirical evidence and self-understanding, so that new insight is possible over time. It is to some troubling empirical facts that I now turn.


When the Nucleus Splits


While social-scientific data are often soft enough to be seriously disputed, a remarkably compelling set of facts underscores the general benefits of marriage and family life. Although a great deal of demographic evidence indicates that marital disruption contributes to mortality rates, this is not our epidemiological focus. Beginning in the early 1970s, Judith S. Wallerstein's longitudinal study of families undergoing divorce found that the adverse psychological consequences of marital breakup were considerable for both adults and children.

    In particular, Wallerstein's studies challenged the then-current assumption that exposure to degrees of low-level conflict and disharmony in parental relationships is worse for children than the experience of family breakup through divorce. Her work is now universally regarded as scientifically valid. At the time of publication, however, she was ridiculed mercilessly by critics who did not wish to admit the adverse consequences of a divorce curve that became especially steep in the early 1970s and has not leveled off yet; it is estimated that half of the marriages initiated in the 1990s in the United States will end in divorce. Steven L. Nock points out that, just as one would think something was wrong with a company in which half the employees quit or were fired, one would think that something must be wrong with a social environment in which one-third to one-half of all first marriages dissolve. Nock's substantial analysis of an immense amount of data indicates that today, in contrast to the 1950s and even the 1960s, self-interest has come to take precedence over the interests of the family unit. Don S. Browning has brought this troubling reality into the forefront of discussion in the field of religious ethics, coupling his long-standing critique of contemporary psychology's narcissistic images of human fulfillment with his concerns over the damaging impact of family breakup. His project, "The Family, Religion, and Culture," is of great importance.

    In their fifteen-year study of divorce, Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee found that only 10 percent of children felt better about their lives after parental divorce. After five years, more than a third of these children were suffering from clinical depression; after ten years, unusually high numbers were underachievers; after fifteen years, disproportionate numbers were insecure and struggling to establish stable relationships themselves. By the mid-1980s, researchers across the United States were backing away from two decades of optimism regarding the effects of divorce on children.

    The harm is not limited to children. Divorced or separated persons, especially men, are disproportionately represented among psychiatric patients. The medical literature abounds with studies indicating that divorce is generally a stressful event associated with physically and psychologically adverse consequences. While remarriages are common, they are complex and difficult for the Children involved, who often find them no substitute for the original family. While high-conflict cases of divorce can be justified, a culture of impermanence and unfettered sexual indulgence lead to the following conditions, as summarized by evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright: "A quarter-century of indulging these impulses has helped bring a world featuring, among other things: lots of fatherless children; lots of embittered women; lots of complaints about date rape and sexual harassment; and the frequent sight of lonely men renting X-rated videotapes while lonely women abound." These realities are stark but true.

    Even somewhat leftward-leaning sociologists who were once skeptical of studies showing adverse consequences of divorce are now taking a different view. Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, for example, have studied the assumption that parental unhappiness is worse for children than parental divorce. They analyzed longitudinal child-outcome data from large national samples and concluded that only 25 to 33 percent of parental divorces ended up being better for the children than if the parents had remained married. Psychological health, self-esteem, socialization, and educational accomplishment are some of the important measured variables. Amato and Booth emphasize that about 70 percent of divorces terminate low-conflict marriages that have some shortcomings but are still reasonably tolerable for spouses and far better for children than divorce. Unprecedented and excessively high individual expectations make many good marriages not "good enough." While low-conflict marriages now routinely become divorces, this was not always the case. Spending a third of one's life in a less than consistently harmonious marriage, the authors conclude, is not too much to ask of parents in order to benefit the children they have brought into the world. This seems reasonable.


Stepfamilies


While the term "blended families" was developed in the 1980s to try to get away from any problems associated with the term "stepfamilies," the truth must be told with due sensitivity. Researchers are now pointing out that stepfamilies present their own set of unique difficulties for children. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson reviewed extensive data and concluded that stepparents generally care "less profoundly for children than natural parents." (These are, of course, general data and should not be used as criteria for individual cases.) They found that fatal child abuse was one hundred times more likely in stepfamilies, and nonfatal child abuse as much as forty times more likely. Robert Wright is not surprised by the finding:


After all, the whole reason natural selection invented paternal love was to bestow benefits on offspring. Though biologists call these benefits "investment," that doesn't mean they're strictly material, wholly sustainable through monthly checks. Fathers give their children all kinds of tutelage and guidance (more, often, than either father or child realizes) and guard them against all kinds of threats. A mother alone simply can't pick up the slack. A stepfather almost surely won't pick up much, if any of it. In Darwinian terms, a young stepchild is an obstacle to fitness, a drain on resources.


Evolutionary psychologists like Wright suggest that this problem may have roots in the "selfish gene" theory — that is, the theory that greater parental investment in children who carry one's genes is a heavily determined reality.

    Regardless of the explanatory paradigm, however, an alarming number of headlines point to difficulty: "A woman's live-in boyfriend murders her child fathered by another man"; "A woman neglects her young stepsister and punishes her so viciously that she dies"; "A stepfather sexually abuses his wife's daughter by a former husband." As these examples drawn from recent news articles demonstrate, the Cinderella story is hardly a fairy tale.

    In their monumental study of current data, Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur conclude that children in stepfamilies benefit from family incomes that are equivalent to those of the formerly intact families. Nonetheless, they are also two to three times more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems than children in still intact families, twice as likely to have developmental or learning problems, more likely to drop out of high school, more likely to become single teenage mothers, and less able to hold steady jobs as young adults. These authors find that children may be better off with divorce in cases of high-level, persistent conflict between parents. In cases of low-level conflict, emotional distancing, boredom, or a change in one spouse's priorities, however, children would be better off if parents resolved their difficulties and stayed together. Although estimates vary somewhat, divorces resulting from high-level, persistent conflict make up, at most, one-fourth of all cases. It seems possible, then, that many marriages could be saved if parents were better prepared for the realities of marriage, regularly supported in marriage (for example, in conflict resolution), and better educated about the consequences of divorce for their children. In cases of low-level conflict, the children's interests should supersede those of the parents.

    There are cases in which the scales balance differently. National surveys indicate that every year 1.5 to 2.1 million women in the United States are physically assaulted by their male partners. Almost three million children in the United States are reported annually to child-protective services as alleged victims of abuse and neglect. Appeals to the moral principle of minimizing harm can therefore justify divorce on a case-by-case basis — but justification is needed. As I have argued over a decade of writing on the concept of agape, the essence of Christian love involves mutuality supported by significant degrees of self-sacrifice — but not to the point of requiring radical self-denial and self-immolation. Margaret Farley has provided a casuistical discussion of the making, keeping, and breaking of such commitments.

    In England, the report of the Policy Studies Institute, Britain 2010, predicts that the normal pattern in Great Britain will be cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Already 2.5 million British children and youths live in stepfamilies. In 1983 England established the National Stepfamily Association to provide advice and support. There is no doubt that those offering pastoral care must marshal great thought and energy to help those who have been wounded by family breakdown and now navigate the complexities of remarriage and stepfamilies. In recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church has emphasized the acceptance of civilly remarried persons in the church and the importance of pastoral care and support for them. Its canon law still does not allow the divorced and remarried person to receive sacraments, however, because it wishes to strongly encourage indissolubility.


The "Culture of Divorce"


In her well-received analysis of "the divorce culture," Barbara Dafoe Whitehead points to the psychological ethos of expressive individualism, with its stress on inner experience, as diverting our gaze from the "multiple stakeholders in the unhappy business of marital dissolution: the other spouse, the children, the relatives, and the larger society." Because expressive individualism is too weak to support stable relationships, this ethos really means the death of marriage; it means that children will usually lose the highly personal, daily support of a father, both financially and otherwise. It means that society will inherit the emotional scars. It means that the institution of marriage and family will be weakened for future generations, who have rarely seen fidelity and permanence modeled by their forebears, and modeling behavior is crucially important.

    Marriage is a practical social mechanism that is unavoidable if a man and a woman are to be optimally linked over time to their biological children. It enables children to gain support from an identified, responsible father and mother who are living together as a four-handed team committed to furthering their children's short-term and long-term interests. Without marriage there would be no fathers, only inseminators devoid of socially established roles and expectations for sustained investment in their offspring. Whitehead writes that through marriage, "sexual love is transformed into generative love and passion is transformed into altruism." Unlike friendship, which can be ended for any number of little reasons, marriage is expected to be a lasting union and a source of stability in a sea of instability. Whitehead asks an essential question that we might all want to ask ourselves: "How can children achieve a stable and secure family life, with sustained and high levels of parental nurture and investment, in a system in which the marriage bond is so fragile and vulnerable to disruption?"

    Whitehead does a splendid job of tracing a cultural change that was somewhat evident at the start of the twentieth century but began in earnest in the 1960s. "'Til death us do part" has been changed to "So long as each of us feels that our self-interest and passions are being fully realized at every moment." No-fault divorce laws, which emerged ubiquitously in the United States after 1970, establish in legislation and culture the notion that marriage can and even should be terminated without serious cause. Under these cultural and legal terms, Whitehead argues, marriage "loses its status as the institution governing childbearing and childrearing and is demoted to the status of another love connection, subject to the same kind of valuations and measures of satisfaction as living together."

    The result of this loss of temporal commitment over past, present, and future is a kind of cultural dementia in which we have begun to lose our lineage memories of what marriage is about. Fewer persons in each generation will remember the warm feelings generated by the presence of parents or will have seen parents successfully navigate conflicts with positive outcomes. Even the less emotionally expressive and directly caring fathers can be remembered for their early-morning commutes to work and their anxiety over paying monthly bills for the sake of their families. There is a hardworking heroism involved in keeping up with expenses. Witness the father who paid the last tuition bill and then sighed, "But I haven't been able to save enough for retirement."

    As a culture, we seem to have forgotten that family life is the foundation upon which society rests; when marriage, the foundation of the family, is lacking in high ideals, the future will be marked by a lower moral tone and diminished achievement. How does a culture remember that the man-woman-child relationship constitutes something like a holy trinity that has lasting social value? How deep is this forgetfulness? In such a pluralistic world, can people of varying traditions ever assent to this holiness? Can the loss of conjugal and parental fidelity be attributed in part to a half-millennium of Western humanism that has asserted the ultimate value of self-expression? There is the famous Renaissance statement of Pico della Mirandola: "We can become what we will." As John Witte Jr. writes,


We seem to be living out the grim prophecy that Friedrich Nietzsche offered a century ago: that in the course of the twentieth century, "The family will slowly be ground into a random collection of individuals," haphazardly bound together "in the common pursuit of selfish end" — and in the common rejection of the structures and strictures of family, church, state, and civil society.


Can we resanctify marriage and family in a way that is consistent with pluralism and with the gains of humanism in equality, freedom, and universal rights for women as well as men?

    Historian Roderick Phillips, whose study on divorce in the West is considered definitive, introduced the idea that our current and unprecedented cultural shift occurred partly because divorce encourages ever more divorce. He is critical of research on divorce that overlooks "the feedback effect of divorce on itself":


Although it is true that social and economic conditions can favor the breakdown and dissolution of marriage, it should be clear that divorce itself has become part of the cultural environment in which marriages exist. To this extent there is a feedback effect, in which the existence of divorce as a viable alternative to marriage, together with the presence of an increasing number of divorces in Western society, contribute in turn to marriage breakdown and divorce. (UTK, p. 250)


Phillips shows that ideological considerations are important throughout the history of divorce, and that the ideology of impermanence has now come forcefully into Western culture. He notes that "marriages were generally stable in traditional Western society and that a significant extent of marriage breakdown is peculiar to modern times, notably the past hundred years" (UTK, p. 254).

    Phillips describes no-fault divorce laws as a "distinct break in the history of divorce," leaving no voice for the common good of society (UTK, p. 215). Under these laws, a couple can separate and divorce for any reasons whatsoever, as long as they live apart for the required time. Phillips observes that a Church of England commission endorsed no-fault divorce in 1966 and laid the basis for no-fault legislation in England in 1969. Eventually much of Europe followed suit, including Catholic countries such as Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Meanwhile, New York state went no-fault in 1967, as did the entire United States eventually. It appears that only Ireland has resisted this wave (UTK, pp. 216-20). Across Europe, the likelihood of recent marriages ending in divorce lies in the historically unprecedented range of between 30 and 50 percent (UTK, p. 215).

    Why such high rates? Perhaps we are staking our expectations of marriage too exclusively on one aspect of it — that is, passion. Romance is increasingly viewed as an essential part of marriage. And there are economic and social factors that have changed the face of marriage as well. Widening economic opportunities for women have provided them with more economic liberty. The women's rights movement finally gave them the strength to refuse submissive subordination. Phillips reminds us that cultural attitudes are also central, especially the loss of the scandalous connotations of divorce that reduce "the deterrent of social stigma." With the lessening of such deterrence comes an "emulative factor in the decision to divorce" (UTK, p. 241). Let me be clear here. I don't think that reasserting "stigma" is a constructive approach to current problems; instead, Christians must re-engage in teaching the positive value of lasting marriages and families based as much as possible on empirical data in addition to scriptural and theological sources.

    It is remarkable that some branches of Christianity have jettisoned long histories of insight into the natural and theological value of stable marriages and families. Is it not the generally held Christian view that a primary purpose of marriage is the good of children? How can branches of Christianity disregard the interests of the child, who will lose confidence in his or her key social world and struggle with problems resulting from the fracture of a secure union? Weakened father-child bonds, stressed mother-child bonds, decline in high-quality parenting, diminished kinship ties, and the loss of degrees of financial support are well-documented results of divorce — allowing, of course, for some exceptions.

    On a final personal note, I write with a sense of family history. In The Divorce Culture, Whitehead discusses in great detail the case of Emily Post, the American etiquette writer who, after fourteen years of marriage and two children, divorced my grandfather, Edwin Main Post, in 1906. Edwin was my grandfather by his second marriage, and his relationship with Emily was a matter of some family discussion. Emily's view, carefully documented by Whitehead, was that divorce is always regrettable, especially for children. Whitehead quotes Emily's 1940 edition of the Etiquette: "There is no use in pretending that there is any good side from the children's point of view to divorce, excepting in a case where they are protected from a cruel parent or from the influence of a dissolute one.... But to the thousands of children who love both parents equally and who can therefore never have more than half a home, the feeling of devastation is quite as great as that caused by enemy bombings...."

    Emily, who never remarried, succeeded beyond all expectations as a writer who shaped the ethics and etiquette of America for fifty years. Perhaps she succeeded in part because she always wrote from the heart. She knew that the time she spent with her sons was very important to their well-being, but she also realized that they needed Edwin's fatherly presence and commitment. After my grandfather remarried and moved out to the summer home on Long Island, his two sons by Emily spent their summers with him, the father whom they much loved, and with his second wife (my grandmother) and his other two sons: my father, Henry A. V. Post, and his brother.

    Few people appreciate the depth of Emily Post's thought, although it was evident already in her etiquette book; there she declared that it is in the very worst taste to trumpet the news of divorce because "a divorce is a failure, even though both people may agree that it is best, and there is little reason to be proud of a failure." In 1940, thirty-four years after the divorce, she wrote a more philosophical book entitled Children Are People and Ideal Parents Are Comrades. In that book she asserted "the children's right to an unbroken home." This is an idea that is certainly worth considering.

    Taking into account the emerging field of "men's studies," I wonder if there is anything within the male nature that might suggest a tendency toward permanence consistent with Christianity, even if it is obscured by the culture of modeled divorce. Or does the Christian ideal of permanence impose order that is essentially foreign to the male nature?

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

"Introduction
  1. Marriage, Family, and Society: A Social-Scientific Perspective
  2. Marriage and Family in the Teachings of Jesus
  3. The Spiritual Value of the Family
  4. Toward a Contemporary Theology of the Family
  5. Adoption, Love, and Justice
  6. The Challenge of Intensive Family Caregiving
  7. Familial Bonds and Love for All of Humanity
Selected Bibliography
Index"
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