In a hymn written in the late 16th century, John Bowring proclaims, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven.” Life was difficult then, in ways it is impossible for us to comprehend in our comfort. The promise of celestial heaven brought solace to the weary world – but so did the promise that any man or woman – poor and uneducated or rich and powerful – might attain an earthly heaven – a heaven of love. But our modern world doubts that such a heaven is even possible. Marriage in particular has taken a cultural beating.
I remember speaking to my friend in college who swore she would never get married and it was foolish for anyone to do so. She was raised in a stable and happy family until she was 13, when they were torn apart by a bitter divorce. Once a daddy’s girl, she now has an angry relationship with her father. One of her brothers was so depressed by the chaos of his broken family, he became a drug addict. Her mother remained bitter and resentful a decade later. When she told me her story, I could see she had every reason to swear off marriage – she had seen the dream end in a nightmare. She could list many friends and relatives who also had horrible experiences with marriage. She had the evidence to back up her decision. It was difficult to make a rational case against her conclusions. And yet – perhaps she was missing something.
Literature and history are full of stories of couples who risked much “for love”: Jane Eyre, Jacob and Rachael, Mayor of Casterbridge, and every Jane Austen novel. These are stories where love conquers all – where fortunes are lost, reputations are tarnished, parents are angered, yet all end when lovers unite in marriage. But we don’t write these kinds of novels anymore. Romantic movies, once a staple in theaters, are now rare. It seems as if we have shaken off the fairytale and now live in a harsher reality – a world full of unfaithfulness, broken homes, and individualism. Romantic sentiment is viewed with skepticism. Our art portrays a new perspective – modern music lyrics are more likely to rip on Xs than praise a beloved. Movies are more likely to display the unraveling of family life than show loving and stable homes. Dating apps more often seek out one-night stands rather than a life-long partner. What has happened?
Today, we doubt the reality of both heavens – eternal and familial.
But we need to reverse this cultural shift. We need to understand and step back from our cynical precipice and rediscover the reality of love and be faithful to it. As we regain hope in Romance, we can raise a new generation of romantics capable of building a heaven on earth with their family.
“Love makes all safe”.George MacDonald
The Reality of Modern Romance
Many have stopped believing in marriage or fidelity. A culture that emphasizes pleasure over duty may cause us to shun the responsibility and the sacrifice of a committed relationship. Many young people are no longer raised in a cultural or religious tradition that looks forward to the day when they will have a family of their own. High rates of divorce have certainly contributed to our distrust. While divorce may be an unwelcome necessity for some, few would doubt that its ubiquity indicates that something has gone wrong.
“Science” has also proven to many that monogamy is an outdated practice. We are just animals, after all, so why not just do what comes naturally? Polyamory is now increasingly seen as the “natural” state of mankind. This is despite evidence that monogamy has been the dominant practice in successful societies for millennia. Pornography, dating apps, and weakening morality cement in our psyche that love and fidelity are childish romantic dreams.
Even for those of us who believe we are more than mere self-interested animals, we have cause to doubt love. Love is a two-sided affair and in an amoral world, it often seems like wisdom to be skeptical. Altering the course of our life because of a feeling, and one that may well fade, is risky.
In the chaotic world in which we live, perhaps we should “hedge our bets.” Should we really jump head first into a relationship when so many of them fail? In the past, a strong sense of duty and commitment tied us together when our hastily-made romantic promises began to feel foolish. Social stigma and religious belief put a fence around our commitments. Now divorce is common and casual sex the norm.
With the accepted doctrine of “do what feels right in the moment, obligations be damned”, it is rational to protect ourselves from the heartache that “falling in love” will likely bring. So we begin to see why “rationality” is rarely the harbinger of love.
My friend in college had lived through a nightmare, caused by her parent’s divorce. She used her personal experience and logical reasoning to come to a conclusion about marriage. But her rational circle of truth was too small; there were other truths she was missing.
G.K. Chesterton describes this “rational”, yet small, thinking we all engage in which can lead to a sort of rational loveless madness.
“His mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way, the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. . . He is in a clean and well-lit prison of one idea. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle (London ring-road) will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street.”G.K Chesterton, Orthodoxy
We must get off at Gower Street by stepping outside the misery of our own experiences and seeking more truth, and a reason to hope. It is more difficult to get off the carriage when at every stop we see marriages falling apart with evidence of self-interest, bitterness, and resentment. So much seems to confirm our truth. Perhaps we ourselves have experienced the malevolence and dishonesty of those who claimed to love us. Our modern realities make it reasonable to stay in our small, logical, and secure circles. We can stay there – keep being right, and keep being miserable.
Our rational cynicism must be stepped out of because it will not help us, it will not protect us, and inside of it, we cannot build a heaven on earth. There is a larger circle that surrounds us, one of optimism, forgiveness, and unconditional love – but we may not discern it in our cynicism.
“Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Genuine selfless love is in fact a miracle, a light that shines through cynicism. It may be rare but that does not make it less powerful or real. Even a life full of deceit and unfaithfulness is likely to hold one example of genuine love – perhaps a grandma, a teacher, or a kind stranger. That love is the truth and the true light we seek. The rest is a lie. Like all miracles, love points us to a higher and more genuine reality, a larger circle. We can recreate that miracle in our own life despite the rarity of our experience with it.
“The essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Cynicism is an outgrowth of experience or teaching which convinces us that love isn’t authentic and that we are all selfish and untrustworthy. When we are immersed in cynicism, toxic relationships become self-fulfilling prophecies. As a society, we have allowed a cynical reality to become reality, and to shape our outlook. We see the happy family as the exception, not the rule. Underlying this cynicism is the belief that we don’t have free will after all and are just a product of our environment, an environment that increasingly seems intent on our destruction. We no longer portray the ideal to our children. Those ideals as seen in such shows as “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Brady Bunch” have vanished and now they are left with the worst-case scenarios in “13 Reasons Why.”
We see in the culture of young people that the cynicism about love is bearing fruit. Many dating websites, borne from twisted perceptions and porn (link), turn intimate relationships into transactions. Rather than prioritizing relationships, many delay or forgo marriage and trade it for a “career”. Divorce rates rise and birth rates plummet. The sexes turn against each other and see the opposite gender as a threat rather than a partner.
Our modern gender wars are an outgrowth of this cynicism. If we don’t trust in the power of romantic love, we don’t trust the opposite sex. If men and women don’t encourage or respect each other, they won’t establish deep relationships and society will collapse.
“We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.”G.K Chesterton
Without a foundation of genuine love and respect, even the extended family crumbles. Rather than a gathering of familial love, the Thanksgiving dinner table has become a political battleground. Young people roll their eyes at the views of their elders, while their elders look with disdain at the ignorance and naivety of their children’s worldview. Loyalty to ideology trumps loyalty to family.
Be a Fool, Make A Vow
We don’t make vows anymore. We don’t jump in passionately to romance. We swipe right and throw others into the relationship dustbin based on a millisecond judgment. We live together before getting married, just to be sure. We keep open the option of escape. The rational side of me says this might be good – look how much suffering has come from “fools jumping in”? But it isn’t good. It has not produced good fruits – it has stifled romance, and it has increased loneliness and unhappiness. For love to exist there has to be a leap, vulnerability, and there has to be risk.
Despite our modern cynicism, many are still drawn to love stories, to rash vows. Falling in love is one of the most transcendent experiences in a person’s life. Do we forgo one of the great adventures of life because it is risky?
I went to tour a friend’s almost-completed house the other day. It was a beautiful home, however, I noticed that nearly everything was white – white walls, cabinets, and tile. Even the fireplace was surrounded by white walls. I asked her if she was going to put stone or brick around the fireplace. She said, “I don’t think so, I keep going back and forth on what to put there and I just feel like I would start hating it, or it would go out of style- so I am leaving it white.” I am no interior decorator, perhaps she was right, I myself worry about changing styles. However, I was struck by her statement as it relates to our modern philosophy. She was so unsure of herself, her own tastes, and the world’s shifting perspectives, that to be safe, she was just leaving it white. She is not alone, color is disappearing from our world.
Walk through St. Peters, Seville Cathedral, or any of the architectural masterpieces that millions visit every year and you will see that they are full of color and style, rash and bold statements of beauty and love. Each colored marble floor and each ornate altar is a vow. A rash and unchanging statement that says, “The world may change, tastes may change – but this will not change. If it should stand for the next thousand years unchanged, it will still be beautiful.”
“Do not swear by the moon, for she changes constantly. Then your love would also change.”William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Continuing with G.K. Chesterton in his superb essay entitled, In Defense of Rash Vows, he describes our modern doubtfulness of self and how it leads to an inability to make and keep the kind of vows needed for romantic love to thrive.
“The man who makes a vow makes an appointment with himself at some distant time or place. The danger of it is that himself should not keep the appointment. And in modern times this terror of one’s self, of the weakness and mutability of one’s self, has perilously increased, and is the real basis of the objection to vows of any kind. A modern man refrains from swearing to count the leaves on every third tree in Holland Walk, not because it is silly to do so (he does many sillier things), but because he has a profound conviction that before he had got to the three hundred and seventy-ninth leaf on the first tree he would be excessively tired of the subject and want to go home to tea. In other words, we fear that by that time he will be, in the common but hideously significant phrase, another man.”
We have lost our confidence in vows, and in our ability to keep them. Without the belief in the unchanging nature of love, and our own ability to be unchanged – true romantic love will continue to fade from our culture. But we can rediscover this love, gain confidence again in our own ability to love, and raise a new generation of romantics.
Next week we will discuss how to turn from a passionless culture and rediscover romance.
Continue to Part 2, Becoming Romantics Again
Sex and Dating in Modern America
On Birth Rates: