Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mawwiage. Mawwiage is wat bwings us togedder toDay. 

At least, it's what brings you to this post. 

A few of you raised objections over the last post. Not everyone is happily married, you pointed out. Married people wish they had the benefits of singleness back, you said. 

I am not trying to argue that marriage is perfect, that we singles should rush out and marry the first person we see. Still, these objections are not in themselves an adequate argument for permanent singleness. A plumbing leak in your friend's house is not a reason for you to rent apartments all your life.

Milton argued in Areopagitica that the "knowledge of good [required some] knowledge of evil" - in other words, that we could not know a thing without knowing something of its opposite as well. Hence, our understanding of singleness (and for us single people, our acceptance of it) requires some knowledge of marriage. And so my last post sought that knowledge, for what marriage should be, if not always what it is. 

In this post, I 'turn the tapestry' to see the other side of that knowledge. As the last post laid out some of the reasons that marriage (trite as this conclusion seems) is so fulfilling, this one will explore the limitations of that view and the value of singleness beyond just a generic command to 'be content'.

A recent article in Christianity Today online, intended to critique the modern church's mixed discussions on sex, pointed out that both single people and married people have a valuable symbolic role in the church: "Just as single people need the image of Christ's fidelity and love that the married give," author Matthew Anderson points out, "so married people need single people to remind us that the 'form of this world is passing away.'"

Anderson makes this as a throwaway statement at the end of a mere two paragraphs on singleness and sex, part of a larger article that argues that Christians should be more discreet in discussions of faith and sex. I want to expand on the assumption in his comment, an assumption that Anderson ignores: Biblically, it is because the form of this world is passing away that singles have the chance to join 'the great web of life' - not human, but heavenly.

In the Psalms David (who was actually married) notes the limitations this belief in Marriage as Meaning. In Psalm 17 he calls upon God to save him
From men of the world who have their portion in this life,
and whose belly You fill with Your hidden treasure.
They are satisfied with children.
And leave the rest of their possession for their babes.
Given David's call for help, I assumed for a long time that the people described here were wicked. Problem is, they have actually received blessings from God: the "hidden treasure" of children maturing in their mother's womb, then growing up to inherent "the rest of their possession" from their parents. Physically, these people are not dangerous to David.

Spiritually, they are. Here is what Card misses: People who are "satisfied with children" have their "portion in this life"; they (sometimes, not always) forget that the form of this world is passing away and ignore the much greater riches of eternal life.

Let me never become, David cries out to God, one of those men who is satisfied only with this life: 
As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness;
I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness.
In Shadow Puppets, Card tells us that parents pass on "generation to generation" their own likeness and so become "an inextricable part of the human race". Yet the human race is bound to this material life, and David remembers that the form of this world is passing away. Beyond this world, he expects to be fully satisfied "in the likeness of God".

Here is the meaning of life. It is not "for a man to find a woman, for a woman to find a man," as Card claims. It is for a woman (or a man) to find God and, instead of passing their likeness on to children, to instead receive the likeness of God and therein be truly satisfied.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we who are single will be automatically content because we have Christ. That response would be shallow; we are in fact flesh and blood and in flesh and blood the desire to become an inextricable part of the human race will not go away. What I am saying is this: As those who are married pass their likeness along to their children, we are instead privileged to receive from God His likeness, to become, in other words, part of a heavenly race.

This, I think, is what Isaiah means when he compliments the single woman:
Sing, O barren
You who have not borne!
Break forth into singing, and cry aloud,
You who have not labored with child.
For more are the children of the desolate
Than the children of the married woman.
Today, believers often interpret this passage by noting that single people have more time to serve in ministry. "Single people," they say, "can work with AWANA. Or with the nursery. Or with the Youth Group. And the kids they work with count as 'the children of the desolate'. Maybe?" Okay, single people do have more time to serve, but given that this is an Old Testament verse, I don't think a demand for single people to work in the nursery captures the essence of Isaiah's message.

Paired with the Psalms, this passage makes more sense. Isaiah has just gotten through describing the coming Messiah and the redemptive act that makes it possible for believers to inherit the likeness of God. The proximity of this redemption prophecy to the command for "barren women" to rejoice suggests a relationship between the two passages. As we receive the "likeness of God" through redemption, so presumably we also will share that likeness with other believers through the Holy Spirit; we who are "desolate" do not have physical children, but across the generations we are an "inextricable" part of a heavenly family.

Again, do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that we singles will or even should feel at peace with our current state. I don't even think we're supposed to. All that David and Isaiah have prophesied is in the future for us: we, like David two thousand years ago, are still waiting to "awake" from this dream called life, and it is unrealistic to expect us to find complete human satisfaction in something we have not yet received. Right now we are yet "being transformed into the same image [as Christ] from glory to glory" (2 Cor. 3:18); we are not yet fully transformed, and so the full satisfaction is not to be had.

Rather, the expectation of receiving, then sharing, the likeness of God is stronger and more obvious (or intended to be) in we who are single. As we wait to receive, and then to share, the "likeness of God", so our singleness reminds the church that we have "seen God's promises] afar off" and we are "assured of them." As Paul goes on to say, the promise of the likeness of God reminds us that we "desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called [our] God, for He has prepared a city for [us]" (Hebrews 11:13, 16).

Put together with the Psalms and with Isaiah, here is Paul's point applied to singles. However much satisfaction married people have in this life, we who are singles recognize and wait for a higher, better satisfaction: the promise of God making us an "inextricable part" of His family, of God sharing His likeness with us and of us sharing that likeness with fellow believers. This desire is not to be fulfilled in this world; it is not intended to be fulfilled in this world. Instead, we who are single trade (and encourage even those who are married to trade) that desire to make a place for ourselves in the human "web of life" for a much greater one: a life beyond life, with God.

Like Eliot, I feel that "it is impossible to say just what I mean." I have spent two and a half hours writing this post (that does not count preparation), and I refuse to spend more, lest my blog start taking longer to compose than graduate school papers. Indeed, my writing is "only hints and guesses" about what singleness means: not a state which must be filled by marriage, nor a state in which we should be content with in this life, but a state which keeps us looking heavenward, expectantly.

What we hopefully look for is just beyond sight
We are pilgrims to the City of God.
~ Michael Card

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Is the church really handling singleness the right way?

The Need
An increasing number of believers today are well into their twenties and thirties and are still unmarried. Who knows why they aren't married? That's not the point. The point is that the number of single people isn't going down, and single people are not becoming magically more happy.

Our solution? Publishers churn through reams of paper, printing book after book on the topic. Some, like Getting Serious about Getting Married, spell out specified steps to marriage. By far the greatest number are books such as When God Writes Your Love Story: they recommend contended singleness and waiting on God. The fact that there are so many books indicates only how unhealthy believers' attitude towards singleness is. Peter Kreeft points out that '"[i]t is in when everybody's pipes are leaking that people buy books on plumbing," implying that we don't print books about a subject unless we have a problem in that area.

By no means do I have a solution to this problem. I don't do very well with solutions. I do have an idea what part of that problem might be. I think we Christians are lying to each other - we are lying to ourselves - about how very important marriage is, and about why singleness is important. I want to take on the first half of that lie (how important marriage is) in today's post.

The Problem
I have always appreciated science fiction writer Orson Scott Card for how well he blends intricate narrative with deep, thought-provoking themes. In Shadow Puppets, set 5-10 years after the events of Ender's Game, he takes on the importance of marriage.

Card's argument is based on a common, truthful observation about the human psyche: We are hardwired to want some meaning in our lives. He writes:

"Here is the meaning of life: for a man to find a woman, for a woman to find a man, the creature most unlike you, and then to make babies with her, with him, or to find them some other way, but then to raise them up, and watch them do the same thing, generation after generation, so that when you die you know you are permanently a part of the great web of life. That you are not a loose thread, snipped off" (95).

Card makes a point that we believers cannot afford to overlook: the connection to other human beings, especially the person-to-person oneness between a husband and wife intended to come with marriage fills the human need for meaning in a way that little else in this life can.

Right now half of you are objecting, "What about Jesus? He is the real meaning of life!" Bear with me; I'll get there. The other half of you are objecting: "That's not the only meaning of life" (95). "Couldn't Card come up with anything better?" you ask. "Anything more creative? For the answer to life, the universe and everything?" Card himself calls this theory a cliche. But he immediately adds that "shallow as it had to be, it is still the truest thing I have ever found": this "deepest desire of all, the desire to be an inextricable part of the human race."

The Solution
To Card, becoming "an inextricable part of the human race" has by far the most permanent significance in life.

Actions that seem memorable turn out not to be, often within a lifetime. Anton (the character speaking in the passage above) is a great scientist. Yet though he expected his scientific name to give him "immortality of a kind," he realizes that he was in fact "swept away until [he] existed only in footnotes in other men's articles". Two years after I wrote my graduate thesis, I have a hard time articulating the point as clearly as I'd like. How many students today really know what, say, Copernicus was famous for?

Bean and Petra saved the world from the hostile alien species (yes, I told you I was writing about a science fiction book) and even the significance of this great act fades away. Anton tells them, "You can change the world . . .  [b]ut time has taken it away. It's in the past, and yet you are still alive, so what is your life for?" We Christians get a God-fearing candidate into office, we think we've changed the world, and then the election is over, and yet we are still alive, so what is our life for?

A family, for Card, guarantees that good, noble actions will have an enduring significance. In a family, it's not just genetic material that is passed down from "generation to generation"; Card specifies that parents may "find [children] some other way" (95) - adoption. Adopted kids pass zero of their adopted parents' genetic material on to their own children. "Generation to generation" they pass down instead a treasured heritage of love and welcome, of emotional and (hopefully) spiritual stability. Parents' actions live on long after they are dead. Surely this continued web of love and acceptance is significant.

However, Card is not really saying that all meaning in life can be found in a Build-Your-Own-Leave-It-To-Beaver-Kit. Making yourself "an inextricable part of the human race" blossoms from:
a deep hunger to find a person from that strange, terrifyingly other sex and make a life together. Even old people beyond mating, even people who know they can't have children, there's still a hunger for this. For actual marriage, two unlike creatures becoming, as best they can, one.  

To "become, as best you can, one" with someone else fills the human hunger for significance. In the Scripture, the very first thing that God records as "not good" was "that man should be alone". The absence of the article before the word "man" suggests that the meaning is humankind: Neither woman nor man should be alone. We are designed for partnership with someone besides our own inner being.

This is what the church misses out on, then: that two of the largest doors to significance are closed to single Christians. For us it is impossible to become one with someone else, to have children and pass the love of God onto them and onto their children "generation after generation."

Having a friendship, or working in the nursery in church, is not the same thing at all. I love my job teaching students, and I hope and pray that they take the lessons I teach on through life with them, but this is not where I find real meaning in life. To really make ourselves "an inextricable part of the human race," we need a family, or at least a husband or a wife, of our own.

I'm sure some of you are wondering what happened to Jesus being the meaning of life, as I mentioned earlier. I agree with you. I really do. Card makes some important points - really important points, that we need to pay attention to - but I don't think he has the whole picture. As Christians, Christ for us supersedes some of our ordinary human considerations, including the marriage state.

Otherwise, all singles would be in a bottomless Pit of Despair, and I at least am not there yet. I'll post more in a week or so.

P.S. Bear with the photos, please. It's about 5 degrees outside. I am unmotivated to take pictures in this weather, but hopefully I will have new ones soon. This cat picture is not mine.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Delightful as Christmas Break was, I am now back at school and back at work. Already I've lesson planned until 9:30 P.M. and re-started Stargate Atlantis as a way to decompress from all that lesson planning. Eventually I will tell you more about my classes: English Composition, and ever the favourites, Introduction to Literature and Christian Classics.

Right now, however, all Iowa is amazed by our first touch of winter in months. All November and all December, the grass remained stubbornly green (or brown, especially towards the end). Now, everything is white. In the last 72 hours, the temperature dropped from 55 degrees to 15 degrees and we were treated to more than 7 inches of snow.

All the Iowans have broken back out their winter spirit and their boots. Me, I don't come from a particularly wintery state. I don't come from a snowy state. My most vivid memory of winter driving is falling asleep in the back of a rental car at 11:00 PM, winding through the Colorado mountains at 30 m.p.h. in the snow. Every half hour or so, my family pulled over and waited while a caravan of twenty Colorado drivers zipped past us confidently.

So, I've taken a crash course in Winter 101 lately. Here is what I've learned:

My road is not significant enough to merit much plowing. 
All we get is a packing-down as cars drive on the road. The minimum plowing, and then the packing down, leaves the road in a condition reminiscent of the ice roads in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

Here is a picture of the Ice Road (from the History Channel), used by truckers who ship supplies into the remote villages:

Here is a picture of my road, which I took this morning. Compared to the Ice Road, my road (unfortunately) has no mountains or pine trees. Notice, however, the huge piles of snow and the perpetual layer of ice across the road. Any time I pull in or out of my driveway, the snow crunches reluctantly. I swear, the snow is waiting to freeze and trap me.

Do not park on the street. The snow does, in fact, trap some cars. The night of the storm, I lay in bed for thirty minutes listening to one driver's attempt to escape the trap. The engine revved, then dropped back, then revved again. Then, everything was quiet for sixty seconds or so - and then the engine revved again, dropped back again, revved again, dropped back again.

This is why I park in a garage. 

Slow WAY down for turns. A winter driver I am not (at least not yet). After some icing in October, I have taken to toodling along on the frozen roads at about 30 m.p.h. This is too fast for a turn. In fact, half of that speed is still too fast for a turn on frozen roads.

Right in the middle of the storm, I took a left turn through a larger intersection, tapped on the brakes, and went skidding away towards the right. For a moment, I was afraid my car was about to slam into all the waiting cars on the other side of the road. We straightened out, though, and I continued safely - and slowly! - on my way.

Left turns on frozen roads should be taken at 5 m.p.h.

People, if faced with a snowstorm, like to state the obvious: that there is in fact a snowstorm happening right now. If I turned on the car radio, someone told me it was snowing. Yes, thank you, I can see that outside my car window. Then, I drove onto the highway and found a warning sign that told me roads were icy. Mmm, thanks! I can see that too. I pulled up and was told that it was snowing. Gee, thanks! I just stepped out of my snowy boots. I want to know when it will stop.

It's as though we humans feel like we can control things, or are in charge of them, or are at least particularly observant, simply by stating the obvious.

A snowstorm is a great time to shop at Wal-Mart. Usually, I hate shopping. I especially hate shopping at Wal-Mart, where I have to forever duck around customers who stop in the middle of the aisle to wonder whether they should purchase the red Cars II toothbrush or the blue Transformers one. This is not what Wal-Mart shopping is like in a snowstorm.

I had teaching supplies to pick up, so I braved the icy roads and hills to stop there after were. Perhaps twenty cars were in the parking lot, and huge plows with blinding headlights. Inside the store, nobody was in the electronics section or the clothes section; the only customers were walking about in heavy parkas with car scrapers and snow shovels in their hands. I grabbed eight sheets of posterboard, some oatmeal and toothpaste, and booked it out of the store.

Now I'm wondering whether I should check the weather, and wait on the next snow to go pick up the rest of my groceries.

The Boy Scouts' motto is Be Prepared. Right now, the storm has ended and it's a sunny 20 degrees outside today. But I am now prepared (hopefully) for Winter 102.