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.

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