In the 13 June 2016 issue of TIME, Belinda Luscombe writes an article, “How to Stay Married.” Part of what interests me is that article is defending marriage and the benefits for couples who remain in the same marriage for life. The article is not advocating some retro-return to a religious past nor is it overtly defending conservative religious values. It notes the divorce rates have declined over the past few decades, and does claim there really are health and happiness advantages to remaining married over a life time.
However interesting the articles main points are, I was also intrigued by the worldview expressed about humans, which seems to be a natural extension of secular, humanistic assumptions. Luscombe writes:
“Lifetime monogamy, as many have pointed out, is not a natural state. Very few animals mate for life, and most of those that do are either birds or really ugly (Malagasy giant rat, anyone?). One theory as to why humans took to monogamy is that it strengthens societies by reducing competition among males.
But natural and worthwhile are not the same things. Reading isn’t a natural thing to do. Neither is painting, snowboarding nor coding. Nobody suggest we abandon any of those. Monogamy also has a certain energy-saving appeal: it saves humans from wasting time and effort on constantly hunting out new mates or recovering from betrayals by current ones.
Luscombe did not apparently do much research in or reflection on the entirety of Western Civilization (Christian, Jewish or Islamic) and its understanding of what it is to be human or its attitudes towards marriage and monogamy. If she had she might have easily recognized what is so totally incomplete in her own thinking on humanity and marriage. [BTW, just because it is bizarrely interesting, I will mention that wolves are reportedly monogamous, and so too vultures!].
I’ll focus only on the Christian version of this, but Luscombe’s concept of what is “natural” is incomplete, for humans have not only an animal nature (which they do share with other animals) but humans also have consciousness and a conscience. Humans are not limited by what is natural to animals because they are not reducible to only animal nature. Humans have a human nature which undeniably is tied to our animal bodies, but which is capable of self-awareness, of consciously changing behavior and rising above mere animal instincts. Morally, humans have developed traits of altruism, kindness, sharing, self denial, love, forgiveness, selflessness, philanthropy, apologizing, benevolence, etc. These are very much part of what it is to be human. Monogamy may not be common in the animal world, but it is a consciously and conscientiously chosen human behavior. From an Orthodox Christian point of view, morality is a normal part of human nature.
Humans choose monogamy not simply because it has some benefit for natural selection, but for moral reasons, for religious beliefs, because they can! For believers, human practices such as monogamous marriage, is not the random outcome of natural selection, but a morally chosen path for humans. Humans are capable of self-consciously choosing behavior which is not purely animalistic because humans are more than mere animal nature.
Being self-conscious, humans have to choose behaviors, and can reflect on their choices and which can reflect their chosen values. Humans can create abstract reasons to defend their choices, and for believers, can receive revelation from God about how to use their consciousness, free will and conscience for a greater good. Humans are not completely limited by their genes, but now are actively shaping their genetic futures. We are not completely and uncontrollably pre-destined either by our individualism nor by our genetic make-up. We are capable of being philanthropic and making choices good for our species as well as for the world. [And sadly, we don’t always choose those options!]
Luscombe’s comments seemed to me to be exactly the kind of thinking about humanity which Fr. Alexander Schmemann so lamented and skewered as where humanity has gone wrong. A recent issue of The Wheel (Number 4 | Winter 2016), has a quote from Fr. Alexander which is exactly to the point, though he is addressing a different issue and problem (reducing humans to economic beings), yet the underlying errant assumption is materialism. He writes:
“Man’s nature demands peace, but his life conduct constantly opposes it. Why?
The materialistic worldview that is presented by its preachers as the most advanced teaching about a human being not only does not give an answer to this question, but does not see the question itself. It reduces all human divisions to economics and the distribution of earthly goods, while the overcoming of those divisions is reduced to struggle, including armed struggle. Therefore calls for “world peace” smack of a terrible hypocrisy on the lips of the representatives of a materialistic worldview that does not, in essence, recognize peace. There cannot be true peacemaking where there is no person to be reconciled to, to reconnect with, where there is no one with whom harmony, accord, and love can be reconstructed. This is because, from the point of view of materialism, there is no peace in the very nature of man; there are only animal needs, the satisfaction of which does not pacify but only affords a sense of satiety.
The Christian approach to man sees in division and strife a tragically irrational disparity with respect to his true nature and calling. The cult of natural demands to which, in essence, all materialistic anthropology is reduced is seen by Christianity as a sinful perversion of the original concept of a human being. Division and strife came about precisely because man had become satisfied with minimalistic self-valuation, had accepted a caricature of himself. Therefore the central place of peacemaking is in restoration of the true person and true humanity. Peacemakers will be called the sons of God because reconciliation is the transcendence of the boundaries of one’s “I,” the recognition of one’s brother in another, the reconstruction of life as the unity of love, the regaining of paradise lost.”
Humans, as Fr. Schmemann’s thought would have it, not only transcend the boundaries of “I” in peacemaking, but in marital love-making as well. We choose monogamy to transcend our animal nature, our basest instincts and animals drives. We do it because of love – because we are loved by God, and we are capable of loving others – rising above the limits of our animal nature and aspiring for sharing in the Divine Life and Love.