This morning I finished reading The Pilgrim’s Regress by C S Lewis, and then read a Focus on the Family article, The End of Courtship by Leon R Kass. The former is good, though not nearly as good as some of Lewis’ later novels. The latter made me a little angry, in a “hit a person when he’s down” kind of way.
This brings me to what is probably the deepest and most intractable obstacle to courtship and marriage: a set of cultural attitudes and sensibilities that obscure and even deny the fundamental difference between youth and adulthood. Marriage, especially when seen as the institution designed to provide for the next generation, is most definitely the business of adults, by which I mean, people who are serious about life, people who aspire to go outward and forward to embrace and to assume responsibility for the future. To be sure, most college graduates do go out, find jobs, and become self-supporting (though, astonishingly, a great many do return to live at home). But, though out of the nest, they don’t have a course to fly. They do not experience their lives as a trajectory, with an inner meaning partly given by the life cycle itself. The carefreeness and independence of youth they do not see as a stage on the way to maturity, in which they then take responsibility for the world and especially, as parents, for the new lives that will replace them. The necessities of aging and mortality are out of sight; few feel the call to serve a higher goal or some transcendent purpose.
While it may well be true that a person is not behaving as they ought, I’ve never found it especially helpful to respond to that with telling them about “the adult thing to do.” That strikes me as a kind of bully tactic, because it takes a good deal of extra thought to figure out if “the adult thing” is in fact the right thing, or not, for any particular person at a particular time. In general Mr Kass relies far more heavily on “maturity” than on goodness, which I find highly problematic.
But it would appear to require a revolution to restore the conditions most necessary for successful courtship: a desire in America’s youth for mature adulthood (which means for marriage and parenthood), an appreciation of the unique character of the marital bond, understood as linked to generation, and a restoration of sexual self-restraint generally and of female modesty in particular.
As I was looking at assertions like that, The Pilgrim’s Regress came back to mind. Say a young person is more like Augustine and his friends in Carthage than like the nice girl in her parent’s parlor waiting for a steady young man to come court her. Say a young person is hanging out with the Claptrapians or held in the prison of the giant of Zeitgeistheim. Is their most immediate concern going to be to go “do the adult thing” and “respond to the timing of the natural life-cycle?” Really? How well is that likely to work out for him? If it’s true that “few feel the call to serve a higher goal or some transcendent purpose,” can we really hold out marriage and family, good and important as they are, as that transcendent purpose? But it’s even more complicated than that. Say this person spends ten years wandering about in the cultural crags and swamps like Augustine or Lewis: does it end in marriage and a family? Perhaps — Augustine was going to mary; many others actually do; Lewis did for a while. But Christianity does not teach that the measure of “mature adulthood” is to settle down with a wife and children. It does teach that the end of relationships is in Love, and love is to give up one’s life for the other, whether in marriage or out of it; and it does teach on chastity, within marriage and out of it. Mature adulthood is a good, but it’s not the only or the ultimate good, and as an ultimate goal it seems to be a goal rather like stopping at Mr Sensible’s house rather than with the claptrapians. Someone might drag themselves off of the crags of the swamps for Virtue or Reason or Desire, but I’m doubtful that anyone is willing to go to any such lengths for Adulthood, nor whether it would be an unmitigated good if they did.