This piece in the New York Times unwittingly takes a page out of John Locke’s reimagining of marriage in the Second Treatise.  Consulting with social scientists and therapists (but no defenders of more or less traditional marriage), the author wonders if we might do better to formalize the impermanence of marriage, replacing “till death do us part” with renewable terms. If we don’t have unrealistic expectations, we’ll lower the total of unhappiness in the world.

If marriage is just another economic arrangement, just another contract, if it’s not overly freighted with our all-too-human expectations of fulfillment and contentment, then we can have a good time while it lasts, declare success, and move on.

As my mother (happily married for fifty-seven years) would say (though I can’t capture her tone in print), “my gosh!”

The lower the sights, the more dispensable the relationship, the less and less we’ll invest in it. Locke and the other classical liberals wished to found politics on what they regarded as a low, but solid, ground, over against the aspirations, especially, of classical political thought. Something is surely lost thereby—a vision of what political life could be at its best.

To be sure, Christians never invested in politics what the ancients seem to have. Our critique of lowering our sights in this way would in part be that the love husband and wife have for one another is an inkling of and response to God’s love for us; disregard that and you obscure the relationship between creature and Creator, you lose something of what it means to be human.

Of course, I’d still be free to harbor these “illusions” under the marital regime proposed here. My wife and I could presumably enter into the traditional contract if we so chose (as we did, and do). Others would be equally free to join us, or not.

Now, I can imagine someone responding to me that a pro-choice marital regime, with as many different forms of marriage as there are of mortgages (as Dr. Phil would say, “how’s that workin’ for ya?”) leaves room for my religious understanding without imposing it on everyone. So let me offer the following “secular” argument, from Alfred Lord Tennyson: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.” There is something human that we lose when we tell people “authoritatively” through the state that marriage is for all intents and purposes a human relationship no different from any other. By using “realism” to deaden our aspirations, we make ourselves either less capable of relationships altogether or less capable or understanding and appreciating those into which we enter.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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