At the recent Faith and Culture Conference 2012 at the World of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, Pastor Brian Zahnd lamented the fact about how marriage has lost much of its strength and vibrancy in the postmodern West. It seems to be especially a problem here in the Americas. That got me to thinking of the following question - why is this?
A beginning of some answers can be found in two recently published books. The first is Heavenly Participation - The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry by Hans Boersma. The second is Unintended Reformation - How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society by Brad S. Gregory. My comments will primarily focus on Dr. Boersma's thought but they are re-enforced by Dr. Gregory's thought as well.
Dr. Boersma argues that nominalism infected the late medieval period. One can see the impact of nominalism especially in certain religious orders, like the Augustinians, which produced Martin Luther. Luther was just a product, some would argue a rotten fruit, of a bad school of Catholic thought. His writings were just the logical (or illogical) outcome of the way that he saw the world, the Church, and the sacraments. Nominalism had became a dominant mode of thinking in that era or epoch. This way of thinking can be seen in the writings of many significant Catholic thinkers as well as the Magisterial (Classical) Protestant Reformers themselves.
What is nominalism in laymen's (non philosophical) terms? Basically it is a flattening of categories and a lack of drawing distinctions or qualifications. In short, it is a rejection of reality in all of its depth and beauty. So why should Christians care about nominalism here in the 21st century?
As Richard Weaver said, "ideas have consequences," and you can see the direct impact of nominalism on the sacrament of marriage. It goes to the heart of Pastor Zahnd's lament.
Marriage had always been believed within an orthodox Christian context to be a sacrament, a life-long covenant made between one man and one women. This covenantal sacrament was the beginning of a total gift of self to another and it was formally recognized by the Church. An ordained priest served only as a witness though to this sacrament before God and the public, the ministers themselves are the actual couple.
Luther recognized marriage as a Biblically inspired institution but only as an institution. Due to his nominalism he rejected the idea that marriage was a sacrament. Unfortunately in Luther's Germany, and eventually throughout the rest of Europe, marriage was therefore reduced to a civil contract, a contract administered and controlled by the state or government.
Once that state controls a people or an institution, what happens? It more often than not corrupts, perverts, and then destroys the very people or thing that it has power over. That is the condition of which we find ourselves in today.
In the Great Tradition, marriage is a calling, it is a vocation. For those who God calls them to it, it is meant to be the means in which they give themselves totally to the other. To be united to Christ is to be united to our spouse. It is through our spouse that we live the love of the Trinity in the flesh. It is through our spouse that we live the form which Christ showed us by his life, death, and resurrection. The truth, the beauty, and the good of this love then often creates a new being in the world, in fact that is rightly called a miracle. Life is grace.
Do we love Christ with the same intensity that Mary loved her Son? Do we love our spouse and children with the same intensity that Christ loves them? That type of love is that which makes the tapestry of marriage more resilient no matter what the world or society throws at it.
The tapestry of marriage which lives in this type of love becomes more beautiful the more frayed or tattered it becomes. It is a sign of contradiction to the world but what a beautiful witness it is. It serves as a witness to whom we have encountered!
D. L. Jones holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the Institute of Religious and Pastoral Studies, University of Dallas. He has spoken internationally in Italy at the Rimini Meeting and throughout much of the United States. His writings have been published in Traces, God-Spy, The American Catholic, Catholic Online, Il Sussidiario and in his home-town newspaper, The St. Joseph News-Press. He also runs a popular blog entitled la nouvelle theologie. His conversion story is published in the Italian book entitled Sotto Il Cielo D'America (Under the American Sky) written by Marco Bardazzi. The introduction of this book has been translated into English and is available on-line. Another story of his life is published in the Italian book entitled Mi Mancano Solo Le Hawaii (They Lack Only Hawaii - Living and travel notes of an Italian transplanted to America) written by Maurizio "Riro" Maniscalco.