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Mere Christianity - Book Three - Christian Marriage

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Spirit/e—Mere Christianity

2009. 9. 20.










Book Three





    6. Christian Marriage

     The last chapter  was  mainly negative. I discussed what was wrong with
the sexual impulse in man, but said very little about  its  right working-in
other words, about Christian marriage. There are  two  reasons  why I do not
particularly  want  to deal with marriage. The first  is  that the Christian
doctrines on this subject are extremely unpopular. The second is that I have
never been  married  myself, and, therefore, can  speak only at second hand.
But in  spite of  that, I feel I  can  hardly leave  the subject out  in  an
account of  Christian morals.  The Christian  idea of  marriage is based  on
Christ's  words  that a  man  and  wife  are  to  be  regarded  as  a single
organism-for that is what the words one flesh" would  be in modern English.
And the Christians believe that when He said this  He was  not  expressing a
sentiment  but stating  a fact-just as  one is stating a fact when  one says
that a lock and  its key are one mechanism, or that a  violin and  a bow are
one  musical instrument.  The inventor of  the human machine was  telling us
that  its two  halves,  the male and  the female,  were made to be  combined
together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined. The
monstrosity of sexual intercourse outside marriage is that those who indulge
in it  are trying  to isolate one  kind  of union (the sexual) from all  the
other kinds of union which were intended to go along with it and make up the
total  union. The Christian  attitude does not  mean that there  is anything
wrong about sexual pleasure, any more than about the  pleasure of eating. It
means that  you must not isolate that pleasure and  try to get it by itself,
any  more than  you  ought to try to  get  the  pleasures  of taste  without
swallowing and digesting, by chewing things and spitting them out again.

     As a consequence, Christianity teaches that marriage is for life. There
is,  of course, a difference  here  between  different Churches: some do not
admit divorce at all; some allow it reluctantly in very special cases. It is
a great pity that Christians should disagree about such  a question; but for
an ordinary layman the thing  to notice is that Churches all agree with  one
another about  marriage a great deal more than  any of them  agrees with the
outside world. I mean,  they all regard divorce as something like cutting up
a  living  body, as  a kind of surgical  operation. Some of them  think  the
operation so violent that it cannot be done  at  all; others admit  it  as a
desperate remedy in extreme cases. They are  all agreed that it is more like
having  both your legs  cut  off  than it  is  like  dissolving  a  business
partnership or even deserting  a regiment What they all disagree with is the
modern view that  it  is  a  simple  readjustment of  partners,  to  be made
whenever people  feel they are  no  longer in love with one another, or when
either of them falls in love with someone else.

     Before we  consider this modern  view in its relation  to  chastity, we
must  not  forget  to  consider it in  relation  to  another  virtue, namely
justice. Justice, as I said before, includes the keeping  of  promises.  Now
everyone who has  been married in a church has made a public, solemn promise
to  stick  to his (or her)  partner  till death.  The duty  of keeping  that
promise has no special connection  with sexual morality: it  is  in the same
position  as any other promise.  If, as modern people are always telling us,
the sexual impulse is just like all our  other impulses, then it ought to be
treated  like all  our other impulses; and as their indulgence is controlled
by our promises, so  should its be. If, as I think,  it is not like all  our
other impulses,  but  is  morbidly  inflamed,  then we should be  especially
careful not to let it lead us into dishonesty.

     To this someone may reply that he regarded  the promise made in  church
as a mere formality and never intended to keep it. Whom, then, was he trying
to deceive when he made  it? God? That was really very unwise. Himself? That
was not  very much wiser. The bride,  or bridegroom, or the  "in-laws"? That
was treacherous.  Most often,  I think, the couple (or one of them) hoped to
deceive the  public. They  wanted  the  respectability  that is attached  to
marriage without intending to pay  the price:  that is, they were imposters,
they cheated.  If they are  still contented cheats, I have nothing to say to
them: who would urge the high and  hard duty of chastity on  people who have
not  yet wished  to be merely honest? If they have now  come to their senses
and want to  be honest, their  promise,  already made, constrains  them. And
this,  you  will  see, comes  under  the  heading  of justice, not  that  of
chastity. If  people do  not believe in  permanent marriage,  it  is perhaps
better that they should live together unmarried  than that they should  make
vows  they do not mean to  keep. It is true that by living  together without
marriage they  will be  guilty (in  Christian  eyes) of fornication. But one
fault  is not mended by adding another: unchastity is not improved by adding

     The idea that "being in love" is the only reason for remaining  married
really leaves no room for marriage as a  contract or promise at all. If love
is the  whole  thing, then  the  promise can add  nothing;  and if  it  adds
nothing,  then  it should  not be made. The curious  thing  is  that  lovers
themselves, while they remain  really in  love, know this better than  those
who talk about love. As Chesterton pointed out, those who are in love have a
natural inclination to bind themselves by promises. Love songs all over  the
world are  full of  vows  of  eternal constancy.  The Christian  law  is not
forcing  upon  the  passion  of  love  something which  is  foreign  to that
passion's own nature:  it is  demanding  that lovers  should take  seriously
something which their passion of itself impels them to do.

     And, of course, the promise, made when I am in love and because I am in
love, to be true to the beloved as long as I live, commits one to being true
even if I cease to be in love. A promise must be about things that I can do,
about  actions:  no one can promise to go on feeling in  a certain  way.  He
might as well promise never to have a headache or always to feel hungry. But
what, it may be asked, is the use of keeping two people together if they are
no longer in love? There are several  sound, social  reasons;  to  provide a
home for their  children, to protect  the woman (who has probably sacrificed
or damaged  her own career by  getting  married) from being dropped whenever
the man is tired of her. But there is also another reason of which I am very
sure, though I find it a little hard to explain.

     It is  hard because so  many people cannot be brought  to realise  that
when B is better than C, A may be  even better than B. They like thinking in
terms of  good  and bad,  not of good, better, and best, or  bad, worse  and
worst. They want  to know whether you think patriotism a good thing:  if you
reply  that it is, of  course,  far  better than individual selfishness, but
that it  is  inferior to universal charity  and  should always  give  way to
universal charity when the  two conflict,  they think you are being evasive.
They  ask what you  think of dueling. If you reply that it is far better  to
forgive  a man than to fight a duel with him, but that even  a duel might be
better  than a lifelong enmity which expresses itself in  secret  efforts to
"do the man down," they go away complaining that  you would not give  them a
straight answer.  I hope no one  will make this mistake  about what I am now
going to say.

     What we call "being in love" is a glorious state, and, in several ways,
good for us. It helps to make us generous  and courageous, it opens our eyes
not only to the beauty of the beloved but to all beauty, and it subordinates
(especially  at first) our merely  animal  sexuality; in that sense, love is
the great conqueror of lust. No one in his senses would  deny that being  in
love is far better than either  common sensuality or cold  self-centredness.
But, as I said  before, "the  most dangerous thing you can do is to take any
one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow
at all  costs." Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing.
There are  many  things below it, but  there are also things  above it.  You
cannot  make it the basis of a whole  life. It is a noble feeling, but it is
still  a feeling. Now  no  feeling  can be  relied  on  to last in its  full
intensity, or even to last at all.  Knowledge can last, principles can last,
habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say,
the state called "being in love" usually does not last. If the old fairytale
ending "They lived happily ever after" is taken to mean  "They  felt for the
next  fifty years  exactly as  they felt  the day before they were married,"
then it says what probably  never  was  nor ever could be true, and would be
highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for
even five years? What would become of your work,  your appetite, your sleep,
your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to  be "in  love"  need  not  mean
ceasing to love. Love in this second  sense-love as distinct  from "being in
love" is not merely  a feeling.  It is a deep unity, maintained by  the will
and  deliberately  strengthened  by  habit;  reinforced   by  (in  Christian
marriages) the grace which both parents ask, and receive, from God. They can
have  this love for each other  even at those moments when they do not  like
each other; as you  love yourself even when you do  not  like yourself. They
can  retain  this  love  even  when  each  would  easily,  if  they  allowed
themselves, be "in love" with someone else. "Being in love" first moved them
to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep  the promise. It
is on  this love  that the engine of marriage is run:  being in love was the
explosion that started it.

     If you disagree with me, of course,  you will  say,  "He knows  nothing
about it, he is  not  married."  You may quite possibly be right. But before
you say  that,  make  quite sure that you are judging me by what you  really
know from your own experience  and from watching the  lives of your friends,
and not by ideas you have derived from novels and films. This is not so easy
to do as people think.  Our  experience  is coloured through and through  by
books  and  plays  and  the  cinema,  and it takes  patience  and  skill  to
disentangle the things we have really learned from life for ourselves.

     People  get  from  books the idea  that if  you have married  the right
person you may expect to go on "being in  love" for ever. As a result,  when
they find they are not,  they think this proves they have made a mistake and
are  entitled to a  change-not realising that,  when  they have changed, the
glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old
one.  In this department of life, as  in every  other,  thrills come  at the
beginning and do not last. The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of
flying will not go on when  he  has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning
to fly. The thrill you feel on first seeing some  delightful place dies away
when you really  go to live there. Does this mean it would  be better not to
learn to fly  and not to  live in the beautiful place?  By no means. In both
cases, if you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be
compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of interest. What is more
(and I can hardly find words to tell you how important I think this),  it is
just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle
down to the sober interest, who are then  most likely to meet new thrills in
some quite different direction. The man who has learned to fly and becomes a
good  pilot will suddenly discover music; the man  who has  settled down  to
live in the beauty spot will discover gardening.

     This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a
thing will not really live unless it first dies. It is simply no good trying
to keep any thrill: that is the  very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill
go-let it  die away-go on through that  period  of  death  into the  quieter
interest and happiness that  follow -and you will find you are  living  in a
world of new thrills all the time. But if you  decide  to  make thrills your
regular diet and try to prolong them  artificially, they will all get weaker
and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and  you will be a bored, disillusioned old
man for the rest of your  life.  It is because so few people understand this
that you  find many  middle-aged  men and  women maundering about their lost
youth, at the very age when new horizons ought to be appearing and new doors
opening all round them. It is much better fun to learn to swim than to go on
endlessly (and hopelessly) trying to get  back the feeling you had when  you
first went paddling as a small boy.

     Another  notion  we get from novels and plays is that "falling in love"
is  something quite irresistible; something that just  happens to one,  like
measles. And  because they  believe  this,  some married people throw up the
sponge  and  give  in  when  they  find  themselves  attracted  by   a   new
acquaintance. But I  am inclined to think  that these  irresistible passions
are much rarer in real life than in books, at any rate when one is grown up.
When we  meet someone beautiful  and clever  and  sympathetic, of course  we
ought, in one sense, to admire and love these good qualities. But  is it not
very  largely in our own choice whether this love shall,  or shall not, turn
into what we call "being in love"? No doubt, if our minds are full of novels
and  plays and  sentimental songs, and  our bodies full of alcohol, we shall
turn  any love we feel into that kind  of love: just as if you have a rut in
your path all the rainwater will run into  that rut, and  if you  wear  blue
spectacles everything  you see  will turn  blue. But  that  will be  our own

     Before leaving the question  of divorce, I  should  like to distinguish
two  things which  are  very often  confused.  The  Christian conception  of
marriage  is  one:  the  other  is  the  quite  different  question-now  far
Christians,  if  they  are  voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to
force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them
in the  divorce laws.  A great many  people seem to think that if you are  a
Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I
do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans
tried to prevent the  rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the
Churches should frankly recognise  that the majority of the  British  people
are  not Christians  and,  therefore,  cannot be expected to live  Christian
lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the
State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the  Church
with rules enforced by her  on her own members. The distinction  ought to be
quite sharp,  so that  a man knows which  couples are married in a Christian
sense and which are not.

     So much  for the Christian  doctrine  about the permanence of marriage.
Something  else, even more unpopular, remains  to  be dealt  with. Christian
wives promise to obey their husbands. In Christian marriage the man  is said
to  be the "head." Two  questions obviously arise here, (1) Why should there
be a head at all -why not equality? (2) Why should it be the man?

     (1) The  need  for some head  follows  from the  idea that marriage  is
permanent Of course, as long as the husband and wife are agreed, no question
of a head need arise; and we may hope that this will  be the normal state of
affairs in a Christian marriage. But when there is a real disagreement, what
is to happen? Talk it over, of course; but I am assuming they have done that
and still failed to reach agreement What do they do next? They cannot decide
by a  majority  vote,  for  in a council of two  there  can be  no majority.
Surely,  only  one  or other of  two things  can happen:  either  they  must
separate  and  go their own  ways or else  one or other of them must  have a
casting vote. If marriage is permanent, one or other party must, in the last
resort,  have the power of  deciding the  family policy.  You  cannot have a
permanent association without a constitution.

     (2) If there  must be a head, why the man? Well, firstly, is there  any
very serious  wish  that  it  should be the woman? As I have said,  I am not
married myself, but  as far as 1 can  see, even a woman who wants to be  the
head of her own house does not usually  admire the same state of things when
she finds it going on next door. She is much more likely to say "Poor Mr. X!
Why  he allows that appalling woman to boss  him about  the  way she does is
more than I can imagine." I do not think she is even very nattered if anyone
mentions the fact of her own "headship."  There must be something  unnatural
about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half
ashamed  of  it and despise  the husbands whom  they rule. But there is also
another  reason; and here I speak quite frankly as a bachelor, because it is
a  reason  you  can  see  from outside even  better  than  from inside.  The
relations of the family to the outer world-what might be  called its foreign
policy-must  depend, in the  last resort, upon the  man,  because he  always
ought to be, and  usually is, much more just  to  the  outsiders. A woman is
primarily fighting for her  own children and husband against the rest of the
world. Naturally, almost, in  a  sense, rightly,  their claims override, for
her, all  other  claims. She is the special trustee of their interests.  The
function of  the  husband is to see that this natural  preference of hers is
not given its head. He  has the last word in order  to  protect other people
from the intense family  patriotism of the wife. If anyone  doubts this, let
me ask a simple  question. If your dog has bitten the child next door, or if
your child has hurt the dog next  door,  which would you sooner have to deal
with, the master of that house or the mistress? Or,  if  you  are a  married
woman, let me ask you this question. Much as  you admire your husband, would
you not say  that his chief failing is his tendency not to  stick up for his
rights and yours against the neighbours as vigorously as you  would  like? A
bit of an Appeaser?






A discussion of Christian marriage and its many implications..

  1. The sexual impulse in man works best in ...
  2. The words one flesh" could be translated _ _ in modern English.
  3. Using another food analogy, Lewis compares the isolation of sexual pleasure with...
  4. All Christian denominations agree that divorce is more like having both legs cut off than...
  5. According to Lewis, the most common reason for people who get married in church as a mere formality is...
  6. According to Lewis, living together outside of marriage causes one to be guilty on two accounts which are...
  7. According to Lewis, what does the passion of love impel two people to do?
  8. Why does ceasing to be "in love" need not mean ceasing to love?
  9. Why is Lewis against forcing the laws of Christian marriage on people through government regulation?
  10. What example does Lewis site to support the idea that the headship of man over women is natural in marriage?
  11. Why is a man better suited for dealing with the family's foreign policy?






[Note: Many will try to criticize Lewis' authorship of this chapter on the basis that he had never been married at this point. That would be an ad hominim attack (attack on his character), with no relevance to the topic.]

  • The Christian view of marriage is based on Christ's words that a man and a woman, in marriage, are a single organism, one flesh."
  • This is viewed as a fact, not a sentiment. Analogous to a lock and key, a violin and a bow.
  • This union goes beyond sex, to a total combination of the two.
  • The scriptures do not in anyway disdain sexual pleasure. It only clarifies the context of sex to be within marriage.
  • Christianity regards divorce as "something like cutting up a living body."
  • Although different Churches have different doctrines surrounding divorce, "They are all agreed that it is more like having both your legs cut off than it is like dissolving a business partnership or even deserting a regiment."
  • Anyone who enters into marriage without the intent for it to be permanent is a deceiver.

If they are still contented cheats, I have nothing to say to them: who would urge the high and hard duty of chastity on people who have not yet wished to be more honest? If they have now come to their senses and want to be honest, their promise, already made, constrains them. And this, you will see, comes under the heading of justice, not that of chastity. If people do not believe in permanent marriage, it is perhaps better that they should live together unmarried than that they should make vows they do not mean to keep. It is true that by living together without marriage they will be guilty (in Christian eyes) of fornication. But one fault is not mended by adding another: unchastity is not improved by adding perjury.

  • Lewis has a wonderful discussion about 'being in love.' The difference between the excitement of enfatuation and the permanence of a quieter, more solid, lasting love.
    What we call 'being in love' is a glorious state, and, in several ways, good for us. It helps to make us generous and courageous, it opens our eyes not only to the beauty of the beloved but to all beauty, and it subordinates (especially at first) our merely animal sexuality; in that sense, love is the great conqueror of lust. No one in his senses would deny that being in love is far better than either common sensuality or cold self-centredness. But, as I said before, 'the most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of our own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs'. Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called 'being in love' usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending 'They lived happily ever after' is taken to mean 'They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,' then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to be 'in love' need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense-love as distinct from 'being in love'-is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be 'in love' with someone else. 'Being in love' first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

More words on divorce:

  • Politics: Christians should not feel compelled to force Christian codes of marriage on non-Christians.
  • Lewis presents the idea of having a state marriage and a Christian marriage, and the two should be so distinct as to be unconfusable. [I made that word up.]

Words about the 'Head of the Home'

  • The questions:
    • 1) Why should there be a 'head' at all? Why not equals?
    • 2) Why should the man be the 'head' of the home and not the woman?
  • Lewis' thoughts
    • 1) Someone has to be able to make the final call. In a council of two, there can be no majority. Either someone makes the final call, or the two will have irreconcilable difficulties... possibly only divorce as a solution.
    • 2) Having the man as the head allows him to be a buffer between the family and the world. "Foreign Relations" type interaction.