Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Helpers Meet?” first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Touchstone.
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A Symposium on Dating, Courtship & Marriage
That Could Be Arranged by S. M. Hutchens
That Could Be Arranged
by S. M. Hutchens
Since our own children are of marriageable age, questions about the dating culture concern us. The family has agreed, with many others, that dating as traditionally practiced is not a good thing, and that it should be replaced with courtship supervised by the parents.
But because courtship implies a very advanced state of commitment, the intention to practice it appears to lead to a good deal of “hanging out”—regular gathering with a mixed-sex group of the same age—which has serious ambiguities of its own, particularly in that it so often leads nowhere. There is a huge distance between hanging out with other Christian young people and formal courtship that few young couples wish to take. The chasm to be leaped would seem most naturally filled by—dating.
Young people at the highest point of their sexual attraction and desire are emphatically different from the playfellows of earlier years, and the attempt to gather as if they were simply advanced playgroups seems to me to have an unwholesome and unpromising artificiality about it.
One can see, in light of modern experimentations in these matters, why in traditional societies marriages are arranged by the parents. A return to this in some form is perhaps the next step in the right direction for groups of Christian families that wish to leave the dating culture as (it has turned out to be) one of the fundamental dynamics of family life.
But for this, children will need to be educated from their earliest years that (1) we are Christians, and think and do many things differently than the surrounding culture, in which pagan influences predominate, and (2) your parents will be choosing your mate.
The culture of romantic love and its eroticism will oppose this with all its might, and the law will, of course, not cooperate. The children can break from parental authority and its choice if they insist.
But one wonders whether in families whose parents make these choices with both the desires and best interests of their children in mind, inculcating in them from childhood countercultural attitudes and virtues, many if not most of the young people for whom the choices are made will turn out to be at peace with them. And they must in all these things have the full support of their church, which must be the basic social unit exterior to the nuclear family.
Time to Rethink
As a culture we did not know how much misery and anomie—including the misery and anomie that is “dating” with all its competitive accompaniments—would result from turning our children loose to find and choose their husbands and wives for themselves. Select at random ten paperbacks from the Young Adult section of your local library to relive, if you would, the incredible Stürm und Drang of this so often unhappy and unproductive time of enforced immaturity we have invented and called “adolescence”—for so many ten (twenty? thirty?) years of varying degrees of torment and indecision.
The idea of concurrent freedom from childhood and adulthood seemed so attractive, and the mythology of romantic love has been so strong, that we were deceived, even Christians were deceived, into thinking that this was a good thing. It’s time to reconsider.
No, that’s not quite right. It’s time to encourage the rethinking of Christian family life from the ground up with the object of retaking what we have lost. We must begin to recover the Normal. •
by Jocelyn Mathewes
I wholeheartedly agree with S. M. Hutchens: “Dating” can be a problematic and even an unsavory way to find a lifelong mate, and dating means, more often than not, looking for a hookup or casual fling and not a marriage partner. In order to create healthy relationships and families, the decision to marry must be guided by reason, community, parental input, and the counsel of levelheaded friends, not by individuals in isolated infatuation.
But dating is how I found my husband in our freshman year of college. I count myself fortunate to have found an admirable man with whom I shared deep beliefs and spiritual understanding, and of whom my parents and friends approve. We have been happily married for three years and are expecting our first child. Dating seems to have worked.
But certainly, the mechanics of dating make falling into great folly and sin easy. Long periods of time spent in isolation can lead to physical temptation and disconnection from the people who care about you dearly, and can also distort your perception of your and your interest’s faults and strengths. Dating helps romance and emotions take the place of deep mutual understanding and seem to justify sinful intimacy.
Yet the folly that can happen while dating is not inevitable. My husband and I are an example of this (albeit an imperfect one), and I can think of many close friends who have successfully avoided the same pitfalls.
I think the problems we see in dating really originate in deeper cultural problems: particularly the distorted culture of romance and the tendency to extend adolescence. These two things—Hutchens mentions them briefly—are dating’s parents. These two mismatched mischief-makers got together a while ago to create a toxic environment for seeking a mate.
The culture of romance created very unhealthy attitudes towards our relationships with one another, sexual and otherwise. Marriage as both an achievable and desirable goal is no longer a universally accepted norm. And lifelong marriage as the primary purpose of seeking out a partner is no longer the accepted norm.
They have been replaced by the search for a soul mate, a very different goal, involving ideals like “sexual compatibility” and “lifestyle choice.” Sex outside of marriage has become a part of the search, and because sex now takes a more casual role in relationships, it has helped turn “hanging out” into “hooking up.”
This extended adolescence encourages ongoing romantic torment and “experimentation” even into one’s thirties. Many (some scarred by divorce, their parents’ or their own) seem to live in terror of making any sort of commitment, for fear of getting it wrong. Some have had no examples in their lives of how such a commitment could go wonderfully right.
These people are tormented because the very act of making a choice, even if they have a wide variety of pleasing choices, limits their precious options. For individuals in a society who have been taught that freedom is desirable above all else, and that freedom specifically means limitless choice, this is anathema.
This ends with tormented individuals seeking a soul mate and a lifelong “romance,” yet hankering for stability. So rather than putting off the decision to seek for a mate until the appropriate time, or diving in full throttle when life permits, they make half-commitments.
They date when they’re not of eligible age or life-status, cohabitate in order to “try out” what marriage is like, or reject parental guidance because the person they like is interesting or different. And they feel that even if these relationships don’t work out, at least they will “learn something” from the experience.
But I vividly remember a number of conversations with my mother during my mid-teenage years. We often sat together at the kitchen table, sipping tea and talking. She would tell me how frustrating her dating experiences were in college: the pressure for sex, the disillusionment with marriage, and the noncommittal guys who were a “waste of time” (so much for “learning something”). She recounted awkward blind dates when she actively avoided or disliked kissing, and told me how wonderful it was to discover that kissing someone she loved—in this case, my father—was so exhilarating.
My mother taught me that you start looking when you’re thinking about getting married. Through my parents’ example, I learned from an early age that sex was completely intertwined within a relationship, sanctified by marriage, in which you shared your thoughts, your feelings, your whole life together. So when we started dating, Stephen and I were looking towards marriage as our possible future. It seems to have worked.
We can do our best to prepare our children to seek out lifelong mates, but they may not find others who share their sentiments. It seems wrong to me, then, to avoid dating in favor of something else, when what needs healing are our broken attitudes (and broken hearts) towards and in relationships, romance, and commitment. •
Three’s No Crowd
by Kevin Offner
I have worked with twenty- and thirty-something singles for twenty years now, both through the ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, as a staff member for graduate students, and by speaking to young adult groups in churches. I’m often asked to speak on dating.
In my dating talk, I emphasize the importance of male initiative, the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to refrain from physical and emotional intimacy before marriage, and facing the reality that not everyone who wants to get married necessarily will get married. But without fail, the point in my talk that gets the strongest positive response (measured by the nodding of heads, the questions raised in the discussion after the talk, and the emails I receive from listeners later) is when I talk about the importance of “third parties” in dating.
I remind them that “arranged” marriages have been the norm throughout world history and even today are practiced in many parts of the two-thirds world. I tell them true stories of some modern-day instances of matchmaking that have led to happy marriages.
And then I conclude by saying that my wife and I will introduce friends to people we think might make good marital matches, but only if they ask. Almost without fail, two or three singles will approach me after my talk and say, somewhat sheepishly and yet with a clear resolve, “Would you please add me to your list?”
It is becoming harder and harder today for Christian single adults to meet potential life partners. And this comes to them as a surprise. Fresh out of college, they land their first job in a big city that is teeming with other singles and has vibrant and large young adult groups in its churches. Surely, they think, after a year or two, they will meet someone special, begin dating, and get married. With so many marriageable single peers all around, marriage will, well, “just happen.”
And yet, over and over again, hopeful twenty-somethings become disillusioned thirty-somethings, for marriage in fact has not “just happened.” It’s no wonder that computer dating is now at an all-time high (friends who told me they never imagined they would “stoop” to this are now actively seeking partners over the internet).
Busy & Compartmentalized
I think there are a number of reasons for this. First, they are busy with their work and careers, and while they set goals and take the necessary initiatives to further their careers, they feel it is somehow inappropriate or demeaning, or at the very least unromantic, to set similar goals and take similar care and initiative for finding a mate. Finding the right life’s work demands ingenuity, networking, and perseverance; finding the right life-partner in marriage . . . “just happens.”
Second, our lives are more compartmentalized now than ever before. It’s not at all unusual for today’s urban single adult to find himself simultaneously involved in at least five very different and often non-overlapping communities: his work community, church community, neighborhood community, new-friends community, and old-friends-that-I-want-to-stay-in-touch-with community.
So even when you do meet someone with whom you might develop “a relationship,” your worlds just don’t overlap all that much. It becomes artificial and strained to get to know that person in any in-depth and meaningful way, so why even try? And even if you are lucky enough to find a decent person who, like you, is willing to make the necessary sacrifice to spend lots of time with you—can you really know someone’s character well enough after one year to take the plunge and spend the rest of your life with him or her?
Third, even the most godly among us has been shaped much more indelibly by Hollywood than we would like to admit in the qualities we look for in a marriage partner. Sadly, many of today’s Christian singles are looking more for good looks, sexiness, excitement, and that certain indescribable “chemistry,” than they are for godliness, fortitude, integrity, and faithfulness. How one’s potential spouse has built deep friendships with other people is more important than how he or she makes you feel when you’re alone together.
Finally, with everything so casual and informal these days, it’s becoming harder and harder to know the difference between “hanging out” and “moving towards marriage.” There is indeed something healthy about getting to know someone over time, in casual group settings without the pressure of needing to decide if this is “the one,” but when this casual mentality shapes all relationships equally, singles miss the seriousness of entering into the lifelong, God-ordained, covenantal—and, some would add, sacramental—institution of marriage. The rules of dating have been all but swallowed up by today’s god of “freedom.”
Our Business, Too
So what is the answer? How can the Church be of some countercultural help to her young single adults as they seek to move towards marriage?
There is no silver bullet that will revolutionize today’s dating culture, but one practical change can and should be made, and it is this: Third parties need to begin taking some responsibility to help single Christian adults meet each other. We need to stop hiding behind, “It’s none of my business,” and, as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ’s larger family, start making it our business.
While I applaud S. M. Hutchens for targeting parents here, getting parents involved in arranging marriages for their twenty-something or thirty-something single progeny usually just isn’t that realistic. These single adults often live hundreds of miles from their parents, and their parents often aren’t Christians.
So what can third parties do? Let me address married couples. We marrieds need to take the time and effort to get to know the singles in our churches. We must spend time with each other: meals, outings, sports events, concerts, and so on. We need to enter one another’s worlds in more than superficial ways. And as we get to know them, we must pray for them—praying specifically for God’s will for their marital status.
Couples could be encouraged to have dinner parties where five people are invited: either five singles, or one married couple and three singles. These five are not chosen haphazardly but only after much prayer and hard thinking. The evening should mix light and serious activities and conversation.
The goal is to create a relaxed and natural environment for people to get to know each other without the pressure of being coupled up. My wife and I have done this, and some couples who have begun dating said, when asked to tell how they met, “We met at the Offners’ dinner party.”
Husbands could work together to invite a number of single men together for a Saturday breakfast. One main component of the time together is to talk directly and openly about their dreams and fears regarding marriage.
I have done this and been amazed at how open men often will be (when women are not present) about their insecurities about relating to women. And as we promised to encourage and support one another, it was a joy to watch these men grow in taking initiative towards women in dating. Men often need a nudge, or even a kick in the pants, to be reminded of their responsibility as men here.
Finally, we married couples need to think through the list of singles we have known a long time—maybe in another city where we once lived. We need to remind ourselves of the singles we have known who are men and women of character and consistency. And then we need to find a way to introduce them to the singles in our lives now.
Since adult singles who meet others for the first time don’t know their character (and there really is no substitute for getting to know someone over time), our ability as their friends to match them with those we’ve long known can provide a safe foundation for their getting to know each other.
Help Toward Marriage
Imagine the difference it could make in the Christian subculture across the country if each individual church became known as a place where its single adults were given intentional and practical help in meeting and developing friendships with the opposite sex.
If the leaders in our churches stopped saying that their singles’ dating lives were “none of their business” and began to take personal responsibility to help singles move towards marriage, they would lay a good foundation for some solid marriages. The local church is indeed the extended spiritual family of God, with lots of “fathers” and “mothers” who can care about and support single adults. •
Father Knows Maybe Not
by James Hitchcock
Parents should attempt to influence their children’s decision to marry, most fundamentally by forming their children’s characters over many years, subsequently by offering advice and, if necessary, strong opinions about prospective mates (although such opinions may often prove to be counterproductive). But for parents to attempt actually to choose their children’s spouses is ultimately not defensible in Christian terms.
Although arranged marriages might be thought of as dating to a time when superior parental wisdom, accumulated through age and grace, was honored, the historical reality was often quite different, even to the point of being sordid. The impetus for arranged marriages was usually political or economic, a system in which marriage was treated almost entirely in worldly and materialistic ways.
This is notorious in the case of royal families, but it existed on every level. (Among peasants, for example, there might be negotiations over how many pigs each spouse would bring as an endowment, something that men as well as women were expected to do.) There is no good reason for thinking that, except in such materialistic terms, parents made better choices for their children than the children might have made for themselves.
The moral question here is part of the broader question of the legitimacy of personal liberty. It is tempting to say that, like democracy, the freedom to choose one’s own spouse is the worst system except for all the others. If a person is truly incapable of making a competent choice of a spouse, it follows that he should not marry at all, not that his parents should make the choice for him.
Obviously, people often make catastrophically bad choices, and sometimes parents can see those coming, but parents sometimes make equally bad judgments, not only about their children’s marriages but about their own as well.
Civil freedom, including the choice of a spouse, comes to us ultimately from God, not because men are infallible but because he has established man’s relationship to himself in terms of moral freedom, which necessarily includes the possibility of sin. Arranged marriages, like imposed state religions, are attempts to forestall sin by diminishing freedom, thereby short-circuiting the economy of salvation itself. •
For more on the historic reality of marriage, see James Hitchcock’s “The Emergence of the Modern Family” in Christian Marriage: A Historical Study, edited by Glenn W. Olsen.
James Hitchcock is Professor emeritus of History at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He and his late wife Helen have four daughters. His most recent book is the two-volume work, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton University Press, 2004). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.
Jocelyn Mathewes is a graphic designer for the National Fatherhood Initiative (www.fatherhood.org), and is working on her documentary photography series, Women with Icons, recently shown at the Amalie Rothschild Gallery in Baltimore. She is married and attends Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland.
Kevin Offner is on the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He has written for Re:Generation Quarterly, Critique, Student Leadership Journal, and First Things. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Amy. They are members of the Presbyterian Church in America. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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