Blog Template Theology of the Body: A follow up on the case for espousal

Friday, March 28, 2008

A follow up on the case for espousal

So I read the article MM linked to in the previous post to see what I thought about it and thought I'd respond from a male perspective. Now as a male, I was under different pressures than the women the article describes, but I did wait to get married until I was 38, so I can understand a bit about the concerns of settling. The superficial problem is that there seems to be some confusion about whether less-than-perfect means settling. There aren't any perfect partners out there, but marrying someone who is less than perfect is by no means an act of settling -- it is, rather, a recognition of all of our human imperfections and a willingness to love someone not in spite of their drawbacks, but because of them. From a Christian perspective, perfection belongs to no one on this earth and to expect it from another person is to misplace our affection from the One who is perfect and without flaw.

There is, however, a deeper issue, which is their impoverished understanding of love. Duns Scotus makes a distinction between "the love which is an act of the will...[versus] that which is a feeling in the sense appetite." All too often we only think of love as some kind of feeling that resides in us (thus the article's frequent reference to women 'just not feeling it'), but this is a fleeting understanding of love both historically and in actuality. That is, for most of the last two thousand years, love was considered a virtue -- a habitual disposition toward God and others, rather than a feeling. And in actuality, that initial feeling of passion and chemistry often only lasts for short period of time, to be replaced by something deeper and more sustainable. We've become a culture that has fallen in love with falling in love, but the reality is that kind of fiery passion is just not sustainable.

It seems to me that we need to rediscover the idea of love as a virtue, rather than a feeling. As a virtue, love is habit that inclines us to act in loving ways. The more we act lovingly, the more we build up the habit. The big difference, however, is that love as a virtue is really other-centered, while love as a feeling is self-centered. Loving acts, which build the virtue of love in us, must have objects outside of the self, so that our love is given to something other than ourselves. Love as a feeling focuses on how someone else impacts us -- what they can do for us -- and so it is no surprise that Gottlieb's article makes the case for settling based on what the male can do for the single woman. It's never about the other person when love is relegated to a feeling -- it's about one's own needs. And frankly, who the heck would ever want to be known as the guy who someone condescendingly 'settled' to marry. It seems to me that someone who looks at a man that way deserves all the singleness she gets.

Love as a habit, as a virtue, is an act of the will, and is thus a choice that we make and make again and make again until it becomes so ingrained that we don't even think about it any more. We choose what, and whom, we love (and, as I said, we mostly chose to love falling in love). And once we make that first choice, we continue to act in love towards the object of our love. Gottlieb and her friends don't seem to realize that they have a choice about loving the men they date, and since they don't choose to love them, they feel like they must settle. They lack the virtue of love.

I've often thought that one of the most difficult things to do in life is see people for who they really are and love them, instead of seeing them for who we want them to be and love them for what they do for us. I have found, however, that a simple prayer can help this, which is a prayer for God to help us see others as God sees them, rather than as we see them. Attempting to see others through God's eyes, rather than our own, profoundly alters our perspective and may enable us to love them in ways that we might not be able to do on our own.

My hope for Gottlieb is that her experience of parenting leads her to discover the virtue of love.