The Personalist Project

A few weeks ago, before the Christmas break, Katie put up a post about the personalist emphases in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's famous wedding sermon. Now that the break is over and some peace has returned to our home, I would like to draw attention to another great thought in that sermon, which has to do with the liberating and strengthening objectivity of marriage.

Nowadays marriage is frequently thought of simply as a mutual promise between two persons, a promise made in public (often before God) and confirmed in law. As such it is the outgrowth and natural fulfillment of a deep I-Thou relation between a man and a woman. It is the deliberate ratification, one might say, of that relation. And it is from that relation that the marriage draws its life.

But Bonhoeffer points out that marriage is really much more than that. It is not something the couple creates, but something they enter: an objective, pre-existing institution, with its own nature, purpose and laws. Here is how Bonhoeffer puts it:

Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal — it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. As you gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

I like the last lines especially. They show that marriage is not just an outcome of conjugal love. If it were, how could it sustain that love? To truly sustain the couple, marriage must have a reality and strength of its own, a reality and strength that it brings to the couple and which they can add to their own resources.

But the converse is also true. Marriage exists not for the couple only. It has a purpose of its own which the couple must serve. Again Bonhoeffer:

Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher power, for it is God's holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race until the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and all mankind.

These passages express an important and timely truth: Marriage can be a real help and support to a married couple only to the extent that they see it as an objective institution with a purpose of its own. The couple can be nourished and supported by it only as long as they, in their turn, are willing to serve it. The present-day attempt to empty marriage of its objective meaning and strictures, and turn it into nothing more than an expression of the love between two persons, undermines its great value for those same persons. It thereby loses the power to aid and sustain them when the going gets tough.

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