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Why C.S. Lewis is Wrong on Marriage

October 9th, 2012 | 14 min read

By Jake Meador

You won’t find a more apt example of an excerpt that is contradictory to an author’s broader writings than this bit from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:

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 quite the different question-how 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 recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian 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.

This argument provoked a strong response from Lewis' friend and fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien drafted a response to Lewis sometime in 1943 but never sent it. After Tolkien died, the letter was found folded up inside his copy of Lewis’ “Christian Behavior.” (Which, of course, would be republished as part of Mere Christianity.) The bold parts are my emphasis.

My dear L.,

I have been reading your booklet 'Christian Behavior." I have never felt happy about your view of Christian "policy" with regard to divorce. …

[Y]ou observe that you are really committed (with the Christian Church as a whole) to the view that Christian marriage - monogamous, permanent, rigidly "faithful" - is in fact the truth about sexual behavior for all humanity: this is the only road of total health (including sex in its proper place) for all men and women. That it is dissonant with men's present sex-psychology does not disprove this, as you see: "I think it is the instinct that has gone wrong," you say. Indeed if this were not so, it would be an intolerable injustice to impose permanent monogamy even on Christians. If Christian marriage were in the last analysis "unnatural" (of the same type as say the prohibition of flesh-meat in certain monastic rules) it could only be imposed on a special "chastity-order" of the Church, not on the universal Church. No item of compulsory Christian morals is valid only for Christians.... I do not think you can possibly support your "policy," by this argument, for by it you are giving away the very foundation of Christian marriage. The foundation is that this is the correct way of "running the human machine." Your argument reduces it merely to a way of (perhaps?) getting an extra mileage out of a few selected machines.*

The horror of the Christians with whom you disagree (the great majority of all practicing Christians) at legal divorce is in the ultimate analysis precisely that: horror at seeing good machines ruined by misuse. I could that, if you ever get a chance of alterations, you would make the point clear. Toleration of divorce - if a Christian does tolerate it - is toleration of a human abuse, which it requires special local and temporary circumstances to justify (as does the toleration of usury) - if indeed either divorce or genuine usury should be tolerated at all, as a matter of expedient policy.

Under your limitations of space you have not, of course, had opportunity to elaborate your "policy" - toleration of abuse.... A Christian of your view is, as we have seen, committed to the belief that all people who practice "divorce" - certainly divorce as it is now legalized - are misusing the human machine (whatever philosophical defense they may put up), as certainly as men who get drunk (doubtless with a philosophic defense also). They are injuring themselves, other people, and society, by their behavior. And wrong behavior (if it is really wrong on universal principles) is progressive, always: it never stops at being "not very good," "second best" - it either reforms, or goes on to third-rate, bad, abominable.

The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were "married" twice. They married one another before the Church's witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State's witness... using another set of formulas and making no vow of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding - and also ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens. In other words this "sharp division" is a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian minister.

Tolkien understood the stakes. The debate strikes at the heart of what it means to confess that the Christian faith is "true." As Tolkien wrote, no article of Christian morality is intended exclusively for Christians. Rather, the faith teaches us that submitting to the laws of our creator is the surest way to live reconciled lives with his creation. This is what we ought to mean when we say Christianity is true. We don't simply mean that it provides factually accurate information about the world or that it offers an authentic path to spiritual fulfillment for those who choose to follow it. We mean that Christianity gives an accurate accounting of the world in its fullness and that it instructs us in how we ought to relate to the world.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).