Students often come to “Theology of Marriage,” one of the most popular courses at Santa Clara, full of anticipation and eager to learn the “how to”s of marriage, particularly since many are seniors and plan to marry in the near future. They want to know how to maintain good communication. How to stay “in love” with their partner. How to juggle a professional career with the needs of a spouse. How to have a good marriage that doesn’t end in divorce. How to rear children who are psychologically adjusted and perform well in school. These may seem like good questions to ask, but I see them as fueled by popular media and our culture’s obsession with therapy, which can be seen in the rise of the self-help industry and television programs like “Dr. Phil.” True, some students are justifiably anxious about marriage from having experienced their parents’ or a family member’s divorce, but I believe that these questions and concerns miss the mark.
Theology of Marriage does not offer a therapeutic solution to the problems of marriage and relationships. In fact, I show students that therapy, although helpful, can mask the real problems in a relationship. The “work” of marriage is not primarily about communication, family, fidelity, gender roles, or trust, although these are important. And it is certainly not about getting one’s needs met by a partner, which is what Tristan seeks in the twelfth century epic, Tristan et Iseult, a text studied in the course. As he pursues Iseult the Fair, Tristan laments: “Will I never find someone to heal me of my unhappiness?” The answer, despite every romantic comedy written or produced since then, is no. In Theology of Marriage, students discover that the work of marriage has less to do with the marriage and more to do with the self. It begins long before shopping for the ring. After all, the answer to Tristan’s question is that only he can heal himself of his unhappiness.
In rejecting both the therapeutic and romantic solutions to the problems of relationships, what does Theology of Marriage offer? To begin with, theology offers something that therapy and romance cannot: a reference point outside of the self that does not depend on how much we are moved emotionally or how hard we work at the marriage. This point is a transcendent God who is present in the daily decision to love another person in the midst of meals, meetings, and crises. Thomas Aquinas believed that the only way for two people to survive a marriage is through God’s grace and that this grace makes the marriage sacramental. Given the current emphasis on personal fulfillment and meaning in marriage, this has become a practical as well as a theological truth for many couples. Secondly, a theological approach to marriage is necessarily paradoxical, since it views the encounter with a transcendent God as occurring in the depths of the soul. This means that one must have a sense of self to find God. It also means that the greatest obstacle to finding God is the self, which is the same obstacle to finding another person. Acquiring communication skills or searching far and wide for a soul mate detracts from the real work of the self. Therefore, the theological solution emphasizes authenticity, so that the self can be offered freely to the other person as gift.
In the course, I try not to answer questions about soul mates, the “one,” or whether love is simply a matter of pheromones and synapses. Instead, I challenge students to develop new questions based not on popular culture but on a religious worldview in which death and rebirth are at the core of human experience. In this way, they see that the work of marriage is the work of transforming the self, since to love another person in a mature way, you must first love yourself. How you do that is the real question. The work of marriage is the work of transforming the self, since to love another person in a mature way, you must first love yourself.