Christianity Today’s piece on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on marriage is making the rounds, especially in the wake on SCOTUS’s boffo performance on same-sex civil marriage. CT’s take is that Lewis was wrong and Tolkien was right, but unfortunately things aren’t that simple.
CT’s analysis (coming as it does from an Evangelical publication) reminds me of my freshman and sophomore English teacher’s endless attempts to extract meaning from passages with absolutely no regard for the context of the author, time, etc. Given that Evangelicals are by and large unfamiliar with the intricacies of Anglicanism and especially Roman Catholicism, such a vacuüm is understandable but ultimately unhelpful.
Let’s start with Tolkien, the Roman Catholic. His description of the “dual marriage” system is as follows:
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.
The description–and his immediate take from it–is spot on. It’s a system in place in most parts of the world today. From this, however, he had already attacked Lewis’ idea of allowing things in civil marriage that Christian marriage does not. There is only one marriage, Tolkien argues, and the rules should not be changed for everyone else.
That conclusion, however, ignores two important facts.
The first is that the “dual marriage” necessity came out of the French Revolution. Until that time France and most Catholic countries had only church marriage. My ancestors in French and Spanish Louisiana, before either the introduction of American rule or the Napoleonic Code, signed contracts before receiving the sacrament of marriage. The First Republic and its immediate successors took that away from the Catholic Church, to put it bluntly, because they wanted the state to be god and not the Triune Deity represented by the Church. The situation in places like France and others which adopted this system is one which the church has been forced to accept by the brute power of the state, an unpleasant state of affairs but one which is ultimately not of the Church’s making.
The second is that marriage, in the Roman Catholic Church, is a sacrament. Everyone these days wants to emphasise the communitarian and social aspects of marriage, but in such a system marriage is between a man, a woman, and God, with the priest presiding because of the Church’s view of itself and its role in the dispensing of grace. Although I don’t agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s view of its own role, I think that Anglicanism didn’t do itself any favours by jettisoning marriage as a sacrament.
That, of course, brings us to the Anglican Lewis. Lewis’ idea of allowing unscriptural divorce in civil society is expedient but doesn’t make sense in a country which is (or was) supposedly a Christian country, complete with state church with a very definite position on the subject. Either the state needed to line its laws up with those of the church or the country needed to stop the pretence of being a Christian country. That fork in the road is very much in front of the UK today in the same-sex civil marriage debate.
Tolkien was right that there is only one marriage. But ultimately we must recognise that marriage for those who profess and call themselves Christians is different because they are different. That impacts many aspects of life together. Tolkien and Lewis fell out over the divorce issue. Easy and frequent divorce has done more to undermine the general acceptance of the Christian concept of marriage in general society than just about anything else. It has paved the way for same-sex civil marriage and the dilemma we are in today.
Beyond that, we must recognise that civil marriage, far from being “the deal” for tying the knot, is a form of “rendering unto Caesar” when Caesar in reality doesn’t deserve it. When Tolkien attended a “dual” marriage, he lamented that one ceremony presupposed that the other was a lie. But such is the way that things coming from the father of lies really are. There was a real marriage in the process, but it wasn’t the state’s.