Christian Marriage According to C.S. Lewis

lewis_mere.jpgMuch of what I have read so far in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity has been very interesting. Some of it has been very persuasive. All of it has been at least sensible, until I got to the chapter on "Christian Marriage." I have no problem with his discussion of the sanctity of marriage, the important of the promises involved, the proper basis of true love, and the evil of divorce. While I do not agree with all of it, Lewis makes clear the what and why of Christian doctrine on those matters.

Lewis loses me completely, however, when he turns to the "unpopular" notion that "in Christian marriage the man is said to be the 'head.'" There may be good, solid justifications for this notion, but I have yet to hear them and Lewis does nothing to rectify that. In defending this position, Lewis' argument begins with this framework:

Two questions obviously arise here. (1) Why should there be a head at all--why not equality? (2) Why should it be the man?

In answer to the first question, Lewis asserts that:

The need for some head follows from the idea that marriage is permanent. Of course, as long as the husband and wife are agreed, no question of a head need arise; and we may hope this will be the normal state of affairs in a Christian marriage. But when there is a real disagreement, what is to happen? Talk it over, of course; but I am assuming they have done that and still failed to reach agreement. What do they do next? Surely only one or other of two things can happen: either they must separate and go their own ways or else one or other of them must have a casting vote. If marriage is permanent, one or other party must, in the last resort, have the power of deciding the family policy.

I do not think that is right. I think it is rather easy to assert a third option: that the married partners continue to work towards a compromise as long as it takes. Whether it be a compromise on the particular issue, or a compromise whereby one partner accedes on one issue in exchange for agreement on some other topic, compromise should be the watchword, not authority.

Furthermore, Lewis' position is not just wrong, it is dangerous. So long as a husband knows he has a "casting vote," what motivation does he have to "talk it over," in Lewis' words? Why not simply cast the deciding vote at the first scent of disagreement? I am sure that would be un-Christian, in the literal sense. But why is the woman's role in marriage to be dependent on a husband restraining himself? Why shouldn't marriage instead be dependent on both partners learning to restrain themselves, to compromise and preserve the union?

It gets even worse when Lewis turns to the second question: "If there must be a head, why the man?" The question is problematic in itself. It presumes that assignation of authority must be made solely on the basis of gender, an assertion not stated, much less proved. And as discussed below, there is good reason to doubt that either gender can stake a universal claim to any (alleged) necessary authority.

Even granting that marital authority must exist, and that it must be assigned based on gender, Lewis' explanation of why men must be the chosen gender drops immediately into anecdote, and never resurfaces in the realm of logical argument:

Well, firstly is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?

What does that matter? The question posed was not "Why is it the man, instead of the woman as I wish it would be?" The question was simply "Why is it the man?" If it has to be one or the other, what are the affirmative reasons for it to be the man? And after posing this non sequitur, Lewis does not even provide a sensible answer:

As I have said, I am not married myself, but as far as I can see, even a woman who wants to be the head of her own house does not usually admire the same state of things when she finds it going on next door. She is much more likely to say 'Poor Mr X! Why he allows that appalling woman to boss him about the way she does is more than I can imagine.' There must be something unnatural about the rule of wives over husbands, because the wives themselves are half ashamed of it and despise the husbands whom they rule.

There are so many things wrong with this, it is hard to know where to start. First of all, this anecdotal evidence is drawn from a society in which male domination of marriage is already culturally accepted. While purely anecdotal evidence is always suspect, it is just worthless circularity to point to discomfort with female dominated marriages in a society that for centuries accepted Christian doctrines of male superiority.

Second, the anecdote of "Poor Mr. X" presumes that Mrs. X is not just the head of the household, but is a domineering dictator. But if the same presumption were applied to how husbands behave in the role of head of household, we would surely be feeling sorry for "Poor Mrs. X" whose husband treats her like a slave. Lewis (and his version of Christianity) gives husbands the presumption of gentle rule, while his anecdote automatically presumes a wife in charge will abuse her power. There is no basis for this assertion (unless it is already presumed that men should be in charge, which would be further circularity).

Third, is it really possible to look at every marriage, every husband, and every wife, and make these sorts of gender-based presumptions? I am willing to concede, for the moment, innate gender differences (as opposed to those culturally developed). But I am not ready to concede that whatever these differences might be, they guarantee that the man is better suited to exercise authority. If anecdotes are to carry the day, I am sure we can all think of men who are not suited to exercise authority over anything, let alone their wives.

Lewis does not rest solely on the "shame" anecdote to support the superiority of men in marriage, though he might as well:

The relations of the family to the outer world--what might be called its foreign policy--must depend, in the last resort, upon the man, because he always ought to be, and usually is, much more just to the outsiders. A woman is primarily fighting for her own children and husband against the rest of the world. Naturally, almost, in a sense, rightly, their claims override, for her, all other claims. She is the special trustee of their interests. The function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife.

Again, so much wrong in such a few sentences! Lewis offers no evidence (aside from another anecdote, considered below) that wives and mothers are "naturally" more territorial and protective; he merely states these premises as if they were facts. Further, Lewis seems to be sugar-coating his claim for male superiority by praising women for "family patriotism." While offering this supposed compliment, he is really using it to justify giving husbands a veto over all marital decisions.

While this might be the more underhanded part of his argument, it is not the most problematic. The most problematic is indicated in his own analogy to "foreign policy." Even if we concede that a wife or mother's "family patriotism" hampers her in "relatons of the family to the outer world," why is this a justification for giving the husband authority over all family decisions? If men are better suited to handle foreign policy, why not simply give them authority in that realm? To continue Lewis' own analogy (which I actually think a bit silly), why not make the husband the unitary executive authority in foreign relations, while giving the wife legislative authority over domestic matters, thus requiring agreement on domestic issues while preserving the husband's prerogative in the outer world?

If this seems a bit silly, is it not equally (if not more) silly to argue that simply because the husband is best suited to handle foreign policy, he must be given unitary authority over all issues that arise, even those that bear no relations on foreign policy? Speaking of silly, Lewis does throw out (and 'throw out' is the right phrase for this garbage) this analogy in support of his position:

If your dog has bitten the child next door, or if your child has hurt the dog next door, which would you sooner have to deal with, the master of that house or the mistress? Or, if you are a married woman, let me ask you this question. Much as you admire your husband, would you not say that his chief failing is his tendency not to stick up for his rights and yours against the neighbours as vigorously as you would like? A bit of an Appeaser?

Well I am not a married woman, so I'll have to see if my wife thinks that is my chief failing. And I am not sure if Lewis' use of the word "Appeaser" in capital letters is a reference to Neville Chamberlain and Munich, which would certainly seem to undermine the argument that male dominance of foreign policy is a positive attribute.

But just sticking to the dog analogy, what in the world is Lewis talking about? Maybe I do, in fact, want to speak with the father. But maybe I do not want to get punched or shot, so maybe I want to talk to the wife. Or maybe I want to consider what I know about my neighbors as individuals rather than just as stereotyped gender roles. That would probably tell me more about which of them I want to visit, and maybe even about which of them would be better suited to have authority in their marriage, if such authority were even appropriate in the first place.

Bottom line, this is just two pages out of more than two hundred, only half of which I have read. I like the book, it is teaching me a great deal about Christianity (or Lewis' version of it), and I continue to recommend it to others. Maybe Lewis was having an off-day, maybe this particular part of Christian doctrine simply can not be distilled to two pages. But if anything in a Christian apology needs to be given special attention, it is doctrine which is already unpopular or misunderstood . Many Christian friends of mine hold up this book as an excellent primer on Christianity, and thus Lewis must be held accountable for this weak defense of a weak doctrinal position.