At Christmas, Christian thinkers generally do a good job of encouraging us to see past the veneer of commercialism and hedonism to reflect deeply on the theological meaning of the holiday. Similarly, on Valentine’s Day, we would do well to look past the shallow sentimentalism and bad quality candy, to spend some time reflecting deeply on the theological significance of this holiday.
Properly understood, Valentine’s Day is the ultimate counter-cultural expression. As a 3rd century priest in the Roman empire, St. Valentine performed church weddings against an edict of Emperor Claudias, who had forbidden marriages on the assumption that unmarried soldiers made better fights. St. Valentine was ultimately martyred for disrupting the culture’s idolatry with the gospel.
Although our society no longer denies people the right to marry, the celebration of St. Valentine’s legacy remains counter-cultural and disruptive. This can be seen in the antipathy against the celebration by much of the feminist establishment, which I have written about in my Salvo article ‘The Massacre of Valentine’s Day: Feminism’s V-Day Eliminates Men, Marriage & Romance—and Kills Sex‘. Even the simple celebration of romantic love between men and women, detached from the sacramental context of marriage as understood by St. Valentine, retains enough vestiges of God’s order to rile up the Androgyny Machine every February 14th. In more mainline culture, where heterosexual love is venerated and over-sexualized, the puritanical shadow of Emperor Claudias finds its tentacles in the unromantic–and ultimately de-sexualizing–tendencies towards which marriage outside Christianity ultimately drifts.
The persistence of Valentine’s Day in the face of these trends speaks to our abiding needs and desires as human beings. Today most people are lonely, and more young people than at any other time in history are looking for a soul-mate with whom they can share their innermost thoughts and feelings. Yet many people misunderstand what they are looking for, and so their God-given longings for stable attachment misfire onto false substitutes, such as mere sexual connection that leaves the basic loneliness unaddressed.
The widespread loneliness in out society is not surprising when you consider the nature of modern life. The type of modern communities in which we subsist are very unnatural by historical standards. During the vast majority of history, human beings generally lived in villages or tribes of 150 members or less. That is significant because 150 is the number of people you can have relationships with while managing those relationships organically. Once you exceed this number, it becomes very hard for a group to self-regulate their bonds, and so either the community breaks down into cliques, or artificial measures need to be introduced to manage the relationships, such as bureaucracy. But the problem with modern communities is not only that they usually exceed 150, but that most of us have to navigate multiple overlapping but disconnected communities (perhaps one community for work, another for church, another for our neighborhood, another for our children’s school and maybe another for our online relationships) consisting of people who know us but do not know each other. These modern communities are ultimately transient because there is nothing intrinsic to them that makes them permanent. This transience makes a huge difference in how we approach our relationships, and how far we will go to put up with others. The very permanence of a community in a traditional village requires you to put up with each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies. Maybe one person is the town’s gossip, and another is the town’s drunk, and someone else is the village lunatic–and yet however much these people may irritate you, they are not going anywhere and neither are you, so you had better find a way to get along. Thus, by its very nature, the permanence of the traditional village community is supportive to our primordial need for attachment, especially when you are living near your birth families and growing up with the people you played with in childhood (which, for most of human history, would actually have been the norm).
What does any of this have to do with love and marriage? Simply this: as we have lost the stability provided by these types of supportive communities, we increasingly look to our romantic relationships to provide us with these important attachment bonds. In the disintegrating world of modernity, it is often only in our romantic partner that we have any hope of finding fulfillment for our primordial need for connection, for permanence, for safety, for being put up with in all our quirks and idiosyncrasies, for knowing and being known. As Sue Johnson and Kenneth Sanderfer explain it in Created for Connection, “Inevitably, we now ask our lovers for the emotional connection and sense of belonging that my grandmother could get from a whole village.”
This fact alone provides Christian marriage with an incredible opportunity as well as an incredible challenge. The incredible opportunity for the Church is that we are in a position to proclaim our true God-given needs to a world in which the primordial desire for connection so easily misfires onto false substitutes like sentimentalized romanticism or mere sexual lust. A full-orbed Biblical anthropology enables us to trace the contours of our need for connection in just the way I am doing here, and which I have expanded upon in my earlier posts ‘Community and Attachment Bonds‘ and ‘The Power of Complaining‘ and ‘Emotional Intelligence and Attachment Bonds.’ As should be clear from these earlier articles, this anthropology is not merely descriptive, but ends up also being prescriptive insofar as it offers insight into the type of choices partners can make to foster secure bonds and address their attachment needs.
The corresponding challenge for the church is that our primordial need for connection leads us to expect more from marriage than ever before, perhaps more than we were ever meant to expect from it. When our need for connection is not met, this is frightening because we have no other permanent community to fall back upon (see above comments about the “artificial” nature of contemporary communities). How the Church responds to these dynamics both therapeutically and theologically, how the church nurtures and supports its marriages, and how the church proclaims a vision of marital love that takes seriously our primordial need for attachment bonds while still pointing to the transitory nature of such needs as echoes of our more basic desire for God (see I have begun doing here and here and here), and how the church theologizes about our attachment needs within the context of a broader biblical anthropology, will become increasingly imperative amid the disintegrating forces of modernity. But this requires the type of counter-cultural vision that was embodied in the ministry of St. Valentine.