So, Part II. Is it feasibly to see the _ideal_ of lifelong marriage (even if there are exceptions in hard cases- felony, cruelty, and so forth) as something we should no longer live by? In my view, it's not so easily, and for several reasons.
1) This prohibition, unike the prohibitions against premarital sex, homosexuality, or contraception, comes from Christ himself. Christ was silent on those other three issues, even when he was confronted with the Samaritan woman at the well, who was livining in a nonmarital relationship. He was not, as we have seen, silent on divorce.
2) Homosexual, contraceptive or premarital relationships are an alternative to Christian procreative marriage, and often a preparation for it- they aren't a change to the basic ideal of what marriage is. Most people that use birth control do eventually plan to have children, and most people who have premarital sex do eventually get married, and gay people would usually not be happy in a straight marriage anyway. To change the traditional demand that marriage is lifelong would, however, be to change what marriage is, and to redefine it.
3) It's simply not easy to say that this prohibition was simply a product of its time. We can argue that Paul and Jude condemned homosexuals because they didn't know that it could be a natural orientation, or that St. Paul condemend premarital sex because in that society true friendship between men and women were rare and all relationships tended either towards marriage or prostitution, or that the Fathers condemned birth control because the kinds they knew about were abortifacient. And I think all those arguments are convincing. But with divorce, it's rather less convincing. Because Christ's teaching was hard for people then to accept, the same way it is for people today. Was there ever a time when people didn't want to get divorced from unhappy marriages? As Chesterton says, "But Christ in his view of marriage does not in the least suggest the conditions of Palestine in the first century. He does not suggest anything at all except the sacramental view of marriage as developed long afterwards by the Catholic Church. It was quite as difficult for people then as for people now. It was much more puzzling to people then than to people now......We may think it an incredible or impossible ideal; but we cannot think it any more incredible or impossible than they would have thought it. In other words, whatever else is true it is not true that the controversy has been altered by time" (The Everlasting Man).
4) Throughout the New Testament, love between a man and a woman, and marriage in particular, are used as a carnal figure of the spiritual tie between Christ and the Church. St. Paul tells husbands to "love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Ephesians 5:25). This imagery is repeated in the Old Testament, "Thou art beautiful, O my love....comely as Jerusalem..." (Canticles 6:4) and also in the New: "Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9) and again, "And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem....prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Revelation 21:2). Other forms of love can and do serve as a reflection of God's love for us, and of the persons of the Trinity for each other, but marriage does so in a special way. Other relationships (of affection, parental love, friendship, or nonmarital romance) do so in a way that's partial, or sometimes temporary. Friendship does fade, and so does romance, although no one's happy when that happens, and in an ideal world they wouldn't fade.
But marriage is a specially important reflection of the love between Christ and his people, not least because it is supposed to be procreative- in marriage we can bring forth children, and thus in our small way we can participate in God's creative process, and in this way "be like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:14) though of course in a very small and reflected way. Because of the procreative nature of marriage, it images the love of God for his people in a special way: it is fruitful in a way that friendship, parental love, affection, and even other forms of sexual and romantic love are not. And inasmuch as Christ never forsakes us, even when we falls away from the right path, so should a husband and wife never forsake each other. This is true for all relationships to a degree, but especially for marriage. If marriage is a special and particularly close reflection of God's love for us, then it should ideally be eternal just as God's new covenant is eternal: "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel..." (Revelation 14:6).
These are all explicitly Christian arguments, meant to apply to fellow Christians. But Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, argues that the indissolubility of marriage is a requirement not just of Christian law, but of natural law- that the idea of pair-bonding for life in some deep sense, the fulfilment of tendencies, longings, and needs deep within human nature, and that as such it should be binding on all men. Of course, these natural-law arguments don't work in every case- there are many marriages which are cruel, harsh, unbearable, or simply characterized by the absence of love, and on a natural-law view (as opposed to a strictly Christian one) it would seem that they should be dissolved. But we should remember, too, that it would be a bad idea to give up on the _ideal_, and for people to get divorced and married to someone else without at least trying to make the marriage work. Because the verdict is in from the last few decades of easy divorce, in America and in other societies, and it's a very mixed verdict. Certainly we've gained a lot, and certainly husbands are less free then they once were to behave irresponsibly. But equally so, too many people have given up on their marriages without trying to put in an effort to make it work. Many marriages in which one partner really wanted to keep the marriage together have broken up, leaving them heartbroken. And many children have suffered greatly after losing their father or their mother to divorce. Divorce may often be the best thing for the adults involved, but it's usually not the best thing for the children.
As I said, this is an extremely tough and exacting ideal to live up to, and I believe there should be exceptions. I don't believe that Jesus meant such a rule to apply in cases of actual cruelty or mistreatment: and note, Jesus was addressing men, and if he had been addressing women I suspect he would have made exceptions for abuse. And most of all, it's important to remember that Jesus was more about love than about legalism, more about the spirit of the law than the letter. "For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life".
The Eastern churches have an interesting take on divorce and remarriage- they've allowed divorce, in certain cases, since at least the fourth century. They start from the principle that _death_ dissolves a marriage. And then they further go on to say that some kinds of spiritual wrongdoing constitute spiritual death on the part of the person who does it- things like felony, abuse, abandonment, cruelty. Marriage to such a person is like marriage to a living corpse- and even maybe if they repent one day, the marriage is already dissolved- because how can one be married to a dead person? Indeed, it can't be doubted that it's possible for people to fall into a spiritual black hole in which they are dead to love, to charity, to affection. The idea that marriage to such a person is null certainly has a certain mystical appeal. On the other side, of course, is the argument that the church of Rome, and my church, have historically taken quite the opposite view.
I don't know how Christians should handle the thorny question of divorce and remarriage, and this is an expecially hard question or me because I'm not married. It's easy for me to say that divorce and remarriage are condemned by Jesus- it's harder for me to imagine what I would do if I was in that situation. That said, I do think that we are required, as Christians, to hold indissoluble marriage as the ideal, even if we sometimes fall short of it, and I think this is especially important within our modern society which doesn't share our views. We are called to be "the salt of the earth", and we are warned that the Christian life will be hard and difficult: "Many are called, but few are chosen."
The tradition of the Church of England, right up until 2002, was to prohibit the remarriage of divorced people absolutely, and not to celebrate their marriages in church. However, the church would welcome divorced people who had had civil marriages and allow them access to the sacraments, and sometimes bless their relationships. That seems to me like a reasonable compromise between the demands of Jesus and the requirements of a fallen world. I disagree with the liberalizing decision in 2002 to allow remarriages in church- the Anglican church has never practiced remarriages and it should not start now. I hope that this decision is reversed, and that my church in faithfulness to Christ, refuses to place its official endorsement on remarriages.
At the same time, I would like the church of England- and all churches, in my ideal world- to welcome divorced and civilly remarried people like a mother, in mercy and charity. It seems likely to be the case that divorced people are, as the Catholic church would say, called to chastity. But even if they are, surely Christ, like a merciful parent, understands that we will fall short of this ideal, and that sometimes it's permissible to do a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater one. Even if a second marriage is falling short of the Christian ideal of chastity, and technically counts as 'adultery', it is still preferable than to live a life full of loneliness, bitterness, and the lack of romantic connection with another person. Even if chastity is the ideal, and remarriage is something less, it is still better to remarry than to be torn apart by unfulfilled longing, for those people who aren't strong enough to be celibate. "It is better to marry than to burn", and this is true for divorced people as well, I think, I believe this, and I think God thinks this too, for we know that our God is a God of Love. Such marriages shouldn't be celebrated or endorsed by the church, but I think the people in them should be accepted and welcomed.
Christ tells us that remarriage after divorce is an evil, a form of adultery. He says this, and we must believe it. Divorced people, certainly outside hard cases like adultery and abuse, and maybe even there, are called to chastity, and Christ would want them to stay celibate, I think. But we know- history has taught us- that celibacy is not a discipline that most men and women can endure. It is a particularly strict form of self-abnegation, a high and a beautiful calling, but not one to whom most people are called. "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it". But for those on whom it is felt as something imposed from outside, not voluntarily chosen, it can be a curse. It can wither us spiritually, make us anger and bitter, lonely and gloomy. These things are evil, too, are they not? Surely, in some cases, remarriage after divorce is a lesser evil than loneliness, bitterness, rancor and spiritual corrosion that could come from being condemned to spend one's life alone. God will have mercy on such people, I think, and will not harshly judge their choice of a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater one.
But the fact that a merciful God will, and a merciful church should, make exceptions and be welcoming and tolerant of people who fall short of the ideal, does not mean we should detract from the ideal itself. The model of marriage painted by Desperate Housewicves, Blake, Yeats and Milton is a beautiful one, and a compelling one, but ultimately not a Christian one. We are called to be "the salt of the earth", and to be better than the standards of the world. And that means not surrendering our ideals, even if we are unable to live up to them. For ultimately, as beautiful as the ideal of Yeats is, the ideal of Christ is more beautiful. 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall laugh'. That applies not just to those who suffer from poverty or oppression, but also those who suffer from freely chosen willingness to honor a promise even when that promise is totally unfulfiling and seems like a harsh burden to carry. The Christian life means dying to self, but we are also assured that "He who loses his life for my sake will find it", and in the end all tears wil be washed away, all sorrows comforted, and all sufferings recompensed.
"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end."