The (very) Old Cult of the New

"Reclining Nude", Pablo Picasso, 1932

I wonder if you have ever heard people talk about how great it is that modern society has finally had the courage to reassess its cultural and religious norms for sex and marriage? Have you ever heard them joke that we made the change and the sky hasn’t fallen in? Have you heard people congratulating themselves for being on the right side of history?

If you have, welcome to the 1910s! Statements like that were very commonplace in the post-Nietzschean thought-world at the dawn of the twentieth century. It was the age of  ‘the cult of the new’—the century that would, once and for all, liberate human beings from divine tyranny, and release men and women from the narrow constraints of marriage and family. Mankind could shed its ancient ill-fitting skin of ‘divine-imageness’ and embrace its true animal nature. As Bob Dylan would later parody: ‘If dogs run free, then why not we’[1]

This was to be the century that would once and for all liberate men and women from tyrant God … what secular humanism actually delivered, was not freedom and life, but slavery and death.

Tragically, what secular humanism actually delivered, was not freedom and life, but slavery and death.

If any worldview is rendered incredible by the suffering and pain of the twentieth century, it is the petty dogma of the nineteenth century, which declared that humanity was divine. It requires an act of blind faith that ignores the moral wasteland of the twentieth century to agree with the shallow judgment of Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1900): “Glory to man in the highest! For man is the master of things.” This “master of things” has much to answer for- more violence, bloodshed, and oppression than any naïve Victorian optimist could ever have imagined.[2]

An apology for Traditional Marriage from 1912

The truly prophetic word at the beginning of the twentieth century belonged not to its humanist commentators, but to the faithful theologians and preachers of God’s word. One such example is heard in Forysth’s restatement of the historical and Judeo-Christian definition of marriage. Forsyth spoke in response to the (then current) push for a loosening of laws concerning divorce and extra-marital sex (horses that have well and truly bolted now).

Yet Forsyth’s writing has a contemporary ring to it. Indeed, his book provides a kind of prophetic wake-up call to 21st century western culture, where the vacuum caused by the loss of the knowledge of our Creator, has produced desperate attempts to recover human significance through self-creation and self-discovery—and nowhere more than in areas of relationships and gender.

On the face of it the modern project of self-construction offers exhilarating new freedom … a smorgasbord of possibilities for self-invention … The problem is obvious. In a world of limitless choice and endless possibility, with no guide or map to provide us with an external point of reference, how do we choose between competing realities?[3]

Forsyth provided a cultural exegesis and Christian ethic that is still persuasive. Here are some representative soundings from Forsyth’s lectures for ‘the National Council of Public Morals,’ later published as the book: Marriage: Its Ethic and Religion, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912).

1. Diagnosis

The present is an age…in which old institutions are either being reconstructed in practice, or they are being dissolved in thought underneath the existing practice…We are in a great day of judgment—in this sense at least, that we are deep in the critical age and the constructive age has barely begun. (p.3)

Here is the kind of vice which is perhaps most fatal to society, because it is believed to be right. Evil becomes our good, and purity plays with perdition. (p. 6)

2. Marriage, social and religious

Marriage is a social act. The social form is not indifferent. It is part of the substance. It is a piece of social morality, i.e. of social existence. It is bound up with the safety, honour, and welfare of society. (p.16)

If it means so much for the soul and for society, that is really because it belongs to the Kingdom of God, to the will of the God Who ordered society and its destiny. (p.18)

If the Church oppose any movement, it should only be in obedience to a trust committed to it, and in the defense of a principle put in its charge. No coercion, no lust of power. And let us escape from the mawkish charity to remember that sometimes the best service you can render people is to combat their errors. (p.21)

3. Christ and marriage

It is a union which reflects a union deep in the eternal nature of the triune God Himself. Hence religion has a place in the institution of marriage, its proper place is supreme… (p.18)

Christ was not a social reformer, nor a political liberator, and yet He had very much to say of a most positive kind about the keystone of society, marriage. (p.25)

Paul treats Christian marriage as the great natural and social symbol of Christ and the Church. Paul’s ideal attitude was but the continuation of Christ’s own. And it was slowly revolutionary for the world’s idea of marriage. (pp.27-28).

Christianity provides for its true disciples a resource … when the romance is gone … a kindly life is possible still, in which indeed a new and deeper affection may grow up. (p.40)

4. Marriage and human flourishing

Man and wife are one flesh as one spiritual personality; one not by outward bond or premise merely, but by each being the other’s inner complement. They interpenetrate. They make up a joint personality by the harmony of an indelible psychic difference. And this dual, or complex, personality (the family idea) is the base of the corporate unity of society. And it is the point of attachment for those great spiritual analogies which connect Christ so intimately with a human society in the Church. (p.34)

5. Marriage real and ideal

The truth that needs teaching, and is not taught, is that the ideal marriage, like the ideal personality, grows; that the true appropriation of this gift is the heart-culture of a life-time. It does not drop ripe into the mouth. It is the fruit of difficulty, pain, sacrifice, and it is not quite unacquainted with friction… A happy marriage depends on the way these things are handled, and not on their entire absence. (p. 138)

6. Marriage and children

[Sexual love when separated from the life long bond of one man and one woman in marriage] gravitates…to become facility for passion. It has more erotic than ethic. It is the ruin in the end of the moral element in love, because it is not only the ruin of the family, but it destroys the moral development of the parent’s personality. For fidelity can be educated by fixity. It is not fidelity if it only last with liking. (p. 86)

It is so fatal to tamper with the fixity of marriage, because it is most fatal to the most vulnerable… to women and children.

It is so fatal to tamper with the fixity of marriage, because it is most fatal to the most vulnerable whose defense a moral society ought to be—to women and to the moral growth of children. (p. 108)

7. Marriage and monogamy

To dissolve the great divine triad of father, mother, child, would require a force equal at least to that which has made society itself. It is far beyond the theories of social system-mongers, or the heresies of intellectuals. Monogamy is not an artificial institution forced down on mankind, but a spiritual institution rising out of it.’ (p. 114)

The man supremely ruled by passion is a fraud to human nature. Man is more than an erotic process, and this more means obligation, responsibility, the freedom of his soul, against the vagrancy of the moment’s appetite and the slavery of chance desires.’ (pp. 120-121)

… there is more in love than passion, however great or imaginative. The love that hallows marriage has a moral nature in it, and a moral society around it. And Christianity is not the religion of love, but of holy and therefore atoning love, which makes it all the more divine as it makes it less promptly popular. It is the religion of a love which holds of the eternal, and works under moral and social conditions. And as such holy love, it is very different from that natural and instinctive love which makes literary capital or suits imaginative purposes. (p. 145)

Marriage and God’s Better Story

Part of our fallen-human predicament is that we are prone to believe lies. We don’t know what is good for us, and we naively pursue a course of apparent freedom that left unchecked inevitably leads to our destruction. We are not now living in a superior and enlightened new age. We are more like teenagers who mistakenly believe that ours is the first generation to truly start something new. With apologies to James Dean, we are ‘rebels without a clue.’

Forsyth’s book is now over one hundred years old. But if his bold assertions are controversial and confronting in our time, they were no less so in 1912. God’s design for marriage confronts us in our compromise. It is always counter-cultural to human beings turned away from their Maker and one another; and bent in on ourselves through sin (Matt 19:4-12). Of course, the wide path seems inviting; more reasonable and more inclusive than the ‘narrow way.’ And our temptation will always be to fall in with the culture around us; to lose the flavor that makes us stand out, and in the name of love to walk the path of least resistance. But Jesus is clear: the wide path leads to destruction (Matt 7:13-14 cf. 5:13).

Far from being embarrassed or ashamed of the gospel and the new life it produces, we have, as Glynn Harrison puts it, ‘a better story to tell.’

…human identity is not built on the shifting sands of self-identification and self-construction. It is a given identity, charged with purpose and meaning because it takes part in a story bigger than itself- the redemption of all things in Christ.[4]

God is good, and his grand design for humankind—for men and women made in His image—is very good (Gen 1:26f). Jesus demonstrated humble servant love; which revealed the very heart of God in His actions, and gave us the template for marriage. This love culminated in His death for sinners, and created God’s new people. A real revolution took place when from the very beginning; God’s people showed the world a new way to live; not least in marriage and family life.[5] This new way of life is difficult, messy and costly. Forsyth was not naïve to these realities.

Perfect Christian marriages may be few, but they are prophetic. And what is required at any stage is that nothing be done to surrender the ideal principle, and everything which on the whole promotes it. (p. 48)

Every marriage is prophetic, for even at its most strained and difficult moments, this life-long commitment between a man and a woman points forward to the greater; the true and eternal marriage between Christ and His church (Eph 5:31-33 cf. Rev 21:1ff).

This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:32-33)

Forsyth concluded his lectures in this way:

Let those who resent the exigency of Christian ethic here remember that it came from no bloodless spirit, but from the greatest Love that ever entered history…from One whose heart broke in the passion of hallowing of that holy love which it knew to be the most powerful, priceless, and perfect thing in all the world, and the guarantee of its richest and conclusive bliss. (pp.149-150)


[1] Bob Dylan, ‘If dogs run free,’ from the album, New Morning (New York: Columbia, 1970).

[2] Alistair McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, (New York: Doubleday, 2004), p. 184.

[3] Glynn Harrison, A Better Story – God, Sex & Human Flourishing, (London; IVP; 2017), p. 116.

[4] Harrison, p.131.

[5] E.g. Harrison, pp. 167-168 citing historian O.M. Bakke, notes that in the Greco-Roman world into which Christianity was born children were treated as virtual non-persons, He writes, ‘one of its most chilling practices was expositio- the abandoning of unwanted children to die or be ‘rescued’ by slavery. Thus, in Rome, brothels specializing in child sex-slaves were legal thriving public enterprises, and the wealthy also had the right to treat their child slaves in any way they chose…The Christians were immediately different…They remembered how God’s anger burned against the Israelites caught up in child sacrifice…and how Jesus called children and put them at the very heart of his vision of what the kingdom of heaven looks like.’

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