I have three short tales about four unmarried men. Two are in their thirties and two are in their forties but all are essentially closer to forty than thirty.
The first man
The first man spent ten years in a conservative Christian setting and wanted to get married. Eventually he turned his back on the Christian faith. He spent years exasperated that he was told from the pulpit that what guys were supposed to do was to go get real jobs, get a woman, marry her, make babies, and move "upstream" to change the culture for Jesus. He felt angry and frustrated that no matter what he tried to do he could never get "upstream" and not only didn't get upstream but probably never would get upstream. All his relationships with women fell apart and he began to feel that this was because the women he had pursued were dishonest and delusional.
The women, for their part, told him he was emotionally and financially unstable and some of them even issued restraining orders against him out of fear for their safety after they broke things off with him. He spent years relying on his feelings as the fuel to motivate him to get things done and pursue goals in his life, yet his feelings could whip around quite violently whether he knew it or not. After he gave up on the Christian faith he also gave up on the idea of marriage and considered it bad and now prefers to argue against human breeding and against marriage altogether.
The second man
The second man also spent years in a conservative Christian setting and by his own account was not only eager to be married but resented God for not giving him a wife because from childhood he had wanted to be married and have a family. Now by "family" he never meant having kids because he dislikes kids but he was eager to marry, so eager he got engaged to a woman who was not particularly faithful before the wedding day and in grave disappointment he broke things off. Eventually he landed at a church where there were a lot of women and he began to consider a number of them as possible bride candidates. None of these worked out even at the level of being more than casual acquaintences. He spent years expressing the idea that no woman should ever be considered out of his league but he never managed to even get into a steady dating relationship and began to feel upset and bitter about how shallow women were for not considering him while considering others.
A friend tried matchmaking for him but none of the propose matches interested him for various reasons revolving around single motherhood and a lack of "spark". Eventually he left that church and came to believe that marriage itself, the thing he coveted for a decade, was basically an abomination. Tax breaks and laws seemed, to him, to favor marriage without any good cause. Women were shallow and he came to regard Tom Leykis as a kind of hero. Though he said of himself he was honest enough to admit "I don't care if they're real as long as they're a certain size" he never put together that he might have been as shallow as the women who never considered him dating material.
In this case a friend approached the man about his ideas about women. The man was fond of saying it was sinful to consider any woman out of his league. A friend asked him that if this were the case what was the man's own unique sales pitch to a woman who could not be out of his league? After all, a woman who would spend her life with a man had to be able to hope for something to be gained from that life? It's one thing to assume no one is above you in the quest for a mate and another thing to have a compelling sales pitch for your candidacy. And would it not also be possible to say that if no woman is above you then no woman is beneath you? To this the man replied that what a woman would stand to gain from life with him was not particularly important, it wasn't even a relevant question. It would appear, however, after ten years of never landing a date that women did consider the question of what they stood to gain from a relationship with him to be fairly important.
Now, however, he considers marriage an abomination. Having spent years saying of those who didn't like the church he was at anymore that they left due to sour grapes he ended up embodying sour grapes himself with regard the thing he resented God for not giving him, marriage. Coveting and envy transformed into loathing and disdain. Along the way he could grant that he was not married because he was an @$$hole but that was a short moment in time. And it wasn't long after that he thought he had a serious shot with a woman who was a decade younger than him. He might have played with the idea that he wasn't the best candidate to be a husband but he was still, at that point, taken with the idea that no woman could possibly be off limits to his consideration in the mating game. He is, probably, still some kind of Christian but spends a good deal of time pontificating against "morality police", though he once revelled in making fun of people using gay slurs he now considers Christians to be unconscienably cruel toward gays. Odds are pretty decent he still teases people by using gay slurs but I don't know for sure.
The third man
This is a Christian man who spent decades hoping to get married. He is not married and he is in his forties now. Unlike the first man, who felt it was impossible to get "upstream" this man has a steady and relatively prosperous career. He can afford to own his own place in an urban center and is socially active. He cares passionately about politics and religion and loves to constantly debate those topics here in the Seattle area. Perhaps unsurprisingly he has a reputation as being a gadfly and an arguer. Not everyone enjoys arguing with him. He feels strongly that the people in the city are basically bad people for judging him, though he rarely backs off from a fight about either religion or politics and does not tend to give people the benefit of a doubt. He has had trouble finding a church home where he feels happy in Seattle because on the one hand he does not like liberal churches but has trouble feeling at home even in conservative ones.
He is a friendly and warm fellow but as yet has not managed to marry and has passed into his forties. He has bristled at jokes made by some Christians that they have no idea how married people make it through the day and is unhappy that some Christians basically speak as though unmarried guys are worthless losers who have done nothing with their lives because they aren't married. Yet he feels that he is, ultimately, a loser precisely because he isn't married and hasn't managed to land a steady dating relationship. He's warm enough and friendly enough to land a few dates here and there but never manages to sustain a romantic relationship for reasons that elude him. He has often suspected the problem is where he is and the people in the city around him. He considers the scriptures and firmly believes that there are no places in the scripture where God indicates that unmarried people have any favor or blessing from the Lord. After all, he who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord. The opposite is never affirmed anywhere in scripture is it?
The fourth man
The fourth man, like the first, was once a conservative Christian and is so no longer. In his Christian days he fretted about his not being married because he was asked point blank by fellow conservative Christians why he wasn't. It was tantamount to being confronted with the question, "What's your excuse? Why aren't you married?" He wasn't sure why. He tended to dread and fear women, in no small way because he could admit he had an emotionally volatile, controlling and manipulative mother. He had the sort of mother who could tell him that the reason good Christian girls dated unbelievers who had sex with them and then made them get abortions was because good Christian guys like him didn't date them.
Except that he didn't feel he really was a good Christian guy, not when he considered his fantasy life and the sexual temptations he relented to. He eventually began to feel that Christian sexual ethics essentially amounted to a utilitarian one in which one only had value due to being paired off. He wanted to have experience and couldn't obtain it clining to Christian teaching. Not only did evolutionary explanations from science suggest that Genesis was unreliable scientific study and evolutionary theories about human nature also suggested that the entire realm of sexual experience Christians sought to limit entirely to marriage were actually available for those who were brave enough to shake off the shackles of Christian legalism and seek what was there to be sought.
But after crossing over the divide between faith and unbelief and obtaining the experiences he sought he found himself disappointed. In his eagerness to obtain experience he jettisoned any standards he might have had. He began to feel that he had settled for relationships that were really not very healthy and for experiences that ultimately weren't worth the effort. And yet on the other side of the divide between belief and unbelief he still felt like a loser because he began to notice that even among the unbelievers everyone his age was already paired off. They might not be married but they were cohabitating and in some cases had done so and borne children.
He began to wonder how it was he got to this point; paradoxically he felt he was just as much a loser among unbelievers for not being in a steady sexual relationship with one person as he did back when he was still a Christian and not married. How was this possible? He felt that ultimately it was his own moral and social failures that accounted for this. Where as the previous three men looked outside and seethed at the injustices done to them with regard to romance this man looked inward and concluded he was just not made of the stuff to have bothered and felt like a loser.
He noticed that a lot of guys who had tried making marriage or a relattionship work had failed and in the process they lost custody of their children and had to make child support payments. The women, it seemed, had the option of filing for divorce and trading up for richer and/or younger modelsof men. It seemed that the flip side of men nabbing trophy wives was that we as a culture had gotten to a point where trophy husbands have come into existence, too. What is more due to the primacy of motherhood a woman would almost invariably get custody in a broken relationship and the male, having once established the life of a child he would no longer have custody over, was totally expendable.
Now the fourth men was able to articulate what I believe is a challenge that every man must eventually face but that is acute for every unmarried man who is also not a parent. Roy Baumeister, in his address responding to Maureen Dowd, said that the paradox about men is that we are valuable in society because we are expendable.
Think of it this way, as some Christian pastors and pundits like to put it, a whole bunch of kids go to bed tonight with no dad. The question is asked "Where's dad?" Dads do play vital, indispensible roles in raising a child and I am not blogging here to propose otherwise. But to see how marriages fail and how custody tends to get assigned it would appear that in terms of legal precedent alone many courts decide that if push comes to shove then the more expendable of the two roles between father and mother the father has the ultimately more expendable role.
Roy Baumeister indirectly touches on this by pointing out a pragmatic reality: if half the men of a generation are killed there are still enough penises left to sire a subsequent generation. If half of the women are killed off by war or disease then the plethora of corresponding penises do absolutely no good in producing a subsequent generation. I might say here that unless one woman agrees in such a situation to sire children for multiple men to ensure family lines continue then a majority of men are consigned to being genetic dead ends.
Actually, Baumeister points out that research in the last ten years on genetics and heredity suggests that half of the males in any given generation are already genetic dead ends. Baumeister makes his point rather bluntly:
A second thing that makes men useful to culture is what I call male expendability. This goes back to what I said at the outset, that cultures tend to use men for the high-risk, high-payoff undertakings, where a significant portion of those will suffer bad outcomes ranging from having their time wasted, all the way to being killed.
Any man who reads the newspapers will encounter the phrase “even women and children” a couple times a month, usually about being killed. The literal meaning of this phrase is that men’s lives have less value than other people’s lives. The idea is usually “It’s bad if people are killed, but it’s especially bad if women and children are killed.” And I think most men know that in an emergency, if there are women and children present, he will be expected to lay down his life without argument or complaint so that the others can survive. On the Titanic, the richest men had a lower survival rate (34%) than the poorest women (46%) (though that’s not how it looked in the movie). That in itself is remarkable. The rich, powerful, and successful men, the movers and shakers, supposedly the ones that the culture is all set up to favor — in a pinch, their lives were valued less than those of women with hardly any money or power or status. The too-few seats in the lifeboats went to the women who weren’t even ladies, instead of to those patriarchs.
Most cultures have had the same attitude. Why? There are pragmatic reasons. When a cultural group competes against other groups, in general, the larger group tends to win out in the long run. Hence most cultures have promoted population growth. And that depends on women. To maximize reproduction, a culture needs all the wombs it can get, but a few penises can do the job. There is usually a penile surplus. If a group loses half its men, the next generation can still be full-sized. But if it loses half its women, the size of the next generation will be severely curtailed. Hence most cultures keep their women out of harm’s way while using men for risky jobs.
These risky jobs extend beyond the battlefield. Many lines of endeavor require some lives to be wasted. Exploration, for example: a culture may send out dozens of parties, and some will get lost or be killed, while others bring back riches and opportunities. Research is somewhat the same way: There may be a dozen possible theories about some problem, only one of which is correct, so the people testing the eleven wrong theories will end up wasting their time and ruining their careers, in contrast to the lucky one who gets the Nobel prize. And of course the dangerous jobs. When the scandals broke about the dangers of the mining industry in Britain, Parliament passed the mining laws that prohibited children under the age of 10 and women of all ages from being sent into the mines. Women and children were too precious to be exposed to death in the mines: so only men. As I said earlier, the gender gap in dangerous work persists today, with men accounting for the vast majority of deaths on the job.
Another basis of male expendability is built into the different ways of being social. Expendability comes with the large groups that male sociality creates. In an intimate, one-to-one relationship, neither person can really be replaced. You can remarry if your spouse dies, but it isn’t really the same marriage or relationship. And of course nobody can ever really replace a child’s mother or father.
In contrast, large groups can and do replace just about everybody. Take any large organization — the Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Army, the Green Bay Packers — and you’ll find that the organization goes on despite having replaced every single person in it. Moreover, every member off those groups knows he or she can be replaced and probably will be replaced some day.
Baumeister is, of course, not the only social scientist to be able to make this observation but with regard to male disposability it can be said that it is a feature and not a flaw in the role of males in human civilization. Now while a conservative Protestant may object that this is a worldly and evolutionary measure of things this is not something that can be disputed with respect to the role of men. How do we know? Well, let me put it to you this way:
Consider the polemic that the epidemic of singleness some neo-Reformed see in today's society is put squarely on the shoulders of irresponsible young men. We get told in numerous ways that they are just refusing to "man up" and go get a woman and marry her. A guy might avoid doing this because he is playing the field in which case he is denounced as a sexual pervert and a jerk who needs to put his pants on, get a real job, go find a girl, and marry her to the glory of Jesus. A guy who has not managed to marry because he is afraid of rejection, insecure about his financial prospects of supporting a family, diffident in the face of a history of rejection, or insecure because he feels he doesn't measure up gets told a different message.
Depending on which pastor is delivering the message of rebuke the gist of things is this, that unmarried man is a worthless coward. Notice that the guy who has, as it were, the courage to sin boldly via fornication is considered to be a guy who just needs to shape up and fly right while the unmarried guy who is afraid of getting shot down and isn't even playing the field is "worthless". Why? Because he's considered to be an irresponsible boy who can shave and is wasting time doing this or that hobby and not building a legacy for Jesus. It would appear in even conservative Christian circles there is a sense in which it is better to ask for forgiveness than to wait for permission! It would appear the guys who are afraid to ask for permission because they fear they'll get told no are "worthless" to some Christian pundits whereas the guys who just went fornicating can find forgiveness in Jesus. The straight fornicators, at any rate, can find "redemption" in marriage.
Well, whatever one may decide about the worthlessness of the unmarried man vs the worthiness of the married man is not exactly what I intend to explore. What I am considering here is that the four men I have mentioned (and by extension myself as the fifth) face down in the later 30s and 40s is the realization that so far as culture and society go we are expendable.
For the first guy a substantial source of bitterness and resentment was hearing a megachurch pastor declare that guys need to find their value in getting a real job, getting a woman, going "upstream" and "influencing culture". This was an explicit manifesto stating that what makes one valuable as a man is doing a set of things and jumping through a set of hoops to the glory of Jesus. And if you either don't do these things through failures on your part or don't manage to do these things because of external obstacles then, well, you're part of the demographic problem of adultescent males who refuse to grow up even if you have managed to been shut down by any girlfriend you ever managed to get.
It is not so surprising, in hindsight, that the first man explicitly rejected both marriage as the definition of truly responsible adulthood and has located it in "sustainable living" and an avoidance of procreation. After all, this places "the breeders" in a lower moral category and makes them more selfish for breeding given the pending ecological catastrophe; it also permits one to transform one's utter failure by one social metric into moral superiority and victory by way of another. The man no longer has to hear from a megachurch pastor with a wife and multiple children that he is a failure for not being married. It is very convenient for someone who by sheer force of will and determination has obtained already all the things considered necessary for being a real man to speak down to those who have failed and considers this to be lighting a fire under them to motivate them. Though the first man has made any number of decisions I have considered to be exceptionally foolhardy I do not entirely begrudge him his vexation at being told in so many ways that he had to basically turn himself into an alpha male rather than the omega male he generally felt he was.
The second man underwent a similar transformation in which the thing he most coveted and envied is now transformed into an abomination but for different reasons. Though he (oddly, like the first guy) was apt to make some of the most derogatory comments about homosexuals I've heard, was able to say without batting an eyelash that Christians should stop being so nasty to them. It's an easy affectation to take up when once you have cast off marriage as an evil abomination and yet claim solidarity in affliction with gays, many of whom would actually like to be married. It does not go without saying that this sort of moral outrage at the sour grapes is not just a little self-serving and selective. What is an abomination for the resentful straight goose can't stop being that for the gay gander.
The third man still wants to be married and still considers married people to have it better in every possible respect. He has never been married and so imagines, as I suppose may be common to many unmarried conservative Christian males, that there is no possibility of such a thing as awkward, unfulfilling or even physically painful sex. I am an unmarried fellow who has seen a lot of fellow single Christians speak of marriage entirely in terms of the benefits and good times.
It is seen by them and even presented in their churches as a "functional savior". Now I hate that phrase because of how cheaply it is used but I use it here because it is, ironically, in those churches that would deny they do this that marriage really is held forth as a kind of functional savior. If a pastor can say from the pulpit that men who don't ask women out due to fear are worthless cowards then this means that they have been judged unfit for real life, since real life and real adulthood are defined by marriage. Marriage is for men and not boys, ergo the unmarried are not real men.
The third man considers himself a loser for having not married and considers marriage to be the big sign in this life of being blessed by God. He measures himself as a failure on this count and yet does not see that though he rejects and repudiates all kinds of other arguments and claims from churches in other areas of his life as legalism and shaming he fully accepts the "failure" of singleness at an emotional level while, it seems, vacillating between internalizing the emotional sense of failure and externalizing its causes. Anyone who attempts to go through the scriptures to point out that categorically declaring marriage to be both better than singleness and the measure of God's favor as a simplistic and atomized reading of scripture is met with his hostility. It is better to feel a failure for having not married, perhaps, than to feel confident that the Lord does not consider us to be better or more precious to Him in our unmarried state than a married one.
A careful consideration of all the marriages in scripture will show that not all marriages were necessarily proofs of God's immense favor. What I have seen time and again in the last twenty years of my adult life is that there is a powerful distinction between a proverb employed as a universal axiom and a proverb deployed in real wisdom. Real wisdom does not reside in merely knowing a proverb and applying it whenever you're sure the proverb even tangentially relates to a situation or a person, real wisdom resides in acquiring through the Lord's mercies the knowledge of when a proverb applies and when it doesn't. Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools. Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools. A proverb can be true itself but useless through misapplication. A proverb employed by a fool can end up doing harm both to the fool and to those upon whom the fool uses the proverb. The whole contest between Job and his friends could be summed up as the dispute between a man afflicted by God with those who in their certainty with proverbs and theodicy made themselves foolish by applying the "right" theology at the wrong time to the wrong person for the wrong reasons.
I have seen Christian stroll through prooftext after prooftext and ignore Paul's explicit statement that those who do not marry are doing fine by the Lord. Many people look at what Paul says about the cares and distractions of married life and how they can be an impediment to seeking and serving the Lord and just assume that Paul must be lying or speaking out of the ignorance of having been unmarried for so long he just didn't know what he was talking about.
The fourth man summed up the anxiety of feeling disposable. He's past forty years old now and realizes that he is, in the scope of human history, nobody. As someone who has been looking for work for nearly two years with no success this is the anxiety I find most troubling to wrestle with. A father, no matter how bad a father he may be, has played an irreversible role in bringing forth a human life. Even if that father were to fail so utterly in his role as to not see his child for the rest of his life (after bringing the child into the world by dint of mere reproduction) he has not, from a genetic standpoint, been a total failure. In other words he providentially has a legacy by way of a child even if it is through a child he doesn't want.
But the unmarried man or woman who goes through life and fails to bring forth a child? Well, it would seem given the way some Christians talk about "God's design" that these men and women are considered failures. They are not just failures simply for missing the mark but get told they are objects of God's judgment for not seeking to fulfill God's design. Ironically the straight single person comes under the same rebuke that a Christian with a same-sex attraction would come under. A person who does not make sufficient visible effort to pair off may simply be suspected of homosexuality even if he or she isn't simply because of a cultural hermeneutic of suspicion. After all, as some Christians put it, the goal of a man should be to love Jesus by getting a real job, getting a wife, and making babies. This is what guys should do so that they are not merely consumers but create a legacy.
But this gets at to me, the problem of framing Christian marriage and fatherhood in terms of "legacy". What if the highest good in the Christian's life is not the creation of one's own legacy but participation in Christ's legacy? This does not indicate that one no longer attempts to pursue marriage or career or whatever but that these can be done out of thanks for a legacy that through Christ is already secured. As the apostle Paul put it himself let those who are married live as though they were not for the time is short. That's the positive way of framing this concern.
The negative way of framing the concern is that legacy is not an intrinsic good. For that matter legacy was the foundation of the temptation to build a tower at Babel. They explicitly sought to not scatter themselves but to build a monument to themselves and a legacy. There are those Christian men who seek fatherhood to obtain for themselves a legacy which is not actually the legacy of Christ but their own legacy. These men should not necessarily stop having children but have a different disposition in their hearts toward these children.
And, once more, we come to Job. A man may accumulate wealth, get a wife, have children, and build a legacy and in a single day the Lord can authorize Satan to destroy all those children, destroy all that wealth, and afflict one's body with disease. Then the wife who is proof of God's blessing and favor urges you to "bless God and die". Then your friends gather around you and tell you how these afflictions must have come upon you because of the sin in your heart for which the Lord is justly judging you. Any attempt to explain that you fear the Lord, fear ever incurring His wrath, and have no idea why God has permitted this to happen to you; any attempt to point out that it's rather crazy to assume that there is a big lesson (because there must be a lesson in this suffering) to be learned in how one must REALLY trust God so that this disaster won't happen becomes evidence against you.
I am at a point in my life where one of the major struggles I have with depression as a man is that I have not managed in nearly two years to talk anyone into hiring me for a job. That leaves a guy feeling useless. I find it hard to feel useless because I am unmarried and have never actually dated because there's nothing like joblessness to make a guy feel like at least there isn't THAT burden on top of me, too. But being explicitly and implicitly told that marriage is the measure of real adulthood can be a source of substantial frustration because it basically means I get told I know nothing about sacrifice. Why? I'm not married. I'm not really an adult. Why? I'm not married. Now I don't get this at the church I'm at but ten years of getting it in other church and family settings takes a while to get over. I think most of the time I'm over it.
But I'm not over not having a job, and I'm not over the gnawing feeling that I spent a decade gaining skills that are basically worthless in the job market. I am not over the struggle to figure out what, if anything, I can do to even land any kind of steady income. Certainly I have plenty of fun writing free-lance projects as I go and composing music but I honestly don't see how that is the same as having a steady 9-5 kind of job. Even when I consider just the feeling that I'm useless because nobody has seen fit to hire me that's not the entire anxiety of meaning, the other part of anxiety of meaning is something that I don't consciously wrestle with the way the four guys I mentioned have, which is the sense of social disposability where marriage goes. I admit I'm not entirely over that.
There's a passage of scripture I have reflected upon in the last few years. My friend Wendy over at practical theology for women has written about women dealing with infertility and singleness. Isaiah wrote about that issue but not just about that issue. Isaiah also wrote to those who never married. To be a man with no wife or children was to be worthless in that society, too, in the long run. Family legacy mattered more than individual legacy. Even if you were a great individual with no family to continue, no heir of any kind, you still died a nobody in many cases.
Jesus said that there were those who were born eunuchs from birth, those made eunuchs by men, and those who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. A eunuch was, typically, a man who was a chamberlain for a royal court, a bed-keeper of a harem. Though the royal position itself was a privileged one the customary castration that often went with this in other ancient societies involved a mutilation that made one ineligible to worship in the temple and be in the presence of the Lord. Though one was of great worth to the royal court in terms of the spiritual community and corporate worship one was irrevocably an outsider.
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD
to minister to him,
to love the name of the LORD,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
and who hold fast to my covenant—
these I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”