Systems so perfect

In 2002, after being married eighteen months, Sam (age 26) and Bethany (age 21) Torode wrote a book, Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception. In the book they endorsed natural family planning and rejected all other forms of contraception.

The Torodes wrote that Procreation is “the umbrella under which the other aspects of marriage are nurtured,” they wrote. Sex is “a joyous song of praise to the Creator,” and “having children (or adopting them) brings husbands and wives closer together and expands the community of love.” And that “with each child a couple has, their chances of divorce are significantly reduced.” [Emphasis added]

But in 2006 they informed people that they no longer believed in NFP. And in 2009 they divorced.

The article give two examples (the Torodes and one other couple) were not only crushed by the pious burden they chose to shoulder, but were driven away from conservative Christian thinking altogether. And there is a throwaway line along the way that unintentionally points to the heart of the problem, one I’d like to highlight.

The book she and Mr. Torode wrote two years into their marriage is quite short and quite sweet, an earnest work whose hopefulness one badly wants to share. [Emphasis added]

Viewed objectively, it is sheer insanity to take guidance on such a critical matter from a young, inexperienced, newly married couple with one eighteen-month-old child. But we do it all the time. Why? Because we want so badly for the principle to be true that we put discernment aside.

Why this yearning for principles? Why not just accumulate wisdom, apply it as situations arise, and accumulate further wisdom in the process? I don’t know the source of the impulse, but I think T.S. Eliot was right when he wrote that men “constantly try to escape / from the darkness outside and within / by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

We don’t need systems. We need to be good.


3 thoughts on “Systems so perfect

  1. Rick,

    Well said.

    It is easier to follow a system than develop a relationship. There is a reason that Scripture is mostly stories and not a list of dos and don’ts – it is because God wants us to pursue a relationship with Him and live out our relationship with Him in the context of our relationships with others.

    If I can reduce “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” to a system, I can achieve my system and feel good about my righteousness. And I can reduce the second part, “love your neighbor as yourself” to fellowship with like-minded folks (after all, they love God just like we do) and viewing every one else as projects to convert to our system of righteousness.

    We think this to be freedom, but it is actually a hellish slavery.

    But, when we understand that life is about accumulat[ing] wisdom, apply[ing] it as situations arise, and accumulat[ing] further wisdom in the process”, and that all starts with the fear of the Lord, well, then I think we begin to know what Jesus meant when He said, “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.”

    On this, I disagree with T. S. Elliot in that I think people try to escape from the darkness outside and within not by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good, but by dreaming of systems so formulaic that no one really needs Jesus.


  2. Another fantastic post.

    Outing myself as someone who teaches historical theology in a secular university setting: a frequent experience I have when explaining late medieval western Latin soteriology is that as soon as I’ve outlined the process of salvation, the students begin to try to think of exceptions to the rules. What about unbaptized babies? People who repent on their deathbeds? Unmarried women? The virtuous pagans? Etc., etc. This nitpicking mystified me until I realized that they all see themselves as special cases — they’ve been encouraged to by their parents and our culture since their earliest childhood — but that in this situation of ultimate uniqueness, they are seeking order and explanation. They insist on their uniqueness, but yet they want less of it, particularly for other people. As I say to my students, the vast majority of soteriological cases were covered by the system as it existed. Most people assumed they fit one of the cases, as opposed to worrying about what might happen if they didn’t. Against the belief that we are all unique and special, which creates a tendency to license based on individuality, which seems to be the atmosphere in which we live, I think that many people today actually are looking for firm rules but they don’t understand enough about how rules work as principles before they espouse them. This mood is particularly acute among late adolescents — there’s a reason that college campuses used to be such ideological hotbeds, as young people searched to find that system that was going to explain everything about the world (Christianity, capitalism, Marxism, veganism, whatever) and look for ways to shore it up when it didn’t. Young people need a few systems to fail on them before they realize that the problem isn’t the content of the system but rather the way human systems are conventionally structured. I think the long period of economic prosperity recently also contributed to people’s willingness to embrace systems: just do this, and you will get the result you want. If you are not getting the result, then you’re not doing the right thing. This is a logical fallacy (“false consequence”), but people fall into it easily.

    Discernment is hard work, and we fail at it, a lot, too. The concept that one might have to examine every single moral situation with which one is confronted and make an active decision — as opposed to applying some really, really simple principle, with as few concepts as possible — is frightening to the average person, to the mature as well as the young. And people have such a hard time extrapolating about other people’s struggles. If I can lose weight on Jenny Craig, you can too. If I have this reaction to something, you will too. If I can be strictly quiverfull, so can you — and any difficulties you may experience are just so much sand in the gears and stem from your own sinfulness, not from my blindness to the depth of the issues with which you are really struggling. Admitting that sort of thing would be a return to the atmosphere of uniqueness and chaos that people are trying to hard to escape. I’m always disturbed when I hear a strong adherent to a system say, “I struggled, too,” under the assumption that that’s equivalent to your struggles, whatever they are. It’s well night impossible to compare suffering, but humans don’t understand that as well.

  3. I’m sort of synthesizing this with your earlier post, Following your own path.

    ISTM that when a society is reasonably healthy a conscientious person can go with the flow and know that he is living a reasonably healthy life that way. But when you’re culture is fundamentally disordered, or at least, most of what you’ve seen in life is dysfunctional, you’re going to feel like you shouldn’t simply do what everyone else is doing. Being the communal creatures we are, though, we naturally want to fit into some system.

    I’m the kind of person who has shouldered many pious burdens over the years, beginning in adolescence. For the most part I’ve found them too heavy to bear for long, but also, after a while I’m no longer doing them in faith, but in fear of being wrong, so they’re not even pious any more!

    I think they become too heavy because we’re not meant to live in isolation from our extended family and our neighbors, and when you (as an individual or a family) have chosen your own path (even when it really is a good path), you’re essentially cutting yourself off from your natural community, and then you compensate by trying to find an ideological community (i.e. system) to belong to.

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