Click here to watch the 2014 Nevin Lectures
« Back to Blog

Marriage and Betrayal

Perhaps the most fearful of all possibilities in the world is the possibility of betrayal on the part of someone who is in a “position of trust.” This, unfortunately, is the first block in what ought to be the foundation of every marriage in the world. Every woman has a far distant memory, and now anxiety, about what Adam did to Eve. And, just as anyone who has ever failed when trusted, every man likewise, has a far distant memory of what it is that Adam did in that first infamous act. Whatever Adam’s motive (curiosity at what would happen if Eve did what was forbidden, or fear at opposing what she wanted) it does not change the fact that Adam betrayed his wife.

The consequence is that now, every marriage has built into it, at the deepest level, the great difficulty of the woman trusting the man. And every man lives with the anxiety of knowing that he is, at least often, not trusted. He lives with anxiety about her anxiety. The constant danger in every marriage is of the marriage existing in a state of a vicious circle of anxiety about anxiety about anxiety. Every anxious response to previous anxiety gives rise to more anxiety, which in turn spawns even more anxious response, and so on down and down to final destruction. Everything is the opposite of trust.

Cartesianism, and the whole of the Enlightenment Project, could be understood as an attempt to flee the anxiety of a fallen world that has betrayal of trust at its heart. Or conversely, it could be understood as a headlong rush into destruction and death that result from the first, ancient, and basil incapacity for trust. Doubt and impersonal “objectivity” (the very opposite of trust) are at the heart of the Enlighenment Project.

Karl Stern, the Roman Catholic psychoanalyst, has demonstrated how so many of the Enlightenment figures, and notably Decartes himself, had dreadful relationships with almost all of the most important women in their lives. Their entire lives appear to have been controlled by anxiety over anxiety, and are either straightfoward or paradoxical reworkings of the Original Betrayal and its consequences:

“Descartes’ celebrated friendships with women were lofty, intellectual, and platonic. But he kept a life-long affection, and attachment of the heart, for his wet-nurse, to whom he paid a yearly allowance and for whom he secured in his will continued support after his death. And the only woman with whom we know he had an affair, Helena Jans, seems to have been a domestic servant. From her he had a daughter, Francine, who died at the age of five. Thus we see in his life something which we shall encounter again in Goethe, something not infrequent in the lives of great men– the apparently total cleavage between the carnal and the spiritual image of woman. Psychoanalysts speak of the ‘prostitute-madonna’ conflict when they refer to such inability to combine sexual relation and ‘higher friendship’ in the same person. In Descartes we encounter the seemingly paradoxical: it was not in sexual adventure that danger lurked, but in the platonic woman friend, the cool goddess with whom he discussed matters of metaphysics and geometry. All these women-the Duchess of Aiguillon, Anne-Marie de Schurmann, Princess Elizabeth, Queen Christina of Sweden-were highly ambivalent in their relationship with him. (This comes out most clearly in Mlle. de Schurmann and in Queen Christina). To this kind of woman he was lured magically, as though to his perdition, and paradoxically enough she, while not the sexual object of his love, was his femme fatale. As a matter of fact, Christina became his fatal woman in the literal sense of the word . . . Schicksalsneurose, neurosis of destiny [first spoken of by Nietzsche, as das typische Erlebnis, (the typical experience) and later by Freud]. What appears as a clinical label becomes the expression of a haunting reality. That this motherless, roaming spirit would finally succeed in maneouvring himself inextricably into the hands of the Anti-Mother! Christina literally deprived him of the maternal triad, warmth and sleep and the proper food, and thus, with the uncanny sureness of her own unconscious, caused him to die. What made him seek this end? Why did he not, like Goethe, find a compromise in staying with that maidservant? He might, like Goethe, have settled down and reached a ripe old age. However, it is wrong to approach past lives with ‘ifs’ and ‘mights.’ Finished lives are like the physiognomies of the dead: one feels the end is not an arbitrary break but a fulfillment” (Flight From Woman, pp.92-93, 98-99)/

The entire Enlightenment period could be described by Stern’s book title, The Flight From Woman, the era controlled by the anxiety of men of that age fleeing from the accusation of “betrayal” and the destruction of the possibility of trust. The aim was a world that could be built without faith, or hope or trust as a foundation, and a neutral objectivity that could be accessed by of all things, the opposite of trust: doubt. It was an age that either marginalized, or used women, or enthroned the femme fatale, as in the case of Queen Christina.

Part of Luther’s great achievement has been lost in the avalanche of the Enlightenment. Perhaps the two most notable things that Luther did were one, to restore trust as the most central fact of all of human intention, and secondly, to marry Katie. Luther’s marriage to Katie is one of the most important relationships in the history of the world and is the complete opposite of all that Stern relates above. Luther and Katie, for all of their human weaknesses, recreated the central reality of trust on both a vertical and horizontal level. It was a recreation of the world.

Now, after almost 500 years of Descartes’ clash with Luther, other figures, like Van Til, Polanyi, and the Thomist renewal figures, are all reasserting that the most fundamental epistemological act is not doubt, but belief and faith and personal risk. The most foundational acts in the scientific realm are not to be found in some objective and impersonal realm, but in acts of personal trust. Trust and belief are more basic than doubt. One must believe something more basic than anything one can finally doubt. And, the final background to all belief is in God Himself, who offers Himself to us not impersonally, but as our Father in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Luther and Calvin both gave a place of honor to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She is not a goddess to be worshiped, but a central figure in the recovery of trust. She believed God in the message through the angel Gabriel, and trusted God and surrendered to him. Joseph later did not surrender to his anxiety about her “strange condition,” but likewise in trust, believed God both for her, and with her. In a situation where every possible condition for anxiety was present, it all was overcome in recreating acts of faith and trust.