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Symbolic intensivism, expensive wedding rings & sacrifice
Or, how investing yourself into symbols won't magically create the reality they point to.
According to a study from Economic Inquiry, the more you spend on the engagement ring and wedding ceremony, the less likely your marriage will last. Spending less than $1,000 on a wedding entails half the likelihood of divorce, compared to spending $5–10,000.
There could be multiple reasons for this, but here’s what I reckon is going on in many of these cases. I think it’s a prime example of the “symbolic intensivism” I talked about recently in the context of head coverings:
Symbolic intensivism is the term I use for when someone psychologically projects a whole spiritual pattern onto an isolated expression of that pattern. In other words, he chooses a singular example of the pattern to represent its entire multiplicity, in such an atomized or abstracted way that it becomes the only significant expression of that pattern in his mind. Thus the pattern becomes intensive, focused on the one symbol, rather than extensive, expressed through many symbols.
Hence symbolic intensivism.
The example I used previously was head coverings: the person engaged in symbolic intensivism loads up this one symbol—this one expression of the whole pattern of glory and hierarchy and modesty and submission—to the point that his mindset becomes something like this:
If only every Christian practiced veiling, everything else in the Western Church would fall into place, and proper hierarchy and piety would be restored.
I think this is a natural result of trying to work with symbols within a disenchanted worldview, since a chief pathology of enlightenment thinking is to expect the meaning of things to be found by disintegrating them into their most fundamental parts. The parts are where we assume that the meaning of the whole inheres, rather than where we assume that the meaning of the whole will be expressed.
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
This disintegrative way of thinking causes us to over-emphasize a singular symbol, since we are unable to integrate it into its larger pattern—and the pattern, in turn, into the whole of life and thinking. So we expect the one symbol that we fixate on to host the full extent of the pattern.
Obviously this is an intuitive, instinctive, largely subconscious process. No one is going out and thoughtfully deciding to work in this way. Nonetheless, this does seem to be what is going on at some level.
This leads to an attitude to symbols that imbues them with excessive power. It is a kind of magical thinking unmoored from reality, un-integrated via covenant, and unrestrained by wisdom. It ultimately reverses the relationship between symbol and reality: just as the head-coverings proponent intuits that restoring the practice will restore what it represents, so the young bride and groom, sensing that all is not as smooth and firm in their relationship as it ought to be, intuit that investing more of themselves into the ring, and into the ceremony, will strengthen what these things represent.
I don’t think this error is unique to the enlightenment mindset. It may be expressed uniquely in our age, but surely this is fundamentally the same thing that God reprimands the Hebrews for in Hosea 6:6:
For I desire loyal-love, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than ascension-offerings. (Hos 6:6)
Were the Hebrews not also engaging in a kind of symbolic intensivism, imputing to the symbol the full range of the pattern; what was supposed to be expressed in a multiplicity of ways in their lives? God is not saying that he does not desire sacrifices, for he instituted them—rather, he is saying that treating the token as a substitute for the full expression of the pattern is to make a mockery of both:
I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Yea, though ye offer me your ascension-offerings and tributes, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy harps. And let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Am 5:21–24)
The vav (“and”) here at the beginning of the final sentence is generally translated “but” to better express the comparison being drawn between the feasts, and the thing they are supposed to represent. Giving up of our substance to God is supposed to teach us about giving up of ourselves in general. Expressing onetogetherness with God is supposed to teach us about onetogetherness in general. The Levitical rituals focused the Hebrews’ attention on God because he is the highest point that integrates all of their existence. But thinking that this holistic integration could be achieved by investing all of their energy into the symbol of it was a colossal and wicked exercise in missing the point.
In the same way, a couple that pours themselves into a wedding ring or an expensive ceremony is behaving as if these things were magical substitutes for establishing the holistic pattern they represent. But it doesn’t matter how much of your substance you put into a token of your unity, if you don’t invest a greater amount into the unity itself, by expressing and participating in it, in all the various ways that couples do. A ring cannot host the full extent of your onetogetherness, no matter how much of yourself you put into it. Only you can. A ceremony cannot establish marital union, no matter how glorious and weighty you make it. Only you can.
As the project of re-enchantment gains energy, it will be important to place this principle at the corner of the building. Symbols are only meaningful and important when they are properly integrated into the spiritual pattern they represent.