Either-Or was the mantra of Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian existentialist. The story goes that children would harass him, following him in the street while crying out, “Either/Or! Either/Or!” His first work, Either/Or, outlines the two ultimate answers to the question, “How should we live?” He uses the device of two series of essays, both with fictional authors. One is an avowed hedonist, the other a sober Protestant minister. Their radically different views of how to live put flesh on St. Paul’s words, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied… [If that’s the case,] ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'” (1 Cor 15:19,32).
This last weekend, my family and I were privileged to go to the wedding of my son Michael’s very good friend, Joe Becker. The Beckers are a devout, very close family, as are the family Joe married into. Their open affection for one another, lively faith, and ability to celebrate love and family marvelously crystallized the “Or” side of “Either-Or”.
Several scenes at the reception captured this. Joe’s sisters, Joe himself, and many others were awash during his dance with his mother to the classic, “What a Wonderful World”. To those who know their beautiful bond, the dance was no empty gesture. Joe’s mom, Kim, is an icon of deep motherly love for her 10 beautiful children. Joe is all heart, a man without guile whom to know is to love.
Later in the evening, Joe’s sister Teresa and her husband Mariano danced with their little girl perched on Mariano’s shoulders. He held Teresa’s waist while she gently held their toddler steady on her daddy’s shoulders. Meanwhile, another sister, Anna, danced with her husband Charlie, their month-old baby resting between them in a baby carrier sling. The love circulating among the little families, the unabashed joy in each other’s company, was radiant. Love had led to marriage. Marriage had led to a further outpouring of love. The delightful fruit of that committed love perched on Mariano’s shoulders and rested on Anna’s bosom.
As it happened, I had also witnessed the “Either” of the Either-Or dichotomy earlier that week. I was installing Covenant Eyes, a Christian web filter, on my new smart phone. I needed to type in a sexual search term to test the filter. Immediately several images came up (due to my smart-phone-challenged errors, which two hours with Covenant Eyes’ phone team resolved). The images were of sex without love and without commitment – of body parts in contact without hearts, minds, or human beings truly touching at all. The images were sterile, desolate, and sad. These were men and women whose protective fatherliness and nurturing motherliness were erased in depersonalized animality. They exhibited everything and showed nothing.
Either-Or. As Israel prepares to enter the Promised Land, Moses issues a final exhortation. He knows that they may forget the Lord who has rescued them from Pharaoh’s hand. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19).
The Catholic approach to sexuality – to life itself – can seem needlessly strict and ultimately anti-sex, a list of “noes”. No sex until marriage. No contraception. No divorce. Modesty in dress. No unchaste glances. No flirting. No porn. The worldly approach, by contrast, can seem free, open, fun, and exhilarating. I can have sex, in person or virtually, with just about anyone at anytime. No consequences. No pain. Victimless crimes.
However, sometimes real life can look like death, and death like life. The hedonist in Either/Or seeks pleasure after pleasure in a relentless flight from boredom, restlessness, and transformative suffering. Our culture does the same, reaping the deadly harvest of millions of abortions, rampant STDs, collapsing marriages and families, pointless lives. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps forth in its petty pace from day to day..” “Let us eat, drink, have sex, for tomorrow we die.”
The fruit of years of Christian commitment – of parents, grandparents, siblings, and of the couple themselves – overflowed at Joe and Valerie’s wedding celebration. Persevering love – of Jesus, of family, of integrity, of real life itself – were the deep roots out of which flowered a Tree of Life under with many, many can shelter. “I have come that they might have life, and life to the full” (Jn 10:10). “Choose life…”(Deut 30.19). Either-Or.