A liberation theology for single people

A few years ago, when I was a psychology professor at Westmont College (an evangelical Christian college), I found myself consoling a distressed student. Courtney was a gifted, well-liked student who had already secured an exciting post-graduation job. But despite this reality, Courtney was in my office sobbing about the fact that she was set to graduate in 3 weeks and was not engaged. In fact, she was without a boyfriend or any prospects at all. Courtney should have been celebrating her impending achievement — or at least lumbering about in a senioritis-induced coma. But no, she was sobbing and screeching in my office, declaring that she could not face post-graduation life without a man by her side.

Drawing upon my dynamic experience as a single adult, I promised her, “You have no idea how much fun and adventure is ahead of you! Rent a house with a bunch of your friends, travel, enjoy your job, discover who you are — your 20s will be so much better than you think they’ll be.” Courtney lifted her head to face me head on and I could see dark lines of mascara running down her cheeks. Then with her right forearm, she took a clumsy swipe at her runny nose, smearing snot all over mascara-stained cheeks. And she said to me, “Dr. Cleveland, I appreciate your effort but I feel like I shouldn’t be taking advice from you. I mean, let’s face it: You’re my worst nightmare. You’re 29 and alone.”

I actually had to stifle a laugh because my first thought was, “Girlfriend, look in the mirror. You’re your own worst nightmare. You’re sitting here covered in snot and mascara on the eve of such a bright future. Meanwhile, I have a great life — I have a wonderful community, I’m in an invigorating career, I am leader at my church, I’m becoming more and more comfortable in my skin.” But I ultimately held my tongue and responded with compassion because as a social psychologist and someone who has grown up in American Christian culture, I understood that her anxiety, hopelessness and fear about singleness were primarily the product of her culture. She was reacting to the prospect of being single exactly the way she had been socially programmed to do. Indeed, her distress was an indictment on the dominant theologies in the Western church in which marriage is seen as more holy, more valuable, more fruitful and mature than singleness. (For more on this, please see my widely-read article Singled Out: How Churches Can Embrace Single Adults, which I wrote when I was “33 and alone.”)

That a marriage-centric American Church culture and a “Ring by Spring” Christian college cultural mandate could so deteriorate the soul of such a bright, beautiful, strong, Imago Dei-bearing single person broke my heart. So I hugged her, handed her a box of Kleenexes, and let her veg on my office couch for the rest of the afternoon. Because that was the most loving thing I could think to do.

Why a Liberation Theology?

Now that I’m “35 and alone,” I’m beginning to formally construct a liberation theology of singleness. This article is just a beginning — and I’m hoping for feedback from single people.

Even though the term “liberation theology” makes some people (especially conservative Christians) uncomfortable, I’ve chosen to use it because liberation theologies seek to free people who have been oppressed by dominant theologies. Liberation theologies accomplish this by uncovering the ways in which the oppressed people’s identities have been tarnished by the dominant theologies, and defining a new reality, in which the image of God in all are honored. For example, Mujerista (e.g., Latina) liberation theologian Ada María Isazi-Díaz described liberation theology as bringing “to birth new women and new men…knowing that such work requires the denunciation of all destructive sense of self-abnegation.”

Additionally, liberation theologies are typically written by and for people of color in opposition to dominant theologies. Due to brutal societal forces like mass incarceration, heterosexual brown and black people experience singleness at disproportionately higher rates than whites. For example, according to a 2009 Census Bureau study, 60% of college-educated black women have never been married compared to 38% of college-educated white women. Since brown and black people experience singleness at higher rates than whites, they are also more likely to be marginalized by the dominant Western church’s marriage-centric theology. In other words, in addition to dealing with racism and sexism (and other -isms), single black women like me also have to deal with being marginalized as single people in our churches.

There is much work to be done. In order for single people to be free and empowered to follow the path before us, we must reject the dominant theologies that oppress us and forge a new way of thinking, living and relating. In other words, we need a theology of singleness that liberates us.

The Love of God for Single People

A couple of weeks ago while I was at Biola University (an evangelical Christian institution), the administration highlighted a brand-new Center for Marriage and Relationships (CMR). Generously funded by the university, this center seeks to strengthen marriages by offering premarital resources, free marriage conferences, and online articles such as “5 Healthy Habits of Happy Couples.” To be fair, the CMR’s webpage does include one video on “healthy perspectives on marriage and singleness” in which singles are encouraged not to view singleness as “a malady to be cured.”However, the large volume of marriage-centric resources compared to the lone video on singleness suggests that singleness -- while perhaps not a malady -- is definitely not worth thinking about, supporting or investing in.

I’m not interested in singling out (no pun intended) Biola’s CMR (in fact, I like and respect the folks who are leading it), but it’s a vivid and current contributor to a long-standing injustice. Despite the fact that almost half of U.S. adults are single and the majority of U.S. women are single, the dominant Christian culture insists on prioritizing and elevating marriage above singleness. The vast majority of resources, support and interest are channeled toward married people. Meanwhile single people are left out.

The marginalization of single people in the church is not just a sociological problem; it is also a theological problem. The dominant, marriage-centric theology — in which Christian colleges create centers for marriage (but not singleness) and pastors wax poetic about marriage (but not singleness) for 8-week sermon series — points to a God who loves single people a bit less than married people. Not only does this corrode the identities of single people who are rightful and invaluable members of the family of God, it tarnishes our perception of God.

For example, many marriage sermons focus on Ephesians 5, in which spouses are called to “Love one another as Christ loved the Church” (verse 25). Cool. That’s a great thing to shoot for in a marital relationship. However, pastors often make marriage the focal point of the passage when really the star of the passage is Christ’s love (and not marital love). Christ’s love is the standard, the fuel, and the hope. But when a sermon is primarily (if not wholly) devoted to marital love and the most oft-repeated human relational metaphor for God’s love is a marital one, single people are left to conclude that we are excluded from God’s love because we don’t have a spouse who “loves us like Christ loved the Church.”Said differently, it communicates to single people that the human relational experience of God’s love is limited to the institution of marriage.

A liberation theology for single people proclaims that the God of the Single Person, the same God who embarked on a mission of Love, left the perfect Love of the Trinity, crossed metaphysical planes in pursuit of Love, took on human flesh as an act of Love, and ultimately expressed Love for all on the cross, says NO to any suggestion that Love is unavailable or less available to single people.

The Love of God for the Single Person isn’t limited by marriage-centric metaphors, which were written by marriage-centric apostles for marriage-centric ancient cultures, and are perpetuated by marriage-centric theologies today. In fact, if spouses are called to express Christ’s love to each other, then the God of the Single Person, who has a proven track record of going to any length to creatively express Love promises to be even more intimately present, powerfully loving, and full of embrace in the lives of those who are not recipients of spousal love. Indeed, the Love of God for single people is more present and powerful than any human love can be.

But in order to receive it, we must affirm that it exists.

The Image of God in Single People

The overemphasis on Ephesians 5 not only suggests that God’s love is more available to married people; it also suggests that married people, as the human actors in the God’s love/marriage metaphor, are better fit to bear God’s image. This suggestion (whether explicitly spoken or not) is consistent with a general false belief that married people are more holy (e.g., more like God) than single people.As I wrote in Singled Out (see point #3), within the Western church, married people are automatically seen as image bearers - more holy, valuable, spiritually mature, useful, etc. 

A liberation theology for single people proclaims that God is neither married, nor single. God is relational. This means that God’s relational nature can be beautifully imaged by humans who are married or single. However, single people reflect the trinitarian nature of God in a unique way. As single people who are not committed to a dyadic/marital relationship with one other human being, we are free to invest in communities of people .

Like the Trinity, a community of three (not two) that is characterized by mutuality, equality, and interdependence, single people by nature of their social circumstances often inherently participate in communities that reflect the mutuality, equality, and interdependence that is at the very core of God’s relational nature. By participating in these communities, single people reflect a trinitarian (e.g., not dyadic/marital/biological) relational ethos - one of exchange, covenants that extend beyond the nuclear family, inclusivity, and spiritual rather than biological notions of family. I know many low income single women/mothers of color who practice this so well; their lived experience makes living in mutual, equal and interdependent community a necessity and in doing so, they image the relational trinitarian God in a beautiful and wholly distinct way.

The God of the Single Person who is reflected in the relational community of the trinity, came to earth as a single person and formed an intimate community that was not based on biological relationship (Mark 3:31-35). And even on the cross, the God of the Single Person reflected a trinitarian (not dyadic/marital/biological) relational ethos by blurring the lines between spiritual and biological family, asking his spiritual brother John to take care of his biological mother Mary.As single people who embody such an ethos, we uniquely reflect God’s image. AMEN.

I’m speaking at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Singleness 2016 conference in Phoenix next month.  Come on out for more theology (including the power, hope and wisdom of God in single people), spirituality and practice of singleness.