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Tuesday, January 05, 2010  

From Generation to Regeneration: The Bible and the Family

Something in the much-hyped Manhattan Declaration struck me as requiring a fuller response than what I wrote previously:

In Scripture, the creation of man and woman, and their one-flesh union as husband and wife, is the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In the transmission of life and the nurturing of children, men and women joined as spouses are given the great honor of being partners with God Himself...

[Gays] fail to understand, however, that marriage is made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, and that the comprehensive, multi-level sharing of life that marriage is includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit. This is because the body is no mere extrinsic instrument of the human person, but truly part of the personal reality of the human being. Human beings are not merely centers of consciousness or emotion, or minds, or spirits, inhabiting non-personal bodies. The human person is a dynamic unity of body, mind, and spirit. Marriage is what one man and one woman establish when, forsaking all others and pledging lifelong commitment, they found a sharing of life at every level of being—the biological, the emotional, the dispositional, the rational, the spiritual— on a commitment that is sealed, completed and actualized by loving sexual intercourse in which the spouses become one flesh, not in some merely metaphorical sense, but by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation. That is why in the Christian tradition, and historically in Western law, consummated marriages are not dissoluble or annullable on the ground of infertility, even though the nature of the marital relationship is shaped and structured by its intrinsic orientation to the great good of procreation.

This is not an argument for liberals, secular or religious, to dismiss. Even if you think of marriage as a cultural institution (and the stories about it in religious traditions as etiologies), granting legal status to marriages of any kind implies some public meaning or purpose we attribute to them. The Manhattan Declarers are proposing procreation as the defining purpose of sexuality, marital union, and the family--a purpose that is central in defining the institution in general even if in specific instances a marriage does not or cannot produce offspring.

And there is a lot of truth to this, at least as regards the Biblical tradition. When the Biblical authors speak of "the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob," they are referring to a God who makes promises to, and is worshiped by, a community rooted in procreation. The "children [sons] of Israel" are literal descendants, people for whom God and family are ultimately indistinguishable. Thus the biological family is central to God's purposes--to sustaining creation, to handing down the faith, to living and making known a good life. Specifically "religious" sentiment is only one factor in this equation, and not always the most important one. This is why there are secular Jews but no secular Lutherans.

There is, however, another cluster of images in the Bible that portray family in a much different light. There is the story of Ruth and Naomi, who are not joined by blood kinship but who are drawn together by God's purposes. There is the prophecy in Isaiah that the eunuchs (a group excluded, in no uncertain terms, from the holy community in the books of Moses) who obey the sabbaths will be given a more honored place than sons and daughters.

The New Testament amplifies these images greatly. Paul calls himself the spiritual father of Onesimus, the slave for whose freedom he pleads in the letter to Philemon. The holy community is referred to as the adelphoi (Gr. brothers/brothers and sisters), even after her fellowship has expanded to include Gentiles. Paul calls the heavenly Jerusalem the mother of believers and John the Divine compares the union of Christ and his Church to that of marriage.

And all this before mentioning the Bible's harshest critic of the traditional family, Jesus himself. He came to enlighten those born not of flesh and blood but of God, those born again/from above. He holds the work of the Kingdom of God sacred above all else, even the obligation to bury one's own father, and says he has come not to bring unity among families but division between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. Not only that, he says you must be willing to hate mother, father, siblings, and children to be fit for the Kingdom. Confronted with his mother and brothers, he points to his disciples as his true mother and brothers, as are all who do the will of his Father in heaven.

In these passages we see another understanding of family. In these passages, truth and promise and faith are not transmitted by procreation but by conversion. Jesus dies unmarried and childless, a failure by the family-centric standards of his day. But his family grows to be larger than that of any patriarch.

It is tempting to label these two images of family with theological terms: creation for the former, redemption for the latter; nature and grace; eros and agape; flesh and spirit. Tempting, but wrong, and subtly anti-Jewish. There is plenty of redemption, grace, and spirit in the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and their descendants. By the same token, the new, redemptive family of the New Testament does not obliterate the order of creation but complements it in a beautiful tension until the end of time. I'm choosing to label them as "generation" and "regeneration," with the latter images (e.g., Jesus and his disciples) repeating and expanding the former (e.g., Joseph and his brothers). To lose one of these images is to lose both, because without the bonds of biological family we would have no suitable metaphors for the depth of love in the community formed in re-generation, and without the expansion of love outside of the biological family it would grow cold and small and tribal.

What surprises me a little bit about the language of the Manhattan Declaration is that it gives such short shrift to the images of family that I am grouping under "regeneration." It is odd considering Robert George's engagement with the Catholic tradition, which has consistently demeaned the biological family at the expense of the community formed by the sacraments and by monastic celibacy--the mystical body of Christ and its obligations first, the literal body of the family and its obligations second. It is strange also because it defines adoptive families--formal or informal--as defective versions of the real thing, when in fact Jesus's words could be used to argue that they're the truest expressions of human love.

I'm far from being able to argue from these texts for a ritual recognition of same-sex relationships in the Church--I'll leave that to the real experts. But I think any statement on "Christian teachings" regarding the family has to grapple with this second set of images and must, perforce, leave room for families that can prefigure the Kingdom of God outside of even a formal resemblance to procreation. It may still seem prudent to exclude sexual intercourse from the definition of these families, though I don't agree. But what can't be done is to say that procreation defines family, period. If so, a great deal of our tradition, including what comes from our Lord himself, is not only irrelevant but downright wicked--God forbid.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 6:22 PM
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