Chapter 4: Toward a Contemporary
Theology of the Family (from pages 93-117)
Monogamy plays a significant role in the teachings of Jesus. It survived dualistic assaults in the early centuries of the church as well as in later centuries, was ensconced in natural-law theory and the sacramental lexicon, emerged powerfully in the Protestant Reformation as an “order of creation,” and became especially central in Puritan theology. Despite somewhat frail beginnings, the idea of lasting marriage as an end in itself and as the precondition for responsible procreation ascended to its high status in Christian tradition. Thus, it is impossible for the Christian who is faithful to the teachings of Jesus to speak of different lifestyles as being equal: it is not good when a woman chooses to forgo marriage and bring a child into the world fatherless; nor is it good for a biological father to act as a mere impregnator who takes no responsibility for the child; nor is the culture of divorce acceptable.
In this chapter I review some of the diverse currents in the contemporary
Christian ethics of marriage and family, noting again that, as James M. Gustafson comments, “more attention has been given to homosexuality, abortion, and pre- and extramarital sexual relationships than to marriage and families as communities and institutions.” I have organized the material under a series of problematical issues that
should, I think, inform future ethical and pastoral discussion. I then conclude by considering the wider theological implications of family theology for our knowledge of God.
The Institution of the Family
Thinking of the family as an institution suggests comparisons with schools, religious bodies, and even hospitals. Social institutions are defined in terms of their places and functions in society. Most schools exist to educate the young so that they may assume their rightful creative role in society’s future; churches and synagogues exist to provide a context and community for the expression of human spirituality; hospitals exist to heal or manage illness. Every lasting institution serves society in an irreplaceable way—and the family is no exception. The family exists to teach and to tend loved ones, usually in interaction with various other institutions.
To think of marriage and the family that unfolds from it in institutional terms is useful because it encourages parents to think in terms of their distinctive roles and duties. Alongside other social institutions, the family exists to provide ample parental love and support for children, and to allow husband and wife the opportunity to grow in conjugal love within a context of loyalty and trust. The marriage vow (“in sickness and health, till death do us part”) is the beginning of a journey in life that will require remarkable degrees of spirituality, solicitude, respect, self-sacrifice, patience, kindness, forgiveness, and hope. The love that resulted in marriage and then parenthood must be made a thousand times more profound through a journey that will at times be trying. Religious communities, not the state, have generally taken responsibility for preparing the faithful for marriage. It is unfortunate that serious efforts to prepare for marriage have diminished, with the result that too many persons are very poorly prepared for marriage and parenthood. Secular strategies, such as parenting classes in public schools and even a state-sponsored licensing program for would-be parents, have been suggested in response to the current state of necessity. Churches ought to reclaim this social role, partly because the preparation is likely to be more successful when undertaken in a sacred rather than a secular context.
Pastoral Care in the Culture of Divorce
One use of the word “family” is a purely metaphorical one: a family is two or more people who consider themselves tied together by care and love. It is a high tribute to the core reality of the biological family (mother, father, and children) that its special moral tone of consanguinity and mutual support has made this metaphorical use of the term “family” readily understandable to most people through the centuries.
But I am not pursuing metaphors and analogies, although the language of familial relations is central to any discussion of Christian ethics (for example, being equally children of God, we therefore have filial-based duties to brothers and sisters, including all of humanity). Instead, my concern is with the form of those literal families in which procreation occurs. In the Judeo-Christian context, the literal family includes the spiritual and physical union of man and woman joined faithfully in God’s sight, which subsequently engenders children who are to be cared for. In the Catholic tradition, this marital union that leads to pro-creation was afforded a new dignity by virtue of its religious consecration as a sacrament; for Luther and Protestants, this union was afforded dignity by virtue of its being deemed a kind of participation in God’s ordering of creation. Classically, pastoral caregivers have devoted a great deal of time and attention to preparing engaged couples for marriage and family through instruction in the meaning of the matrimonial and parental covenants; the importance of married spirituality, in which husband and wife care for one another’s souls in prayerfulness; and the significance of caring for children as divine entrustments. More recently, however, pastoral care has often been part of the problem.
Jean Miller Schmidt and Gail E. Murphy-Geiss describe the Methodist movement away from the two-parent family and toward the “changing needs of newer forms.” These authors lament the slowness of this movement, and assert, with some degree of truth, that “overall, the Methodist emphasis on grace means that acceptance and compassion must be the norms.” They quote a leader from their Board of Global
Ministries who calls upon Methodists to accept “the biblical notion of family in which everyone is a brother or sister and the family is the family of God.”
This representative mainline Protestant view has three major problems: (1) it ignores the data indicating that, in general, children do better with two parents; (2) it draws solely on the ethic of unconditional acceptance without providing direction consistent with Christian tradition, and is therefore unbalanced; and (3) it too easily ignores the bio-logically grounded family in favor of the metaphorical one.
Theologian William R. Garrett sees these flaws in the current Presbyterian view. He writes that the accommodation to an “anything goes” approach to the family is now more or less complete:
By the time the baby boomer generation had begun to reach its child-bearing years, Presbyterians had largely forsaken any attempt to transform family patterns in conformity with some normative model, opting instead to develop ministries that related to the spiritual needs of its members regardless of the family forms its members embraced.
While it remains important for pastoral caregivers to begin by unconditionally
affirming that God loves people no matter what their circum-stances, it is equally important that they emphasize the benefits and meaning of the two-parent family that begins in loyal marriage.
Over the last two decades, many Protestant theologians and pastoral caregivers have embraced familial formlessness, perhaps because they do not wish to cause any discomfort. In their study of theology of the family and pastoral care, for example, John Patton and Brian H. Childs state, “There is no ideal form for the Christian family toward which we should strive. There is, however, a normative function: care.” While there is much value in their definition of care as a combination of appreciation, respect, compassion, and solicitude, they refuse to “argue for or against any particular form of the family or for who ought to be living together and for how long.” For Patton and Childs, who are both liberal Protestants, any form is acceptable, for however long, if redemptive “care” is present. No formative order, nomos, or empirical data shapes their thinking. If, however, the generalized benefits of having two parents joined in loyal marriage are taken into account, an ethics of care may in fact require a more directive pastoral approach than Patton and Childs allow.
Other liberal Protestant thinkers also mistakenly link care with such relational chaos. In 1978, the highly influential James B. Nelson published his book entitled Embodiment. Nelson’s assertions of the goodness of the body and of sex must be lauded as a contribution to marital fullness: he affirms the goodness of creation, the body, and eros; he is properly critical of male images of sexuality that result in the abuse of women instead of affective intimacy. His Freudian framework can be questioned on empirical grounds, as can some of his derivative assertions about the absence of sexual expression inviting “self- destruction.” Nevertheless, his analysis of the relationship of sex to human well-being is helpful, particularly since some of Christianity, in contrast to Judaism,
has been unduly suspicious of sexual intimacy (although the sexual sphere is as prone to exploitation as any other area of human activity).
Yet, apropos of the principle of creation, Nelson departs from the moral signposts of Christian ethics when he indicates that, in some cases, marital fidelity is fully consistent with nonexclusive sexual intimacies. This “open marriage” departure from the sexual exclusivity associated with Christian monogamy represents a serious criticism of the tradition. Nelson argues for personal relativism: he asserts that the form of marriage ought to be “congruent with the authentic needs of persons” and, further, that we ought never to “absolutize” a particular institutional
But Christian tradition teaches an exclusive monogamy, as indicated by the New Testament, even if it allows for divorce in compelling cases. Christian thinkers have attached great importance to fidelity in marriage: biblical warrants require it; marriage is considered a one-flesh union for the duration of partners’ lives (an increasingly lengthy commitment in our aging society); the pattern of Christ’s own faithfulness
is considered an ideal for marriage. On the matter of fidelity, a position such as Nelson’s will stir response from thoughtful conservative Christian ethicists. Gilbert Meilaender, for example, summarizes Nelson’s position to mean “I promise . unless and until new possibilities for growth and self-realization lead me to a new partner.”
Like Nelson, Protestant ethicist Christine E. Gudorf does not affirm monogamous marriage and the two-parent family. In her discussion of marriage, Gudorf cites Jessie Bernard’s well-known assertion (made in 1971) that married women are “more phobic, passive, and depressed” than single women. This claim is questionable. No doubt some women have been and are oppressed by marital patriarchy through control of property and the potentially stifling role of full-time
mother. But Bernard’s analysis reflects a form of anti-family feminism that was eventually moderated through the later writings of Betty Friedan and others. Gudorf does indicate that the best solution to the problem of marriage and family is to abolish patriarchal inequalities rather than the husband-wife form itself. However, she supports alternatives to the two-parent family: “Families need not be based on marriage. Families can be collections of persons who are committed to the physical, moral, spiritual, social, and intellectual development of other members of the collective unit in an ongoing way.” And she goes on to claim that “marriage can take many shapes and forms.” She also leaves dangling, in a troubling way, this query: “Is there a purpose and content to marriage once it is no longer about the ownership and control of woman and children, once both entering and remaining within marriage are voluntary?” Clearly there is a reason for marriage: providing children with the love of both a mother and a father.
In today’s culture of divorce and alternative relationships, pastoral caregivers must reassert (without shaming) the form of the family—that is, mothers and fathers in loyal marital partnerships, working and caring together. Of course, separation by death and justifiable divorce will occur—but these splittings of the nucleus assume that a whole nucleus was once in place, and this is the responsibility of Christian pastoral caregivers. The principle that it is good for a child to have both a committed father and mother is difficult to improve upon. The question now is whether the empirical data can begin to turn pastoral care around. It would be helpful, for example, if all students in pastoral-care programs could be required to read social-scientific studies such as that of Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, who conclude that about 70 percent of divorces occur due to “low conflict” between spouses and should be avoided in order to benefit children. Such divorces are unnecessary and break important familial bonds.
Resisting the Acculturation of Christianity
Contemporary theologians and pastoral caregivers should be teaching that marriage and family, over the long term, require a more mature form of love (agape) than a burst of romanticism. Secondly, they should be teaching that marriage is a covenant rather than a contract.
Passion Contained by Agape
Though it was published in 1940, I consider Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World to be prophetic and cogent in its analysis of the problem
of a divorce culture. A lay Catholic, de Rougemont much appreciated the institutional aspects of marriage and family. He contrasts two “rival moral systems,” one that made marriage into a sacrament and another that essentially viewed it as a mistake. The rival of marriage is the religion of passion—and, in effect, adultery. De Rougemont explains that the church viewed adultery as both a sin and a crime:
In the eyes of the Church, adultery was at one and the same time a
sacrilege, a crime against the natural order, and a crime against the social order. For the sacrament conjoined in one and the same act two faithful souls, two bodies capable of begetting, and two juridical per-sons. It was therefore a sacrament that made holy the fundamental needs of both the species and the community.
Today the religion (or “ultimate concern”) of passion and adultery so permeates modern culture as to make such lasting unions appear ridiculous. Adultery swoops down to destroy what would otherwise have lasted. The pain is very real and often leads to emotional and familial disaster. Oddly, however, our culture tends to think of passionate violations of marriage (and, therefore, of family and society) as interesting. The potency of such passion does wear off as reality asserts itself over
time and the inflamed mind regains reason; but by then the damage has been done. While the passion had dominion, it was more real than the world and obligations to spouse and children—even to self. As a culture, we esteem passion more than social stability.
De Rougemont reminds us that marriage requires a conversion to the love of neighbor, even the love of enemies, because there will be moments when a spouse will feel like an enemy. No loyal husband or wife can honestly say that at some point he or she did not ask, quietly and alone, “Why did I marry this person?” Perhaps the marriage began in the heat of passion, but no attention was given to aims in life and common interests that might make for an enduring and interesting sexual friendship.
Christianity requires creative fidelity “for better, for worse.” Although it cannot possibly anticipate future contingencies, it does not need to—since the marriage vow is categorical rather than hypothetical. As de Rougemont notes, “Fidelity is extremely unconventional. It contradicts the general belief in the revelatory value of spontaneity and manifold experiences. It denies that in order to remain lovable a beloved must display the greatest possible number of qualities.” The idea of marriage has to do with containing passion through the power of committed love for spouse and children.
To the extent that our culture has lost sight of this form of love in its fervor to exalt momentary feeling, it means the end of order; the end of order brings with it the eventual loss of freedoms. Our world of presidential philandering, of talk-show promiscuity, jealousy, and rage, is the public expression of a disorder that dominates over love and God’s design. This design does not require self-immolation or the tolerance of domestic violence and cruelty; it does require considerable self-sacrifice
and much forgiveness.
Covenant, Not Contract
Another way of approaching the above concerns is with the more Protestant language of covenant. The notion of a marriage contract ensures that a marriage will last only as long as it serves the love of the self, including the self ’s infatuations. The language of covenant versus contract has started to capture public attention and to stir debate about the role of law in shaping moral behavior.
Little moral or spiritual dignity remains when marriage is regarded as a mere civil contract that can be dissolved without justification. Catholicism would contend that the very idea of marriage as anything other than a sacrament over which the church alone is ultimately empowered automatically diminishes its dignity. Protestantism would contend that, even if marriage is rightfully controlled by the state, it is nevertheless a divinely ordered state that is obligated to uphold in law and policy the design of God. Marriage and the family should not be governed by the dictates of contractual self-interest, which should be confined to marketplace consumerism.
Legal historian John Witte Jr. makes the finest current statement about the problems of secularization and the diminishment of marriage through the language of contract. He underscores the fact that marriage law was shaped by models of Catholic sacrament, Lutheran social estate, Calvinist covenant, and Anglican commonwealth, all of which have in common the notion of relative permanence. With the Enlightenment, however, this deeper ethic was set aside:
The essence of marriage, Enlightenment thinkers argued, was not its
sacramental symbolism, nor its covenantal associations, nor its social service to the community and commonwealth. The essence of marriage was the voluntary bargain struck between two parties who wanted to come together into an intimate association. The terms of their marital bargain were not preset by God or nature, church or state, tradition or community Couples should now be able to make their own marital beds, and lie in them or leave them as they saw fit.
This change was too radical to transform much nineteenth-century law. And at the turn of the twentieth century, leading legal authorities in England and the United States still referred to marriage as “the highest state of existence,” “a public institution of universal concern,” “a state of existence ordained by the Creator,” and so forth. The U.S. Supreme Court spoke of marriage as “more than a contract,” “a sacred obligation,” and a “foundation” of civilization. Nevertheless, Enlightenment ideas gradually began changing the concept of marriage. The transformation began “slowly at the turn of the century, gained momentum with the New Deal, and broke into full stride during the 1960s and thereafter.” According to Witte, the Enlightenment call for a “privatization of marriage and the family has come to greater institutional expression.” Recent history supports this statement. By the late 1970s, all states in the U.S. had passed unrestricted divorce laws. At the end of the
twentieth century, the legal language of marriage has become completely secularized. In addition, marriage law has accommodated itself to the full realization of the individualist model, with no recognition of institutional or social responsibility.
Nevertheless, there are some signs that the pendulum is swinging back. On August 15, 1997, Louisiana changed its domestic relations law. A couple can now choose between a contract marriage, with unrestricted access to no-fault divorce, and covenant marriage. The latter includes premarital counseling about lifelong commitment, obligation to seek marital counseling if needed, and restrictive grounds for divorce or separation (adultery, physical or sexual cruelty to the other spouse or the child, imprisonment for a felony, and lengthy separation). There are no clear data regarding the number of couples who choose covenant marriage, largely because marriage records are not centralized there. Still, the choice of covenant marriage is a promising sign.
The idea of covenant marriage law has not yet caught on with law-makers across the U.S., although about twenty states have considered it in the context of ongoing policy reform. Objections come from lawyers concerned with the complexity of restoring fault in divorce proceedings, from libertarians and liberals concerned with government intrusion, and from those concerned with the risk of increased domestic violence. The fate of covenant law still remains to be determined, and
other roads to reform will also be tried. These include required or voluntary premarital counseling, marriage and parenting education in the schools, and waiting periods before allowing divorce.
In this context, pastoral caregivers should emphasize the fact that Christian tradition does not accept the contract privatization of marriage, that marriage is of concern to church and society, and that marriage should be neither entered into nor terminated lightly. Any discussion of covenant models leads back to the deeper discussion of the nature of love.
The idea of legislating morality, once the Christian center of Western culture, has lost its hold. Nevertheless, one role of the law is to instruct. The call for a new ethics and spirituality of marriage and the family must come from within our religious communities, and the law should resonate reasonably well with this ethics. Jesus’ words on divorce are radical, yet Christians are bound to take these words seriously and to implement them to the greatest possible extent. Unless theologians, pastoral
caregivers, and church leadership take on the problem of the divorce culture from a Christian perspective, the integrity of Christianity will be eroded.
There is nothing in the experience of men quite like becoming a father. Fatherhood is a new way of being in the world. Many fathers still fail; but many succeed in becoming responsible and caring and, in some cases, morally and spiritually resurrected. It is worth recalling that Christianity teaches that humanity was saved by the birth of a child. Ideally, fatherhood occurs within the context of marriage. Marriage harnesses the energy of males to help in rearing children and engages their lifelong commitment and investment. Polygamy, polyandry, and adultery are not altogether incompatible with this process, but they are detrimental to stable reciprocal attachment. Who has ever met a wife or a husband who is pleased to have only a share in a spouse’s loyalty and affection? The usual outcomes are jealousy, discord, and rage, rather than the family love and dignity that a spouse rightfully deserves. Anything other than loyalty and exclusive intimacy is fundamentally degrading to the partner.
The reproductive process involves males and females in ways that are distinctly different. This distinction has been the perennial model for much cosmological, philosophical, and theological speculation. There is the animus and anima of Jungian analysis. The image of male and female joined together in a creative, integrative, species-continuing wholeness is expressed in the Tantric Buddhist Jewel and Lotus, the Hindu Lingam (Shiva) and Yoni (Shakti), the Chinese Yang and Yin, and in Genesis 1:27 as well as Jewish mysticism. The male-female
partnership that produces children is highly respected, if not revered, in many traditions. As David Bakan has written from the Jewish context, the man-woman-child “holy trinity” is an “ultimate paradigm of wholeness, wholesomeness, and holiness.”
Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel wrote his highly regarded essay entitled “The Creative Vow as Essence of Fatherhood” in 1943. Marcel contrasts the man imbued with the spirit of fatherhood with “the man who gives free rein to his progenitive instinct.” As Marcel views it, fatherhood is a “hazardous conquest” that is “achieved step by step,” consistent with “an unfathomable order, divine in its principle.” In his earlier essay, “The Mystery of the Family,” Marcel had sketched a
metaphysic conferring on the family a “sacred character” as a reflection of divine nature. Without such theological consecration, the family “decomposes and dies.” My earlier study of theology and the family is an effort to further this line of analysis.
Whatever one’s conclusions about the need for a sacred canopy over the family, one would have to admit that the state of the family and of fatherhood is undermined today. Everywhere we look, fatherhood is diminished. My own memories of a hardworking father who was capable of giving reassuring hugs and who sacrificed so much for our family’s economic comfort and education are mostly (but of course, not
entirely) positive. Yet the current impression is that fathers are unimportant and incidental. Movie stars are portrayed on the covers of magazines with the newly arrived baby and a caption such as “And Baby Makes Two.” The message is clear: If an unmarried movie star such as Jodie Foster can have a baby without a father in the vicinity, then it must be perfectly fine.
But everything is not fine—either for society or for Christianity. In the year 2000, 40 percent of American children will be born out of wedlock, and about one-fourth of these out-of-wedlock babies will be born to women who deliberately chose single parenthood. The consequences? Nearly 30 percent of children will live in single-parent homes, mostly headed by mothers; nearly half of these will grow up poor, untended for long periods of the day (and therefore less socialized and less
disciplined), and wondering whatever happened to dad. They will be more likely than their peers to be put on detention in school, more likely to run away from home, more likely to suffer from depression and commit suicide. These are the dark statistics.
It doesn’t take a social scientist to appreciate the many losses that divorce creates for children. Practically speaking, it is more difficult for a father to stay financially and emotionally involved with his children when they do not reside together, and when he spends a part of his in-come on maintaining a separate residence. In the many difficult moments of rearing a child, from handling diaper changes and wild temper tantrums to simply running out to the store for more milk, there will be two hands rather than four. A boy will lack a fully responsible male role
model, and a girl will lack the example of a committed and solicitous male who will hopefully shape her expectations in her future choice of a mate. The mother who cannot share responsibilities with a father is likely to experience greater physical and emotional stress.
Sociologist David Blankenhorn’s summary of the social cost of “the flight of males from their children’s lives” raises issues of universal concern. “Over the past three decades,” he observes, “many religious leaders—especially in the mainline Protestant denominations—have largely abandoned marriage as a vital area of religious attention, essentially handing the entire matter over to opinion leaders and divorce lawyers in the secular society.” Blankenhorn writes that fatherhood is “less the in-elastic result of sexual embodiment than the fragile creation of cultural norms.” The rate of fatherlessness is higher than ever —since 1994, 40 percent of the nation’s children have not lived with their fathers. Driven
by divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing, we have “split the nucleus of the nuclear family.” It is true that some single women do a fine job of rearing their children. Nevertheless, on average, fatherless children will be less able to take their rightful creative places in society.
Youth violence, especially among males, is due in some measure to the absence of a father-mentor, which can result in undisciplined lives and deep resentment. “Prisons cannot replace fathers,” Blankenhorn says bluntly. To salvage the future from violence, “we must fashion a new cultural story of fatherhood,” “change from a divorce culture to a marriage culture,” and affirm that “being a real man means being a good father.”
Procreation guided by the principle of creation ensures that men become fathers not just in body (inseminators) but in the spirit and action of steadfast covenant love. Christian churches have a responsibility to encourage caring fatherhood. As feminists have pointed out, however, there can be no solution to the problem of fatherlessness until men and women achieve harmony based on equality and intimacy. Paul Ramsey once wrote, “A reflection of God’s love, binding himself to the world and the world to himself, is found in the claim He placed upon men and women in their creation when he bound the nurturing of marital love and procreation together in the nature of human sexuality.” The too-often deep harms of familial patriarchy afflict women, children, and, eventually, the very structures of society. But Christianity remains a powerful source of wisdom in response to the new problematical issue of fatherlessness.
My own parental experience tells me that the relationship that my daughter and son have with their mother is qualitatively different from their relationship with me. This doesn’t mean that one is better or worse—just different in texture. The wisdom of God in giving each child both a mother and a father is incalculable. The full implementation of this wisdom seems to point toward models of co-parenting, in which both mother and father are deeply bonded with their children.
Patriarchy and Divorce
Formlessness is one response to a tradition of marriage and family that is plagued by patriarchy. But the plague of patriarchy doesn’t mean that the form of the two-parent family can be rejected in principle; without it, children will suffer, and an essential element of New Testament Christianity will be lost. The fact of patriarchy, explicit in all the classical Protestant statements and the source of much oppression historically, continues to undermine the future of the Christian family. But this headship patriarchy is giving way to the hard-won influence of feminism and gender equality in both the family and in society. In their essay in Religion, Feminism, and the Family, Anne Carr and Douglass J. Schuurman assert that the harmful structures of patriarchy are part of “a sinful, fallen world which God wills to redeem.” Redemption is possible, argues Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen in Gender and Grace, and Christianity does have the resources to mediate between strong family relations and feminist concerns for equality.
The literature on feminism, faith, and family is well discussed in the above-mentioned sources. Without question, the problem of women fleeing from marriage is to a considerable degree the problem of men creating the circumstances that prompt flight. It is also the result of a general societal movement over the last four decades toward a broader individualism, in which self-fulfillment has became more important than responsibility to others, and taboos against easy divorce and having
children outside marriage have faded quickly.
The question of whether men and women can live equally and well together is resolved in each marriage as a matter of practical commitment. When marriages do fail, children are more prone to fail. But children aren’t the only ones who suffer. Divorce also has costly consequences for many men and women.
The research on the negative effects of divorce is quite striking. For example (as mentioned in Chapter 1), when Judith S. Wallerstein and Joan Berlin Kelley undertook a longitudinal study in the 1970s of sixty families undergoing divorce, they expected that most normal, healthy people would work out their problems within a year of divorce. Contrary to this original assumption, many people were still struggling to cope with their familial breakup long after divorce. Follow-up interviews
conducted five, ten, and fifteen years after the divorce indicated that consequences can persist especially for children, but also for adults.
Indeed, marital disruption is “the single most powerful predictor of stress-related physical as well as emotional illness,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Mortality rates, including suicide, are much higher for divorced men; suicide rates for divorced women are considerably higher than rates for never-married, married, and widowed women. Mortality from accidents and the incidence of acute and chronic illnesses in general are higher among divorced women. In a study designed to assess the correlation between education level and levels of heavy drinking, it was discovered that men and women who were separated or divorced were 4.5 times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than the comparison group of married persons. In addition to the adverse health and life consequences for
many children of divorce, the physical and emotional impact of divorce on spouses is considerable. A powerful objective summary of the data has been published by the National Institute for Healthcare Research.
Certainly there are numerous cases of justified divorce in which a man or a woman may be healthfully liberated from a very repressive context. However, easy divorce is no panacea (literally, “healing remedy”), although too many spouses suffer under the illusion that it is just that.
The nuclear form of marriage, which uniquely ensures children a mother and a father, should be seriously undertaken, even though every rule admits of some necessary exceptions. No woman, for example, should have to endure domestic violence, an aspect of patriarchy that seems never to go away. Nevertheless, divorce, especially in the context of long-term health consequences for both children and adults, ought not to be casual.
Men and Women in Rapprochement
Many feminists as well as male theologians now wish to discuss how marriage and family life can be enhanced by equality and intimacy. Evangelical theologians are among them.
In contrast to some of the liberal Protestant views outlined above, Paul K. Jewett’s Man as Male and Female stands out as a gem. A faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, Jewett wrote as a thoughtful and informed evangelical scholar. In this book, Jewett states that while the classical notion of imago Dei refers to Man’s “unique powers of self-transcendence,” it can also be asserted that “Man’s creation in the divine image is so related to his creation as male and female that the latter may be looked upon as an exposition of the former.” Thus, the relationship of wife and husband hints at certain features of God. Jewett reaches this conclusion:
Since God created Man male and female, both must acknowledge the
call of God to live creatively in a relationship of mutual trust and confidence, learning through experiment in relationship what God has ordained that they should learn in no other way. This calls for integrity on the part of the man to renounce the prerogatives, privileges, and powers which tradition has given him in the name of male head-ship.
And it calls for courage on the part of the woman to share the burdens and responsibilities of life with the man, that in love and humility they may together fulfill their common destiny as Man.
Jewett’s key insight, informed by Genesis 1:27, is that the image of God includes maleness and femaleness, and that the human completion of this image includes both marriage and Pauline equality (Gal. 3:26-28). The love of parents for children reflects within human nature a central aspect of God’s love for each human person. There could hardly be a stronger sacred canopy for marriage and family.
Among the most influential statements of an evangelical familial ethics is the book by Gary R. Collins entitled Family Shock: Keeping Families Strong in the Midst of Earthshaking Change. Collins summarizes the end-of-the-century cultural forces that he believes threaten the stability of marriage and family, and he calls upon the churches to give direction. He embraces a form of “Christian feminism” endorsed by moderates:
These moderates reject the caricature that a woman’s place is solely in the home, waiting on her husband and forced to squelch her gifts, abilities, interests, and calling so she can stick around the house and do her husband’s bidding. But these women—their numbers include many Christians—value motherhood, support strong family ties, applaud both those who work in the marketplace and those who work at home, believe in the sanctity of marriage, and are committed to sexual purity and faithfulness.
Christian feminists, argues Collins, are prepared to acknowledge that radical feminism has helped to “improve the lot of women” and “bring healthy balance to many marriages.” This influence—probably not as pervasive as Collins suggests—opens the possibility for Christian (or good) feminism, described thus: “In its more balanced, biblically sensitive forms, feminism brings honor to the Creator and strengthens families.”
While some evangelicals—most notably Jewett—have attempted to employ a constructive theology to strengthen a form of nonpatriarchal marriage and family consistent with fidelity, some liberal Protestant thinkers have departed from the ideal of the principle of creation altogether. Jewett is truer to Christianity.
Perhaps the most compelling statement from a more liberal Protestant thinker is that of James M. Gustafson. Rejecting the model of family that draws on male hierarchy, Gustafson attempts to delineate a different model. According to him, “The divine empowering and ordering of life takes place in and through ‘nature’: through human biological relationships first of all.” Given the normal balance between male
and female, monogamy remains normative. Further, Gustafson affords marriage and family a theological dignity and a central role in “the order of human love.”
Gustafson emphasizes stewardship, mutual commitment, and “vocation” in marriage. One of the rewards of marriage and family is the love and gratitude that can be shared among family members. But there are also problems and difficulties to be faced: “There is pain and suffering in our stewardship: the anxiety and sufferings of others become our own; our intentions for the well-being of others are sometimes misunderstood, and sometimes are misguided.”
The potential burden of stewardship can tempt individuals to put themselves first. Ultimately, the “human fault” of egocentrism can destroy marriage and family. Drawing on Marcel’s writings, Gustafson views “fidelity” and loyalty as imperative for good stewardship in this and any context. Fidelity allows the family to become a school for piety and morality. In the family, individuals develop the senses of “dependence, gratitude, obligation, remorse and repentance, possibility, and direction that ground piety and ultimately theology, and morality and ultimately ethical thought.”
A socially responsive Christianity must construct a new ethics of marriage and family that, informed by equality between men and women, thinks deeply about what spouses owe each other, their children, and outsiders near and far. In such a Christianity, family becomes a central concern of the church—but never so as to exclude or burden those who are called to singleness, or to tolerate patriarchal abuses. Practically, the church cannot succeed unless families support its beliefs and values; by the same token, families need the support of the fellow-ship of believers lest they become insular and exclusionary. Christianity points to love in the family and the church as looking outward in the spirit of the Good Samaritan.
While human contingencies and social injustices result in necessary but always regrettable splits in the family nucleus, the Christian ideal remains: the family in its full ideal form is the culmination of marriage between man and woman as marked by the birth of children in covenant love or by the adopting of children. Bringing children into the world and rearing them with love and discipline are the main functions of the family, the essential fruit of marriage, the seal of a couple’s union, and the opportunity for profound moral growth through motherhood and fatherhood.
The ideal form of the family articulated above is more than an impressive image that, while easily acknowledged, need not be implemented. Scriptural teachings on the permanence of marriage and on the sanctity of motherhood and fatherhood need to be taken much more seriously as guides for actions and behavior.
Love is manifested in solicitude for the welfare of self and the other, and usually in a delight in the presence of the other. Love is the abrogation of the self-centered tendency. Many partial descriptions of agape can be combined to suggest that, building on a foundation of solicitude, love includes joy, compassion, commitment, and respect; love rejoices in the existence, presence, and growth of the other; love responds supportively to suffering, although it is present in the absence of suffering; love is loyal and patient; love honors the other’s freedom, integrity, and individuality. Ultimately this love is sustained by the conviction that a caring, parental God exists at the center of the universe, as revealed in the love of Jesus toward even the least among us. This is the same Jesus who taught that faithful marriage is consistent with the principle of creation. He must have loved children, since he wanted to see each child enjoy the attentive presence of both a mother and a father.
Conclusions for a New Family Theology
The love of a child for his parents can only be a response to the love of those parents for that child; it is the first love that a child can experience, and it is therefore important for the child’s development that parents create the conditions under which it can be elicited. As psychiatrist Willard Gaylin writes, human beings are unique because of the prolonged period each of us has from the “moment of birth to the moment of self-sufficiency or independence.” Emphasizing biological and evolutionary realities, he continues, “If there is no pouch, then the loving responses of the maternal organism must be its substitute. Otherwise, no species so designed could survive.” Helplessness, survival, and care are thus linked. The caring capacity is complex, and some parents are abusive, but remarkably, given the demands of rearing children, abuse is more or less unusual. As Gaylin observes, “These occasional abnormalities cannot refute the inclination to caring clearly resident in the biological nature of the species.” He notes that the highest form of sacrifice in Judaism is Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac; in Christianity it is God’s
sacrifice of his only Son. The natural inclination of parents to care for their children and, by extension, the childlike and the helpless, significantly supports the foundation of the moral life.
Daniel Mark Epstein, in his study of “the natural history of the heart,” makes this astute observation: “We are born from total darkness into a blinding light in which we cannot distinguish ourselves from mother or anything else in nature. Yet even before we recognize ourselves or our surroundings, love has been working on us for some time.” Epstein reflects as far back as he can on his childhood, and he concludes what most fortunate people would agree to: “The first experience of love is being loved, by our parents.” Early mother-love in particular elicits the initial return of love from the child, Epstein suggests. “As I got older,” he concludes, “I became more conscious of my feelings, but the basic emotion of filial love did not change after childhood.”
Without the experience of parental love, the child feels resentful and angry, which makes it much more difficult for him to love others; a likely result of such absence of parental love is that the child will inflict harm, emotional or physical, on himself and others. For this powerful reason among others, potential parents must be prepared to care for the children they will bring into the world, lest a generation of children be lost to themselves and society.
Following the lead of Judaism, Christianity has emphasized the importance of the child, one of its many contributions to Western familial culture. In Mark 10:13-16, Jesus indignantly rebukes his disciples for preventing children from approaching him and tells them to let the children come to him: “And he put his arms around them, laid his hands upon them, and blessed them.” These verses follow immediately after the verses that prohibit divorce (Mark 10:10-12), suggesting that in this prohibition, Jesus had in mind the welfare of children as much as the sanctity of conjugal love. Christianity makes a new place for children in the family, sanctioning each new life by a christening in which parents vow to provide love. The protection and nurturing of children becomes the primary value of the family. When this value is consistently
practiced, children grow into love.
But even the most affective and directly loving parent is uncertain of filial response. There is no better narrative for reflecting on this point than the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which reads in part as follows: “So he set out for his father’s house. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and his heart went out to him. He ran to meet him, flung his arms around him, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20-21). And there is no better interpretation of the prodigal for our purposes than that of Henri J. M. Nouwen. When the prodigal returns, the father emanates forgiveness, manifesting a love that is too great for force or constraint, which gives the son freedom to reject or return that love. The son had run away to a distant country, and the father had been powerless to prevent that. But he had remained hopeful and loving. Nouwen sees in this father and his relation with his son all the essentials of a constructive theology:
Here is the God I want to believe in, a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them and let his tired arms rest on their shoulders. His only desire is to bless.
This is a grieving, forgiving, and generous God.
In his interpretation, Nouwen considers the meanings in Rembrandt’s painting entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son. Especially significant are Nouwen’s insights into the hands of the father in Rembrandt’s great depiction. Several art critics have commented that the father’s left hand is masculine and probably the artist’s own, while his right hand is distinctively feminine. So the father as Rembrandt captures him is not only the great patriarch but the mother as well. Observing the actions of both hands in the painting, Nouwen adds, “He holds, and she caresses. He confirms, and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present.” There is unconditional love from a God who is “Father as well as Mother.” The return of the prodigal son was cause for celebration after the father’s long suffering. In these images, as I
mentioned, Nouwen finds the analogical beginnings of a very simple yet profound theology—that is, God is to humanity as parent is to child. It is in the love that mothers and fathers have for their children, rooted in evolutionary psychology and essential human nature, that the universe reveals a moral beginning point.