Traditional theological views need to be shown to make contemporary sense. Novel theological views need to be related to characteristic Christian affirmations. Christian personalism claims to be almost platitudinously traditional: in ascribing such importance to people, it treats them as God's children. If this sounds novel, is that an indictment of Christians? Or is the very assumption that fulfilment is truly Christian itself an accommodation to the spirit of the age? Personalism generally seems to have more work to do to please traditionalists than liberals.
One way to relate personalism to traditional Christianity is by giving it a biblical though not a fundamentalist base. The early chapters of Genesis are not a history of our origins, but can be taken more timelessly as an inspired interpretation of what human creatures are. There is moral theology packed up here in mythical form. The insistence that men and women are made 'in the image of God' makes a firm foundation for a personal ethic. The concept of the 'one flesh' union of husband and wife has been a basis for Christian sexual morality at its most positive. If excuse is needed for taking this ancient myth-making seriously, the belief that Christ himself took it seriously is firmly embedded in the Gospels (Mark 10:6-9; Matt. 19:4-6).
It is worth making the effort to extricate the stories in the first two chapters of Genesis, not only from the debate about human origins which goes back to Darwin, but also from the more recent debate about sexism. Feminists are now looking at these chapters, and the prejudices they have collected, with new eyes. Has an imbalance or even corruption distorted the interpretation by fallen human beings of their fallen condition? (Trible 1978; Clines 1990:25-48; Dennis 1991:1-23). Since the stories have been understood for so long as upholding the superiority of men, the change of perspective required cannot be achieved in a moment. The debate goes on, with some overstatement on both sides.
Meanwhile these myths have more to offer than a controversial sexual ethic. If twentieth-century Christians put aside the notions that Genesis is essentially anti-evolutionary, anti-feminist and outdated, they can find in these ancient stories a holism and even an implicit humanism appropriate for an incarnational faith. From the biblical accounts of creation can be drawn a theological analysis of human beings: their double nature, embodied and spiritual, akin to the dust of the earth and the breath of God; their need for each other and capacity for union; their fertility as blessed by God (Oppenheimer 1989a: 89-90; 1990:9).
The emphasis on embodiment presents the physical as vehicle for the spiritual. The picture language about dust and breath need not be dualist or sexist, but properly materialist. The physical and more than physical character of human beings can be interpreted in terms of word and sacrament (Oppenheimer 1973:26-32; 1988:48-66; 1989a: 114-15; 1990:63-4).
Words need body. Matter, far from being insignificant, is our means of communication. Communication is more fundamentally human even than sexuality. Bodies are the means by which people keep in touch, literally and metaphorically, with one another and the outer world. Dualism is unsatisfactory because it detaches spirit from body. All human relationships, from mere acquaintance to close friendship, including of course erotic relationships, depend upon hearing, sight, or touch. In this 'materialism' the Christian concept of incarnation finds a foothold: in due time, the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us, communicating with us humanly.
Sacraments need body. Matter, far from being unworthy, conveys spiritual reality. Some Christians elaborating upon this idea ignore its simplest meaning. They appreciate the erotic as holy, yet meanwhile overlook an even more obvious aspect of our humanity: physical creatures live by nourishment. Contemporary Christians rightly point out that the story of the Fall does not ascribe the origin of sin to sexuality. They may not notice that the sin of eating forbidden fruit is likewise a matter of embodiment. More seriously, they miss a literal truth in the myth of creation: the fruitfulness of the earth has to do with the nourishment of creatures.
Feeding one another is a fundamentally human activity. People till the ground, or it is tilled for them. They nurture their children. They provide food, or prepare it, for themselves and for each other. Not trivially, they offer refreshment to their guests. They mark out their ordinary lives by mealtimes. In our physical need for nourishment we are animals; in the meanings we give to food and drink and the rituals we build upon these meanings we find a large part of our humanity. Food and drink for human beings are means of grace as well as means of sustenance.
No interpretation of what human creatures are which omits this physical aspect can claim continuity with biblical tradition. More 'spiritual' believers patronize ancient sacrificial systems as materialistic; but people who have taken bodies as seriously as 'souls', making offerings from their first fruits and their herds, eating and drinking with their God as well as with each other, have laid the foundations of an understanding of communion as beginning in embodiment but not ending there.
The creation stories emphasize not only embodiment but relationship: at least an affirmation of the human need for one another's company, which the animals cannot assuage. Genesis 2 ends with the union of Adam and Eve (Trible 1978:102-4). Love, not just duty, can find a foothold here. This triumphant conclusion has been under-emphasized in Christian art: many minds have been formed by Michelangelo, who moves straight from Eve's creation to the Fall. But the emphasis from Genesis taken up by Christ is not sinfulness nor even fertility, but the one-flesh union of a man and a woman (Mark 10:6-8); Matt. 19:4-5).
Of course there is a sexual ethic here. Its positive character is plain, though not always well heeded by moralists: what God has made is 'very good'. But besides this general affirmation the creation myths offer a specific understanding of human sexuality, as expressed from the beginning in the pairbond. We can call the first human beings Adam and Eve if we wish. What we need to say about them, if we believe there is inspiration in the Book of Genesis (Clines 1990:47-8), is that men and women found from the first that they belonged to each other. The story of creation culminates in human marriage as 'one flesh' union (Gen.1:23-4).
To found sexual ethics upon 'the mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other' (Book of Common Prayer) is neither unbiblical nor unrealistic. There is good hope of regaining this emphasis today. 'When Vatican II defined marriage as a community of love it effectively endorsed the view...that love was not something to be forced in among the so-called secondary purposes of marriage' (O'Callaghan 1970:104).
Traditionalists may be unhappy with the personalist emphasis on relationships, and prefer to emphasize the command, 'Be fruitful and multiply' (Gen. 1:28). Some have seen sexual love as justified only by procreation. Up to a point, they can call biology to witness. The human pairbond has evolved for continuing our species, as the context in which children are most safely born and nurtured. Believers may affirm that the raising of children within marriage is in accord with 'natural law', and that for people to marry and have children is in a clear sense a 'norm': provided that these concepts are used in gratitude not in exclusiveness, and that questions are not prejudged about the legitimacy and indeed the value of other ways of life (Oppenheimer 1990:13-14, 48).
The human 'one-flesh' union has far transcended its biological function and Christians believe such transcendence to be according to the purpose of God (ibid.: 86-7). 'Be fruitful and multiply' is encouragement more than command. God's blessing on procreation belongs with the announcement that human beings are made in God's image and likeness: they are fit to be granted a share in God's creativeness.
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