The two shall become one

Various oversimplifications and overstatements hinder the sorting out of what needs to be said about Christian personal ethics. The trouble with creation stories as a theological foundation is not that they are 'unscientific', provided that they are not taken as proofs but as elucidations; nor that they are sexist, if they are given a chance not to be; but that, in using them as a resource, it is tempting to try to make them say everything that needs to be said all at once.

1 Personalists are not exempt from this tendency to prove too much. The temptation is to spoil a good case by trying to go too fast. It is not special pleading for Christian personalists to emphasize the 'one-flesh union' and to offer an interpretation which aspires to be both liberal and traditional. But there is a short cut which substitutes a part for a whole, letting an excellent doctrine of marriage do duty for an ethic of persons-in-relation.

Personalism can happily fit the two creation stories together. According to Genesis 1, humanity is created, in the image of God, as male and female: which suggests that human beings are fundamentally relational. In Genesis 2:18 this is spelt out: 'It is not good that the man should be alone.' Adam welcomes Eve with the words, 'This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.' So the honourable estate of matrimony (Book of Common Prayer) goes back to the beginnings of humanity; and is revalidated in the teaching of Christ. 'Therefore a man leaves father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh' (Gen. 1:23-4; Mark 10:7-8. But if marriage is supposed to be the sole point of creation the argument has over-reached itself.

Where liberals make relationships all-important and traditionalists make offspring all-important, this version of personalism makes marriage all-important. What has it to say to people who are not spouses? The ethics of marriage must not take over the whole of ethics. The marriage union is an excellent example of what human relatedness can mean: not the only example, though maybe a paradigm case.

Christian personalism at its best is about human beings made in God's image. It needs spelling out ethically and metaphysically. Such spelling out will sooner or later need the difficult but rewarding idea of 'unity-in-plurality'. The three-in-oneness of God, the Pauline and Johannine notion of abiding in Christ and in one another, the experience of enabling grace whether divine or human, are all instances of a concept which may be called personal immanence: in which, strangely but compellingly, unity turns out to enhance, not swallow up, individuality. Marriage is the most conspicuous and familiar example of unity-in-plurality in human life; and as such it is an available analogy for the theological concept of immanence (Oppenheimer 1971; 1973:165-80). We can avoid the invalid syllogism: the image of God is relational; marriage is relational; therefore the image of God is matrimonial. The Trinity is not a marriage; but the union of husband and wife in human marriage can be used as one valid illustration of what it might mean to say that the concept of personal immanence makes sense.

2 Traditionalists, having so frequently given priority to celibacy, may feel secure from any risk of making marriage too important. What they have overstressed has been 'Christian marriage'. They have allowed the human pairbond, as blessed by the Creator, to disappear into a would-be loftier notion of a kind of union founded by Christ, reserved for Christians. Such possessiveness offers a doctrine of Christian marriage which impoverishes the Christian doctrine of marriage by cutting it off from 'the beginning of creation'. The teaching of Christ illuminates the meaning of marriage as it already existed in God's purpose for human beings. The wedding at Cana was not a Christian sacrament (Oppenheimer 1971: para. 24; 1990:8-9, 57, 59, 75-6).

The definition of marriage in English law, the voluntary union for life of a man and a woman, is practically a paraphrase of the words of Genesis quoted by Christ (Mark 10:6-8). Christians can build on this, taking seriously the idea of faithfulness implicit in it. Marriage is a man and a woman consenting to belong to each other for life, whatever religious or secular ceremony they find suitable for blessing, or simply for making public, their commitment. What Christians may still think wrong with 'fornication' is lack of commitment, not lack of ceremony. Christian affirmation of monogamy can encourage life-enhancing hopes: that sexual union expresses fidelity and nourishes it; and that fidelity deserves the time it needs to become deeprooted.

3 While traditionalists suggest that valid sexual ethics must be Christian, liberals suggest that valid personal ethics must be sexual. Their characteristic overstatement has been to assimilate 'relationship' with 'erotic relationship'. Any relationship which is evidently not erotic is deemed to be minor, or undeveloped, or frustrated, or dishonest. Friendship is inadequately distinguished from romantic love and becomes hard to place. Human dealings with one another are placed along one scale, ranging from casual to intimate according to their degree of physical commitment; so that sexuality is allowed to colonize human life and human love. How, for instance, can we say that this husband and wife are friends if 'friend' has no distinct meaning from 'lover'? The very attempt to build up the significance of personal relationships seems to make them at the same time oddly one-dimensional.

There is not only overstatement but confusion in this. The double character of human beings as both embodied and spiritual, dust and breath, is not the same doubleness of their sexuality, male or female. A human being is embodied and spiritual; a human being is man or woman. Human embodiment is sexual not asexual, but gender differentiation is not the whole significance of embodiment. The myth of the union of Adam and Eve expresses a truth, even a fundamental truth, but not the whole truth about human relationships in their variety.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Self Help Affirmations

Self Help Affirmations

The big book of affirmations from personal development authors. An affirmation is something you say to yourself. Everybody uses them on purpose or accidentally. You get up in the morning, leap out of bed and proclaim,

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment