Edith Mary Humphrey of Pittsburg Theological Seminary discussed the image of God as male and female and the significance of children at the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Christianity’s conference on Christian anthropology, held on June 3-5.
She began by noting that “Christians are quite used to speaking about the Holy Trinity as a mystery.” “Multiple metaphors” are used to try to grasp its meaning. Human beings, who reflect the image of God, are “likewise a great mystery.” The Hebrew tenants of “a holy God and a holy people” were maintained by early Christians. This mystery is present in God breathing into Adam the breath of life, and in the separation of Eve as a distinct person and companion of Adam. In the divine order, Eve is called to show respect, and Adam is called to sacrifice. This spousal relationship is then reflected in the relationship between Christ and the church. Although the relationship between husband and wife is reflective of a divine relationship with man, sexuality is something we share with the animals, Humphrey said. But in sharp contrast to modern understandings of sexual anthropology that understand it first as mere biology, and then as “subjective preference,” she said the “swiftness” with which the Biblical narrative moves from the creation of man in the image of God to the creation of male and female “suggests … an amplifying parallelism.” In some way “maleness and femaleness is part of our image bearing.” It may be something greater than is evident in this life, but is not “culturally constructed.”
The image of a strong “passionate husband God” and “wayward” Israel is strong in the Old Testament. Like the relationship between Christ and the church, the relationship between God and Israel is spousal. Similarly, the relationship of husband and wife and children is, Humphrey said, a “sacramental reality” directing us to “a deeper mystery.” Marriage directs us to the mystery of our relation to God.
Humphrey said that we should not think of our sexuality as male and female “as an added or secondary feature to our humanity.” She noted that God said that “it was not good for Adam to be alone,” and that the first mention of the creation of humanity identified them as “male and female.” Further, “we cannot assume” that because of Jesus’ words that marriage does not occur heaven that we will be asexual “in the consummation of all things.” Sexuality is not a mere “human expression” which is “detachable from the reality to which they point.”
The question of hierarchy versus egalitarianism is a very controversial issue in contemporary culture. Humphrey observed that Evangelicals have recently debated whether a hierarchy exists within the Holy Trinity, and whether this is reflected in the relation of husband to wife. Humphrey believes that an “eternal, and not just economic, hierarchy” exists between God the Father and God the Son. She noted that Scripture speaks of “the willing submission of the Son to the Father in eternity.” She said that it is also “the delight of the Holy Spirit to honor the Father and the Son, and not to attract attention to himself.” Although subordinationism has long been recognized as a heresy, she noted that ancient fathers recognized the “monarchy of the Father.” The relationship is “ordered,” but the persons of the Trinity are “mutually and equally deserving of honor … order and mutuality come together.” This, she suggested, is reflected in the marital relationship.
Regarding the place of children in the family, Humphrey noted the command to “be fruitful and multiply” was given at creation, not after the Fall. Just as “it would not be good for male or female to be alone, so it would not be good to be without children.” In the begetting of children, there is a divine parallel in God moving “ecstatically outside himself” in creating the world. She noted as well the feminine roles to which God is compared in Scripture, such as a “mother hen,” or “a woman searching for a coin.” While celibacy is recognized and honored in the New Testament, “married couples have an iconic function pointing to Christ and the church.” As for childless couples, while this “should not be a chosen condition,” nevertheless, “we know that God brings good things out of sorrow and weakness.” One can adopt children, “or become the spiritual parents” of children in the church.
Philip Cary of Eastern University then addressed more fully the status of chastity in the Biblical and Christian view of humanity’s sexual condition. A crucial difference between life in Biblical and modern times is that in the modern world, we live in an environment that is structured to cater to human wants and needs. But “in the Book of Genesis, no one goes shopping,” Cary said. There is a connection between “the Genesis narrative and what theologians call ‘natural law.’” He maintains, however, that the Biblical texts rarely refer in a direct way to what could be called “natural law,” with the Epistle to the Romans one of the few exceptions. He said that natural law is presented in Scripture as being “normative,” but not “normal” (apparently in the sense of what is usually practiced).
In the Catholic tradition (which highlights natural law) sexual ethics have a “unitive good” and a “procreative good.” The focus is on “the end of a natural process, and what it is good for.” The Biblical narrative in Genesis takes for granted that all creatures “like” the sexual arrangement in which they were made, and regard it as good. However, today Christians live in “a different social world than Genesis.” People do not necessarily want to have children. Yet the divine command to “fill the earth” was aimed at producing “the wealth of life.” The Book of Proverbs says that “by wisdom, a house is filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” The same, he claimed, was done at the creation, and this is the purpose of the procreation which was commanded at the creation.
As the Biblical narrative proceeds after the Fall, the reader meets people who are deficient in their desire for the good, and also people who lack the physical goodness given at creation. “The blind, the lame” fall into this category. In announcing the Kingdom of God, Jesus also healed such persons. God has promised to the celibate (or “eunuchs”) “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.” What are we to do, Cary asked, in a society in which many people no longer have a desire for their natural good, regarding it instead as “an obstacle to our life plans and success?”
Cary maintains that the Biblical narrative goes “deeper” than natural law, and that “there is something more than natural about the good of procreation.” It is “a divine blessing.” He observed that in the Bible “only God creates.” While human beings do not bring new beings out of nothing, we do “bring new beings into being,” we do procreate. This is God “giving to us a share of his power, who are not creators but procreators.” But the realization of beings “in the image of God” cannot be “without wisdom,” and so the parental training of children must be part of the Biblical mandate to procreate.
Cary said that “chastity is the virtue that promotes the wealth of life, by protecting the connection between the unitive good and the procreative good.” He observed that “it may require celibacy of some folks,” but it is also “a virtue that applies within marriage as well as outside it.” For those who are married, “it is more than fidelity or faithfulness.” The prohibitions involved are “intended to protect the positive connection between sex and family.” Cary observed that in the Genesis account of the life of Jacob, “the flourishing of life becomes deadly hatred” in the jealousy of Jacob’s sons by his disfavored wife, Leah, against Jacob’s favored son, Joseph, the son of his favored wife, Rachael. It is only “the overriding providence of God that points the way to their salvation.”
Our situation today is, however, complicated by the economic circumstances in which we live. Economics is, he observed, “a new discipline,” begun in the eighteenth century. The wealth referred to in Biblical times was the wealth of households. Thus the health of the household was crucial to the prosperity of the family, which was the prosperity of the day. In the modern household, the modern economy is “competing” with the household. Cary sees the influence of Robert Malthus as important here. His proposal for addressing the population explosion of the early industrial era was less sexual activity, including, for at least many people according to Cary, abstinence from “marriage and the family.” Only later was contraception proposed as an alternative solution. Large families, for Malthus, were associated with “poverty” and “squalor.” This overall doctrine of population control conditions people to be “consumers,” but not “procreators.” “Contraceptive technologies” have arisen to give us the unitive good without the procreative good, and “reproductive technologies” have arisen to give us the procreative good without the unitive good (without sexual union). Cary claimed that by its consumerism and its separation of the unitive and procreative goods, modern culture “trains us for unchastity.” Traditional morality is seen as unjust, and an “unfair burden,” particularly for people for whom adherence is difficult. It is hard for many people to understand chastity “as a virtue, a good way for the soul to be formed.” The hierarchy of father and mother at the head of the family is “a system of authority,” and as such is a system that contemporary modernity opposes. Cary believes that “there is a truth in the liberal claim on behalf of freedom,” but this can be separated from “the interests of the market economy” which it now serves. While he sees “the Benedict Option” as a possible answer to the modern world’s challenge to traditional morality, he said that there is “a cultural struggle for the long term.”
Cary believes that we should struggle for a culture in which the wealth of life is indeed found in the natural family. The real differences between men and women should be reflected in cultural practices, eschewing an egalitarianism that denies them. This requires only equality of opportunity in the wider world between the sexes, which will inevitably result in a reflection of those real differences. While he said his proposals to effect such a culture should not be “normative” (presumably in the sense of being morally binding in every case) he clearly believes they should be widely followed. Cary favors large families. There should be a life cycle in which women bear children in their twenties rather than in their forties. They should commonly aim for work outside the home later in adulthood. Christian communities that value chastity (which must indeed be normative) will also value motherhood. At the same time, the acceptable sexual activity of men will be confined within marriage, a norm which, Cary said, existed in the wider society “within living memory.” Contraception, he said, has resulted in “responsible sex” being understood as “sterile sex … [it] fulfills the fornicator’s desire,” and he seemed to point away from it, if not against it entirely. It does not serve the interests of a Biblical understanding of the family, but rather “the market economy.” Another aspect of contemporary capitalism is the “outsourcing” of children, in which they are raised by outside professionals, rather than their parents.
In response to a questioner, Cary said that “without chastity, agape (i.e., love) goes astray.” “Agape requires the other specific virtues as it plays itself out in specific situations, agape requires faithfulness, agape requires hope.” It cannot stand independently of the other virtues, although it may be at the heart of the gospel. Another questioner asked if “unrestrained consumerism in the name of prosperity” hasn’t promoted a culture inhospitable to a culture of chastity. Cary responded that virtue cannot easily exist apart of a culture in which is it fostered. Today the public schools are serving the interests of “late market capitalism” in attacking the natural family. “Things like chastity and traditional sexual morality stand in the way of it, and get labelled as ‘hateful’” in public education. But we must recognize that “chastity is the lynchpin of a virtuous and well-ordered society.”