- While Professor Moon’s social scientific lens is illuminating, its stress upon self-interest is incomplete. Tweet This
- It's important for a public that is increasingly moving away from traditional norms to understand that people of faith are not stubbornly clinging to self-made or self-interested “rules” governing sex and the family. Tweet This
- Christian convictions about the family are inseparably linked to fundamental beliefs structuring the architecture of the Christian faith. Tweet This
Current cultural and legal debates about the family, such as a recent article on this blog by Professor Jordan Moon, commonly examine traditional religious sexual and family norms. Professor Moon’s article skillfully articulated how such norms help people to achieve desired family goals, such as paternal certainty and joint parenting, and might even thereby attract more adherents to sexually-conservative religious traditions. While Professor Moon’s social scientific lens is illuminating, its stress upon self-interest is incomplete. In fact, many religious adherents would propose that they pursue religiously-orthodox paths in the sexual and familial realms because these follow upon their beliefs about God, and at the same time sync with their experiences and observations of creation as made by a divine Creator.
This perspective is particularly important to explore because without it, it becomes easy for onlookers to imagine that people of faith are being unreasonable, judgmental, or excessive when they insist upon maintaining their moral norms in the face of lawsuits seeking to compel them to do otherwise. As I explain in my new book, it is important for a public that is increasingly moving away from traditional norms to understand that people of faith are not stubbornly clinging to self-made or self-interested “rules” governing sex, marriage, and parenting, or simply pursuing their self-conceived goals. Rather, Christians believe that these norms are not only consonant with reason and experience, but inextricably tied to the very basics of the Christian faith: beliefs about the identity of God, how God loves human beings, and how human beings are to love God and treat other people.
Were outsiders to understand that Christian moral beliefs about sex, marriage, and parenting are intertwined with the architecture of the Christian tradition, they might have more sympathy for the difficulties people of faith face when demanded by law to violate their consciences. To facilitate that understanding, in this article I describe these links, relying not only upon Scripture, but also upon the works of two Christian theologians who are particularly gifted on this subject, Reverend Luigi Giussani and Angelo Cardinal Scola.
Many religious adherents would propose that they pursue religiously-orthodox paths in the sexual and familial realms because these follow upon their beliefs about God, and at the same time sync with their experiences and observations of creation as made by a divine Creator.
Christian Scriptures exhort believers to love God and one another with the fidelity, mutual sacrifice, and fruitfulness of spouses, and the trust and simplicity of children with their parents. In fact, from the very early days of Christianity, based upon the below Scriptures—combined with observations of God’s creation and human experience—Christians developed a code of family behavior, which was one of their most noted characteristics. Thus, early Christians’ "conspicuous chastity" included opposition to divorce, polygamy, nonmarital relations, abortion, infanticide, and same-sex relations.
The Human Family
The starting point for Christians (and a few other faith groups) is the creation account in the book of Genesis, stating that human beings are created in the image of God as two-sexes capacitated for procreative sexual union. The Old Testament is further replete with references to Israel as a bride and to God as the bridegroom, to marriage as an icon of the relationship between God and Israel, and to God as a parent (mother and father) to Israel his beloved child. (Is 54:5, Jer 2:2, and Ex 4:22).
In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly calls Himself the bridegroom in relation to humanity as the bride (Mt 9:15). St. Paul also analogizes God’s love to that of a bridegroom and urges Christians to love likewise (Eph 5:32). Shortly afterwards, Paul urges husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (Eph 5:25). In short, God’s love looks like Jesus’s self-surrender, His death on a cross for humanity, His bride, the Church, for whom he assumes indissoluble obligations (Mark 10:6-9). Jesus also teaches that His followers should love and trust Him as a child loves a parent (Mk 10:15), and teaches His followers to pray to God as “our Father” (Mt 6:9).
Christianity holds that observing and experiencing romantic and familial relations can specifically assist human beings to grasp some truths about God’s identity, given that humans are “imago Dei” (made in the image of God). These relations might allow humanity to achieve the intuition, for example, that God is an eternal being, given how often men and women in romantic relationships regularly express the wish that their bond should last forever, that the other “cannot die.” Jesus’s description of marriage as the man “leaving his mother and his father and cleav[ing] to his wife” (Mk 10:7) affirms the permanent bond of marriage.
Human relations can also assist our understanding of God as “parent.” Every human being has the experience of her very existence being dependent upon procreation by an earthly father, which allows an understanding of God as Father. Jesus also speaks about Himself as like a father who gives his children only good gifts, and guards them against dangers (Lk 11:11-13).
Human beings also understand that each person’s very existence is dependent upon procreation by an earthly mother, a woman who not only gives life, but continuously shares gifts with a child and protects her. Jesus refers to Himself as a protective mother in His lament about Jerusalem’s treatment of its prophets (Matt 23:37).
Also influencing Christian convictions about sex and marriage are our observed longings for the opposite sex, which suggest that a person needs an “other,” who is “more,” and “beyond” one’s individual experience. Giussani describes this yearning for another person who, by his or her nature, is “different than me” but with whom the experience of union—quite surprisingly—“fulfills me more than any experience of possession, domination, or assimilation.” Scola adds that this experience kindles an awareness of one’s finitude and incompleteness—a realization that there is more even to humanity than what I am myself, and that this “more” cannot be possessed, dominated, or reduced, to me. From this “lack,” the human being can grasp that each is radically dependent upon another. These experiences not only complement Christian teachings on marriage as the union of opposite sexes and on the dignity of women, but also render comprehensible the possibility of humanity’s dependence on God.
Familial relations can also assist human understanding of the complex idea of God’s trinitarian nature. Scola opines that it is hard to imagine a communion of love other than the family so ongoing and organically united that could equally convey the complex concept of separateness combined with union.
Scola also notes that romantic and familial relationships aid human understanding of another complex but central Christian tenet about God’s identity: Jesus Christ's two natures—human and divine—in one person. This difficult concept can be illuminated by the experience of the male and female becoming “one flesh.”
Finally, these reflections upon human sexual union and procreation offer another crucial insight into God’s identity: that unity is the full meaning of difference. This not only describes what man and woman can experience but suggests that they—as imago Dei—should seek communion between themselves, as distinguished from hierarchy, domination, subjugation, or objectification.
The family is the place where every person has the opportunity—Good Samaritan style—to choose whether or not to take care of the “neighbor” strewn in his or her path.
Christian theology also holds that human familial relations convey information about how God loves humanity. Jesus identifies Himself as the bridegroom to humanity’s bride, and as a parent who generates love, gives good gifts, and protects His children. Human beings—as children, spouses, and parents—can readily understand the depths of this love from their own experiences and thereby start to penetrate the intensity of divine love for us. Christian commitments to monogamy, marital fidelity, and permanence, as well as steadfast, and mutual, long-term, marital parenting, flow from this.
Love One Another
The Christian understanding of family relations can also illuminate how human beings are to love others. Jesus commands: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34). As described above, this means loving one another like a bridegroom loves a bride, and as a parent loves a child—radically, faithfully, generously, sacrificially, and permanently. Scola puts it succinctly: “the love between man and woman . . . is the analogatum princeps (“leading analogy”) of all the various forms of love,” including not only love within the family, but the love of every “neighbor” in the manner of the Good Samaritan. There are three reasons why this important concept matters:
- First, it is true in practical terms that families are the place where children most directly experience committed love. In family life, they can witness adults who remain true to one another through both easy and difficult times. They can see adults accepting the widely varying children God sends, and also often taking care of vulnerable people including their own children, but also the elderly, sick, and disabled. This lesson is later extended to persons outside the family.
- Second, the family is the place where every human being is provided the opportunity to love and take care of others who are placed in their care. And the decisions they make—whether or not to stay married, or to bring a child to birth, or to responsibly parent—will affect another person more indelibly and for a longer time, than almost any other decision one can imagine. In short, the family is the place where every person has the opportunity—Good Samaritan style—to choose whether or not to take care of the “neighbor” strewn in his or her path.
- Third, familial relations can also clarify for human beings how a person might be both an individual and at the same time radically bound to another. This is a core Christian teaching: like Christ, the human being can only find herself by losing herself in love. She only feels free when bound to God who is the meaning of her life. Giussani analogizes this theological realization to one achieved by a man and a woman who have experiences of being both “one” and bound to another.
A great deal more theology develops the ideas shared above. Together, they illustrate that while Christian convictions about the family help achieve crucial human goals, as Professor Moon describes, they are no mere “moral code,” invented by human beings and changeable according to legal and cultural trends. Rather, they are inseparably linked to fundamental beliefs structuring the architecture of Christian faith.
Helen M. Alvaré, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and the Robert A. Levy Professor of Law & Liberty, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University.