Saturday, June 28, 2014

Children and the eschaton! Wait, what?

Heath Bradley is once again saying smart things with compassion and clarity. This time, he's been dismantling Anglican theological giant N.T. Wright's brief comments about how same-sex marriage is an unsupportable repudiation of God's use of binary concepts as the fundamental building blocks of creation.

As a side note, Bradley speaks for me in the words he chooses to open this series of blog posts: "N.T. Wright is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. No one's writings have influenced my own theology more than his." As many have noted, it just makes Wright's continued wrongness on this subject that much more saddening.

(As another side note, Wright intriguingly uses polyamory in his comments as an affirmative defense of man-woman marriage: "Sometimes it’s been one man and more than one woman. Occasionally it’s been one woman and more than one man. There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female." It's a weird reversal of the usual way of things, for me as a poly person, to be offered the opportunity to throw monogamous gays and lesbians under the bus. But I'll pass.)

Getting back to Bradley on the inconvenient fact that complementarity "is not in and of itself a form of moral logic":

It should be pointed out that while the first creation story in Genesis 1 highlights the need for procreation in regards to the creation of male and female, the second creation story in Genesis 2 highlights the need for companionship in the creation of female from male. In this story, the procreative complementarity of male and female is not a factor in giving an account of marriage, but instead the need for a partner, helper, or supporting companion is the basis for the relationship...For a gay person, someone of the opposite sex could not fulfill the role of a supportive partner envisioned in Genesis 2...If reproductive complementarity is the form of moral logic that you use to discount same-sex relationships, to be consistent you must follow that all the way where you will end up with the Roman Catholic position that bans all intentionally and basically non-procreative intercourse between heterosexual couples. Most Christians are not willing to go that far, but that is where the moral logic leads...We could also point out that while the early chapters of Genesis present an understanding of marriage that was normal for most people, it does not present an account that is normative for all people. People who choose to be celibate come immediately to mind. It would be easy and natural to read Genesis as mandating marriage and reproduction for everyone, but we know that Jesus, Paul, and others did not see this mandate to be fruitful and multiply as applying to all individuals.

I think there are two main responses to the tension that Bradley highlights between the contemporary Protestant conviction that marriage is normatively about procreation but that procreation itself is not normative.

The first response is what I would call "the symbolic dodge." (Others probably call it that too, or near enough, but I'm too lazy at the moment to go past the first page of Google results.) Married people don't need to be able to reproduce, but they should look like they could. People struggling (or happy) with infertility could produce a baby through a miracle. So could really old people. There are stories in the Bible about that kind of stuff. Celibate people are okay, in the symbolic dodge, because they aren't undermining the symbol of procreative marriage; they simply aren't participating in it. (Besides, with the example of the Virgin Mary, one could argue that celibacy isn't necessarily a barrier to procreation either.) Asexual people may or may not be okay; there is, after all, that long historical tradition of a marriage being invalid if it is never "consummated."

A similar symbolic dodge is used to argue that people who look like they're monogamous, even as they are quietly carrying on extramarital affairs, are ethically preferable to openly non-monogamous people who honor their commitments, because the fact that the cheaters feel shame and the pressure to hide their actions actually upholds symbolic monogamy. Stupidity like that is one of the main reasons I prioritize virtue ethics--what makes you a better person?--over the consequences-oriented teleological ethics and rules-oriented deontological ethics. If you don't think it's stupid, there's probably not anything I can do to convince you otherwise.

The second response is to shift to a focus on child-rearing instead of child-bearing. The alleged necessity of having both a biologically male and biologically female parent to raise a healthy child is a common (though largely discredited) argument against same-sex marriage. In the context of polyamorous families, the argument is that our children will likewise grow up confused, damaged, or both because of the presence of more than two adults. Parents are expected to entirely set aside all interests, needs and desires that potentially risk the happiness and confidence of their children.

I will admit it--I am fiercely protective of my children. As Amy says of our family, "our children are inextricably woven into our courtships and marriage." There are many major life decisions I've made based on what I believe is in their best interest. To pull a page out of N.T. Wright's playbook, though--what is the cosmic significance of children? What are children for?

What I mean is this: Suppose a child grows up as perfectly as possible, to become an exemplary adult. This adult has a child of their own--and immediately sublimates their entire life to raising that child. And that child grows up as perfectly as possible--and then has a child of their own. We end up with a cycle of raising children so that they can...raise children? Really?

To my readers who are parents, I ask: Do you actually feel like you will have met your obligations to a child of yours if, when they are grown, they live a stunted and joyless life in order to be the parents society tells them they should be? For me, I want my children to blossom into the fullness of the unique persons God created and called them to be. That's a taste of the new creation the Gospel promises us. Not always happiness, and not always comfort. But greater authenticity, and increasing peace. Not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the world we all share.

Parents should never be reckless when their children could be affected by the consequences of their choices. But we do them no favors if all we show them of adulthood is how to perpetuate the status quo. Miserably married parents may divorce, whatever the statistics say. Single parents may fall in love and date and even re-marry, whatever the statistics say. Poly parents--even the many ones whose choices I personally find questionable and bewildering--may form their relationships with other consenting adults and live their lives as fruitfully as they can, whatever the statistics say. (Once we have a reliable body of research with statistically significant results, that is.)

In the process, children may suffer disappointments as a direct consequence of a parent's relationship choices--just as they may suffer disappointments because of career choices, residence choices, religious choices (!), or choices in any other significant area of life. On occasion, these disappointments can be quite serious. Our job as parents is to comfort them in their disappointment, grieve with them as needed, and do our best to help them to discern what has been gained as well as what has been lost. In this way, we raise children who will be truly equipped as adults to do the work they are called to do to reveal more of the kingdom of God, which is among us.

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