Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Marriage, Scripture, and the Word of God Conference

Some of the readers of this blog are aware that Brant, Michael, and I—along with Peter Kreeft—were all involved in a large Catholic Bible conference in New Orleans a few weekends ago, the Word of God conference sponsored by Catholic Productions.

The conference was focused on the sacraments of service—matrimony and orders. After an introductory lecture by Brant, I delivered a talk on the Catholic view of marriage, based on reason and revelation. My first major point was that Catholic teaching on marriage is in agreement with reason—social scientific data supports the view that the two-parent, heterosexual marriage is superior to all other arrangements for the raising of children. Since the state has a vested interest in the welfare of the next generation, the state justifiably identifies and protects the life-long mutual commitment of a man and woman—marriage.

After making this point, I went into a biblical narrative theology of marriage starting from Genesis 2 and moving through the Pentateuch and even into the Historical Books, pointing out how the narrative implicitly valorizes monogamy and critiques other arrangements—i.e. polygamy and homosexuality. My students will remember this as the “implicit critique of polygamy” in the Old Testament. Of course, this view is not original with me. It has deep roots in the Jewish interpretive tradition, and my eyes were opened to it by reading the superb Jewish biblical commentator Umberto Cassuto on Genesis.

I also mentioned the concept of marriage as the climax of the creation story (Genesis 1-2) and the iconic significance of marriage vis-à-vis the creation of mankind in the image of God. Marriage is two persons whose love becomes hypostasized (personified) in a third; inasmuch as this is true, it is iconic of the relations of the persons of the Trinity.

In any event, after the talk was over, an officer of the local secular humanist society, who happened to be in attendance, approached me cordially and shared with me that he disagreed with “everything” I had said, and invited me to debate the issue of marriage in a forum provided by his organization. I declined to debate, but offered to arrange someone else to do so. I contacted Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, who has since accepted the offer to debate. We will see how that develops.

In any event, the encounter led to some self-reflection, and I began to wonder if I had overstated the case for the importance of the two-parent family, with biological father and mother present, for the raising of children. That led me to do some searching on the internet, which turned up a remarkable link to none other than that bastion of Catholic dogma, Time Magazine. Unbeknownst to me, since I, like many of my generation, no longer read the legacy (i.e. print) news media very much (internet is faster and cheaper), just last month Time ran a cover story on the importance of marriage to society. I’d like to call our readers’ attention to this Time Magazine article, which is worth the read.

This remarkable piece of reporting is notable for several acute insights that in fact support the case I was making for traditional marriage in New Orleans.

At one point, the Time article quotes Princeton sociologist, feminist and single mother Sara McLanahan: "Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent," she found, "are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background." Of course, Princeton is a real center of Catholic bigotry, superstition, and fideism, right? McLanahan is making her point in the context of two-parent versus single parenting; but her observation also indicates why homosexual “marriages”, by their very nature, cannot provide an ideal context for raising children. Even if homosexual couples adopt a child, the child will necessarily be raised without at least one of her or his biological parents.

The Time article’s concluding questions are most poignant, and were, in fact, precisely the questions I raised, in different words, during my talk in New Orleans:

“The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it — given the game-changing realities of birth control [my emphasis], female equality and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized — simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it?”

Notice that the author recognizes the fundamental shift the wide-spread use of artificial birth control has had on the very notion of marriage in our society. By decoupling sex from procreation, children have become an optional rather than natural outcome of marriage. Children are OK if you’re “into that,” but have no intrinsic connection to marriage in the view of many. Hmmm, wasn’t there somebody, like maybe a Pope, who predicted that things would develop like that, way back in 1968?

Then the author proposes the alternative:

“Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function — to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation's own safe passage into adulthood?”


The Catholic model of marriage as the life-long commitment of a man and woman is confirmed by social sciences as the ideal for the happiness and well-being of children as well as the spouses (See this recent New York Times article).

There is not a conflict between faith and reason, Scripture and science on this issue.


Edward Pothier said...

It sounds like it was a great conference and presentation!

Perhaps I just have a dirty mind, but I see a semi-Freudian slip in the word I bolded in your statement: "I also mentioned the concept of marriage as the climax of the creation story…"

Deacon Dana said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts on marriage; I will no doubt quote them during marriage prep sessions. I wish I could have attended the conference...perhaps the next one.

I just stumbled across your blog today. It was new to me but I've already added it to my favorites. There are so many blogs these days (including my own feeble attempt to keep my friends informed)that I'm forever finding "new" ones that have been around for years. You three have done a wonderful job keeping this one going.

Thanks and God's peace.

T said...

Dear Dr. Bergsma,

I have a question for you, Dr. Pitre, and Prof. Barber. I am taking a class on Christianity, Judaism, and Islam at LSU and today in this class, my professor made the statement that there is no evidence in any Egyptian archeology to support the Exodus or even the presence of Jews in Ancient Egypt. Because of this, she asserted, the Exodus is widely regarded by scholars as a myth. She went on to say that Jews borrowed their idea of the afterlife from Egypt, their creation story from the Babylonians, and their idea of Angels and Demons from the Zoroastrians. In addition, all of the religions of the "axial age" were a result of the move towards urbanization and not Divine revelation. I am eager to hear the responses y'all have to offer. Thank you for your time.


Zeus said...

Existing adoption law regards the welfare of the child as a presumptively decisive criterion.

Take a hard-to-place child and a gay couple that by all reports presents a stable relationship and a capacity for care and constancy.

Could there be such a gay couple? Short of that, could there be a gay couple that offers better prospects for the child than does any alternative, non-gay, placement?

Rudy said...

Man and female He made us. A man must leave his father and mother and cling to his wife. Multiply and fill the earth. What God has put together no men put asunder. if a man leaves his wife to marry another he commits adultery. Wives be subject to your husbands, husbands be subject to your wives.

All of the above points to the biblical concept of marriage; A union between a man and a woman for fruitful procreation of children, for the rest of our natural life. What is so hard to understand about that?

Anonymous said...

Dear Therese:

The professor is making a grab-bag of assertions against supernatural religion. I'm not terribly impressed with them. They rely usually on this logic: "there are some similarities between Israelite religion and another ancient religion. Therefore, Israelite religion 'got' it's ideas from the other religion." This kind of argument is quite old. Friedrich Delitzsch made a career of it in the late 1800's in Germany.

Not everything in ancient religions was false. For there to be no similarities between biblical religion and others, all other religions would have to be completely false, which is patently not the case. The Catechism itself points out that there are seeds of truth in other religions.

I would recommend the following: find the article "Bible und Babel und Bias" by Bill Arnold and David Weisberg in the Feb 2002 issue of Bible Review (vol 18:1) in LSU's library and read it. Then, on the issue of the Exodus, two books: James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford Press, 1999) and Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2006). Kitchen is one of the most renowned Egyptologists in the world, and he doesn't think the Exodus is a myth.

best to you,

Dr. B.

Anonymous said...

The comment above is from me (Dr.B=Dr.Bergsma). I'm having trouble with my google account so I'm posting under "anonymous", but it's me.
Dr. Bergsma