Monday, October 19, 2009

Polygamy: The Bible as a Cautionary Tale

Polygamists have always been able to muster good biblical evidence for their lifestyle, much to the consternation of many Christian monogamists. In addition to the striking absence of any prohibition of polygamy or any positive command for monogamy, polygamists rally to their cause the great figures of Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. One is left to wonder if Christians have any grounds for an ethical prohibition of polygamy, if monogamy really is ordained as the exclusive form of marriage. Nevertheless, a brief analysis of the relevant texts should prove more than adequate to demonstrate that even the Bible sees polygamy as an inferior marital system.

Abraham, the father of all patriarchs, is possibly the most notable example and consequently the one turned to most often. Yet, recalling the story, it is remembered that Sarah only gives Hagar to Abraham out of desperation and necessity for the procreation of children. (Note that the actor in this situation is the wife, thrusting the second wife on the husband.) As soon as this necessity passed, as soon as Sarah had a legitimate heir of her own womb, the bigamous marriage became the number one source for tension in the marriage. Sarah turns violently on Hagar and her son, demanding that Abraham exile them both – a command not so unreasonable in Sarah’s mind given her role as the instigator in the marriage. Abraham’s great precedent as a polygamist involves his wife compelling him to take a second wife and then later rescinding that order and driving the second wife away. His polygamy is little more than the capitulation to the frantic whims of his wife.

Two generations later, another of the greatest figures in Jewish history, the namesake for the nation will become a bigamist. How can this be held up as an example? Jacob’s intention all along is to marry only Rachel. He only marries Leah as a result of Laban’s trickery, and is forced to work an additionally seven years before he can marry the woman he truly desires. What’s more, the tumultuous tale of Jacob’s children is predicated on the dysfunctionality of his marriages. Just as Rachel had been favored (if such a weak word may be used to describe how one might feel if he was tricked into marrying the unattractive sister of the girl he loved) so too were her children. The marriage that should have been and the children that should have been receive the love that should be given to one’s children, prompting the disaffected children to perform the most despicable act contrary to fraternity since Cain killed Abel. This is the family dynamic the Bible depicts for polygamy.

Very little is said about the wives of David except the manner by which he acquires them. Michal, the king’s daughter, is the prize of a particularly gruesome attempt by Saul to trick David into his own death. Abigail comes to be David’s wife after her secret rendezvous with David gives her first husband a heart attack. In the meantime, David has been estranged from Michal who was married off to another man. Later, David will demand her back from her husband who loves her enough to follow her on the road weeping at his loss only so that he may condemn her to a life of conjugal exile.

The example of Solomon should never be used as a defense for polygamy, and for my part I have never seen it employed such. Just because it paints the practice in a bad light, however, is no reason to exclude it from the discussion. Chapter 11 of 1 Kings begins “Now King Solomon love many foreign women…” What sounds at first like a list of sexual conquests that would put to shame even the most imaginative boys in high school locker rooms is in fact the basis for Solomon’s personal apostasy, the division of the nation, and ultimately the exile of God’s people. Solomon is reported to have more than outdone Joseph Smith having married 700 wives and 300 concubines (which, if you think about it, is more than enough women to have a different ménage á trios every night for well over a year). The text very bluntly states “his wives turned his heart away.” Certainly it was not the multiplicity alone that did it but the diversity. Nevertheless, the divided loyalties so prominent in the Jacob cycle have been extrapolated to their extreme level here: Solomon’s most important loyalties are ultimately divided as a product of his polygamous relationship.

There are others of course. The story of Elkanah leaps to mind, with one of his wives (described in the text as the other’s “rival”) brutalizing the other on account of her barrenness. What’s more, there are certainly positive supports for monogamy, such as the exclusivity of the archetypal marriage. After all, just as God didn’t make Adam and Steve, God didn’t make Adam and Eve and Lucinda. Thus, while the lack of direct prescriptive statements in the text about polygamy might prevent some (myself included) from classifying the practice as totally impermissible, the biblical exemplars for polygamy are less exemplary. It can be safely asserted that the ideal biblical view of marriage at all times (yes even in the times of the Patriarchs) is a monogamous one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers

The first quote is St. Ephraem's prayer at the end of his Life of Saint Mary the Harlot. The rest are from the Apophthegmata Patrum:

Have mercy upon me, Thou that alone are without sin, and save me, who alone art pitiful and kind: for beside Thee, the Father most blessed, and Thine only begotten Son who was made flesh for us, and the Holy Ghost who giveth life to all things, I know no other, and believe in no other. And now be mindful of me, Lover of men, and lead me out of the prison-house of my sins, for both are in They hand, O Lord, the time that Thou shalt bid me go out from it elsewhere. Remember me that am without defence, and save me a sinner: and may Thy grace, that was in this world my aid, my refuge, and my glory, gather me under its wings in that great and terrible day. For Though knowest, Thou who dost try the hearts and reigns, that I did shun much of evil and the byways of shame, the vanity of the impertinent and the defence of heresy. And this not of myself, but of Thy grace wherewith my mind was lit. Wherefore, holy Lord, I beseech Thee, bring me into Thy kingdom, and deign to bless me with all that have found grace before Thee, for with Thee is magnificence, adoration, and honour, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

A certain brother while he was in the community was restless and frequently moved to wrath. And he said within himself, "I shall go and live in some place in solitude; and when I have no one to speak to or to hear, I shall be at peace and this passion of anger will be stilled." So he went forth for himself with water and set it on the ground, but it happened that it suddenly overturned. He filled it a second time, and again it overturned; and he filled it a third time and set it down, and it overturned again. And in a rage he caught up the jug and broke it. Then when he had come to himself, he thought how he had been tricked by the spirit of anger and said, "Behold, here I am alone, and nevertheless he has conquered me. I shall return to the community, for in all places there is need for struggle and for patience and above all for the help of God." And he arose and returned to his place.

A brother asked a certain old man, saying, "Would you have me keep two gold pieces for myself against some infirmity of the body?" The old man, seeing his thought, that he was wishful to keep them, said, "Even so." And the brother going into his cell was torn by his thoughts, saying, "Do you think the old man told me the truth or not?" And rising up he came again to the old man, in penitence, and asked him, "For God's sake tell me the truth, for I am tormented thinking on these two gold pieces." The old man said to him, "I saw that you were set on keeping them. So I told you to keep them; but indeed it is not good to keep more than the body's need. If you had kept the two gold pieces, in them would have been your hope. And if it should happened that they were lost, how should God have any thought for us? Let us cast our thoughts upon God; since it is for him to care for us."

A certain old man dwelt in the desert, and his cell was far from water, about seven miles; and once when he was going to draw water, he flagged and said to himself, "What need is there for me to endure this toil? I shall come and live near the water." And saying this, he turned about and saw one following him and counting his footprints; and he questioned him, saying, "Who are you?" And he said, "I am the angel of the Lord, and I am sent to count your footprints and give you your reward." And when he heard him, the old man's heart was stout, and himself more ready, and he set his cell still farther from that water.

The abbot Cyrus of Alexandria, questioned as to the imagination of lust, made answer: "If you have not these imaginings, you are without hope. For if you do not have imagination thereof, you have the deed itself. For he who fights not in his own mind against sin, nor gainsays it, sins in the flesh. And he who sins in the flesh, has no trouble from the imagination thereof."

An old man saw one laughing, and said to him, "In the presence of Heaven and earth we are to give account of our whole life to God; and you laugh?"

Athanasius of holy memory sought the abbot Pambo to come down from the desert to Alexandria; and when he had come down, he saw there a woman that was an actress, and he wept. And when those who stood by asked him why he had wept, he spoke. "Two things," said he, "moved me. One, her perdition; the other, that I have not so much concern to please God as she has to please vile men."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cultural Particularlism vs. Occasional Particularism

The beautiful and problematic thing about modern biblical exegesis is that it has been molded, formed, beaten, and contorted so thoroughly into conformity with the principles of linear logic and scientific empiricism that there is little mystery left to the academic reader of the New Testament. Exegetical quibbles have been reduced to just that, largely meaningless arguments over the minutest points of grammar and syntax. One would think that with such substantial agreement on the original intent of the text among exegetes (that is those who think such an intent can even be determined with any degree of certainty) that unity would be the natural outgrowth of this uniformity.

Yet the weight of division has now shifted to hermeneutics, where the force of enduring meaning now lies. Where before the argument was "How can any rational man understand this any other way?" the problem now is "Given that we all see this the same way, how do we justify our differing applications of it?" The postmodern question is no longer "What does the Bible say about X?" but "How do we apply what it says about X?" (Or, from my admittedly cynical viewpoint, "How do we contort what it says about X so that it conforms to what we have already decided to do?")

Growing up, the most common hermeneutical method I encountered (and shamefully even employed myself) was cultural particularism. What the Bible said had to be strained through the filter of culture to uncover the kernel of enduring truth. When Peter wrote about submission to one's government, it was only his particular cultural catalyst that caused him to make the statement (i.e. the perception of Christians as treasonous promoters of civil unrest). When Jesus commanded the rich to sell their possessions and give them to the poor, this had to be understood primarily in terms of a culture where the rich became rich by unchecked exploitation of the poor (totally unlike today). It would be unconscionable to think that the American Revolution might have violated Peter's injunction to submission or that rampant Western materialism was diametrically opposed to Jesus' very strict teachings on earthly possessions. Somewhere in those cultural commands were glimmers of eternal principles that could be held to, if only nominally, without interfering with the progress of modern man.

This approach effectively made the Gospel socially and (to some degree) ethically impotent. Every command was a cultural command, and therefore could be explained away to some extent by the social milieu of the time. The socio-ethical demands of Jesus and the apostles had only as much force as could be retained if every cultural aspect was stripped away. The theology remained, but the practical implications of that theology were completely up for interpretation. As long as the Greco-Roman culture was never perfectly replicated, the plain sense of the New Testament had no command force for Christians. (Curiously, this led some to try to seize parallels between modern culture and Roman culture as a basis for simple interpretation of Scripture. This was something taught to me even still as an undergraduate, and while the ends are noble in my opinion, the means fall into the same specious logic they are trying to correct.)

I have noticed, however, a shift from this hermeneutic of cultural particularism to one of occasional particularism. The recognition (or dare I say over-recognition) of the ad hoc nature of biblical writings has caused the culture in which the documents were written has been reduced to secondary interpretive status and the occasion surrounding them made primary. Prohibitions against homosexuality which had been countered with references to a society that rejected the practice (something which is categorically false) are now ignored on the grounds that Paul was undoubtedly talking about rampant cult prostitution in the given church and therefore opposing paganism, not homosexuality. Regulation of women to subordinate roles in worship in 1 Timothy 2 which had previously been sneered at as vestiges of a lost, patriarchal time are now upheld as necessary - but nonetheless irrelevant - counters to a situations where the gynecocracy of the Artemis cult had spilled into the church. Now, it is no longer necessary to reproduce the entire culture of the Greco-Roman world in order to directly and plainly apply the Scriptures. Now only a similar occasion must arise for the text to once again have plain, normative force. Thus has the text of Scripture been saved for modern application.

Or has it...

As lacking as the system of cultural particularism was, it had one thing that occasional particularism does not: a solid common base for discussion. While the basic contours of Greco-Roman culture and history are more or less canonized in the minds of historians, the particular occasions of the New Testament documents are not. While there is objective grounds on which one can argue about the social perceptions of homosexuality in the first century, there is no consistent way to address what precisely comprised the Colossian heresy. Hermeneutics has moved from dismissing the normative force of Scripture on the basis of concrete historical facts to dismissing it on the basis of imaginative reconstructions of particular situations. The whole process is logically unsound. We use X (which we don't understand by our own admission) to determine the content of Y (about which there is no concrete external evidence) so that we can use our theory of Y to understand X. If the mathematical analogy seems convoluted, it is because it is.

Let me propose something radical. A canonical Christianity (that is any Christianity which has respect for the normative force of the Bible as it stands) requires a belief in the enduring nature of its commands. While I respect and employ both methods of cultural and occasional interpretation, I recognize that the Bible was formed as such because it contained eternal commands normative for the church centuries after the documents were written. If the occasion is the defining hermeneutical principle, why did the church select these documents to represent their canon of faith centuries after these occasions were completely forgotten? If the culture is the defining hermeneutical principle, why did rural Gauls, urban Alexandrians, Judeans, Romans, and Greeks all unify around this corpus of literature in a time when its particular culture had been lost to the memories of their ancestors? If the Bible is defined primarily by its culture and occasion then it never exists (which I imagine is fine for those who use these hermeneutics to get out from under the Bible's authority). Rather than saying "What was the culture or occasion of this document so that I can rightly apply it?" I propose the new question "How can I honestly apply this text in spite of the fact that I am not in that occasion or culture."

The Bible has not acted as normative for two millenia in the Church because it has had a static culture (in any respect) or because there has been a convenient recycling of relevant occasions. It has endured because its lays out the eternal principles of faith and practice. A hermeneutic that embraces this fact is a hermeneutic I can embrace.