Sunday, November 17, 2013

On fidelity

Giles Fraser is the Anglican minister who, in a recent BBC debate, claimed that Christianity means being always morally oriented to those who are most other to us: know, constantly in Jesus' teaching there's stuff about the stranger, there's stuff about the other, there's stuff about the Good Samaritan, and our moral responsibility is always to this person who is more other than us, rather than same as us.

I want to sketch out an argument as to why Christianity can't be understood this way.

But first let me concede that our moral responsibility in Christianity does extend to the stranger. That is on the basis that as man is made in God's image, that to love God is to love our fellow man. And this is not only derived from the Bible, but can be argued for from natural law. We do share a common humanity, so we should help out a stranger in dire need on this basis.

However, to limit Christianity to this one principle is a prime example of "intellectuals' disease," in which moral positions are derived from a single principle or formulation.

Giles Fraser's single principle cannot explain a great deal of Biblical morality. Take, for instance, the issue of infidelity. There is no doubt that Christian marriages are supposed to be faithful. But why?

It could be answered, simply, that this has to do with sexual purity or that it is a matter of justice to one's spouse. Even if we leave it at that, we can see that our moral responsibility is not just to the stranger, but to the person closest to us, the one with whom we have become, in Christian terms, "one flesh".

But we can take this a little further. There is a post on marriage that has gone viral called "Marriage isn't for you" by Seth Adam Smith. The message of the post, in a nutshell, is that marriage is about selfless love. By selfless isn't meant an absence of self. It means being focused on others, in this case on your spouse, your children and your wider family. As Seth's father put it to him:
You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. "Marriage is about the person you married.”

The truth of this is that marriage is not passively sitting back and getting things from your spouse. It is an active process of service to spouse and family and, as part of this orientation, to drawing together in a relationship with your spouse, physically and emotionally, i.e. to truly live as "one flesh".
Seth and his bride

Infidelity, it seems to me, is not just sexual. You could have infidelity when a spouse still performs the basic social role of husband or wife, and does not commit adultery, but has turned away from their spouse and no longer seeks actively to draw together into a marital relationship.

For those who are married, this effort to draw together within a relationship through what we gift to our spouse will be a significant part of our day to day orientation in life. It is not a commitment to the stranger but to the person with whom we are seeking the closest union, within a sacrament that has made us one flesh. And fidelity within this relationship matters a great deal.

It is a similar thing when it comes to fidelity in our relationship to God. Fidelity here means that we are turned toward the relationship, seeking out God and gifting ourselves in service. It is about a deepening union rather than a seeking out of the stranger (which is why, I think, I get so cranky when the mass is oriented toward secular politics- it is supposed to be time to stop from our busy schedules to turn toward God.)

One final point. If faithfulness in our relationships is morally significant, this applies as well to the particular relationships we have beyond family. Whether these are to clan, tribe or nation, they draw from individuals the same concern to give of themselves in the relationship, and to nurture and protect what is loved. This is particularly true of communities that we are deeply embedded in through ties of ethnicity (of shared descent, history, culture, language etc.), as these are the ties that call on us the most. The loss of these communities is felt deeply, in part, because it takes away one of the spheres of life in which we are set most closely in relationship with others and most challenged to give of ourselves.

Liberal moderns are not big on fidelity (in the sense I have described). They seem to seek out infidelity whenever they can. It is a pity that some Christians have followed them in this, on the basis, as Giles Fraser put it, that our moral responsibility is always towards those most other to us.

I don't see how that can fit into a Christian understanding of marriage, nor of fidelity in relationships in general.


  1. It sure is irritating beyond belief to have to put up with liberals of any stripe as friends in my experience. The constant reprimanding about race is tiring. Even when nothing specifically racial is said and there are qualifiers that should surely exclude you from the tag "racist" you will always get this irritating PC lecturing from liberals.
    I wonder if the thing that sets it off is when a liberal gets a hint you are not in compliance to liberalism like they are. I know liberals seem to regard everyone as a liberal at birth. There are just puritan liberals and misbehaving liberals.

    This irritating attitude sure helps to drive people from within the group away from their own to others. Just for a feeling of normalcy.
    The feeling of being in a society where upholding liberalism isn't a priority is liberating.

  2. Fair warning, Mr. Richardson, this post is a response to the justification you invoke for your post, not the point of the post itself.

    You wrote,

    "Infidelity, it seems to me, is not just sexual. You could have infidelity when a spouse still performs the basic social role of husband or wife, and does not commit adultery, but has turned away from their spouse and no longer seeks actively to draw together into a marital relationship."

    I think this is true. I wonder what you think of its implications:

    -If infidelity is not just sexual (i.e. child-creating), then neither is fidelity.

    -If infidelity--and not necessarily adultery--can break a union, then fidelity--and not necessarily marital intercourse--can create one.

    -If union is not just sexual (i.e. child-creating), then it is not just marital.

    How then do you justify this statement:

    "Even if we leave it at that, we can see that our moral responsibility is not just to the stranger, but to the person closest to us, the one with whom we have become, in Christian terms, "one flesh".

    I understand that your point here is to defend an ordered system of loves. Sure, that has merit. I do not understand why you conflate the child-bearing act with love in order to do so. After all, our first and most primary inter-personal union (our union with the Person of God) has nothing to do with child-bearing.

    Isn't it clear that not everyone will marry? Is then the traditionalist answer that not everyone will experience some kind of union with another person?

    Is that biblical? Does that match what we know about reality?

    Also, if we insist that the child-bearing act be co-terminous with interpersonal union, intimacy and love itself, shouldn't we expect that people will want to commit the child-bearing act (or some approximation of it) with anyone with whom they desire union, intimacy and love?

    I wonder how much adultery, fornication, perversion and so on is a result of this conflation by the Church.

    1. Bartholomew, I'll have a go at responding to your comment, but I'm not sure I understand exactly the point you are driving at - you might need to clarify.

      You wrote: "If infidelity is not just sexual (i.e. child-creating), then neither is fidelity."

      I agree with this. Fidelity, in the sense I was trying to describing it, is an act of the will in which we try to draw together with those we share particular relationships with. I believe that there is a minority view within theology which even understands the idea of "faith" as one of the theological virtues this way. So fidelity can mean not just sexual faithfulness, but an orientation of the will that draws us together in our particular relationships, such as those we have with our spouse, our children, our extended family, our clan, our tribe, our ethny, our nation and so on.

      You also wrote: "If union is not just sexual (i.e. child-creating), then it is not just marital." I agree largely with that too, though the word "union" has to be understood within the context of the particular relationship being described. A marital union is different from the "communion" we seek with God which is different from the "solidarity" we seek with our wider kith and kin, which is different from the bonds we seek with our sons or daughters, or the camaraderie we seek within a group of related men.

      You then quoted something from the post, and I think it's here that there might be a misunderstanding. In the post I wrote:

      "Even if we leave it at that, we can see that our moral responsibility is not just to the stranger, but to the person closest to us, the one with whom we have become, in Christian terms, "one flesh".

      I wasn't trying to suggest that our moral responsibility is a matter of spouse vs stranger. We have a moral responsibility in a number of spheres - that's why I made the complaint that when the ethnic relationship is taken away there is a flattening of life, because we are called upon less in our social relationships with others.

      You wrote:

      "I do not understand why you conflate the child-bearing act with love in order to do so."

      Did I? I didn't mean to. The marital bond is special in the sense of it (in the Catholic tradition anyway) of being a sacrament within which we are made "one flesh". But there are other highly significant forms of relationship that a non-married person can experience. And relationships are not all that the higher inner life of man consists of anyway. There are aspects of how we experience self and the world outside of relationships that can be found to be inspiring.

      Your final point is this:

      "Also, if we insist that the child-bearing act be co-terminous with interpersonal union, intimacy and love itself, shouldn't we expect that people will want to commit the child-bearing act (or some approximation of it) with anyone with whom they desire union, intimacy and love?"

      If marriage is understood as a sacrament joining together a husband and wife, with fidelity meaning not just being sexually exclusive, but even more than this an orientation to face toward and draw closer to one's spouse in the relationship, then I don't think it would lead to a casual attitude toward sex.

      Brendan, a thought has occurred to me, when I wrote in marriage we become "one flesh" with our spouses, I wasn't using the phrase as a euphemism for sex. Maybe that will help to clear up some of the objections you've raised.

    2. Hi Mr. Richardson,

      Thank you for the in-depth reply. Rather than try to respond point by point, I'll do as you requested and try to clarify:

      It seemed to me that when you said that marriage was the "closest union" you were saying something very similar to what a lot of churches say about marriage: that it is the ultimate expression of love and union between two persons.

      I think this is misleading and follows along with the presently fashionable idea in the world that the marital act, sexual intercourse, is the ultimate expression of love and union between two persons. .

      Marriage and the marital act it's formed around are for reproduction. It's great and advantageous to love the person you reproduce with. It's not always great and advantageous to reproduce/try to reproduce with the person you love.

      Why not? Adultery, gay "marriage", divorce, bastardy, miscegenation are just a few of the problematic practices that result.

      The marital act is about making life, not love. I was just pointing out how a concentration of all human love and union into one kind of relationship can lead to distortions and perversions of that relationship.

    3. Bartholomew, I agree that you get into trouble when marriage is defined as a celebration of love. That is an open-ended definition that means you can marry your pet dog or a bridge.

      I don't believe, though, that the way to stop marriage being defined this way is to downplay the personal relationship aspect to marriage and to define it instead in terms of its social functions, i.e. of reproduction.

      Marriage is not an open-ended celebration of love when:

      i) It is thought of as a sacrament
      ii) It is thought of as a complementary union of a man and a woman
      iii) It is understood as an active process of fidelity, in which we are to draw closer to our spouse
      iv) There is a significance attached to a child having a father and a mother
      v) When significance is attached to biological paternity

    4. We're talking past one another.

      I have not objection to points ii through v (I object to point i because I'm Protestant). You left out the point I have repeatedly objected to, making me begin to suspect that this conversation isn't going to go anywhere.

      I am objecting to your statement that marriage is the "closest union" we can have with another person. That is false. That is unbiblical, and that is, ironically, tearing apart the very definition of marriage we both agree on and are trying to defend.

    5. Sorry, Bartholomew, I just don't get your objection to the idea of marriage being the closest union. I haven't understood.

    6. The points listed 1-5 are no guarantee that marriage is not just an open ended love fest. After all that is the present teaching of the Catholic Church but it has not prevented dysfunctional family formation, social breakdown and divorce amongst Catholics who marry under these terms. These terms can apply to people who marry and yet are wholly unsuitable as life partners.

      The purpose of marriage is for family formation and will not necessarily create the "closest union". If you define marriage in these terms what do you do after marriage when the "closest union" either fails to form, satisfy or eventually falls apart? Would you consider an application to the Vatican for an annulment?

    7. Anon (above), defining marriage as being for family formation doesn't solve these issues either. What if one partner is infertile or has poor fertility? What if a woman reaches the end of her child-bearing years but her husband is still capable of siring more children? What if a man believes he will have more children if he marries two women?

      The last example is a particularly instructive one, because in truth a lot of the more capable men in their 30s and 40s could easily have larger families by marrying more than one woman. If the focus of marriage is solely on reproduction then polygamy for the more successful men makes much sense.

      It is within the impulse toward fidelity that marriage becomes exclusive between a man and a woman. We cannot leave out fidelity because of a fear that it will be abused by those who want to reduce marriage to an open-ended celebration of love.

    8. The points you make are not relevant to this post about Christian tradition, which does not allow polygamy, infidelity or divorce. At the same time I note that you are not answering my question if you consider the failure to have the "closest union" grounds for divorce.

      The post I wrote is about Christian marriage in which marriage is supposed to be a life long relationship between 2 virgins whose fertility is not known before entering into the deal. There are many cases of infertility or subfertility, some of which are treatable and some not, but this is not grounds for divorce. Christianity does not allow polygamy although serial divorce effectively permits it and hence it is prevalent in Western society although has not effectively raised birth rates.

      At no point have I said that we are "leaving out fidelity" . But your insistence that marriage is the "closest union" raises the bar too high and creates both unrealistic expectations and grounds for divorce.

    9. Anon, you're shifting the debate to suit your argument. If all we have to say is that the Christian tradition does not allow polygamy, infidelity or divorce, then that would also hold true if a Christian couple married and pursued fidelity in the sense that I described, as a turning toward each other in order to deepen the relationship. They too would be held to the expectations of a Christian marriage.

      As for the phrase "closest union" please be aware that what I mean by this is not a state of constant romantic bliss but the following:

      a) It is the closest union in the sense that it is a union that joins together two complementary parts, man and woman, into a single creative entity. In the Catholic tradition it is a sacramental union that binds us like no other; in the Protestant tradition a particularly significant covenantal one.

      b) It is the union that most engrosses us in our daily lives. If you are a married man supporting a family then a lot of your daily effort will go into your role as a husband. The relationship with your wife will be a pivotal one.

      c) The physical union creates a level of intimacy that does not exist in other relationships. There is also a need for emotional intimacy with our spouse that does not commonly exist in other relationships.

      d) The relationship with our wife draws on our masculine spirit and identity and therefore expresses a significant aspect of our being. It doesn't do so exclusively, but it does so more frequently and directly in relationship with a feminine counterpart.

  3. Mr. Richardson

    A very good post!

    If Jesus really believed in "the other" then you'd have to ask the question, why were all his apostles Jewish?

    It's true that not all of his disciples were Jewish, but they came to him, he didn't change his message to suit them.

    It's quite clear that Jesus wanted his community to be better.

    Mark Moncrieff
    Uopn Hope Blog - A Traditional Conservative Future

    1. Mark, I hadn't thought of that, it's interesting that it wasn't really until after Jesus that Christianity spread outside of a Jewish sphere, and even that occasioned some debate.

  4. The Bible refers to marriage as a Covenant. This means that the union of man and wife has similar characteristics to the Covenant between Man and God. The marriage covenant thus has a supernatural oneness between covenant partners and is a solemn and binding commitment. The relationship between family members and countrymen is also covenantal. The relationship with aliens or the "other" is not covenantal. In other words, while recognising that there is an obligation to treat them well, there is no covenant with them and the relationship accordingly is of a lower order. I think this is the best way of putting it. Quite simply our relationship to aliens is non covenantal and not supernatural.

    The Bible uses the Greek word agape to mean love. This is the covenantal love described above. The Bible never uses the other 2 Greek words which can be translated as love - Philia (brotherly love) or Eros (romantic or erotic love). The latter 2 are non covenantal forms of love .
    Society has stopped considering marriage as covenant with the result of irresponsible relationships and social breakdown.

    This good article may be useful to further explain the divine nature of the marriage covenant

    1. Anon, thanks for the link. I think it is in line with this post, in the sense that it sets out an ideal of fidelity (of being drawn closer in a covenantal relationship) between husband and wife in marriage, based on Biblical morality, in which our moral responsibility is to someone closest to us rather than, as Giles Fraser claimed, to the person most other to us.

    2. That's an interesting argument. Of course two people made covenants between themselves for all kinds of reasons other than marriage. Are you saying no one ever made a covenant with a foreigner as a foreigner (i.e. extending him rights as a foreigner)? Yeah, that's interesting.

      I don't know what you mean when you say the Bible never uses the word philia. It uses that word a lot. Do you mean it never uses that word to describe marriage?

  5. Another thought on the covenantal relationship with ones co - ethnics is that the rights given to aliens cannot be equal to the rights given to ones own people. To give an alien equal rights would be the equivalent of Christ offering salvation to a Buddhist on equal terms to a Christian believer. Obviously this contradicts the gospel teaching and the very purpose of Christian salvation.

    Therefore if an African or Chinese person comes to work in a Western nation, he should be paid fairly for the work he does and given working conditions which meet the legal requirements for health and safety. This is fair and this is how one would hope to be treated in a foreign nation. However he should not be given citizenship or the rights to vote or invest in business or political activities. His involvement in the political and commercial affairs of the nation would dilute the political and commercial rights of the native people distorting politics and economics. And so the alien should be treated well and fairly but not equally to the native just as the Priest can treat a Muslim or Buddhist visitor to a church well and with politeness but cannot offer him the salvation of Christ.

  6. "being always morally oriented to those who are most other to us"

    That just sounds to me like classic liberal self-hatred and guilt.