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The struggle to define 'what God hath joined together'

By Marilyn Gardner / September 28, 2000



The question "What is a family?" has divided Americans in recent years. Gathering in one camp are those who, like theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, argue for the acceptance of diverse family forms resulting from divorce, remarriage, single parenthood, and gay and lesbian relationships. Marshaling forces on the other side are traditionalists who claim that the true family consists of a married father and mother and their children. This family, they contend, is based in the Bible.

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In her provocative book "Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family," Ruether challenges the biblical origins of that patriarchal family. There has never, she says, "been only one form of family."

Although modern Christians think Christianity has always championed the family, Ruether counters that during much of its history, Christianity took a negative or highly ambivalent view of marriage, sexual relations, and procreation. "The ideal Christian was unmarried, celibate, and childless" - a profile distinctly at odds, she says, with the Christian right's definition of family.

Even the New Testament, Ruether points out, appears at times to be "antifamily." She cites Jesus' insistence that any disciple of his must be willing to forsake father and mother and family.

Fifteen centuries later, the Protestant Reformation rejected the ideal of celibacy for leaders. Martin Luther maintained that God gave men and women marriage as "the basic unit of society for companionship and procreation."

By the late 18th century, as artisan guilds and later the Industrial Revolution separated the family home from the workplace, middle-class homes in the United States, England, and France became a refuge from work and business. A Victorian ideal of the modern family emerged, complete with a new religious ideology portraying the home as a "magic circle of pure womanhood and innocent childhood."

In the 1970s, the Christian right gained power as a backlash against feminism and the civil rights, student left, antiwar, and gay rights movements. Under the banner of family values, Ruether claims, the Christian right sought to reestablish the Victorian model of working husband and full-time wife.

But Ruether, a professor of theology at the Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Ill., calls "family values" a "misleading and partisan" term. "The patriarchal family is a human construct, not a divine mandate," she states.

Looking ahead, Ruether emphasizes the need to "reimagine" family relationships based on equality and partnership rather than on men's domination and women's submission. She envisions policies that reconfigure work-family relations, including shorter and more flexible hours, paid parental leave, and limits on a workaholic lifestyle.

"In the ancient Hebrew vision, work time must be balanced by sabbath time," she writes. "Working all the time is not a virtue but a sin, a grave violation of our relation to God and to one another in the life-sustaining rhythms of creation and re-creation."

Most controversial is Ruether's desire to create "covenant celebrations" in churches that can "hallow and heal" people in many types of relationships. Younger cohabiting couples could exchange temporary vows, while those in "permanently committed" relationships could choose long-term vows. Critics can argue persuasively that such church-based events, sanctioning and celebrating cohabitation, could further undermine marriage.

Ruether occasionally lapses into academic prose. She writes about "desacramentalizing" marriage, about "families living in mutuality," and about efforts to "relativize perceptions of fixed family roles." But that is a small complaint. Her impressive scholarship, interweaving social history with religious history, puts the family in a fascinating historical context.

Most writers and historians trace the evolution of the family primarily in secular terms, concentrating on the political, economic, and social trends that have shaped it. By considering the religious beliefs that have influenced the family as well, Ruether offers an original and valuable perspective.

Marilyn Gardner writes about family issues for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society