The Tao of the Traditional Family
I cannot say enough good things about the address Lord Sacks, the retired Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, gave to the recent ecumenical gathering in the Vatican devoted to the family. Maybe it is enough to say that if you read nothing else today, or this week, make certain that you read his speech. It begins like this:
I want this morning to begin our conversation by one way of telling the story of the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world. There are of course many ways of telling the story, and this is just one. But to me it is a story of seven key moments, each of them surprising and unexpected.
The first, according to a report in the press on 20th October of this year, took place in a lake in Scotland 385 million years ago. It was then, according to this new discovery, that two fish came together to perform the first instance of sexual reproduction known to science. Until then all life had propagated itself asexually, by cell division, budding, fragmentation or parthenogenesis, all of which are far simpler and more economical than the division of life into male and female, each with a different role in creating and sustaining life.
When we consider, even in the animal kingdom, how much effort and energy the coming together of male and female takes, in terms of displays, courtship rituals, rivalries and violence, it is astonishing that sexual reproduction ever happened at all. Biologists are still not quite sure why it did. Some say to offer protection against parasites, or immunities against disease. Others say it’s simply that the meeting of opposites generates diversity. But one way or another, the fish in Scotland discovered something new and beautiful that’s been copied ever since by virtually all advanced forms of life. Life begins when male and female meet and embrace.
He goes on to trace the evolution of the idea of monogamy, and the traditional family, which in Lord Sacks view is the unfolding of God’s plan. More:
It seems that among hunter gatherers, pair bonding was the norm. Then came
agriculture, and economic surplus, and cities and civilisation, and for the first time sharp inequalities began to emerge between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The great ziggurats of Mesopotamia and pyramids of ancient Egypt, with their broad base and narrow top, were monumental statements in stone of a hierarchical society in which the few had power over the many. And the most obvious expression of power among alpha males whether human or primate, is to dominate access to fertile women and thus maximise the handing on of your genes to the next generation. Hence polygamy, which exists in 95 per cent of mammal species and 75 per cent of cultures known to anthropology. Polygamy is the ultimate expression of inequality because it means that many males never get the chance to have a wife and child. And sexual envy has been, throughout history, among animals as well as humans, a prime driver of violence.
That is what makes the first chapter of Genesis so revolutionary with its
statement that every human being, regardless of class, colour, culture or creed, is in the image and likeness of God himself. We know that in the ancient world it was rulers, kings, emperors and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. So what Genesis was saying was that we are all royalty. We each have equal dignity in the kingdom of faith under the sovereignty of God.
From this it follows that we each have an equal right to form a marriage and have children, which is why, regardless of how we read the story of Adam and Eve – and there are differences between Jewish and Christian readings – the norm presupposed by that story is: one woman, one man. Or as the Bible itself says: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
Monogamy did not immediately become the norm, even within the world of the Bible. But many of its most famous stories, about the tension between Sarah and Hagar, or Leah and Rachel and their children, or David and Bathsheba, or Solomon’s many wives, are all critiques that point the way to monogamy.
What was new and remarkable in the Hebrew Bible was the idea that love, not just fairness, is the driving principle of the moral life. Three loves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.” “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And, repeated no less than 36 times in the Mosaic books, “Love the stranger because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.” Or to put it another way: just as God created the natural world in love and forgiveness, so we are charged with creating the social world in love and forgiveness. And that love is a flame lit in marriage and the family. Morality is the love between husband and wife, parent and child, extended outward to the world.
The fifth development shaped the entire structure of Jewish experience. In ancient Israel an originally secular form of agreement, called a covenant, was taken and transformed into a new way of thinking about the relationship between God and humanity, in the case of Noah, and between God and a people in the case of Abraham and later the Israelites at Mount Sinai. A covenant is like a marriage. It is a mutual pledge of loyalty and trust between two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, to work together to achieve together what neither can achieve alone. And there is one thing even God cannot achieve alone, which is to live within the human heart. That needs us.
One more quote:
What made the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.
For a whole variety of reasons, some to do with medical developments like birth control, in vitro fertilisation and other genetic interventions, some to do with moral change like the idea that we are free to do whatever we like so long as it does not harm others, some to do with a transfer of responsibilities from the individual to the state, and other and more profound changes in the culture of the West, almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care.
Read the whole thing. The rabbi’s conclusion is so beautiful and true that it very nearly brought tears to my eyes. If you are confused or in despair about love and the traditional family in this time of atomization, chaos, and confusion, Lord Sacks’s speech will give you clarity, solace, and a sense of mission.
In the same way, I cannot commend to you strongly enough this 16-minute video, produced by the Vatican for the gathering; it’s part of a series called “Humanum”. I learned about it through C.C. Pecknold, who rightly praises its production values to the moon. This is superb storytelling:
In the video, Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft says:
The masculine and the feminine are cosmological. They are not limited to humans, or even just to animals. Every language that I know of, except English, has masculine or feminine nouns . . . the sun and moon, the day and night, the water and the rocks . . . but most today think this is a projection of our sexuality into the universe. That makes us strangers to the universe. The God who invented human sexuality also invented the universe; the two fit. It’s a much happier philosophy: we fit the nature of things.
Do you see what I mean by Tao? Monogamy and the traditional family is built into the nature of created order, for the flourishing of humankind. When I wrote that the same-sex marriage revolution is “cosmological,” this is what I was talking about.
Here is a link to the entire six-part Humanum series. I intend to watch them all. If the rest of them are as good as the first episode, then the Humanum series ought to be watched by every family and every Sunday school/CCD class. It is a terrific articulation of the traditional, and traditional Christian, worldview on the importance of monogamy, marriage, and complementarity. I intend to watch them together with my children. I hope you will too.