HUMPTY DUMPTY, AUGUSTINE AND MARRIAGE
Robert E. Wright
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”“The question is,” said Alice, “Whether you can make words mean so many different things?”"The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master? – That’s all.”
This conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll's classic Through the Looking Glass sounds in many ways like the arguments now being waged in Anglicanism over matters of human sexuality and ecclesiology. On one side are those who cite church canons regarding property held in trust within a hierarchical church, as well as the Nicene tradition of respecting diocesan and provincial boundaries. On the other side are those who cite Scripture and Tradition regarding who may be considered eligible for marriage and ordination. Each side, in a sense, is playing Humpty Dumpty, regarding how the church's authoritative texts are to be interpreted with regard to sexual ethics as well as the ecclesiology of the church.
An Augustinian Hermeneutic
To be sure, now we all look through the glass darkly, but with Tradition and Reason as sources of illumination, we may more clearly look through the window of Scripture to see God's face. In particular, from our Tradition, St. Augustine sheds much light on our discernment. Perhaps the late 4th-early 5th century African bishop offers us a way out of the game Humpty Dumpty seeks to play, about who gets to be 'master' of what authoritative texts must mean to us. In particular, the Augustinian hermeneutic offers help as the church wrestles with marriage and our desire to faithfully interpret the Bible, as we also seek to include partnered Christians who are gay and lesbian into the sacramental life of the church.
In his treatise On Christian Doctrine, begun c. 396, Augustine wrote:
Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way. (I.36.40)
Later he elaborates, situating the interpretation of Scripture in the context of the entire canon and not proof-texting:
For he who examines the divine eloquence, desiring to discover the intention of the author through whom the Holy Spirit created the Scripture, whether he attains this end or finds another meaning in the words not contrary to right faith, is free from blame if he has evidence from some other place in the divine books. For the author himself may have seen the same meaning in the words we seek to understand. And certainly the Spirit of God, who worked through that author, undoubtedly foresaw that this meaning would occur to the reader or the listener. Rather, He provided that it might occur to him, since that meaning is dependent upon truth. For what could God have more generously and abundantly provided in the divine writings than that the same words might be understood in various ways which other no less divine witnesses approve? (III.27.38)
The premise of Augustine’s interpretive principle lies in the distinction between charity (caritas) and cupidity (cupiditas). As he defines these terms:
I call “charity” the motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one’s self and of one’s neighbor for the sake of God; but “cupidity” is a motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of one’s self, one’s neighbor, or any corporal thing for the sake of something other than God. (III.10.16)
In other words, the “master” of the text (to use Humpty’s term) is not the human author or those who would have interpreted his words in the historical, social, or cultural context within which they were written, but rather God himself who as Logos is the true author and whose words are always to be interpreted in terms of the law of charity. Of this principle he writes:
. . . every student of the Divine Scriptures must exercise himself, having found nothing else in them except, first, that God is to be loved for Himself, and his neighbor for the sake of God; second, that he is to love God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind; and third, that he should love his neighbor as himself, that is, so that all love for our neighbor should, like all love for ourselves, be referred to God. (II.7.10)
Later in the work, he explains that this interpretive principle may be applied as well to secular, even pagan, texts.
Augustine applies this principal in determining whether certain texts are to be interpreted literally or figuratively. He quotes the Apostle, “For the letter killeth, but the spirit quickeneth,” commenting, “That is, when that which is said figuratively is taken as though it were literal, it is understood carnally . . . He who follows the letter takes figurative expressions as though they were literal and does not refer the things signified to anything else.” As an example, Augustine notes that “if he hears of the Sabbath, he thinks only of one day out of the seven that are repeated in a continuous cycle . . .” and cites the scribes and Pharisees’ accusations against Jesus for performing healings on the Sabbath. (III.5.9-10)
An Expanded Interpretation of Marriage?
Two remarkable resolutions passed by successive General Conventions of The Episcopal Church in 2000 and 2003, together with the legalization of same-gender marriage first in Massachusetts in 2004 and subsequently in several other states, have effectively changed the terms and the context of the church's debate over the blessing of same-gender unions. Whereas the conversation once tended to be about same-gender partnerships, envisioning them as alternative types of human relationship wholly other than 'marriage,' now people began to be asking whether or not marriage was what we were talking about for everybody - whether straight or gay.
The first, passed by the 73rd General Convention meeting in Denver, stated in part:
Resolved, That we acknowledge that while the issues of human sexuality are not yet resolved, there are currently couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships; and be it furtherResolved, That we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God; and be it furtherResolved, That we denounce promiscuity, exploitation, and abusiveness in the relationships of any of our members; and be it furtherResolved, That this Church intends to hold all its members accountable to these values, and will provide for them the prayerful support, encouragement, and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully by them . . .
The second, passed by the 74th General Convention meeting in Minneapolis, reaffirmed the resolve that defined the positive qualities of such relationships and added:
Resolved, That we recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.
I believe, these two resolutions point not to the formation of a new category of domestic partnership - which might be available to persons of any sexual orientation - nor do they represent an altogether new vision of marriage itself. Rather, they point to an evolved interpretation of traditional marriage, whereby it may begin to be understood as appropriate for same-gender couples as well as mixed-gender couples.
When one asks how this might be in light of Scripture and Tradition, it is here that I believe Augustine's hermeneutic of charity - when applied to biblical and traditional texts - is the key to this new understanding of how that may faithfully be.
For example, in Genesis' first creation account, we encounter the words: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1.27) In the second creation account, we encounter the words: “God said, 'it is not good that man should be alone, I will make him a helper as his partner." And, "then the man said, This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. " (Gen 2:18&23)
As a Christian who is gay, I interepret these passages to have little to do with purely physically determined gender complementarity, as much as with the personal complementarity that I know to be possible between two persons of the same gender who love each other intimately. Moreover, I see in these passages a calling to mutuality and partnership - as checks against solitude or selfishness, and the sacred vocation partnered persons have to accompany and serve each other faithfully. According to the Augustinian hermeneutic, I interpret these passages in light of how they reveal to me a godly form of life rooted in the love of God and of neighbor as self.
By the same hermeneutic, a reading of Matthew 22 demonstrates God's will for a principled inclusion to all sorts of persons to the wedding feast of God's Kingdom. Such an principled approach would apply not only to the guests, who are all invited but also expected to abide by a set of agreed groundrules ('the wearing of the wedding garment'), but also the couple sealing their covenant with one another, with God, and with the community of faith.
In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes, “. . . every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s” (II.18.28) Many now believe that The Episcopal Church is called to expand its understanding of marriage - not to make the word mean many things or just any thing - as Humpty Dumpty would do. No, many believe that under an Augustinian hermeneutic of charity, in which we believe the "love of God and of neighbor as self" is the master of our authoritative texts, we may understand marriage to be an honorable estate which includes persons of same-gender affection.