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Posted on Wed 1 September 2021

Made in God’s image: man and woman in Society and Church

One of the most acute anthropological questions facing us today is about what it means to be male and female. Are these social or even personal constructs which can be altered, discarded or assumed as our fancy takes us or are they rooted in how we are and how society and the world are?

For Christians, to invert a popular aphorism, all anthropology is, in the end, theology: the nature of man and woman cannot be understood apart from an understanding that they have been made in God’s image and likeness (Gen1:26-28).The first of these terms selem can mean a standard or an emblem placed in a city to claim it for and to represent the king. The second demuth also means a representation or to be in the form of someone or something. Such an understanding applies to each of them, of course, but also to both of them together. They are created together and they are given a common mission in the world. This has two aspects to it: the creation and nurture of the family and control over and stewardship of creation. Their similarity to one another is rooted in being created together and is necessary for the common tasks they are to undertake. In a properly Christian anthropology we can never say, “Men are from Mars and women from Venus”. There is an acknowledged common origin but there is also difference: men are not women and women are not men. Indeed, it is their difference which makes for that union of complementarity which is so necessary for the discharge of their common mission. There is clearly the physiological difference which is required for any complementary union. This is certainly the basis of their sexual union but it is not all of it.Only animals are sexual by reflex. For human beings motivation, imagination, bonding and affection also play, or should also play, a notable part in their approach to, and consummation of, sexual union. There is also social complementarity: this is not necessarily to say that women are better at doing certain kinds of things and men better at others. It may be that there are differences and preferences of that kind but social complementarity has more to do with how men and women approach common tasks and how the difference in approach contributes towards a wholeness in addressing these tasks which an approach by one or the other alone may lack. It has been claimed, for instance, that male approaches to moral development emphasise autonomy and difference whereas women come to moral maturity more in terms of connectedness and care.Both must be given their due place in assessing the moral priorities of any society. In the context of the family, it is now known that fathers relate to the nurture and maturing of children differently from mothers. However much single parents may try, heroically, to make up the lack, the absence of either parent has an effect on the child’s development, especially in their relationships with same and different-sex persons. Such a lack, by the way, cannot just be made up by providing male or female ‘role modellers’ for children because the ways in which biological parents interact with their children is distinctive and valuable. Complementarity also has to do with the ‘mutual society, help and comfort’ of one another that the marriage service speaks of.This is true not just of marriage but of the needs of society as a whole where women and men are fulfilling their God given vocation of common tasks, distinctively addressed.

Both the ‘book of Nature’ and the revealed book, the Bible, confirmed by the constant teaching of the Church, show us how the equality, dignity and complementarity of women and men is rooted in the way in which they have been made and what they have been given to do together in ways unique to each. Such a relationship is observable in society as a whole, even when this is obscured or corrupted by human sinfulness. It is also true, however, that it is especially seen in the relationship of marriage. The Church has not invented marriage: what it has done is to identify those elements in cultures and peoples that were there already and either affirmed and strengthened them or corrected them and, in some cases, refuted them.There was, of course, a recognition of the original intention for marriage to which the Hebrew Bible, in all its parts, bears witness but also the testimony to it by the Jewish people in the ancient world in which the Church’s mission first began. The Church also acknowledged the principle of consent in Roman Law and developed that in line with its teaching on the freedom of the will. The Greek tradition offered, on the one hand, the ‘statism’ of Plato, where governors and guardians give up their children to public nurseries so they could engage in public life. This is, of course, unacceptable to a biblical view of children being a blessing for parents and should be rejected now, as it was then. Aristotle, on the other hand, offered a sociobiological view of the importance of procreation and of nurture in marriage which the Church found more congenial but which is increasingly criticised as being too focussed on the biological aspects of relations between men and women rather than the affective and unitive. St Paul has been unfairly portrayed as unduly exalting celibacy, of which he was an example, and viewing marriage as simply ‘permissive’. Such a view of Pauline teaching, even in the Corinthian correspondence, is too stark (cf the whole of 1Cor 7, 1Cor9) and account must also be taken of his, perhaps more mature teaching, in his use of the so-called ‘Household Codes’ in the Letters to the Ephesians and Colossians (Eph5:21-33, Col3:18-4:1).Both in the teaching of Jesus himself and in St Paul, celibacy is certainly greatly valued and presented as the way for those, as Jesus said, who can bear it. Side by side with this is the renewed and normative teaching on marriage (eg Matt19:3-12 and parallels).

St Augustine of Hippo’s exposition of dominical and Pauline thought in this area has been hugely influential in developing Christian understandings of both marriage and celibacy. It is certainly true that he values celibacy because it witnesses to that eschatological reality, taught by our Lord, where there is neither marrying nor being given in marriage but where we are like the angels (Mark12:25 and parallels).Marriage though is grounded in the order of Creation rather than in divine provision for the fallen human state, as some had argued. Marriage and procreation are seen as worthy of humanity’s paradisal condition, even if they are now affected by humanity’s sinful state as, indeed, in the Augustinian view, is everything in human behaviour and relationships. Augustine has, of course, been criticised for his views on marriage as being ordered to ‘worldly’ goods and celibacy to heavenly ones (an argument that also occurs in Aquinas). Could we not affirm both that celibacy points to that eschaton when the love and faithfulness of marriage is extended beyond the limits of marriage to include a love and fidelity for all in the community of the saved and that marriage itself, as John Paul II teaches, is ordered not just to this world but finds its fulfilment in Christ in whom God is bringing all things to an eschatological recapitulation?(Eph1:10).

Whatever the criticisms of Augustine’s views, it cannot be denied that they have been hugely influential not only in the Western Church’s doctrine of marriage but in society as a whole. Augustine saw marriage as a contract between a man and a woman for the birth and nurture of children but also for the sake of the security of the partners beyond the age of childbearing. Further, he saw it also as a commitment to another person qua person. That is to say, not as someone just to gratify our desires but as an end in themselves, valued for who they are. This is why marriage is seen as permanent. There can be no ‘temporary’ marriage in the Christian tradition. He thought of marriage as a sacramental bond, which goes on from the commitment of the two to now speak of the two becoming one(Gen2:24)- a unity brought about by the complementarity, that is, the similarity and difference between man and women.There has to be a true ‘other’ so that we come together in a particular way for the common good, for the sake of any children and for one’s own fulfilment.

Augustine’s teachings, positively and negatively, have been important well beyond the boundaries of the Church, even when have been criticised or only partially understood. Thus in the Enlightenment, John Locke emphasised the contractual nature of marriage, particularly as it relates to the procreation and upbringing of children. The weakness in this position, particularly with increased longevity, is that it might not last beyond the children ‘flying the nest’. As the song puts it, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m sixty-four?” Augustine’s answer would be an emphatic “Yes”, of Locke I am not sure. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, developed Augustine’s idea of commitment in terms of duty or what he calls ‘the unbreakable promise’. When you take a vow, you keep it. There is no higher duty than the keeping of a promise. Whilst Kant, as you might expect, emphasised duty and commitment, Hegel thought of marriage in terms of a ‘mystical union’ in a way that evokes Augustine’s idea of the sacramental bond.Here the differences that exist between the two are so overcome that there is a real unity of thought, direction and destiny in marriage. In the Christian tradition, marriage between the baptised is thought of as sacramental because it is a sign of the unity between Christ and the Church, his bride( Eph5:25-32). Hegel, however, extends this to marriage in the natural sense, what we might call as a ‘creation ordinance’.

However partial the Enlightenment views of marriage, each of them, and all of them together, are now under threat: since the arrival of ‘no-fault’ divorce, ostensibly to remove bitterness from divorce proceedings, can we say that marriage is a contract any longer when one party can end it unilaterally without the possibility of any assignation of causing hurt, rejection or disruption of the family? Commitment is no longer valued and there is little social disapproval for those who abandon long standing spouses and family without giving any cogent reasons for their actions. Rather than the ‘one flesh’ union of the Bible and the Church’s teaching, we have the ‘free relationships’, which last only as long as each partner wants them to, being promoted vigorously by both academics and politicians.

There is then an urgent need to restore a coherent public doctrine of marriage in society.For centuries, this was based on a Christian understanding of marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman for the sake of the family and of society. This is now so eroded as to be unrecognisable. Any reconstruction must be based on the goods of marriage as set out by the Catholic Bishops Conference for England and Wales in their pastoral letter The True Meaning of Marriage. These include its necessity for society: all societies depend on having the family as their basic building block. Without stable homes, it is unlikely that we will have a stable society. It is in the home that the the basic values which enable and enhance social living are instilled. It is good for the children: taking account of social and economic disparities, the best outcomes for children, in school, on the street or in employment, arise from being brought up in the context of stable marriages. This is in no way to minimise the heroic work done by those who bring up children on their own. Human offspring, however, take a long time to grow up and single parents would be the first to say it needs more than just one to bring them up! Thirdly, it is good for the partners themselves:most studies show that people who are married live longer and are healthier and, perhaps, even happier.They are certainly not lonelier! It should be clear by now that marriage is a particular kind of relationship ordered to specific ends. Human beings have many different kinds of relationships which have differing characteristics. These should not be confused with marriage and should be evaluated and, if desirable, provided for in terms of social or legal provision in suitable ways. Those who cohabit, for example, for whatever reason, whether siblings or parent and child or friends, can be recognised as having certain legal rights such as security of tenancy or rights of visitation in a hospital or care home. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of same-sex relationships but if those in them want legal protection as mentioned here, they should be able to have it without mixing up such social provision with the institution of marriage.

Given the importance of marriage for the spouses themselves, for any children involved and for society, it is most important that there should be adequate preparation for those undertaking this step. We find, though, that preparation is often sketchy and, sometimes, non-existent. Where church weddings are concerned, most clergy have some programme for preparation. It isn’t always all that can be done but there is usually something. What about civil weddings? The Press tells us that more and more couples are taking this path, partly because they are offered a ‘package’ by hotels, historic homes and various kinds of ‘New Age’ locations. They have a registrar to hand who conducts the wedding and ‘prepares’ the couple for it an hour or so before the event itself! What I have seen of this does not fill me with confidence. Whether it is religious or civil weddings, the time has surely come for meaningful preparation to be required of all couples and facilities provided for this to happen.

The means of preparation can be face to face meetings, online material, DVDs book etc, but what should be the content? We have seen how pair bonding among humans includes a number of elements and preparation should, at least, be about the integration of these in each of the partners and in the relationship as such. For men, the sexual instinct needs to integrated with their undoubted capacity for affection and also with a commitment to nurture.It is often when these elemental aspects of human nature are suppressed or get out of kilter that marriage comes to be at risk. St Augustine well understood this. I am sure women will want to say similar things about themselves.

Preparation should also be about what have been called ‘stages of intimacy’ or maybe we should call them ‘aspects of intimacy’: there is courtship and getting to know one another. There is then the honeymoon period which can be remembered and, from time to time, recapitulated and then there is the sharing of a common space and of limited resources and time which can give rise to competition for them and that to conflict. Awareness that this will happen, sooner or later, is itself a step in dealing with the issues that arise and not allow them to become a source of weakening or even breaking up a marriage. Indeed, such awareness can lead to cooperation arising out of competition and nascent conflict, to that greater unity of mind and spirit which constitutes the unbreakable bond and the ‘mystical union’. Clergy, psychologists, counsellors and others can all help couples along the way but starting with wedding preparation must surely be a first step?

Some in the USA are experimenting with what is being called ‘covenant marriage’ where couples agree in advance to take certain steps if the marriage runs into difficulties.These could include a requirement to undertake appropriate and specified counselling or to specify the exact conditions which may lead to separation, for example, desertion, adultery, cruelty etc. Such advance covenants may well be a way forward in the context of ‘no fault’ divorce, in particular, and easier divorce in general.

Because marriage is necessary for stable families, the State should support it whether it is in terms of allowances for children, tax advantages for the couples themselves or work policies that suit mothers, specially, but also fathers to spend more time in the bringing up of their children.In a situation where a catastrophic decline in the working age population is only being prevented by immigration, it is amazing that child allowance is being limited to two children only. Is this genuinely economic when the State spends so much on other aspects of social welfare and in the support of large scale industry or is this social manipulation to ensure women remain at the work places not designed for women and their particular role in the nurture of children, especially when they are very young? We began with equality and complementarity and so it is appropriate to close with them. Society needs to recognise both difference and similarity between men and women. Equality cannot mean expecting women to work and play in a world ordered to suit men. There should be specific celebration of their nature and their gifts to enhance and adorn society rather than expecting them to become ‘honorary men’, if they wish to succeed at work or play. The Church, similarly, needs to think deeply as to how the peculiar, natural and spiritual, gifts of women are to be discerned and to which ministries God is calling them without at once trying to fit them into male patterns of ministry which can also be God-given as a means of grace for the Church and the world.

This article was first published in FAITH Magazine.

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