Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Mysterious Love

Nothing comes from nothing. I am often nervous to publish my thoughts because they are always evolving, and fed by many sources. I wonder if it makes any sense to others or if it might seem like I make great leaps of thought without any supporting structure between them. Lately I'm drawing on themes of mysticism and anti-hierarchy as an expression of love, so that's informing my processing. 

About a year ago, I finished Rachel Held Evan's book Inspired which is about learning to read the Bible again if you've been burned by the way it was taught to you. I was encouraged that it is a proper and valid response to the Bible to be appalled by parts of it. The fact that something is recorded in the Bible does not mean we should like it or emulate it (lesser repercussions for abuse of sex slaves than regular adultery in Leviticus 19:20-22, for example). 

Recently I was writing about marriage for a work project. I have been "unequally yoked" for 12 years with a partner who wants screen captioning on at all times. Nevertheless, I'd recommend marriage if you find someone who is willing and able to grow with you. I noticed while digging around for my project though, that if I was going on scriptural references of marriage alone, I would not want anything to do with marriage. Almost all scriptural references to marriage allude to a sort of bizarre power dynamic that doesn't seem to play well with the gospel at large. 

There are 3 possible reasons for this, as I see it, baring in mind that I believe there is something good in the practice of a healthy marriage and that there is truth in the Bible. First, scriptures were recorded in a cultural context that is different than present day; maybe the emphasis in passages about marriage are very particular to the ethos in which they were recorded.  Secondly, the time in which I am reading and writing has it's own cultural context; maybe I can not help but see these passages in a certain light because of ethos of my religious history (less than stellar). Third, maybe neither of those first two is the case and I am simply not understanding what scripture is saying about marriage.

Here is 1 Peter 3:7 (ESV), which is strange and doesn't make sense as a progression of thought to me. It barely makes more sense in the context of the rest of 1 Peter 3, either. My thoughts in parenthesis:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way (good advice for anyone), showing honor to the woman (yes, good) as the weaker vessel (???), since they are heirs with you of the grace of life (true), so that your prayers may not be hindered (what does this have to do with anything?). 

Scripture holds contradictions and does not break. That's not unique to scripture, it's the reality of nature. We live in a both/and world more than an either/or world. For example, we are to obey the law of the land (Romans 13), but also it's right to go against bad laws (Exodus 2, lots of Daniel, etc.). They don't negate each other, they both hold wisdom. When I accept that the Bible encompasses a multitude of truths, I stop treating it like a legal document. I can set aside the fact that marriage in the Bible is distressing and return to what I know is solid ground - the way the trinity engages with women. 

The least distressing (but still sort of weird) theme surrounding marriage in scripture is the relationship analogy of Jesus Christ and the church (the collective of disciples throughout the ages).  Ephesians 5:25-33 gives a not-very-clear explanation of this. It tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church - that is the ultimate love, and a lofty and noble goal between humans. How to go about that, according to Ephesians, involves purification, and I'm not sure I'm tracking with that part, but neither does it trip me up too much. 

Then we reach verse 31, which is a quotation from Genesis (strange, but not that difficult to understand). “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then verse 32-33: "This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband."

Note that the author himself (Peter) acknowledges or admits that this is a "profound mystery." Even though Peter is referring to the relationship between Christ and the church, husbands and wives should go ahead and get back to this lopsided expression of unity. Maybe that is the point. The church can not love Jesus as much as Jesus loves the church because we are not perfect in our loving. That makes sense to me, but it is unfortunate if the party lacking in perfection is associated with a female partner in a human marriage. If that is what scripture is alluding to, it's an analogy that sets up a false and harmful distinction between men and women. 

Let's revisit the "mystery" part, even though this mystery is currently reading like a gas station romance novel. I am interested when scripture makes a point of saying something is hard to understand. A search of the terms "insight", "understanding", and "mystery" is worth making. Many things of mystery in the scripture are revealed even within scripture. Other mysteries remain mysterious, as far as I can tell. 

This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate.... (Revelation 13:18, 17:19)

He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15 and 5 other instances)

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding. (Philippians 4:7)

He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:28)

You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children. (Luke 10:21)

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed... (1 Corinthians 15:51)

They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. (1 Timothy 3:9)

Part of the practice of mysticism is embracing the unknown. A mystic's lens toward scripture and faith is also profoundly accessible. As image-barers of God, we each have innate access to God. Some of the tricky ideas confound the learned, but are obvious to hearts that have no frame of reference (Luke 10:21). Even though I don't fully understand what Jesus was talking about when he stated that kind of revelation of mystery, Luke said that it filled Jesus with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Whatever it is, it is a good, good thing. 

Illustrated by Natalia Ramas for Esther Perel

One of my sisters is a member of the Anglican church. In the Anglican tradition, sacraments in the church carry an aspect of divine mystery, almost as if something magical happens. The sacraments of marriage and communion are considered especially magical (my words) because within those practices, God is imparting divine grace to those partaking. 

Divine grace and the relationship between Jesus and the church are not gender specific or exclusionary. It can be true that marriage is a union in which we are gifted divine grace, but it is also true that we can access divine grace without experiencing marriage. Covenant male-female unions are not more divine than other unions, such as the union between an individual and their community, for example. The innate worth and God-reflection of each individual stands alone. Marriage is not more holy than celibacy or singleness. Men are not more holy than women. Women are not more holy than men. Men and women are not more holy than non-binary people. 

I do think that part of our God-reflecting nature as humans is that we're created for relationship. We are not worth more because of our affiliation with others, but we can compliment one another. I use the term "compliment" gingerly since Complementarianism as a theory is a mine shaft. I'll start by explaining what we already know - from individual to individual, we have different personalities, giftings, interests, struggles. Human diversity is amazing. My friend Mark described our souls as shards of light broken off from a prism. We are each born of this original whole (God), and the full realization of our beings is to regroup as the Whole (oneness with God). I asked him to repeat it like 3 times, so I hope I represented his idea correctly (he doesn't describe the original whole as God, but the analogy works for me). 

If we think of ourselves as these light reflections, each of us is already In The Image, but we are a brighter segment of light when we gather. Complementarianism makes sense if we think about it like pieces of light. Unfortunately, it's often used to make small the union of male-female marriage. I think partners within a healthy marriage can and should compliment one another's skills and nature and grow in the ability to work together toward the best representation of a team that they can. Who holds each portion of the complimentary whole should not be bound by gender, nor should it be static. Women are not by nature better at caring for children. Adults working as a team generally benefit children. Men are not by nature better leaders (and exploring "leadership" is a whole other thing). There is nothing that I know that nature or the gospel supports as more suitable behavior or aptitude for one gender over another. 

Within marriage I think complementarianism of gender is somewhat redeemed if we get rid of the "two halves make a whole" idea and embrace the yin-yang. It's not perfect, because you're still looking at two "opposite" parts creating a whole, but it's better. The yin-yang illustrates that within the light there is dark, and within the dark there is light. Within the female there is male, within the male there is female. The portions are not mutually exclusive. The yin-yang also illustrates contrast over opposition. "The small dots represent the idea that both sides carry the seed of the other. The curvy line signifies that there are no absolute separations between the two opposites. The yin-yang symbol, then, embodies both sides: duality, paradox, unity in diversity, change, and harmony" (source).

I don't mean to be esoteric as I'm making up words to try and capture ideas, but I am eager to embrace the freedom of mystery. I think God is most accurately Beyond more than God is my understanding of Whole. Both wholeness and beyondness mean that God is not only genderless, but contains all representations of gender because God is the source of our light fractures. God contains the divine feminine, even though God is not only feminine. I think that when we crave to be viewed apart from our gender (and its cultural associations), part of that longing is us reflecting our original state and connection to God's Beyondness. My identity is my worth as an image-barer, not in my womanhood. If there are no boundaries, we may risk shapelessness and maybe nothingness. Even so, there is something holy in the notion of fluidity and pinging between boundaries. "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  

I have a hard time thinking about relationships outside of the context of hierarchy. That is part of why passages about marriage in the Bible are so difficult to grapple with. Men are clearly above women in most cultures, including the human cultures recorded in the Bible (I say "human" because I do think the gospel/Jesus upends that). Teachers are clearly above students. Adults are above children. The free are above the slave. All of those things are true in so far as they usually play out in our world. They are not true in terms of human worth. Why then, do we distinguish between positions of worth (universally equal) and social roles? 

Part of the practice of living in the Kingdom of God (here and now) is imagining Beyondness before it is achieved. I feel the same resistance against dismantling of hierarchy that you probably do, because life as we know it would unravel without hierarchy. But isn't our end goal exactly to transcend life as we know it, in part by remaking the world we are in? Since we did not create ourselves, I don't know that we can or want to ever be equal with That which created us. But MAYBE that is part of profound mystery of love Peter referenced...."the two shall become one...This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church."

In my current understanding, ultimate love erases hierarchy. Anarchy, by one definition, is a society or group of people that rejects a set hierarchy. I think a healthy partnership within divine grace (marriage) is an erasure of hierarchy. Recognizing the worth and dignity of women, children, the impoverished, the unwell, and the imprisoned is an erasure of power structure and an act of holy love (Matthew 25:31-46). Instead of descent into chaos, I think radical love is an ascent into anarchy - a mysterious love without hierarchy. 

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