Thursday, August 25, 2011

Theology and Reality and Divorce

I saw the title, When Theology and Reality Don't Meet, and thought it would be about sentimentalism. That is human emotions being taken as a more reliable indicator of right and wrong then divine revelation. I was right.
The phone rang. My dad tearfully explained that he and mom had separated and would be getting divorced. I was devastated, shocked and overwhelmed. My parents’ 34-year marriage was ending.
As a seminary student I’ve been in several classes that explored divorce. Up till now it’s been a topic I’ve been able to discuss from a purely ethical, theological or pastoral standpoint.
So she has two sources of information here. Her feelings and her seminary. Now it makes sense to allow your life experience to shape your theology. Emotions are a part of that. But you can't just dismiss what is taught in seminary. There is a lot of life experience behind that as well. What you really can't lose sight of is God as the author of marriage. What He says about marriage and divorce has to be central. Normally young men and women cannot make promises that will last a lifetime. It is a God thing. So going to our own emotions for wisdom about it is going to be limited.
The neat theology formed in the safety of my seminary classrooms is clashing with the reality of my life. I’m no longer a safe distance from this issue; I’m living it. For the first time, my theology and reality are not matching up. The paradigm on which I have based huge portions of my life and faith has been yanked out from under me, and I am lost.
You wonder why she bothers with theology at all. If she allows it to be yanked from under her when life gets hard then what good is it?  Faith is only useful when it shows us a deeper reality than we would otherwise see. If we can't accept a deeper truth than our strongest emotions present to us then we really have not surrendered to God. So she is right to describe herself as lost.
Jesus speaks on divorce multiple times and says that it is only okay in cases of adultery. So is that the answer? I’m not a literalist but how do you argue something that seems so clear?
Actually it is unclear what Jesus means by "adultery." He does not use the normal word for it. It is very possible that He meant couples that were never married and just cohabiting.  God had not put them together so they are in a different situation. What is clear is that sacramental marriage is forever.
If we can interpret Jesus’ words in a different way, how do we go about applying these interpretations?
This is a good question. Particularly when we have a society that thinks serial monogamy is just fine. Commitment for a few years or even a few months is seen as more realistic. But it radically changes marriage from complete a gift of self to a relationship where I will abandon you as soon as you cease to be useful to me. One version of this is to actually marry each partner and then divorce them when you want to move on. So how can you accept divorce and not accept that kind of abuse of the marriage bond? You are either serious about your marriage vows or you are not.
If we take Jesus’ words literally, are we then requiring people to stay in abusive marriages? What about marriages completely devoid of commitment or love? Would Jesus have really wanted those unions to continue?
 Staying in a marriage does not mean you have to live with the person. If that person is abusive then move out.But you are still married. You don't marry someone else. You don't date. You live as a married person who's family life has sadly broken down.

A lot can be done to fix bad marriages. If a marriage is devoid of commitment or love today it need not be that way forever. God gives us a ton of grace to change our hearts if we let Him. It is when everything seems hopeless that God does His best work. Sometimes God asks us to suffer for a while. Unite your suffering with that of Christ and pray.
Adultery didn’t end my parents’ marriage, other mistakes did. Does that make their divorce more sinful?
Only God can judge the mitigating circumstances in a person's heart. Divorce is objectively immoral. It is a choice. It is not something that happens to a couple. One partner or the other must file for divorce. When they do they are committing a sin.
How am I supposed to deal with this? How do I form a new theology when I didn’t know the old one was broken? How much of my theology needs fixing?
That is a big question. When you accept sentimentalism you are essentially rejecting Christianity. The consequences are far reaching. You look at any of the modern controversies and you see sentimental arguments. Gay marriage, abortion, women's ordination, they all have people behind them with very sad stories. Do we change our theology every time?

The real issue behind this is Sola Scriptura. Where does this concept of "my theology" come from? Why does she think she has the right to formulate a theology of her own? Sola Scriptura tells her she can. The reality is that when we are emotionally involved in a situation we need the church all the more because our capacity for sound theological reason is much less. When the only authority you have is scripture and plain reason then anything that compromises your ability to reason distorts your picture of God. This often happens when you need Him most.


  1. Part of is is sola scriptura, I'll grant you. But there are other things going on as well.

    I know where the author is coming from; I was there as my mother threw my father out of their house and her life, after 27 years of compulsive infidelity that had reached a mortifying, publicly humiliating nadir. Despite what he put her through, I never stopped loving my dad; at the same time, I accepted her decision as appropriate. (She never remarried; my father passed in '02, having not only remarried but put his widow through much of the same stuff he put Mom through.)

    You want to support your parents; even when you're a mature adult, you don't feel up to challenging their life decisions ("Honor your father and your mother"). I may have had it easier because my father had been married before; I could rationalize my mother's decision on solid Catholic grounds.

    But there's still that wrongness. Suddenly, your loyalties are divided and conflicted; you don't want to take sides, and your parents may not ask you to take sides ... but there you are, having to decide whether to spend Christmas with your mother or your father (or just stay put so neither one seems to be preferred). You don't just love each of them, you love them both as a unit — but that "unit" is no longer temporally united.

    Jillian doesn't explain what precipitated the divorce. However, there had to be something deeply wrong in their relationship that makes her want to say: "Hey, divorce is the best option you folks have" ... especially if it took 34 years to reach the ultimate crisis.

    I say this not to excuse Jillian's search for a way around Jesus and St. Paul. I'm saying the effect of divorce on children — even adult children, as I was — is enough prompting to make you want to find a "Christian" way to support your parents' decision without reaching for a hermeneutical excuse in sola scriptura.

  2. I know there a lot of people with personal experience with divorce both with themselves and with their parents. I think that makes the danger of sentimentality greater. That is more what I was questioning. How do we process these things. Do we put our experience in the drivers seat or do we put revelation there? It relates to what Pope Benedict said in the quote at the top of the page. Truth and love are not in conflict. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth(1 Cor 13:6). When we forget that we end up in sentimentality.