Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Listening, Hearing, Heeding: A Marital Ethic of Listening
Oftentimes parties grow too loud for couples hoping for a conversation of greater depth than that of the tastiness of a certain appetizer. They long to hear “come with me” away from this noise to a place we can talk and listen. This situation where noise prevents the conversation of a married couple is not unlike the current discourse regarding Christian marriage. There are loud voices, on both sides, neither position providing the furniture that makes conversation comfortable, or safe. Because of this I hope to diffuse the noise of discourse while creating a space for, as I see it, the deepest of Christian marital ethics: listening. I will do this by examining the polarized models commonly referred to as: hierarchalist and egalitarian; arguing that both approaches carry with them presuppositions. These presuppositions, I will show, effect the hermeneutic they employ and limit their vision. I will then demonstrate that the nature of an abstract model of marriage appropriated in a marriage often takes the form of abuse, hierarchalist or egalitarian. From there I will describe listening as an alternative marital ethic that is not only rooted deeply in the biblical landscape but is also a pregnant metaphor for how a Christian couple might “do marriage” given the fluidity of life. Furthermore, I will argue that listening as the formative marital ethic not only calls spouses to each other in inward movement, but also sends them out together to engage transformatively in culture.
Hermeneuticists agree that a text is “polysemous or capable of generating multiple interpretations.” The converse of this argument is precisely that all readers approach texts with presuppositions, which “are often conditioned by their social historical and cultural location.” John Bartowski, in his essay Beyond Biblical Literalism and Inerrancy highlights two popular evangelical writers representing both poles within the evangelical marriage debate. Bartowski’s project is to look at the particular hermeneutic employed by these writers and then examine the presuppositions that inform this hermeneutic. He chooses Larry Christenson as the representative voice advocating a hierarchalist model of marriage. Bartowski believes to have found two presuppositions that inform Christenson’s hermeneutic, they are: (1) women need a husband’s protection because women are subject to attack (physical, spiritual, emotional, psychological), (2) Women are more likely to sin than men. While conservatives might argue that Christenson’s presuppositions themselves are rooted in biblical passages others have demonstrated that current hierarchalist models of marriage, such as the very model Christenson advocates, owe just as much to a post-industrial revolution model of “doing marriage” as to an exegesis of certain biblical passages. Further, Christensen’s claim that a woman needs a male’s protection seems to simplify an important and poignant complexity, that being: oftentimes women are in need of protection from their overpowering and abusive husbands. If an ethos of privacy and submissiveness is prized how does an abused wife cry out?
For an example of the egalitarian perspective he chooses Ginger Gabriel’s book Being a Woman of God. The presuppositions Bartowski believes to find in Gabriel’s hermeneutic are: (1) equality of sexes rooted in God’s ungenderedness, (2) and the equal distribution of emotional and rational attributes among the sexes (rather than rational/male, emotional/female). Certainly biblical passages come to mind that give Gabriel’s position strength. Paul’s charge of mutual submission within a marital relationship and his call to bodily oneness are not the least. However, this biblical grounding to feminist arguments is not always the case. Douglas Shuurman writes, “In the same way that Luther was eager to throw the Epistle of James out of the Canon because it seemed to teach works-righteousness, so too some feminists are ready to dismiss several of the Pauline letters because they seem to teach patriarchy.” It seems to me that this canonical flexibility is closer to the page tearing Marcion than anything Luther ever advocated. An example of this is Letty Russell who has written that,
Feminist readings of the Bible can discern a norm within Biblical faith by which the Biblical texts themselves can be criticized. To the extent to which Biblical texts reflect this normative principle, they are regarded as authoritative. On this basis many aspects of the Bible are to be frankly set aside and rejected.
The critical eye observes a few things: (1) a specific notion of gender-equality in the Bible is prized above all other propositions and narrative elements, (2) the definition of “gender-equality” is rooted in a modern liberal definition which sets autonomy as the main standard of equality. Further, an observation of Elizabeth Achtemeier’s is important here, she writes, “Many [feminists] do not want to trust a Lord—that basic requirement of the Christian faith. The Lordship of Jesus Christ, in whose service is perfect freedom, smacks too much to them of a hierarchical domination.” A western egalitarian hermeneutic is further culturally contextualized when understood as just a piece within a larger global feminism, which often accepts more traditional approaches to married and family life.
Through this we can assuredly say that both hierarchalists and egalitarians approach the biblical text with their own presuppositions. Further, the interpretations informed by each hermeneutic produce abstractions, ideals, and models. While this is not altogether bad when doing systematic theology; abstractions when exported into the flesh of real life—specifically married life—carry with them a potential for abuse.
Models are in a fundamental way abstract, they propose ends that do not necessarily conform into real life. If a given marital model is deemed absolutely necessary then there is little to prevent the growth of an abusive marriage relationship. This form of abuse begins with a reversal of ends and means. This is seen in a marital relationship when one or both spouses cease to value the other as an end but begin to see the other as a means. To put this exchange in the terms of the 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: the I-Thou mode of relating becomes an I-It mode of relating. Describing this in greater depth Monica Fishbane writes, “the I-It mode entails seeing the other through the lens of one’s own needs or distortions […] I-It can take the form of abusive or exploitive relationships, in which the other is dealt with on the basis of desires and projections, regardless of the damage done to the other.” Conversely, an I-Thou mode of relating sees the other as an end in itself—there is no abusive functionality placed on the other. This reversal of ends and means—where a spouse is made the means—is abuse because, as alluded to above, the other becomes secondary and thus the other’s consciousness must be filtered through the primary (the given marital model) if the consciousness of the spouse is to receive validation. Contrary to this abusive mode of relating Buber tells us that, “Love does not cling to the ‘I’ in such a way as to have the thou only for its ‘content,’ its object […].” When a husband makes his wife the means to accomplishing an end—he reduces his marital relationship to abuse; he makes his wife merely functional “content.”
Of course it might be argued that this form of abuse is, perhaps, odd and only happens on occasion. Why would a couple actually care for a particular marital model, at least that much? There are, as I see it, two prominent and potential reasons for why this reversal might take place. The first might be our common desire to “fit in.” When a married couple is surrounded by a community that uniformly prizes a given model of marriage it becomes tempting for a spouse to implement that model without listening to the other’s not readily conformable particularities. The spouse is then relativized—made the means—for the sake of becoming like the surrounding community. From this it is indeed a small step to the abusive mode of relating mentioned in the prior paragraph. Further, it might be added, no particular model, be it hierarchical or egalitarian is free from this temptation; whether a wife privately belittles her husband for not living up to a standard of masculinity or a husband pushes his wife into the marketplace against her wishes, this abuse is no respecter of ideologies. Christ speaks to the heart of this matter, telling the Pharisees: “you justify yourselves in the eyes of men.” This desire to be justified among men subverts Christ’s call that the husband, and by extension the wife, “leave his father and mother and be united to his wife two […] become one flesh.” Christ’s call is one that draws the couple face to face in oneness rather than outwards with hopes of social justification.
This form of abuse might also surface if one or both spouses orient themselves around a given model of marriage hoping that it will provide a quality of marital life. While it is certainly good to have goals or aspirations within a marriage it is not advisable to seek out those goals at the expense of the marriage. This is important particularly with regard to marital goals, as they most directly involve the life of the other. Christian theology might describe this as “idolatry.” That is, when a Christian is oriented around a model or idea, and the Christian believes that the model or idea itself will, apart from the person Jesus Christ, provide a certain quality of life, then necessarily the Christian’s spiritual life with Christ suffers. Augustine articulates the root of this argument when in the City of God he writes “the better the objects of love, the better the community, the worse the object the worse the community.” He in essence is saying that whatever a community is oriented around determines the quality of life of that community. To further illustrate Augustine’s point we might contrast two scriptural passages. The first, from Deuteronomy, reads: “You must not [worship like the Canaanites] because they would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods […];” the second passage from Acts reads: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” While the Canaanites, because of their idolatry burnt their children; those who “believed” sold their possessions to distribute to all had “need”: true quality in life is found in allowing yourself to be oriented around Christ not around idols, be them fashioned from stone or a marital model.
Though the Bible certainly contains concepts and ideas even the most abstract meanderings are rooted in the flesh of real life. As Eugene Peterson has observed, “Biblical […] religion has a low tolerance for ‘great ideas’ or ‘sublime thoughts’ […] apart from the people and places in which they occur.” Thus far I have followed this line of thought arguing that abstractions should not be the sole determinant for how to “do marriage”. The late fiction writer Andre Dubus begins to illuminate another method rooted more in narrative and listening rather than abstract models; when describing an appointment he and his wife had with a marriage counselor, he writes,
What we did in the counselor’s office was tell stories. A good counselor won’t let you get by with the lack of honesty and commitment we bring to abstractions. And when we told these stories we discovered the truths that were their essence, that were the very reasons we needed to tell the stories; […] we did not know the truth of the stories until we told them.
Dubus’ counselor does not provide any certain model, or abstraction to implement; the counselor has Dubus’ and his wife tell stories. And, if we are to take Dubus as an honest man, it was in the telling and listening of their stories that a “truth” was discovered. This begins to suggest that the health of a marriage is not determined by how well an abstract model is actualized within a marriage, but rather by how much a spouse is listening to the other. In, perhaps, more popular terms: while abstract models call for a top-down approach: legislating models based upon generic ideas of personhood; a marital ethic of listening begins with a bottom down approach by listening to the other and allowing spouses to be their particular selves.
“Listening” then is what I propose as an alternative method to doing marriage. It is a relational metaphor rather than an abstract model, therefore it does not carry the baggage that models often do. Further, it is an ethic deeply rooted throughout the biblical landscape. Job cries out in confusion and pain, “Oh, that I had someone to hear me!” In the beginning of Exodus we are told that “God heard [Israel’s] groaning.” James encourages his readers to be, “quick to listen and slow to speak.” And in Revelation Jesus tells John, “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.” Though these texts do not talk about marriage specifically they do demonstrate the gravity the Bible gives to “hearing” and “listening” in multiple contexts, further they begin to provide a window through which we might better see the biblical landscape of listening. That is that they demonstrate that it is through “hearing” or “listening” that not merely a message, but oftentimes, those essential messages are communicated, or passed on. To examine this further I will look at Deuteronomy 6:4 in greater detail. In doing this I will also show how the biblical call to “hear” or “listen” can be viewed in relation to marriage.
Towards the beginning of Deuteronomy, in the fourth verse of the sixth chapter we read: “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord your God is one God.” This statement is the crux of what is referred to as the shema—shema in fact meaning “to hear, or listen.” This exhortation became a central confession of the Jewish faith, by the 2nd century A.D. it was recited by the devout Jew every morning and evening. In the shema the call—“Hear, Oh Israel […]”—is a call to understand God’s essence; those faithful are called to “Hear” that “God is one.” So it is through Israel’s listening that they understand the fundamental essence of their God.
The marital life is not altogether different, for in marriages knowing the essence of the other is the fruit of listening. The example Andre Dubus’ gave us describes this: “And when we told these stories we discovered the truths that were their essence, that were the very reasons we needed to tell the stories; […] we did not know the truth of the stories until we told them.” As Dubus tells us it is through the interplay of talking and listening that an essence is conveyed. Much like the Israelites understanding God’s essence only after hearing, spouses can only begin to understand the other’s essence if they first hear or listen. Rowan Williams articulates this when he advocates for “[a] listening [that] tries to listen to the other relations in which the speaker stands.” He goes on describing what he means by the phrase, “other relations in which the speaker stands,” telling us that
Recognizing a soul is, […] recognizing the other you confront is already invested in […] other relations over which you have no control, is being made themselves by a complex of agents and factors. Listening to the other is listening for those others, for the communicative and symbolic world inhabited by the speaker.
While Williams is speaking specifically about the role a therapist should take, spouses also should be extremely sensitive to the “communicative and symbolic world” their spouse possesses. However, I would add that this sensitivity should always be checked with the trajectory of the Gospel—“sensitivity” should not be taken as affirming spiritual lethargy. Certainly the question of how to appropriate exhortation in a marriage is a difficult one, yet, for the married Christian couple it is a necessary one. Nevertheless, it is from listening that understanding flows and listening and understanding should always preclude any form of exhortation.
Through the rhythm of time spent listening to each other’s stories one begins to behold the other’s true essence, that is, the other in all of their complexities and mysteries. Monica Fishbane describes that, in part, a couple’s journey must move from “magic” to “mystery,” writing from a psychologist’s perspective she asserts: “The challenge is to help the couple move from their state of disenchantment with each other, not back to the innocent magic of their early time together, but rather toward a sense of mystery.” Fishbane goes on to describe that if one spouse relates to the other in terms of “resentment” or “magic” they are relating to the other through “projective identification”—one part of a spouse is blown out of proportion so as to hinder truly beholding the other. A marital ethic of listening allows for this movement from “magic to mystery” to take place, indeed it facilitates the movement by creating space for spouses to behold the other.
Further listening, as I have described it, teaches spouses to heed to the other. That is they are asked to “drop” their own programs, projects and expectations to engage with the other—rather than engaging primarily with the self. It is in this heeding and listening that the other becomes whole, becomes “mystery.” Further, as might be expected, this heeding is mutual; both spouses must listen, both spouses must share themselves. About this Buber writes, “Only he who himself turns to the other human being and opens himself to him receives the world in him. Only the being whose otherness, accepted by my being, lives and faces me in the whole compression of existence, brings the radiance of eternity to me.” It is in the heeding to the other, submitting to the other’s voice, that the essence of the other is discovered as a whole person, as a “mystery.” Yet, there is of course a tension to hold here; while the whole self is in fact “mystery” scripture teaches us that the self is also bottomless in its consumptive and inverted qualities. So there is of course a tight rope walk—there must be balance between the inward impulse in a marriage, that which draws spouses together in rest, and an outward impulse that brings them out—oftentimes together—to simply be Christians in the world.
It is about this heeding that I believe Paul is speaking about when he tells the Ephesians, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” However, Paul’s last three words are of extreme importance; submission is because “of reverence for Christ.” For while during periods of infatuation it may feel easy to heed to the voice of a spouse, conversely (and perhaps this is more often the case) it is easy to develop a rhythm of avoiding intimacy. Much of the time we are angry, busy, or too self-involved to heed to the other in listening. But Paul tells us that our submission to the other should be out “of reverence for Christ.” The placement of a reference point outside of the spouse issues a call to another heeding. This form of heeding, or “reverence,” is interrelated to the heeding we engage in with our spouse. For example, our reverence for Christ, our heeding to him, is articulated by our willingness to heed to the other. In this light the married life is pointed at the transformation of essence; and this interrelated heeding helps a married couple develop a mutual trajectory out of the bottomlessness of self –a trajectory oriented towards Christ.
The Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian articulates a helpful distinction between “privacy” and “intimacy” which further elucidates what I mentioned above as interrelated heeding. Guroian maintains that while “privacy has gotten defined as an objective sphere away from the public. Intimacy connotes no such division of life into two spheres.” Surely a married couple needs privacy, listening in fact warrants it, yet the Pauline end of mutual submission is “out of reverence for Christ.” Therefore we must again discern a balance between our outward and inward impulses. And it is because of this need for discernment that Guroian’s distinction is helpful. Our call to be “in the world” is not one that calls us from our spouse; “intimacy” can exist with our outward impulse, although “privacy” cannot. More simply, the call outward need not be a solitary call outward. Guroian articulates this ecclesial nature of marriage when he writes,
Like a monastic community, marriage is an institution with a purpose which transcends the personal goals or purposes of those who enter into it. It is an upbuilding of the Church in service to the Kingdom. Marriage is not only something which happens to the individuals who are wed and the children which they bear by the grace of God. Marriage is something which happens in and to the whole Church.
Guroian does not mean that spouses deprive themselves of the other. Rather he is arguing that a married couple remains kingdom oriented in a non-kingdom oriented world. The husband and wife should be face to face in submitting “to each other out of reverence for Christ” therefore receiving a fuller understanding of the other’s essence, and from there assist in the process of essence transformation of the other so that they allow their relationship, home, and wider community to become, as Chrysostom put it, “Christ’s general receptacle.”
Author and poet Jill Patterson asks us “[…] who among us cannot see that [Jesus] understands how mercy comes when we least deserve it, how God grants leniency as he sees fit, how sometimes divorce is the same thing as grace.” Surely, one understands her sentiment. Indeed, there are often times when marriages do exist within the cold rhythms of criticism and amongst calcified hearts. Under those circumstances, knocking down the doors that vows have locked may indeed appear to be the only way to freedom. But I also am reminded of Jesus who told his listeners that Moses permitted them divorce because “[their] hearts were hard.” And I am also reminded of how scripture teaches us that a hardened heart is unable to hear, or listen. It is only through listening that we are able to break up the calcification around our hearts, the hardness that prevents us from listening in the first place. This is what I have advocated for throughout this paper, that is, the primacy of a marital ethic of listening. In doing this I have described the insufficiency of the abstract marital model, and I have demonstrated the gravity the Bible itself gives to listening generally, and by extension within the marital life. I have also showed how listening, as a marital ethic, both draws spouses towards the other, and beyond the other towards their God.