Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Christianity is a Rotten Family Values Religion

I remember reading years ago that Martin Buber's biggest complaint about Christianity was its individualism. There was no sense to it of nationhood, of a continuing community of blood ties as well as belief and ritual down through the generations. Anyone was free to come into the Christian religion and become part of it. There was no sense of historic collective covenant to it at all, nothing passed down directly from parents to children.

I doubt that the founders of that apocalyptic religion, Christianity, imagined that there would ever be anyone born into their faith. They apparently believed that they would live to see the end of the world. If they didn't see it in their lifetimes, then surely it would come upon the junior members of the congregation. Saint Paul describes marriage as a grudging concession to human need as the expected Eschaton was already delayed a generation. St. Paul preferred that those who are waiting for the Second Coming to remain celibate.

Christ was a young man who apparently never married (despite modern claims to the contrary), never started his own family. Instead, he appears to have deliberately left his working class family, and the family trade, behind. He died in disgrace, executed like a common criminal, without children. Many of his followers left behind -- abandoned -- their families to become His followers. Children left behind parents (James and John), and fathers left behind spouses and children (Peter). They believed that their world was in its last days, and that the business of raising new generations didn't matter much.
When told that His family was looking for Him, Christ pointed to His followers and to the multitude and said that they were His true family.

These are the founders of a religion that now claims the mantle of champion of domestic virtue and family sanctity. It is not a very good fit. It is especially odd to see celibate men and women claiming the role of champions of generational continuity in the Catholic Church. It is equally strange to see evangelical pastors, who look as well fed and well dressed as bankers, claim to be apostles of that earnest young misfit who abandoned His family and lived off the charity of others without a permanent roof over His head. It is so very odd to see both priest and pastor champion the biological family as the foundation of church and state. Christ abandoned His family, was condemned as a blasphemer by the priesthood of the day, and executed by the state as a minor political troublemaker accused of sedition.

I should think that all of these earnest folk so concerned for the family as an institution (as opposed to the welfare of actual families) would ditch the Christian religion for the very same reasons Martin Buber disliked it. It is so very individualistic, atomized, and anti-nationalist.

I've always thought that the best family values religion would be the old Roman religion of hearth and ancestors. In that religion, the family was literally sacred. The household fire was holy. The family matriarch had the duty of sacrificial worship of the goddess Vesta who presided over every household fire. The family patriarch had the duty of worshiping the family's ancestors and consulting with them in all family matters. He held the power of life and death over all the other members of the household, family, slaves, and hired employees, as judge and priest. When he died, he joined the ancestors and was worshiped as a god. Every family had its own presiding genius as well as ancestors. Every household had its Lares and Penates to look after the household and the family. Every family had its own peculiar rites and religion.

The Romans considered their state to be a vast household with the Senate, and then later the Emperor, playing the role of patriarch of the nation. Vesta not only looked after the welfare of individual households, but over the whole vast household of the Roman state. The idea of the family as cornerstone of the state was not just a tired old metaphor for the Romans. It was literal reality.

Now that's a family values religion.

The Romans loathed early Christianity for its impiety. The early Christians couldn't have cared less about those very institutions of home and family that were so dear to the Romans. Educated Romans coined the term a theoi, without gods, the root of our word "atheist," to describe the Christians. The Christians' refusal to make the obligatory sacrifices to Roma and the Emperor proved their sedition and their impiety. Nero had little difficulty goading the bereaved and homeless population of Rome into blaming the Christians among them after the great fire of 64. He accused them of bringing down the wrath of the gods upon the city by their impiety.

A Roman patriarch from the last days of the Republic carries a pair of ancestral busts. He wears the toga, a religious garment for public and private rituals.

Roman reverence for family meets Egyptian belief in perpetual life in the mummy portraits from Roman Egyptian cemeteries. Many of these were probably painted from life, and then cut down and fitted in the mummy bindings of the deceased and buried with them.

Roman-Egyptian mummy portrait

A lararium in Pompeii. The lares of the household flank the family genius in the form of both a young man, and a snake below.

Another lararium from Pompeii showing the patriarch and matriarch tending the sacred household fire entwined by the snake representing the family genius. The lares flank them on either side.

Homosexuality was open in ancient Rome. As in most of the ancient Mediterranean, it took the form of pederasty. It was love between a mature man and a teenage boy that usually ended when the boy reached his early 20s. The older lover was expected to play a role in the education of the younger man. Such unions certainly were not equal, nor were they intended to last.

Marriage in Rome was an institution for family continuity. The point of it was inheritance and legacy. It was too important a business to be left to young people. Marriages in Rome, as in most of the ancient world, were the end results of negotiations between families. Young people were not expected to love each other, or even to like each other. They were expected to produce a male heir to continue the family line. Marital sex was probably an obligatory biological function to fulfill a family duty. For young men, and certainly for young women, I doubt it was much of a pleasure. Sexual gratification came through slaves and prostitutes. Love was for children, not for spouses. Lovelorn spouses could find solace in mistresses and lovers. In this, the Romans were not much different from any other people of the ancient world.

I can understand why the early Christians were less than enthusiastic about such an institution.

The idea of two people of the same gender having sexual relations was not strange to the Romans. The idea of two lovers of any gender setting up a household and making a family on their own volition would have been alien to them.

Something to think about in the arguments over gay marriage.


JCF said...

Good post, Doug!

Whenever people talk about "Biblical morality"---esp. extended to marriage---I want to HURL.

Nevermind polygamy. The idea that a woman was anything other than CHATTEL in Biblical times is a joke!

As I said a few posts down: "Praise God almighty, we ain't what we wuz!"

it's margaret said...

And..... there are those little quotes of Jesus about family.....

Joel said...

Completely agree. What is funny about this is something I just jotted down quickly in my google docs which you will see at:

Would mind an on-going thought experiment. Have you read Stanley Hauerwas on this stuff. If the Church will be Church, there is hope, for ALL Christian families and all families, but I think the Church will nevertheless buy the world's wants on the subject before the Kingdom's.