October 5, 2007

4. True Union (2)

In the previous section of this continuing reflection, I examined the biblical concept of “one flesh” using the biblical text itself in an effort to unpack the meaning of this phrase. From that effort, I conclude that fleshly unity is not to be seen as good in and of itself, but only within the context of a loving relationship, including union of heart and mind as well as of flesh.

As few (I hope) doubt that persons of the same sex can enjoy unity of heart and mind in companionship with each other, the question remains as to whether a same-sex couple can experience a form of bodily union. Some of those opposed to any recognition of same-sex relationships argue against this possibility, largely on the grounds of what they usually refer to as the “complementarity of the sexes.” I now turn to begin to examine this assertion.

Complementarity defined

As I noted in my critique of Some Issues in Human Sexuality, the definition of complementary and complementarity often shifts in the course of these discussion. In normal English usage, however, “complementary” applied to two things means that one makes up what is lacking in the other, or that both together make up what is lacking in each. In mathematics we say that a 60-degree angle is complementary to a 30-degree angle, because together they make up a right angle.

There are, from my perspective, two faults with applying this concept to human beings and their relationships. First, it requires that the individual human being be seen as lacking something — as essentially incomplete or defective; secondly, it implies an essential difference between men and women, whereby only a man and a woman can compensate for what the other is lacking, or (as I think is more commonly held) one of them (the man) makes up for what the other (the woman) lacks.

As in Adam

It is sometimes asserted that one is not a complete human being unless coupled.
But human beings are not complementary in this sense; and to assert so is a defective anthropology and a misreading of Genesis. It also flies in the face of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Philosophy ratifies the concept of the dignity of the human person in acknowledging that an individual human being is a complete human being. Individual human beings may suffer from loneliness, however, and human society provides a number of compensations for that human need. But loneliness is an emotional state, not a defect of personhood or humanity, or the lack of an essential attribute of the human person. Solitude, and the loneliness to which it gives rise, are situational and circumstantial, not essential.

This does not mean that solitude is not a real problem for human beings. The second creation account in Genesis 2 assures of that Adam’s solitude was the only thing “not good” in creation. The intent of Genesis 2 is to tell us why it is that “a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife” — a recognition that this is a primary way in which human beings overcome the pang of solitude. But if marriage were the only way to counter solitude, then celibacy would have to be ruled out as an approved state of life.

As I pointed out earlier in this series of reflections, such was a predominant view in rabbinic Judaism, in which celibacy was held to be gravely defective, not only because it failed to implement the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, but because an unmarried man is“incomplete.” It is thus fair to acknowledge that this passage presents us with the only text that might be conceived to speak of “complementarity” of the sexes. Rabbinic tradition holds that Adam’s incompleteness is only healed by marriage, based on Eve being created by a partial removal from Adam.

There are, I think, a few points to challenge that point of view, even within rabbinic Judaism, and also the degree to which we should receive this interpretation of the Genesis 2 account. First of all, this view shares some features with Aristophanes’ account of the origin of the sexes and sexual desire — although Aristophanes includes the origin of homosexual desire as well — in Plato’s Symposium. It is important to note that this “completion” of the man by the woman is not understood, even in rabbinic Judaism, along the lines of Aristophanes, or the Taoist concepts of yin and yang — it is not about a synthesis of opposites, nor even simply the restoration of something previously divided — for Adam and Eve remain themselves even after they have joined. Above all, it cannot be understood as a marker of an essential, as opposed to a situational, defect in the human person.

For along with this reading of Genesis 2, there are other rabbinic interpretations. The Rabbis used Genesis 2 as the source for the full and complete dignity of the individual human being, “A single man was created in the world to teach ... that whoever saves a single life it is as if he saved the entire world. ” (mSanhedrin 4:5)

A return to the original text is also helpful: God created Adam as a solitary gardener, and first tried to assuage his loneliness by making animal companions for him. Only after Adam rejected the animals did God take something from him later to restore it in“built up” form as the Woman he could receive as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, as someone like him (as opposed to the animals, who were unlike him). This is not about complementarity, or the union of opposites, but of similarity or identity. Eve is a human being; as a later church synod (Douzy, 860) would say, Eva ipse est Adam. Eve is herself Adam.

Finally, we have to note that the church later corrected a narrow reading of Genesis 1 as well, where the rabbinic interpretation required procreation in order to give due honor to celibacy. “The single state” — an “estate” like matrimony, is honorable, though having no more ontological significance than marriage has. As Aquinas pointed out (contrary to the Rabbis), the commandment to be fruitful and multiply was addressed to the whole species, not to individuals (Summa Theologica II.2.Q152.2).

Moreover, the Church affirmed that the New Adam, Jesus Christ, is also fully and completely human, and that this full humanity derives entirely from the Virgin Mary. She could not bestow upon him that which she did not possess, so it is clear on this basis that maleness or femaleness is merely accidental to human nature, and not essential to it. The doctrine of the Incarnation makes clear that the humanum is complete in the individual person. Human nature is something each human possesses. There is no “complementarity” at the level of human nature.

In addition, human society (even apart from sexuality) does not necessitate complementarity. To assert its necessity not only effectively denies the possibility of same-sex partnerships, but of periods of chastity between married couples, the goodness of friendship, and the fellowship of celibate partnership in community evinced in the cenobitic life.

Thus I am forced to reject the notion that individual human beings are only completed or constituted into human or social reality by sexual relationship with a person of the opposite sex, and to reject interpretations of Genesis 2 along those lines.

This brings me to the second assertion, that there is some complementarity of male and female which renders such pairs uniquely capable of pairing. In the next section of this reflection I will respond to two questions: Are men and women actually complementary on a physical basis? (we have already seen that they are not complementary on a human or social basis) and Is complementarity a necessary component of a committed sexual relationship?

Tobias Haller BSG

Further Update: This post and those that follow, expanded and supplemented with much additional material, form part of Reasonable and Holy, published by Seabury Books and available on order from Church Publishing Incorporated.


Allen said...

I hate to do this to you again, but you have made another math blunder. A 60-degree angle is supplementary to a 120-degree angle. The complementary angle to 60 degrees is a 30-degree angle.

Now I'll go back and continue reading the substance of your post.

Erin said...

Thank you - this is a very helpful response to the argument of complementarity, an argument that doesn't do much for single, divorced, or widowed Christians either.

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you Allen. Math was never my strong suit. I've corrected the essay...

rick allen said...

"It is sometimes asserted that one is not a complete human being unless coupled."

That's certainly a new one on me.

But, in fact, I am at a loss to understand why the undenied notion that an individual is a complete human being negates the idea of sexual complementarity.

That we are individually fully human surely doesn't mean that we don't need relationships in a very fundamental way. I won't throw Buber at you. It seems obvious enough to me that only the most radical sort of individualism would deny that human beings need each other, in friendship, in undertaking common tasks, in mutual help, in the organization of our societies.

Not everyone participates in all of these relationships. But in the one relationship that includes the bringing of new life into the world, there is obviously a natural, biological "complementarity."

It's a funny word, I'll admit, a two-dollar word presumably made necessary by the sudden mass incomprehension of the idea that some particular ways of doing some things together require a man and a woman. It was never meant to mean, as far as I can tell, that those who don't enter into a sexual relationship with a member of the opposite sex are less than human. That would leave Jesus and Paul out, to begin with.

It really does little more that assert, in a nice six-syllable word, that "male and female created he them." It is a state of potential relationship that existed from the beginning. But I know of no one who concludes from that that either Adam or Eve were thought "defective" or less than human from the absence of the other. This seems to be beginning with a straw man.

Certainly humanity, the collective of individuals, is incomplete without both male and female. But that's not quite the same thing.

I may have mentioned before that the Navajos tell the story, in one of the prior worlds, how the men and women quarrelled, and things go so bad that they just totally separated, and lived separately. It was a state of affairs that couldn't last, of course. But such a story is such a better thing than an arid term like "complementarity."

Tobias Haller said...

Dear Rick,
Although you may never have heard of the assertion that a "man is incomplete without a woman" I offered the evidence in this and the preceding article: it is a Talmudic teaching, among other things. I understand you find the idea incredible -- so do I, for that matter -- but it is a matter of Jewish teaching. There is, of course, conflicting opinion even within Judaism, but the opinion remains enshrined in Rabbinic understanding of the importance and mandate to marriage.

This is hardly a straw man. Surely you are aware of the pressures, even in our culture, against singleness and towards marriage? It may not have the force of law, but many societies exert significant pressure towards marriage -- ironically often while denying the same privilege to same-sex couples. Some years ago the Anglican Franciscans had to shut down an effort at starting a community in Africa because the social pressure against celibacy was so high; they were told that a man who is not married is not a real man. I join you in finding this incredible, but it is the reality in much of the world.

I will be addressing the assertion that there is "obviously a natural, biological 'complementarity'" involved in procreation in the next section of this reflection. The short version: there isn't, in any meaningful sense of the word "complementary." I will elaborate further in the next section. But I have already shown in previous sections that too great a fixation on the procreative function will not fly: since marriage is not forbidden to those who are incapable of procreation. Even if I were to grant (which I don't) that some kind of complementarity was involved in procreation, that would still leave unaddressed the normalcy of mixed-sex relationships in which procreation either does not or cannot take place -- and how, in actual fact, this differs then from a same-sex relationship that is identical in all other respects (leaving aside the "slippery" problems of incest, consent, impermanence, and plurality).

And yes, there are many myths in human cultures, such as the Navajo story you cite. What I am saying is that Genesis 1 and 2 are just as "mythological" -- that is, they should no more be looked to as literally true on the subject of the relationship of the sexes than they are for cosmology or physics.

Mary Clara said...

Tobias, I am glad you are taking this on. As an long-married person and a psychotherapist who has worked with many married people, I feel that the view of male and female as complementary to each other should be seriously questioned. The two sexes do not neatly mirror and complete each other. They are not built to satisfy each other fully, either biologically, spiritually or psychologically. Though some couples do feel "made for each other", and nearly everyone clings to the notion that somewhere there would have been (or might still be) that perfect partner, in reality women have needs that men don't seem designed to fulfill, and women have to sacrifice some of what they are in order to give men what they want. Men have historically been in a better position to induce women to meet their needs (even if means turning from a wife to other, often younger, women), but if they are honest they also know that the fit is imperfect. Marriage in any culture therefore requires major adjustments on the part of each individual. Gender mythologies (such as the notion of complementarity) are mobilized in this cause. Being enchanted by the myth (and powered by hormones) helps keep couples together. Beyond that, they just have to grow up, develop character and cultivate the art and craft of relationship, which begins with the acceptance of reality and all its rough edges and gaps.

The gaps are of course not a bad thing! Not getting what we want from another person is all part of the plan . . .

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, Mary Clara. I've responded to your comment in conjunction with a similar note from Grandmere Mimi as part of the next post. Thanks for your thoughts on this.