Sunday, November 23, 2014
Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof cmmunities was among the featured speakers at the recent Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman in Marriage at the Vatican. Although Pastor Arnold's address did not attract the international publicity of some of the better known speakers, such as Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Pastor Rick Warren, it was no less wonderful. A special edition of Pastor Arnold's book God, Sex, and Marriage was prepared for the Coloquium and distributed to all participants. It is a book I highly recommend. For the special edition, I had the honor of being invited to contribute a short Preface. Here is the text (with a warning that it is no substitute for reading Pastor Arnold's splendid book!):
There are men and women of extraordinary wisdom and insight who transcend their particular communities and traditions to be teachers of mankind. Plato was one. So was St. Augustine. So were Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Are there no longer such great-souled people? Do they exist only in the past?
No. Pope Francis is a teacher of mankind. So is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain. So is the author of the small but powerful work you hold in your hands, Pastor Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof communities.
Pastor Arnold’s wisdom derives from more than just careful reflection on the moral and existential issues he addresses. It is the fruit of a life lived in a community dedicated to Christ-like simplicity, love, and holiness. What may strike the reader as unique and uniquely powerful insights are, in truth, the efflorescence of the accumulated wisdom of that very special community—a community of which Pastor Arnold is a spiritual leader and from which he draws strength and vision.
So what is so often the case with great teachers of mankind is true of Pastor Arnold: It is his rootedness in a particular tradition and community of faith that enables him to offer the larger world a profound illumination—a body of wisdom that transcends every tradition and speaks to people of every community.
In Sex, God, and Marriage, Pastor Arnold shines a powerful light on truths about the dignity, beauty, and joy of properly ordered sexuality—sexuality ordered to the loving and fruitful communion of husband and wife in a permanent and exclusive covenant ordained by a loving and merciful God. These are ennobling, life-giving, relationship-sustaining truths that have been obscured in recent decades and even centuries by vices ranging from harsh religious legalism to narcissistic me-generation expressive individualism.
The consequences, for all who have eyes to see, could not be clearer: the normalization of promiscuity, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock childbearing; the emergence of the divorce culture and societal acquiescence to large-scale family breakdown and fragmentation; a veritable plague of sexually transmitted infections and diseases; the appallingly widespread destruction in the womb of children who were “unplanned” and are “unwanted” products of sexual pleasure-seeking; the objectification of self and others and the broader coarsening of attitudes and sensibilities that is inevitable when people come to regard their own bodies and the bodies of others as instruments for pursuing personal gratification; and the sadness—particularly of the young, who had been told that “sexual freedom,” in the form of liberation from allegedly “outmoded” norms of sexual self-possession and restraint, would usher in the “Age of Aquarius.” Instead, our young men and women have been bequeathed a world of broken hearts and wounded relationships; fragmented families and fatherless children; AIDS and HPV; manipulation and sexual exploitation; abortion.
So where can we find “a more excellent way”?
Pastor Arnold, drawing on the riches of the Christian understanding of the relationships between God and man, man and woman, parents and children, and body and soul, knows that it is not to be found in a return to any form of legalism. It is, rather, a misunderstanding of sex, God, and marriage to suppose that God established marriage exclusively as a means of procreation and restricted the value and permissibility of sexual congress to those circumstances in which husband and wife are seeking a child. Likewise, it is a misunderstanding to suppose that God established sexuality for pleasure, but restricted the pursuit of its pleasure to the marital bond.
Rather, God designed sex to unite a man and woman in a uniquely comprehensive bond—one that extends the unity of hearts and minds that is present in any true friendship into the bodily plane where, the sexual-reproductive complementarity of husband and wife enables them to, in the words of Scripture, “cleave to one another and become one flesh.” Sex does indeed belong in marriage, and only in marriage, and marital communion must be open to the beautiful gift of new life; but it is not a mere means—whether to procreation, as great and wonderful a good as that is, or to pleasure. Marriage, considered precisely as a one-flesh union—a conjugal bond—is an intrinsically valuable (and unique) form of personal communion. It is inherently fulfilling of a man and woman, as a basic community of persons, to unite in the form of relationship that is ordered to procreation and would naturally be fulfilled by having and rearing children together. And that is true, even if the blessing of children is not, in the circumstances, possible for them.
And yet, for most couples the gift and joy of children is indeed possible—if only they keep their hearts open to receiving little ones as the fruit and most complete fulfillment of their marital love. Children should never be regarded as just another lifestyle choice, much less a burden; nor should we treat the care of children as drudgery. And in caring for children, we must always place the child’s need for love above all else. As Pastor Arnold teaches, among our first duties to children is to preserve childhood itself by, among other things, protecting the innocence of children.
But now I am saying clumsily and in a complicated way what Pastor Arnold says so beautifully and simply. So I will detain you no longer, gentle reader. I leave you in the company of a teacher of mankind, a witness to hope, a friend of God. His words will bless you. Please let them guide you.
Robert P. George