Two “diversity consultants” recently visited my college to instruct the administrators about, among other things, the harm of assuming what is now called “heteronormativity.”
“Have you not read,” says the Lord to the Pharisees who had wanted to catch him saying something erroneous about divorce, “that in the beginning God made them male and female? And said, for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”
That must have staggered even the Pharisees, who were stricter in their observance than were their rivals the Sadducees. Jesus often rebukes the Pharisees for their hardness of heart, that they should tithe their trivial mint and cumin but forget to show mercy to the poor; here he relates that same hardness of heart not to severity but to the leniency of the Mosaic law. Moses allowed the people to divorce, says Jesus, because of their sclerocardia, if I may transcribe the Greek, but “from the beginning it was not so.” The fundamental diversity of the human race, the division of male and female, is from the beginning, from the fount and headwaters of things.
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This warrants some farther consideration, especially in our time of meandering and muddle. God made the world, the sacred author shows us, by means of distinction and limit: the created world is not God; he separated the light from the darkness; he fixed a firmament between heaven and earth; he caused the waters to recede so that the dry land might appear—“thus far and no farther,” as we read in the Book of Job. He bade things come to life according to their kinds, that is, to follow the Hebrew root, according to their natural divisions; and when he made man he distinguished him from the beasts, endowing him with the distinctive form of the divine, and giving him dominion over all the other creatures of the world. Therefore God is not to be resolved back into creation, or to be seen as emerging from it, as in pagan cults; nor can man raise himself to the divine life, as in the mad dreams of human perfectibility that have besieged the modern world; nor is man to be demoted to the beast, as in the pessimism of Darwin and his disciples.
As with sun and moon, sea and land, so with man and woman: they are what they are by the direct intention of the Creator. The universe is not a haze of indiscriminate particles, but a universe of things, each with its special form. The world of living things is not a fervid jelly, but a world of kinds: dogs, cats, bears, eagles, sparrows, fish, whales. The sexual being of mankind is not a shifting spectrum or a swelling and stretching image in a fun-house mirror, but a sharp and clean division: male and female He created them. It is well that it should be so, for there is no diversity without distinction, separation, being-oneself rather than melting into chaos.
The union of man and woman in marriage partakes of this mystery of distinction and transcends it. For the sacred author does not simply say, “And that is why men and women are attracted to one another,” speaking generally and permitting exceptions. The essence of marriage does not in fact depend upon subjective attraction but upon objective reality and divine intent. So the author sees in marriage first the separation, the man leaving, even forsaking his mother and father, and cleaving to his woman, and they shall become—with an echo of the unutterable name of God, I AM—one flesh.
I wish to stress those final words in the strongest possible way: one flesh, but in Hebrew bashar echad, flesh-one. So Jesus too must have uttered it in Aramaic, and his Jewish listeners could not have failed to hear the toll of the final solemn word, one. Recall the great Hebrew prayer: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one!” And the author of Genesis has used the word only once before, with similar sonority and portent: “Then there was evening and morning, one day,” not “the first day” in a series merely, but yom echad, day-one. The union of man and woman in marriage is thus more than a personal reality. It is the consummate achievement of the whole of the physical world as created by God in the beginning, before the confusions of the Fall. God had bidden the birds and beasts to be fruitful and multiply, but about none of them is predicated this divine cleft of the sexes one from the other and their cleaving together to make one flesh.
Therefore Jesus shows divorce to be a sin not simply against the spouse, but against the Creator and the structure of creation. In the account of this conversation in Matthew, we find the parenthetical exception, me epi porneia, which I take to mean that Jesus is drawing a distinction between marriage and the mock-marriage that is fornication. For Greek, like Hebrew, like Anglo-Saxon, German, and many languages, does not distinguish between woman and wife. Call it a piece of matter-of-fact anthropological evidence that ordinary people all over the world see men and women as husbands and wives. Now if you make one-flesh but not in the sight of God—if you behave as if you were dogs stuck together in an alley—there is no “divorce” when you put one another away, because there was no marriage to begin with. So marriage, though ineradicable from the created sexual nature of man and woman, is not reducible to the sexual act alone.
Fornication is thus not really an exception to the sacred law that Jesus reveals. It is not set in opposition to divorce; it is not a ticket out of jail. Both fornication and divorce, rather, are sins against the oneness of marriage, fornication because it mocks it and falls short of it, divorce because it tears the one flesh apart, reversing the words of the Lord, as if to say, “We are no longer one, but two.”
And that brings us round to “heteronormativity,” which in sane times simply means that you follow what is obvious and natural, rather than the fevered imaginations and passions of idol-making man. I hear it often said that Jesus never uttered a word about sodomy. That is like saying that he never uttered a word about the eating of children. The man who says, “Let the little children come to me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven,” and who recommends a millstone round the neck of anyone who would scandalize one of these little ones, need hardly be polled as to his opinion about leftovers at the Moloch Hotel. Jesus numbered mere fornication among the sins that “come out of a man and make him unclean.” Since the Pharisees had just been complaining that his disciples ate without washing their hands first, the words of Jesus are brusquely scatological. If you want to know what really fouls a man and makes him stink like a privy, he says, turn to “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” Notice that the Lord does not seem to think that fornication is out of place in that list, nor does he qualify it by advising his disciples to consider what the young lovers might themselves think about the matter.
Now we may glimpse the vast sweep of the condemnation of sodomy as leveled in Leviticus. “You shall not lie down with a man as with a woman,” says the Lord, for “it is to’evah,” typically translated as “an abomination.” But the word and its near relations in Hebrew suggest three things: going badly astray, that is, wandering to your confusion and ruin; repugnant filth, as of excrement and loathsome disease; and idol-worship, with its combination of the bizarre and the disgusting—think of Moloch and the charred little ones. To lie with a man as with a woman is to engage in unreality, un-creation; it is like fouling yourself with excrement, or like eating filth not meant for food; it is like falling in adoration of the idols that are tohu w’vohu, waste and void, like the emptiness of the world before God said, “Let there be light.”
Thus Saint Paul is speaking in harmony with both Moses and Jesus when he says that sinful men turned away from the invisible Creator as revealed in the visible things of the natural world, but became “vain in their imaginations,” literally futile, empty, worthless; think of Hebrew tohu, applied to waste space and the inanity of pagan idols. They then inverted creation itself, and changed—we might say exchanged, swapped—the glory of God for an image of corruptible man, and then downwards to the images of birds and four-footed beasts and any slithering thing upon the earth. But the imagination passed from the subhuman to the unnatural, from the truth of God to a lie, “for even their women swapped the natural use for what is against nature, and likewise the men” burned for one another, receiving in themselves, says Paul, employing some shocking scatology of his own, the fit reward for their plane, their wandering, their error. It is to’evah, empty wandering, filth, and idolatry.
Not that we and the rest of mankind are in any better shape by ourselves, for Paul now batters us with his own list of the things that render us unclean: for men were “filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful.”
That is what we are, left to our own various devices, every single damned one of us, sinking from bad men to beasts to demons to nothingness and inanity. “Do not be like the men of Canaan!” thunders the Lord through Moses. “Do not be like the Pharisees or the Gentiles!” says Jesus. “Do not conform yourselves to the world,” says Saint Paul, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
There is the diversity, the distinction, the character of the Church, the sign of contradiction: because only what comes from beyond the world can save the world, and only what soars beyond man’s confusion can raise men up to the full stature of Christ, so that they may be men indeed. Maybe next year we should hire a Catholic missionary instead.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Christ and the Pharisees,” was painted by Ernst Karl Georg Zimmermann (1852-1901).