06 February 2017

Divorce—Cowardice or Courage?

It's important to state every so often along the way in the course of this divorce discussion that it wasn't completely one-sided. My ex, depending on your point of view, was either a coward or courageous. But our relationship had died years before, not least due to my own words and actions. 

I was holding on because I had a bottom-line commitment to the ideal of the lifelong marital bond (absent adultery and abuse—but even then I had thought in theory that reconciliation was best). We did not share that fundamental starting point, apparently. But this presses into all sorts of other questions, perhaps most importantly the questions revolving around—from a Christian perspective—what constitutes a viable divorce beyond adultery and abuse (emotional or physical). And this is, again, where Martin Bucer comes in.

The vertigo from being left is felt as a result of the shock of its coming, even if you had seen it coming for a while. Unrequited love may or may not be wrapped up in that shock, and of course that just sucks. There are no more words to add to that kind of pain. Suffice to say, you will read Le Morte d'Arthur, Remains of the Day and The Sun Also Rises in a new way.

Rejection, shame, wounded pride—all of these get mixed in there too. I was truly a mess for a time (fighting off apostasy as much as anything else), but I still don't think I can put a finger on the precise feelings that made up why I was reacting the way I did. I thought perhaps love for my ex had something to do with it, but even now I'm not so sure. Perhaps it was more a love of what was lost: the best that was yet to be, would never be. I do know this much: the event unfolding before me went against a core value—an identity marker—and that goes a long way to at least helping me understand the devastating affect it was having on me at the time.

We must not forget that the leaver has also experienced the pain the leavee is feeling. They've simply walked that path already, and probably more slowly. The one being left is playing catch-up in this instance, and that's also a part of what makes the upheaval so intense. The resolved (or seemingly cold) nature of the leaver jars the leavee, but, again, that's likely because the leaver turned the corner long ago. If grace is every going to be a factor in your handling of divorce, continually humanizing the other is necessary (hypocrisy alert!), which, of course, doesn't entail winking at toxic behavior.

And speaking of human dignity, Bucer's views on divorce and remarriage were meant to uphold exactly that. If you're unfamiliar with the going narrative, the gist is that the majority of Reformers stuck to the Catholic line on divorce, even if they jettisoned the notion that marriage is itself a sacrament—preferring instead to locate it within the context of a creational ordinance and civil institution rather than within the church. If the late medieval Catholic teaching on divorce is flattened out to be that the church simply never recognized divorce a vinculo (a total divorce), even in response to adultery (where it would grant a divorce a mensa et a thora, i.e., a legal separation), then that doesn't hold up. Most of the early Reformers did indeed affirm a complete divorce in response to adultery.

So, while it's not a total mistake to consider Bucer's views as more liberal than say, Calvin's or Luther's, it's very easy to overstate the case. Mere freedom wasn't his major concern; caring for abandoned women and children was. In short, the majority of Reformers—Calvin and Luther included—argued that divorce is allowed in certain scriptural cases, in which the "innocent" party is permitted to remarry another person (and I can only think of a very few instances where one party is, indeed, "innocent"). Bucer said the same (and he did interpret those biblical reasons more liberally than others), and he added that remarriage is also allowed across the board, because in the end he thought it better before God to sin less by remarrying than to "fornicate."

It's worth noting that it was in response to the perceived reformational laxity with respect to divorce and remarriage that the Council of Trent upped its ante on the indissolubility of marriage. (The oddity that is seen among—in my experience—the patriarchal Reformed crowd nudges up against this view, which admittedly gets its impetus from WCF 24.) This brief article in the January/February 2017 issue of Christianity Today covers the ground fairly well, even if it necessarily lacks nuance at key points: "Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli." Here's a more in-depth historical overview from the old Winnipeg Theological Seminary's Trinity Journal: "Divorce and Remarriage from the Early Church To John Wesley." (Note the bit about John Milton, who was undoubtedly influenced by Bucer in this regard.)

I find that I've chased a few other rabbits in this post, so allow me to pick up with Bucer immediately in the next one.


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