The Cultural Bias.

Original Sin is the ongoing cultural corruption of the created given.

       My dilemma is caused by my culture and not by the created given.

 

                                            Andrew Szebenyi

 

 

Life would be so much more simple if we were to live it in terms of the realism of the created given and not in terms of some dysfunctional principles. Many things we thought to be for ever have changed, because life is an unfolding process. What we once thought to be part of human nature, may have been no more than a historically stable situation, unchanging but only for a while. We humans were around for a very short time in comparison to many other forms of life on earth. Evolution is written in terms of hundreds of millions of years and not in mere decades and centuries. And, as we can clearly see, the process works very well. We are here. We should learn from its wisdom. And that is even more so if we understand the process of evolution as the way God is creating life and unfolds its natural history. I use the expression “created given” for everything God makes, and says, it is good.

 

But we do have to interpret things right, and right is our humble best for every given moment. Reading the creation story in the book of Genesis, it is the proper method to go back in time, understand the culture of the time the book was written, and so discover the theological content of the text, making it free of any cultural bias. We can then bring this theology back into our own time and culture. This way we can separate and protect the faith content of the text from all the cultural biases of ancient times. I do not mean to say that we have no faults of our own, but at least this is a step in the right direction toward present understanding.

 

Take for instance, the idea of God creating in time, in six days that is, and then getting tired by all the work of creating, God rests on the seventh day. This is what we read in Genesis. All these expressions about work, and getting tired, and need for rest are, of course, based on human experience and are, therefore, heavily anthropomorphic. The idea in Genesis that God created us in God’s image, does not justify the effort on our part to create a god for ourselves in our own image. In other words, anthropomorphism, interpreting non human situations in terms of human experience, is a cultural bias of the time the book was written. As it is, God is the Creator of space and time, a created framework of a created world, which we understand in our created way, in space and time. In all this, God as Creator of time is in God’s absolute present. We really haven't got a clue what absolute present, the idea of the I AM, may mean, because we cannot be anything else but anthropomorphic. Nonetheless, if we were to fuse the anthropomorphic images, which are really no more than a style of writing of the time, with the faith content of the text about creation, we set up a dilemma for ourselves. The so called literal interpretation of the Bible of fundamentalist Christians is a way to make such fusion which then leads to useless controversies. The style of Genesis is simply anthropomorphic. The style of today implies anthropomorphism with caution.

 

In addition to the anthropomorphic slant of the Genesis text, there are other cultural biases which may discolor our present understanding and appreciation of the Scriptures. It seems to me that much of the writings, in both Old and New Testaments, are saturated with male chauvinistic, patriarchal thinking, which is taken for granted to a point of being identified with human nature as part of the created given. All one needs to do to be confronted with this bias is to read the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, or to look at Michelangelo’s painting of the creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. God is a powerful male, who created Adam, another male. It was an afterthought to create Eve, who was taken out of the man and formed into a woman in order to ease his loneliness and to be his helper. The woman was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. The created world was clearly a world of the male. The only glimmer of some equality between female and male is given in verse 27 of the first chapter, but even here it is buried under heavily male chauvinistic thinking.

 

“God created man in the image of himself,

in the image of God he created him,

male and female he created them.”

 

This male chauvinistic, patriarchal cultural bias has been with us for centuries, and is the cause of a great deal of sinful injustice which is being recognized more and more today. Male chauvinism is a form of arrogance and, as all forms of arrogance, it is based on ignorance. I would like to consider briefly the absence of any biological foundation for this cultural bias about male superiority. The two points in view are the story of the Y chromosome, and the process of embryonic development.

 

The story of the Y chromosome is most revealing. It is known that in the human situation the sex of the child is usually determined by the presence of two X chromosomes for the girl and an X and a Y chromosomes for the boy.  Some may say that it is the male who determines the sex of the child because of his contribution of X or Y. This is not true. The sex of the child is determined by the interaction between the genetic materials on two chromosomes, one from the mother and the other from the father. In addition, the Y chromosome carries very few genetic determinants. It is in fact a rather altered and a much reduced X chromosome in which hardly more remained than a few genes associated with maleness, and an area to join the X chromosome during the pairing of homologous chromosomes in the prophase of the first meiotic division during the formation of gametes. This reduced situation of the Y chromosome also implies a certain genetic weakness of the XY combination of chromosomes, because the lack of genes on the Y chromosome provides no protection against harmful recessive mutations on the X chromosome, which may come from either parent. In any case, the idea that the woman has been taken from the man, as it is narrated in the book of Genesis, is a cultural bias and has no scientific support. The contrary may be more realistic and appropriate. After all, the Y chromosome is a modified X.

 

In the process of fertilization, are the two parents contributing to new human life equally? Not at all. The contribution of the mother is far greater than that of the father. And this is already true before fertilization, at the formation of gametes which involves two cell divisions resulting in four cells. In the case of the male gamete, all four cells become functional sperms. Each contains the genetic materials from the father, half of which is from his mother, a small amount of cytoplasm, a set of enzymes to be able to enter the ovum, ATP for energy source, and a tail for locomotion. During fertilization it is only the genetic material that enters the ovum. All other parts remain outside and have nothing to do with the rest of the process.

 

In comparison, the two cell divisions involved in the formation of the ovum result in four cells but only one of these becomes the large ovum. The other three are small polar bodies which contain very little cytoplasm, and do not function as gametes. The reason for the asymmetry of cell divisions during the formation of a single large ovum is to retain in one cell as much cytoplasm as possible, with all the nutrients, enzymes, energy producing structures, and so on. After fertilization this ovum, now called a zygote, has to survive on its own resources for days before it reaches the uterus where it will be able to form a placenta and receive nutrients from the mother. All told, the contribution of the woman toward new human life outweighs by far the contribution of the man. And so again, male superiority is not supported by the realities of our biology.

 

It is toward the end of embryonic development that the male and the female genital structure differentiate. They both start from the same simple arrangement. In the girl child the result of development remains close to the original arrangement and retains its cyclic nature. In the boy child, because of the presence of testosterone during a critical period of development, the anatomical changes are more profound and the cyclicity is abolished. Since being a woman seems to be closer to the origins than being a man, the idea that the woman has been taken from the man, as it is narrated  in the book of Genesis, has no biological support. Again, as in the case of the Y chromosome, the other way around would be a more realistic proposition. In any case, in a sexually dimorphic species, like we are, the Genesis statement that “male and female God created them” should be sufficient without any male chauvinistic bias of an ancient culture. So we should take it from there. 

 

In view of cultural biases, I propose here a practical guide. All created given is good. God says so. They are given us for our benefit, to use and enjoy them. Any effort to raise them to God with prayer and thanksgiving renders them very good. On the other hand, the abuse of any created given is sinful. Abuse means to use something in such a way that it may cause harm to oneself or to others. In the light of this general guide, and for the sake of love and respect for life, let us consider some real life situations.

 

We all have been brought up with certain ways at the dinner table. In this matter of etiquette and customs I can speak only for myself from my own experiences. I was a child, and Mom made a delicious dinner. I was hungry. We sat down at the dinner table as a family at noon, the custom in Hungary where I was born. First we said a prayer, and I remember that prayer very well, since I have been saying it ever since. Translating it into English it went, “Sweet Jesus be our guest, and what you gave us make it blessed. Amen.” Then we ate our dinner, which tasted really good, and I got full and satisfied. All these took place in the framework of our culture in a “civilized” manner. You know, eat slowly, chew your food, don’t slurp the soup, don’t put your elbow on the table, don’t speak with your mouth full, don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach, so finish what’s on your plate, and so on. All told, at dinner we enjoyed God’s created gifts, Mom’s culinary skills, and the loving care of them both. It was all very good, the way it should be. What would be abusive and, therefore, sinful in all this? Overeating, or not eating enough. Both would cause us damage by making us sick. It is all very simple.

 

I go a step further in my thoughts. My body is my home. Not the clothes I wear. I put those on, take them off, change them, throw them away and get new ones. My body is my real home, with all its parts, including my belly button, reminding me that I have been once attached to my Mom in her belly, and from there I was born being at home in my body, a created given. It feels good to be in touch with myself physically and mentally. This is my body, my home. A created given that is good. I am to take care of myself. Very much like getting hungry, which is then satisfied pleasurably by eating, my body with all its parts has similar needs for pleasurable satisfaction through the caring touch. A gentle massage is a great way to find release from all sorts of harmful tensions. Just as hunger, the need for release, sensual as well as sexual, comes as a natural healthy need, while overindulgence as well as denial would make me ill. All this could be very simple and straightforward. But unfortunately, in our Judaeo-Christian-Western culture, “the shit hit the fan”, as some may say. Robert T. Francoeur in a historical overview puts it very neatly.

 

“In general, the Jewish tradition has escaped the antisexualism of the neoplatonic dualism of body/soul  that has been so influential in Christian thought. The Judaic tradition affirms sexuality as a blessing, a gift  from God which grounds and stabilizes the family.” “It is assumed that every Jewish man and woman will marry and have children. The first commandment of the Torah is ‘You shall be fruitful and multiply’. Hence there is no place for asceticism, sexual or otherwise. Celibacy is condemned and there is little tolerance or understanding of the single life.”

 

“The early Christians unfortunately lost the positive Judaic view of sexuality. In its place, under the influence of Paul, Jerome, the Desert Fathers, and especially Augustine in the third century, Christianity adopted a pagan dualism from Hellenic and neoplatonic philosophy that has permeated Christian thinking  about sexuality until the present. Linked with Judaic patriarchal dualism, this pagan body-versus-soul dualism created a strongly antisexual ethic. Men were portrayed as rational, spiritual, and good, provided they avoided the contaminating touch of women. Women, for their part, were  passionate, earthly, and ‘the outpost of hell, the gateway of the devil.’ They could, however, achieve salvation, preferably in virginity, but also through childbearing. A strong ascetic tradition exalted martyrdom, virginity, and celibacy.”

 

“Marriage and sexual intercourse could be tolerated but only if they  were  used exclusively for continuation of the human race. Sex for pleasure was not allowed.” “Sex  was licit only between husband and wife, and natural only when it was not enjoyed and nothing was done to interfere with its procreative purpose.”

 

To complete this overview, here is a quote from Augustine from the Sermons on the New Testament. Sermon 1, § 23.

 

“Those famous men who marry wives only for the procreation of children, such as we read the Patriarchs to have been, and know it, by many proofs, by the clear and unequivocal testimony of the sacred books; whoever, I say, they who marry wives for this purpose only, if the means could be given them of having children without intercourse with their wives, would they not with joy unspeakable embrace so great a blessing? Would they not with great delight accept it?”

 

Into this negative and dualistic culture I have been born and have been brought up by very loving and caring parents, who did for me the best they could. Many things have changed since then giving questions a color of realism and need for truthfulness not allowed to be given before. The cultural negativity of originally pagan neoplatonian dualism toward the created given of the human body is not only dysfunctional but also destructive to a healthy way of life today. As matters develop, we can no longer find refuge in denial, or hide behind authority. We must search for true and functional answers to many questions about the positive meaning and appreciation of the human body with all its created given, our true home. The right answers may provide the resources for a process of liberating healing from the tyranny of a many centuries old cultural bias of fear and negativity. May be this effort on our part will set us free and will enable us finally to attend to even more important matters, such as ecological balance, global social and economic justice, and peace.

 

How do we change and heal the centuries old and deeply ingrained bias of mistrust and negativity toward one of the most precious created givens we have, our sexuality. I believe through new insights and new understanding, as we examine the problems presented to us today and try to respond to them in the light of love and respect for life, we may have a good shot at it. But first we must set the stage.

 

The list of dysfunctional and destructive, and therefore sinful cultural biases would not be complete without mentioning one more. And that is the mental construct of a static cosmology, originating in the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotelian unchangeable essences, and baptized into Christianity by such eminent scholars and teachers as St. Thomas Aquinas, and then brought into full bloom by a revival of classics in the Renaissance, reaching powerfully into the present. According to this long standing tradition of our Western culture, the world around us is finished and closed. It is done. All changes are minor accidents and variations which do not effect the unchangeable essence of reality. Consequently, we speak of eternal principles, and we assume a position of infallibility at the summit of teaching authority. If there is something new, it is resisted first. When it proves to be undeniable, it is embraced and said that so it has been always taught. We look at the world in terms of a snapshot, and do not see the dynamism of an unfolding reality. What is needed is the realization that nothing is just given, but is given in a process. And so creation becomes evolution. And infallibility in practical matters is to say the right thing at the right time, and not the same thing for all times. The second Vatican Council paid tribute to this dynamism in terms of aggiornamento, the need to adjust and adept our understanding to changing circumstances. Some may say, this is nothing but relativism. That is not the case. Take the idea of love and respect for life. What this idea meant yesterday in practical terms of various needs may not be the same today, because today we encounter new circumstances and new problems. If we do not face up to them and act accordingly, we become dysfunctional, which would then be not in line any more with love and respect for life.

 

So let me return once more to this matter of wanting to change and heal the centuries old and deeply ingrained bias of mistrust and negativity toward the most precious created given we have, the needs and functions of the human body, including our sexuality. The solutions and answers to such complex problems as this do not come easily. We must work for them. And we must do this labor in a detached and dispassionate manner to be able to remain on target. Fortunately, we do have a method that can provide the right conditions. It is the scientific method. It does not begin with principles but with observation, and then it allows us to ask relevant questions, and to go even as far as to formulate some tentative answers to our questions. But then we have to test the validity of our answers before we may conclude to functional understanding.

 

I was driving on Meadowbrook, close to the university area in Syracuse New York. A strip of pavement on the right side of the street is marked off for cyclists and runners. I passed by a young girl running. She was probably in her twenties, wearing tight shorts and T shirt. All details of the outlines of her body were displayed for all to see. I found her beautiful and attractive, but I was torn between two responses. One, to say to God: Thank you for all the most wonderful things you made. The other, to avert my eyes and look past her as if she did not exist. Which of the two responses would have been abusive to this young woman? I believe, the second one because that would have made her an object of denial. But the second response is the one demanded by my cultural upbringing in its negativity toward the human body. The result of this denial is the lack of habituation that could channel the multitude of stimuli into a few more specific and more controllable ones. Such absence of habituation may be functional in a situation when our survival requires the maximization of reproductive success against high death rate, especially in terms of child mortality. This has been the case through all of our history until the last century. Today, what is needed is reproductive restraint to balance a population explosion never experienced before. Today a process of habituation may be of great practical value.

 

Balance is the key to survival. In other words, in evolutionary terms, an off balance situation has no survival value and will be lost. In human population ecology, we study the balance between birthrate and death rate and the conditions required to maintain a population size below the carrying capacity of the earth’s natural resources. It is quite clear that our present off balance situation requires of us a magnitude of reproductive restraint which is two children for most families. The old directive, supportive of large families, is contrary to love and respect for life today. As always, we must be practical about all this. After all, biologically speaking, how many years it takes for a couple to have two children. Only a few. What are they supposed to do for the rest of their married lives? Abstain from intercourse? Live like “brother and sister”? And all this because it has been traditionally assumed, probably based on the need to maximize reproductive success as much as biologically possible to balance high death rate, that every marital act must be open to procreation? As conditions changed, such directive has become dysfunctional and is in need of adaptive change. What remains, however, is also the need to maintain a family life that is stable, nurturing, and loving, supported by the many expressions of our sexual natural given.

 

Some would say, very well then, promote natural family planning. Experience shows that for many NFP is neither natural, nor planning. Its failure rate is high in proportion to the irregularity of the woman’s reproductive cycles, which creates a situation promoting irregularity and a further increase of failure. The method destroys the spontaneity of sexual relationship, and from a global point of view it is far too sophisticated and even contrary for many cultures today.

 

The moment we perceive all functions of the human body as created, natural given and remove them from the quarantine of negativity and denial, our system of values changes. These changes effect our lives including our relationships profoundly. As it is, with such changes, we move into a yet unknown and unexplored world of human life. Our guide is the knowledge that all created given is good by their very nature, and our appreciation of them in terms of love and respect for life is appropriate. What is evil is their abuse causing harm to oneself or to others. We should then formulate our understanding based on observation as life unfolds for us, and adjust the practical wisdom of our principles about the old and the new accordingly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

Return to Disputed Topics