The day of Friday 22 July 2011 was a terrible one for the people of Norway. Extreme-rightwinger Anders Behring Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo, resulting in 8 deaths, and started shooting at a youth camp, killing 69 more. Many others were injured or traumatised. Yet amidst the horror, there were incidents of heroism.
This included the rescue of forty or so children by a married couple, who had been eating a picnic when they heard the commotion and saw youngsters fleeing. In a boat, they headed into the lake and pulled young people out of the water, taking them to safety on the shore. The side of the boat was riddled with bullets. Nevertheless they went back and forth four times, repeatedly risking their lives to save more of the children who had leapt into the lake.
Both partners, Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen, were women. In Norway, marriage is open to same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples.
One of the theological arguments sometimes used against same-sex partnership is that it is not ‘fruitful’, unlike heterosexual marriage. The parents of those children whose lives were saved might disagree.
The value of partnership
This raises the issue of what can be regarded as ‘fruitfulness’, and indeed why partnership should be valued, from a Christian perspective. One long-recognised purpose is companionship and mutual support
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part
to quote the Church of England marriage service.
“It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner,” declares God in a creation myth in the biblical book of Genesis 2. In marriage “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”, a passage Jesus later quotes in the Gospels.
The author of Ecclesiastes advises that “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?” (Ecclesiastes 4.9-11).
Moreover, in marriage, desire can be directed towards enjoyment without injustice. The sexual impulse, and erotic love, can be powerful. As one of the lovers in the Song of Songs proclaims (Song of Solomon 8.6-7):
love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned
Paul advises in one of the Epistles, “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7.2). In modern times, there has been increasing recognition that justice requires not only respecting others’ marriages but also equality between partners.
Love, of various kinds, is perceived in Scripture and Christian tradition as enabling spiritual growth. For instance Jesus, is portrayed in the Gospels as caring for many but also enjoying intimate friendships; and 1 John 4 urges, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
It is now widely (though not universally) acknowledged that same-sex, as well as opposite-sex, partnerships can offer space for loving, self-giving and lifelong companionship, and enable partners to grow in likeness to Christ. “Persons living in faithful heterosexual and homosexual partnerships, can through sharing sexual love be ‘the grace of God to each other’. The fruit of the Spirit can grow in that soil,” said Anglican theologian and former Bishop of Salisbury John Austin Baker in a lecture in 1997. “I have seen the face of Christ in the sacrificial support of gay men for their lovers right to the end.”
However, lesbian and gay relationships are sometimes condemned as invalid (or at least inferior to heterosexual relationships) on the grounds that they are not ‘fruitful’. Though many in such partnerships have children as a result of previous relationships with the opposite sex, artificial insemination or adoption, same-gender intimacy cannot result in conceiving a child, unless one partner is trans or intersex. **
Yet, even in Scripture and tradition, what it means to be ‘fruitful’ is more diverse than some Christians realise.
Fruitfulness in Christian thought
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” God tells the humans, male and female, in the creation myth in Genesis 1. This has indeed happened.
It is estimated that the global population at the time of Jesus was just 300 million and it took more than 1600 years to double. Survival was precarious in ancient and mediaeval times: for instance in fourteenth century Europe, waves of epidemics wiped out much of the population. Not surprisingly, it seemed to some that procreation was an important social duty for adults of childbearing age. In addition there was an expectation that skills, tools and in some families, land, were to be handed down to future generations.
But in modern times the world’s population grew rapidly, rising from 1.7 billion at the beginning of the twentieth century to 6 billion at the end. By late 2011, it reached 7 billion. While much poverty, overcrowding and pressure on natural resources result from the way that society is organised, excessive population growth challenges sustainability.
Many have come to believe that – if humankind is to carry out its divinely-mandated responsibility of stewardship of the earth and the many species it sustains – family planning should be encouraged. Hence babies are to be treasured but as persons, not as means to an end.
And having baby after baby may be seen as less desirable than trying to make sure that children who are born (to oneself or others) are properly fed, clothed, sheltered, educated, provided with healthcare and protected from the devastating effects of modern warfare and environmental catastrophe. There are still some faith communities where leaders teach that use of contraception is selfish but, even in these, laypeople often take a different view.
Meanwhile life expectancy has risen. There have always been some couples in which one or both partners was infertile (sometimes resulting in stigma as well as personal frustration), but now there are many marriages in which the wife or husband is too old to conceive, including partners who married in later life and never had children together.
In addition, there are sizeable numbers of sick and disabled adults, many of them elderly, who need support if they are to enjoy a reasonable quality of life. While some people care for both children and adult relatives or friends, others share caring responsibilities (e.g. for nieces or nephews, grandparents or neighbours) without being biological parents.
It is easier perhaps now than in earlier times to re-examine biblical and traditional concepts of ‘fruitfulness’ without reading these through the distorting lens of anxiety about having too few children.
In the Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture), fertility is indeed celebrated, but this is not the only way in which the image of plants bearing (or failing to bear) fruit is used. For instance, in Psalm 1 a righteous person is likened to a tree that “yields its fruit in its season”, and in Proverbs 8 Wisdom tells her listeners that “My fruit is better than gold”. In Jeremiah 11, the prophet conveys what he believes is a divine warning: because of the wrongdoing of nations which were once “'a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit”, disaster will come upon them.
In the New Testament, there is a radical shift of emphasis around family life. Jesus himself has no wife or children, and declares that “whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3.21, 31-35). Those who follow the way of love are invited to be part of a new family, united not by heredity but shared commitment to generosity and justice, heralds of a divine commonwealth (Mark 10.28-31).
The concept of fruitfulness is often used. For example, John the Baptist tells those flocking to him, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance”, urging them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise" (Luke 3.7-14). In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus sets out a vision of a new way of living characterised by love and peace-making, and warns that “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognise them by their fruits”. This is a concept he returns to in Matthew 12 when he is accused of doing his works of mercy and healing by the power of Satan: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12.24). In John 15, he describes himself as “the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” They are to be united in love: “I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
Paul states in Galatians 5 that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. According to James, “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3.16-17).
Various Christian thinkers through the ages have reflected on such texts. For instance John Chrysostom (347-407), in one of his homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, reflected that “what He had said before, this He establishes now also; that a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, nor again can the converse be.” In a Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales (1567-1622) suggests that “charity is truly the only fruit of the Holy Ghost, but because this one fruit has an infinity of excellent properties, the Apostle, who wishes to mention some of them by way of example, speaks of this one fruit as of many, because of the multitude of properties which it contains in its unity”.
Fruitfulness and partnership
From this perspective, parenthood can indeed be fruitful, not because it adds to the world’s population or the size of a particular family, tribe, ethnic group or nation but rather because it can enable people to become more kind, patient, generous and so forth. For example parents may sit up through the night to care for a sick child, setting aside their own exhaustion. And this love will hopefully overspill to others outside the immediate family circle, for instance in offering hospitality to one’s child’s playmate whose own caregivers are absent or neglectful.
However, a loving but childless union that enables partners to grow more compassionate and forgiving, and support one another in acts of peacemaking and mercy, might be more fruitful than that of rich parents who take little interest in their children as persons but rather want heirs to continue to amass wealth in the family business.
An emotionally and sexually intimate partnership is, for many people, a school of love. This is not as romantic as it might sound: fearfulness, selfishness, rivalry and other negative traits may surface, and hard work may be needed to overcome these. Yet this can be a path to spiritual growth, which may manifest itself in small ways or through acts of heroic altruism. Such relationships, whether between opposite-sex or same-sex partners, can help to bring forth good fruit.
** The article originally suggested that same-sex intimacy could not result in conception, but was corrected when it was pointed out that this did not take account of trans persons; apologies for the omission.
© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on religious and political issues. She also works in the care and equality sector. She is an Ekklesia associate, and has written extensively on the theological dimensions of debates about sexuality, gender and relationships.