Biology, Ethics, and Narrative in Christian Family Theory

Browning, Don S. “Biology, Ethics, and Narrative in Christian Family Theory.” In Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America. David Popenoe, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and David Blankenhorn, eds. Pp. 119-156. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996.

Don Browning’s essay “Biology, Ethics, and Narrative in Christian Family Theory” explores how biological, ethical and narrative dimensions of moral thinking in the Christian (Western) tradition have addressed the “male problematic,” offering three tentative proposals for the reconstruction of Christian family theory containing significance beyond the Christian context. Today’s experience of the male problematic—essentially the tendency of men to abandon family responsibilities and attachments—dates to the creation of the modern, industrial family and the post-Enlightenment culture of individualism. Though some observers see no real crisis in this development, modern evolutionary theory finds paternal investment to be important for the welfare of children and societal stability. <p> Believing Christianity to be highly influential in the West’s approach to marriage and family, Browning investigates how Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and the early church addressed male ambivalence within their own contexts. Browning locates paternal investment, sacrificial love and gender equality in these sources, yet concludes that they still retain views of male superiority and patriarchy mostly unsatisfactory for today’s egalitarian sensibilities. He interprets the Ephesians epistle—important to both Aquinas and Luther for their own families theories—to promote an “ethics of peace” in tension with the ancient world’s “ethics of conquest,” thereby introducing the principle of neighbor love and “fracturing” the Greco-Roman honor-shame code of male superiority and patriarchy. <p> Browning finds support in 1Corinthians 7 for extending the biblical injunction of male sacrificial love to include female self-giving love as well. On this basis, his interpretation of Christian family theory includes: (1) both husband and wife should participate in sacrificial love for the sake of the family; (2) sacrificial love should be understood in the context of love as equal regard; and (3) love as equal regard should be located within the family life-cycle.