Terry Flanagan: Be Fruitful and Multiply

Revisiting Genesis

In the wake of the President’s decision to support gay marriage and North Carolina’s constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, it might be time to reflect on the Biblical passage I've been told is the basis of Christian opposition to gay marriage.

According to Genesis, God said to Adam and Eve after blessing them, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth.” Whether you choose to believe in the story of creation as told in Genesis or not, either allegoricallly or literally, it’s difficult to agree with the restrictive meaning often given to this parting blessing of a father sending his children off into the world.

I don’t purport to be a Biblical scholar by any means, but it seems to me that the first and most important part of God’s counsel is to “be fruitful.” Although being fruitful could refer to having children, that narrow interpretation ignores the much broader meaning of the word. The word fruitful has been used in the Bible to describe everything from bearing children, to bountiful harvests, to the words and actions of people. Parables have been used to illustrate how we should strive in word and deed to be like the trees that bear good fruit. As human beings we are capable of so much more than merely reproducing, that limiting the meaning of the word fruitful to that single aspect of our nature denies the greater purposes for which we were created. We have been given so many talents that must be used if we truly aspire to be fruitful.

The fact is that each of us may be fruitful without ever having children. Building, painting, writing, parenting, teaching, listening, and helping each other are all fruitful endeavors. Everything we do has the potential of being fruitful. We have been blessed with an intelligence that separates us from the animals and imposes a greater responsibility on us to use that intelligence for some higher purpose. Being fruitful demands that we use our intellect to the fullest to achieve things beyond merely reproducing to the point where we overpopulate the earth. It would be silly to conceive of some sort of divine plan that skewed our priorities so badly and demanded so little of our talents.

I've never quite understood how this particular passage became the basis of such a repressive and dismal view of human sexuality. That kind of thinking has borne its own tragic fruits. Beyond homophobia, this cynical outlook on human nature has led to a distorted, one dimensional concept of human sexuality that has allowed problems like pedophilia to be wrongly viewed as a sin that could be forgiven rather than a sickness that needed treatment. It views all birth control for whatever reasons as wrong. It views in vitro fertilization as unnatural and not part of the divine plan. It teaches that sex is purely for procreation purposes within marriage, ignoring completely the other facets of human sexuality, including the emotional aspects of intimacy and love. Is it wrong for married couples to express intimacy if the act does not include at least some chance of producing a pregnancy? Many of us were taught that any such act was sinful, as was any sexual act outside of marriage or not intended or incapable of producing offspring.

As a result of these repressive ideas, women have been relegated to strictly child-bearing roles. Women who have advocated for a role for women outside the home have been branded as witches and Satanists. Many people have been damaged psychologically. And all of this has been done using nonsensical interpretations of a simple passage that really means little more than the oft-used phrase "be all that you can be."

It's time to discard these errant beliefs along with other Biblically inspired falsehoods we have long since abandoned. What has this interpretation ever done but cause misery and despair? Instead we need to focus on the true message of that passage - the unlimited potential we as human beings have to change the world. This is our world to make the best of. We can choose to limit our choices to those offered by misguided zealots or we can make full use of our talents to make the world a better place for us all. Let us, as Christ said, be known by our fruits, which are our accomplishments, and which include more than having and raising children.

Having children is important though. Children guarantee the survival of the human race and are the means of carrying on the good work we've started. Not all of us can or will have children. But all of us should have some sort of higher purpose to our lives. If we do have children, we should have them not as an act of duty, but as an act of love and committment. We should love our children and teach them to also seek a higher purpose in their own lives. Living and working towards noble purposes is what gives our lives meaning and fulfils us as human beings and makes us fruitful in the full sense of the word. This makes more sense as a divine plan to me than any of the cynical and repressive meanings that have been attributed to this Biblical passage. I have a hard time believing that God would think that small.


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Jack May 28, 2012 at 05:45 PM
Terry, You are a long way from accurately representing Christian Faith, scholarship and thought in your post. It reads as though you've taken every misanthropic excess of religious history, wrapped them up in one package and laid that burden on your political opposition--a method well-known to those who practice the shady arts of propaganda and misdirection, of course. The Bible inspires no falsehood in the mind of one who studies it deeply and without prejudice. That there is imperfect understanding in those who only "know" the Bible second-hand goes without saying, and is unfortunately exemplified by your post. If you care to understand what the true message of the Bible is, I suggest you undertake an organized study. You'll no doubt be quite surprised to finally learn the truth.
Terry Flanagan May 28, 2012 at 08:22 PM
Jack, Perhaps the Bible does not inspire any falsehood in those who study it deeply. I would like to believe that. But many of those who profess to know the Bible and to understand the will of God have used Biblical passages to promote misogyny, homophobia, and cynicism about mankind. When it comes to “the shady arts of propaganda and misdirection” even the most conniving scoundrel may be schooled by some Biblical scholars. For many years the Catholic Church discouraged Catholics from reading the Bible. Lay people did not have the necessary background to understand and interpret the Bible. For centuries that worked to the Church’s advantage. People were mostly illiterate anyway and available Bibles were in Latin. So the Church controlled the message. However, the Protestant Reformation and the different interpretations of the Bible that sparked it changed all of that. The Bible has been used throughout history to promote particular viewpoints and to declare opposing viewpoints as blasphemous. You have to wonder why God would entrust his message to so controversial a medium and those who pervert it to their own purposes. In Jeremiah 31, God says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts”. It makes far more sense for God to place his message in our hearts rather than leave us at the mercy of confusing passages and religious demagogues. We have all we need within ourselves to discover the truth. We just have to trust our better instincts.
Justin Eggar May 29, 2012 at 12:49 AM
Terry, You know i am typically a fan... But Jack is correct. The reference to propaganda is likely due to the choice to utilize one scripture out of many and build and easy argument around that which you can defeat. There are references elsewhere on the subject. If you wish to dispute the Bible, them we can go there... But let's not represent it incorrectly to try and get it to fit into our worldview. Unfortunately, in this case, one cannot have their cake and eat too. My instinct is to be utterly selfish and wrong. Let's be glad we don't all trust our instincts (which, on a different note, if our instincts become the representation of morality you will likely not find it to be the utopia that you might believe it to be).
Terry Flanagan May 29, 2012 at 05:07 AM
Justin, the operative word here is better as in better instincts. Studies done with infants suggest that we inherently have a sense of right and wrong. We were taught to let our conscience be our guide and with the exception of sociopaths and the pathologically insane, that works for most of us. That doesn't mean we can suspend our laws and rely on human nature to do the right thing, but our laws themselves are evidence of our moral tendencies. There are those who want to use Biblical passsages as the moral authority that determines the law of the land. Some of these same people also use the Bible to "prove" that the universe is just a few thousand years old among other fallacies. The point is not whether we should dispute the Bible or invoke particular passages to prove a point. There are enough morally ambiguous tales in the Bible to support many points of view. The point is that the Bible should not be used to decide our polices, our laws, our customs, or our system of social justice. I don't think we can afford to surrender the moral high ground to those who use the Bible to subvert our society. I also don't think think Christians should blindly cede interpretation of the Bible, along with our moral obligation to determine what is right, to so-called Biblical scholars who foster hatred and social injustice. The knowledge of good and evil, supposedly our curse, is also our safeguard against those who would mislead us. We need to trust in that knowledge to guide us.
Colin C. May 29, 2012 at 12:58 PM
There is another whole aspect of this discussion that needs to be examined, I think. The tome that we call "The Holy Bible" is a collection of 66 or 73 books in western Christianity. It is assumed by the followers of our faith that these works are the word of God and that the authors of these books were inspired by Him in their writing. The key word here is "assumed" for, if you study the biblical scholars, historians, and textual critics as well as the Book itself you will quickly learn that there is absolutely no proof that this assumption can be justified by what we today might consider either legal or scientific means. By the same token we cannot even prove the existence of the entity that we call God. So, these things have to be accepted on the basis of "faith"' which is not at all the same thing as "fact". And that is fine. Faith is a very important reality for many of us. But to then say that we must take the Biblical admonishments about marriage and sexual orientation and make them a part of civil law is exactly what our founders proscribed in the first amendment to our Constitution. Faith is a matter of individual choice and it's doctrines should not be forced upon everyone. I would ask us to teach our faith, our moral code, our beliefs, and not to try to make them a part of our law or Constitution simply because they appear in our Bible.
Terry Flanagan May 29, 2012 at 03:16 PM
As you say, Colin, there are really two issues here. One is the use of the Bible, or one's interpretation of the Bible, as a guide for the laws of our society, which clearly defies the Constitution and in many cases the laws of logic as well. And then there is the debate over what it means to be a Christian. This debate has spilled over into the political arena because so many people fail to see a distinction between civic responsibility and the obligations imposed by religious beliefs. While moral judgment is an admirable and necessary quality in public service, the excesses that some people feel are dictated by their faith often cloud their judgment and cause real harm to society. The front page of the Herald carries a story about official Church crtiicism of a group of nuns for liberal social practices. There is a great deal of tension in the Church today over some of the Church's teachings and what many Catholics believe to be the true meaning of Christianity. People are looking at the Bible and Church doctrine supposedly inspired by Scripture and often failing to reconcile some of those teachings with their core beliefs. That's a debate we need to have but one which has no place in the political arena. It's probably not a debate that will be decided by hurling Biblical passages at one another either, but rather by looking deep within ourselves and recognizing what is truly important and what we really believe is right and what is wrong.
Colin C. May 29, 2012 at 04:55 PM
Terry, I could not agree with you more. Unfortunately, those who do not understand these principals are probably not reading this discussion. In light of recent and current scandals within several of the thousands of recognized "branches" of Christianity throughout the world I think that it is sometimes helpful to distinguish between "religion" and the institution that we call "the church". They are not, I think, one and the same. An unblinking history of "the churches" from, say the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD through the present revels a fairly consistent pattern of serious human flaws and failings. This, of course, is not limited to Christianity. The hierarchies of all the churches that I have studied; western, eastern, ancient, and modern, have suffered the same problems. For this reason I am always skeptical when someone tells me that "this is what the Bible (or Tanaka, or Qur'an, or whatever) says and means. I am not the brightest bulb in the circuit by a long shot but I can read, study, listen to various viewpoints, think, and figure it out for myself. And I promise to be willing to hold a spirited debate on the subject without ever trying to force my view down your throat. And I expect to learn from you as we exchange ideas. The institutional Church has a limited roll to play in this process.
Justin Eggar May 29, 2012 at 08:13 PM
This conversation has grown a bit muddled... so let's clear the plate a little bit. 1. If a person spends all of their time disputing what is in a religion, they are inherently not of that religion. So, for instance, if I spend all of my time trying to prove to people that the Bible is contrived stories - then I can call myself a Christian Theologian or whatever until I'm blue in the face, but I'd still not be a Christian. Being "of" something requires that you actually believe in it. Not 10%, not 50%, but 100%. Once you've proven that there is error in your religious tenants (that is intrinsic to it) there is no redeeming it at that point. Of course this is mudied a little bit by time and cultural influence, but the concept still stands. 2. There is no seperation of a persons world view and their beliefs. One cannot ethically say "I believe this but I act in a different way". So, there is no possibility for somebody that truly believes something to leave it at home so it doesn't offend you. If they truly believe it, it doesn't matter if it offends you, because in their mind it represents reality. Can you see that it might be problematic to say "You believe that but you can't actually live according to that?" The twist with that is that you get to live out your beliefs, it just so happens that yours are culturally popular. At the most basic, this is an issue that a non-Christian disagrees with Christians living according to their beliefs.
Justin Eggar May 29, 2012 at 08:45 PM
Anyways, I don't argue theology - I'm just not equipped to do so. I do however argue philosophy. I know that is counter-intuitive because ones theology defines their philosophy (if they are honest). Understand, I don't have as much faith in good instincts as you do. I grew up in the Fiji Islands where they were cannibals until 100 years ago, so my view on human nature is possibly a bit different than your own. That said, I would be interested in seeing the study you read on instincts. Do you have a URL handy?
Terry Flanagan May 29, 2012 at 09:56 PM
Justin, if everyone agreed on the meaning of the Bible, the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims, or the "People of the Book" as the Muslims call them, would all be of the same faith. Even within these three great faiths there are numerous movements and sects. And all of these divisions are caused by groups of people who couldn't accept their current religion in totality or possibly their religions couldn't accept them. Most of us don't choose our religion. We were born into it. We may stay or move on, but if we stay it's not necessarily because we agree with 100 percent of the teachings of our religious organizations. To a purist that may seem wrong, but without some disagreement there would be no reform and many of the bad practices of the past would still be around today. Beliefs may or may not be culturally popular. The question is not whether we should each try to live according to our beliefs but whether or not we are entitled to impose our beliefs on others. Some people think that their beliefs are good and that they should try to get others to live according those beliefs as well. It's fine if people are willing to accept your beliefs of their own volition and believe it is the right life decision for them. It's quite another to legislate a belief system. Our laws should be neutral in that regard so that everyone can live according to their beliefs.
Justin Eggar May 29, 2012 at 10:43 PM
Terry, I can understand your point - Christians and Jews have a lot in common. Islam is a different story, where some of the core of Judaism and Christianity were re-utilized to create a new religion. Granted, the Jews could say the same of Christianity (though the treatment of Christians and the old testament was was inclusive rather than revisionist). To go back a bit to my earlier statement though, I'm not going to argue the validity of anything. I will argue about whether a person is required to act on beliefs if they truly believe them (for instance, if somebody truly believes you're going to hell, don't they have a pretty strong moral obligation to try and help you?). Don't get me wrong, I don't believe its ever right to physically force your beliefs on others. There isn't justification for that. However, the nature of democracy is messy - there will be swings over time as public opinion changes. There will be good things and bad things... But one can be sure that we'll have arrived there because we voted on our beliefs. All of us.
Colin C. May 29, 2012 at 11:19 PM
Justin, Interesting point about cannibalism and your implication that it is somehow immoral. I happen to belong to a religion that believes in human sacrifice and practices a form of cannibalism. Each Sunday we worship a God who "didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world...." At the last supper Jesus "took bread, and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying Take, eat, this is My Body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me. Likewise, after supper, He took the cup and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this; for this is My Blood of the New Testament which is shed for you....". Those who believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation believe these to be the body and blood of Christ. For others it is symbolic but the meaning and intent are still there. It is Communion with God and is the holiest and most powerful rite in Christianity. I practice it at every Eucharist. It holds great meaning for me, a person who has struggled with faith since I was maybe twelve years old. Somehow I doubt that you are qualified or ordained to judge just who is and who is not a Christian.
Justin Eggar May 30, 2012 at 01:09 AM
Colin, Comparing communion to cannibalism is silly on almost every level. Please forgive me if I don't spend any time responding to that. Everybody likes to wear the "I'm different" t-shirt that the guy next to them is wearing to show he is different... The problem is, nobody is different and this has all been done and said a million times. Half of our city could likely raise their hand and attest to struggles and inner turmoil about many things in life (I would be one of them). If you read the comment above - you'll see it's not judging anybody's walk that is invested in that walk. It is judging those that purport to be something they aren't while maliciously tearing it down. We should have little tolerance for that sort of behavior.
Terry Flanagan May 30, 2012 at 01:18 AM
Justin, here's links to some studies on infants that suggest recognition of right and wrong as well as a sense of fairness - http://phys.org/news192693376.html, http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0023223, and http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/2011/11/28/babies-embrace-punishment-earlier-than-previously-thought-study-suggests/. I don't know whether this falls into the category of philosophy or theology, but I figure if God has a plan for us why would he leave it to chance for us to discover. Why would it be buried in cryptic texts that have been widely mis-interpreted and abused? Wouldn't he give us the innate ability to discover the truth on our own, a sort of moral compass that pointed to him. Perhaps the lesson of the Garden of Eden and the fall from grace is that we have been given the means to find our way back using the knowledge of good and evil, which may be a figurative expression for our conscience. And now it seems we have some evidence of this latent ability in infants far too young to be influenced by scripture. That means we may have to accept the possibility of alternate paths to salvation other than through organized religions who have traditionally taken on the role of gatekeepers. In fact, I know of no religion that believes in group salvation, We all have to get there on our own. Our biggest differences may be on what to use as a guide..
Justin Eggar May 30, 2012 at 01:47 AM
Terry, The thought I am getting from the first half of your post is "why doesn't God do what we want him to do?" I can fully understand this - I've often asked in my own turmoil on the subject, "How can God act in a manner that I think is irrational". You have to admit though, if there is a God then our understanding of what is or is not rational behavior might be far different. I don't think some basic instinctual pattern in infants should cause too much of a modification to our beliefs. Plus, I think the Bible wouldn't disagree with all people being capable of good and evil (it just indicates that non-believers don't have it credited to them or something along those lines). I will say though, whatever decision a person makes regarding their religion we as a society should demand that these religions interact with kindness and respect.
Colin C. May 30, 2012 at 03:58 AM
Many years ago when I studied anthropology and comparative religion I learned that most anthropological studies that document actual cannibalism, and there are very few verifiable examples, indicate that the purpose is most often a "religious" one: the person intends to take in the spirit, the power, of the person being consumed. It is usually done with much reverence and accompanied with much ritual. In the "symbolic" act practiced by many Christians the purpose is much the same. As outlandish as it first appears, there is a similarity and a relationship. I mentioned it simply to encourage you to view things from a broader perspective. Still, the principal point of Terry's original post remains: no religion should be allowed to dictate civil legislation in the United States. Sure, there are moral principals held by religion that are enshrined in law. Theft and murder are two of many possible examples but these things are not illegal simply because religion proscribes them. Rather, they are illegal because the vast majority of people of all religions and of no religion agree that they are immoral and should be against the law. When it comes to sexual orientation or birth control, for example, there is absolutely no such universal agreement. Nor, for that matter, is there widespread agreement on the point at which an embryo or fetus becomes a being that should be considered fully human and protected as such. A church may teach but should not try to dictate.
Terry Flanagan May 30, 2012 at 05:45 AM
Justin, it's been great discussing this and I agree that as a society we should insist on respect for our religious differences and set an example as individuals. My point in this post is that we can all read the same passage in scripture and come away with different ideas about what it means or whether it has any relevance. Some of those interpretations, though, have been harmful and we ought to at least rethink them or ideally discard them. I think our understanding of God is imperfect and often confused by the portrayal of God in scripture. The powerful God of the Old Testament who helped the Jews crush their enemies is replaced in the New Testament by a gentler God, who is often portrayed as a loving father. Our expectations of God depend to a great extent upon our understanding of God. If we accept the more human image of God in the New Testament then we expect God to act more like a human father. And indeed many parables make this comparison. Others compare God to the master of the house. A common theme in these lessons is that we will be held accountable for what we have been given, which implies to me that we have been given all we need to find salvation on our own, perhaps from birth. Salvation requires no knowledge of scripture, which in some respects makes our interpretations irrelevant. That's not to say that we cannot learn from scripture. It just might not be the same lessons for everyone.


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