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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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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