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Friday, February 15, 2008

The Strange Case for Polygamy

Bigamy is having one spouse too many. Monogamy is the same.

Time magazine has a section where they list ironic quotes along with the context of the quotation. The point is usually to make the person look like a fool for what they said. Typically that person is a politician, so it can be quite entertaining.

Recently, they featured a Mitt Romney quote:
"I must admit I can't imagine anything more awful than polygamy."
This is the notation listed below the quote:
"Mitt Romney, the Mormon seeking the Republican presidential nomination, whose great-grandfather was a polygamist."


And yet from a theological perspective, Romney's dilemma is the Christian dilemma. Most on the Christian right are adamantly against polygamy. Many regard Mormons as a cult and use the Mormon position on polygamy as a basis for mocking their religion. Here's the big problem: The greatest heroes of the biblical faith were polygamists. This creates a moral quandary. Either our heroes were sinners and were morally wrong to practice polygamy or else it was ok back then even though it's not ok today.

But this latter suggestion smacks of relativism, doesn't it? How can a Christian in this day and age who is fighting the good fight for moral absolutes--how can such a Christian say that the morality of polygamy shifted from one age to the next? Hhhhmmm...it's a toughie, no doubt! Did God say, "Okay, polygamy was not morally wrong back then, but these days it is a monstrous atrocity"? Seems a bit odd to me.

Perhaps I might raise the question, What is wrong with polygamy? I know, I know. Your sense of decency is offended. You are morally outraged that I would even ask the question. But let's look at this rationally, shall we? (Or, of course, you are free to just leave my blog and go somewhere else!) Consider a few objections:

1) The Bible condemns polygamy. Actually it does not; nor does it establish any moral absolute in regard to monogamy. Paul recommends that an elder be the husband of one wife, but Paul also recommends that women be silent in church and that Christians should probably opt for singleness. In other words, Paul's suggestion on monogamy seems to be more in line with a recommendation rather than a moral absolute that applies to all people in all eras.

Furthermore, one must deal honestly with the lives of true saints in the Old Testament who practiced polygamy. David was a man after God's own heart, and how many women did he have coming in and out of his chambers? The Patriarchs had multiple wives. And in the midst of this there is no condemnation of the practice. Why? Could it be that there was nothing morally wrong with it? This is a question worth considering.

All things considered, I would suggest that the Bible is more in favor of polygamy than against it. Even Martin Luther, as I understand, did not consider polygamy unbiblical, although he highly discouraged the practice and did not consider it normative. (Compare the interesting case of Philip of Hesse.) Perhaps also of interest is biblicalpolygamy.com.

2) Polygamy is weird. I consider the weirdness factor to be a legitimate objection. Unlike some, I do believe that subjective feelings and intuitions are an important (and even integral) of determining how we should act and what we should believe. However, the fact that a certain practice is weird does not in and of itself disqualify the practice. We can experience a weirdness factor as a result of how we are conditioned by our society.

A few hundred years ago in this country, it would have seemed "weird" and perhaps even "unnatural" to see an intelligent black man teaching white students. This may have seemed weird and unnerving, but that does make it wrong or immoral. In a similar way, I would suggest that our society (and particularly conservative circles) is predisposed to feel very very uncomfortable with polygamy. However, it has not always been this way. Different societies have viewed this practice in different ways. For an interesting perspective on this, see the Polygamy Worldwide section of the wikipedia article on Polygamy.

3) Polygamy is oppressive to women. This is a fair objection, because polygamy has been the context for suppressing women and abusing both women and children. Polygamy has been a vehicle for male domination and female subjugation.

Still, to be fair, abuse happens within the context of a monogamous marriage. All abuses and misuses that I can think of that occur within polygamy are also true of monogamy. So, I think we must recognize that it is not the contest, per se, that is the problem. Abuse is evil, but evil deeds come from evil people, not necessarily from a particular type of relationship.

A woman might respond that it's not fair that two women would have to share one man. Fine, then don't be in a polygamous relationship. But if there are two women who desire to be in a polygamous relationship with a man, then how can I argue against that? If that is a relationship they wish to embark on, then I don't see anything that is necessarily immoral about it. It may seem weird to someone else, but that's not necessarily a question of morality. Also, what if the reverse were true? What if two men married one woman. In principle, this approach isn't necessarily immoral, it is just something that makes us uncomfortable.

Perhaps the question has to do with whether the context is a loving and caring context, rather than if the context is immoral.

If polygamy is used in a context to abuse women and children then it is wrong and evil. But the moral outrage against polygamy in our society and culture may be a bit overdone; frankly, much of the conservative indignation toward polygamy strikes me as a bit self-righteous and narrow minded.

Hhhhhmmmmm.....have I just made a strange case for polygamy??? I thought I had sworn off marriage, but perhaps I should reconsider a polygamous relationship. That might be interesting.

Of related interest:
HBO Big Love clips (This is quite the interesting show, by the way.)
Christian Polygamy Info
Yahoo Christian Polygamy Group


Melody said...

I don't really think you've made a case for polygamy at all.

You didn't put forth any kind of reason why polygamy would be desirable...just why it wouldn't be a sign of satan taking over the earth.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Satan taking over the earth???


Melody said...

That it's not inherantly evil.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Oh, I see.

Thank you for completely agreeing with me on this issue.

Melody said...

I didn't agree with anything.
I said your post was mislabled.

ktismatics said...

You could make a case that polygamy is a better deal for women than is divorce and remarriage, which is a sort of serial polygamy. In divorce the man walks away from his involvement with the ex-wife, who may be less attractive in the remarriage market because she's now older and may have kids to take care of. The ex-husbands are notoriously bad at providing for the children after they leave, so that children in one-parent (=mother) families typically live a less affluent life.

So suppose you tell the man who wants to go after a new wife that it's fine, but he has to keep the old wife and kids too. Then only men who can afford it will become polygamists, and the first wife and children aren't disadvantaged materially or ostracized socially. In that scenario it's men who lose, or specifically men who can't compete financially with the rich polygamists. I.e., the marriage-divorce-remarriage paradigm is a scheme that gives an unfair advantage to men.

Melody said...

Yes, and wouldn't it be cheery to be the woman in your scenario?

Bound to a man who no longer is interested in you? Forced to watch him woo a younger, prettier wife?
You can't complain because, hey, you're still married...you're still supported - why should you want anything else?

No way. If I got married to a man and he wanted to chase someone else - I'd be done.

ktismatics said...

I'm forced to agree. At least in the current scenario a woman too can bail on a loser husband in hopes of finding a better deal elsewhere.

Dru Johnson said...

If one considers the moral mode and agency of Ancient Hebrew prose in general, then I would wager that the OT is far from silent on this matter.

Polygamy is essentially the same argument that could be made for lying in the case of Abram or Jacob. One has to consider the implications of the actions in the prose to understand the moral agency of the text.

In other words, if you account for the disposition for polygamy (or lying), the actual act described in the text, the ensuing outcomes and the correspondence of the total pericope in light of the covenant in view, then there is hardly a case for polygamy (or lying).

In the case of Jacob, you have to notice more subtle details (which are distinctive of Hebrew narritve in general). The covenantal promises extended through Jacob, but through which of his four 'wives'? It was only through Leah, the unloved and first wife, that God fulfilled his covenant.

My only problem with these kinds of discussions is that they generally neglect the enmeshed historical unfolding of narrative and instead, conflate context into some kind of rule-based morality. I would argue that the Torah is not rule-based, but rather the rules reveal the nature of creature/Creator distinction (a la Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount").

That's my two pence.

Kenji said...

Hmmm, I guess slavery is ok too because Scripture never explicitly forbids it either.

What about how the marriage relationship mirrors the relationship between Christ and the Church? If polygamy is considered ok (neither biblical nor non-biblical), then how could Christ be in a polygamous relationship with the Church. Is there another religion that he also is the head of? Just thinking...

Or what about the institution of it in Genesis 2:24? Where in this does it allow for a man to marry multiple wives?

samlcarr said...

As Kenji points out, there are a lot of issues where a literalistic approach to applying biblical teaching to ethical or moral issues (other issues too) would be deemed silly. The strongest arguement biblically for monogamy would be the creation narrative backed by Jesus own endorsement.

As to the relationship between Jesus and the church , that we really have turned into a polygamous one where there is no one "body of Christ" and there has not been for a very long time indeed!

I also opine that culture plays a very strong role. Divorce, as John Doyle points out, is biblically considered to be a de facto type of adultery.

Jesus and Paul do seem to lean towards singleness wherever possible or as a worst case, a faithful marriage between just two, who incidentally are supposed to become one, so then that's just another form of singleness, isn't it?

Emily said...

Ken, you should know better than to use the "i" word here. It's considered taboo. :)

chris van allsburg said...

This is about polygamy, but I'd like to comment on Dru's thoughts.

I do think there can be a case for lying. The patriarchs lied about their wives to tyrants in order to protect them from being seized. (They were taken anyway). And God rescued them--despite Abraham's and Jacob's "sins" of lying.

The Hebrew midwives lied to Pharoah and the Lord commended them for it. The lied to a tyrant who willed to destroy God's people.

The Lord himself put a lie into Samuel's mouth so Saul wouldn't kill him.

Now, who of us wouldn't lie to a Nazi during WWII if they came to our house looking for Jews, while we were indeed hiding them under the floorboards?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Wow, Chris. Good points.

Ethics gets so darned colorful sometimes (as opposed to black and white!).

Jonathan Erdman said...

Dru: In the case of Jacob, you have to notice more subtle details (which are distinctive of Hebrew narritve in general). The covenantal promises extended through Jacob, but through which of his four 'wives'? It was only through Leah, the unloved and first wife, that God fulfilled his covenant.

Dru, I must be missing you on this point, b/c the covenant was fulfilled through all of the wives, was it not? Did not each son of Jacob become a tribe of Israel and receive the blessings of the OT covenant?

Dru: My only problem with these kinds of discussions is that they generally neglect the enmeshed historical unfolding of narrative and instead, conflate context into some kind of rule-based morality. I would argue that the Torah is not rule-based, but rather the rules reveal the nature of creature/Creator distinction (a la Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount").

I think I'm with you on that point.

chris van allsburg said...

Thanks, Jon.
I have to give props to Jim Jordan and his book Primeval Saints. His ethic is that "holy deception" is right in the case of expanding the kingdom of God in the context of avoiding the actions of tyrants.
(His web site is called Biblical Horizons).

ktismatics said...

From The Moral Animal by Robert Wright:

When playing the Administrator of Evolution, and trying to maximize genetic legacy, you quickly discover that this goal implies different strategies for men and women. Men can reproduce hundreds of times a year, assuming they can persuade enough women to cooperate, and assuming there aren't any laws against polygamy -- which there assuredly weren't in the environment where much of our evolution took place. Women, on the other hand, can't reproduce more often than once a year. The asymmetry lies partly with the high price of eggs; in all species they're bigger and rarer than minuscule, mass-produced sperm. (That, in fact, is biology's official definition of a female: the one with the larger sex cells.) But the asymmetry is exaggerated by the details of mammalian reproduction; the egg's lengthy conversion into an organism happens inside the female, and she can't handle many projects at once.

So, while there are various reasons why it could make Darwinian sense for a woman to mate with more than one man (maybe the first man was infertile, for example), there comes a time when having more sex just isn't worth the trouble. Better to get some rest or grab a bite to eat. For a man, unless he's really on the brink of collapse or starvation, that time never comes. Each new partner offers a very real chance to get more genes into the next generation -- a much more valuable prospect, in the Darwinian calculus, than a nap or a meal. As the evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have succinctly put it: "there is always the possibility of doing better."

There's a sense in which the female can do better, too, but it has to do with quality, not quantity. Giving birth to a child involves a huge commitment of time, not to mention energy, and nature has put a low ceiling on how many such enterprises she can undertake. So, each child, from her (genetic) point of view, is an extremely precious gene machine. Its ability to survive and then, in turn, produce its own young gene machines is of mammoth importance. It makes Darwinian sense, then, for a woman to be selective about the man who is going to help her build each gene machine. She should size up an aspiring partner before letting him in on the investment, asking herself what she'll bring to the project.

One of the attributes she looks for, says Wright, is male parental investment (MPI) -- the ability and willingness to participate in raising the child. Baby humans can't survive on their own for several years, which is a much slower rate of development than most other animal species. So if the father is low in MPI, there's more likelihood that the child will get killed off or starve to death, and so the genetic investment fails. There's evolutionary selection in favor of men who stick around after the baby is born -- which in turn tends toward monogamy, because men can't invest all that much time and effort in childrearing either.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Perhaps this helps explain my lack of desire for marriage or reproduction. In lieu of the fact that there are plenty of human beings on earth, I do not feel the desire to add to the populace.

Also, perhaps I have a very low MPI!

Question: Why is it that women go after guys who have a low MPI? Is it the challenge?

ktismatics said...

"Perhaps this helps explain my lack of desire for marriage or reproduction."

No, you're trying to insert a whole conscious apparatus into an unconscious animal mechanism, which works not just in humans but in apes and wolves and even birds -- lots of bird species are monogamous. In evolutionary terms the sexual urge is a trick the genes play on us to get us to procreate. If it wasn't enjoyable to engage in the act that leads to reproduction we probably wouldn't do it, because it's my understanding that giving birth isn't a very pleasurable activity, and raising children takes time and resources. The sexual urge and sexual pleasure are expressions of the GENES' desire to reproduce. Now if you have no sexual urge then that's something else again...

"Why is it that women go after guys who have a low MPI?"

There's also the matter of identifying donors of genetic material that are likely to produce good offspring: strength, health, intelligence, energy, etc. Again these are unconscious triggers of attraction rather than cold calculations, because children of strong smart men are more likely to survive and pass on those genes, whereas the stupid weakling progeny die off without issue. Wright again:

if indeed all men indeed in the ancestral environment were about equally affluent (that is, not very), women may be innately attuned not so much to a man's wealth as to his social status; among hunter-gatherers, status often translates into power -- influence over divvying up of resources, such as meat after a big kill. In modern societies, in any event, wealth, status, and power often go hand in hand, and seem to make an attractive package in the eyes of the average woman.

According to Wright, a particularly clever evolutionary strategy is for a man to seduce a woman who already has a husband. That way the poor sap thinks the baby is his and takes care of it, while the cad goes about looking for more opportunities. Presumably this approach would be more likely to succeed if you've got the other goods besides MPI in order to be seen as an attractive sperm donor. Because a man can never know for certain that a baby is his, men tend to have lower parental investment than women, who know for sure the kid is hers.

Jonathan Erdman said...

As the saying goes:
Papa's baby, maybe. Mama's for sure.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Question for you, K:
Where does the drive and desire for a meaningful life come from, according to evolutionary theory? Why is it that we can forsake things that are detrimental to our survival and the perpetuation of our seed if something is deeply meaningful to us? For example, standing up for a religious belief, dying for the sake of bringing justice to the human race, allowing one's self/family to be endangered for the sake of moral principle, or even giving up a high-dollar job for the purpose of "making a difference in people's lives" or "doing something meaningful."

All of the above are fairly common examples of things humans have done for the last several thousand years of recorded human history. Also, I know that you have given up things that would contribute to your safety/survival for the sake of experiences that are more meaningful.

ktismatics said...

You're pushing the edge of the paradigm now. For things like sexual attraction it's possible to draw on cross-species behavior to identify behaviors that aren't mediated and modified by cognition. Search for meaning is something that only humans do, so here you step beyond empirical science and into philosophy.

It is possible to identify what we might call altruistic behavior in other species; e.g., parent birds feeding their babies at their own expense. There are evolutionary arguments to account for some of this behavior; e.g., if 3 of the babies survive, that's 3 individuals carrying 50% of the genes from each parent, which collectively is equivalent to 1.5 of the mom's and 1.5 of the dad's genes surviving into the next generation. So there's a genetic advantage to sacrifice oneself for the sake of one's offspring.

I don't think you can go much further than that in evolutionary theory, though a lot of people would like to. Meaning, morality, etc. are aspects of human culture for which there's a lot of variability within the human species. It's like language: you can see the advantage of advanced communication for survival -- where is the food, where are the predators, etc. -- but why we speak English and somebody else speaks Urdu is (I believe) impossible to explain on evolutionary grounds.

chris van allsburg said...

Yeah, but Jon, a good part of marriage is sex. Surely now, you jest at wanting to be single forever.

***Caveat: sex is only one spoke in the wheel of the blessings in marriage. ***

Of course, John Murray, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th centurty, didn't marry until he was 66 yrs old.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Hhhhhmmm....and they did not have Viagra in those days....

Kenji said...

Ya know, all this talk about Polygamy and Monogamy. What about Polyandry? Now there is something the Bible is completely silent on... or is it?...

chris van allsburg said...

Remember the show, My Two Dads?


Dru Johnson said...

Sorry, I should have been more specific. It's only through Leah, the first and unwanted marriage, that we have the house of Judah (line of Jesse, David, and Jesus) and also the house of Levi (which I'm pretty sure is both the Levites and the line of The Prophet Moses as well, but I cannot find my notes right now). Benjamin's tribe becomes nearly abolished because of their heinous sin and Joseph's line carries no import beyond Genesis 50, receiving no portion of the land.

So I would say that this is a significant indication in favor of his marriage to Leah, while acknowledging that some covenant aspects flow through all 12 tribes. But the missionary call of Abram (Gen 12) appears to specifically be answered in Leah's progeny.

On the issue of lying, I was not attempting to make a patent case against all uses of deception, for clearly Jesus uses deception at times. However, if looking at the motives for the deception of the Patriarchs (saving their own lives while pimping out their wives) and the outcome for them and everyone else, the habit of lying in never looked upon favorably by the text.

I tend to agree with Jonathan that ethics can never be 'black and white' and yes I would use deception if I were a villager of Le Chambon in 1943. However, the patriarchs were not using deception to protect others, their deception is employed usually at their height of faithlessness or failure to trust God. I am not aware of any counter-examples from the text, but I think it's fair to say that just on the issue of deception (like slavery or polygamy), one has to tease out something much more sophisticated than, "Jacob did it and it's in the bible so it must be OK." I am caricaturing, but not too much.

ktismatics said...

In light of today's NY Times article I'm wondering whether John McCain might not be a practitioner of de facto bigamy if not an active lobbyist on behalf of the practice. For the record, I'm less concerned about McCain's romantic dalliances than his seeming inability to resist lobbying. Even if he's not consciously aware of extending special favors to his "friends," I suspect that if I wrote him a letter urging him to take some action with the FCC that would benefit my interests -- free HBO, say -- the only response I'd get would be a request to contribute to his campaign.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The technical term for multiple wives is polygyny. You might find these essays interesting: