Adultery & the Death of Covenant
S. M. Hutchens on the Seventh Commandment
It has been nearly a generation now since I had my first intimate exposure to an institution constituted in a lie. During my early years of doctoral study I took the pastorate of a small Congregational church. I had never been a Congregationalist, but the church’s presentation of itself and its denomination did not offend. It had a “mainline” flavor, but each congregation was free to decide on its own complexion, so long as it remained congregationally governed, and could have as little or as much to do with the national organization as it pleased. Although the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds were found in the worship materials in the back of its hymnal, on Sunday mornings the congregation would recite the beautiful Salem Church Covenant of 1629:
It was not long, however, before I ran into trouble. Finding much ambiguity and irresolution in the congregation on the cardinal doctrines of the faith, I decided to begin clearing things up by having it recite, from the hymnal, the Apostles’ Creed, upon which I proposed to preach a series of sermons. The woman whom I eventually found to be the controller of the church brought me up short immediately: We do not recite creeds in this church because we don’t believe in them. Creeds divide; covenants unite, and we are a covenantal church.
Aghast at the manifest nonsense of the possibility of a common pilgrimage without common belief, I queried the leadership on this matter frequently. Producing Williston Walker’s Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, which showed that creeds—written expressly to exclude people who could not hold to them—were an integral part of Congregationalism from the beginning, did no good at all. The response was a collective yawn and shrug of the shoulders: Congregationalism has no creeds. Walker must have been a Presbyterian or something. They had been under the spell too long.
Curious as to how this could happen, I began to look at the influences that had formed the thirty-year-old denomination, and quickly found the answer. The most influential intellectuals in the national group were committed liberals who disliked creeds, including Congregational creeds, for the reason all religious liberals dislike firm statements of traditional Christian belief. Over years of preaching at national and regional conferences, writing books and pamphlets, dominating the denominational magazine, and exercising influence by filling major pulpits, they had managed to convince their little denomination of an egregious, ahistorical, and entirely irrational lie that a child could see through in a minute. The old Salem Covenant, which clearly included implicit belief in the fundamentals of Christian faith, no longer corresponded to the reality of the institution. It had been emptied of its content by bad men who were spoken of as saints, and whose critics were treated as devils.
The little church eventually died (I could not revive it, but did stay to bury it), and its denomination, already small, soon gained the dubious distinction of being one of the fastest shrinking in the United States. I think this came about mostly because of the militant agnosticism imposed upon it by its church fathers, who thought to make it liberal by omitting creeds, but instead made it nothing at all. It was allowed to become neither liberal nor conservative, neither orthodox nor heterodox. It stood for nothing but mere Congregationalism, which is not enough to sustain the pilgrim soul, especially if it doesn’t qualify for the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Even religious liberalism has, after its own fashion, distinctly articulable beliefs, provides its adherents with a canon of sins that it has the power to forgive, and holds forth the promise of a better life through what it takes for moral progress. By doing away with the very possibility of a creed, those who formed the church’s constitution aborted at the outset its ability to be anything meaningful at all, and gave it nothing to do but wander in the desert, torn about by the vague, competing forces within it, until collapse and death. The covenant that had drawn the colonial churches together by representing a collective will to believe common doctrine no longer stood for the reality of the institution.
Marriage is also an institution founded on covenant, and it, too, dies when its reality no longer corresponds to the agreement upon which it is based. The marriage covenant is made, as are all covenants, not only of positive beliefs and inclusions, but of denials and exclusions. It is not simply a compact to live together amicably, to “walk together,” as it were, but has an exclusivistic element that guards the intimate center (from which its issue arises) from unlawful alienations. At its base is Adam’s recognition and declaration that the woman made by God for him is flesh of his own flesh. From this declaratory covenant and the positive relation it confirmed, come all the negatives that surround and define it—since it is this, it is not that: A man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife; he shall love her as he loves himself; she shall submit to him; forsaking all others, he and she shall keep themselves only unto the other as long as they both shall live; and the seventh commandment: they shall not commit adultery. Children are the natural issue and blessing of the marriage, whose home is the union of their parents, which union is made not only of what the partners are to each other, but of what they are not to the world that surrounds them.
When our Lord said that to lust after a woman was to commit adultery with her in the heart, he was referring not to the completed act, but the seed from which it arises, which is a breach of the protected center, an outflowing of desire that is to be kept or guarded for the spouse alone. It is not to be bestowed upon others, even in the imagination—for the mind is a part of the self—or spilled upon the ground. Adultery is an unlawful effusion from the integrity of the covenanted self—the self most truly self because it has been given over to the love and service of a single and elect other—into the far country of another that is not one’s own, and in which one must always live as a stranger. It is a violent removal from the new and compound self that was created in the first marriage, and from the attempted new love as well.
This cannot be done without breaking the bond, the law, of the marriage covenant, and hence the marriage itself. It condemns the adulterer not only to whatever foolishness is not conquered by the sanity of regret, but also to superficiality with regard to all things that pertained to the marriage, its covenant, and its issue—superficiality in parenthood, in conjugal affection, in reliability of self and trust of others, and of comfort in one’s spouse that is the fruit of aging intimacy, but mostly of the ability to believe in God that is given with faithfulness to other people. Adultery is an infection that cannot be confined to the sexual life, but reaches out into every aspect of life and thought. Unless there is repentance, it bids to cloud every judgment and defile every aspect of the adulterer’s existence.
The principal pleasure of adultery, at least to a man, is not at base that of sexual release, for that may be had with his lawful wife, but mostly (as C. S. Lewis recognized in his narration on the life of the hrossa in Out of the Silent Planet) of what we might call nostalgia: the unlawful desire to recreate what has passed away in the natural course of things—here, first love—in the attempt to evade the normal, lawful life in which one has been called to find the meaning of God, the world, and the self. The signs of an adulterous conscience therefore include the lust for novelty—the accompaniment of a nostalgia that can never be satisfied—and a tendency toward a willfully perverted understanding of both normality and progress.
The adulterous man will wish to redefine what is normal or natural in accordance with his desire and avoid what he now finds boring and distasteful. He shows increased appreciation for the grotesque and perverse. Nor will he seek to authenticate himself, as God has called him to, in (here I must borrow from Heidegger) the being-towards-death that arises with faith, but rather evades the thought of his mortality with ever more frantic devotion to ever more bizarre amusements. For this mind, progress becomes programmatic disruption of what chaste people call normal; invention is what dull people regard as vandalism or perversion.
The man changed by adultery is forever calling upon those who have not “advanced” to his level to defend their antiquated or bourgeois values, but since he can no longer understand their hopes or pleasures, he can no longer grasp their explanations. Above all, he hates the commandment against adultery, and—most dreadful of all—he no longer is able to know why. If reason remained to him, he could still conclude he resented the command because he had broken it. Reason in her compelling majesty, however, is in a part of the world he has resolutely abandoned, for she is a creature of nature and nature’s God, toward which the adulterer has made himself blind.
A culture where adultery is no longer horrible, as E. Michael Jones has emphasized, is a culture where conscience is fundamentally compromised, and so is ripe for far more terrible things than the confusion and sorrow that the unfaithfulness of adulterous people brings to their families and friends. The breaching of covenants, as we have been unmistakably shown by the current American President, makes recourse to lying necessary. Soon enough, life becomes based on the ramifying lie, which reaches out to cripple and kill the institutions in which it is allowed to live, whether they be marriages, little churches, or great nations. •
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Adultery & the Death of Covenant” first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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