the Christian and the hearth

In traditional Roman culture, the focus, the hearth, is all about holding the family together: the family is the essential, immutable, and foundational unit of civilization. What the Romans called the dignitas marriage — as opposed to the concubinatus union, which was merely a formalizing of a sexual relationship. — was meant to ground all the larger elements of the social order. (The young Augustine, as he explains in his Confessions, had a concubinatus relationship while he was waiting for his parents to organize a dignitas marriage for him, and he and his concubine were alike heartbroken when told that their union had to be broken.) Thus the legal, and not just the social, dominance of the paterfamilias — his patria potestas

As Carle Zimmerman shows in his seminal Family and Civilization, the Christian church, when it emerged as a force in Roman society, complicated the simple duality of the Roman system. Bishops and priests denounced the concubitanus marriage: legally, it had to be dignitas or nothing. But even dignitas marriage was insufficient, in that it was merely personal and social: true Christian marriage is sacramental, and an image of the relationship between Christ and his church. What the marital family was in secular legal terms came to matter less than what it was in the eyes of God — and the eyes of canon law. (As Zimmerman explains, when in the late-antique and early-medieval world political order grew more fractured and tenuous, this only intensified the power and authority of the Church over the family.) Thus was inaugurated the close connection between the family and the Church that persists in various ways even today. 

There’s absolutely no question, as I have said many times on this blog and elsewhere, that if Western society is going to be restored and renewed, such restoration and renewal will need to begin in the family. Everything about our system of metaphysical capitalism is built around detaching people from both the comforts and the obligations of family. If you have sustained a healthy family in our current environment you have done something pretty special, and achieved it against heavy odds.

All that said, and I’m not taking any of it back, Christians really can’t have a straightforward relationship to family. We can’t simply be Romans, even Christianized Romans. There’s this countervailing force in Christian tradition and practice that has to be accounted for. Jesus says that unless you hate your own mother and father, you cannot be a follower of his (Luke 14:26). Jesus says that foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20). Jesus left his home and his family in order to proclaim the kingdom of God, and then to suffer and die; most if not all of his apostles did the same. Saul of Tarsus did not remain in Tarsus, nor did he even remain in Jerusalem, the place that he came to be educated. In the service of the Gospel, he traveled all over the Mediterranean, and died, we believe, in Rome. It was said of Christian missionaries back in the day that they went to the mission field carrying their coffins on their backs – that is, they planned never to return to what had been their home, but to live out their lives in strange lands, so that they could tell people about Jesus. 

And of course Jesus never married; not did Paul, whose attitudes towards marriage were notoriously complex. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25); but the celibate life is superior (I Cor. 7:7). Neither Jesus nor his last apostle were hearth-and-home types, it seems. 

This is why I’ve always slightly hesitant about the project of the Front Porch Republic folks. What they are doing is admirable in so many ways, and yet I worry that they could inadvertently foster a kind of idolatry of place. However wonderful and essential home and family are for almost all of us, the Christian has to be willing to give both of those up in order to follow Jesus. We won’t necessarily be able to do that following in our home towns, though perhaps most Christians will be granted that privilege.

There is then something inevitably cosmopolitan about Christianity, not in the sense that the Christian is at home everywhere but in the sense that the Christian can’t be fully at home at home anywhere, given that our citizenship is not of this world (Phil. 3:20). Our primary loyalty must be to the City of God, and not to the City of Man.

I don’t know how to sort all of this out, but I do know that it makes the business of cultivating focal practices complicated for the Christian. What do the practices of the hearth have to do with the Christian life? And how can a Christian pursue focal practices if she doesn’t have a hearth to return to at the end of the day? No, the essential focal practices of the Christian will have to be something more, and maybe other, than the Roman ones. What are the necessary focal practices for a pilgrim people?