At an academic conference not too long ago, I delivered a paper on St. Paul’s view of marriage and celibacy. In my paper, I took Paul’s side, extolling his vision of marriage and celibacy as interlocking, mutually reinforcing Christian vocations. On the one hand, I said, marriage can be a melody hummed by any pedestrian Christian couple that still calls to mind the full grandeur of the symphony of Christ’s love for the Church. Likewise, the Christian celibate can bear witness to that same love. By giving up the solace of an earthly spouse and the prospect of birthing heirs, the celibate gestures with her very body to a future time when “they neither marry nor are given in marriage . . . because they are equal to angels” (Luke 20:35, 36).
Afterwards, during the question and answer period, an audience member asked me how I would integrate the statement of Paul, or perhaps a later Pauline disciple, to the effect that women will be saved through bearing children (1 Timothy 2:15). Was such a verse to be read as denigrating the celibate life? Ormore troublinglywas it suggesting that women must have children in order to receive eternal life? Unperturbed, I rattled off the same answer I sometimes hastily give to my students who ask about that passage. “Perhaps the verse is speaking about the childbearingthat is to say, the Birth of the Child, Jesus,” I offered. “Or maybe ‘childbearing’ is a placeholder for a wide range of faithful behaviors”Luther’s omne officium, or all acts of Christian calling“and the verse isn’t asking to be read too woodenly as if it were singling out one particular action.” A few minutes later the session ended, and I didn’t think much else about it.
Until the next morning. Woken early by the children in my friends’ house where I was staying, I eventually hoisted myself out of bed and wished that I could scrub the bloodshot, along with the sleep, out of my eyes. A few minutes later I was sitting across the table from one of my friends, the children’s mother, watching comforting steam twining its way upwards from a mug of coffee and asking her how she managed to be awake at this hour every day. Her answerI was surprised to hearinvolved theology.
“When you answered that question about 1 Timothy 2:15 yesterday after giving your paper, I was sitting there in the audience thinking, ‘No! That’s not the right answer!” she said to me, with mock frustration. “That verse is about what every mother of young children wants to know, which is, Can I be saved in this childbearing? Can I find salvation here, in the muck and mess and moments of joy in the daily grind of mothering? That’s the question I think St. Paul wanted to answer.”
Whether that counts as good exegesis of Paul struck me, in that moment, as beside the point. Regardless of the situation in first-century Ephesus, my friend was asking about the meaning of herand by extension, other mothers’salvation in her present. It’s the same question the British feminist theologian Janet Martin Soskice once pinpointed with special acuteness and urgency:
Is the busy new mother a sort of Christian ‘on idle’? Will others carry on seeking God’s face while you spend eight or ten or twelve years distracted by the cares of home? Is this the ‘Martha’ phase of life when you run the crèche and make the tea, while the real work of attending to God is elsewhere? Not surprisingly, many new mothers feel slightly bitter about this state of affairs. . . . What we want is a monk who finds God while cooking a meal with one child clamouring for a drink, another who needs a bottom wiped, and a baby throwing up over his shoulder.
There are, of course, resources in the tradition to suggest prayer can survive or even flourish in the pressure cooker of mundane life. Brother Lawrence, most famously, perhaps, talked with God while peeling potatoes. But my friend’s question was, I think, deeper and less susceptible of a straightforward answer than that. Might the promise of 1 Timothy 2:15, she wondered, be not only that salvation can be found in spite of the chaos of life with small children but rather in the midst of itin, with, and under it, somehow?
A couple of days later I hugged my friends goodbye and drove back home. On the drive, I listened to an audio recording of a theology lecture. I planned in my head the next day’s class at the seminary where I teach, mulling over what exercise I could assign. I prayed over my meals at the rest stops along the highway and in silence in the car. I debated the Sunday homily I’d heard with my fellow conference presenter who was carpooling with me. It was a theologically satisfying roadtrip.
When I arrived at home, I felt distracted, harried, mentally and emotionally shaky. The last several weeks’ travel had displaced my equilibrium. When one of my housemates suggested we have a leisurely dinner to catch up, I tried to forestall any expectations, replying by text message that I could only spare an hour before I had to get back to grading papers.
Then another housemate sat down next to me. He asked me questions. He told me about his day. He helped me do dishes. Insistently, and simply by his physical presence, without any verbal articulation of what he was doing or why, he asked me to notice him, to talk with him and listen to him. At that moment, I didn’t especially want to. I wanted to get back to workto get back to preparing tomorrow’s theology lesson, to get back to the theological novel I would read after closing the computer with my file of lecture notes. It only dawned on me later that perhaps this was, in my childless state, my analogue to being saved “through childbearing.”
Calvin’s gloss on 1 Timothy 2:15 speaks of the reference to childbearing, with its concomitant gestures to “faith and love and holiness, with modesty,” as indicating “in what way God conducts us to salvation, to which he has appointed us through his grace.” These children, in other words, in these daily circumstances, are the path on which we are led to receive our spiritual rescue. Soskice again: “It is by being at the disposal of another that we are characteristically drawn out of ourselves.” We are saved, that is, by traversing the way of what Iris Murdoch has called the “extremely difficult realisation that someone other than oneself is real.” We are saved in and through such patient attention, not outside of it or beyond it. Perhaps we are saved in the early mornings, as the coffee cools, as well as in the lecture halls and carpools.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.