By Jillian Farmer
The phone rang. My dad tearfully explained that he and mom had separated and would be getting divorced. I was devastated, shocked and overwhelmed. My parents’ 34-year marriage was ending.
As a seminary student I’ve been in several classes that explored divorce. Up till now it’s been a topic I’ve been able to discuss from a purely ethical, theological or pastoral standpoint.
As my personal theology of divorce developed through these classes, I agreed with my professors as they stressed the importance of grace, forgiveness and the presence of Christ in divorce. But I also saw it as clearly not part of God’s plan; a sad mistake that too many couples make, and something that is avoidable with hard work and dedication.
But now, watching my parents re-build their lives separately and seeing how deep their heartbreak goes, I realize how ignorant I was. I now realize what my ethics professor means when he says that it’s easy to have an opinion about something that has never happened to you. It’s harder to look at that issue the same way after you’ve been touched by it.
The neat theology formed in the safety of my seminary classrooms is clashing with the reality of my life. I’m no longer a safe distance from this issue; I’m living it. For the first time, my theology and reality are not matching up. The paradigm on which I have based huge portions of my life and faith has been yanked out from under me, and I am lost.
My years of higher education are no match for the weird limbo in which I find myself. My previous way of thinking, that casual dismissal of divorce, no longer works. I have to find a new way, a new paradigm, a new theology — a theology that takes the reality of my situation into account and answers the questions that jumble on top of one another.
— Jesus speaks on divorce multiple times and says that it is only okay in cases of adultery. So is that the answer? I’m not a literalist but how do you argue something that seems so clear?
— If we can interpret Jesus’ words in a different way, how do we go about applying these interpretations?
— If we take Jesus’ words literally, are we then requiring people to stay in abusive marriages? What about marriages completely devoid of commitment or love? Would Jesus have really wanted those unions to continue?
— Adultery didn’t end my parents’ marriage, other mistakes did. Does that make their divorce more sinful?
— How am I supposed to deal with this? How do I form a new theology when I didn’t know the old one was broken? How much of my theology needs fixing?
I don’t have the answers, and I’m not sure I ever will, but they are honest questions. Questions that might help other people who are also struggling, and questions that hopefully invite in the grace such a difficult time cries out for. Questions that might help form the new paradigm, the new theology my life and faith require.
I have no idea what this theology will be, because the hurt is still too fresh. I know that I will never be able think about divorce as someone else’s problem again. It will never be something that happens to those people, over there, because they made mistakes.
The reality of my dad’s phone call has removed my ability to be a passive witness to divorce. Now it is part of my life. It will shape my faith and the kind of minister I become.