What Is the Family?

WHAT IS THE FAMILY?:  RELIGIOUS AND ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES (Harvard Divinity School, Fall 2006 and Fall 2004)

Debates over traditional marriage, gay marriage, and “family values” have prompted new questions about the nature, form, function, and diversity of family structures in contemporary society. After a survey of influential philosophical, theological, and political writings on the family in the West, this seminar will turn its attention to recent discussions of the family in religion, ethics, law, and the social sciences. Readings will examine issues of courtship, cohabitation, and divorce; motherhood, fatherhood, and gender in the heterosexual family; marriages, families, and parenting practices of gays and lesbians; calls for the recognition of polyamorous and polygamous relationships; distinctive pressures on African-American families; and economic pressures on family life.  While primarily Western, Christian, and American in our emphasis, we will, from time to time, turn our attention to comparative and cross-cultural topics in order to understand the ways in which the family issues are increasingly global concerns.

Related: “Family’s Changing Terrain,” 34:2-3 Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Spring/Summer 2007): 85-88.


“The course contributes to my overall academic engagement in this place. Well understood and contributes a lot to my future goal. Fascinating, interesting and relevant in the global age. “‘What Is the Family?’ is needed by all.”

 “Central to my interests in doctoral work. Interesting, useful in personal and public/intellectual life, important social issue of our time.  It is applicable and important to everyone.”

 “My main interest is family theology and ethics and Green’s courses have been very helpful. Family and ethics and religion and law and history came together in relevant and important ways in our reading and discussion. So helpful to become aware of these issues and viewpoints and struggle to think about them together.”

 “Useful because I am interested in the state of the American family today.  It compels us to examine the state of the American family.”

“I think this is a crucial topic for anyone doing ministry and an interesting lens through which to view social justice concerns, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality.”

 “I’m convinced that understanding family is key to a fuller understanding of any religious tradition.  Family = a big deal in Protestant fundamentalism.”

  “As an ordained pastor, I need this class for my ministerial work. Everybody should know about the basic unit of the society.”

“Extremely interesting and important topics.”