I have decided to take another paper that I wrote for my doctoral program and break it down into several parts for the blog. I have tried to make it a bit more readable – but it will likely still feel a bit academic. I hope, however, that it will cause people to think and start some robust conversations.
In light of my conviction that our sexual ethics must be reflected upon communally and enlivened in our interdependent lives together, acknowledging the reality of diversity in perspective is a critical factor in the development of my thought. The dissonance and lack of integrity and consistency in position is, I believe, eroding the capacity of Christians to think courageously and respond with confidence to our rapidly changing sexual landscape. In the midst of this uncertainty, the public witness to the life-transforming grace of Christ is distorted, particularly in the message to gender and sexual minority persons.
An ethics of generous spaciousness prioritizes a hermeneutic of justice and hospitality in engaging Scripture and tradition. Generous spaciousness views these as overarching themes of the biblical witness. Justice means that all people are treated equitably such that they are valued and extended dignity and respect. Hospitality means that all people are welcomed into the process of reflection, invited to listen, to discern, to wait, and to learn from others.
Generous spaciousness fearlessly opens discussion regarding the resources of reason through disciplines such as biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. In such discussion, it is acknowledged that there are competing ideas, theories, and interpretations concerning human sexuality. Such acknowledgement creates room for people to differ in their understanding of human sexuality.
Generous spaciousness acknowledges the pervasive role that experience plays in our ethical reflections. Our interaction with other sources, norms, and values is all filtered through the experience we bring to the table. Additionally, we have different experiences of sexuality, of identity, of relationship, of intimacy. Individual experiences are afforded equitable space, not compared or judged against another. There is room to listen for the presence of God in one another’s journeys.
Generous spaciousness acknowledges the patriarchy that pervades the Christian tradition. In corporate engagement with the Christian tradition, practices, norms and mores are considered in their historical context and critiqued in light of the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and there are no hierarchies of person in Jesus Christ.
It is clear, that an ethics of generous spaciousness interacts with these sources governed by a set of values. A primary value is the expectation that ethical reflection will be motivated and energized by love. This is in distinct contrast to reflection that is fueled by fear. Whether studying the scope of the biblical witness, engaging the Christian tradition, wading through the depth and complexity of resources through the academic disciplines, or carefully attending to personal experience, generous spaciousness consistently seeks to draw the community towards reflection that intentionally moves in a spirit of love towards God, oneself, and others. This love manifests itself in very practical ways. Love demonstrates to the other that we see and affirm their value and beauty. Love invests the time to understand what the other believes, why they believe it, how these beliefs are expressed, and why. Love enjoys others by intentionally seeking an authentic point of connection. Love empowers others, in a spirit of mutuality not condescension, in their search for meaning, understanding, and wholeness. Love invites trust and belonging risking the extension of trust and invitation to others. Love is willing to forgive. Each extension of love humanizes those with whom we enter into ethical reflection with. Fear dehumanizes. Love humanizes.
Generous spaciousness values the model of the incarnation as the way to wield power and influence others. Jesus stripped himself of his divine privilege. He emptied himself of his divine power. He chose the power of powerlessness. Ethical reflection in diverse communities values the suspension of privilege in order to experience equity in the discernment process. Voices have the opportunity to be heard regardless of age, gender, race, orientation, role or position. Humility is the preferred posture. Participants acknowledge the limitations of their interpretation of the sources and norms.
Generous spaciousness as a framework for ethical reflection in Christian community expects and relies on the Holy Spirit to guide the journey of discernment. Openness is cultivated as a sign of dependence on God’s leading. Waiting and silence are welcomed as spiritual practices essential to the reflection process.
Application to the Question of Gay Marriage:
It is clear that a framework of generous spaciousness for communal ethical reflection will be rejected by some in the Christian community. Those who refuse to suspend heteronormative privilege will find such a process problematic. Those who insist on biblical authority through proof-texting will find a hermeneutic of justice and hospitality intolerable. Those whose primary concern is to argue which behaviors are immoral and which are moral will find the relational priority of generous spaciousness a profound disconnect. Those who believe experience and spiritual discernment to be too subjective and therefore suspect will be wary of such a process.
Given the values that shape an ethics of generous spaciousness, will this simply exclude all those who hold a traditional view that contraindicates gay marriage? Is generous spaciousness ultimately exclusive despite inclusive language?
In this time of transition and change within the faith community in our struggle to articulate Christian sexual ethics, I believe generous spaciousness holds open an inclusive invitation for those who are willing to engage both their certainties and uncertainties. Generous spaciousness holds the opportunity to experience the suspension of patriarchal bias and heteronormative privilege in a safe environment of mutual respect. Generous spaciousness offers a non-anxious environment where deeply entrenched stereotypes and biases can be revealed and addressed. And generous spaciousness resists a coercive or uniform expectation of conviction.
In this process, a faith community can disagree about the role that gender plays in human reflection of the image of God; disagree about the causation of same-sex attraction; disagree about the permanence or fluidity of sexual orientation; and disagree about the best exegesis of particular texts referring to same-sex sexual activity. But an ethics of generous spaciousness, when applied to the question of gay marriage for Christians, will invite a diverse community to find common ground in its commitment to justice and hospitality; in opposition to patriarchal oppression; in promoting equitable treatment of all persons as having dignity and value; in postures of humility and openness to the Holy Spirit’s leading; and persevering in responding with love rather than fear. This ethical framework leaves room for unanswered questions and differences in perspective. But it nurtures unity in our diversity. An ethics of generous spaciousness acknowledges and welcomes the tension between the autonomy of the individual and the call of mutual connection, accountability, and respect in community.
In practical terms, an ethics of generous spaciousness will guide a community to welcome gay Christians who are married, gay Christians who choose celibacy, and gay Christians in mixed-orientation marriages. An ethics of generous spaciousness will remind a community to demonstrate love and justice for all across differences. A sexual ethics of generous spaciousness will create space for individuals to experience intimate relationships that are mutually respectful, self-giving, humanizing for both partners, and committed to honouring the promises and commitments that have been made. The community will encourage individuals and couples to continue to grow in discernment, mature love, and the commitment to foster justice in and beyond their intimate relationship. Commitment in the community will ensure that disagreements about gender will not manifest through misuse of power. Such disagreements will be framed through exploratory dialogue, ongoing listening, and humble acceptance of plurality in understanding.
Reflection on sexual ethics in our Christian communities must remain open to development, refinement and reformation. An ethics of generous spaciousness is a framework for a church in a time of transition and change. It nurtures space for the individual to wrestle with God and the sources of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. It draws individuals into community where we recognize our interdependence and the impact of our choices and decisions about our sexual lives. It moves communities forward on the road to equity and justice while avoiding coerced uniformity in understanding. Generous spaciousness recognizes that sexual ethics must be greater than particular black and white, yes or no questions. It embodies justice for all.