I have decided to take one of the papers 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:
What’s Your Starting Point ….. in developing your theology of sexuality:
Debates about human sexuality within the church have left a lot of damage in their wake. Internally, churches have experienced the pain of division and fractured unity. Ongoing polarity has eroded trust and the capacity to engage with one another humbly and generously. In some cases, Christians judge one another’s salvation on the basis of their particular perspectives on sexuality.
Such enmity has deeply painful consequences. The witness of the church to a watching world is compromised by our internal strife. Many people feel alienated from the church because of their perception of the church’s response to matters of sexuality. In particular, sexual minority persons legitimately question whether the church could be a safe place for them to explore or wrestle with their questions about faith, spirituality, and their sexuality.
In the midst of such turmoil, it is critical to explore ways the church might recover a sense of unity in the reality of diverse perspectives on sexuality. Given that the authority of Scripture is used as both a defence of a particular position and an attack against an opposing position, might we find in our use of Scripture a place to experience common ground together? The Anglican Archbishop from South Africa says, “What is important is the recognition that authority implies relationship and is a dynamic process rather than a static rule. That this is so is evidenced by the changing attitudes towards all forms of authority (both ecclesiastical and secular) in the past twenty years.” If the authority of Scripture was embraced as a dynamic process, enlivened by the Holy Spirit in each particular time and place, could we become more generous in our capacity to listen to how those who differ from us are engaging with the text?
The idea that two persons who claim faith in Christ and high regard for the Scriptures can come to different conclusions on a question such as, “What does faithful discipleship look like for a same-sex oriented Christian?” can seem to be very difficult for some to accept. The reality, however, is that on the basis of their engagement with primarily Scripture, supported by the interpretive resources of tradition, reason, and experience, followers of Christ come to different perspectives on many different questions of doctrine and conduct.
In the book, “The Embrace of Eros: Bodies, Desires and Sexuality in Christianity”, David Jensen says, “What does the Bible say about sex?” many Christians ask. This seemingly simple question yields anything but a simple answer. The Bible says many sometimes conflicting things about sex, so in some regards this is the wrong question to be asking. Christians ought to first ask, “What is the character of the book we call Scripture?” This idea of the character of the book of Scripture can be viewed in different ways. Some consider the Bible to be a guidebook for sexual behaviour. Their engagement with Scripture on the matter of sexuality is primarily to mine the clear prohibitions regarding sexual activity and to articulate the general principles that guide godly sex. Others may view Scripture as “insufficient, outmoded, or oppressive” on matters of sexuality. In this case, Scripture is engaged with a hermeneutic of suspicion that seeks to deconstruct patriarchy and hierarchy. This view critiques Scripture’s lack of erotic justice. A third assessment on the character of Scripture is that it needs to be received through a narrative framework. A narrative framework prioritizes opening the imagination to what God is revealing about himself. It also opens the possibility to consider this powerful gift he has given humanity through our sexuality in both the texts that address sexual matters and those texts that do not explicitly address sexuality.
Within these different views, there can be different emphases and starting points. The first of two common starting points is creation order. This approach begins with the Genesis narratives of the creation account and emphasizes the complementary creation of the human race through the male and female binary. This complementary relation of male and female builds the foundation for their theology of sexuality.
A second approach emphasizes the Trinitarian nature of God and specifically develops a theology of sexuality through the implications of the Incarnation. This approach will not have the same emphasis on the complementary role of biological sex or gender, but will prioritize the relational nature of God and the outpouring of self-giving love based not on need but on desire, and connect the image of God in humanity to these characteristics.
Unlike many of the debates over human sexuality, I am not trying to propose that one starting point is correct and the other incorrect or that one starting point honours the authority of Scripture while the other fails to do so. Rather, I want to demonstrate that the human interpretive process is always open to critique regardless of the starting point. In our differences in theological starting point, we need the humility to acknowledge the limitations and critiques of our preferred point of reference and be willing to engage the insights and reflections from alternative starting points. Such a process of “iron sharpening iron” will enrich our journey of creating a theology of sexuality that can breathe life into our current contextual realities.
The creation order starting point is illustrated particularly significantly in two works that have proven formational in the Catholic and Evangelical communities respectively.
Arguably the most influential piece of writing with a creation order priority is, “Theology of the Body”, written by Pope John Paul II. He begins by tying Jesus’ discourse with the Pharisees around the question of divorce with the accounts in Genesis. It was the Pope’s position that the Genesis accounts are the basis for any faithful anthropology or theology of sexuality. He says, “Following the narrative of Genesis, we have seen that the “definitive” creation of man consists in the creation of the unity of two beings. Their unity denotes above all the identity of human nature; their duality, on the other hand, manifests what on the basis of this identity, constitutes the masculinity and femininity of created man.” “The fundamental fact of human existence at every stage of its history is that God “created them male and female.” He always creates them in this way and they are always such.” He infers the unacceptability of deconstructing of these binary categories when he says under the heading “Man and Woman: A Gift for Each Other” , “The opposite of this “welcoming” or “acceptance” of the other human being as gift would be a privation of the gift itself. Therefore, it would be a changing and even a reduction of the other to an “object for myself” (an object of lust, of misappropriation etc.).”
For the evangelical community in Canada, Stanley Grenz’ book, “Sexual Ethics” has been a trust-worthy guide in the tumultuous cultural landscape. In his chapter, “Male and Female: The Nature of Human Sexuality”, Grenz states, “Sexuality refers to our fundamental existence as male and female.”; “Sexuality comprises all aspects of the human person that are related to existence as male and female.”; and “Sexuality is a powerful, deep, and mysterious aspect of our being. It constitutes a fundamental distinction between the two ways of being human (i.e. as male or female).” Additionally, he states, “Genesis 1: 27 declares, “male and female he created them.” There is simply no other way to be created human, to exist as a human being, except as an embodied person. And embodiment means existence as a sexual being, as male or female.”
The creation order starting point that is developed in both “Theology of the Body” and Grenz’s “Sexual Ethics” constructs a fundamentally heteronormative sexual ethics. This is clear when Grenz addresses the matter of homosexuality. He says, “For Paul, then, the only proper model of sexual relations is that patterned after the creation story in Genesis 1-2. In keeping with the injunctions of the Holiness Code, Paul concludes that this model is natural, for it alone was instituted by the Creator. Homosexual relations, whether between men or women, are against nature, because they are contrary to the pattern placed within creation itself.” He further argues, “The application to the sex act is obvious. Sexual intercourse is intended to convey the union of two persons in their entirety as two sexual beings: the two becoming one. For this meaning to be fully expressed, the physical act itself must be one whereby the dialectic of sameness and difference is taken up into a union. This occurs when each of the partners contributes himself or herself in entirety, so that this contribution results in a uniting of the two into a supplementary union.” For Grenz, the creation narratives lay out a blueprint for human bonding that is ordered by the differentiation of male and female.
The implications of a creation order starting point can be seen in this statement, “We are not just human beings. We are male and female human beings, and everything about us — our role, drives, impulses, sources of satisfaction, sense of identity, relationships, the whole social order — is in significant measure determined by this biological fact. Tamper with sexual differentiation, deny it, and you invite the whirlwind. You can’t fool Mother Nature.”
Next post: A Challenge to the Creation Order Starting Point
Eliot Fremont-Smith, New York Magazine, 7 January 1974.