What’s your Starting Point? Part 3

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:

Read Part 1 and Part 2

A Trinitarian and Incarnational Foundation for Sexuality:

Unlike a creation order starting point that focuses on the complementary nature of male and female as the foundation for a theology of sexuality, Trinitarian theology is focused on the relational nature of the Godhead.  Existing in eternal, self-giving love, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit created the world out of the overflow of their love.  “Because God is an internal community within God’s very being, this collapses the usual difference between the self and the other (that is, otherness as being “external” to one’s self).  Thus, God consists of both the “self” and the other.”[1]  This love is described as perichoresis which is a profoundly intimate interpenetration of three persons.  Trinitarian theology provides a rich foundation from which to envision a radical love that dwells within the communion of persons.

C. Baxter Kruger is a contemporary Trinitarian theologian.  He says, “In sheer grace, the Triune God decided not to hoard the Trinitarian life and glory, but to share it with us, to lavish it upon us.  Why this is so, why God is this way, why the Father, Son and Spirit set the fullness of their love and lavish grace upon us and determined such a glorious destiny for us, can only be answered by peering into the mutual love of the Father and Son and Spirit.  For in one way or another, the existence of everything, not least of every human being, finds its purpose in the deep and abiding love of the Triune God.  That circle of love, that circle of intimacy and togetherness and fellowship, that circle of purity and mutual delight and eternal wholeness, is the matrix, the roux, of all divine thought and activity.”[2]  The lavishness and intimacy of Kruger’s language demonstrates the kind of foundation that Trinitarian theology can offer for the construction of a theology of sexuality.  There is no talk of complementary ontology.  Rather, within this generous relational experience of God humans are invited to participate where self-giving is given primacy as the attribute of this love.  While a creation order starting point might argue that true self-giving is tied to procreation, and that the ultimate expression of God’s self-giving love within the Trinity  resulted in the creation of the world, it can be argued that fecundity can be experienced in many ways, not only in the giving birth to children.

God is not gendered.  He transcends the categories of gender.  While the persons of the Trinity may be described with male pronouns for Father and Son and female pronouns for the Holy Spirit, the Godhead is not limited by gender categories.  Gavin D’Costa draws on the theology of Hans von Balthasar who conceived of each person of the Trinity as both act and pure receptivity.  D’Costa then suggests that each of the three persons of the Trinity is “simultaneously supramasculine and suprafeminine in its own giving and receiving, which spills forth into the universe.”[3]  Such Trinitarian views challenge the necessity of binary gender roles in our experiences of covenant intimacy.

The Trinity can be described by the notion of perichoresis and the mutual interpenetration of three distinct persons who become one in their union.  Some queer theologians challenge the gender binary of male-female heterosexuality as the only way to image God by suggesting that the interpenetration of three persons of the Trinity would actually, if taken literally, imply that humans should image God through a polyamorous union of two males and a female (given that the Father and Son are most often associated with male pronouns while there is the tradition of wisdom and Sophia that may lend a feminine identity to the Spirit).  The point is not to force this kind of literal application, but rather, the point is to suggest a more generous way of imagining the human potential to image God through our self-giving relationships.  The intimacy and relationship that is longed for ought not to be reduced nor focused upon a genitalized sex act.  Rather, by reflecting on the perichoresis of the Trinity we are invited to imagine a generous, fully trusting, fully knowing, relational intimacy that is beautiful and wondrous in its purity and lack of defensive self-protection.

The Incarnation of the Son can be described as coinherence where two ousias (natures) indwell the one person.  The Incarnation is the mysterious enfleshment of the divine in the person of Jesus Christ.  Out of the overflow of love of the Trinity came the gift of Incarnation wherein the Son would assume the nature of a human being.  Philippians 2 describes it vividly, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”[4]

Body theology has arisen from reflection on the significance of the Incarnation.  “Body theologians maintain that the incarnation is a sign and revelation of the way that God works generally – in and through bodies….. An embodied theology relocates salvation in and through the body.  Our alienation from our bodies is healed and we experience the saving grace of God within them.  It is the discovery of ourselves as we are, as bodies.  Grace to become enfleshed, this is the message of the incarnation, and it reaches out to us through other fleshly creatures.”[5]

One of the noted scholars in body theology is James Nelson.  In his book, “Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology” Nelson addresses two key dualisms that infiltrate many Christian perspectives on sexuality.  The first is the anti-body dualism that separates body and soul and views the body as a temporary vessel.  The second is the male / female dualism which is developed as the view that male and female have fundamental differences, sometimes even understood to be opposite to one another.  Often connected to this is the notion that maleness is superior.[6]  Nelson deconstructs both of these dualisms.  Body theology formed from an Incarnational starting point clearly draws very different conclusions than that of a creation order starting point that particularly emphasis the distinctiveness of male and female.

Another aspect of Incarnational body theology is to explore the ways that the experiences of our sexuality help us to understand God.  In an essay that focuses specifically on women’s sexuality as an invitation to see God in new ways, Rebecca Todd Peters says, “If we start with women’s bodily experience of sexuality as a window into the divine, its very mutability can offer insight into redefining the way we think about God/ess.  Opening up our understanding of God/ess to the possibility of change can resonate profoundly with men as well as women.”[7]  Peters goes on to contrast a male-centric theology of God that tends to emphasize control and order with a willingness to look at the stories of God who wrestles with humans, negotiates with humans, and changes his mind in engagement with humans.  Women’s sexuality, and indeed sexuality in general, can help us to reimagine and have a much larger and richer sense of God.  Peters says, “A God/ess open to change, vulnerability, and partnership exercises a non-traditional form of power rooted in relationality and reciprocity.  These, then, can become the moral ground for ethical behavior in the world, including sexual behavior.”[8]  This idea of the power of powerlessness is, at its core, confirmed in the Incarnation.  The Incarnation reminds us that God took on human flesh in Jesus Christ.  He took on the entire human experience in a way that transcends the binary of male / female. HeH

However, to even invite such theological reflection can be profoundly threatening to those who are accustomed to having built a theological system around an unconscious sense of God as male and theological order resting on very definitive separation between male and female.  Peters says, “The accusation of pagan worship is levied against feminist, womanist, mujerista, and other liberationist theologians whenever they explore female images and embodiments of the divine.  The strategy of the right wing has been to obfuscate meaningful theological efforts to reexamine God language and moral norms for sexual behavior by quoting people and ideas out of context and by playing on people’s fears of change and difference.  The fact that the terms “homosexuality” and “goddess worship” have become lightning rods for conservative and fundamentalist factions of mainline churches is not coincidental.  Changes in these two areas of theo-ethical discourse – language about God and sexuality – will require an enormous paradigm shift.”[9]  The potential richness of theological imagination that is opened through these pathways of reflection ought not to be ignored because it is threatening.  Like everything in theological reflection, there needs to be testing, discernment, and searching of the Scriptures.  However, to outright refuse to engage on the basis of predetermined binary constructs seems to enlarge the potential for an impoverished and increasingly rigid engagement with God.

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott stretches the boundaries even further in her focus on transgender realities.  She points to the work of an evangelical biologist, Edward L. Kessel, who draws out the biological implications of the virgin birth.  She says, “All parthenogenetic (virgin) births result in offspring with two X-chromosomes.  Because Jesus apparently underwent a sex reversal to a male phenotype (as sometimes occurs in parthenogenesis), he appeared to function as a normal male.  However, if the Scriptural account is to be read literally, then the fact is that Jesus was chromosomally female all his life.  By this interpretation, Jesus is not a male Savior, but an intersexual Savior; so that even from a biological perspective, women “resemble Christ” just as closely as men, and transgenderists resemble Her/Him most of all!”[10]

While such thought might seem to be nearly, if not completely, blasphemous to many Christians who hold a traditional, creation order view, stretching such boundaries helps to expose how gendered much theology is.  Today there is much consensus that a sense of appropriate gender is socially constructed and that the concepts around gender evolve and change throughout the course of history and culture.  Theology that can transcend these constructs of gender may reveal a God that we cannot easily control to fit our boxes.  Interpretive engagement with Scripture that risks different starting points and different emphasis can enrich our journey with God.   David Carr reminds us, “One might argue that such untamability is a problem, that we must find some way to stabilize interpretation so that it will yield a single meaning from the Bible. Yet I would argue the contrary. It is precisely the multi-voiced, untamable character of texts like Genesis that has served divergent faith communities through the ages.  Not only is the text itself untamable, but interpreters—especially in the present (post)modern period—can be counted on to expand that untamability by reading it in varied ways.”[11]

Trinitarian / Incarnational theological starting points can introduce new levels of generous spaciousness into the conversations about sexuality.  Because such starting points help us to transcend a fixation on the complementary nature of male / female, they can provide a wonderful opportunity to expand our Spirit-shaped imaginations as we consider how to best navigate questions of discipleship for sexual minority persons.

Next Post:  Concluding Reflections