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:
Many Christians from both Catholic and Protestant traditions have inherited a theology of sexuality that is constructed from a creation order starting point. The primary focus of such a starting point is the differentiation between male and female. The concept of complementary persons coming together in one flesh union as part of the mystery of humans imaging God is an inherent core in this theological system. Such an understanding is supported by reflection on the Genesis creation accounts, and as we see in “Theology of Body” strengthened by Jesus’ assertion of the implications of these narratives in his response to questions about divorce. This theological understanding has served the church well through many generations where the dominant theological emphasis fit the experience of the majority of people.
As the voices of those on the margins, whose experience of both gender and sexuality differ from the majority experience, are increasingly heard, there has been much strife and turmoil within the church. Where a theology of sexuality constructed on the binary of male and female is upheld as the only authoritative way to assess the questions from those on the margins, there is little room for accommodation of grace for diverse experience. Because it is often so threatening to conceive of things from a different starting point, alternative theologies can be caricaturized as simply “twisting Scripture to make it say what you want it to say”. Indeed, if one starting point is viewed as the only authoritative way to engage Scripture, then any alternative reading is suspect. Often, the result is to not only seek to disprove and discredit such readings, but also at times to demonize those who promote a different interpretive framework.
This polarity and enmity, however, is eroding the integrity of the unity of the Body of Christ. It is destroying our witness in a pluralistic, post-Christian, and LGBTQ-positive culture. And it is alienating the population of people who do not fit binary categories of male or female or heterosexual.
By raising the critique of a singular focus on the Genesis narratives to construct a theology of sexuality, I am not seeking to discount this as a valid theological starting point. Rather, by considering the implications of some of the historical and biological findings that point to the potential that the Genesis narrative is literary rather than literal, my hope is to demonstrate that it is important to at least open the possibility that we may need the resources from alternative starting points in the construction of a theology of sexuality that remains faithfully engaged with the Biblical story and yet is enlarged in its capacity to address our current contextual realities.
The deconstruction of social categories of gender and sexuality raise many concerns for Christians. However, when we are willing to consider the largeness of God, the ways his movement towards us is based not on binary gender categories, but on the overflow of self-giving love, we may discover a generous spaciousness in which we can hear the encounters and engagement with God of those on the margins. In humility and with a non-anxious commitment to listen, we may find stories of fecundity and creative fruitfulness beyond that of procreation that are obviously promoting justice and shalom in a needy and hurting world.
A creation order starting point will almost certainly view a covenanted same-sex relationship as inconsistent with the witness of Scripture. Because of the emphasis on the complementary nature of male and female, this is essentially built into the foundation on which they construct their theology of sexuality. A Trinitarian / Incarnational starting point emphasizes the relational, self-giving love of the Father, Son and Spirit as the foundation for a theology of sexuality. Such a starting point does not necessarily see a covenanted same-sex relationship as intrinsically inconsistent with the manner in which human beings are to image God in their intimate relationships.
Both starting points find their basis in Scripture. Both seek to engage Scripture with a commitment to its authoritative place in our theological reflections. The apostle Paul reminds us that we are members of one Body, but that different parts of the Body have different functions. These parts of the Body may seem to be at odds, but that does not mean they are not part of the same body. In fact, we need these different parts of the Body, these different starting points, to sharpen and challenge one another. But, such sharpening and challenging should be done in a spirit that recognizes our interconnectedness. Often, the debate seems more intent on amputating part of the Body that is articulating insights and invitations that are different than the implications of another view. Amputation hurts the whole body. But where we can grow in listening to one another, in a spirit of humility, we can nurture a more generous spaciousness where we are all challenged to grow in maturity. We do well to remember that we are caught up in the overflow of the self-giving love of God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. In his life, we are called to work towards justice and shalom for the creation he loves. “When Paul in Galatians 3: 28 says that in the new perspective of the Jesus movement the usual hostile divisions between males and females, between Greeks and Jews, between slaves and masters are rejected and dissolved, we hear a new symphony, a fresh song of joy, that promises a new heaven and a new earth marked by justice and peace.”
Alan Jones reminds us of the tension we live in regarding our sexuality, the potential for unhelpful extremes, and the foundational reality that all of these questions are ultimately made right through our primary identity in Jesus Christ. “The key to human identity is not our sexuality as such but is our relationship to Christ through the Holy Spirit. The most real thing about us is our baptism, not our sexual identity or lack of it. Sexuality itself is an inexhaustible symbol. Maleness and femaleness partake of mystery and are the means, the sacraments, of our self-transcendence. Human sexuality needs redeeming like everything else. Without the gospel, the medicine of immortality, our sexuality is a tragic gift. It participates in nothing but the inexorable journey to corruption: the cycle of dung and death. Without the gospel we are prey to a despairing biological determinism on the one hand, or an androgyny which denies the glorious mystery of sexual differentiation, on the other.”
In the midst of these extremes, biological determinism and androgyny, live real human beings who were created to image God in self-giving relationships of love. For some of these human beings, rigid categories cannot encompass the complexity of their reality. As the church wrestles to move forward faithfully, we do well to recognize that different starting points in engaging Scripture can mean diverse conclusions on the manner of faithful discipleship for those on the gender and sexual margins. Recognizing such diversity in constructing a theology of sexuality can remind us that we are part of a large, diverse Body. We have different functions. But we need one another. And in Christ, even such diversity can find unity and a shared identity.
Daniel C. Maguire. “Men, Male Myths, and Metanoia” in Body and Soul: Rethinking Sexuality as Justice Love ed. M. Ellison S. Thorson-Smith (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press 2003) p.176
Alan Jones. “Male and Female He Created Them” Anglican Theological Review 57 no 4 O 1975, p 434