Saturday, 13 June 2009

Why sex tells you nothing about what it means to be human

Halden posts a superb quote from Rowan Williams’ essay, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (1997), pp. 25-26:

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the NT eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”

And in a follow-up post, Halden raises some critical questions about Karl Barth’s idea (he might also have mentioned John Paul II) that sexual differentiation is the defining feature of our humanness, the key that unlocks the door to human identity. Halden concludes with the provocative statement: “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness” – since Jesus himself did not participate in any of these experiences.

There’s a storm of comments responding to Halden’s post – but personally, I think he’s absolutely right. In this connection, I think more Christians would benefit from reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (1976). Foucault overturns the historical myth that we are liberating ourselves from a period of sexual “repression”; on the contrary, one of the central themes of modernity is the idea that we must constantly speak about our sexuality. By analysing our own sexuality, we believe we will finally discover the deep secret truth of our humanness. Foucault’s argument shows that we are obsessed not with sex itself (as a physical act), but with “the truth of sex” – with the idea that sex is a revelation of truth. Thus we form sexual sub-cultures; we worry about the ever-more-precise definition of all our sexual habits and preferences (just look at the amazing proliferation of technical sexual terminology since the 19th century); we constantly think about our sexuality; we write about it incessantly; we “confess” our sexual secrets and peculiarities to counsellors and psychoanalysts; we have never been fully honest about ourselves until we have given utterance to our sexuality. (A fascinating example of this is the way biographers assume that the sexual life of their subjects will disclose the deep secret truth about who they “really” are.)

As the passage above from Rowan Williams indicates, our assumptions about the revelatory character of sex are so deeply ingrained that we simply assume (against all evidence) that the New Testament writers were also preoccupied with questions about the meaning of sex, or that they must have some answers to our own pressing questions about sex.

I think this can be especially hard for Christians to grasp, since a very deep part of our moral formation has been the belief that human identity is ultimately wrapped up in the suburban bliss of family life. (On which, see the TV series Mad Men...) This is also why our churches are often so strangely inhospitable to “single” (read: pre-married) people. We simply can’t really believe that these people are fully formed human beings. And so we treat them with all the sympathy or suspicion or indifference that their estate demands; our charity might even compel us to subject them to the peculiar indignity of a “singles” social event, all in the hope that the bright truth of sex will at last dawn in their dark lives.

So what’s the upshot of all this? For one thing, I think Christians ought to take much more seriously the category of friendship, while thinking a good deal more critically about the unbridled theologisation of marriage and the so-called “family unit”. Is it at least possible that the idle carefree banter of friendship might tell us more about “what it means to be human” than any anxious confession of one’s darkest sexual longings or secrets? Might friendship itself – so lacking in anxiety, so free and undemanding – provide a much-needed critique of our culture’s profound sexual anxiety, an anxiety which is simply part and parcel of the dubious (and ultimately theological) doctrine that the truth of our humanness is disclosed in the truth of sex?


Jane said...

Thank you very much for this post, very useful. I'll tweet it.

saint egregious said...

I need to be brief:
1. Foucault is right
2. America is obsessed with sex in all the wrong ways and god of family values is a mess.
3. Celibacy can be very very good as Jesus models.

4. If you think that sexual intimacy is not a 'hiding place for transcendence' you're just not doing it right!
All of the created order strains for God, including the sexual arena. Sarah Coakley is very good on this, as Kim has noted. So this one-sided reading above is dangerous, I think.
We do need to recover a healthy theology of sexuality. Not Driscoll (let his words on this subject be anathema!) but more like Coakley and Williams of "The Body's Grace"
I also fear that saying we talk about sex too much can be a strategy of repressing the voices of gays and lesbians in the church who are fighting for full inclusion. "We've heard enough about all this God and sex stuff. Why are you 'americans' so obsessed with it.' That's the very opposite of the theological integrity Williams champions, but I am afraid I see more than enough of it in my circles.

Lee said...

I'm not quite sure what to make of the language of "ultimate significance," but are we supposed to infer that if Jesus didn't experience something then it tells us nothing important about humanity? That seems like asking too much--that all the important or interesting stuff about being human must be squeezed into one human life. Why not say that Jesus's celibacy was part and parcel of his vocation--thus demonstrating celibacy to be a good under certain circumstances--without making the further claim that sexuality tells us nothing important about humanity?

Anonymous said...

I think that we need to be cautious not to do the converse of what you're saying we've done. That is we need to be cautious not to downplay the importance of sexuality and marriage as well.

I agree fully that a person who is called to a life of singleness can be an image bearer just as fully as a person called to marriage. However, I also think that a person called to marriage IS somehow incomplete until they reach that point. Just as anyone living outside their vocation is somehow incomplete.

And yes... American's worship sex, even within the church.

chris said...

I agree with Lee. Jesus did not teach that his exact way of life was to be mimicked anymore than Paul meant that his way of life was to be mimicked. This is silly.

myleswerntz said...

"ubridled theologization of marriage"...

As one about to be married in a week, and as a theologian, I've been shocked at how little substantive theology has been written about marriage. I've found myself turning again to Bonhoeffer's Prison writings, but there remains a paucity of good theology on marriage.

Ben Myers said...

Lee and Chris, you rightly note that "Jesus did not teach that his exact way of life was to be mimicked". But this post isn't actually about whether we should mimic Jesus' celibacy (I'm married myself, and I like it very much). The question here is a specific theological one: what does it mean to be human? And where is the truth of our humanness disclosed?

Karl Barth and John Paul II present different variations of the argument that sexuality is the clue to understanding our humanity. Halden and I are saying instead that Jesus is the clue to understanding our humanity: and this means that "the truth of sex" (as Foucault calls it) can't occupy centre-stage for theological anthropology.

Phil Sumpter said...

surely theologising on this issues needs to take into account the Old Testament and not just the fact of Jesus' singeleness. Sexuality seems fairly ingrained to me as a fundamental element of our identities. Jesus himself says that those called to celibacy need a special gift from God to be able to do it.

Anyway, that's my gut response for the day.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Ben in common with some others here I'd like to thank you for the post (the Williams quote is especially fine) while at the same time maintaining that it's a bit one-sided. That `"the truth of sex" ... can't occupy centre-stage for theological anthropology' is well-put. But Halden's quote, which you rightly characterise as provocative: is it reasonable? I'm not sure I know how to draw a positive position out of the musts, nevers, and ultimates, but Paul seems to think that sexual behaviour, at least in some circumstances, is of particular importance ... and whatever the excesses of Barth's position, Genesis 1 AND 2 support the idea that our sexual differentiation (at least) is part of our identity as a people (note the collective). The arguments to the contrary, on the follow-up post you linked, were very strained, and only really supported by being opposed to a straw-man position on the other side.

I'm happy to see dissent from the view that "human identity is ultimately wrapped up in the suburban bliss of family life" but I think the elevation of "friendship itself – so lacking in anxiety, so free and undemanding" as a counterweight may be more than the subject will bear. Friendship is complicated and compromised by tradition and societal expectation too.

Lee said...

Maybe it would be more helpful to think of it this way: human lives can display a range of goods, not all of them compossible. Being truly human, Jesus could no more instantiate the full range of goods in his life than anyone else. But looking at that range (which manifestly includes sexual love) tells us something important about what it means to be human.

I agree, by the way, that sexuality is given more weight in the "theology of the body" (at least in the popularized forms I'm familiar with) than it can properly bear.

Anonymous said...

I suppose this is an out of favor reading, but it seems to me that Paul's position - and possibly Jesus' - was that sex is a problem.

Indeed, that may be too weak a description. Sex was a best troublesome and at worst dangerous. It was something to be managed and controlled rather than extolled and celebrated - the Song of Solomon and Mark Driscoll not withstanding.

Caelius said...

If you want to read the NT literally... Sure, Jesus doesn't have sex like we do, father children like we do, love one person with a particular intimacy like we do (maybe, John seemed to think he was especially beloved and his account was received by the church catholic).

But to say that Jesus' life shows that sex is irrelevant to the deep truth of human experience ignores the way Jesus' life and teaching interacts with much of the metaphorical language with which humans surround sex. Including as a little sacrificial death.

Also you can't decouple the OT from the NT. The Law is suffused with sex and the body. It is insists that Yahweh's cult isn't a fertility cult but constantly poses Yahweh as Israel's husband. The prophets do the same.

I could go on, but you might be disturbed with all of the metaphorical sex that occurs in the Passion narratives.

But that's the point: we seem to want sex to be important but something somehow either of no concern to God or disapproved of by God. By creating some realm of ultimate transcendence separate from God, we say that sex doesn't belong to God. But He wired us. He created sex. Sex is always a part of our relationship with Him. And so the sexual metaphors in the Scriptures are the means of teaching us things about sex and the rest of our life that allows a full, balanced, and restored humanity.

To give you a slightly non-sexual example, consider Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus about baptism, in which it's fairly clear that the waters of baptism are analogous with the amniotic fluid. But here's the implication: Christians are all children of the same mother because they all come from the same womb.

Adam Kotsko said...

Usually the solution to a perceived overemphasis is not to simply reverse it.

Al said...

While I am in complete agreement with Williams’ quote and with many of the other points that have been made, I don’t find myself convinced with the way that Jesus is being presented as normative for humanity here.

In Scripture the normativity of Christ seems to have less to do with the particularities and limitations of Jesus of Nazareth’s individual experiences, as it does with the form established by his life of self-giving service. The normative Christ is principally the resurrected Christ, who is no longer defined in terms of the flesh in the same manner as he was prior to his death (2 Corinthians 5:16). The Apostle Paul gives minimal attention and apparently little significance to the particularities of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, focusing almost exclusively on the cruciform shape of his life and on the resurrected and ascended Lord. In his Adamic role we must think of Christ in the light of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15); it is only as resurrected that Christ is the head and firstborn of a new humanity.

If we think of the normativity of Christ primarily in terms of the normativity of Christ known according to the flesh (in terms of his ministry and life prior to the resurrection), we will tend to think of the normativity of Christ primarily in terms of the normativity of one particular individual, with the limitations of his experience in the flesh. However, Christ known according to the Spirit is inseparable from his body, so that Christ and the Church can be spoken of using the single term – Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12). The normativity of Christ is the normativity of the new humanity established in him through the resurrection and Pentecost, the normativity of a form established by and in Christ.

However, this form is a form of society and not just a form for individual lives (although it is that too). It is also a form that is established in terms of a grammar in which the differentiation of the sexes is quite prominent (e.g. Ephesians 5). Something that is lost when we focus on the life of Jesus of Nazareth in the flesh as the primary locus of normativity is the sheer fecundity of the form of Christ and the great scope for plurality of creative expressions of it in the realm of the Spirit. Within the grammatical structures of the Christ form (of which sexual differentiation is merely one part) there are many ways in which to embody the form beautifully, without ever exhausting it (singleness and celibacy being two such ways). As sexual differentiation is merely one aspect or rule of the Christ’s form morphology, in most of the ways in which we live out the form of Christ sexual differentiation, marriage and family can be regarded as totally irrelevant.

Joshua Davis said...

Re: "If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness."

For someone so appreciative of McCabe, Halden should have a better ear for nonsense. This is not a "singular" affirmation of Jesus' uniqueness, but a denial of his definitive authenticity.

The affirmation of that authenticity is so profoundly cheapened as to become vacuous when consistently deployed as an occasion for dialectical prestidigitation.

S C Kimbriel said...

Many thanks for the very provocative post Ben.

You end your post suggesting that a proper theology of friendship is in order. I am writing on early Christian friendship at the moment and am all in favor of this suggestion. However, I don't think that it does the sort of theological work that you want it to. You seem to be suggesting that friendship works as a counter to the over-sexualization of our theological anthropology. Yet, this relies on the assumption that friendship is somehow a non-sexual category for Christianity, an assumption that I find highly suspect.

From the very beginning the practice of Christian friendship was bound up with questions of desire. The central issue was not how to banish desire from friendship, but how to transform it so as to make it subservient to its proper end. Benedicta Ward's 1987 volume Harlots of the Desert draws out this question with remarkable elegance as she details the struggle amongst a variety of redeemed prostitutes in their new celibate ascetic friendships. What is striking about these accounts is the way in which it is clear that celibacy itself is sexual. In the renunciation of sex one is not de-sexualized.

For more on this point, one could look at Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and perhaps most importantly, the gospel of John. Yet, for the sake of brevity...

(I won't develop this here, but I think that there are good reasons to question the notion that the gospels present an un-sexual Christ as well.)

I completely agree that our contemporary theological anthropology is cluttered with all sorts of problematic sexualized concepts. Yet, what is needed is an ability to push back against the troubling prevailing constructs of desire and sex instead of abandoning them as you suggest. Sarah Coakley has already been invoked in response to your post, but let me draw attention especially to her forthcoming four-volume systematics. She discussed the main contours of it in her interview in Rupert Shortt's God's Advocates. Her primary argument, grounded in examination of a number of patristic authors, seems to be that what is necessary is a transformation of desire, in which it is (either in singleness or marriage, silence or conversation) redirected by the interruption of the Spirit to rest in its proper end, which is God himself. Interestingly she puts especial emphasis on ascetic practices such as silence claiming that it is there that we come into unavoidable confrontation with eros and the end of our own mastery. It is there that the Spirit begins to reshape our desires.

I am all for a theology of friendship, but the deeper that I get into patristic accounts of this practice, the more I am struck by the way in which friendship does not get us out of a sexualized anthropology; if anything, friendship confronts us with the messiness of human desire and the need for a robust theological account of the avoidance of idolatry amidst its tumultuous bounds.

james said...

Great comment Al. Someone should say it. These anabaptists never will. When you question the normativity of Jesus of Nazareth, they seem to think you haven't "read a book". They are kicking against the goads of biology while cleverly disguising it as a mere cultural critique of the role of sexuality in modernity.

Brad East said...

I've been going at it over at Halden's blog, but there are great points in this thread as well. I think all I want to add is that there seems to be a difference between "sex is not the center, nor anywhere near it" and "not only is sex not the center, it has nothing to do with it." That's not necessarily what you're saying, Ben, but when claims from the normativity of Jesus' life lead one to say that "sex/marriage/children have nothing whatsoever to say about what it means to be human" I think we have swung the pendulum from one extreme to another.

Brad East said...

P.S. I also think that for a father or mother to know what it is to give birth to a child must tell us something theologically about human life to the extent that God is identified as Father and Son. But that is a different rabbit hole altogether.

Mark said...

The core point seems to be spot on - modern culture is sick searching for truth in sex as the last transcendance.

One of the defense points is off. Saying Jesus knows nothing of marriage or family life and attacking the "family values" God has serious problems. We talk of Jesus as the Son who has a father. The Church is the Bride of Christ. The eschaton is the marriage feast of the lamb. Yes, Jesus on this earth was celebate, but that is part and parcel of the same reduction of everything to sex that our culture does.

Mike Southon said...

Why did we jump so quickly from marriage to sex? Isn't there something much more fundamental about marriage, as reflected in the bride/bridegroom descriptions of Jesus and the Church?

Bobby Grow said...

I think Al's response, above, is the best one offered thus far.

cyberpastor said...

It has to be said that far too much is made of sexuality by modern conservatives in many areas of theology but while Foucault makes some pertinent observations, his rhetoric seems somewhat hollow when the rest of his life-style is considered.
I could agree that gender is of only mild concern in the economy of salvation but given the constant confusion of sexual practice with idolatry and other forms of unfaithfulness, it does seem to loom large in the story of human being and their responses to God.
Also while friendship seems more generally accessible it could really only be because of its vacuity - unless we return to some kind of Aristotelian notion. The New Testament makes more of filial bonds than any other.

Anonymous said...

This is a modified version of a comment posted at Halden's blog:

Aren't you being unfair to Barth here? Barth grounds this differentiation within the Godhead in III1 & III/2. Charles Sherlock in his book “The Doctrine of Humanity” shows how for Barth this differentiation can be seen in both God & man in Gen 1:26-28, which is grounded in the dynamism within God himself. He summarizes Barth’s view with the following: “as God is no undifferentiated monad, but living and active, dynamic & personal, so is humankind: we are made for harmonius relationship.” If Sherlock is right, it seems we have to take Barth’s thoughts in III/1 & III/2 as paradigmatic for his comments in III/4 (that you & Halden seem to be against).

So, while maybe one could argue against an explicit Christological affirmation to self-differentiation in the life of Christ & consequently the significance of sexuality to understanding humanness, such a view has always had a home within a dynamic view of God, which would eventually find expression @ Nicaea, which ironically leads us back to Jesus.

Unknown said...

I first posted this comment over at An und fur sich, but I'm cross-posting it here, since it is in part in response to a comment Ben made in the course of conversation there:

I think a point that Sarah Coakley makes in her essay, "Living Into the Mystery of the Holy Trinity: Trinity, Prayer, and Sexuality," can be very helpful here. She speaks of the theological need "to turn Freud on his head," and suggests that "God" language is thus not primarily about sex, but that sex is to be understood "as really about God." This would mean, then, that to say as Ben does that sex is not definitive of our humanness (or, that sex tells us "nothing about what it means to be human"), is not to say that sex doesn't matter, but rather to say that sex matters all the more, not because it is definitive of our creaturehood, per se, but because it says something about our deification, our being transformed as mere creatures into being partakers of our divine nature. Here, we might recall Herbert McCabe's wonderful essay on "Prayer," in which he suggests that if we can think God not first of all as the creator or maker of something, but first of all as Love, then we are perhaps in a position to think prayer as God's confronting us not as maker or artist who has to "make us over," but as bringing us into a relation of "lovers wasting time with each other uselessly" (I think that's his wording). Thus, our relation to God is finally not merely one reducible to "creaturehood," but a liberation -- and not just from "sin" -- into divinization itself. All this to say: This may very well change things in the conversation dramatically if we think of sex as a sacrament not of our "creaturehood," but of our divinization -- a sacrament of theosis, and so a theologoumenon to be treated within the Doctrine of God.

Halden said...

Al, I think your comment is good, and actually gets at the substance of what I was trying to go for. Of course the point about Christ is cruciformity. However, that cruciformity was manifested in the particularities of his life, and I don't think they should be elided. This doesn't means we should slavishly imitate such things of course.

All I'm really saying is that since the shape of of Christ's cruciform life did not include marriage, sex, and parenthood, our lives need not include those things either to bear that same shape.

This is, I think, not really different than what you say at the end of your comment.

Al said...

Thanks for the response Halden. My point is not that the details of Christ's life should be elided, or slavishly imitated. Rather, my point is that the way that Christ functions as the norm for humanity is such that the particularities of his life in the flesh are not as primary as people seem to have supposed.

My point is that the norm of Christ, seen from the perspective of the resurrection and Pentecost, has difference and society built right into it. For this reason, sexual difference, marriage, singleness, and countless other vocations and outlivings of aspects of our existence bear an essential and irreplaceable witness to the truth of our humanness. Perhaps I should clarify that I am not writing here just to defend the significance of marriage and family, but as a single person, who is convinced that at this moment in time it is in living out my singleness, in all of its particularity that I bear an important testimony to the truth of humanity. As such I re-present an aspect of the humanity that is already all of ours in Christ to others, just as they re-present aspects of this humanity to me.

I think that your resistance to a one-size-fits-all understanding of humanness is salutary, I just want to argue that, approached in the right way (i.e. seeing the normativity of Christ as the resurrected man of the Spirit, with the Church as his body), the Christ form does not make the particularities of our human vocation indifferent, but essential. In other words, we will bear the Christ form more fully the more that we become the particular beings that we are in him.

Seen from another perspective, of course, this is just Paul's doctrine of the Church as articulated in 1 Corinthians 12.

Ben Myers said...

Al, many thanks for these excellent comments — I've found your thoughts on this very helpful.

Matt said...

I agree that sex and marriage is viewed often by us distressingly idolatrously.

Obviously, because of Christ's life and comments, it's not the ultimate expression of human life.

I don't see why it shouldn't be viewed as a sign however.

When Christ says that there will be no marriage in heaven, this is not because heaven lacks something, but because - I think - the community in heaven will be perfect.

The intimacy of marriage is a pointer to the love and community which will be shared with all.

Marriage is a temporary gift of God, and therefore very important, which points us to its own dissolution.

The point about Christ being celibate equally works as a sign - those of the kingdom not married who point us to the perfect community which we will share with all.

I suppose one might say that the genital aspects of marriage will not be required: no need for more children! But even here, I'd prefer to place all these aspects of our lives in their proper place rather than dismissing them. I'm not sure that would be helpful.

roger flyer said...

Me, too, Al. Thanks! It is good to hear another thoughtful theologian posting some well nuanced arguments.

Guy Dugas said...

Great post! Seldom do I start reading a post and read it throughly "through to the end". I could not stop reading this one, very interesting reading. Great post.

Fat said...

I cannot see that sex is about being 'Human' - Animals too have sex and for many of the same reasons and many of the same ways as we including pro-creation, pleasure, masturbation and homosexual sex. That sex exists is the way for the animal and much of the plant world to continue as God so ordained but sex itself is not what humanness is about.

Oh, I agree with Josh McDowell that sex involves all that you are physically, emotionally and spiritually (remembered from 'Maximum Sex' - a tape I listened to many years back) but I have to add that sex is not all that we are physically, emotionally and spiritually.

My understanding is that God made man from the earth - an earthling or dustling and probably red earth at that - I cannot reference the bible dictionary I found that in as I don't have the material to hand but I will attempt to locate it later - The name Adam (Adam)seems to be a word play on red (adom) and earth(adamah).

So then God puts poor lonely overworked Adam to sleep and splits him into two. Man and Woman (ish and isha - word play again).

So when in marriage the two become one they are put back as they originally were - together as one flesh.

So I see it as more than just sex -the union has become something Holy - The sex of animals now sanctified and become a work of God.

So what then if such union never happens - are we left with half humans? (such as suggested by the pre-married people section of Ben's post)

I am thinking along the lines Al was suggesting - "we will bear the Christ form more fully the more that we become the particular beings that we are in him." That our real humanity doesn't lie in the sexual or marriage unity (God given and excellent though it is) but in the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17:20-23 - a greater unity as we are joined in unity with God "I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word;
21that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.
22"The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one;
23I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.

Are we called then (To misuse both the Apostle Paul's phrase and the purpose of Matthew's record) "put away those childish things1 Cor 13:11" like sex and the flesh and follow the commandment of Matthew 5:48 "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Am I advocating such a thing? (although Paul came close in saying celebacy was better than marriage for the purposes of ministry - 1 Cor 7) Not at all - what I am trying to bring out is that sex is no measure of human perfection - the perfection humanity attained in Matthew 5 was in how you treat your fellow man - nothing at all to do with sex (at least in this case).

In fact for the highest and best statement of humanity I believe we can see no better example than Jesus himself who, as Halden observed when it came to Sex "did not participate" yet we are called into union with Him and to grow up to his example "until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ." Ephesians 4:13

kim fabricius said...

What's the truth about sex?

Schopenhauer said, "Sex is an act which, on sober reflection, one recalls with repugnance and in a more elevated mood even with disgust."

Mae West said, "I feel like a million tonight - but one at a time."

The truth is somewhere in-between (heading due west).

I guess we have to theologise about sex (not least because, as John Updike knew, religion and sex are the two most interesting activities in the world - pace Updike's golf, baseball is the third), and a lot of very interesting things have been said about bed in the thread that I've read. I've reflected theologically a bit on sex myself (in my "Ten Propositions on Marriage"). Still, it strikes me that there is almost something masturbatory about theologising about sex. At least in prose. I prefer Rowan Williams to Karl Barth on "the body's grace" - and fluids - but I prefer Leonard Cohen to both.

Anonymous said...

Where I think you part company with Foucault (and what I think you need to justify) is where you so strongly feel the need to describe humanity.
Foucault basically said that you should find out what is the truth about the person, and then refuse it.
What's wrong with prefacing our human encounter with darkness?

Anonymous said...

These three related references point out that our sexuality, or more correctly our childhood emotional-sexual patterning, determines quite literally everything that we do, all of the time, and in every moment.

The author also points out that we have not become fully human until we have understood, become responsible for, and then transcended this primitive emotional-sexual patterning.

Unknown said...

to suggest that "Jesus did not have sex, therefore sexuality says nothing about our humanity." strains the bounds of credulity. It takes the Analogy of Christ too far beyond anything that approaches sound exegesis.

Do Americans place far too much emphasis on sexuality? Yes, but the alternative is not a knee jerk reactionary theology of sexuality that has no meaning at all. The response should be a thoughtful investigation of Scripture. While this goes far beyond the purpose of a blog response, here are a few highlights that come to mind.

- God created Male and Female and said, "be fruitful and multiply"

- Paul makes many statements about our sexuality that go to the core of our being and life as followers of Christ.

- Paul also embraces the gift of celibacy as a valid alternative to marriage.

So sure, if we squint at the entire Scripture and make a conclusion based on an inference from the life of Jesus that is nowhere supported by any direct teaching of jesus or by any of the Apostles or by any of the Prophets, then I guess you are on to something.


Halden said...

Al, I agree with you, especially about how, as a single person to view these matters. I resonate with you there.

The only thing I want to avoid is positing any separation between "resurrected man of the Spirit, with the Church as his body" and the very particular historic story of Jesus.

Al said...

Thanks Halden. On the need to avoid any separation, I am in complete agreement with you.

J. A. Frazer Crocker, Jr said...

There is a new essay by Sarah Coakley
which includes the wonderful phrase:
"Twoness, one might say, is divinely
ambushed by threeness."
See it all at

Weekend Fisher said...

This is not the first time on this blog that I've wanted to shout from the rooftops: It is not quite right to think of Jesus as "the eternal celibate" when he is presented as the bridegroom and eternity as his wedding feast. It is not quite right to think of Jesus simply as single; reality is more complicated: he's betrothed.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Unknown said...

In case anyone is still reading, a positive (though possibly speculative) case can be made that male-female relationships similar to marital bonds can continue between the redeemed into the next life. This may then also imply a romantic, physical or even sexual aspect in such a relationship.

Below are some websites that make this positive case (across Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant strands of Christianity). Each website does deal with the marriage pericope of Mt 22 to a lesser or greater degree -
Whether you find these arguments convincing is ultimately up to you.

PS. please note according to historic Christian doctrine, the next life involves the resurrection, which is physical in nature, and is not to be identified with "heaven" (where the redeemed go after death to await future physical resurrection of their bodies) - please see this link for more explanation -,8599,1710844,00.html

Anonymous said...

I've just written a semi-alternative take on this issue - - by considering it in terms of what Slavoj Žižek has defined as the postmodern superego: rather than the castrating 'No!' of the father, we now have the polar opposite 'You may!'. This leads to a compulsion to consume, in which, in my opinion, sex plays an integral role. In this context,Rowan Williams' quotation seems not only morally radical, but also politically so.

Tony said...

What is Halden's response to the challenge posed by a clear-headed theologian like Sarah Coakley? Ben requotes Williams but misses out on the important qualification "in certain circumstances." I do not think Rowan Williams had in mind what Halden wrote as precisely part of those "circumstances." Halden's statement is much too global and totalizing.

Portia said...

As a single person, I found your post liberating. I often wrestle with the same frustrations in church. People are constantly implying that my life has not yet come full circle because I am single. I am trying to accept that my life is complete with or without marriage. However, I often hear married people and parents say that they only fully understood God's love for them when they got married or had children. In this regard, as a single person, I feel sad that I am missing out on the opportunity to taste that intense depth of His love.

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