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?


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