Posted by: dacalu | 2 May 2014

Seeing People

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ (John 1:43-51)

Seeing People

How do you begin relationships? So far, I have talked about our need for healthy relationships. Now I’d like to talk concretely about starting them.

The most important thing we can do to start a healthy relationship is to see someone for who they truly are. This is harder than it appears and it takes practice. What’s more, it has to do with one of the most important issues in sexual ethics:

Do not deal with people as objects.

That may seem like a simple directive, but we are both biologically and socially conditioned to orient ourselves to others on the basis of their physical attributes. We deal with men and women differently. We change our behavior based on the apparent race, status, and wealth of the individuals we are dealing with. And here, the Christian concept of soul becomes so important. When I meet someone, I try to see their soul, their truest, fullest self.

Souls happen in bodies and those bodies affect the way the soul operates. I’m not talking about some kind of x-ray vision. I’m talking about listening to the words they use and watching their actions. What does this person’s behavior say about them. Who are they? Who do they want to be? What have the chosen? That is the real person.

Too often, our thoughts when meeting a new person turn to who they could be in relationship to us and to our needs. Sex provides the most obvious example. We are tempted to think in terms of the emotional or physical pleasure we feel when being around people to whom we are attracted. Lust need not be a desire to possess or take advantage of such a person, it can just be a failure to appreciate the person – as someone who has preferences and makes choices. We let our interest in them get in the way of their interests and it stops us from seeing them as people.

It doesn’t just happen with physical attraction. It applies to being interested in someone for their fame or their power or even just their potential to be friend. Or it can work in the opposite direction, when we decide that someone’s appearance or position means they cannot provide us with anything of value.

Christians seek to see the souls of every person. That requires patience and a willingness to enter into conversation with anyone you meet.

This turns out to be one of the dangers of visual pornography. I’m not convinced the the erotic character of pornography is intrinsically bad. I am convinced that pornography often trains people to foster emotional and physical responses to bodies without any opportunity to develop a deeper relationship. It requires an apathy about their souls that can carry over into other relationships. Worse yet, for some it takes the place of truly meeting new people.

As usual, sex provides the starkest example, but their are other ways of flattening out the people we meet. Books have provided us with surrogate relationships for centuries, but television and the internet can heighten our emotionally response and speed up the process of shaping out personalities. Some people are addicted to confrontational environments – sometimes as stark as war or violent games, sometimes only in the form of debate. They are conditioned to seeing people as adversaries. Some people are addicted to non-confrontation environments – always sticking to others who share their views or affiliations. They are conditioned to seeing people as extensions of themselves.

Communities of common purpose can be very good things. Likewise I am a great fan of fiction. At the same time I recognize that the actions of my life make up my personality. Everything I do shapes the person I am, for good and ill.

Thus I try to make all of my relationships even with theatrical, fictional, and historical people, open to a deeper understanding. Who am I in relationship to this person? What impact will our relationship have on future relationships? Remember, relationships with fictional or two dimensional people are not fictional relationships.

It’s all about open-ended attention to the moment and to the souls of the people involved. That may sound heady, but it should be hearty. It is, after all, the foundation of love.

Posted by: dacalu | 27 April 2014

Spiritual Outsourcing

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’” -Genesis 3:8-13

Passing the Buck

I have mixed feelings about original sin. I find it a very useful way of looking at my own tendency to selfishness and self-delusion. For precisely that reason, I think it presents too large a temptation to disregard the will and good intentions of others. Whatever you believe about the consequences, the Bible does spell out for us the first trespass of humanity, and I’d like to look at that today.

The initial trespass of Adam and Eve was eating the apple, the one fruit they had been forbidden to touch. Note, however, that God does not punish them immediately. An all-powerful, all-seeing God surely could have immediately expelled the couple from the Garden. Instead God tries to have a conversation with them. God and love are all about relationships, so I would like to suggest that the initial trespass was eating the apple, but the trespass with serious consequences was the avoidance and mudslinging in the passage I started with. Adam and Eve first hide from God, then start trying to pass the blame. Neither one takes responsibility for their crime and neither one is willing to be open with God about it. This has disastrous consequences for their relationships. And to this day, Christians seem determined to pass the buck, either to Adam or to “human nature” or to Eve or to “sexuality.” It might be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic. If there is original sin, we need look no farther than the persistent human tendency to shift the blame.

How can there be forgiveness if there is no communication?

And how can there be repentance if there is no self-knowledge?

Spiritual Outsourcing

One of the most persistent features I see in strong relationships – both healthy and unhealthy – is a division of labor. Each of us finds that we lack some of the skills and resources we need to navigate life. With a few rare exceptions all of us must cooperate with others to get by. As a Christian, I think that is a good thing. I believe we are our fullest, best selves when we are in community. I believe we are only really in the image of God when we are part of the the family of humanity. This need and this benefit appears just as much in friendships and romances as it does in states and churches. We are social creatures.

Healthy relationships allow us to perform where our talents lie and trust on the talents of others when we need to. They build on complimentary skills and wants in a way that leads to communities far stronger than the sum of their parts. Sadly, our selfishness can lead us to take advantage of these relationships, instead of being strengthened by them. We try to take advantage of others by taking without receiving, by threatening to withdraw our contribution, or by dividing tasks unevenly.

So far, this should be straightforward economics, but it applies to our spiritual selves as well. We often look to others to fulfill, compliment, or replace the deepest parts of ourselves: our dignity, initiative, will, or responsibility. I call this Spiritual outsourcing, the attempt to distance some critical aspect of yourself by thinking of it within some other person. Romantic relationships provide the most obvious example, because they involve so few people and can be so intense. Consider the popular and (hopefully) disturbing tale of Beauty and the Beast, a case where the woman has outsourced all initiative and power and the man all responsibility for control and responsibility.

How Much to Give Away?

So far I have presented an argument for integration with others and an argument for not losing yourself. Aren’t the two in conflict? I don’t think so. We must lose our individual identity in order to take on a greater identity. Adam gave up his initiative to Eve when he ate the apple. He let her make a decision for him, and yet he refused to take responsibility for the decision. There are times when we should allow others to define our choices, our actions, even our thoughts. We cannot survive by ourselves. And yet, we must take ownership of the trust we place in others. We must recognize that our identity is shaped as much by the decisions we allow others to make for us as by the decisions we make for ourselves.

Too often our tendency will be to outsource decision making so we can outsource blame. Companies hire temporary workers and contractors so that they can get productivity without responsibility for employees. They don’t have to pay for health care and pensions. In short, they don’t have to care about the people involved, only the services. Sometimes this is the right choice economically. It can even be the right choice morally, when compensation is appropriate. Note, however, that it can only be cheaper if the company can get more and pay less. Let me suggest that spiritual outsourcing provides the same temptation.

We must negotiate our relationships carefully. We must be aware of what we are giving up and what we are expecting in return – spiritually as well as physically and emotionally. How does this relationship affect my identity? How does it effect my relationship with God and neighbor? Am I asking this person to do something for me that I could be doing for myself? And why?

Personally, I believe our highest good can be achieved through being less “I” and more “we.” I’m not a fan of individualism or individuation as a goal. At the same time, we should not enter into relationships without thought and without care. Individualism and individuation can be important steps toward the kind of awareness necessary for the formation of healthy relationships. It can be frighteningly easy to ask more than you understand, or to take on more than you realize.

This is why Christians should be so cautious about sexuality and marriage. They can dramatically merge two people’s identities in a short period of time. And that can be the greatest of blessings when done compassionately. I do not say knowingly; many of these things represent deep mysteries. Knowledge is helpful, but not the key component. We must approach sexuality and marriage with profound care for one another and for ourselves.

Posted by: dacalu | 22 April 2014

Forming Relationships

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. –Genesis 2:24

In my last post on sexual ethics, I set out the idea the humans should not be alone. God creates the first human in the image and likeness of God, but finds that this singularity is not right. God tries to find a companion for Adam in many types of animal, but only when God takes Adam’s rib and forms a second human, does full humanity begin. Adam says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” That, then is the context for the passage with which I began.

Companionship is the reason for these things. Generally, this is seen as the founding of marriage. Becoming one flesh is a particularly powerful image here, as they had been one flesh only moments before. The passage plays with the concepts of individuality and togetherness. For Christians, this is the first ideal image of human relationship; note that it has marriage and sex, but no mention of children. The linkage of sex and procreation, and the claim that this must be the foundation of marriage appears nowhere in Genesis 2. Incidentally, Genesis 1 has God telling the humans to “be fruitful and multiply (28), but makes no mention of, or even allusion to, marriage.

We will come back to marriage, but for now, I want to talk about relationships in general. That includes friendship, comradery, and kinship as well as sex and romance. What makes a relationship a good relationship?

Love.

This turns out to be a fairly difficult question, actually, despite the one word answer. It is difficult because we are all tempted to reduce love to something else, pleasure, fulfillment, obedience to God, self-actualization… Christianity denies those reductions. Love is the fundamental virtue in Christianity and it exists fundamentally. I can describe it, but I cannot make it into a version of something else. It is that relationship within the Godhead in which humans can only participate by having similar relationships among themselves. It will turn out that sex and marriage can manifest and strengthen that love, but first we need to know what it is we are working with. My chief resources will be the behavior of Jesus Christ – whom Christians consider fully human – and I Corinthians 13.

In the Gospels, Jesus appears to be constantly in the habit of trying to help people. He notices them when others do not (e.g., Zacchaeus, Luke 19), speaks to them when others will not (e.g., the Samaritan woman, John 4), teaches, heals, and casts out demons. I take it that love has something to do with seeing people as they really are, paying attention to what they need, and acting on that need when you can. Jesus is also open about his own feelings around his disciples, sharing not only his wisdom but his suffering (John 11:35, Matthew 26) and trusting them when he needed to be asleep or alone. I highlight this second point, because it can be easy to see Jesus relationship with his disciples as very one-directional, but the Gospels make Jesus friendship and emotional dependence on them as friends clear (particularly John). Incidentally, this makes their repudiation of him in the Passion even more hurtful. Jesus models love not only in his words, but in his actions.

I also must mention self-sacrifice. Love asks more than giving out of convenience. It calls for a willingness to treat another person with the same dignity (neither more nor less) than you treat yourself. It means being willing to give up even something as great as your life, if that loss will result in a greater benefit for those you love. Jesus love was concrete, but also open ended.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13

[As an aside, I will mention a radical difference presented here between Christian love and modern secular notions of love. For some reason, romantic love has come to be seen as a 'higher' form of love or a deeper commitment than friendship. I am unwilling to think of Jesus as, in some way, failing to reach his full potential by not being romantically involved. As a Christian, it will be necessary to think of love and commitment in a number of ways, but not to privilege romantic love in this way.]

In I Corinthians 12 and 13, Paul sets forth a much more abstract. I will not repeat the oft quotes verses, but shall mention a few things that stand out for me. Love means being part of a community that is greater than yourself. It is about seeing yourself as a part instead of a whole, but it is also about valuing this relationship with neighbor as higher than anything else. It is not about success, or correctness (even righteousness). It is not about truth or endurance. It is sufficient in and of itself.

And so, as we move forward, this will be the standard I use to judge relationships:

Do they manifest love?

Do they make the lovers greater together than the sum of them apart?

Do the show us the image of God?

Posted by: dacalu | 16 April 2014

Christian Environmentalism

Today I had the honor of speaking about the environment in faith and science at Harvard Divinity School. Students sent me questions ahead of time, allowing me to format these responses.

Question 3: What can the Church do about the ecological crisis? Is it too late?

 I believe we are all called to respond to our environment with compassion. It is never too late to do God’s will.

 

The Church is uniquely positioned to:

1) Articulate the value of creation and the interconnectedness of all things in Christ

2) Integrate our knowledge of creation with a value system that compels action

3) Coordinate people for the common good

4) Challenge people with the inconvenient truths of divine love, human ability, and concrete needs

 

Christians are called to:

1) Do outdoor theology

We must think about God and the world in terms that are beyond human scale and potentially beyond human comprehension. Science provides us with abundant examples of un-domesticated reality. Sadly, we have become accustomed to living in heated, air-conditioned, human-centered spaces. We can begin to think in terms of heated, air-conditioned, human centered pictures of God (e.g., kindly old man, service provider, strong-man). It is important for us to keep hold of the older, less comfortable theological ideas that encourage us to think of God and creation as bigger than that (e.g., Job’s God, The Lord of Hosts).

2) Evangelize for curiosity

When God called the world good, we were invited to enter into it, to delight in it, and to come to know it as God’s handiwork. Christians should advocate for the best and most effective science, founded on the doctrine of a good creation.

3) Evangelize for commitment

Genesis tells us that we are part of God’s family and, in a very important way, one with the creation. Faith calls us to realize, intensify, and harmonize our interactions with the world. The idea that we have dominion comes with a recognition that we tend and water the Garden on God’s behalf.

4) Take responsibility for things we do not own

Here is the biggest divide between the Christian message and the way of the world. We do not have the right to dispose of the world as our property. We care for it for the sake of God and for the benefit of our neighbors. This calls us into deeper relationships with God, neighbor, and environment, which can only be realized through curiosity about them, commitment to them, and care for them.

Posted by: dacalu | 16 April 2014

Christianity and Scientific Knowledge

Today I had the honor of speaking about the environment in faith and science at Harvard Divinity School. Students sent me questions ahead of time, allowing me to format these responses.

Question 2: Given that we have come to know the world so differently, how can we read the Bible and the creed again (which were written in another age)?

Every age struggles to apply the wisdom of God, including scripture, in light of their best understanding of the world. From my perspective, I don’t see this as any different for us than for Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Origen (182-254), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), or Albert the Great (1193-1280). All four of them are highly influential Christian theologians who struggled with faith and secular knowledge of the natural world (science or “natural philosophy”). All four faced criticism from both sides as they tried to integrate the two.

I do think science gives us tremendous power to shape our world, and with that power comes a responsibility to do so in light of the love of Christ.

I usually quote a few lines from Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis. In commenting on the days of creation in Genesis 1:

“At the time when night is with us, the sun is illuminating with its presence those parts of the world through which it returns from the place of its setting to that of its rising. Hence it is that for the whole twenty-four hours of the sun’s circuit there is always day in one place and night in another. Surely, then, we are not going to place God in a region where it will be evening for Him as the sun’s light leaves that land for another.”

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

“When they are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of physical science, we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. ”

Note that, writing in the 5th century, Augustine takes the spherical Earth as a given. He finds the 24-hour interpretation of the days of creation to be poor science and poorer theology. Augustine is arguably the most influential theologian in Christianity (after Paul). From my perspective we covered these issues – “6-day creation” and “science and scripture” – 16 centuries ago and, if there is to be a conservative Christian position (based on history, popularity, and authority), it must be for a willingness to reinvestigate scripture when science suggests we’ve interpreted it incorrectly.

 

With Augustine, I find science a helpful tool – one among many – for discovering the truth of God in the Bible. Our age is not unique in our call to humility before all types of true knowledge and our vocation to be deeply curious about the world God has made.

Posted by: dacalu | 16 April 2014

Faith in Religion and Science

Today I had the honor of speaking about the environment in faith and science at Harvard Divinity School. Students sent me questions ahead of time, allowing me to format these responses.

Question 1: Is “faith” in religion the same as “faith” in science?

This question comes up frequently in modern “creationist” (anti-evolutionary) literature. I think it represents both a very good insight into how we reason and a very bad analogy.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as: “Complete trust or confidence in someone or something

 

Version 1: Faith as complete trust in someone

This is how I see my relationship with Jesus Christ and this is how I see faith in the Christian context. It has to do with trust that a person will do the right thing even when I do not understand what they are doing or what the right thing is. It means I have a personal relationship with God, who has done good for me in the past and will, I hope, do good for me in the future.

I do not have this kind of faith in the abstract concept of religion. I have this kind of faith in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion (at least on good days). Nonetheless, I (almost always) have this kind of faith in God through Jesus. I believe this is what is meant by “salvation by faith alone.”

Version 2: Faith as a foundational confidence in some proposition

My life and my reasoning are based on some fundamental assumptions that I cannot say I know to be true. I believe that the universe is (partially) comprehensible and that I can (partially) comprehend it. I believe that this endeavor will be worthwhile. I also believe in an unmoved mover and the existence of a “God” with whom I converse. I say that I “believe” these things in the sense that I cannot get by without them, despite the fact that the empirical and logical evidence for them is weak at best. They are axioms, which I am at liberty to doubt, but nonetheless see no viable alternatives.

I have this kind of faith in the abstract concept of reason, the methodology of science, and the traditions of Anglican Christianity.

Version 3: Faith as strong confidence in a specific intellectual proposition (arrived at through sound reasoning)

I have near complete confidence that the theory of gravity is a good way to look at the universe, even that it matches up closely with reality. That confidence is founded on the version 2 confidence I have in comprehensibility and the efficacy of the scientific method. Likewise I have very high confidence in the fundamental goodness of all people, but only based on rational arguments founded on version 2 confidence in a good creator God.

Generally, I don’t use the word faith in this way.

 

I think version 1 is the type of faith proclaimed in scripture and central to Christianity. Any attempt to substitute versions 2 or 3 for version 1 is what Christians call “Gnosticism”, the belief that our best end lies in possessing knowledge, rather than being in relationship with God or, in other words, believing salvation comes from knowledge.

So, no. “Faith” should mean radically different things in Christianity and science. In Christianity it means trust in Christ as a person. In science and religion it can also relate to foundational beliefs and clear reasoning, but those should never be confused with a healthy relationship with God.

Posted by: dacalu | 12 April 2014

Humans in Relationship

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. This posts marks as shift from core ethical principles (outline, step 4) to specific ethical principles (step 8). As always, the process involves prayer, but the headers will now be passages of scripture.

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ –Genesis 2:18

A Helper and a Partner
Literally, “ground” in Hebrew, the name Adam is a pun. The first human came into being as God shaped the dust of the ground (adamah) and breathed life into it. Thus God took the divine breath, and in a very intimate act, breathed breath and life into Adam’s nostrils. God then creates a garden and sets Adam in it to “till and keep it.”
What is the first thing God notices about the human? God says, “It is not right that the human should be alone.” Look, here is this image and likeness of myself, but there is something out of sorts. The human is incomplete.

Western theologians have often compared God to a trinity, three persons acting in relationship to one another. God cannot be alone, for God has internal relationships. That is, of course, a clumsy metaphor – we do not think there are actually three distinct bodies, or three distinct minds, or even three distinct personalities. Nonetheless, there is something communal about God, even before anything has been created. And so, when God makes a human in the divine image, it doesn’t work. Adam is alone, which makes him very un-God-like.

So God tinkers. In a story somewhat shocking to the modern perspective, God is at a loss. Rather than making humans perfect in the first go, rather than going back to the drawing board for a theoretical answer, God starts experimenting. One by one, God makes birds and beasts and animals of every sort. One by one, the animals are presented to Adam, who names them, gives them identities in relationship to himself. None of them, however, cures Adam’s loneliness.

God then puts Adam to sleep, and removes a rib from Adam’s side, and from that rib, God clones another human. When Adam awakes, he sees Eve and says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman (ishshah), for out of Man (ish) this one was taken.” Again a pun, Adam calls her “out of man.” The more I look at it, the more wonderful things I find about the wordplay.

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1) Just as Adam was taken from the ground, so Eve was taken from Adam. God has not created humans for a second time. Nor has God made a second type of human. God has made the human singular into a human plural, so that we (plural) can be more fully in the image and likeness of God. It is of our essence – both as humans and as an image of God – that we occur in groups, even in groups of two. Compare Matthew 18:19-20, where Jesus says, “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

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2) I’m sorry I have to say it, but I think I do. In English, the words woman and man have an entirely different etymology, but they can make it appear that Adam is saying something along the lines of “look, I’ve found a mini-me.” The Hebrew carries no suggestion that woman is a lower quality second generation copy of God (or Adam 2.0). This idea has been suggested with scary frequency. Eve is no more a lesser version of Adam than Adam is a lesser version of the ground. Notably the word for man (ish) appears for the first time in this line. It’s doubtful we can even think of Adam as male until he exists as part of a pair. Despite English translations, the Hebrew speaks of Adam, never “the man.”

As an etymological note, “woman” comes from the Old English wifman for female human. The equivalent for male human was werman (the wer- still survives in werewolf). Man was not used to refer to the male sex until around the 1000 AD. We shouldn’t try to find theology in accidental puns that happen when you translate Hebrew into English – or Latin. The Latin translation (Vulgate) also retains the woman/man (virago/vir) pun, but not the Adam/ground (terra/homo) pun.

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3) I personally take delight in fact that the letter hey which drops out of adamah (ground) reappears in ishshah (woman).

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It is not just a husband and wife that are of one flesh. It is rather all of humanity. The image and likeness of God only appears in us when we are in relationship with one another. This central truth underlies the importance of love in Christianity and justifies its presence as our primary ethical principle. This insight lies very near the core of Christianity, since we believe that Jesus was not just God with us, but was God as one of us.

God made Adam, but found that a singular Adam was not quite right, so God made Adam plural. This plurality is encapsulated and exemplified in every marriage, but it has a greater significance as well. It has to do with the oneness of humanity and the plurality of our singular God.

Posted by: dacalu | 30 March 2014

Sex Before Marriage?

A college age friend of mine recently asked for a fuller treatment of sex before marriage and he kindly agreed to let me share my response here. For the sake of privacy, I’ve changed his name.

 

Dear Cormac,

Thanks for asking. I’ve already said this is a difficult question – one of the reasons that I’m trying to work out sexual ethics step-by-step in my blog. Alas, practical questions always arise before we’ve thought them through, no matter how hard we try. So, I’ll tell you where I am at the moment.

For me, intimacy of any kind has to do with letting down barriers, even the blurring of boundaries between individuals. Most of us find this vulnerability difficult and yet I think the formation of deep, honest relationships is one of the most valuable things we can do with our lives – perhaps the most valuable. Physical attraction can be a tremendous blessing, because it brings us out of ourselves and spurs us into relationships we would never have otherwise. At heart, sexuality is good; it connects people.

Having said that, anything that is powerful can be abused. Sex short circuits some of the normal steps in coming to know someone. It can be easy to confuse desire, access, and trust, and so traditionally, we have tried to limit our access to one another’s bodies until we have access to their emotions, their motivations, indeed their very soul (or truest self). When our openness is rewarded (by curiosity, affirmation, reciprocal openness, and love), we grow; we become better at relationships. When our openness is discouraged (by apathy, insults, manipulation, and coldness), we wither; future relationships get harder. So it’s not just about what’s right for now, but how can sex and sexuality help us to be better for the future.

The Bible refers to sexual intercourse as “becoming one flesh.” That might be strongly worded, but I think it is exactly on point. One of the best things about sex (done well) is that you feel a loss of self and deep union with another. One of the worst things about sex (done badly) is that you can feel as though your very core had been invaded or corrupted. In a very real way, you will carry your partner around with you long after the act – perhaps for the rest of your life. A piece of them is now in you and you in them. It’s worth serious thought about how much you want them to be part of your identity.

It can all sound rather dire when you think of it as sex or no-sex. In truth, we have a whole range of ways to express ourselves – both physically and emotionally. There are little intimacies we can share with a partner as a relationship deepens. We go through a process of negotiation with someone as we open ourselves up to more and more profound communication. At every stage, it’s worth asking: is this a level of connection I’m comfortable with. Risk is involved. Risk is always involved in getting to know someone. We need to ask if “this” (whatever this may be) is an appropriate level of risk. The less experience you have, the harder it can be to estimate the odds and the consequences. It’s true for everyone, but between roughly 16 and 22 almost everyone has strong physical drives and a strong emotional desire to form a new, individual personality. I’d err on the side of caution.

Biology. I’m a fan of preventative contraception (condoms, the pill, …), but no method is entirely certain. I recommend that (heterosexual) couples don’t have intercourse unless they’ve thought through the possibility of having a child and how they would deal with it. A number of sexually transmitted diseases also require serious thought. You should learn about how HIV and other infections are caught and transmitted before you make decisions about intercourse.

Psychology. It’s worth assuming that every person with whom you have intercourse will be with you emotionally (one way or another) for the rest of your life. I recommend serious thought about how you feel about that. Is this someone who makes you a better person? Do you make them a better person? Is this someone with whom you can be friends? Can you trust them to see you naked – both physically and emotionally? Do you want to see them naked? Do you trust them enough to deal with the aftermath if they decide they’re not (or no longer) attracted to you? Or if you find you’re not (or no longer) attracted to them?

One of the prime benefits of marriage is the aspect of lifelong commitment.

 

“will you have this woman to be your wife; to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?”

 

That promise includes the idea that you will never reject someone. Perhaps that level of commitment is appropriate for healthy intercourse.

That brings us to another question – one too often left out of this discussion. How seriously do you take marriage? I have a more catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. I also take it as a vow before God. I would much rather see people have sex before marriage than lie to God and to one another – pretend a level of commitment they don’t really possess – in order to have sex. I see marriage as a lot more than a trusting relationship, so I’m inclined to say that there is a level of commitment, trust, and openness high enough for sex (intercourse) but not yet high enough for marriage. It’s a close thing though. It has to be the kind of love and commitment that means offering to never intentionally hurt one another for the rest of your lives.

The upshot: What you do with your body matters. It impacts who you become and how you shape another person’s life. It’s worth taking the time to do right, to make sure both of you are in the right place mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And, of course, you need to talk about it, with each other and hopefully with someone else you trust. We make the mistake of thinking all this work needs to be done immediately and in secret. The right person will be someone you can talk to about sex – and everything else. I’d encourage you to enjoy every step of the way there. The right relationship is likely a better fit than anything you can even imagine at the moment. I wish you joy, wonder, and yes fun as you discover what it means to be in a loving, grace filled relationship.

 

God is with you.

Lucas

Posted by: dacalu | 29 March 2014

Hijacking Religion

Religions, like planes, can be hijacked. I can’t be certain where Christianity was headed 2000 years ago, or even where it was headed 500 years ago, but when I boarded the plane, it was aimed at increasing love between people, helping each of us as flawed individuals help all of us – as flawed individuals. And yes, I consciously got on board. I joined the Episcopal Church officially at the age of 2, but I’m an adult now and I had a choice to stay or leave. I studied Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Taoism in college. I even got a degree in comparative religion. And then I chose Christianity. In seminary, I thought long and hard about the particular vehicle I had chosen and I chose it again. I would even say I fell in love with the people in the Anglican tradition, both past and present. And yes, there really is something about Christianity that says we are fallen individuals in need of God’s grace. That’s not about disempowering us – it is about stopping the ego ride that makes helping people so much harder. It’s about letting go of the fear of failure and pride in success, so that you can keep your eyes on the prize of, wait for it, actually helping people.

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My plane has been hijacked. I mean that for the full metaphor it is, because I think there are pilots flying us in the wrong direction. I think they are perfectly willing to crash my religion into someone else’s building in the hope of – well in the hope of I don’t know what. Somehow they think a world with explosions in it is better… This makes no sense to me.
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I will be honest. The more I study the history of Christianity, indeed the history of the world, the more I recognize that the story isn’t so simple. Apparently there has been a struggle in the cockpit throughout recorded history. It’s true of my plane and it’s true of other planes out there as well. The world is a dangerous place. We all wish we could just get on a train-track and head straight to our destination, but the truth is trains can be hijacked as well. And some destinations are on the other side of an ocean (see grace, above).
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So here I am, fighting for control of the plane. And no, violence is not the answer, because blowing up the plane means no-one gets where they are going. And, by the way, there are people below. So you have to do your best to convince the people on board to turn the plane around, or keep going in the same direction, or sometimes just calm down enough to enjoy the in-flight entertainment.
People ask me why I’m so impressed with Pope Francis. I’m impressed because I think we actually have someone competent to steer for a while. I’m impressed because he gets people moving in the right direction without violence and without anger. Is it enough to get us where we’re going? Probably not. There will always be hijackers and there will always be debates about where the plane should go. And, we need to start right now training other pilots. But, for the moment, I’m glad to know that in some small way, Christianity is headed in the right direction.

Posted by: dacalu | 27 March 2014

The Scope of Sex

This post continues a series on ethics (which began here). My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

What is Sex?

In my last post, I explored the question of what “sexual” means in sexual ethics and highlighted how problematic it can be, particularly with regard to the concept of being “sexual” in public. Despite our intuition that the idea of sex is straightforward, it gets wrapped up in social conventions and squeamishness about the topic only leads to further confusion and squeamishness. I remain convinced that there is a solid Christian social witness about using our bodies in the service of God. If we are to be proactive in that, we will need to figure out what we are talking about.

It is common among Christians to speak out against “sex outside of marriage.” I want to explore here what we mean when we say that. What is sex? As an unmarried individual, I find the question significant. As a pastor, I want to be able to speak about this meaningfully. “Sex” is a real and meaningful concept, but also a complicated one. As we proceed, I hope you will ask yourself what you mean when you use the word, where and how you think moral rules apply.

Biology

As a biologist, the issue of sex is very straightforward. It’s the process of genetic recombination that mixes up the information content of parents and puts them together in a new individual – a descendent of both. The process involves recombination (scrambling each parent’s genes), meiosis (halving the genetic content of cells to form gametes – sperm and eggs), and fertilization (the fusing of sperm and egg to make a zygote, the first stage of an embryo).

According to the biological definition, sex can only occur with a fertile, two-sex couple. In many ways this biological sex concept forms the core of our understanding of sex in general. We must note, however, that it is both too broad and too narrow for daily use. It is too broad because it includes in vitro fertilization. It is too narrow because it does not include any activities by people before puberty, after fertility, or without a biologically compatible partner.

Intention

Some have argued that we should expand this definition to include intention to reproduce, or at least openness to the possibility of offspring. The latter, by the way, is how Roman Catholic Theologians can make reproduction a criterion for marriage that includes women past menopause, but not same-sex couples. What if we defined sex as those activities normally intended for reproduction?

This comes a closer to a common sense definition. For the sake of the author’s sensibilities (and the censors), I’m going to refer to this as PV insertion or just PV. [If you can’t figure that out, you don’t need to be reading this.] Historically, most people get excited about PV, particularly PV outside of marriage, because it can lead to children. It excludes in vitro fertilization and includes people who cannot or, through contraceptives, do not wish to reproduce. This sense is usually captured in the word “intercourse”, a word meaning communication, but a euphemism for PV for the last 200 years.

Intercourse comes much closer to being useful, but it still presents us with difficulties. We have returned to a behavioral definition (rather than an intentional one), one that leaves out the wide variety of physical intimacy usually associated with PV, not to mention anything done by a same-sex couple. I feel certain that if prohibitions against extramarital sex only extended to PV, it would be much less controversial. It seems that all PV is sex but not all sex is PV.

Everything Else

Humans are inventive. I would say that we can easily place PA, PO, and by extension OV insertion into the category of sex without doing any harm to our common sense understanding of the word. We might also add any type of physical contact between two people with the intention of producing an orgasm.

Intention will cause us trouble, of course. What are we to make of children and poorly educated adults who may be aware of something as pleasurable, but not conscious of the biology involved? How much knowledge is necessary? I think it is important not to stigmatize children for activities and questions they do not yet understand; at the same time I think it is terribly important to educate kids as they go through puberty in a way that allows them to make responsible decisions. Both of those represent real and common dilemmas for modern sexual ethics. How to you enforce sexual rules in children and at what age do you start talking to them about the details of sex? And now the whole issue of publicly talking to kids about sex arises again.

Even among well-educated adults, we will need to be more specific about “everything else.” What are we to make of activities meant to arouse, but not bring orgasm? Or what about pornography aimed at causing orgasm in a visual or verbal way? It seems ridiculous to class all communication aimed at arousal as sex. What would become of commercials?

Further, we need to deal with the changing dynamics of social convention. What are we to make of kissing? In the US, kissing is almost universally considered a sexual act when performed by adults. It’s considered okay to kiss your children, but not on the mouth. In Europe, on the other hand, kisses on the cheek are much more common among adults, but far more common among women than men. Perhaps 100 years ago a kiss on the hand was a rather forward but acceptable way for a man to show his attraction to a woman. 2000 years ago Christian men were kissing each other (on the mouth) as a sign of Christ-like love (Acts 20:37; Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12; I Thessalonians 5:26; I Peter 5:14). Those aren’t just examples of kissing, but positive statements that all Christians should kiss one another in greeting. I list all these examples because I fear people will not believe me. Just to be certain, here are the friendly kisses from the Old Testament as well (Genesis 29:13, 33:4, 45:15; Exodus 4:27, 18:7; Ruth 1:14; I Samuel 10:1; II Samuel 15:5, 19:39, 20:9; Proverbs 24:26, 27:6; Tobit 7:6).

There does not appear to be a clear and constant line between sexual contact and friendly contact. This is one of the reasons that moral purists so often argue for absolute segregation between men and women. It is also one reason they are so troubled by gays and lesbians. They want to keep the lines clearly drawn so that all social contact is free from the possibility of sex. Alas, even if we considered this kind of segregation and denial to be vaguely moral (it is not), it never seems to work. People are quite efficient in getting around the system.

Conclusion

I hope I have convinced you that sexual norms must be more than a set of “thou shalt not” actions. Such divisions fail both logically and practically. Instead, we need to think about what sex is about, how we use it, and what it takes to use it compassionately. If you do believe in a simple rule like “no sex outside of marriage,” then I would ask you to think closely about what you mean by that. And, whatever you think of that particular rule, I hope you will see the need for a more comprehensive set of ethical principles, of which rules can only be a narrow application.

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