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.
Lord God, you became fully human, that through you we might inherit divinity; grant that through your body here on earth, we may live into the fullness of our own bodies, being enlivened by your Holy Spirit. Amen
All Heat and No Light
Why do we need a new sexual ethics? Don’t Christians already have good value systems set forth in the Bible and tradition? Yes and no. Yes, I think they are there and I’ll try to lay them out as the blogs roll by. No, they are not the ones that you think they are.
Americans have an unhealthy ambivalence about sex and sexuality. (Sadly we are exporting it to the rest of the world.) We both recognize the power and importance of sex and refuse to talk about it in any rational way. We see a ridiculous amount of sex and pandering to sexual desires in the media. We hear about these issues with a sad and predictable frequency from “evangelists” mysteriously quiet about the dangers of wealth and power. (Ironically this kind of moralism works wonders for fund raising and campaign purposes.) And yet, when is the last time you heard two people sit down and rationally talk about sex and ethics?
Most preachers I know are afraid to address these questions from the pulpit for fear of offending their congregations, or worse yet their religious superiors. When they do, they tend to stick with a simple message: “don’t.”
Just (Don’t) Do It
Americans are seemingly divided between the libertines – “Do whatever feels good; here let me give you a pamphlet” – and the ascetics – “It’s just wrong, I won’t even talk about it.” In truth, I think most of us are somewhere in the middle, but those are the voices we hear. Those are the safe positions in the public discourse. It always seems to be someone else’s responsibility – a doctor, or a pastor, or a parent, or a friend, but most of them are somewhat uncomfortable as well.
I should give a brief shout out to (Dr.) Ruth Westheimer and other public sex advice specialists who have made talking about sex more acceptable. I give even greater credit to the brave Christian souls who lead small Bible Study and group discussion groups that allow people to have real conversations with peers and leaders about these topics. Some of us, though would like to find a happy medium between “Savage Love” and the “Alpha Course.” I can’t believe those are the only options.
I want to engage around issues of how to make sex part of a healthy, Christian life. Christians should take the ideas of incarnation, embodiment, and sacrament seriously. Doing so, we should have proactive ways to think and talk about sexuality. It’s not enough to say “love and do what you will.” People need advice, perhaps because our generation is messed up, but more likely because sex is significant in people’s lives. It can be a powerful force for good and ill. If Christianity is about living a good life, it has to deal with good physicality as well as good spirituality.
Alas, the “conservatives” don’t have a healthy message here. It usually goes something like this:
You should have sex with your spouse. Otherwise, just don’t do it.
But that doesn’t really help. First, it’s rather spare on why and when and how to get married, not to mention serious discussion of whom you should marry. Second, where does the advice come from once you are married? Third, and most importantly, it neglects the very real components of love, intimacy, friendship, attraction, and desire that play a part in all of our relationships. Too often we pretend that it is easy to differentiate between “romantic interest” and “everyone else.” Only by recognizing the complexity of relationships can we responsibly keep them healthy. Only by recognizing the ambiguities can we give meaningful advice about flirting, dating, courting, and marriage. A useful sexual ethics will need to address a broad range of social interactions.
We know that we treat people better when we are attracted to them. This is not just folk wisdom; behavioral economics has proven it, repeatedly. We pay more attention to and are willing to give up more in trading with attractive people. That means that physical attraction has a demonstrable power element, even between people who only see each other briefly. Any time you wield power over another person, it raises ethical questions. Any time you know you will be predisposed to one person over another, it raises ethical questions.
Think about what happens when you enter into relationships of trust – teacher, pastor, doctor, …
Think about what happens when you introduce social dynamics with 3 or more people – envy, jealousy, judgment…
Think about how your attractiveness (and attractedness) impacts your self-image and the choices you make…
Suddenly, there are all these issues related to sexuality that have nothing to do with who you sleep with. It’s not good enough to say: don’t. It’s not good enough to say: do. Because this was never a question about rules. It’s a question of priorities and relationships;
I don’t actually think Genesis 2:15-3:24 is about sex, but it is about gender, trust, and relationships, particularly how Adam and Eve’s relationship with the snake affects their relationship with God.
power over bodies and minds;
I recommend reading Genesis 14-22 straight through and note how the Bible intertwines the tale of Sarah and Hagar with the tale of Lot in Sodom. They are both stories about the relationship between power, trust, ownership, and sex.
individuality and communion.
Pay close attention to the order of I Corinthians. Paul is trying to say something about what it means to be one with a spouse, and one with the church, and one with God. I am not convinced this was intended as a sequential argument, but clearly the connections are there.
It’s about grace to be found through the Holy Spirit, in the situation of the flesh. So, Christianity has some very important things to say about sex and sexuality, but in order to hear them we must be willing to see how they relate to the entirety of our lives.