Perhaps not surprisingly, my sermon 2 weeks on (homo)sexuality in the Church prompted quite a few people to ask me for names and titles of reading on the matter, readings with substance and depth. My first answer is always Rowan Williams‘ 10 page essay ‘The Body’s Grace.’ It’s the best theological reflection on sexuality, marriage and grace out there. The nuance of Williams’ argument points out Stanley Hauerwas‘ contention that the Church should stop arguing about homosexuality until it figures out what we mean by ‘marriage.’
Here, Williams’ examination of sexuality through the lens of grace reveals how little popular, ‘biblical’ books on sex and marriage like Mark Driscoll‘s Real Marriage pay attention that most central of Christian doctrines.
Here’s a snippet. You’ll have to click over to read the rest. It’s worth it.
But is should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures.
There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another.
The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity, though, is to “legalise” it in such a way that it stands quite apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions.
When we bless sexual unions, we give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved, true; but we do this so that they may have a certain freedom to “take time,” to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can.
We should not do it in order to create a wholly impersonal and enforceable “bond”; if we do, we risk turning blessing into curse, grace into law, art into rule-keeping. In other words, I believe that the promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for understanding the full “resourcefulness” and grace of sexual union.
I simply don’t think we’d grasp all that was involved in the mutual transformation of sexually linked persons without the reality of unconditional public commitments: more perilous, more demanding, more promising.
Yet the realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.
Decisions about sexual lifestyle are about how much we want our bodily selves to mean rather than what emotional needs we’re meeting or what laws we’re satisfying. “Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law? By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing” (Romans 3.31): happily there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!
I have suggested that the presence or absence of the body’s grace has a good deal to do with matters other than the small scale personal. It has often been said, especially by feminist writers, that the making of my body into a distant and dangerous object, to be either subdued or placated with rapid gratification is the root of sexual oppression.
I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy.
Thinking about sexuality in its fullest implications involves thinking about entering into a sense of oneself beyond the customary imagined barrier between the “inner” and the “outer” the private and the shared.
We are led into the knowledge that our identity is being made in the relations of bodies, not by the private exercise of will or fantasy: we belong with and to each other, not to our “private” selves (as Paul said of mutual sexual commitment), and yet are not instruments for each other’s gratification.
There is something basic, then as Freud intuited, about how we make sense sexually, basic for the fabric of corporate human life. But beyond the whole question of how the body’s grace is discovered is a further, very elusive question.
Sex is risky and grace is not discovered by all; and there is something frightening and damaging about the kind of sexual mutuality on which everything comes to depend – that is why it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything.
But, as I hinted earlier, the body’s grace itself only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption.
To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.
lt is perhaps because of our need to keep that perspective clear before us that the community needs some who are called beyond or aside from the ordinary patterns of sexual relation to put their identities direct into the hands of God in the single life. This is not an alternative to the discovery of the body’s grace.
All those taking up the single vocation – whether or not they are, in the disagreeable clinical idiom, genitally intact – must know something about desiring and being desired if their single vocation is not to be sterile and evasive.
Their decision (as risky as the commitment to sexual fidelity) is to see if they can find themselves, their bodily selves, in a life dependent simply upon trust in the generous delight of God – that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of a divine ego, but whose whole life is a “being-for,” a movement of gift.
There is the great freedom of the celibate mystic in deploying the rhetoric of erotic love in speaking of God; and, even more importantly, there is that easy acceptance of the body, its needs and limitations, which we find in mature celibates, like Teresa of Avila in her last years.
Whatever the cost, this vocation stands as an essential part of the background to understanding the body’s grace: paradoxical as it sounds, the celibate calling has, as one aspect of its role in the Christian community, the nourishing and enlarging of Christian sexuality.
It’s worth wondering why so little of the agitation about sexual morality and the status of homosexual men and women in the Church in recent years has come from members of our religious orders. I strongly suspect that a lot of celibates do indeed have a keener sensitivity about these matters than some of their married fellow Christians.
And anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to the celibate life; almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky, for the homosexual than the heterosexual.
It is impossible, when we’re trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from; and in this final part I want to offer some thoughts about this problem.
I wonder whether it is to do with the fact that same-sex relations oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t. When we’re thinking about the latter, there are other issued involved notably what one neo-Marxist sociologist called the ownership of the means of production of human beings.
Married sex has, in principle, an openness to the more tangible goals of producing children; its “justification” is more concrete than what I’ve been suggesting as the inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself.
If we can set the movement of sexual desire within this larger purpose, we can perhaps more easily accommodate the embarrassment and insecurity of desire: it’s all in a good cause, and a good cause that can be visibly and plainly evaluated in its usefulness and success.
Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace.
It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?
The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God’s relation to humanity.