After reading several wonderful pieces by Chris Fewings – particularly ‘Love Divine, All Loves Embracing’ (15th July 2012) – and stumbling across an online reproduction of The Body’s Grace (1989), I’ve been sufficiently inspired to sketch out a few thoughts on Christianity and sexuality. These are nothing more than foundational ideas. Nonetheless I hope, in the context of various contemporary debates on sexuality, gender and the Church, to offer a fresh perspective from the vantage point of that most terrifying demographic: the teenage student.
Does Christianity ‘do’ sex?
Christianity is all about repression and guilt,’ someone once charged me over an otherwise amicable (and relaxed) lunch, ‘which is why it’s all no sex!’ This was at university, where I was aware that the crucifix on my desk was far too much for most people’s conscience to handle when paying me a visit ‘this morning, after what happened last night…didn’t you hear about it?’ Guilt! The conversation at lunch seemed to crystallise this hostility towards religion as the opponent of freedom, the oppressor of life and the preventer of joy. The ferocity of their argument was troubling, and gave me reason to ponder.
Unsurprisingly, I don’t think Christianity is inherently repressive: it is, as C.S. Lewis reminds us in Narnia, very much a liberating faith, in which ‘Divine anarchy’ overturns our own ‘ordered sin’. Nonetheless, as Chris Fewings has highlighted, we have separated our notions of desire – the erotic, in its widest sense – from our understanding of piety. We long for God, but we banish sexuality. This stems, I think, from a misunderstanding of sexuality itself. Certainly, organised religion shares its guilt in this respect – particularly when the fronds of sexual identity and social order have been precariously intertwined – but I’m certain that a misunderstanding and distortion of sexual desire is commonplace in today’s secular world too.
‘Sex sells’, runs the familiar commercial aphorism, but in all its manifestations – eroticism in advertising, clothing and film, and the increased availability of pornography – there is, to echo both Nagel and Williams, an asymmetric frustration. Simple sexual lust is egotistical; desire, properly understood, involves the trust of and commitment to perception by another. For the physical body to be the cause of my joy, it must be unreservedly there for another, or, as Williams puts it, ‘given over to the creation of joy in that other’. Asymmetric sexual relationships (within which I would categorise pornography and perhaps some fleeting sexual encounters) are ‘perverse’ in that they put one party in control of that interaction, with the inevitability of its distortion. I don’t think this precludes meaningful sexual relationships from being somewhat transitory; rather, I think this approach suggests in what ‘mode’ our sexual partnerships become authentic vehicles of meaning and purpose.
Sexuality, then, morally speaking, is centred on communication, and the use of our bodies in the wider project of conveying human meaning. Certain sexual modes tend to narrow the possibilities of this communication, whilst others can enlarge them. Ultimately, this reasoning is predicated on an acceptance of the inherent dignity of the body, as part of that meaning-seeking and meaningful state of existence which we call human life. Even scrubbed of religious language, that notion – widely held by secular liberalism since at least the Enlightenment – comes tantalisingly close to what Christians would label grace. Grace is fundamentally a matter of being desired; a ‘transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted’. And any notion of the ‘body’s grace’ – subsuming secular notions of fundamental rights and inherent dignity – only makes sense within a language of grace itself, a language of ‘creation and redemption’. We are an object for the unceasing, unconditional, boundless love and delight of God; we enter into communication with that Divine other through our incorporation into His community. That, to crudely pinch what has elsewhere been eloquently penned, means that the Church stands astride some of the most erotic language we could possibly muster.
Hang on a minute: what about fertility?
All of what I have said above deals with the joy of sexual communication – as it were, a further means of expressing ourselves, through our material physicality. Again, look to C.S. Lewis and Aslan’s sensuousness, ‘on the knife edge of erotic’ as Williams put it. Quite clearly, sexuality has much to do with fecundity – from the biological perspective, it’s purely instrumental – and yet, equally clearly, this seems less about sexuality and more about sex. A heterosexual couple might, in this regard, have more ‘justification’ for sexual communication – but an acknowledged importance of fertility (theologically as well as biologically) need not preclude an understanding of sexual communication that bestows equal integrity and intrinsic worth on a similarly meaningful homosexual relationship. Indeed, as The Body’s Grace asks, is it perhaps because homosexuality prompts us to think far more directly and extensively about ‘desire’ and less about functionality that so many Christians have felt threatened by it? If this is the case, given the case sketched above, shouldn’t we be rejoicing in homosexuality for enabling contemplation of a far more complete picture of desire – and how our own sexual communication might fit into a narrative of grace, love and meaning that unites us more fully with God?
Much, much more needs to be said on this: nonetheless I wish to focus on just one more area in this article. I hope perhaps to return to the preceding paragraph and deal with it at length in subsequent writing.
Institutionalisation, sex and the Church
The Church blesses marriages – not yet homosexual ones, but, in time, I hope they will be similarly included – as a matter of faith. We are so thoroughly acquainted with this concept that perhaps we have forgotten what this really means. Misunderstood, a blessed partnership becomes a legalistic compact – precisely the aversion of the true risk of sexuality and desire – which all too often hides behind the ‘justification’ of child-bearing. This has never been what Christian marriage truly involves. Rather, the institutionalisation of a partnership is the construction of a sanctuary of space and time, after the public proclamation of faith, trust and love, to let that relationship, in its fullest and most physical sense, truly find its existence. It gives, amidst the pressures of our contingent world, some refuge for that vulnerability of desire which partners – be they heterosexual or homosexual – must explore and realise. Marriage ought to be the soundproof room amidst the din of worldly chaos – a space and time where communication can really be heard. And of course, that communication includes sexuality – and not just sexual intimacy, but that broadest meaning of desire – and yet is not dominated by it. Marriage as an institution helps remind us that sexual mutuality cannot be a totality and an end in itself – at least if we are to avoid a wholly Freudian reality.
Indeed, it is precisely this need for perspective that, somewhat paradoxically, makes the celibate life such an important part of witness within the Church. Those called to the celibate life, particularly as part of the vocation to the religious life, remind us that sex itself is not the god we worship, but that it can form part of the range of communication which unites us with others and God. The ‘desire’ of celibates is not repressed, but rather committed totally to God, rather than focused on one other human being. This is in a very real sense ‘risky’. It cannot be seen as simply ‘fleeing’ from the risk of desire in the same way as rampant promiscuity arguably can. Of course, it must be said that celibacy approached without due discernment can clearly be dangerous and tragic; it can become a perverse license for the very worst of asymmetrical frustrations, which have historically caused unspeakable harm to vulnerable humanity. Yet, it seems undeniable that those who properly embrace the celibate life are often those who are most familiar with the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of our own bodies, and the erroneous paths our desires – and our misreading of them – can easily lead us down. Read Thomas Merton or Teresa of Avila, and there you will find an absence of self-deceit quite breathtaking in its clarity.
These brief sketches are neither original nor adequate explorations of very complex positions. Yet, hopefully, they provide something of a foundation for our thinking about what sexuality means to Christianity. As I hope is clear, whilst the answer to the charge ‘Christianity is all about repression and doesn’t ‘do’ sex!’ might concede that, historically, the answer has sometimes been ‘yes’; the Christian understanding of sexuality, it can be argued, is a unique framework that bestows on our physicality and the whole range of our communicative media the appropriate dignity, respect and meaning. It is ultimately the search as meaning-seeking beings, for a meaningful relationship with that unconditional desirer that is God that should enable us as Christians to be unafraid of broadening our horizons and embracing the infinitely bigger, broader and better world to which Jesus Christ shows the way.
All quotes, unless otherwise stated, from The Body’s Grace, a lecture by Rowan Williams, delivered in 1989 as the 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM).
The illustrations are both by Nina Aldin Thune and are downloaded from Wikimedia under licence. This statue of St Theresa’s Ecstasy is in the Cornaro chapel of the Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome and is of course by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).