This is part one of a three-part series this summer on Christianity and sex. Part Two will look more closely at issues of sexuality and global justice and part Three will look at how to reconcile contemporary sexual ethics with Scripture and tradition.
Christian sexual ethics are much on my mind, on the minds of many of my students and youth group kids, and this summer, very much on the public’s radar as well. Next week, we’ll mark the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s famous Humanae Vitae, the encyclical that declared virtually all forms of contraception to be incompatible with Catholic teaching. In many ways, Humanae Vitae was the first blow struck in the reaction against the liberation movements of the 1960s, and it was the seed for much contemporary conservative thought about the meaning and purpose of our bodies and our lives. From a progressive standpoint, its fortieth anniversary is not cause for celebration. (But in all fairness, if you want to read a fine — but very, very wrong-headed — encomium to Humanae Vitae, visit First Things for this Mary Eberstadt piece.)
And of course, the Anglican Communion is on the verge of major schism this summer over, above all else, the issue of sexuality. A church that survived numerous revisions to the prayer book, a church that bravely embraced contraception way back in the 1930s, a church that largely held together when women began to be ordained in the 1970s, is now at last falling apart over the issue of homosexuality. Tied up in the near-certain schism is the basic disagreement among Christians about what constitutes “ethical sex” in the eyes of God. There seems little chance of a resolution that will both keep the church together and, at the same time, be congruent with how two very different groups of Anglicans see the role of sexuality in our lives.
In any case, I’ve been thinking about (and studying about, and writing about) Christian sexual ethics for many years, since I first took a course on Patristic Theology at Berkeley in 1987. I became a Roman Catholic the following year, and then had a tortuous series of peregrinations that led me to — and through — the Assemblies of God, the Mennonites, and the Episcopalians. (I’m just your average, run of the mill “charismatic Anabaptist Roman Anglican”.) Though I continue to worship at a variety of Christian churches today, I am now involved in the work of the Kabbalah Centre. And of course, I have a Ph.D. in Christian history, though that doctorate focused more on the ethics of war than on the ethics of sex.
I also come to the discussion as a heterosexual man in his forties, four times married, thrice divorced. I come as a college gender studies professor who works closely with Christian and non-Christian students alike, many of whom, I am happy to say, have chosen to see me as their mentor. I come to the discussion as a former Episcopal youth leader, who spent seven years teaching workshops on “Sex, All Saints Style” to high schoolers at the largest Anglican parish west of the Mississippi. So I bring a lot of experience, passion, and yes, baggage, to this subject.
From a theological perspective, though I’ve never been a Methodist, I come to the discussion with a healthy reverence for what’s often known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”: Reason, Experience, Scripture, Tradition. The “Quad” suggests that any understanding of God’s call on our lives needs to rest on those four things. Many Christians from across the theological spectrum have embraced the Quad as a sound method for discerning right thought, right speech, and right action.
So after all that build-up, what am I ready to say about Christianity and sex?
If there’s one core principle I derive from using the “Quad”, it’s this: in the end, God cares more about the content of our sexuality than he does about its form. Traditional Christian sexual ethics are often discussed in the context of what Christians can and can’t do. Modern conservatives will often say things like “the only form of genital contact sanctioned by God is that which happens in a marriage between one husband and one wife.” The implication is clear: if you get the “form” (heterosexual marriage) right, then the sex that follows is licit. If you haven’t got the form right, then sorry, Mabel, sorry, Ernest, you’ve “fallen short of the mark.”
But “form-based” sexual ethics clearly have their problems. For example, it ignores entirely the great likelihood that coercion, disrespect, and force can take place within marriage. The Catholic church did not start condemning marital rape — or even acknowledging that such a concept was possible — until the second half of the twentieth century. Is a situation in which a husband demands sex from his wife against her will somehow more congruent with the spirit of Christ than a situation in which two unmarried people make love with mutual enthusiasm? If you’re a stickler for “form-based ethics”, you bet. For the most traditional of theologians, marital rape is less of a serious sin than homosexuality or pre-marital sex, because form matters more than content. (And when was the last time you heard Focus on the Family put out a series of messages against intra-marital coercion?) Continue reading