Project Canterbury

Theology and Sexuality.

By Stephen Reynolds

Diocese of Toronto Doctrine and Worship Committee Study Day, 14 May 2003.

Reproduced with permission of Mary Reynolds, 2012


I am to speak about "a theological understanding of sexuality"; and right at the outset I must own up to a certain embarrassment. Not that the topic of sexuality itself embarrasses me; it's the task of offering theological reflections on the topic. For I am one of those theologians who do theology by unpacking the contents of the Christian tradition; and I have to admit to you that the Christian tradition as a whole—including the holy Scriptures—has had trouble knowing what to make of sexuality, beyond the fact that there are females and there are males. The tradition's account of the matter—so far as it may be said to have any account at all—has rested on a pastiche of prohibitions regarding the ways in which individuals may not exercise their sexuality; but it has never really moved behind the prohibitions to explore the fact of sexuality itself.

Given certain sayings of Jesus and certain pronouncements of Paul, it is easy to see why the tradition has had difficulty addressing the issue. For what Jesus and Paul had to say about it can hardly be called ambivalent, much less positive. They did not propose a theology of sexuality so much as what might be called the eschatology of all sexuality. Take, for example, Jesus' response to the Sadducees concerning the resurrection. They presented the hypothetical case of a woman who married and lost seven husbands, all brothers, and asked: "In the resurrection whose wife will she be?" Jesus answered: ''When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" [Mark 12.25]. Angels may have gender, in that the Scriptures accord them grammatically masculine names and grammatically masculine pronouns; but, strictly speaking, they have no sexuality. Or take this saying of Jesus, a follow-up to his pronouncement about the marriage of divorced persons: "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can" [Matt 19.11 b-12]. The sexuality of eunuchs is male, but it has been neutered; like "the angels in heaven," they cannot procreate—and Jesus clearly has no problem with that, with a deliberate abstention (at the very least) from all sexual activity. Moving on to Paul, we find nothing quite so purposely designed to jolt his hearers; but Paul's teaching hardly disagrees with the spirit of Jesus' sayings just quoted. In 1 Corinthians 7.25-40, the Apostle urged [1/2] believers, "in view of the impending crisis," not to entangle themselves in marriage because it distracts them from serving the Lord and preparing for the end. Even more pointedly—and very much in line with the Lord's own sayings—there is a saying of Paul which is much bandied about nowadays, but rarely with an appreciation of what it is implying. I mean Galatians 3.28: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." God created humankind male and female, and told them to ''be fruitful and multiply". At the resurrection, however, there will be no further need to be fruitful and multiply. So there will be no need for sexuality at all: the new creation overrides the terms of the first creation. Which may be why the Christian tradition has, strictly speaking, no such thing as a theology of sexuality.

So if the Christian tradition has addressed the issue of sexuality only in an oblique fashion, either as an adjunct of the holy estate of matrimony or as the target of moral and/ or cultic prohibitions, why do we have to address it directly now? It is a common complaint of many Christians that the Church has allowed the culture of modem of liberal society—of "the world, the flesh, and the devil"—to subvert revealed precepts of faith and morals. I consider myself to be a Catholic of the Anglican tradition; and that should make me a very conservative Christian indeed. Truth in advertising obliges me to acknowledge that a number of my acquaintances question my conservative credentials. Be that as it may, it occurs to me that I am never so conservative an Anglican as in my conviction that the Church cannot be unerringly opposed to the culture it inhabits, nor even always at odds with it, but must be in dialogue with it. Our task as people of the Church is not only to tell society what is false and unjust in its life, but also to help society discern what is true and just. But since this task takes place in dialogue, society may perform the same office with us, recalling us to a dimension of truth and justice that we have forgotten or even betrayed, or calling us to a fuller apprehension of God's will and way than we have hitherto been able to realize. Christianity—and Anglican Christianity in particular—has been so deeply implicated in western cultures for so long, that we have no right unilaterally to call off the dialogue; and the Church has been so willingly embedded in the world's powers-structures, that we cannot simply dismiss society's cry when it bears witness against the Church's own abuses of power. The residential schools' crisis has shown us that; and the question of sexuality may do the same. For the question of sexuality always involves a question of power, with the very real possibility of the abuse of power. In any [2/3] case, whatever our convictions about same-sex unions, we are already responding to our society's, our culture's, agenda, simply by sitting here and discussing sexuality. Because sexuality would not be an issue for the Church today unless it had become an issue for the society and culture that the Anglican Church of Canada inhabits.

So then—what are we talking about when we talk about "sexuality''? The most elementary explanation is the biological one—that is, sexuality has to do with the fact that individual humans are either male or female. The biological explanation finds it easiest to make the distinction between women and men by reference to the reproductive organs; and so does what often passes for natural theology—a theology which argues from the constitution of the physical world to what must be God's will or purpose. In terms of sexuality, this means (to put it bluntly) that, because there is a round peg and a round hole, the one was designed to go into the other and therefore must go nowhere else. Biological science acknowledges that there are individuals who possess reproductive traits of both sexes, known as hermaphrodites; but where hermaphrodites confound natural theology, biological science regards such individuals only as exceptions to the rule, not as aberrations which need to be corrected or eliminated. In any case, biological science notes that there are males and there are females, and merely describes the physical characteristics which distinguish one sex from the other, how those physical characteristics function in each sex, and what normally happens when an individual of either sex has intercourse with another person.

To make that last point about intercourse is to begin to move out of the realm of biological science. For sexual intercourse involves a consideration of patterns of behaviour—and not simply how one individual couples with another, but more generally how women act out their femaleness and men act out their maleness. These patterns of sexual behaviour are most certainly based in the biological or physiological dimension, but they are by no means confined to it. For the reproductive organs of the human body are not the sole determinant of behaviour; a range of other determinants are always in play, whether consciously or unconsciously, when it comes to the ways in which one is either a woman or a man. For example, both males and females are conditioned by cultural norms and social conventions to behave and act in certain ways, to be either what is known as "a regular guy" or "a real woman". These norms and conventions have very little to do with biological sexuality. [3/4] Nevertheless, the patterns of behaviour may still have a basis in biology, in that sexual orientation may be part of a person's genetic code. The scientific jury is still out on this point, though the proposition that genes have something to do with one's sexual orientation does seem plausible, or at least not counter-intuitive. It is not within the Church's legitimate authority to assess the scientific evidence and decide one way or the other—any more than geneticists have a right to state what moral, philosophical, or theological conclusions may (or may not) be drawn from the results of their scientific research.

But my point remains—sexuality is about much more than having sex with someone else. It has to do with how you regard yourself and how you relate to others—and to that extent, sexuality is one of most elemental factors of your existence. This is where the issue of gender arises—the issue of the roles that men and women are expected to play, beyond their reproductive functions. I have already alluded to this issue. To say, for example, that men are supposed to be emotionally "strong" and that women are supposed to be emotionally "nurturing" are not statements of biological fact but assertions of culturally determined gender stereotypes. Some of us may wish that our fathers had been more nurturing or that our mothers had been more strong—but precisely as a father and precisely as a mother. This is where the distinction between sexuality and gender gets blurry; for a male can indeed be emotionally nurturing precisely as a male; it is part of his sexuality, his maleness, the way he is a man for himself and for others; just as a woman can be emotionally very strong precisely as a woman; it is part of her sexuality, her womanhood, the way she is a woman for herself and for others.

Sexuality, then, not only has to do with an individual's private identity; it also has to do with relationship, how a person relates to and with others. Indeed, the Dominican theologian Jean Galot has defined the person as "a relational being," one whose very existence is that of a living relation-to-others. A Greek Orthodox theologian named John Zizioulas developed and refined Père Galot's insight further in a marvelous book, Being as Communion. The title gives a hint of the good things to be found in this work: being in communion with one another is fullness of being itself; it is also how we humans are in the image and likeness of God, who is the union and communion of three persons—or, in the technical language of theology, the perichoresis, the mutual indwelling, of three relations.

[5] So here we have a basis for giving a theological account of sexuality. It is not the mere, almost the brute fact that God created humankind male and female. It is also the way in which we are relations to one another, and how we are present to one another in word and deed, as either male or female. Certain patterns of sexual presence upbuild other persons and thus the self who is relating to them; certain other patterns of sexual presence abuse other persons and thus constitute sin, which is a negation of being, both the abuser's and the victim's, because the abuser deprives another person, another relation, of his or her proper integrity. The former patterns of sexual presence enact the image and likeness of God in us; the latter patterns of sexual presence dis-integrate that divine image and likeness, both in the victim and in the abuser.

Now the question I want to leave with you is this:—If sexuality is both the biological fact of being either male or female and the way in which each of us is present to and has relations with one another, whether emotionally or physically, can we say that heterosexual unions invariably enact the image and likeness of God in us and that same-sex unions invariably deface that divine image and likeness?

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