How are we to come to have an informed position on human sexuality, or on abortion or euthanasia for that matter, when we have no real doctrine of what it means to be human (theological anthropology)? This is perhaps why the UMC has not done more to be in ministry with people with disabilities. Denominationally, we haven’t done the theological homework to create a sense of urgency around this very important issue.
How are we to make decisions about who may be ordained and who may not be when we have no clear ecclesiology or doctrine of ordination? This lack of clear doctrinal teaching actually makes the discernment process much more difficult, both for boards of ordained ministry and for candidates. In the absence of theological direction, the process become highly arbitrary and idiosyncratic.
How are we to make decisions about marriage, divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, sexual intimacy, and related issues when we have no clear theology of marriage? Right now we are in an uproar over the issue of gay marriage, but we are neglecting to think through a host of related theological and ethical issues.
I know that some will say that we just need to read the Bible more closely, pay attention to its words, and be obedient to its teaching. Yes, we need to do all of these things, but doing so will not solve our theological and ethical disputes. We can be utterly committed to scripture, but still have different interpretive presuppositions and methods that will result in divergent conclusions about what scripture says and how we should follow its teachings. To provide a historical example, Arius wasn’t saying the Bible was wrong about Jesus. He was saying that his opponents interpreted scripture incorrectly. The witness of scripture is broad and often variegated. Scripture is complex. The Reformation notions of the perspicuity of scripture (its clarity) and its autopistic nature (that it is self-authenticating) have proven over time to be wrong. For the life of the church, we must read scripture in dialogue with a body of doctrine handed on to us through the Great Tradition of Christianity. – Dr. David Watson, “Getting The Horse Back In Front Of The Cart, Musings And Whatnot, June 13, 2014
In my previous incarnation, I wrote quite a bit about human sexual ethics, sexuality, and offered thoughts on how I felt a contemporary Christian sexual ethic should move forward. One thing I suppose I did not contend with were those forces within the church – both the United Methodist Church and the church universal – that are so outside current social and cultural discourse that their talk of sexuality is as meaningless as creationist arguments about physics and geology. That I also had to contend with discussions about popular culture and its impact upon girls and young women – the whole “slutty stars are bad role models!” argument – made me feel, more than once, that we in the churches are moving backwards rather than forward.
In my post earlier today I wrote that men needed to feel better about themselves, their body image, and in particular their penises. I am not joking. Increasingly men no less than women are under a great deal of pressure to conform to particular body types – the six-pack abs; the broad shoulders narrowing to a skinny waste; and, of course, an at least adequately sized penis – in order to be attractive to women. At the very least, it’s about time. After all, particularly here in the west (although, really, this is a nearly universal phenomenon) , women have done everything from destroy their internal organs through the use of corsets to starve themselves to death in order to meet the felt needs of a particular ideal that was or is considered attractive. That men are now under ever more pressure to do the same thing means that women have gained at least some traction in the sexual marketplace (or perhaps the manufacturers of products for male sexual desirability and potency have more capital invested in advertising; or both, most likely).
But we do need to have a healthy discussion of human sexuality. We in the churches do need to confront the stark reality that ours is a culture that is horribly schizophrenic about sex. On the one hand, it is to be approached, if at all, obliquely. On the other hand, we are swamped with images of sex in everything from hamburger ads to film and music. We are told if we eat certain foods, drink certain beverages, use particular toothpastes or deodorants or cologne we will be sexually desirable.
Being sexually desirable is not bad or wrong. On the contrary, as I wrote earlier today on Facebook, its part of the game and interchange of courtship and mating. Women dress and otherwise make themselves up to be sexually desirable, particularly at times of peak fertility in their cycles. Men, too, will dress and adorn and act in such ways that they believe (rightly or wrongly) will attract women with whom they would prefer to mate and have children. That we dress these rituals up sometimes, or deride them as part of “hook-up culture” – as if somehow human beings only now discovered casual sex – doesn’t make them any less part of who we are as human beings. We, no more or less than any other animal, have to find a mate with particular qualities to share our genetic material with. We just have enough rationality both to enjoy it and feel guilty about it at the same time.
Dr. Watson is correct to the extent that we in the church are lousy at articulating any kind of coherent sense of what it is to be human; wrapped up in that, both existentially and ethically, would be a sense of what should be proper as act for creatures constituted as we are. This would include, but not be limited to matters of social empathy and support; relations between the genders in the economic sphere; and, of course, sex. While it might be nice if we could just turn to the Bible and come up with answers, any serious Christian sexual ethic – any serious Christian ethic of any sort – will find contradictory materials there, to say the least. I would submit that while the vast majority of the Biblical text, when sex is mentioned at all, is pretty negative, there is always the Song of Songs with which to contend. While scholars have argued over its inclusion in the canon for centuries, there is just no escaping not just its earthiness, but its explicitness. Both the man and the woman are quite specific in what they are praising about one another. They are candid in their admiration not only for the physical beauty of the other, but for the other’s ability to use their bodies for mutual pleasure. We can neither ignore this poem, nor reconcile it with so much else in the Scriptures that is negative either about women or sexuality.
That leaves us in the peculiar position, at least as Wesleyan Christians, of searching not just tradition – which has been largely as negative as the Scriptures – but our reason and our experience to guide us through the thicket of contradictions that is our current discourse on sexuality. The first thing I would do, were I able to wave a magic wand and get folks to arrive on the same page on this matter, would be to insist that we start from an Incarnational hermeneutic. That is to say, we seek to understand the sheer variety of human sexuality in terms of the claim we Christians make that God became fully human, which most assuredly includes being a sexual person. Whether or not Jesus was sexually active is neither here nor there, and a matter that can never be answered given the absence of evidence one way or another; the point, rather, is that God chose be embodied within a specific human being in a specific time in history. As such, among the things Jesus experienced was his own sexuality. God would not have chosen to become fully human if sexuality wasn’t a part of his make-up. In and of itself, this reality should alter how we approach human sexuality: If it was good enough for God to become human, with all that entails, it should be good enough for us at the very least to wrestle with, to recognize its complexity and sometimes contradictory nature, and to be able to talk about it without evasion.
As a personal aside, I believe that Christian sexual ethics should be, by and large, a positive thing. That doesn’t mean that anything goes. Rather, it means that we in the Christian churches should affirm human sexuality, in its various iterations, as a good thing when pursued and acted upon in love: Love for God and love for one another. Neither women nor men are peculiarly weak nor strong in regards sexuality; neither women nor men are particularly guilty of violating sexual boundaries; both women and men are free to be fully sexual beings, provided they are attentive to matters not only of themselves as individuals, but their partners as individuals and their mutual need for God’s love. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with the cultural expression of sex-positive points of view; in fact, they can serve as guideposts for what it means to be fully human as sexual beings.
What we do not need are discussions about sexuality that set limits either upon what is open for discussion and what is not; what is acceptable to God and what is not; what sexual acts are more “Biblical” and “Christian” than others. Such talk is enough to turn off most people before any discussion gets going. Far too often, we in the churches are so afraid of sex, we can’t discuss it at all. When we do, we set boundaries so narrow that we cannot see what is happening around us, good and bad, and come to terms with it. Whether its Nicki Minaj celebrating her particular assets, Puddle of Mudd trying to figure out why mutually angry and obsessive sexuality can be both good and bad, or Liz Phair desiring little more than that a man understand she, too, is a sexual being with needs – we need to hear these things, even when expressed in ways of which we don’t approve, and be able to incorporate them (and so much more) in to our larger understanding of what it means to be a sexual being whose existence is both affirmed and redeemed by a good and loving God.