UNDERTAKINGS AND PROMISES
Sexual Ethics in the Life of the Church
THE 1990 ZABRISKIE LECTURE SERIES
The Rev. Dr. Philip Turner, Professor of Christian Ethics
The General Theological Seminary
Sex and the Single Life: Moral and Pastoral Problems Before the Church
In the first two of these three lectures I have traced what I have called "our basic division." We now come to the specific issue which most divides us-the one I suspect you have wanted me to address from the start. What ought Christians to say and do about sexual relations between people who are not married one to another?
I have chosen to address our most painful issue last because delay was the only way I could think of to make a basic point. The question of sexual relations between single people cannot be debated apart from the other questions that adhere to it, and these are the ones we have been considering. One of the problems with the current "discussion" is that each issue we have touched upon is being addressed in isolation from all the others, and, if I have succeeded in nothing else, I hope at least I have managed to establish that this is not a responsible way to proceed.
Having delivered myself of this admonition, let me begin by posing the question now before us in the way in which I believe it ought to be posed. The question is not whether we ought to adopt a new sexual ethic. The issue is whether the new sexual ethic we are in fact in the process of adopting is one that is "worthy of our calling." I say that we are in the process of adopting a new sexual ethic, not considering its adoption, more because of what we are now saying about sexual relations than because of what we are now doing about them. Let me explain.
In 1982, News Week magazine published the results of a poll carried out by two scholars at Johns Hopkins University. It showed that one out of every five young women who reach the age of fifteen admitted to having had sexual intercourse. By the time these young women reach sixteen the figures rises to one in three, and by the time they are seventeen the number is one of every two. If we add to this the sexual activity of young men of the same age, of gay men and lesbian women at a later stage of life, and that of single and divorced heterosexual couples, it becomes clear that the sexual practice of people in our society is quite different from that held to be normative by the traditional teaching of the churches.
The notable change in behavior that has taken place over the past 30 years, however, would not be of as great significance if it were not accompanied as well by a change in the way in which we think about sexual relations. There have, after all, been many periods and places where sexual practice has been quite loose. There have as well been periods and places where it has been quite strictly controlled. Changes in behavior are not new, but the way in which we as a society are now beginning to think about that behavior is quite new, and it will not surprise you to learn that I believe that the change that is taking place is related to our basic division-to an alteration in the way in which we think of the relation between undertakings and promises.
Once more, James Nelson's Embodiment provides an exemplary instance of the new reformer's position, and it does so for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that what he has to say captures so well the essence of the revisionist argument. It is helpful also because it makes clear that the argument of the revisionists is the same whether they are speaking of heterosexual or homosexual relations. This second point is important because the two issues are usually treated separately--as if what one argued about relations between members of the same sex was quite different from what one might argue about relations between people of different sexes. My contention, however, is that, though distinct, the issues in these two cases are not all that different. They, in large measure, involve the same points, and, for this reason, it is a mistake in moral reasoning to address them as if they were utterly discrete issues.
The line of argument Nelson himself follows makes this very point and shows it to be a line that is quite explicit in the arguments the new reformers are making. What he has to say about sexual relations between single people, be they heterosexual or homosexual, is of a piece and in the end but an extension of what he says about marital relations themselves. The basic point to be made about all forms of sexual relation is that they are supposed to be a means for the "expression of love" and so also for the establishment and maintenance of "communion." They are, therefore, appropriate only when a certain degree of "loving commitment" is present. When this degree of love and commitment is present they are appropriate. It is simply the case that sexual relations are in a way "natural" to "embodied" life, and so may be (and indeed usually are) necessary for the wholeness and fulfillment of individuals no matter what their marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identification may be.
The moral acceptability of these relations depends not upon an undertaking the terms of which are set by Divine providence but upon the motivations and intentions of moral agents, and upon the nature and consequences of their acts.1 The acceptable motive for a sexual relationship is love, the acceptable intention is that "each genital act should aim at human fulfillment and wholeness.'" 2 "Fulfillment" and "wholeness" in turn are said to involve emotional sustenance, healing, and, most of all, growth for the parties involved.
As can easily be anticipated, the nature of the
sexual act itself is to be judged not on the basis of goods that are internally
related to the act itself (unity and procreation), but on the basis of whether
or not it is "loveless."
A loveless act is one that is "coercive, debasing to others' sensitivities, utterly impersonal, (or) obsessed solely by physical gratification."3 Nelson's point is easily grasped, but it is easy to miss its staggering implication, namely, that there is, properly speaking, no special ethic for sexual relations. Sexual acts are to be judged in the same way all other acts are to be judged: on the basis of whether they promote flourishing and avoid harm and coercion. Sexual acts, like all others, have no particular goods or ends that are proper to them, and for this reason, like all acts, are to be assessed only on the basis of intention on the one hand and results on the other. There is, as Nelson says, no act that is "inherently right or wrong.'"
Nevertheless, precisely because moral acts are relative in this way, certain promises are necessary in all sexual relations if the parties involved are not to harm one another, affront one another's dignity, or illegitimately rob one another of their liberty. Thus Nelson, as do most of the new reformers, insists that in all sexual relations there ought to be present "commitment, "openness" (or "vulnerability"), and "care." 5
Now these universally mandated promises are not made in relation to the particular undertakings that might arise out of individual needs and desires. Neither are they mandated by the intrinsic nature of the acts themselves nor by the set nature of the undertakings of which those acts may rightly be a part. They are mandated simply to promote "respect for persons" and so to insure that their rights are not trampled upon. These promises do not derive from undertakings or from a moral character intrinsic to human acts. They derive instead from the need to protect the rights of individuals to choose their undertakings and so contract by means of promises for particular goods in the sexual market place.
(What must be noted is that the new reformers employ two forms of moral reasoning to reach the conclusions they do. The prohibition of harm and coercion protect the rights of individuals each of which are due respect. This aspect of the new ethic is often expressed in the language of deontology. On the other hand, when it comes time, within these limits, to determine whether or not to enter a sexual relation, calculations are made on the basis of whether or not a sexual relation will promote the wellbeing of the party or parties involved. In respect to judging particular sexual relations that are neither coercive nor harmful, the ethic of the new reformers becomes utilitarian rather than deontological. )
In making this argument, Nelson speaks with the voice of our culture, and in so doing gives expression to the views of a significant number of Christian people as well. It is clear that what he says applies to marital relations, adulterous relations, and to relations between single people both of the same and of opposite sex. One argument will do in each case. There is no special line of reasoning needed for any of these forms of relationship because each is but another form for love's expression with a view to the establishment and maintenance of communion and for the promotion of growth. 6
Now the objections to a position like that of Nelson are well known. They are, say many, quite contrary to the plain sense of scripture. Critics further insist that "commitment," ''vulnerability," and "care," as presented by the new reformers, are, when compared to the vows demanded in the marriage rite, both extraordinarily limited in their content and quite vague in respect to their duration. This limitation both of the extent and duration of the bond that ought to link people in a sexual relation has the effect of making those relations increasingly unstable and at the same time of trimming the virtues required of the agents involved in them. 7
VTS Academic Dean Dr. Allan Parrent and Dr. Turner.
Critics point out further that the new reformers
must make a division in principle between the sexual and marital goods of
unity and procreation and thereby make licit forms of "baby making" that have,
in principle, no connection
with "lovemaking." The point is also made that if the arguments of the new reformers are applied, as usually they are, both to heterosexual and homosexual people, they effectively erase the moral significance (for sexual relations) of the sexual and gender related differences between men and women. 8
In response, proponents of Nelson's position charge that the understanding of the Bible held by defenders of the "traditional ethic" gives undue authority to specific texts. These are relative to time and circumstance and are all subject to judgment on the basis of whether or not they serve the purposes of love. Advocates claim further that the "traditional ethic" has plunged people into precipitous and disastrous marriages. 9 They note that the traditional ethic takes no account of the vastly extended period that now exits between the onset of puberty and the age when marriage is possible and appropriate. They remind their readers also of the fact that there are now an extremely large number of permanently single people and that, if they are homosexual, marriage is out of the question for them altogether. They go on to assert that these people are nonetheless sexual beings with needs and desires that must not be ignored if they are to have healthy and full lives. In this respect, they point out that sexual relationships are "natural" to human beings, are part of the world created by God, are good, and that no one ought to be denied such a relation simply on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identification.
These arguments and counter arguments are well known. What we all realize, however, is that the parties to this debate in large measure simply talk past each other. Each rarely engages the point the other is trying to make. One reason for this failure to engage in genuine debate is that the parties to the disagreement have very different views both of moral agency and the nature of the moral life. This difference is an extremely important one to note for the simple reason that ideas of the new reformers have such increasing appeal because their notions about moral agency and the nature of the moral life cohere so well with the views about these matters that now are characteristic of American culture.
The coherence can be seen in the significant place given to two words that now serve to sum up both moral agency and the moral life. The words are "person" and "self," and the adequacy of the position of the new reformers hinges largely upon the adequacy of these two words (as now used) to account for the nature of the moral life and the nature of moral agency. Person and Self are the words that now carry our moral universe, and it is sad to note that the more traditional arguments about sexual relations have failed to take their meaning and power into account. As a result, the traditional views of the church seem to many people strangely out of place.
This criticism cannot be made of the new reformers, however. They trade upon the power and meaning these words now have, and for this very reason their arguments present themselves with enormous force. Force of presentation and strength of appeal do not, however, imply anything about adequacy. I have treated elsewhere the weaknesses of the use made by the new reformers of the notion of "personhood," and will not repeat that criticism here. 10
My present focus is not upon "persons" and their "rights," but "selves" and the various attendant notions that give this conception its resonance and power. It is really the notion of the self that provides the greatest support for the view of promises and undertakings we have been tracking. It lies at the heart of revisionist arguments about sex and these cannot be assessed apart from an analysis of the significance and adequacy of "the self' as a moral notion.
What, in a moral sense, do we convey when we refer to people as "selves?" Charles Taylor has pointed out that there are three assumptions that serve to give the self its moral definition. 11 The first is that the self does not define people by social status and role but by inwardness, by a subjectivity that gives each moral agent depths. These depths make each self an "individual." The second is that the self's proper sphere of activity is "everyday life" rather than, let us say, the mythical landscape of heroes or the heavenly one of saints. The third is that each self has abilities and that the point of everyday life is to discover those abilities and put them into operation. In this way the self grows, discovers its depths and finds the satisfactions everyday life is supposed to yield. 12
Along with these notions of self, come three moral ideas that direct and limit the self's activities. The first is benevolence. Each self ought to act in a generous fashion toward all other selves so that each self can find the conditions necessary for growth and development. The second is justice understood first of all as the guarantee of rights. Each self has dignity and as such should be accorded rights that protect that dignity and allow the self to pursue its good without undue impediment. The third moral idea is that suffering ought to be and can be eliminated from daily life. Indeed, the elimination of suffering, in a way that would strike people of previous ages as wildly utopian, has become a major social imperative. In the moral world inhabited by "selves," suffering is in no way seen as either an inevitable or as a useful part of life.
Even this brief summary of Taylor's account of
the self ought to make clear the "fit" between contemporary notions of moral
agency and the views of the new reformers. If it is also assumed that
"sexuality" in some way defines the inner depths of the self, and if "sexuality"
is thought to stamp the powers and abilities the self is to discover, develop
and exercise in the course of daily life, then, all other things being equal, it
makes sense to say that sexual relations ought not to be tied to anything like
set undertakings. To speak of sexual undertakings in the way implied by the Book
Common Prayer is to deny people access to a basic human good from the start and for reasons that are difficult if not impossible for modern people to grasp.
Indeed, a position like that implied by the marriage rite in the Book of Common Prayer seems neither benevolent nor just, and it most certainly is believed to cause suffering. Given the present social climate, those not involved in a sexual relation are bound to feel a keen sense of insufficiency (and perhaps exclusion). Lacking such a relation, people are apt to feel that their lives are lacking a basic good, and it, therefore, makes no sense to most of them to say that because they are not married, cannot marry or ought not to marry, that they ought also to abstain from sexual relations.
Assumptions like these about "sexuality" are just those that Michel Foucault says accompany modern ideas about the "self." In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault says that "sexuality" now serves the same purpose as did the word "soul" in the Middle Ages. At that time "soul" provided its users with a way to unite the various aspects of human identity and, in so doing, gave it significance. It is now the function of the word "sexuality" to do the same thing. 13 Thus, "sexuality," "self," and "identity" are closely linked by present usage-sometimes to the point that the notions meld one with another. Denial of one's "sexuality" is akin to denial of "oneself' and so also one's basic "identity." It is, therefore, easy to understand why more and more people believe that it is wrong to deny a sexual relation to oneself or anyone else simply on the basis of marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identification. To do so is tantamount to denial of one's sexuality and so oneself. A denial of the self's basic needs is in turn both harmful and an infringement of each persons right to pursue a full and whole life.
The close relation that exists between the notions of "sexuality," "self," "identity," "fulfillment" and "right" makes clear once again the links between the ideas that underlie the revisionist proposals of the new reformers and those upon which modern political society is founded. In both the bedroom and the public square, the purpose of social relations is the pursuit of private life plans and personal wellbeing. This is the modern agenda and it is limited only by the principles of no harm and no coercion. It appears that the ideas about "self," "promises," and "undertakings" that, since the 17th Century, have become increasingly dominant in the political realm, have at the same time seeped into the more intimate spheres of life. The basic question for theological ethics is what the church ought to conclude about this spread of ideas from the public to the private realm.
Their spread in fact constitutes both a gain and a loss, and it is my belief that the arguments we are now having about sexual ethics will not progress until both the gain and the loss are taken into account. First, what needs to be said about the gain? The major difficulty with "the traditional teaching of the church" is that it has taken little account of individual circumstances. The particular desires and needs of men and women have too frequently been submerged into undertakings and sacrificed too easily to the demands of institutions. The appearance of the two notions of person and self within Western consciousness serves to counter the tendency to swallow up individuals in collective purposes.
For this reason, the emergence of the sexual self is an important moral event. To have it recognized that we are sexual selves, related in freedom to our ends, with depths to plumb, powers to be used and developed, and that we (all) can do these things in the course of everyday life is in fact a giant moral leap forward. The strength of the new reformer's position is that it recognizes the good of this step in a way that more traditional views have often, though not always, failed to do.
On the other hand, the chief problem with the view of the new reformers is that it fails to recognize that a sexual self, liberated from undertakings that have a moral claim upon it prior to any of its particular intentions and choices, has no satisfactory way to make moral judgments about what it intends, chooses, promises and then undertakes. The loss connected with the modern view of the self is that, as usually presented, the self has only the option of following the prompting of its own depths. It therefore appears in the unattractive guise of a dog chasing its tail. Like "the person" that is so important to the political thought of modern liberal society, the sexual self that is so important to modern reflexive consciousness appoints its own ends. It need not search out the nature of the undertakings God has appointed for it and then struggle to conform its desires, intentions, choices, promises and undertakings to those appointed ends. Neither the person nor the self are now thought to flourish within a providence that directs the undertakings of their lives. Rather they are said to flourish or not because of the intentions and choices that flow from their inner depths. As Milhaven has so clearly stated, it is now up to the autonomous self to "figure out what will be good for those concerned and how this good can be realized, just as it is up to (him), not God, to act and make the good a reality."
If the inner depths of the self are given this sort of authority, it can only mean that the most insistent prompting of the self is always taken as definitive of the self's true nature and good. The self's depths are set up to be judge of the self's depths. Even Locke recognized that it is unsatisfactory to make each "person" the judge in their own case, and surely the same thing is true of "selves." To take this view is to adopt the very dubious proposition that if one has desires and inclinations and they are powerfully presented from the depths of the self, they are, by virtue of the strength of their presentation, both "natural" and "good." To take this view is also to condemn the self to what Auden once called "promiscuous fornication with its own images." Apart from the undertakings which present the self with its arena for action and so its true calling, the self inevitably collapses into itself as it chases about panting after its own productions.
From what has been said thus far, it is obvious that the liberty of individuals to pursue private good is the major moral concern of the new reformers and for this reason their ethical views can fairly be seen as a variety of the contractarian social ethic now increasingly characteristic of political society. Indeed, my fundamental point is that the strong appeal of the proposals being made by the new reformers is due to the fact that they cohere so well with the way in which we now understand political life and with the way in which we represent ourselves as moral agents.
As one might expect, however, if their arguments share the strengths that come from coherence with modern views of the nature of moral and social agency, they also suffer from the weaknesses of these views. We have now tracked the revisionist proposals before the churches and before American society as a whole in some detail, and, as we have done so, we have watched the ideas that form the basis of their proposals spread out in all directions. We have noticed also that, at every turn, ideas which promise freedom, "fulfillment" and "wholeness" prove false benefactors. The cumulative effect of these failures is to place the burden of proof upon the new reformers. My intention in tracking the argument in this way is indeed to force them to meet the objections to their position and establish in a positive way its advantages.
Long ago, Aristotle pointed out the moral arguments are not like geometrical ones. In ethics, there are no deductions to certain conclusions. Moral argument is cumulative rather than deductive. It serves to establish a burden of proof rather than certainty. What I have tried to do during the course of these lectures is to establish such a burden by following a number of related issues and by showing through a varied set of arguments that, when push comes to shove, the traditional teaching of the church has greater strengths than does the position of the new reformers. It makes more sense of marriage and divorce. I is better able to illumine the moral character of familial relations. It can even give a better response to the particular moral problems posed by contemporary accounts of the moral life and moral agency based as they are upon the twin notions of "person" and "self." In respect to this last point, the traditional teaching can provide persons and selves with undertakings about which they can make promises and in so doing discover rather than collapse into themselves.
In short, a strong case can be made for saying that, as both the common good of society and the particular good of citizens is now threatened by political voluntarism, so also both the common and particular good of lovers and families is threatened by the voluntaristic and limited nature of the promises and undertakings that typically characterize the new reformer's account of sexual relations. Despite a strong climate of opinion to the contrary, it is more adequate to argue that, in both the public square and the bedroom, the traditional view that "persons flourish in and through patterns of relationship that are themselves taken to be normative" is in fact true, and that, in respect to its teaching about the undertakings and promises that ought to accompany a sexual (or political) relation, the church would do well to seek to preserve "an account of the goods of human relationship against their collapse into the desires or interests of autonomous individuals." It is sensible to conclude in respect to the moral problems before the church that it ought to defend rather than retreat from its traditional teaching and in so doing face squarely rather than turnaway from "the pathos of Christian ethics today."
If the churches choose to face this pathos, however, they will face at the same time pastoral issues of fearful proportions. Because the primary intention of the new reformers is to say yes to forms of sexual relation heretofore condemned by the church, they have a much easier pastoral task than do those who continue to hold to the traditional teaching. To defend this teaching is to appear to be a "no sayer" in the eyes of a culture for which the word "no" has less and less appeal. The pastoral question, therefore, is whether or not the church, in passing on its tradition about sexual relations, has more to say than "Don't do it."
I would like to contend that we do-that the pastoral import of the traditional teaching of the church is more fundamentally positive than negative. Its positive character is readily apparent in the surprising yet simple example that follows. Strange as it may seem, there is no need for someone who holds traditional beliefs to deny that there may be much good in the sexual relations single people enter. Many of them produce a genuine, though limited, community of life, and in them people often learn far more than they knew before about the nature of love. A person would have to be blind to miss these and other goods that are often present in relationships which for other reasons are not right.
Dr. Turner and Dean Richard Reid.
Indeed, if the teaching of the church is properly understood, it becomes apparent that the good found in these relations in fact derives from what Christians have to say about the goods of the sexual division, the goods of sex, and the goods of marriage itself. The church teaches that God created men and women for mutual society, and that, as men and women, they are neither to avoid nor despise their life together. The social relation between men and women is intended in creation for every man and every woman, and it is given to them so that they will not be alone. The first word beyond "no" to be spoken is that a sexual relation is not necessary to escape loneliness, but social relations between men and women are.
It is God's intention that social relations between men and women be entered by all, but that sexual relations per se be contained within the more specific bond of marriage. Within that bond, protected as they are by promises of fidelity and permanence, sexual relations nourish the unity of the couple, lead to the procreation of children, and provide a most immediate way for a man and a woman to learn what it is to love another as one loves oneself. It is the belief of the church that this providential ordering provides the framework within which our sexual lives can best serve not only our wellbeing, but also the more general purposes of God. These are the goods in one way or another sought in all sexual relations.
Observations like these make it obvious that Christians have far more to say to single people than "Don't do it," and that they have far more to say to married people than "Go right ahead." The teaching of the church about God's providential will for sexual relations is rich and complex. Its truth helps define the fullness of our lives, and apart from a full, vigorous, and positive statement, both single and married people will find it difficult to glimpse the full extent of the promises God has etched in their sexual natures.
If Christians are asked to say "no" to sexual relations outside the bond of marriage, it is because they are called upon to honor God by saying "yes" to a providential ordering of life intended both for the glory of God and our individual and common good. What we know, however, is that we more often say no to God's providence than yes, and for this reason we know also that if God is not our reconciler and redeemer as well as our creator we are lost. God in Christ, however, is our reconciler, redeemer and creator, and when our sexual lives are viewed from this perspective they take on greater significance than first we imagine. They become a part of the way in which we learn to be disciples of Christ.
The struggle necessary if we are to direct our sexual energies to their appointed and lifegiving ends becomes, in Christ, a battle with an old self that refuses to honor God and insists upon its own way. In the power of the Spirit, this old nature must be put off and a new one put on. That old nature is driven by desires, some of them sexual, that are connected to self-serving ends. It is the teaching of the church that both married and single people are called to say yes to this struggle and recognize it as part of the "upward call of God."
For most, a struggle with unfulfilled sexual longing is anything but part of an "upward call." It seems instead a destructive, repressive, and self-deceptive form of denial. It is the belief of Christians, however, that entry into this battle leads men and women away from precisely these life-destroying habits and stratagems and toward a life that is open both to God and to their fellow men and women. To say "yes" to life in the Spirit is in fact the only way to end self-deceptive denial and harmful repression. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth and life rather than repression and denial. It calls for us to present ourselves at each moment to God as we are, with as much knowledge of ourselves as we can muster, with all our desires and intentions exposed, and in so doing ask for guidance, help and the transfiguration of our lives. God will not answer yes to many of the desires presented, but in saying no he will say yes to deeper desires and deeper loves both for God and for the men and women with whom God has surrounded us.
God will also speak a word of forgiveness over our inadequacies and failures and in so doing provide us strength to be even more truthful and more compassionate. Sexual desire is a very powerful one, and at the moment it is given full license by our society. Everything that confronts single people says "just do it." It is increasingly rare for a single person, at one point or another, not be involved in a sexual relation. In Christ, however, these relations need neither to be trumpeted nor denied. They can be brought before God, and as they are presented they will be judged with far more truth and love than we can muster. Another thing the churches ought to say to single people beyond "no" is come among us and present your life to God as it is. The upward call of God always begins from the place one starts and it takes place in a fellowship of friends who are also seeking to subject their loves to the truth and love of God in Christ.
This observation calls to mind another thing the
church has to say to single people about sex. Most people who enter even the
most casual sexual relation are not promiscuous. They are, however, lonely.
Beneath our disordered desires lies a loneliness brought about by a failure in
the common life God intends for all men and women. The churches in America in
many ways simply contribute to this loneliness. Their common life too frequently
is not formed as a society of friends who share one Lord, one Faith, one
Baptism. It is rather formed around the needs and expectations of the bourgeois
family. Single people at best are tolerated. Nevertheless, the view that sexual
relations are intended for marital rather than general social relations is
linked to the idea that close bonds between men and women, both single and
married, ought to exist in all of life's dimensions. Because of these bonds,
themselves are not necessary as a cure for loneliness. What is necessary is the fellowship of men and women in Christ. This is the word beyond "no" the church has to speak to single people. If it dares to speak, it will find not only that its common life is transformed beyond all recognition, but also that its teaching begins to appear to single and married people alike as a treasure to be shared rather than as a burden to be inflicted.
The time has come for me to draw these lectures to a close. By way of conclusion, I would like to add a postscript inviting us all to follow the road I have mapped further than I have been able to do. The comments I have just made about the pastoral task that lies before the church suggest that the ethics of sex, as Jeremy Taylor knew full well, ought to be placed within the full context of the Christian life and the churches' pastoral ministry. Only in this way will what Christians say escape the twin evils of punishing legalism and boundless freedom. To place sexual relations in this full and more adequate context, Christians ought to understand them as part of an undertaking that encompasses all aspects of their lives. That undertaking is holiness of life and its end is not repression but joy unconfined. This is the heart of the Christian life and it is the chief business of the pastoral ministry.
I take it that holiness of life summarizes better than any other notion what the Christian life and the pastoral ministry are about. The Christian life is rooted in the ancient command, "You shall be Holy for I the Lord your God am Holy." The holiness of life known to Christians is based first in the alien righteousness that is imputed to them. It is not based upon their purity of heart and life but upon their faith in the cross and resurrection of Christ. Holiness is also reflected in a way of life into which disciples enter more and more as, in the power of the Spirit, they engage in a struggle to conform their lives to the pattern of life they see in Christ Jesus. In this way they learn to imitate God and so share in God's life. One aspect of the pattern of life they are called to imitate requires that they honor God by honoring as well the way in which God intends for men and women to join their lives in and through sexual relations (Mk 10:2ff).
If holiness of life is understood in relation both to justification and sanctification, then sexual relations can be included within its compass without the repression and deception that so often accompany their discussion. Indeed, if we include sexual relations (and their absence) as part of a wider account of the Christian life, we will learn, as our lives are drawn further and further into the life of God, more about the undertakings God sets for us by making us male and female. In the light of these undertakings, all the promises we make to one another about our sexual lives will be seen in truth for what they are. In this process we will learn more and more about our bondage to self-serving and imprisoning desire. We will learn more and more about the joys life holds when our desires are ordered to the undertakings God appoints for us. In short, if the ethics of sexual order and sexual liberation, which now contend so fiercely one with another, are joined to an ethic of holiness of life, we will learn how necessary each is to the other.
1. James Nelson, Embodiment, p. 127.
2. Ibid., p. 128.
5. See James Nelson, Embodiment, p. 158f. For a treatment of "vulnerability" as the essential promise of a sexual relation see Karen LeBacqz, "Appropriate Vulnerability- A Sexual Ethic for Singles," The Christian Century 104, no. 5 (May 1987):435-38.
6. Many have
objected that homosexual relations present a special case in that heterosexual
people have open to them the possibility of marriage and homosexual people do
not. This was the basis, for example, for the recommendation of The Board for
Social Responsibility to the Synod the Church of England that a moral space
ought to be left for sexual relations between people of the same sex that ought
not to be allowed for single people of the opposite sex. (See e.g.,
Homosexual Relationships, pp. 52-53) There is, however, a fatal objection
that can be made to this view and it is simply that there are many reasons that
some people either cannot or ought not to marry. A homosexual orientation is but
one of them. A homosexual orientation then is a different problem than the one
or ones faced by a heterosexual person that cannot or ought not to marry but is
not called to celibacy. The difference,
however, is without moral significance. If one says that sexual relations are in some way necessary for people not called to celibacy and that some people either cannot or ought not to marry, it doesn't seem to matter much what those reasons are. They amount to the same thing in the end and it cannot be right to permit in one case what one will not permit in another case that is similar in all the morally relevant respects.
7 See e.g., Philip Turner, "Limited Engagements," passim.
8. See e.g., "Homosexual Relationships," passim.
9. For a summary of the points made in criticism of "the traditional ethic" see "Report of the Task Force on Changing Patters of Sexuality and Family Life," prepared at the request of the 111th convention of the Diocese of Newark by the Task Force on Changing Patterns of Sexuality and Family Life in John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1988), pp. 230-248.
10. See Philip Turner, Sex, Money and Power.
11. See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).
12. For a thorough discussion of the connection between the notion of self and that of growth and development see Peggy Rosenthal, Words and Values: Some Leading Words and Where They Lead Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 47-111.
13. See e.g., Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. I (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), pp. 155-157.