Reading First Things

The latest edition of First Things is now out, and includes a piece by Timothy George on ‘Reading the Bible with the Reformers’, and a provocative piece by Douglas Farrow on ‘Blurring Sexual Boundaries’, wherein Farrow (speaking to the Canadian context) argues that ‘Sex cannot serve as an effective legal marker for discrimination if its binary nature dissolves into fluid sexual subjectivities’.

There are also pieces by David Bentley Hart, a regular contributor, on ‘Golf and the Metaphysics of Morals’ and on Heidegger, ‘A Philosopher in the Twilight: Heidegger’s philosophy as a meditation on the mystery of being’, as well as Hart’s scathing and most-entertaining review of All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, ‘an oddly empty’, ‘vacuous’, simplistic, ‘twaddle, tosh, balderdash (etc.)’ and factually-skewed (according to Hart) book by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. Hart is somewhat less enthusiastic about the book than is Charles Taylor.

Saturday Link Love

Stringfellow on masturbation, sex and the search for self

‘[One] who persists into adulthood in the practice of masturbation is likely to be one who remains profoundly immature sexually, fearing actual sexual contact with a partner, becoming and being sexually retarded. The main danger and damage in masturbation is not in the conduct itself, but in the fantasy life that invariably accompanies the conduct. That life will hardly ever be a sexually fulfilling one, and indeed masturbation is probably most obviously another variety of sexual sublimation – one in which the sexual identity and capability of the person remains stalemated, indefinite, confused, and apparently self-contained. Masturbation is not antisocial per se, but the deep suppression of sexuality which it represents will frequently provoke some other superficially nonsexual, antisocial behavior. And even if the sublimation of masturbation is never relieved, either in sexual relationship with another human being or in some antisocial, apparently non-sexual behavior, the real tragedy – the destructive and dehumanizing fact about masturbation – is its obvious unfulfillment and crude futility among the varieties of sexual activity’ …

‘Such is the mystery of sex and love that what in sex may be dehumanizing, depraved, or merely habitual, may become human, sacramental, and sanctified. For sex to be so great an event as that, it is essential for one to know who he is as a person, to be secure in his own identity, and indeed, to love himself.

Too often sex does not have the dignity of a sacramental even because it is thought to be the means of the search for self rather than the expression and communication of one who has already found oneself and is free from resort to sex in the frantic pursuit of identity. It is wrong to assume that sex is in itself some way of establishing or proving one’s identity or any resolution of the search for selfhood. One who does not know oneself and seeks to find oneself in sexual experience with another will neither find self nor will he respect the person of a sexual partner. Often enough, the very futility of the search for identity in sex will increase the abuse of both one’s own self and one’s partner. The pursuit of identity in sex ends in destruction, in one form or another, for both the one who seeks oneself and the one who is used as the means of the search. No one may show another who he is or she is; no one may give another life; no one can save another.

How then shall one discover who one is as a human being if sex provides neither the means nor the answer? And how shall one be emancipated from the power of sin in sex and in other realms as well?

In Christ.

In Christ. That means in beholding Christ who is in his own person the true human, the person living in the state of reconciliation with God, with himself, with all men, with the whole creation.

In Christ. That means in discerning that God ends the search for self by himself coming in this world in search of men. For the person, [sic] who knows that he has been found by God no longer has to find self.

In Christ. That means in surrendering to the presence and power of death in all things including sex and , in that event, in the very midst of death, receiving a new life free from the claim of death.

In Christ. That means in accepting the fact of God’s immediate and concretely manifest love for human life, including one’s own little life. Finding, then, that one’s own life is encompassed in God’s love for the world.

In Christ. That means in knowing that in the new life which God gives to humans there is no more a separation between who a person is and what a person does. That which one does, in sex or anything else, is a sign of who one is. All that one does become sacraments of new life.

In Christ. That means in realizing radical fulfillment as a person in the life of God in this world; such radical fulfillment that abstinence in sex is a serious option for a Christian though it is never a moral necessity.

In Christ. That means in enjoying God’s love for all humanity and all things in each and every event or decision of one’s own life.

In Christ. That means in confessing that all life belongs to God, and but for him there is no life at all’.

– William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 50–1, 54–5.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part III

Chapter Three of Instead of Death is titled ‘Sex and the Search for Self’. Here, the issue is not pleasure or lust but concerns personal identity under the Word of God. Stringfellow’s thesis here is that ‘the search for self is the most characteristic aspect of sex’ (p. 37). And this too is the ‘very theme of the gospel’ (p. 38). Throughout this chapter, he makes the ‘radical’ assumption that people both inside and outside the church are doing it, and nearly doing it, and that sexuality is an element of every human transaction or communication, even when nothing happens to ‘dramatize the fact’. And so he laments the ‘conventional denunciations’ of sex heard so often in the church – of sex as sin and as some something ‘foul or dirty or animalistic’. ‘Nothing that has ever been done in a bedroom, in the back seat of a car, or, for that matter, in a brothel is beyond the scope of the gospel and, therefore, beyond the Church’s care for the world. The fantasies, fears, and fairy tales associated with sex must be dispelled so that, within the Church, sex is admitted, discussed, and understood with intelligence, maturity, compassion, and, most of all, a reverence for the ministry of Christ in restoring human life to human beings’ (pp. 38–9). Stringfellow returns to play this melody later on, this time in regard to pornography and its associated secrecy:

‘If sex in all of its meanings, practices, and rituals is not in the open – frankly recognized, intelligently considered, and compassionately dealt with – then what is to be expected except that sex will be the subject of gossip, rumor, escapism, fantasy, and the lure of that which is forbidden? Recourse to pornography among adolescents is, as far as I can discern, far less the consequence of racketeer activities or abnormal adolescent preoccupation with sex than of the fear of candor about sex among adults, including parents and pastors’. (p. 50)

Stringfellow rightly names the heresy called ‘Christian marriage’ as a ‘vain, romantic and unbiblical’ concept, as pure fiction, and as ridiculous as the notion of a ‘Christian nation’ or a ‘Christian lawyer’ or a ‘Christian athlete’, or, we might add, ‘Christian music’. What might a ‘Christian’ crotchet look and sound like?! These are, like marriage, realities of the fallen life of the world, inherently secular, and subject to the power of death. ‘They are’, Stringfellow writes, ‘aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world’ (p. 41). That clergy are licensed by the State to perform the functions of a civil magistrate only adds to the confusion about ‘Christian marriage’, and, Stringfellow claims, ‘greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry’ (p. 42).

Wipf & Stock have offered readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem 40% off the retail price of any of the Stringfellow volumes. To obtain the 40% discount, just include the coupon code STRINGFELLOW with your order.

Sex and Human Existence (or, Engaging Sex in the Right Places)

Magritte loversHalden’s and Ben’s recent posts on sex and personhood reminded me of Ray Anderson’s essay ‘Bonding Without Bondage’ (in On Being Family: A Social Theology of the Family). Anderson’s essay is on marriage, and begins by identifying a subtle but important distinction between a ‘theological’ view (i.e. that determined by theology proper and its Gospel shape) and an ‘ethical’ view (i.e. that determined by appeals to natural law) of marriage. The former is that held by Karl Barth, the latter by Emil Brunner. Anderson recalls that for Brunner marriage is not good in se, but only as it provides the optimum containment for what is otherwise unbridled impulse. For Brunner, sexuality is sanctified only through marriage, unless one chooses total abstinence. In other words, Brunner suggests that the erotic sexual impulse is an ‘unnatural’ and ‘unbridled biological instinct’ which can only be consecrated through marriage, or the ethical demand of abstinence (Love and Marriage, 183, 195). Barth, conversely, contends that human sexuality is a determination of human existence as the image and likeness of God and thus exists prior to, and independent of, marriage as a true order.

Anderson highlights that whereas for Brunner sexuality is sanctified as an ethical existence under the command of God only in the marriage relation, for Barth the command of God sanctifies human persons by including their sexuality within their humanity. In other words, the sexual relation of woman and man has already been constituted a true order of humanity, as an integral part of total humanity as male and female. Marriage, therefore, however conceived, integrates sexuality into total humanity.

Anderson observes that Brunner’s position of human sexuality ad extra to human personhood has serious consequences for understanding the role of sexuality in the case of the unmarried person as well as for a discussion of the matter of homosexuality. If we follow Brunner and understand the married couple as the basic model of man and woman as a community of love and all other relations as peripheral to it, then marriage will be offered as the highest – if not the only – possibility for authentic personhood. If, on the other hand, we follow Barth that humanity as determined by God is cohumanity, existing concretely as either male or female, then marriage (however conceived) is seen not as a ‘containment’ of that which has no other ethical point of reference, but as the ‘contextualizing’ of that which comes to expression in the total encounter of persons.

loversOne of the main points that Anderson seeks to bring home is that the divine command (‘What God has joined together …’) does not take place behind our backs, independent of human response and recognition. While marriage is grounded in God’s covenant love, it involves the mutual recognition, choice, and commitment of two people who are brought together by God in covenant partnership. God joins together actually as well as theoretically. God joins together in and by the encounter and decision of the two who form the union: not only on the basis of this human act of love but coincidental with it and as its objective validation. What begins as affection and feelings of love is absorbed into personal will expressed as commitment in marriage (with or without ‘a wedding’).

According to Barth, love, in contradistinction to mere affection,

‘may be recognised by the fact that it is determined, and indeed determined upon the life-partnership of marriage. Love does not question; it gives an answer. Love does not think; it knows. Love does not hesitate; it acts. Love does not fall into raptures; it is ready to undertake responsibilities. Love puts behind it all the Ifs and Buts, all the conditions, reservations, obscurities and uncertainties that may arise between a man and a woman. Love is not only affinity and attraction; it is union. Love makes these two persons indispensable to each other’. (CD III.4, 221)

Of course, one could – and indeed should – ask, what has love got to do with it?

Still, while certain to set marriage within the absolute determination of divine command, Anderson is equally concerned to not set marriage above the reality and practice of human existence. In this way, he avoids the idealism(s) often associated with marriage. He also notes that marriage can never be the solution to problems of personal unhappiness or loneliness. It can never be the relational horizon within which one expects to meet all his or her personal needs. Marriage, he contends, offers an expression of love and sexuality not realisable in any other human relationship, but it is no more human than any other human task or relationship. And, in particular, because marriage takes place under the divine command,

‘the sphere of the relationships of man and woman as they are embodied and lived out among us human beings is not simply a labyrinth of errors and failings, a morass of impurity, or a vale of tears at disorder and distress. For by the grace of God … there are always in this sphere individual means of conservation and rescue, of deliverance and restoration, assured points and lines even where everything seems to vacillate and dissolve, elements of order in the midst of disorder … And if there is no perfect marriage, there are marriages which for all their imperfection can be and are maintained and carried through, and in the last resort not without promise and joyfulness, arising with a certain necessity, and fragmentarily, at least, undertaken in all sincerity as a work of free life-fellowship. There is also loyalty even in the midst of disloyalty and constancy amid open inconstancy … Thus even where man does not keep the command, the command keeps man … He who here commands does not only judge and forgive: He also helps and heals’. (CD III.4, 239–40)

Hauerwas on sex, marriage, politics and love

Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.
Jan van Eyck, ‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ (1434). Oil on oak panel of 3 vertical boards; National Gallery, London.

‘The dominant assumption has been that the evaluation of different kinds of sexual expressions should center on whether they are or are not expressive of love. On the contrary, the ethics of sex must begin with political considerations, because ethically the issue of the proper form of sexual activity raises the most profound issues about the nature and form of political community. I am not denying that sex obviously has to do with interpersonal matters, but I am asserting that we do not even know what we need to say about the personal level until we have some sense of the political context necessary for the ordering of sexual activity. Indeed, one of the main difficulties with the assumption that thc ethics of sex can be determined on the basis of interpersonal criteria is the failure to see how that assumption itself reflects a political option. To reduce issues of sexuality to the question of whether acts of sex are or are not fulfilling for those involved is to manifest the assumption of political liberalism that sex is a private matter. The hold this political theory has on us is illustrated by how readily we also accept the assumption that the private nature of sexuality does not involve issues of political theory …

‘We must understand that if Christians and non-Christians differ over marriage, that difference does not lie in their understanding of the quality of interpersonal relationship needed to enter or sustain a marriage, but rather in a disagreement about the nature of marriage and its place in the Christian and national community. Christians above all should note that there are no conceptual or institutional reasons that require love between the parties to exist in order for the marriage to be successful …

The requirement of love in marriage is not correlative to the intrinsic nature of marriage but is based on the admonition for Christians to love one another. We do not love because we are married, but because we are Christian. We may, however, learn what such love is like within the context of marriage. For the Christian tradition claims that marriage helps to support an inclusive community of love by grounding it in a pattern of faithfulness toward another. The love that is required in marriage functions politically by defining the nature of Christian social order, and as children arrive they are trained in that order.

Moreover, Christians should see that the family cannot, contrary to [Bertrand] Russell’s claim, exist as an end in itself nor by itself provide a sufficient check against pretentious rationalism. Such an assumption is but a continuation of the liberal perversion of the family and only makes the family and marriage more personally destructive. When families exist for no reason other than their own existence, they become quasi-churches, which ask sacrifices far too great and for insufficient reasons. The risk of families which demand that we love one another can be taken only when there are sustaining communities with sufficient convictions that can provide means to form and limit the status of the family. If the family does stand as a necessary check on the state, as Russell and I both think it should, it does so because it first has a place in an institution that also stands against the state – the church …

‘ … the ambivalence of the church toward marriage is grounded in the eschatological convictions which freed some from the necessity of marriage – i.e., singleness becomes a genuine option for service to the community. This is a dangerous doctrine indeed, for it is a strange community which would risk giving singleness an equal status with marriage. But that is what the church did, and as a result marriage was made a vocation rather than a natural necessity. But as a vocation, marriage can be sustained only so long as it is clear what purposes it serves in the community which created it in the first place. With the loss of such a community sanction, we are left with the bare assumption that marriage is a voluntary institution motivated by the need for interpersonal intimacy …

‘Many want to treat sex as just another form of communication – like shaking hands. I suppose in response to such a suggestion one can at least point out that sex is often more fun than shaking hands. However, the reason that we seem to assume that sex should be reserved for “special relations” is not that sex itself is special, but that the nature of sex serves the ends of intimacy. But intimacy is indeed a tricky matter to sustain, and that may be the reason why many have argued that marriage is necessary to provide the perduring framework to sustain intimacy.

Moreover, once the political function of marriage is understood to be central for the meaning and institution of marriage, we have a better idea of what kinds of people we ought to be to deal with marriage. Most of the literature that attempts to instruct us about getting along in marriage fails to face up to a fact so clearly true that I have dared to call it Hauerwas’s Law: You always marry the wrong person. It is as important to note, of course, as Herbert Richardson pointed out to me, that the reverse of the law is also true: namely, that you also always marry the right person. The point of the law is to suggest the inadequacy of the current assumption that the success or failure of a marriage can be determined by marrying the “right person.” Even if you have married the “right person,” there is no guarantee that he or she will remain such, for people have a disturbing tendency to change. Indeed, it seems that many so-called “happy marriages” are such because of the partners’ efforts to preserve “love” by preventing either from changing.

This law is meant not only to challenge current romantic assumptions but to point out that marriage is a more basic reality than the interpersonal relations which may or may not characterize a particular marriage. Indeed, the demand that those in a marriage love one another requires that marriage have a basis other than the love itself. For it is only on such a basis that we can have any idea of how we should love’.

– Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Sex and Politics: Bertrand Russell and “Human Sexuality”‘.

CS Lewis on Sex

‘Our warped natures, the devils who tempt us, and all the contemporary propaganda for lust, combine to make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so ‘natural,’ so ‘healthy,’ and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them. Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour. Now this association is a lie. Like all powerful lies, it is based on a truth … that sex in itself (apart from the excesses and obsessions that have grown round it) is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy,’ and all the rest of it. The lie consists in the suggestion that any sexual act to which you are tempted at the moment is also healthy and normal. Now this, on any conceivable view, and quite apart from Christianity, leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health, good humour, and frankness. For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary; so the claim made by every desire, when it is strong, to be healthy and reasonable, counts for nothing. Every sane and civilized man must have some set of principles by which he chooses to reject some of his desires and to permit others. One man does this on Christian principles, another on hygienic principles, another on sociological principles. The real conflict is not between Christianity and ‘nature,’ but between Christian principles and other principles in the control of ‘nature,’ for ‘nature’ (in the sense of natural desire) will have to be controlled anyway, unless you are going to ruin your whole life.’ (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 5)