Sex Without Bodies?

Branson Parler, in a recent review, takes issue with a number of things in my book Bible Gender Sexuality.  But at the crux of our disagreement is this statement of his:  “I disagree with him because his argument disconnects procreation and children from human sexuality. This disconnects human sexuality from materiality and actual human bodies.”  Andy Crouch wrote an editorial last summer in Christianity Today entitled “Sex Without Bodies,” making a similar point (though not addressing my book directly).  He writes, “There is really only one conviction that can hold this coalition of disparate human experiences [i.e., LGBTQIA] together. And it is the irrelevance of bodies—specifically, the irrelevance of biological sexual differentiation in how we use our bodies.”  Both of these articles make a connection between a more open posture toward LGBT people and Gnosticism, the ancient heresy which regarded the body as irrelevant to true spiritual life, and saw the body as left behind in the experience of salvation.  The Gnostics denied one of the central statements of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

That’s a fairly serious charge, and deserves an answer.  My first response is to observe that it is a rather odd sort of argument to say that bodies don’t matter to LGBT people.  In fact, bodies matter a great deal.  LGBT people, like straight people, find themselves attracted to particular sorts of bodies and not to other sorts of bodies.  The only difference is that the bodies they are attracted to (in the case of LGB folk), and the sorts of body they identify with (in the case of transgender folk) don’t fit the more common pattern in society as a whole.  But this is no Gnostic escape from the body; it is a deep inclination toward a different sort of body from the dominant pattern in society as a whole.  Bodies matter a great deal for LGBT folk; they just matter in different ways than they do for straight folk.  To equate this with Gnosticism represents a bit of a leap, in my judgment.

We also have to recognize that the church has not always gotten things right in its attempt to read the will of God from bodily characteristics.  A classic example in America is the question of race.  For most of American history, states have had laws on their books prohibiting inter-racial marriage.  The state of Alabama was the last to remove this ban from its constitution, voting to do so finally in the year 2000 (with 40% of the population voting to keep the ban).  The obvious differences in skin color suggested, to those favoring such a ban, that people of different races should not be married, and that to do so would be to ignore the obvious will of God implanted in bodies created by God. The same assumption undergirded the Apartheid laws of South Africa.

This tragic story suggests an extremely important qualifier to any attempts to read the will of God from bodily characteristics.  We must clearly and carefully distinguish those bodily characteristics which express the normative will of God from those bodily characteristics which express the creative diversity intended by God.  Thankfully, most Christians today put racial differences in the second category, rather than in the first.

So how do we decide whether any particular bodily characteristic is expressive of divinely intended diversity, or whether it points to a norm that should shape human life?  I write as a Protestant Christian, and for Protestants, the answer is fairly clear.  The only bodily characteristics that express the normative will of God are those bodily characteristics that are interpreted in a normative fashion by the full witness of Scripture itself.  Everything else is part of the creative diversity of God which expresses itself in the creation as a whole.

And this brings us back to one of the central contentions of my book.  There I argue that, while procreation is an important part of marriage, it is not essential to marriage.  The absence of procreation is never in the Bible an acceptable reason for divorce (though this was the most common reason why people in the ancient world would seek divorce).  And neither the church nor the witness of Scripture has ever expressed reservations about marrying heterosexual couples who are incapable of procreation because of age or sterility.  So (at least for Protestants) procreation is part of the creative diversity of God, but is not always normative.  Childless couples have not, simply because of their childlessness, necessarily failed to fulfill the will of God (though in many cases, childbearing may well be an opportunity that God intends couples to pursue).  But when procreation is pursued, it is sought, not out of a “bodily mandate,” but rather out of a discernment of the particular ways in which love may overflow, for any particular couple, from marriage into fruitfulness.  Accordingly, the use of contraception (for Protestants) represents one of the particular ways in which heterosexual couples exercise this discernment in the modern world.

Interestingly, Scripture as a whole even takes an open position with respect to the obligatory character of marriage itself.  One might readily read procreative capacity as normative, in the sense that human beings have not fulfilled their true destiny unless they marry and seek to bear children.  Many in the ancient world held such an assumption.  Yet Jesus commends those who “have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:12).  Hence even the normativity of marriage itself (over against singleness) cannot be drawn from gender distinctions or procreative capacity.

But this brings us back to the crux of the matter with respect to bodies and LGBT folk.  In my book, I argue that Scripture itself never argues in a focused way on the basis of bodily characteristics when it addresses the question of same-sex eroticism.  It uses other categories:  Romans 1 speaks of excessive passion, shame, impurity (which in the New Testament carries the connotation of wrongful motives), and of actions that are “contrary to nature,” which I argue, (based on Pauline usage and patterns of use in the ancient world,) represents the convergence of individual inclination, social consensus, and procreation.  I just don’t see how you get a normative interpretation of bodily differences based simply on gender or procreation from these texts.

I readily acknowledge that some Christians read Scripture differently from me, and believe that Scripture itself interprets gender differences in a normative fashion that should constrain whether or not we regard same-sex relationships as capable of being sanctified and drawn into divine love.  But let’s not just accuse each other of ignoring bodies.  Let’s read the text more deeply, and argue out whether or not the full witness of Scripture treats this particular sort of bodily difference in a binding, normative fashion.  Accusations about Gnosticism and “sex without bodies” don’t help, and don’t address the real issues at stake here.

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2 thoughts on “Sex Without Bodies?

  1. To be fair, Jim, you have much more space here to refute Branson Parler than he did to review your book of several hundred pages. With the word-limit imposed upon him, the balance is certainly not in his favour on that level. He only has the space to make mention of what he sees as weaknesses in your book, not to develop with any care his reasons for or argumentation behind what he sees.

    That being said, I do agree with you that (more?) care needs to be used when generalizing. I’m just not sure he had any real ability to exercise the level of care you are wanting in such a brief review.

    Blessings, David

    • Fair enough, David, but I suspect that something deeper is going on here, and that’s why I wrote this. My concern is that a number of folks seem to be bringing into the discussion a new sort of “natural theology” which is fundamentally grounded in understandings of creation, rather than in the revelation of Scripture. What seems self-evidently true in the creation is assumed to be the revealed will of God. I think that’s a problem from a methodological point of view. This is particularly true when we speak about procreation, which is a topic of no small dispute between Catholics and Protestants–a dispute that centers on the place and significance of natural theology.

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