Intimacies, Sexual and Otherwise
by Fr. Mark Perkins
Curate, All Saints Anglican Church
Is there any fruitful ground left for theological debate around sexuality? The answer at first seems a definitive "no." The denominational landscape of American Christianity has been rent asunder in the past half-century, most fundamentally over questions related to same-sex marriage — and rent so definitively that no common ground exists any longer. The warring camps, it seems, share no spaces or institutions in which — or even over which — to argue. Perhaps such ground never really existed anyway. The breakup of jurisdictions and denominations happened more through open power struggles than genuine intellectual dispute. These power struggles continue in some quarters, of course, but the theological question of same-sex marriage — specifically, whether or not the biblical vision of marriage can be modified to include the institution called "same-sex marriage" — seems rather played out. Continuing Anglicans in particular may be tempted to think that affirming the impossibility of same-sex marriage — and women’s ordination — sufficiently clarifies our theology of sexuality.
As I read Wesley Hill's thoughtful review of Paul Griffiths's latest book, Christian Flesh, however, I was reminded of the various under-explored questions beyond the tired same-sex marriage debate. That debate has arguably obscured the distinctions and boundaries between sexual and non-sexual forms of human intimacy — for instance, the intimacy of a parent and child, between siblings, and among friends. Further, partisans on both sides have typically failed to think deeply enough about the nature of regeneration and redemption in relation to all forms of human sexuality.
We live in a culture saturated by an outdated but still influential pop-Freudian psychology that reads all intimacy and all physical touch as pseudo-sexual-contact. The intimacy of marriage, however, is categorically different than that of friendship. This remains so, despite the fact that they can overlap and intertwine in reality — strong marriages are typically also friendships, and close friendships can sometimes be complicated by eros. Nevertheless, some expressions of affection and some forms of intimacy are neither motivated by nor oriented towards sex.
Griffiths suggests that all human intimacy, sexual or otherwise, ultimately points towards mystical union with Christ. His reflection, as quoted by Hill, on the-child-in-utero as a type of the-Christian-in-Christ is profound. The sacrament of marriage uniquely signifies the relation between Christ and his Church, but theologians from St. Augustine down to the present have frequently understood all human desire as, at its heart, a desire for God.
Hill's review foregrounds the beauty and creativity of Griffiths's writing, parts of which do indeed "read as much like spiritual poetry as they do theology." Not all of his linguistic forays succeed equally. According to Hill, Griffiths
"mints new terms for old doctrinal loci. The Fall and its effects are termed “the devastation.” The cosmos, both in its original pristine beauty and its devastated state, is “timespace.” Being baptized and ingesting the Eucharist are “being cloven to Jesus’s flesh.” Even the titular phrase “Christian flesh” is an arresting way of expressing a familiar thought: There are certain animate bodies whose identity, through their sprinkling with water in the Triune name, have gained a new, Christ-oriented identity."
These latter two phrases — “being cloven to Jesus’s flesh” and "the titular phrase 'Christian flesh'" — are striking, provocative, and imaginative. "The devastation" improves upon the standard use of "The Fall and its effects" — though both are inferior to the more biblical, traditional, and theologically precise phrase, "the curse." As for "timespace" — to anyone who prefers that over "the cosmos," I am tempted to say, “We are not of the same spirit."
If the culture has labelled all physical affection as sexual — and thus falsely collapsed a diversity of relations into a single category — conservatives sometimes act as though human sexuality can neatly be divided into two categories: heterosexuality, which is part of God’s good created order, and then everything else. It is true that only a man and woman can fulfill the procreative ends of sex, but, as Michael W. Hannon noted in his controversial First Things essay, “Against Heterosexuality,” this approach fails to recognize that what God instituted in the creation accounts of Genesis was not an “orientation” but an institution — marriage. Moreover, this bifurcated view tends to overlook the varied effects of the curse on all human sexuality, “straight” or “queer.” A more defensible approach — one probably more widespread among conservative Christians — identifies the division between fallen and unfallen sexuality not with one’s “orientation” but with marriage. Married sex is good; unmarried sex is bad. In one sense this is clearly true. Marriage is a created good — the one prelapsarian sacrament. Only within marriage does sex truly fulfill its purpose, which is to signify “the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church” as the Solemnization of Matrimony puts it.
That the sexual act properly belongs to marriage, however, does not mean that human sexuality becomes immediately and comprehensively freed from sin upon the Solemnization of Matrimony. Because we remain in a world struggling under the curse, none of our relations are always and entirely free from the effects of sin; the whole of creation “groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:22). The tendency to see married sex as necessarily and always good presupposes that lust and love are determined only by their object: what would be lust outside marriage becomes love when directed at one’s spouse. Understood thusly, marital lust is definitionally impossible. But, of course, the objectification and dehumanization of another person that is the hallmark of lust can occur in marriage. Hill, betraying a bit of Lutheran-inflected pessimism about the actuality of regeneration, takes this insight too far: “The lawfully married husband who caresses his wife cannot ever, until the resurrection, free himself from an inordinate prizing of his wife’s flesh above Christ’s” (emphasis added). To the contrary, the Church as the Body of Christ is “the manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). We are no longer slaves to sin; we are not doomed to failure. The sacraments — marriage included — do indeed empower us to live in genuine freedom. Still, they do not make us immune from temptation. We remain fallible, susceptible to the wounds of sin. Married sex as such is a created good, but the truth of this categorical statement must not obscure the reality that our experience of it, as with all created goods, suffers under the effects of the curse. Sex in marriage can be an act of selfish gratification rather than a mutual giving through which two become one flesh. The relative order and disorder of every sexual act and relation must be assessed by virtue of whether and to what extent it points towards the fundamental reality of union with Christ. Failures to image that union rightly are not restricted to adultery and fornication.
Just as all human sexuality bears the effects of the curse, so too all disordered forms of sexuality remain just that: disordered instantiations of that which is fundamentally good. The insight that even marital sex can be distorted — that one can lust after one’s own spouse — must be paired with the opposite, highly fraught, and indeed dangerous but nevertheless true insight: that even the most debauched forms of sexuality retain hints and shadows of the good thing which they distort. The problem of same-sex sexual attraction, for instance, cannot be located in the perception of beauty in other men or women. Whatever shape eschatological healing takes, I cannot imagine that it will involve a reduced awareness of beauty. (Indeed, strange as it may seem, eschatological healing will doubtless have the opposite effect, perhaps enabling a “straight” man like me more fully to perceive the created beauty of my fellow men.) The desire for same-sex sexual union, on the other hand, must be understood as a distortion. But a distortion of what, precisely? Is the actual good — that which same-sex sexual desire distorts — the marital union of husband and wife? Or, perhaps, is it a distortion of friendship? Here, in particular, more sustained theological reflection is necessary.
The modern concept of human sexuality comprises, at a minimum, male-female sex difference, sexual desire, and sexual acts. (The question of “gender” — how male-female biological difference relate to the social roles of “man” and “woman” — is one I will put aside for the moment. Likewise, while not discounting the reality of intersex conditions, I am assuming that they do not fundamentally alter the bifurcated male-female sexuality of our species.) All three of these aspects of human sexuality point towards union with Christ in different ways. As the Roman Catholic philosopher Timothy Fortin notes, the human species cannot be complete in any individual; even if you are celibate, you are a member of a bifurcated species, and your body points towards completion in union with "another,” which completion we find imaged in the institution of marriage. What the New Testament reveals, however, is that human marriage is not the true end of sexuality but is itself an image signifying the one true marriage — that of Christ and his Church. This heightens the meaning of marriage, and yet it also decenters the institution of marriage. The reason Jesus can uphold "eunuchs for the kingdom" (Matt. 19:12) and St. Paul can downplay marriage (1 Cor. 7) is because, by virtue of their baptism into the Church, all Christians participate in the more fundamental marriage with Christ. Ultimately, then, human sex difference is intelligible in light of Christ; the desire for union with another is fulfilled in Christ; sexual acts point towards union with Christ. In this sense, we can affirm that, whether same-sex sexual desire is a disordering of sex or a disordering of friendship, in either instance the good which it disorders points us towards union with Christ.
It is in pursuing good questions like these that, it seems, Griffiths’s theological analysis takes a surprising and a troubling turn. Griffiths works from true insights — not all forms of intimacy are imitations of marriage; no expressions of human sexuality are inherently immune from the disorder of sin — into provisional conclusions that do not withstand scrutiny. Griffiths (apparently — not having read the book, I am working from Hill’s summary) suggests that Scripture’s purported condemnations of homosexual acts (for instance, in Leviticus 18 or Romans 1) are not in fact condemnations of the act itself but rather of idolatrous uses of such acts. When the Lord declares lying “with mankind, as with womankind” to be “abomination” (Lev. 18:22), the condemnation falls not on any particular act but rather on the approach — it is, so the argument apparently goes, a condemnation only of a mindset that wrongly conceives of same-sex sexual acts as pseudo-marital in nature.
I have maintained that not all intimacy is sexual, butthat all sexual intimacy is ultimately marital in its orientation. I have suggested, furthermore, that our sex-saturated culture obscures and diminishes non-sexual intimacy in unhelpful ways. Griffiths, however, would have us believe that not all sex acts need be marital. Sodomy, Hill says in summarizing Griffiths, need not be construed as “a misbegotten attempt to emulate what Griffiths terms ‘the copulative caress’” but may rather be understood as
"something with [its] own integrity. Better, Griffiths argues, “to see what can be said about particular fleshly exchanges [including so-called ‘homosexual’ ones] without assimilating them to, or considering them in terms of, the copulative caress.” What gay men do to “darling” one another, in short, could be viewed as something entirely different from what a man does with a woman when he seeks full, procreative, one-flesh union with her—and, just so, as in no way what the tradition prohibits when it speaks of 'homosexual acts.'"
Griffiths might in this way claim to maintain the authority of Scripture and a biblical view of marriage while nevertheless providing room for same-sex sexual intimacy. Same-sex couples, so the logic seems to run, can do whatever they like, so long as their intention is pure — and they don’t call it marriage.
This is a clever attempt at resolving an impasse, but it is, alas, entirely too clever. The impasse is real; Griffiths’s argument is implausible. Pragmatically, as Hill notes, contemporary supporters of same-sex marriage are not likely to be much persuaded by an offer — “have sex; don’t call it marriage” — which they would no doubt see as a begrudging extension of second-class citizenship.
Nor is Griffiths’s point biblically sustainable. As Hill also points out, such an account disregards the cosmic scope of Romans 1, which
"is grounded not in circumstantial particulars of first-century custom but rather in primordial divine design. It isn’t the intentions of the same-sex pair that matter so much as the givenness of their bodies and the lack of correspondence between the caresses those bodies enjoy and the caresses they were intended to enjoy."
Supporters of traditional marriage often note that cultures which sanctioned some forms of homosexual eroticism — most infamously, perhaps, in the military or pederastic context of ancient Greece — never conceived of such relations as marital. While Griffiths might interpret this as favoring his argument about the singular integrity of same-sex intimacy, it also makes his strained interpretation of biblical condemnations of homosexuality even more implausible. St. Paul can hardly be understood to be condemning a concept which did not exist in the first-century Roman and Jewish worlds in which he wrote.
Hill’s review does suggest that Griffiths’s Christian Flesh would prompt more careful consideration of the interplay between creation, the curse, and regeneration in all forms of sexuality. It could help remind us of the ways that we can disorder created goods, including the sexual relation of a husband and wife — and of the way in which even the most debauched forms of intimacy stem from a disordered desire that is rightly ordered through union with Christ. It might also encourage more sustained theological reflection about non-marital intimacy, about what avenues of friendly and familial intimacy the Church ought to offer all her children — but particularly those called to celibacy, who may not always find warm welcome and a place to thrive in family-centric parishes. These potentially fruitful avenues of thought are too often neglected. It is particularly unfortunate, then, that Griffiths’s pursuit of these considerations is intertwined with unsustainable and theologically misleading conclusions.
Still, that ought not prevent us from considering those questions apart from the particular conclusions Griffiths reaches. A better place to start, particularly in regard to the spaces — or lack thereof — that our parishes offer to those with a vocation of celibacy, is Wesley Hill’s own book, Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.
Though the regeneration of sexual desire no doubt takes different forms in different people, there are no instantiations of sexual desire which do not need healing. As the regenerative grace of God rightly orders our disordered affections — a process only completed in the eschaton but in some sense at work here and now — we will come to see that, at their heart, the desires we try to satiate in sin will only find their proper place, will only be truly and ultimately sated, in Jesus Christ.