We’re continuing to consider a series of articles making arguments in favor of Christian gay marriage. The next Christian thinker we take up is Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury: Rowan Williams’ four essentials for being ‘Christian’ and “The Body’s Grace”.
In the first article, Williams says,
Archbishops don’t decide doctrine, and in a church where the majority holds a more traditional view, an archbishop has to respect that. I still see a strong case for a less restrictive approach, on the grounds that what the Bible condemns isn’t necessarily what we today recognize as same-sex partnership.
This is hardly new theological ground. The argument made is that the homosexual relationships Paul would have known were abusive — pederastic, prostitution, or idolatrous — and so Paul was condemning homosexuality of the type he knew. As a First Century man, he would have been unfamiliar with loving, faithful homosexual relationships comparable to healthy heterosexual marriages.
This view has been contradicted by N. T. Wright, who is both a world-class theologian and historian, as well as Ron Sider. I’ve quoted Wright a number of times already on this point, and so let’s hear what Sider has to say,
First, Paul never argues that homosexual practice is wrong because it is pederastic or oppressive or wrong for a male to play the role of a woman. He simply says, in agreement with the unanimous Jewish tradition, that it is wrong. And second, there are in fact examples in ancient literature of long term (even life-long) homosexual partnerships. A number of ancient figures, including Plato’s Aristophanes in the Symposium,also talk about a life-long same-sex orientation.
“Tragedy, Tradition & Opportunity in the Homosexuality Debate,” Christianity Today.
We dug into the actual Greek texts on which Wright and Sider rely back in Jesus and Paul on the Hermeneutics of Sexuality, Part 8 (The hermeneutics of Eden; Plato on homosexuality).
This argument depends on our willingness to assume ourselves to be more knowledgeable about homosexuality than Paul and Jesus. In fact, the ancients were very familiar with homosexuality in all its forms. Why wouldn’t they be when, as is so often argued today, it’s not a choice? If it’s not a choice and is, in fact, a part of human nature, then it was an observable part of human nature in 50 AD and long earlier — and the Jews and Greeks were astute observers of human nature.
The Body’s Grace
“The Body’s Grace” is an essay that’s caught the imagination of pro-Christian gay marriage advocates. It’s considered something of a watershed argument, and so we should consider it carefully and prayerfully. Read the entire essay, not just my excerpts. It’s not long. And realize that this is considered by many the epitome of argumentation in favor of same-sex marriage.
Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.
The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.
The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.
This is, of course, sort of true. And it’s sort of false. I mean, where do the scriptures actually say that the church is all about making sure people “see themselves as desired, the occasion of joy”? Well, they just don’t. But it’s certainly true that God desires to be in relationship with everyone — through grace and on God’s terms. And it’s certainly true that everyone who is a member of the church should feel welcome and wanted as part of the Christian community. But the Christian community doesn’t exist to validate the feelings of everyone for any reason. There are boundaries.
So my desire, if it is going to be sustained and developed, must itself be perceived; and, if it is to develop as it naturally tends to, it must be perceived as desirable by the other – that is my arousal and desire must become the cause of someone else’s desire (there is an echo here of St Augustine’s remarkable idea that what love loves is loving, but that’s another story).
Um, okay … so sex should be mutually gratifying. And therefore?
Decisions about sexual lifestyle, the ability to identify certain patterns as sterile, undeveloped or even corrupt, are, in this light, decisions about what we want our bodily life to say, how our bodies are to be brought in to the whole project of “making human sense” for ourselves and each other.
To be able to make such decisions is important: a conventional (heterosexual) morality simply absolves us from the difficulties we might meet in doing so. The question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body’s grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other.
So I need to be free of conventional Christian restrictions so that I’m freed to discover for myself what is right and wrong regarding sex? God daring to impose limitations somehow keeps us from thinking for ourselves? And … what? … we’re wiser than God? I’m really not following this.
Evidently, Williams’ does not want us to license sexual activity in heterosexual marriage and no other context. Rather, sex should be allowed anywhere that it’s not “sterile, undeveloped or even corrupt.” And so homosexual marriage is not sterile? In fact, Williams seems to condone one-night stands and other forms of emotionally sterile sex so long as two consenting adults are the participants.
We should not do it in order to create a wholly impersonal and enforceable “bond”; if we do, we risk turning blessing into curse, grace into law, art into rule-keeping. In other words, I believe that the promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for understanding the full “resourcefulness” and grace of sexual union.
I simply don’t think we’d grasp all that was involved in the mutual transformation of sexually linked persons without the reality of unconditional public commitments: more perilous, more demanding, more promising.
Yet the realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly.
So sexual partnerships need to be blessed by the church in a public way, but we should not limit such partnerships to heterosexual unions because, what? a limitation that would prevent homosexual unions would be “unreal and silly”? Why? Over 2,000 years of Jewish and Christian teaching is to be dismissed with a declaration that the church has been “silly”? How condescending to the church that is.
And does this new standard of avoiding the unreal and silly refer solely to two-person unions of adults? Or where do we draw the line, if at all?
In one breath, he encourages the giving of unlimited time to our sex partner, but commitment to a single partner is “unreal and silly.”
Much more damage is done to this by the insistence on a fantasy version of heterosexual marriage as the solitary ideal, when the facts of the situation are that an enormous number of “sanctioned” unions are a framework for violence and human destructiveness on a disturbing scale: sexual union is not delivered from moral danger and ambiguity by satisfying a formal socio-religious criterion.
Many heterosexual unions fail. That’s true. Therefore, because marriage is no guaranty of a truly holy matrimony, we ought to broaden our standards? Where’s the logic in that? And just how broad should our standards be? So far, I see no limits at all.
Wouldn’t it make better sense to push for unions that are in fact free from violence and destructiveness? Don’t the facts argue for insisting on stricter standards for marriage rather than looser? If violence in marriage is bad, and it really is, then surely the church’s response should be to work against the violence rather than to liberalize the standards for whose marriages may receive church approval — inevitably leading to greater violence. It’s a total non sequitur.
Man fears and subdues woman; and – the, argument continues – this licenses and grounds a whole range of processes that are about the control of the strange: “nature,” the foreigner, the unknowable future.
Only someone who doesn’t understand men would make such an absurd argument. Men do not marry women in order to cope with their fear of women. Seriously? This is not theology or science or even science-ish. It’s extreme, radical feminism with no basis in fact.
In fact, of course, in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures.
I suspect that a fuller exploration of the sexual metaphors of the Bible will have more to teach us about a theology and ethics of sexual desire than will the flat citation of isolated texts; and I hope other theologians will find this worth following up more fully than I can do here.
A theology of the body’s grace which can do justice to the experience, the pain and the variety, of concrete sexual discovery is not, I believe, a marginal eccentricity in the doctrinal spectrum.
In short, if I’m following his logic — and it’s no easy task — if we approve contraception and hence sex without the prospect of children, then we may only absolutely condemn same-sex relationships based on “a number of very ambiguous texts” or a theory on the natural complementarity of men and women — natural law.
Notice Williams use of “fundamentalist” as the ultimate put down. Any effort by the church to judge or impose moral standards is — horror upon horrors! — fundamentalist — the worst possible insult. Of course, Williams offers no evidence or argument for his claim, relying purely on name calling.
Williams has also not bothered to demonstrate that the texts are ambiguous or isolated or that Paul’s natural law argument in Romans 1 is meaningless. This is not serious theological discourse.
Thus, Williams evidently concludes, grace is about acceptance, and because gay marriages need sanctification, public recognition, and acceptance, then grace should be extended to include homosexual marriages.
But there is no limit to the breadth of this logic. If the scriptures create no limit, then any consensual sexual relationship would easily fit within William’s logic, because the logic of grace for all who want grace has no bounds. In fact, Williams approves of one-night stands in which two persons use each other’s bodies for gratification without any emotional bond. This is part of the “hilarity” of sex.
On the other hand, a serious review of the scriptures demonstrates that God in fact places quite a few limits on who receives and doesn’t receive grace. God doesn’t extend grace to all for whom it might be emotionally helpful. Rather, grace is limited to those willing to meet God on God’s terms.
(Act 17:30-31 ESV) 30 “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
“Repent” never means “continue to live as you’ve always lived.” God is demanding change — in order to receive grace.
In short, Williams’ essay has little to do with investigating the scriptures and much more to do with kind of an academic, feminist, humanist pop psychology of sexuality. I mean, there’s not a single scientific study of human sexuality cited — just novels, poems, short stories, and wishful thinking in preference to scripture or even science. It’s pure subjectivism.
The readers would benefit from reading this thoughtful review of Williams’ article by John P. Richardson, who concludes,
We certainly cannot say that Williams wrote “The Body’s Grace” to mislead the Church. Nevertheless, its conclusions are misleading and if, as Williams himself admits, the arguments are not entirely valid, it is time that this is recognised more widely and more publicly.
I also found helpful this review in a series of four articles by Ken Smith:
- The Body’s Grace
- The Body’s Grace Critique #1: Sin and Judgment
- The Body’s Grace Critique #2: Covenant Faithfulnes…
- The Body’s Grace Critique #3: God’s Self-Revelatio…
Williams’ defense of homosexuality and extramarital sex makes some sense if you don’t believe that God has spoken in any specific or significant way through Scripture. He says repeatedly that we must deal with “the realities of our experience” and must “[recognize] the facts of a lot of people’s experience”, and it would be hard to deny this. But as Christians, we must also reflect on what Christians of all ages have called the Word of God: certainly we have no choice but to understand Scripture in light of our experience, but we must also take care to interpret our experience in light of Scripture. If Williams claims to speak as a representative of the Church, it’s disturbing to see the carelessness with which he treats the very revelation of God on which the Church claims to be founded.