Another Theology of the Body Part II--The Importance of Vulnerability

The biggest criticism of "progressive" Christians regarding sex, especially by more conservative folks, is that their position is entirely negative.  Progressive Christians may be very clear in articulating the laundry list of sexual mores that they don't agree with, but often are very vague about what mores and rules they do agree with.  As a result, Progressive Christians end up defaulting to the sexual ideas of the broader culture, which are, at best, incoherent in many ways.

I think this criticism is basically a fair one.  It is not enough to say that you reject what has come before--you need to articulate a positive program to replace it.  Moreover, I think Christianity has important things to say about sexuality and sexual morality, and I am unwilling to cede the field to the broader secular culture.  Since questions of sexuality have become so central to our dialogue both in the Christian church and in the broader culture, if progressive Christians want to participate in that dialogue they need to articulate their vision of Christian sexuality clearly and firmly.

But, of course, to do that you need a vision of sexuality in a Christian context.  In the spirit of being part of the solution, the rest of the posts in this series are going to be my sketches of parts of a vision.  I'm not promising, or even attempting, a comprehensive system, but more like a series of thoughts and pieces of a system.

As a starting point, reading Letters to the Catholic Right led me to an talk given by theologian and now-retired Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams entitled "The Body's Grace."  Archbishop Williams gave the talk in the late 80s to a Christian LGBT group, but his thoughts speak to a broader understanding of sexuality, in both a heterosexual and homosexual context.  It is a short piece, but it is packed with ideas, and I suspect I will be coming back to it several times.

For today, I want to look at what has to be the foundational question for any Christian sexual ethic--why would God (and, thus, the Christian church) care about sexuality in the first place?  Here is Williams's answer:

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. 

In other words, relationships (of whatever type) are important because they provide the window that allows us to see that God loves us totally and unconditionally.  When another person loves us, and we recognize that love, we come to understand ourselves as lovable (i.e. "desired, as the occasion of joy").  In doing so, we see ourselves as God sees us, and thus we see ourselves as we really are.  Needless to say, this is a profound insight, and in many ways it is the foundational insight of Christianity.

But, there's a catch.  God's love for us is unique in a very specific way, in that God sees us fully and completely as we are.  We have no choice but to be utterly vulnerable before God--after all, God is omniscient, made us, etc.  We can't hide who we are from God.  This vulnerability is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, this vulnerability is good because we can be confident that God's love is not based on any misconceptions.  We cannot say to ourselves "I know God says that God loves me, but if God knew the real me then all of that would go away."  I can be sure God knows the real me and still loves me unconditionally.  On the other hand, vulnerability is scary, and we have a tendency to shy away from it.

But, with regard to God, our fear of vulnerability is sort of academic, since we don't really have much choice in the matter.  With people, though, we have a choice of how vulnerable we make ourselves.  Because vulnerability is scary, people have a tendency to keep their cards close to the vest with another person in order to avoid leaving themselves exposed.  We hide ourselves in various ways, whether it be by refusing to show anything at all, or by creating some sort of persona that projects what we think the other person wants to see.

But it is here that Archbishop Williams's insight about relationships comes to the fore.  In order for relationships to be a mirror of our relationship with God, we must embrace that vulnerability and allow it to characterize the relationship.  Because, if we don't, we can discount the love of the other on the ground that it is based on false pretenses.  The other doesn't love the real me, he or she loves this persona I've created, or so we can tell ourselves.  By protecting ourselves from vulnerability, we are denying ourselves the affirmation that we really need, and by extension denying ourselves the window into our true nature.

So, what does sex have to do with any of this?  I think sex fits into the equation in two ways.  First, sex, at its best, can be a profound experience of mutual vulnerability for the couple.  Obviously, sex usually involves nakedness, which is a both a concrete vulnerability and often a deep emotional vulnerability.  [Side Note: Seen through this lens, it is interesting, and probably profound, that Genesis describes covering up nakedness as the first thing human beings do after the Fall].  But beyond that, sexuality taps into a level of emotional and personal vulnerability that is difficult to reach in other, non-sexual relationships.  There is a reason that "intimacy" is a polite short-hand for sex--sex is intimate, or at least it can be, in a way that other forms of relationship are not.

That's not to say that sex has to involve vulnerability.  I think most people have experienced situations where one or both partners held back from the kind of emotional vulnerability that can be present in sex, whether consciously or subconsciously.  Still, I think we can say that sex-as-vulnerability is the way it is "supposed to be."  If relationships are, in their highest form, a mirror of the love of God, and vulnerability is a key part of the mirroring, then it stands to reason that sex in its highest form involves the full vulnerability of both members of the couple.

Second, on the negative side, sex creates the potential for one person to exploit the vulnerability of the other.  Obviously, rape and other kinds of sexual violence are the clearest examples of this, but Williams approaches this in a much broader way:

These "asymmetrical" sexual practices have some claim to be called perverse in that they leave one agent in effective control of the situation - one agent, that is, who doesn't have to wait upon the desire of the other.  (Incidentally, if this suggests that, in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a "perversion" - well, that is a perfectly serious suggestion.. .)

In other words, if a sexual relationship is structured in a manner where one person gets to have sex whenever they want, under whatever circumstances they desire, then there is a real sense in which that person does not have to be vulnerable sexually.  Part of the vulnerability of sexuality is that the other person could reject you, but doesn't.  If that possibility is off the table for one party but not the other, then the non-vulnerable party is exploiting the vulnerable party.

A couple of final thoughts:

This notion of vulnerability seems to me to be a very powerful piece in constructing a system of sexual morality.  First, it provides a way to link theological ideas about God with the nitty-gritty of human relationships, without relying on God instituting ad hoc, positive "rules" about sexuality.  In other words, it gives Christianity a reason to care about sexual relationships without reducing everything to "God doesn't like it when you do X."  Second, it is a framework for affirming the basic goodness of sexuality.

Most importantly, I think, this idea of vulnerability is a way to talk about sexual relationships that we all intuit are immoral and harmful, but don't have a good moral vocabulary to speak about.  For example, as Williams hints, lack of mutual vulnerability is a good way to critique and ultimately reject some of the paternalistic, complementarian visions of marriage that are popular in some Christian circles.  It also provides tools to talk about relationships where one person "holds all the cards" for any one of a number of other reasons.  We all have seen relationships that are profoundly unequal and exploitative in practice, even if they are mutual in a formal sense, but there aren't good moral "tools" to criticize these types of relationships.  This model seems to me to open up new ways of thinking and talking about those kinds of relationships.

I also think that the idea of relationships as a mirror of God's love is what the Theology of the Body folks are getting at, but presented in a better way.  Folks like our old buddy Dr. Popcak talk a lot about how married love is a reflection of Christ's love for His people.  That's a nice sentiment, but it is by definition abstract.  The vulnerability concept anchors that notion in concrete emotional experiences that most people have lived.  In other words, rather than just saying "married life is like Christ's love for people," you can say "You know that time when you let your guard down around someone, and they loved you back, including the parts you don't let most people see?  God's love is like that."  That's much more real and comprehensible than the often very vague Theology of the Body stuff.

Next time--what does this mean for specific sexual behaviors?


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