Another Theology of the Body, Part I

In my previous post, I listed as #9 of my ten beliefs the idea that there is something fundamentally broken about the way that Christianity has approached questions of sex and gender.  In the next couple of posts, I want to unpack that idea a bit and work through some of my thoughts and reflections on this topic.

Rachel Held Evans is hosting on her blog an extended conversation about Matthew Vines's book God and the Gay Christian.  This book has been more or less the book of the year in Christian circles, both progressive and conservative.  As a quick summary, Vines was raised in a conservative Evangelical household, and during the course of his time at Harvard he realized and came to accept the idea that he was gay.  The book is in many ways a journal of his personal journey to reconcile his faith and his orientation--there are extended reflections on Biblical verses dealing with (or, purported to deal with) homosexuality, but also a discussion of his relationship with his parents and their evolving views on the issue of homosexuality.

I bought God and the Gay Christian, and I am about 1/3rd of the way through it.  Vines is clearly a very smart guy, and he is a very articulate and thoughtful exponent of his position. I am, however, deeply conflicted about the book.  As I have made clear, I have no problems with same sex relationships.  But Vines is not simply arguing in support of same sex relationships--he is arguing in support of same sex relationships from the point of view of a more or less literalist interpretation of Scripture.  Interspersed with his personal story is an extended analysis of the so-called "clobber passages" that are used to argue that homosexuality is sinful.  Vines asserts that those passages do not actually express opposition to same sex relationships.  In other words, everyone is reading it wrong.  Implicit in Vines's approach is the conviction that his new convictions regarding homosexuality do not require him, or anyone else in the Evangelical world, to rethink their overall approach to sexuality, or the Bible. "Don't worry, my Evangelical friends," Vines is telling us, "nothing has to really change if you let gay folks into the club."

It is this part of Vines's message that I find less than convincing.
 In this week's post, Evans and Vines talk about the two Old Testament clobber passages--Genesis 18-19 (Sodom and Gomorrah), and Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.  His argument that Sodom and Gomorrah is really about hospitality and violence, not gay sex, seems solid to me--particularly in light of interpretive passages within Scripture like Ezekiel 16:49-50.  Leviticus, though, is more problematic.  He points out, correctly, that large portions of the Levitical code are not binding on Christians.  But some parts, even if not binding in a formal sense, are still considered to be valid, notably parts dealing with sexual issues.  If you look at the whole of Leviticus 18, for example, you see a laundry list of prohibited permutations that essentially boil down to "you can't have sex with your in-laws, or your grandchildren."  I think there is a general consensus this form of incest is bad.  (Indeed, as Frank from Letters to the Catholic Right pointed out today, modern people are likely more on board with these Levitical prohibitions than we were in the past).  Similarly, few would argue with a ban on sacrificing your children to Molech or a ban on bestiality.  In fact, all we are left with that is remotely controversial is the ban on "lying with a male as with a woman" and a ban on having sex while a woman is menstruating.  There is no reason internal to the text why those two rules are non-binding, as everything else in the chapter seems completely reasonable.

Evans and Vines point out that Leviticus calls lots of things "abominations" that we would would not see as morally problematic, such as charging interest on a loan or the dietary laws, and that's true.  But that insight only exposes the core problem--we write off the notion that charging interest on a loan deserves the death penalty because of ethical principles that are wholly external to the text of Leviticus.  Where do those principles come from?  And why do they trump the Biblical text?

Evans and Vines also suggest that we can and should discount, or at least question, these texts because they exist in the context of a misogynistic world view.  I heartily agree, but once you do that you are not applying a literal approach to Scripture.  And, as the commenters to the post point out, there is no inherent limiting principle to this idea.  If the Scriptural prohibition against gay sex can be discounted because of its origins in misogyny, then why can't other moral principles related to sexuality be discounted as well?  Evans and Vines do not appear to be able to answer this question, at least in a manner that stays within the boundaries of a literal interpretation of Scripture.  Ultimately, if you believe that the Bible is God's Word in literal terms, it doesn't really matter whether it comes out of a misogynistic context--if the text is misogynist, then God must be misogynist, too.

One might be tempted at this point to say "well, then don't read the Bible literally."  That's fine, but the theological reflections that form the Christian tradition point in the same direction as the Scriptural text.  If anything, Christian tradition--influenced by Greek and Roman philosophical and cultural ideas--is even more misogynist in the manner Vines is speaking of than the Scriptures.

Whether you focus on the Bible, on Christian tradition, or some combination of the two, I don't think there is any way to get around the fact that traditional Christianity has been all but unanimous in condemning same sex relationships.  Moreover, that position is not one that exists in isolation, but is instead part of a system of thought that is fundamentally misogynist and sex-negative overall.  St. Paul, the first Christian theologian, takes the position that it is better for everyone, gay or straight, to be celibate.  St. Augustine says that sex between married couples is the very definition of a necessary evil.  St. Thomas says that women are ontologically inferior to men.  And so on.

Ultimately, I think Vines runs into the exact same problem that Theology of the Body advocates run into.  Like Theology of the Body, Vines attempts to incorporate a broader and more positive understanding of sexuality into the traditional Christian framework.  But the framework doesn't support that sort of addition, because the framework is oriented in the polar opposite direction.

At the end of the day, I think you are left with two choices.  One, you could abandon this project of trying to re-imagine sexuality as a positive development.  This might seem attractive to folks who want to uphold, for example, opposition to gay relationships, but it would also require throwing out lots of ideas that conservative straight folks like as well.  To get down to brass tacks, there is no way to justify oral sex as a moral activity, for example. Our buddy Dr. Popcak threw a great deal of shade on the "Anglo-Irish" view of sexuality and placed them on the bottom of his hierarchy of sexual  attitudes, but they would rule the day if we went back to the baseline anti-sex view of Christianity.

The other alternative is to start from the position that sexual and romantic love is, despite some qualifiers, a good thing in and of itself, notwithstanding statements to the contrary in the Scriptures and in the Tradition.  Because this is a departure from the fundamental guiding principles of sexual morality in Christian history, I believe that conclusion requires you to tear down the whole structure of Christian sexual morality and start from scratch.  Retrofits of the kind Vines attempts are just not going to work.

That, I think, is the project for the Church in the 21st Century--how do we rebuild the house of sexual morality.  Easy to say, but how do you do that?  In the next couple of posts, I'd like to work through some suggestions.

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