Another Theology of the Body XXI--Postscript

I said I wasn't going to do anymore on this topic, and when I said it I had every intention of following through.  But a couple of days ago I stumbled onto something that is directly relevant to the themes and issues I was working on in the series, so I decided to break my self-imposed ban and direct your attention to a piece written by Thomas Bushnell.  It is relatively short, and utterly worth your time.

As a bit of context, Bushnell's piece is written in response to an essay by Father Craig Uffman of the the Diocese of Rochester (New York) in the Episcopal Church.  The overall topic is a proposal before the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to amend its canons (basically church law) in several ways to facilitate blessing of same-sex unions by clergy in the Episcopal Church.  As you might expect, these proposals are controversial--some are opposed to the Church recognizing same-sex marriage altogether, others frustrated by what they perceive as "half-a-loaf," mealy-mouthed compromises, still others objecting to the changes on procedural or other technical grounds.  A good thumbnail of some of these points-of-view can be found here.  A one sentence summary of Fr. Uffman's position is that, while we supports the conceptual goal of finding a way to bless same-sex unions in the Episcopal Church, he is concerned that the theology of marriage as it currently stands is not up to the task of providing a framework for that move.

Into the mix comes Bushnell, with several extremely insightful points.  He begins with something that I was trying to get at in various ways (especially in my discussion of Taylor Swift), but that he sticks the landing on.  Folks like Father Uffman are discussing a theology of marriage, which in many ways is really just a theology of when, and under what circumstances, you can have sex; what we really need is a theology of relationships, of which marriage and sexual relationships are (perhaps co-terminus) subtypes.  By starting with marriage and defining it fundamentally in terms of sex, we are both elevating the importance of sex unnecessarily, but we are also denigrating all other human relationships to an afterthought.  Both of these moves are completely inconsistent with the lived experience of the vast majority of people--non-sexual relationships of all types are enormously important, and marriages are about far more than just sex.  Without a robust theology of relationships, we end up having these cramped and contorted discussions that don't map on to the way people are actually living their lives.

As an example of how our debates in this area have become distorted, Bushnell points us to the fact that most people (even "liberal" same sex marriage advocates) feel the need to preface their position in support of sex-related situation X with a strong denunciation of sex-related situations Y and Z.  The example Bushnell uses here is the clearest one--polygamy.  In order to establish that one is a serious advocate for same sex marriage, one first must condemn polygamy in order to establish one's bona fides.  But if you think about that, there is really no particular reason that polygamy and same sex marriage should be connected--they deal with very different circumstances, involve very different justice and social concerns, as well as very different Scriptural texts.

What’s going on here? It has become customary in any piece of writing arguing that a traditional sexual rule of the church should be relaxed, to stamp one’s foot and insist that of course there are still boundaries, and then rattle off a list of what-isn’t-ok as if to assure the reader than of course there are still some rules. It is as though the only way to have a theology of sex is to have some rules of things-that-are-not-allowed, and if you don’t have a list, you’re not doing it right.
(This is a rhetorical flourish only demanded of discussions about sex, by the way. When the Church started saying that slavery was immoral, it didn’t feel the need to describe other property rights which still should continue. When fasting rules get loosened, nobody feels the need to list other kinds of ascetical practice that should remain. When the Church admits that evolution is actually perfectly consistent with Christianity, it doesn’t rattle off a list of other scientific theories it still doubts.)

Again, all of this is evidence that we have framed all of our discussions of marriage around the notion that its purpose must be to tell some group of folks that they can't have sex in the way they want to have sex, and our job is to figure out who should get the ban-hammer.  But that's backward--prohibitions are the result of the theological and moral reflection, not the starting point for such reflection.

Speaking of confusing starting and ending points, Bushnell then moves on to give, in a handful of short paragraphs, the best explanation I have ever seen for the core problem with John Paul II's Theology of the Body.  It's so good, I'll just quote it.

There is a stunning game of switcheroo which Uffman has been taken in by. The prestidigitator who accomplished the act was the late pope John Paul II, and it went like this. Once, the Church was confronted with describing what marriage was good for, in a theological context in which marriage was decidedly a second-class way of life, entirely inferior to the lifelong celibate living in religious community or otherwise committed to unmarried ecclesiastical service. And the answer was clear: babies. Marriage produced babies, and without babies, there can be no more priests and religious.


Then time moves on, and in the 20th century the Roman Catholic Church needed to explain that it wasn’t actually trying to push the vast multitudes of Christians into a second-class and inferior status, and began describing the married state as equally valuable as the celibate, and needed to articulate as well that marrying people was not just the Church’s way of making new celibate clergy. Marriage needed to be good for the participants too. And so it was articulated that alongside procreation, there was another equally powerful point to marriage: it served to unify the partners. Marriage was thus both procreative and unitive.

Sex (within marriage) was ok, because it made more Christians. So marriage was ok, because it created the place within which sex was ok. Oh, and yeah, it brings people together too. Now it’s not that nobody knew this. It’s just that the celibate authors didn’t know it, or didn’t let on that they knew it. Or, most likely, simply didn’t care.

Skip forward. Married people have noticed that their economic and social fortunes would be improved if they had more control over reproduction, and advances in medical technology have made birth control safe and reliable. But the Church had always insisted that procreation was part of the point of a marriage (and, let’s be clear, had frequently looked down its nose at those who were infertile through no fault of their own, casting plenty of shame, usually on the women). Well, the ban-hammer descends, and after much hemming and hawing, Pope Paul VI says that every individual sexual act must be “open” to procreation, and so any action which is specifically intended to prevent conception is prohibited, as being contrary to the point of sex. . . .

Now move forward some more. We have two distinct bits of theology here. First, that marriage is both procreative and unitive, and second, that sexuality is inherently and must always be procreative. Now John Paul II enters the game. Decades after Paul VI got it wrong, John Paul II tries to find a way to encourage Catholic couples to toe the rules against contraception, and articulates a new idea. He says that sex itself is both procreative and unitive. Not the marriage, but the sex. And then, in a tour-de-force, the late pope explains that contraception not only subverts the procreative aspect of sex, but also its unitive aspect.

So much good stuff here.  First, Bushnell rightfully points out that Catholic thinking on marriage begins with Paul, who says you shouldn't bother with marriage because Jesus is coming back any day now.  Augustine then modifies that to "well, marriage is still not as good as being celibate, but babies have to come from somewhere, right?"  But, either way, sex is still always basically bad.  It's only with John Paul that sex became sort of OK, but only if it is tied up with a series of premises that don't really hold together in a coherent way.

All of this is really hopelessly confused.  As Bushnell says "[i]n [John Paul's] desire to explain that sex was both procreative and unitive, he conflated facts about sex with facts about how sex functions in healthy marriages with facts about how healthy marriages function,"  which are three conceptually distinct things.   Procreation, in particular, is not a product of marriage, it's a product of heterosexual, penis-in-vagina sex.  After all, this sort of sex can be procreative, regardless of the status of the relationship.  Likewise, while sex is a component of a healthy marriage (i.e. is "unitive"), contra Dr. Popcak there is not some magical way of having sex that generates "unitive-ness" where it didn't already exist.  As Bushnell says "it is not automatic that sexuality 'brings two people together'; it is not a biological necessity; it is not a basic fact. It is something that happens sometimes, and sometimes it does not happen."

Bushnell then notes a massive elephant in the room of all these discussions about the "unitive" dimension of marriage.  Why do people, in general, want to have sex?  Not explicitly to achieve a "unitive" dimension with another person (though, that can be a subordinate part of it), not usually explicitly for purposes of procreation (though, sometimes)--people want to have sex because sex is awesome and feels good.  Augustine acknowledges that fact head on, but declares the pleasurable dimension of sex to be sinful and the core problem with sexuality.  But the current neo-traditionalist discourse avoids this critical and blindingly obvious fact altogether.

Indeed, a Martian could read Uffman’s entire paper and never find out that, for humans, sex is generally an extremely pleasurable activity. A theology of sex which cannot bring itself to notice this is not a theology of sex at all. . . . We cannot have a theology of sex without a theology of the body, and we cannot have a theology of sex without a willingness to speak frankly about how different things feel at a physical level, and about how sexuality works in different kinds of relationships (or doesn’t). . . . If you want to know when sex can be unitive and when not, and how it functions in a variety of different kinds of relationships, you can learn a lot by watching Seinfeld, but almost nothing from those who seem to like to talk about sex and union.

Or, to use another analogy, the current discussion about sex and marriage from the conservative side is like an attempt to study the practices of the restaurant industry without first recognizing that people have taste buds that allow them to appreciate different types of foods.  You could construct all sorts of hypothetical reasons why people go to a particular French bistro and order certain items, but those hypotheticals will never reflect the actual reason actual people go to restaurants unless it incorporates the idea that people want to eat tasty food.  And if you won't recognize this reality, you might as well go back to the Augustinian model of insisting everyone eat a nutritious food paste to avoid the pleasures of a good steak.

Absent a frank discussion of why and how people actually have sex, all of this talk of the "unitive" dimension of marriage turns into an empty signifier.  For example, Bushnell quotes Uffman quoting the great 20th Century Reformed theologian Karl Barth.

[F]or Barth, real sex is always an act of reconciliation. The unreconciled sex act - sex in which two humans are not subjects to one another in response to grace - dehumanizes.

I don't have the foggiest idea what "sex in which two humans are subjects to one another in response to grace" means in concrete terms.  And that's Bushnell's point--these discussions seem to be entirely adrift from any actual, lived experiences of real people--something we saw in spades in large sections of Holy Sex!.  Bushnell insists that these discussions have to be framed in terms of the actual experiences of actual couples to have any utility.

Uffman would do much better to talk about how sexuality has had a unitive value in his marriage than to talk about it in vague and abstract terms. I understand that this is deeply upsetting to people who desperately want to not talk about sex, and can only do so with deep embarrassment, even shame. I understand that this requires vulnerability and courage. If Uffman is not prepared to talk about his own experiences of sexuality openly and frankly, then that’s fine. But then he should not talk about them in generic and abstract terms either.

There is much more good stuff in Bushnell's piece, such as an excellent, in-depth discussion of Aristotelian causes and their abuse that is tremendous.  My main take-away from the piece is a renewed and strengthened conviction that the problem that we have with sexuality in general, and LGBT issues in particular, stems from approaching the problem the wrong way.  We are completely enmeshed in talking about acts, when in reality we should be talking about relationships.  And it is in the domain of relationships that our theology is indeed not really up for the task and in need of development.  But it's there that we must focus out attention.  As long as we are focused on sexual acts in abstraction, we will be crafting more and more complicated, but ultimately ineffectual, answers to the wrong question.

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