Whether wrestling with one the of non-heterosexual identities or the exigencies of birth control, the hidden costs of pornography, or the viability of chastity, 21st-century Christians have been confronted with unforeseen challenges that have led us to rethink traditional teachings on sexuality.
In many cases, particularly in more progressive expressions of faith, our sexual ethics have adapted and shifted more quickly than our theology (as is often the case). For generations to come, however, a sound theological framework is needed to support a robust Christian sexuality capable of dealing with “the world we find ourselves in.” The hands and feet of our ethical impulses have progressed boldly into unexplored terrain, but unless we discover the body that will provide a balance and stability, such ethical stances will be bound to collapse.
What we need is “a new kind of sexuality,” a response to emerging realities that is both orthodox and open, free and faithful. Such a framework will ultimately be bound to the Great Tradition of the Church while resisting enslavement to interpretations and applications of this Tradition that are now seem incapable of addressing heretofore unexplored questions. It is such “a new kind of sexuality” that I offer here, a starting point as we begin to shape a foundation that will provide the solid ground from which our ethics might find roots. I believe that such a framework will consist of the following five characteristics.
Such a sexuality will be, first of all, creative. The first call to the created humanity is to create as creatures made in the image of a creating God. “Be fruitful and multiply.” Of course, as Jesus so ably demonstrated through his life and through his words in John 15, the fruit bearing of the Kingdom is not primarily biological. Just as the Church has long vindicated the barren and infertile as being capable of a creative fertility that need not deny their sexuality, so must we continue to explore the many ways our sexuality can create and produce fruit beyond the scope of childbearing, while simultaneously resisting expressions of sexuality that seek to deny such creative ends.
Secondly, this new kind of sexuality will be incarnational. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts this so well when it writes, “The flesh is the hinge of salvation.” We believe in God who is creator of the flesh; we believe in the Word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh; we believe in the resurrection of the flesh, the fulfillment of both the creation and the redemption of the flesh.” For too long, Christians have been shaped by a deep ambivalence toward matters “of the flesh.” Amidst such confusion and mistrust, sexuality is bound to become a site more deeply resonant with sin than salvation. To the contrary, we are bound to matter, and that is bound to matter.
Christian sexuality, however, does not begin with the principle of incarnation, which too easily privileges individual bodies. As British theologian Linda Woodhead reminds us, “It is the body of Christ which forms the basis of a new society — not the body of the individual.” Thus, a third aspect of a new kind of sexuality is that it will be communal. To borrow Lauren Winner’s provocative phrase, Christian sexuality is ultimately “sex in the body of Christ.” For sexuality to be authentically Christian, we must recover a sense that our baptismal vows are prior to and primary over even our celibate and/or marital vows, that, to use the subversive title of Jana Marguerite Bennett’s book, “water is thicker than blood.”
Fourth, this new kind of sexuality will be covenantal. Taking the effects and distortions of sin into account requires a response that regulates our expressions of sexuality. Such regulation is ultimately not a form of repression but liberation. Jenell Williams Paris expresses this well when she warns that, “Desire warrants discipline and care, not fulfillment and affirmation.” Just as Christ calls us to a freedom that can only be experienced through obedience (John 8:31-33), so does a new kind of sexuality draw us into boundaries that are necessary for genuine growth and flourishing.
Finally, a new kind of sexuality will be thoroughly compassionate. While it may be possible to practice the four qualities already outlined while still retaining a self-centered approach to sexuality, it is impossible to practice compassion and do so. To paraphrase Paul’s, without compassion, you have nothing. Such compassion – a love of risk, sacrifice, and other-centeredness – must ultimately be the foundation that supports all other sexual virtue.
Such a theological framework for understanding sexuality admittedly lacks the clarity of the Levitical code. But such clarity rarely addresses conclusively the mysterious wonder of the human condition. And if humanity is indeed shrouded in such mystery, few areas of our existence express this better than our sexuality. British theologian Linda Woodhead, reflecting on the perplexing and romantically subversive teachings of Jesus on eschatological sexuality in Mark 12:18-27, writes, “Christianity is as much about dangerous futures as it is about dangerous memories.”
With such a dangerous future in mind, with fear and trembling, but with the grace of God among and within us, let us rediscover what “a new kind of sexuality” is all about.
Dave McNeely is an Adjunct Professor of Religion at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn. He is also a member of First Baptist Church of Jefferson City, where he serves as the Minister to Youth and College Students.