Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sex, Legalism, and Liberal-Mindedness

[N]either legalism nor good intentions will deliver a properly Christian ethic of sexuality ... the gospel addresses itself to a level - the deepest strata of injuredness and self-dividedness - where neither strategy will do.  It says that the places of pain, powerlessness, injury to self and others, despair, and bewilderment are laid open to a God who does not condemn or desert, but who works tirelessly in the middle of our very betrayals and evasions to bring life.
If my life can communicate the 'meanings' of God ... my sexuality too can be sacramental: it can speak of mercy, faithfulness, transfiguration, and hope.  
Our main question about how we lead our sexual lives should be neither 'Am I keeping the rules' nor 'Am I being sincere and non-hurtful?' but 'How much am I prepared for [sex & sexuality] to signify?' 
These are some of the thoughts that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, shares in his book A Ray of Darkness. His essay, "Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic" explores what many Christians have discovered the hard way: Legalism hasn't truly helped us to accept and steward our sexuality, and "right-thinking, liberal-minded conventional wisdom" hasn't actually delivered us from fear and shame.  Neither seem to be inviting us into the sacred for which both long.
Can [sex & sexuality] come to reflect and communicate what Christ's incarnation and cross tell us - that it is faithful gift and costly promise that set us free to return such a gift and such a promise with the fullness of which we are capable? If not, something of the richness of the image of God in us is not yet brought to life.
Williams' question, "How much am I prepared for [sex & sexuality] to signify?" is a brilliant place to start.  It's a brilliant place to start reading the story of Christ giving himself up for and to the church in faithful commitment and unbroken promise and to start hearing the story of our own sexuality within it.  And I would take it a step further.  His question searches the heart's willingness; the next questions search the heart's truth.  "Am I surrendered to and practicing that which sex and sexuality signify?  Does the fruit of my practice reflect and affirm the covenant and faithfulness of God?"

In other words, I think that it is within Williams' framework and foundation of Christ and the church, God's relationship with us, that suddenly both legalism and liberal-minded wisdom are recapitulated and offer something of value in our narrative.  By testing our practices to see if they are covenanted, committed, faithful (keeping the rules), we search our hearts and bring that deepest strata to which the gospel speaks before God for examination.  By searching and being open to having our motivations examined when our practices are not images of God and his faithfulness, and by facing any pain, hurtfulness, or damage we've caused to ourselves or others, we allow ourselves to be in the pain of transformation, not by our own power, but by his.

Liberal-mindedness and Legalism, when submitted to Christ, become love in spirit and in truth, making us perfect until the day of our final resurrection.  The problem is that they have been divorced from each other and wielded outside of Christ, and so we need Christ's tireless work in the midst to bring us life.
Our sexual lives are about making sense of the oddities and uncontrollabilities, tragedies and farces, of bodily existence; a Christian sexual ethic ought to be saying before all else that there is a distinctively Christian sense to be made, the sense God makes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, where flesh itself carries the meaning of God's Word.