In my last post on this subject, I said “One of evangelicalism’s biggest problems is we have no compelling sexual vision … We have little or no sexual ethic except the glorified desire of Hollywood lopped onto heterosexual monogamous marriage. We have no theology of desire formation. It is “lust,” and enjoy it, only do so while married to one person. We have no concept of the “ordering of desire.” This is why our witness is so vapid among the sexual brokenness of our day.” I said this is perhaps why we have nothing else to say to the GLBTQ peoples except “hetero-sexual sex is right” and “same-sex relations is wrong”.
It seems then that the first task of a “Welcoming and Mutually Transforming” missional community, ministering among the sexual brokenness of today’s society (whether GLBTQ or heterosexual or otherwise) is to recover a Christian vision of sexuality. There’s no way to describe what such a vision would look like in a blog post. Yet if I were to summarize the direction I think we need to go, it would be with the sentence, “human sexuality is a reflection of the Triune Relation that we are created to experience in the image of God.” But this really does not translate to those outside of Christian faith easily apart from a community living a sexuality in process of being redeemed. It would take a twenty page essay (or my sexual ethics class at Northern ?) to begin to describe this vision theologically.
So instead of that, I offer four ways God transforms our sexual desire and thereby our experience towards his created purposes. Then I make a comment on the practices we need for such a community to become this kind of place where we can be transformed by the Spirit. In describing these 4 areas for transformation (this is just a start) there’s almost a sense here, that if we allow ourselves to be shaped in these ways through confession, prayer, liturgy, truth telling etc. and thereby live them out, the GLBTQ issues will sort themselves out along with all the rest of the sexual issues the church is facing in today’s society (although I still recognize the necessity of articulating our sexual commitments internal to the Body of Christ).
FOUR AREAS FOR SEXUAL TRANSFORMATION
1.) From “sex for me” to “sex towards Oneness.” Sex is dying to self in order to become one. There is a reflection of the Triune God here. There is a reflection of the way of the cross here. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her …” Eph 5:25. Sex is the act of our own self-giving to the other for the sake of becoming one. And yet, the sexual malformation of our society often does the exact opposite – turning the other into an object for sexual satisfaction. The attraction that is nurtured is primarily the fulfillment of libido “for me.” Anytime this happens, we are duped and in a trap. When having sex becomes about who I am, my “sexual identity,” my ego, “how many notches on my belt,” “he/she wanted me,” “I feel desired” and any of the other numerous ways society perverts sex into self fulfillment, I suggest we’ve become trapped into objectifying and being objectified. Instead of oneness between two, there is now an awful distance. We’ve lost the formation that makes the deeper purposes of God’s creation possible. We therefore must gather into community (I suggest groups of threes) to confess and discern how we make others into objects in the way we think about them, sexualize them. (I’ve been in powerful men’s groups where this kind of therapy revolutionized men’s lives). We must examine, bring out into the light, confess, and be healed of these inordinate desires deep within the soul that seem so “natural” yet war against the purposes of God for our lives. Once released of these enslavements, our own desires are not only freed to be re-oriented, but also those who have been victimized by these sins can also be free from the way their desires have been shaped by these sins.
2.) From dominating the other to being with the other. Our society trains us to make others into a fantasy for me. This is where the patriarchal dominance of the male over the female is a reflection of sin. Christian sexual redemption however overcomes difference WITHOUT OBLITERATING IT. This is the mystery (Eph 5:28-33). The two very different persons “become one.” Anytime we obliterate difference, to avoid the difference, any dominance or control exhibited therein, is the manifestation of sin that will lead to addiction. As a reflection of the Triune three in one, God created sexual life for the bringing together of difference. In some respects, I contend this is where same-sex relations can only fall short of God’s purposes. We therefore must examine ourselves, submit ourselves to Christ for the ways we seek to avoid difference, dominate or control those who are different in our sexual lives, play off ways we have stereotyped the opposite sex.
3.) From pursuing pleasure as the first goal to seeking pleasure as the after effect of true union. I take it that in Eph 5 the love of agape (Eph 5:25 committed covenantal self-less love) is joined together with the love of eros (Eph 5:31 the love that seeks union). Marcus Barth in his commentary of Ephesians says this is the only place in Greek literature where this happens. To me this says pleasure/attraction/the desire for union is not necessarily first, but often the afterwards development of a love that pursues the covenantal purposes of God in marriage. To seek pleasure as an end itself, to make the other an object for pleasure, to somehow take any short cut to pleasure by making it an end in itself, deforms one’s sexuality. It dissables the growing of our sexuality so that, over a life time monogamous relationship, sex becomes less and less about pure physical attraction and more about the pleasure of union. The pursuit of pleasure/attraction as an end in itself therefore must be confessed as sin. We must gather in some helpful way to submit ourselves to the disciplines (many of them liturgical within the rites of the church) that shape us for a lifetime of growing into One with the person God has given us for marriage.
4. From sex as personally generative to sex as procreative, extending beyond me into life and mission. Of course, I understand that sex can and perhaps should be personally generative (giving life). But what the Catholic tradition has truly understood, is that personal generativity is only generated out of the giving of oneself over to the procreative act that is beyond me in Mission. As Bob Hyatt has said so well here, the first command in the Bible to have sex is “be fruitful and multiply.” That sex should be always tied to procreation is something beyond the social imaginary of our current society. Yet to say that sex is physically tied to the unselfish act of giving oneself over to the future, to being obligated to the out-of control act of giving birth to something beyond one’s self is to ultimately say that sex, in the Christian sense, is missional. Yes I said sex is missional. For to give birth to and raise children, not as idols to our selves but as a belief and commitment to God’s future, is missional. Tying sex and procreation together in this way changes the very experience of sex. To detach it from the giving one self over to creation (even if biologically having children is not possible) changes sex. This is why Catholics have said that once you have contraception you shape and discipline desire totally differently. In this way then, we must allow our bodies to be shaped by God’s call to procreate biologically. Now there are obvious implications here for same sex relations as well as adoption. Don’t have time to expound here. In addition we must come to see celibacy as a discipline that orders our drives towards God’s mission in the world. We must see our singleness, whether short term or life time vow, as a time for the spiritual disciplining of our bodies for God’s mission.
THE HABITS OF A SEXUAL REDEMPTIVE COMMUNITY
In order for a missional community to offer sexual transformation in Christ, it must offer a place where spiritual disciplines can be practiced for the shaping of desire into Christ. Admittedly, the received standard view is that desire is natural/given tied to biology. And of course, desire is tied to the body in some ways. Genetics have something to do with it. And yet so much of sexual formation is developmental. The reshaping of desire is inconceivable in our society because of the modern construct of desire. Yet the contradictions inherent in saying desire is or cannot be shaped are so obvious it is hard to carry out this assumption in any meaningful way See Sarah Coakley’s can’t miss work on this here (HT Kinnon, Ben Myers)
In order for any of the above areas to be transformed, we need a regular practice of confession of sin, examination, space for the Spirit to shape imagination, healing prayer, liturgy and worship. (I recommend groups of three). We must have places where we can study Scriptures, talk openly and cast a vision for what God has created in sexuality. We must practice the renouncing of certain negative habits sexually (think of how we have renounced the domination of women in patriarchal patterns), how we look at each other, how we practice friendship, how we nurture our teenagers towards sexual fidelity. We allow the Holy Spirit to train ourselves into new habits that will often be at odds with society. Yet they are a profound witness to the sexual redemption God is bringing to the world in Jesus Christ.
Has anyone experienced such a sexually redemptive community? In my attempt to boil this down into a (long) blog post, what elements have I missed that are essential for such a transformative community?