What Sex Is—And Is For

Gilbert Meilaender

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 102 (April 2000): 44-49.

Sexuality and the Christian Body. By Eugene F. Rogers, Jr. Blackwell. 303 pp. $62.95.

The blurbs on the back cover of this book create in the potential reader an expectation of something new—a creative, original approach to the morality of homosexual acts, not just a rehashing of standard arguments. And there is much in the book that one might not have anticipated, even if a good bit of it is repetitive and tangential, some of it mischievous, and relatively little of it moral argument. Yet Rogers’ case for "the fittingness in the Christian tradition of married same–sex relationships" turns out to be the following familiar one: that what counts morally is quality of relationship—motive and love (not law); that we need to listen to the experience of gays and lesbians; that the Spirit is doing something new in the Church.

The book falls roughly into three parts, none of which admits of easy summary. In Part One Rogers attempts to depict the controversy within the Church, to characterize what he calls "liberal" and "conservative" positions as they are heard by those with whom they disagree. Part Two takes a long look at Aquinas (on natural law and the reading of Scripture) and Barth (on the relation of Jews and Gentiles, and men and women), attempting to "make space" for assessments of homosexuality that they themselves admittedly did not hold and finding in each what Rogers terms a "surprising openness" for more positive assessments. Part Three sets forth what Rogers calls his constructive argument for an understanding of marriage wide enough to include same–sex couples. Nevertheless, I suspect that many readers will not find it easy to reconstruct the argument, which certainly cannot be said to develop in linear fashion, and I will offer my own account of it here, recognizing that my analysis attempts something more straightforward than Rogers in fact offers.

First, though, a word is in order about how Rogers sets the terms of the discussion in Part One. Depicting the conflict as one between liberals and conservatives situates it chiefly within our society’s culture wars and shapes the argument in a certain way from the outset. "Conservatives" turn out to be those who want to import "the politics of culture wars" into the life of the Church, while "liberals" turn out to be those who support "the politics of baptism," who refuse to divide the Church into friends and foes over an issue that is (we are evidently to assume) not central to the faith. What, then, could one say of a statement such as the following from Wolfhart Pannenberg? "If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church."

Whatever one thinks of Pannenberg’s view, his claim is theological, not political. One who held such a view would not be likely to recognize in the first chapters of this book what Rogers says he is offering: an account that puts the best construction on the argument of each side. The Church has generally understood the gospel that makes its unity possible as one that shapes both faith and life. It has, therefore, had to distinguish between actions that follow Christ and actions that turn against him. It has sought, that is, to give structure and shape to the language of love (language that is so easily reduced to motive alone). If those who do this are depicted as importing "the politics of culture wars" into the Church’s life, then their concern for "the holiness of the people of God" (the title of Rogers’ third chapter) is not really being taken seriously.

Whatever the failings of his opening chapters, however, Rogers, at his best, wants to address the issue of homogenital activity as a theological one. (This does not mean that he attaches great importance to arguments about, say, prohibitions in Leviticus of homosexual activity. Those he reads primarily as rules about ritual purity, intended to separate Israel from the surrounding peoples. The argument he makes proceeds at a level of greater generality.) His case proceeds roughly as follows. First, and perhaps most important, just as the first Christians came to see that the gospel required the inclusion of Gentiles, so we are now seeing that it requires also the inclusion of same–sex couples. (There is something a little bizarre about attempting to use one of the most difficult and obscure theological questions—the relation of Jews and Gentiles—to clarify the Church’s judgment about homosexual behavior, but the move is not uncommon, and here I simply try to follow Rogers’ discussion.)

As the Spirit was once poured out upon the Gentiles, so now that same Spirit is doing a work among gays and lesbians that cannot be denied. (Indeed, Rogers does not hesitate to say that denying it may "put Gentile Christians in danger of their salvation.") Just as Paul (in Romans 11) thought that, in grafting Gentile branches cut from a wild olive tree into the cultivated tree of Israel, God had done something "contrary to nature," so now God brings into the Church gays who (according to Paul in Romans 1) act contrary to nature. The "against nature" of Romans 11 governs and, in essence, overturns the "against nature" of Romans 1. "What is natural," Rogers writes, "is that God should love the Jews especially. What is unnatural is that God should incorporate the Gentiles into that love." Thus, "in saving Gentiles, God shows solidarity with something of their nature, the very feature that had led the Jew Paul [in Romans 1] to distinguish himself from them: their excessive sexuality."

There is here, one has to say, a certain amount of sleight of hand. No doubt God may be said to show His solidarity with every form of sin in saving all sorts of sinners. We need not conclude—and Paul did not seem to conclude—that those sinners who seek to follow Christ should simply continue in sin that God’s grace may abound. More important, let us consider two points: 1) the appeal to the inclusion of the Gentiles as support for the inclusion of same–sex couples, and 2) what the inclusion of the Gentiles entailed.

When those first Jewish Christians realized that the Holy Spirit seemed to have been poured out upon the Gentiles, they did not regard that experience as self–authenticating and decide that their scriptures were wrong to have spoken of the election of Israel. On the contrary, this experience forced them to return to those scriptures and discover in them a truth they had previously overlooked: that God’s covenant with Abraham was, from the start, intended for the blessing of all nations, so that the Gentiles too might come to Zion. It is profoundly misleading, therefore, when Rogers writes, "What is natural is that God should love the Jews especially. What is unnatural is that God should incorporate the Gentiles into that love."

This misleads in forgetting that there are no natural privileges with God—that the branches from the cultivated tree can be cut off. And more important still, it misleads in forgetting that God’s special love for Israel is grounded not in nature but in His covenant and commitment—which covenant from the outset had the Gentiles also in view. This is the truth about Jews and Gentiles that those first Jewish Christians discovered when they reread their scriptures. To make of the inclusion of the Gentiles a ground for inclusion within the Church of same–sex couples one would need a similar reading of Scripture—not just an appeal to experience and a claim that this experience is the work of the Spirit, not just a claim that the scriptures are wrong.

Moreover, we need to remind ourselves what the inclusion of the Gentiles actually entailed. Paula Fredriksen has recently summarized it quite succinctly: the Jews of Jesus’ time were quite ready to deal with interested Gentiles on several different bases. Many Gentiles, while continuing also to worship their ancestral gods, added worship of Israel’s God and adopted as much or as little of Jewish practice as they wished. With that Jews had no quarrel. If, however, a Gentile actually wanted to convert to Judaism, he had to give up the worship of his ancestral deities and observe Torah (e.g., its requirement of circumcision for men, its dietary restrictions, its Sabbath observance). So the Gentile either had to remain a kind of "fellow traveler," an interested outsider, or become a Jew. When, however, the Spirit was poured out upon the Gentiles, the Church did a new thing: Gentiles were to give up their pagan gods and worship the God of Israel alone, yet this did not mean that they had to become Jews (by being circumcised, keeping the Sabbath, etc.). To turn to Israel’s God did mean, however, to seek holiness of life. To renounce their ancestral gods meant renouncing behavior associated with idolatrous rejection of God’s creative design for human life—behavior that on the evidence of Romans 1, includes homosexual behavior. That is what the inclusion of the Gentiles actually meant.

The other part of Rogers’ case extends the argument. Just as the inclusion of the Gentiles meant bringing them into a new vision of the people of God, so also does inclusion of same–sex couples provide a means for building up the family of God. This, in Rogers’ view, is what sex is for. It is intended to draw us into a faithful, monogamous (albeit opposite sex or same sex) union that disciplines persons in such a way as to liberate them for holiness. Marriage is therefore, Rogers wants to emphasize, an "ascetic practice" through which God draws us (even and especially as sexual beings) into the kind of mutual love that characterizes God’s own triune life. Before God, therefore, sex is, Rogers repeatedly emphasizes, for sanctification. It is for anything else (in particular, procreation) only insofar as that promotes the end of sanctification.

Thus, Rogers says, we put sex in service of sanctification when we ask, What do we want to do with our bodies? And when we answer, We should use our bodies to love others in ways that show that they are wanted, even as it is the purpose of Christianity to teach human beings that God wants them. We image God’s love in our bodies when we love in ways that say to another that he is desired. To love in that way, Rogers is persuaded, cannot be wrong. To tell those who feel no call to celibacy that they must renounce such love is, in essence, to tell them that they are not really wanted and loved (unless they first become something else—a disembodied creature). The desires that come naturally to us cannot be taken up into the life of the triune God—transformed and perfected—if they are rejected, repressed, and labeled as sin. They can be perfected only when we allow them to image the faithfulness of God’s own love and liberate them for that splendor.

It is quite true to say that the Church has generally understood sanctification as one of the purposes of marriage. It exists for the healing of our desires, for the reordering of them in accord with God’s will. That is one of the things sex and marriage are for. But not the only thing. And the first question is not, What do we want to say with our bodies? It is, rather, What does God want us to say with them? Sex and marriage are also for community and procreation.

One of the purposes of marriage is that we should learn the meaning of community with another person who is really an other. Not just another one like myself, but one who is different in ways constitutive of our humanity—as different as a woman is from a man. I am to learn, that is, not just to love faithfully one like myself but so to overcome that forbidden love of self that I love even in the face of bodily difference—lest I should one day be unable or unwilling to get out of my own skin enough to love the One who is truly Other.

Sex and marriage are also for procreation, in order that we may see that, by God’s grace and blessing, this kind of love for an other is creative and fruitful—that through our love God may continue to speak His "yes" to human life. Against the Church’s traditional emphasis upon procreation as one of the central purposes of marriage, Rogers claims that adoption is a better image—at least for Gentiles—of our relation to God and that "the Holy Family has more of adoption in it than nature." There is here, one fears, just a touch of the scorn toward "breeders" often manifested in the gay movement, but, more important, there is also a failure to be Barthian enough (in a book that draws heavily on Barth).

Undoubtedly, none of us has a natural claim on God, but a truly Barthian treatment would emphasize not only the covenant that is the internal meaning of creation but also the (structure of) creation that is the external basis of covenant. That external basis includes marriage as a community of male and female, ordered toward procreation. As Michael Banner has recently put it, a Barthian ethic would understand God’s claim on us under the threefold form of God the creator, reconciler, and redeemer. "As the command of the creator," Banner writes, "the command of God commands us to be what we are. As the command of the reconciler, the command of God is directed against the disorder of our present existence. As the command of the redeemer, the command of God directs us to the good future which God intends, and thus to what we shall be."

Rogers misses the first two of these forms. His discussion is Manichean in that the constitution of our humanity as male and female is not a form that comes from the good God—and Pelagian in that it praises too much our desires as we find them, not letting the needed transformation cut deeply enough to put to death the sinful self. As Josef Pieper once put it, the transformation of our natural loves "perhaps resembles passing through something akin to dying," and it is therefore "much more than an innocuous piety when Christendom prays, ‘Kindle in us the fire of Thy love.’"

This is not to deny what is so evident to Rogers: that such a call to order our loves rightly, which may sometimes mean a call to renunciation of genital activity (though not, pace the way Rogers sometimes puts it, a renunciation of our sexuality), may be experienced as painful indeed. When eros overtakes us—even an eros that is not rightly ordered—no one should try to tell us that nothing significant has happened. Even a distorted eros bears traces of its divinity, and it may well seem ennobling. But we need to remind ourselves that this is true for many people, not just for gays and lesbians. The single man who has found no wife, who has begun to despair of ever finding a wife, and who finds himself in love with his neighbor’s wife is experiencing something very significant indeed. It may even, in some respects, make him a better man than he has been heretofore. Her bodily embrace may seem, for the first time in his life, really to persuade him that he is desired and wanted. Renunciation of that embrace may resemble for him "passing through something akin to dying." But it is to such renunciation that he must be directed. If, nevertheless, he does not repent and marries her, theirs is not a wedding feast that the Church should celebrate.

Something like this is, I think, the core of Rogers’ case, as I have attempted to cull it from the first and third parts of the book. Part two of the book does something different. It attempts to find in Aquinas and Barth—a great theologian of nature and an equally great theologian of revelation—a certain "space" within orthodox Christianity for the sort of position Rogers affirms, even while granting, of course, that neither theologian can be claimed as a supporter of same–sex marriage. This is a long and complicated section, to which I cannot possibly do justice here. But in certain respects Rogers’ treatment of each theologian is unsatisfactory, and I will say just enough to express reasons for unease.

Rogers argues for a particular way of reading Aquinas’ treatment of natural law. His approach is not especially new, and it is, I think, at least reasonable. It would be hard to call it compelling, since Aquinas scholars themselves are likely always to be divided on this approach to reading him. All too briefly, Rogers’ preferred reading is this: only the other virtues enable us to have the virtue of prudence—really to discern what the natural law requires. That is, the natural law may be self–evident, but it is not obvious—and the unjust man will never really be able to "see" what it requires. But once we become more virtuous—acquire, for example, the virtue of justice—we may see the natural law quite differently than we had before. Virtue and seeing nature rightly go together.

This is, as I noted, a possible, though not compelling, way to read Aquinas. (One might equally well argue that prudence—seeing nature rightly—is needed if we are to have any of the other virtues whole and entire. That, of course, would put a very different spin on the argument.) By reading Aquinas in this way, Rogers thinks he can "make space" for an affirmation of same–sex marriage. Assuming (as Rogers simply does throughout) that we now see such virtues as love and fidelity displayed in same–sex unions, and if virtue and seeing nature rightly go together, then, he thinks, a contemporary Thomistic analysis ought to lead us to a conclusion about same–sex unions quite different from Thomas’ own conclusion. That is, gays who have the virtue of faithfulness in love may come to see something about nature that had not been seen before. We cannot deny their account of nature unless we are also willing to deny that they possess the virtue of faithfulness—since virtue and seeing nature rightly go together.

This is hardly persuasive. Were it true, we would be forced to deny the virtue of those who think same–sex unions contrary to nature and wrong; yet, their virtue too may sometimes seem manifest. The truth is that, even on this reading of Aquinas, virtue and seeing nature rightly come together only at the end of a very long road. Along the way our virtues and vices will always be a mixed lot—as, then, will be our capacity to see rightly. Our powers of discernment are always distorted by vice, and we can scarcely claim our moment in history as one uniquely suited to see the truth of what nature requires.

Such pessimism about our powers of discernment might drive us from nature to Scripture for guidance. Rogers devotes a good bit of space to a discussion of Aquinas’ interpretation of Romans 1, but here I will mention only his long treatment of Barth, who may be the preeminent theologian of revelation in the Church’s history. Because marriage is a type of God’s love for Israel, Rogers turns for insight to Barth’s treatment of the relation between Jews and Gentiles—which treatment, he claims, finally ends in "abstraction." By this Rogers means that Barth talks about Israel in a way that—perhaps unintentionally, but nonetheless insidiously—conceals or blots out the reality of particular Jews. Attempting to set himself against views Christians have sometimes held, Barth argues that God wills the continuing existence of Jews; yet, he also holds that God does not will the continuing existence of the practices that constitute and set apart the community of Jews.

Something similar happens, Rogers suggests, in Barth’s discussion of sexuality. For Barth, the fact that our lives are ordered toward covenant community with God finds its counterpart in the fact that our humanity is always a "being–in–fellow–humanity," and the first and typical sphere of fellow–humanity is the differentiation and relation of male and female. By understanding male–female complementarity as constitutive of our humanity, Barth has, Rogers argues, made marriage essential to that humanity. In doing so he—perhaps unintentionally, but nonetheless insidiously—conceals or blots out the reality of particular people, gays and lesbians. Most astonishingly, Rogers says, Barth loses the human reality of Jesus, who himself was not married. If a man–woman pair is necessary to exhibit the image of God, Jesus himself cannot be such an image. In order to overcome this abstraction we must, according to Rogers, correct Barth and say: "Male–female complementarity may be typical of co–humanity, but it need not be essential."

I think this does more than "make space" in Barth; it misreads him. Barth is quite clear that the man–woman differentiation that constitutes our co–humanity has its center in marriage but does not coincide with it. Indeed, Barth writes of the man–woman relationship that it is wider than marriage, "embracing the whole complex of relations at the center of which marriage is possible." He specifically notes in this connection that Jesus had no bride other than the new community he founded, and he calls 1 Corinthians 7 "the Magna Carta of all who are unmarried." Hence, not to marry, even to repress and sublimate erotic desire, is not a renunciation of our created sexuality or of the man–woman complementarity that constitutes our being–in–fellow–humanity. And, contrary to Rogers’ sleight of hand, we are not required to suppose that, because Jesus does not marry, his humanity is not that of a man always existing as a sexual being in relation to woman.

Because the morality of same–sex relations is currently so divisive within the Church, a few other matters deserve brief comment. Rogers’ book displays what one might call (using the term purely descriptively) an idiosyncratic approach to the question. It attempts to say something new and different, to avoid the same old arguments. My own conclusion, having read it, is that this does not work very well. Quite often the old arguments are old for a good reason: they are central. That the issue does not go away, that not all are persuaded, may tempt us to suppose that the old arguments are not good ones—as if good arguments were always persuasive to all. But Kant scholars do not stop arguing about whether the categorical imperative is so purely formal as to be materially useless just because no argument seems persuasive to all. Plato scholars do not stop writing about the Socratic paradox just because no explication of it has ever been persuasive to all. Rousseau scholars do not tire of attempting to give a coherent reading of his seemingly contradictory works simply because no such reading is likely to be persuasive to all. Yet, on the issue of homosexuality, Rogers writes that "the thrust and counterthrust [of the standard arguments] is mostly a dreary business." That it is unlikely to bring about general agreement any time soon we may readily grant, but I, at least, do not see why that makes it a dreary business. The arguments exist to clarify and articulate the Church’s biblical teaching, not to do something strikingly original. And that, on the whole, is a good thing.

It is also worth pondering briefly what we might call the academic location of Rogers’ work. Over the past two decades a basic debate over theological method has gone on within the American academy, a debate that (to oversimplify a bit) has pitted "Chicago" (and its continuation of the liberal project of making the faith intelligible to its cultured despisers) against "Yale" (and its "postliberal" project that depicts the faith as something like its own culture, which seeks to absorb the world rather than simply offer a response to the world’s implicitly religious questions).

"Yale’s" approach seemed to offer possibilities for recapturing theology as a churchly undertaking, with its own standards and its own grammar, even if postliberalism has not often in the last twenty years gotten much beyond debates about method (with the work of William Placher being a notable exception to that generalization). It seemed to offer Protestants a way to recapture a coherent reading of Scripture—perhaps even, to put the matter in a way that is a little too grandiose but still telling, to do for Protestants what the Magisterium does for Catholics.

Rogers’ own training and outlook situate him within that postliberal approach, and it is therefore striking that one of the first books from within this school of thought to treat an important issue in normative ethics should turn out to argue for a radical revision of the Church’s teaching. This sharpens the division between a few Protestants, on the one hand, and Evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, and Catholic Christians on the other. I don’t quite know what to make of that, but it is a fact worth pondering. At the very least we might conclude that "method" will not save us.

Finally, I noted above Rogers’ claim that "failing to accept faithful, monogamous gay and lesbian marriages may deny the work of the Spirit and put Gentile Christians in danger of their salvation." We must assume that this is no mere rhetorical flourish, for he says as much at several other places. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast and (on Rogers’ reading) warns those who will not celebrate same–sex marriages that, in cutting themselves off from the work of the Spirit, they risk being cast into the outer darkness. That is understandable, for, after all, those who accept the Church’s traditional teaching must say to anyone who acts in accord with the position Rogers recommends that, insofar as one sins deliberately, one risks becoming the sort of person who will not bend the knee at the name of Jesus—that is, one puts one’s salvation in danger.

If such warnings are seriously meant, it is more than a little lame to suggest (as Rogers does elsewhere in the book) that—in the face of such deep and consequential disagreement—this difference between traditionalists and revisionists can be thought of as an opposition "no longer at the center of things." To the degree that this is what the "reconciled diversity" of mainline Protestantism means as an ecumenical program, it is unworthy of our support. A unity purchased so entirely at the cost of truth could not possibly be a unity "in Christ." It would—I say this in all seriousness—be far better if we were simply to begin once again to believe seriously in purgatory and were to adopt an ecumenical posture that is more patient, that accepts the fact of visible division among those who name the name of Christ, and that is less driven to manifest unity here and now.

If Rogers is right, then traditionalists who want to bend the knee at the name of Jesus will eventually need to have their unwillingness to celebrate at the wedding feasts of gays and lesbians purged from them. If Rogers is wrong, then revisionists who want to bend the knee at the name of Jesus will eventually need to have their deliberate embrace of sin purged from them. And if such purgation should be needed by either and be refused—well, of course, then nothing will remain but the outer darkness. For the time being, however, we cannot overcome that division—and must therefore recognize it.

Gilbert Meilaender holds the Board of Directors Chair in Theological Ethics at Valparaiso University.