Sex and Marriage

sex and the sound bite

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Conversations about sex and sexuality can get pretty heated. And more than a little awkward.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re public conversations (online, on TV, or radio talk shows) or private conversations — with curious kids across the breakfast table, long-term friends over a meal, or near strangers at a party.

They just have a tendency to get very messy, very quickly.

Maybe it’s the nature of such feelingful conversations. Where people are deeply invested. Often in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways.

Such conversations are especially likely to explode when one or other party attempts to speak with a conservative Christian voice — especially on topics like homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I’ve had conversations like this blow up in my face. And I’ve heard about it happening to people I know. Sometimes with tragic consequences.

In our culture of the sound bite and catchy slogan, you sometimes can’t even get past saying where you stand without being labelled and written off (one way or the other).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to play the victim here.

I’m just trying to think out loud about whether there’s anything to be done to facilitate better conversations — where we give each other enough airtime to communicate and learn.

One prominent Christian pastor I know of simply refuses to speak on such topics unless his conversation partners are willing to give him 3 hours to explain himself properly — setting his views in their wider biblical and theological context and addressing some of the often-unexamined ‘defeater beliefs’ thrown up by competing world-views.

Now there’s obvious wisdom in this. It isn’t necessarily an act of conversational cowardice.

Some things just take time to explain well. When I spoke about same-sex marriage recently, I took nearly an hour (including question time).

In addition, conservative Christians aren’t alone in needing to plead for time and sustained attention to explain themselves like this. Anyone who’s ever tried to answer a climate sceptic or explain some of the less ‘common sense’ examples of biological evolution can find themselves in a similar position.

But I doubt I’m alone in wanting something more. Something sharper.

What I’m after is some kind of counter-sound bite. A conversational foot in the door.

How can we win a hearing for the good (and confronting) news of Jesus — including his vision for us and our sexuality — without compromising or selling out?

I have a few thoughts to share. But before I do, I’d love to hear if you have any ideas?

turns out I’m more liberal than I realised too

Having recently concluded that I may be more conservative than I realised, this past week I’ve found myself reflecting on whether I might be more liberal than I realised too.

What sparked this reflection was some reading I’d been doing in preparation to speak about sex and gender — and the difference Jesus makes not only to how we think about these things but also to how we engage with them practically.

Basically, I keep finding that — as a Christian — I agree with Queer Theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgewick.

I’ve noticed this surprising alignment when I consider the way Sedgewick argues against the naturalness of sexual orientation — and the comfortable Either/Or we often reach for when discussing sexual identity (e.g., either gay or straight).

Likewise, I’m inclined to credit Michel Foucault’s provocative claim (upon which Queer Theory is more or less founded) that homosexuality was invented in the nineteenth century.

Before that, homosexuality as we know it — ie. as an identity tied to a particular lifestyle — didn’t exist.

I can’t see any point in denying this.

In fact, there are even things here I want to affirm. For example, Queer Theory’s overall tendency to treat sexuality as something quite fluid and multifaceted seems to resonate nicely with the scholarly consensus about the lack of reference to homosexuality as a settled identity or orientation in the Bible.

Although — and here I no doubt part ways with most Queer Theorists — the Bible is perfectly well acquainted with same-sex desire and same-sex sexual activity.

Biblically, homosexual desires — along with a wide range of other misdirected and out-of-proportion desires — are treated as evidence of the brokenness of our world.
And homosexual acts as a misuse of our bodies — one that departs from our good Creator’s vision for our sexual wholeness.

Neither homosexual acts nor homosexual inclinations are the real issue. They’re results of the real issue — which is idolatry according to Romans 1, the ‘de-godding’ of God.

And so, with that thought, my reflections come full circle.

Because the issue of idolatry also lay at the base of my previous attempt to summarise my theology of politics (I hesitate to call it a political theology):

Before the risen Lord Jesus, earthly governments must renounce their tendency to idolatrous self-divinisation.

Of course, the same goes for the Economy and My Little Patch Of Individual Autonomy — two often-hypostasised alternatives to earthly governments.

They are the things governments should butt out of, according to classical and contemporary conservative thought.

But neither the economy nor the individual is immune to the temptation to pose as divine. Thus, both must learn to shrink back before the Lord Jesus, whose self-emptying ‘economy’ alone truly enriches and gives life (2 Corinthians 8.9) and whose risen sovereignty alone offers lasting security and salvation (1 Peter 1.3-5).

In other words, sexuality, politics, and the economy are all in the same boat.

All are good gifts from our Creator, and all able to be rightly used when he is allowed to be God. And yet all also tend to claim too much for themselves — presenting themselves as natural and inevitable — drawing our hearts and allegiance into their self-destructive maelstrom.

Hence, my surprising sense of alignment with Queer Theory when it questions this ‘naturalness’ when it comes to sex and gender…

sex and secularity

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I’ve been thinking about sex a lot lately.

Not in that way. More in the way Alain De Botton argues we should in his recent book, How To Think More About Sex.

In particular, I’ve been dwelling on sex (as well as love, desire, and gender) because I’m giving a series of talks at La Trobe aimed at sparking conversation and thinking about this crucial topic.

And sex really is a crucial topic. As the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre suggests, it’s an “extra-social social act” — a kind of thumbnail sketch reflecting the issues and tensions bubbling away in society more generally.

From my perspective, this is certainly true of the whole ‘marriage equality’ thing going on in Australia right now.

While songs like Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ pack an undeniable emotional punch, questions can be raised about the equation of the push for the recognition of same-sex marriage and the American civil rights movement.

More deeply, I’ve begun to detect some tensions between the call to legally recognise same-sex marriage as a basic civil — or even human — right and at least some versions of secularism.

Take the account Rowan Williams gives of what he calls ‘programmatic secularism’ in Faith In The Public Square (page 26):

This assumes … that any religious or ideological system demanding a hearing in the public sphere is aiming to seize control of the political realm and to override and nullify opposing convictions. It finds specific views of the human good outside a minimal account of material security and relative social stability unsettling, and concludes that they need to be relegated to the purely private sphere. It assumes that the public expression of specific conviction is automatically offensive to people of other (or no) conviction. Thus public support or subsidy directed towards any particular group is a collusion with elements that subvert the harmony of society overall.

If this is a fair reading of at least one strand within contemporary secularist discourse, then surely the push for marriage equality cuts across it — especially when couched in terms of a ‘right’ to access the institution of marriage.

For surely such a ‘right’ runs deeper than the “minimal account of material security and relative social stability” proper to such secularism.

Or have I misheard the case for marriage equality?