Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Body’s Grace Critique #1: Sin and Judgment

This is a continuation of my critique of Rowan Williams' essay The Body's Grace.

In general, Williams appears to be operating with an extremely weak doctrine of sin, and an even weaker doctrine of judgment. It is perhaps symptomatic of Williams' approach that the word "sin" appears only once in his essay, in the context of denying that the term should be applied to uncommitted sexual partnerships. He prefers the word "tragic", which he occasionally juxtaposes with "comic": "Nothing will stop sex being tragic and comic." "Paul Scott's Raj Quartet is full of poignant and very deep analyses of the tragedies of sexuality." "What seems to be the prophet's own discovery of a kind of sexual tragedy enables a startling and poignant reimagining of what it means for God to be united, not with a land alone, but with a people, themselves vulnerable and changeable."

Williams is aware that our sexuality is ambiguous, and is not an unmixed force for good. We may encounter "difficulties", he admits, if we pursue sexuality outside of traditional moral frameworks, but he seems to see these difficulties as ultimately positive. If we follow "conventional (heterosexual) morality", he writes, "the question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body's grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other." If we refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Williams seems to be saying, we shall never partake of that godlike knowledge of the consequences that follow. He very nearly says, "Let us sin so that grace may increase."

Missing entirely from Rowan Williams' account is a sense that in our sexuality we might ever be doing something wrong, worthy of guilt, something that grieves God and which should grieve us, something of which we must surely repent. The Christian account of life in the Spirit is a three-fold dialect of sin, repentance and restoration. Williams' essay very nearly ignores the first two elements of this dialectic, or minimizes them to an astonishing degree. I'm not entirely sure why this is missing from Williams, but it should be clear to anyone who has any inkling of Jesus' message that this is not missing there. The opening words of Jesus' ministry in the Gospel of Matthew are, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." In the famous story of the woman taken in adultery (which I accept as canonical, whatever textual issues remain), Jesus' words to her are, "Go and sin no more." Jesus' first words to the paralyzed man in Matthew 9 are not "Rise and walk," but rather, "Be comforted, child, your sins are forgiven." And frankly, the full strength of all three elements is not missing from anybody who has ever committed a sexual sin and has found the grace to repent and receive forgiveness.

Williams' neglect of the moral dimension of sexuality might be understandable if he is attempting to speak from within a purely contemporary framework, but it makes less sense if he is trying to speak from within (or to) the larger Christian community. The Christian message is frankly incomprehensible without a strong doctrine of sin, without a profound and troubling awareness of the frequency and the degree to which each of us transgresses against the divine will. I agree that sin and judgment can be overplayed (a famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards comes to mind), but this is hardly a pressing problem in Western culture today. Certainly the Bible uses these categories incessantly, and not just in the Old Testament; and it uses them frequently with reference to human sexuality. I could list the passages in question, but I have to imagine that anybody who's bothered to read this far knows them already. And of course, virtually the whole of the Christian tradition, in line with nearly every culture that has ever existed until the 20th century, has held the same perspective.

Now, of course human sexuality is not inherently sinful, and sexual sins are not worse than other kinds of sins. In fact, Christian reflection going back at least to the Middle Ages (and perhaps earlier – I'm no Patristic scholar) has generally insisted that sexual sins are the least of all sins. There's a reason why Dante put the sexually immoral on the outer ring of Hell, reserving the inner circles and correspondingly creative punishments for, say, the sins of popes and kings. But the opinion that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is sinful has been "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ad omnibus" within the Church: it has been believed in all places, at all times, and by all. To the extent that this understanding of sin is missing from Williams' account, whatever his title and job description might be, he shouldn't be understood as speaking from within or for the Church.

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