Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Body’s Grace

I ran across an essay today by Rowan Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican and Episcopalian communion, entitled The Body's Grace (2002). It's full of well-written and witty reflections on human sexuality, and I won't deny that there's some real wisdom in it. But on the whole, Williams' essay saddened me. In this and subsequent posts, I'll explore why.
In The Body's Grace, Williams argues for an ethic of mutual pleasure, risk, tragedy and comedy in sexual relationships. Although he doesn't quite come out and say it, it's clearly on his radar to provide a sort of theological framework for the Church's acceptance of sexual practices that have hitherto been frowned upon, i.e., premarital sex and homosexuality.

He acknowledges that nearly all sexuality is tinged with tragedy, but he argues that even in the midst of tragedy, we may find grace in unusual or surprising ways. With our sexuality, we discover that our bodies can be the cause of happiness to ourselves and to others. "Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted." This "body's grace" can only be found in the mutuality of risk and relationship.

My desire, if it is going to be sustained and developed, must itself be perceived; and, if it is to develop as it naturally tends to, it must be perceived as desirable by the other - that is my arousal and desire must become the cause of someone else's desire. . . So for my desire to persist and have some hope of fulfilment, it must be exposed to the risks of being seen by its object.

Although the overriding purpose of sexuality is mutual pleasure and desire, Williams believes that mutual risk and exposure are fundamental aspects of any appropriate sexual practice, even if they are pleasurable. Following the philosopher Thomas Nagel, Williams is willing to retain the idea of "sexual perversion" in connection to such practices as rape, pedophilia or bestiality, not because they transgress a creational norm, but because they are asymmetrical rather than mutual. "They leave one agent in effective control of the situation - one agent, that is, who doesn't have to wait upon the desire of the other." He very nearly draws the conclusion that conjugal sexuality without pleasure may deserve the same appellation: "If this suggests that, in a great many cultural settings, the socially licensed norm of heterosexual intercourse is a 'perversion' - well, that is a perfectly serious suggestion…" Similarly, masturbation, because it takes place in solitude, is less than ideal: "Solitary sexual activity works at the level of release of tension and a particular localised physical pleasure; but insofar as it has nothing much to do with being perceived from beyond myself in a way that changes my self-awareness, it isn't of much interest for a discussion of sexuality as process and relation, and says little about grace."

Williams' account of mutual faithfulness is similarly based on this idea of mutual risk and pleasure:

It should be clear that the discovery of joy means something rather more than the bare facts of sexual intimacy. I can only fully discover the body's grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures.

In other words, to be truly open to the other, you must be open to a process of discovery that takes place over time, presumably, over the course of a lifetime. Marriage, a public commitment and a public blessing, gives a special life to this process, and enlarges the space and time in which a couple can explore the meaning of their relationship.

But conventional heterosexual marriage, Williams insists, is not the only way to find "the body's grace". "The realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly." "The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity, though, is to 'legalise' it in such a way that it stands quite apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions." "People do discover . . . a grace in encounters fraught with transitoriness and without much 'promising' (in any sense)." Furthermore, marriage itself need not be permanent if the partners have grown apart. "If this blessing becomes a curse or an empty formality, it is both wicked and useless to hold up the sexuality of the canonically married heterosexual as absolute, exclusive and ideal."

Apart from any awareness of revelation or of the Christian tradition generally, I have to say, I find Williams' account compelling. There is a great deal to be said for a sexual ethic based on mutual openness and risk, which is aware of the inevitably tragic dimension of human sexuality, and which acknowledges that true openness and risk can only take place within a long-term, committed relationship. This ethic has many points of contact with our culture, though it also offers at least a gentle element of critique. In this sense, Williams' essay reminds me of Ecclesiastes, which speaks from within a Wisdom tradition where God is in heaven and we are on earth, where God exists but does not speak. If we are bound to see our way forward on our own, bound by neither covenant nor revelation, we could do worse than to realize that "it matters to locate sexual union in a context that gives it both time and space, that allows it not to be everything."

It would be wrong to imply that Williams' essay is entirely secular. He doesn't precisely ground human sexuality in the divine life, but he certainly draws the connection. Human sexuality, he says, is a picture of God's desire for us:

The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ's body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God's giving that God's self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.
The purpose of the Church, similarly, is so that we may be caught up into that element of the divine life:
The life of the Christian community has as its rationale - if not invariably its practical reality - the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.
And if we are members of the Church, learning about God's love for us and practicing love for each other, we are well positioned to experience everything that sexuality has to teach us about ourselves and our partner.
To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God's love for God through incorporation into the community of God's Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God's child.
So Williams takes God into account, or at least, certain aspects of the divine economy. However, like Ecclesiastes itself, Williams neglects several critical aspects of our shared tradition, and this neglect, in my opinion, undermines his attempt to narrate a specifically Christian ethic of sexuality. Specifically, three different themes which figure prominently both in the Bible and in the long history of Christian ethical reflection are virtually missing from his account: (1) sin and judgment; (2) covenant faithfulness; (3) God's self-revelation in Scripture. I'll cover these with separate posts over the next several days.

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