PCUSA General Assembly, Minneapolis, July, 2010
Marriage a Treasure To Be Kept:
Gender, Sexuality, and Communion
in the Bible and the Christian Tradition
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was towards God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. And the Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light (John 1:1-3; Genesis 1:2-3).
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created Adam in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply….” And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good…. Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." (Genesis 1:26-28, 31, 2:18)
In the beginning was God. The Son was with the Father, and the Spirit was there too, one God in purpose, three divine Persons face-to-face: “The Word was TOWARDS God…” as the Greek says. Of course, the original writer of Genesis had not been let into all this.
As Jesus explained to his own disciples, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Lk 10:23-24).
Among the “many things” that those past faithful to God had not understood was the truth about the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The communion of the Godhead had not been known before Jesus appeared. But that does not mean that this mystery of mysteries did not always exist. Without the Holy Trinity, there would be no form of communion, no marriages, no family, no society.
For God is love, and from God springs everything lovely. God, alone was God: but the Father has never been alone—always God has been Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Never did God did NEED creation or humanity, as though He were lonely. Instead, out of his great communion, out of the overflow of love, so to speak, comes creation, and especially us, created after his image.
In the Beginning was the Word, with the Father and the Spirit. And because of that One God there is another beginning, this time not an absolute one, but a beginning in time and space—it is OUR beginning. At its climax, God creates Adam. After giving a series of commands (let there be light! Let there be a firmament! Let there be waters, plants, animals!), God changes his pattern. God doesn’t simply declare, “Let there be man!” but deliberates. The holy One reflects upon this action, showing that this one is special. Adam: a human being, humankind. Our God creates Adam as one, a reflection of his own unity; he creates Adam as male and female, telling them to be fruitful and to multiply. Humankind is one; humankind is more than one and will bear fruit. And when God assesses this handiwork, he says: IT IS VERY GOOD.
But as we get up close to God’s creating activity in Genesis chapter 2, we hear something else: There is something that is NOT good—that Adam should be alone. So Eve, the mother of the living, is taken from Adam, and recognized by Adam to be the only one suited to him. And that is very good. The first couple, humanity, is created and declared “good” because God is good. In my faithtradition, there is a beloved prayer that addresses the Holy Spirit. Would you please pray it with me now, as we continue to talk about holy things:
O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.
God, the Holy Spirit, is the “Treasury of good things.” And we are, this evening, thinking about a great treasure, the original thing declared “very good” by God—marriage, a treasure to be kept! The first couple is an image of divine goodness. Their promised fruitfulness is a reflection of God’s creative act. Their delegated stewardship over creation is to be an echo of God’s great sovereignty.
There are many things to be learned from the first chapters of Genesis, read in the light of the gospel of John. One of the great truths sounded forth is that “It is not good to be alone.” We are created for God, for each other, and we have our life in the context of a larger creation, a creation which God has given to us to tend, to enjoy, to nurture, and to love.
As is often the case, the misconceptions and heresies of our day take root not because they are completely preposterous, but because they are twisted versions of something deeply significant that has been forgotten. Today our films, our music, our art, our hearts cry out, “It is Not Good to be alone!” But loneliness is everywhere. The twenty-first century comes at the tail-end of a culture that has privileged the individual. We have celebrated the bravery of self-ruled hero, we have waxed romantic about the artist who is utterly unique. We are in the midst of a post-modern movement that has lost its sense of community, that does not recognize any shared norms, and that no longer has confidence that true communication can take place.
The very thought of a meta-narrative, a huge story that encompasses every person, is considered outmoded and oppressive. Our generation has taken Sammy Davis’s “I gotta be me!” and Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way!” as its foundation. The result of all this is a deep isolation and a restless search for that RELATIONSHIP that is the cure-all. As the most recent movie puts it, “It’s complicated!” Teens and twenties now do not say, “I want to go out with you.” They put it in a much more radical way: “I want to BE WITH you.” We have a need to BE WITH. This need, felt also by those in the Church, is reflected in several of those business items that persist in returning to the PCUSA General Assembly, proposals about marriage, sex, and standards of fidelity. I imagine that some of you are feeling discouraged, a bit “beat up,” at this point in the Assembly. I have a word from the Scriptures for you, “Do not grow weary in doing good!” (2 Thess 3:13).
Well, then, what is it about sex, about the erotic, that is so enticing? (Okay, I know that is a bit of a dumb question!) But really! Isn’t it that a physical encounter with someone else has the promise of taking me OUT OF myself, so that I am no longer consumed with my loneliness, so that I am ecstatic—literally, “I stand outside of myself,” at least for the brief moments of passion? Other encounters can make me forget myself, too—a fast-paced movie, a video-game, even (if I have the patience) a novel or a well-learned musical piece that sweeps me away. But there is something primal, visceral, exquisitely promising about the coming together of two so that they make one body.
Like the self-medicating alcoholic, the one who is lonely seeks a domain that is at once partly her own creation and partly her own self-abandonment. It is a glimmering hope, a sought-for “joy,” an escape from imprisonment in the self. And it is a route that many have sought not simply in our own age, though it can come with a price attached.
Yes, this promise of communion with another through eroticism is powerful. So strong is its pull that the ordinary person will tell you that the call of the Church to chastity, or worse, to celibacy, is sheer repression, a way by which we ask others to be less than human. When asked about chastity for the unmarried or self-control for those tempted to same-sex erotic practice, both men and women exclaim in empathy: “But how can you ask someone to BE ALONE for their entire life! It is CRUEL!”
For the next few minutes, let’s think about the debate over marriage and same-sex eroticism from the angle of koinonia (fellowship or communion).
There are, of course, many necessary and possible approaches for addressing today’s questions about marriage, gender and sexuality from a Christian perspective. Most of you have already heard careful Scriptural arguments regarding marriage, arguments that refute those are revising or distorting the Scriptures, because some seek to provide a foundation for the acceptance of easy divorce and same-sex behaviour in the Church. For those who need a crash course on these answers, consider the excellent and world-renowned work of Robert Gagnon.
But there is now a more subtle attack on the classical Christian understanding of sexuality that is being mounted on a different front. It is coming about not through the revision of Biblical texts per se, but through a certain view of THEOLOGY—of the doctrine of the Trinity, and of the doctrine concerning humankind. We began by considering Gen. 1 and John 1, and what they imply concerning the holy Trinity and the nature of humanity.
Let’s look carefully at how some theologians are connecting these ideas, while they commend same-sex eroticism to the Church. These more subtle writers actually admit that the INTENT of the Biblical writers was never to countenance same-sex relations. However, when such modern theologians appeal to a larger theology, they effectively neutralize the intent of the Biblical writers. For example, they argue, Paul did not realize the potential of his own theology: Paul recognized that Gentiles could be included in God’s people but did not extend that to gays and lesbians. But we can, because the Church, by the Holy Spirit, is being led into all truth. We know better than even Paul about what the gospel means!
This is the kind of logic, or rather, the kind of POETRY, that is employed when some contemporary scholars appeal to the big concepts of communion—divine and human, in mounting their arguments. It is not good to be alone! God said it! How can you consign some people to aloneness? Don’t turn the treasure of marriage into a prison for those who don’t fit the traditional definition of the word!
I would like to expose you to two sophisticated examples of this kind of theologizing. We will consider one Episcopalian and one Presbyterian—Sarah Coakley and Eugene F. Rogers, Jr.—looking at what they say about human nature and the nature of God, and then looking back to Scripture and to Holy Tradition in order to correct and answer their arguments.
Sarah Coakley: A Deep and Dangerous Entanglement
Sarah Coakley taught for many years at Harvard, and is now in Cambridge. In reading and hearing her, it is clear that she wants to guard the holy treasures that we have been given—even while she harbors some deep reservations about what the Church has taught. We see an example of this in how she handles language used for God: she recognizes that if we abandon Father and Son language in favor of neutral or role language (Source, Creator, Redeemer, and so on), we indeed lose important understandings about God taught by the Church fathers. Yet she is uneasy with only masculine language, and supplements the traditional names, while avoiding pronouns wherever possible. So she might say, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Mother of us all.” This “multi-pronged” approach, she believes, is important in recovering a “serious renewed” Christian theology for today.
Coakley is interested not only classical theology, but she has a deep yearning for the mystical. As a result, she is intrigued by the charismatic movements and stresses the significance of “wordless prayers” such as those referred to by Paul in Romans:
Not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. …26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. (Romans 8:19-26)
As she concentrates upon this chapter, Coakley emphasizes the fact that prayer takes place IN THE BODY: in her own words, there is “an earthed sense of the meaningfulness and truth of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.” (45, “Living into the Mystery of the HT: Trinity, Prayer and Sexuality). It also has a Trinitarian shape: in Romans 8, the Spirit prays, she explains, in the individual who is in Christ, communing with the Father. And finally, it is its WORDLESSNESS that is so significant, a prayer from the heart that starts with the Holy Spirit.
She argues that we need to recover this idea of prayer and the Trinity, so that we can “rethread the strands of tradition on divine and human desires” (49): divine and human desires should not be seen as enemies of each other. The Church unfortunately thought so in the past, she says, and so ancient theologians believed that sexually active women and homosexuals “distract[ed] from the divine goal.” But, the erotic and the spiritual are in fact, intricately intertwined. She argues: “we need to understand sex as really about God, and about the deep desire that we feel for God.” (50).
Coakley is partly right. Sexual desire can function as a CLUE to the reality of the Eternal one who is communion in Himself. As she puts it, “it is a clue that is woven into our existence about the final and ultimate union that we seek.” But here is the problem. A clue is not the same as the thing in itself. And a clue can work either negatively or positively, or both. Consider Romans 1: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:18-20).
So then, the difference between God and the creation is itself a plain sign of God’s reality, not just of our similarity to God. This dynamic works itself out in the story that Paul goes on to tell in Romans 1: When human beings substituted their own confused love for each other or for other created objects for the thankfulness and adoration that they owed God, what happened to them? The human race devolved into sins and degradation of every kind. This state in itself is meant to be a severe clue, a negative sign of where true affections are supposed to be directed—towards the true God!
But Coakley has little interest in the theme of judgment. She concentrates instead upon the positive connection between human love and divine love. And she is right, they are interconnected—but we cannot move simply from Genesis 1 and 2 to say that when we see human beings in ecstatic, romantic, erotic relationships, we are viewing as in a clear mirror, God’s own communion, the very goal to which we are called. Coakley would have known this if she had read Romans 8 more carefully. For Romans 8 is about being led by the Spirit because we are sons of God— and where was the Son of God led, except into the wilderness to face temptation, and to the cross to do something about sin and death? Coakley believes that “godly sexual relations” are “rooted in … Trinitarian divine relations.” But here’s the thing: first, we are creatures, and so in some ways different from God; second, we are fallen, and so the way in which we mirror God’s communion is not simply weak, but also DISTORTED. She is begging the question of what “godly sexual relations” are. She assumes that these include homosexual erotic relations, when the blessing that God gave was over Adam and Eve, and the first miracle of Jesus, at the wedding of Cana, affirmed this creational state of affairs.
To Professor Coakley, we must say, yes there is a link between human love and divine love, but these are not identical. There is an ORDER between these things. Yes, the body is good, but it is to be ordered under the spiritual.
Yes, there is a time for wordless prayer, but this must not supplant doctrine or the mind. Yes, God is the first lover, but his “erotic” love, if we dare to call it that, is not because he NEEDS us. He is in himself sufficient, and his love for us is wholly giving, wholly transformative of us, wholly pure. Yes, passion is wonderful, but we need also to think clearly, and to be cautious when speaking about mystery. Especially we need to be careful when we speculate about the inter-relationship of the Holy Trinity: nothing that we say should displace what Jesus has clearly shown us, that the Father is the head, yet the Son and the Spirit are eternally with the Father, and to be worshipped, not turned into a mascot of our own desire for ecstasy. Yes, erotic love is wonderful, but chastity and celibacy have their place in our world—who dares to say that Jesus was less than human because he refrained from erotic relations?
Coakley says there is a “deep entanglement” of our thinking when we connect sexual desire with desire for God—such tangles can be dangerous! We must tread very carefully, and not mistake poetry for revelation.
Let’s move on to consider consider Eugene F. Rogers, Junior, a member of the Covenant Network, and professor at University of North Carolina. Rogers is the theologian’s theologian and an extremely engaging writer. Yet, in the end, he blasphemously uses the holy Trinity to validate distorted human encounters. In speaking of God’s mandate to the first couple: he says that God directed them to “be fruitful and diversify [rather than multiply]” Only in the 21st century could such an interpretation be mounted. To what is this “diversity” language leading?
Two works for which he has become quite popular are Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God (1999) and After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources outside the Modern West (2005). In these books, he takes his readers on an exotic tour of lesser known Church fathers and esoteric Eastern theologians like Evdokimov and Staniloae. He mines these writers for language about the Trinity that is useful for his purposes. We should be wary of this approach from the get-go, for Rogers is well known for believing that he knows more about a person’s theology than the theologian whom he is interpreting. For example, in his earlier work, he argued that Paul’s vision of God’s grace was bigger even than St. Paul suspected—not only persecuting Jews and heedless Gentiles are to be engrafted into the vine, against nature, but of course, homosexuals as well—without a word about repentance! There is a trajectory, says Rogers, that the Church is meant to follow, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and so move beyond first century prejudice to all truth. And so he says, “Marriage is primarily a structure for the transformation of the human being by the grace of God…Since the point of marriage is training in holiness, there is no reason why same-sex couples should not also participate in it” (After the Spirit, 188-9).
Now, how would Rogers know that this is the MAIN purpose of marriage? What if marriage were in itself more than that? What if marriage is also a mirror of a deeper reality of God, a pattern that shows forth something real about creation and about the One whom we creatures are to adore? And, after all, what IS marriage? Would Rogers think it exclusive if a man wanted to marry an animal, but was told that this is not marriage? No, Rogers’s agenda is set from the beginning. Remember, the primal sin, according to St. Paul, is that humankind did not adore God nor give thanks for what he has given to us—lack of thankfulness is typically expressed in our desire to re-imagine how we should like things to be.
And so Rogers re-imagines. He appeals to the mystical writings of Gregory of Nyssa, and to the Russian theologian Dumitru Staniloae, for example, who use the image of the Spirit resting upon the Son. I hesitate to call your attention to the implications of this image, of the Spirit UPON the Son in a physical sense. Similarly, he shows where the ancient fathers and more recent theologians have celebrated God’s willingness to make room—Father, Son and Spirit making room for each other, the Godhead making room for humanity. And in this action of divine “dilation” or opening up, I think that you can figure out what human action he has in mind.
He even refers to ways in which Moses’ view of the “back” of God might be understood. If the Father is hospitable in this way, then why should not human beings also be? Need I say any more? Rogers uses Biblical and mystical language about the transcendent God and about God’s concourse with humanity in order to insinuate blasphemous pictures about the Holy One. Then he says, “see! God is like that!” God “transgresses” and so he creates love—human beings can and should mirror this divine behavior. What seems to be “against nature” is actually a creative way of doing something new, of moving towards diversity.
I hope that I have said just enough to suggest the deep blasphemy into which this clever thinker has entered, and into which he tries to initiate his readers. One of the major problems is that Rogers believes that it is possible to move with ease up and down a ladder of analogies: we move from our love up to God’s nature, and then back down again. Here is a half-truth. It seems clear that God teaches us about himself by means of physical things—sacraments, for example. So God implants in nature, in our own natures, patterns that point to himself. But these sacraments and these echoes in nature are not self-interpreting. Pagans looked at nature and imagined a pantheon of gods. Twentieth century theologians look at our DIVERSE lovemaking and imagine that diversity is a good in itself (Have they forgotten the ability of viruses and cancers to diversify???) Those championing same-sex relations look at their desire and project lust onto the nature of God, or God’s desire for us. It can be wholly misleading for human beings, unguided by the truth, and un-chastened by what Christ and the Church have taught, to argue up from our own experience to what must therefore be true.
No, there is not a direct analogy of being between ourselves and God. Why? Because we are not the Creator and because we are under the deceit of sin and the darkness of death.
To Gene Rogers, we must say: Yes, God is Trinity, and God is hospitable, but we cannot, when we remember all that we have been taught about our Holy God, turn the Trinity into a mascot for a human sexuality, a free-for-all, without boundaries or form. God makes room for us in Christ: but God remains God and we are not! There is no confusion of Creator and creature, even though we are called to the mystery of godliness.
What then, can we say as we have faced the entanglement of human and divine in Coakley and the enticing blasphemies of Rogers? In looking at these, two principles are evident:
Confusion about the Trinity can lead to confusion
about the nature of Man.
Confusion about Humanity can also lead to confusion
about God’s nature.
If we muddle our thinking about human beings, it is quite likely we will be muddled about God, and vice versa. Adam, man and woman, the Church are creatures of God and also potent pictures given to us by God to point to Himself. Thinking carefully about sexual matters means to think carefully about the nature of humanity, of the world’s fallen condition, of the Church, and of God, as shown to us in the Son. And thinking carefully also means that there are mysteries that we need to set side by side, and guard carefully:
For example, the body is good, and sex is God’s invention,
BUT the body is not all there is, and celibacy and chastity have an honoured role in our world.
For example, God the Holy Trinity invites us to enter into his love and truth,
BUT we do not have the exact relationship with God that Father, Son and Holy Spirit have with each other.
For example, God created us after his image, male and female,
BUT God is not male and female, neither male nor female
AND YET God has revealed himself to us using masculine language.
For example, in the gospel there is no respect of male over female,
BUT God cares deeply about our masculine and feminine distinctives, talking about them practically in the Scriptures, and using them, especially in the treasure of marriage, as images of his love for the Church and our love for Him.
For example, Jesus said that we are now “friends of God”
BUT that does not mean that obedience and submission are passé.
We need to hold these mysteries together, because the Bible does and the continued Tradition of the Church does. And just in case you thought it was only the high-falutin’ theologians who are messing with such matters, let me close with a quotation from the well-known book, The Shack,
["Jesus" is supposed to be speaking] “That’s the beauty you seen in my relationship with Abba [the Father] and Sarayu [the Holy Spirit]. We are indeed submitted to one another and have always been so and always will be. Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you [humans] in the same way.” (William P. Young, The Shack (Los Angeles: Windblown, 1997) 145.)
Oh, really? Relationship is all about love and respect, not authority or obedience? And it’s okay, by the way, to picture God as an African-American woman? And there is no difference between the way that Father, Son and Spirit relate to each other? And God is submitted to us? As Paul declares when others are confused about God, “May it not be so!”
For if God were indeed really submitted to us in the same way that we should submit to God, then perhaps the tangled Trinity of Coakley and the blasphemy of Rogers would win the day. But, indeed, the one who is the Author of all things has, taken authority over all that is unreal, destructive, evil and impure. In his seeming weakness was utter strength: by death on the cross he has trampled death. Alone, yet not alone because it was the cup of the Father that he drank and by the power of the Spirit that he endured—this One has brought reconciliation. He has destroyed the barrier between us and God, between us and each other, and has begun the work of recreating right and godly-relationships in the Church. The very first form of communion is marriage itself: Eve taken from Adam God’s blessing of that first couple, and Jesus’ willing participation at Cana. Marriage is no humanly derived institution, but a God-given reflection of God’s own goodness: we did not invent it, and we cannot re-imagine it. Whatever resolutions any Church passes that might recognize a newly constituted form of marriage, they cannot change God’s creational declaration about male and female—it is very good. Human beings cannot change the nature of marriage any more than they can make the earth revolve around the sun. But if they do so, not recognizing what God has declared “very good” and seeking to establish their own truth, there is no telling what confusion will come. And if the CHURCH does this, to where will people look for light?
So, then, friends, do not become weary doing good. Consider the long history of the Church, consider your Christian brothers and sisters of the past and across the globe, and remember how God has turned things around when we did not expect it. Who would have thought 10 years ago that more Americans this year would identify themselves as “pro-life” than “pro-choice?” (And it is the younger generation that is changing here). So, then, let us allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes, so that we might have the mind of Christ, and know how to respond to the confusion of our day, and to the Coakleys and Rogers who spread the confusion. And let live in these bodies to the honor of the Father, glorifying the One whose image we are designed to bear. Let us take note of the deep loneliness of people today, and embrace them with the holy love that God the Holy Spirit has given to us, in Christ Jesus. For those without human mate or family, let us be a true family, and let us rejoice in the Lord, the faithful husband of the Church. And let us pray that God’s people will guard the treasures that have been given to them—treasures of love and truth that tell us about who God is, and whose we are!