LLF: a left brain car crash

In my studies I am starting to think about Iain McGilchrist’s work, and I have begun to work my way through his ‘The Master and His Emissary’, which is an exploration of the different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and the impact this has had upon our culture. There is a good Youtube explanation of his work here.

Some of his comments seem especially pertinent when considering the Anglican predicament of our time. Put simply the left brain seeks certainty and order, using existing knowledge – think of a chess board, or a machine – whereas the right brain is all about meaning and relationships, ie how to discern the context in which something is understood. Where there is right brain damage then a person loses the capacity to ‘get’ a joke, to empathise with others, to understand their relationship with a wider whole.

What we have in this culmination of the LLF process at General Synod is, it seems to me, the product of two groups captivated by a left-brain dominant approach to the question at issue. On the one side we have the mechanic logic of ‘the bible says it, I believe it, that’s the end of it’ – no subtlety or nuance there. Yet on the other an equally secular and mechanical process of ‘equality and rights you bigot’. Each has an internally consistent and complete world-view, which clashes fundamentally with the other. As McGilchrist puts it (p82 of my edition): “So the left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome.” The left side lacks empathy and awareness of ‘the other’ – both in the sense of other people and also in the sense of a higher authority, like God. Which is ironic – something else that the left-brain dominated are unable to appreciate.

So a left-brain conflict inevitably descends into a political struggle, with more or less transparent moves to exercise control (another left-brain feature). Those familiar with the conflict will recognise the increasingly blatant power manoeuvring on both sides.

The interesting question is always: what is to be done? I have a memory of one comment, I think from Evelyn Underhill, but almost certainly mediated through a Susan Howatch novel, to the effect that ‘when the two wings of the church have exhausted themselves fighting each other it is the return to the mystical path that brings life to the church again’.

Which is a right-brain process. What might that ‘return to the mystical path’ look like, and in particular what might it look like amidst the aftermath of General Synod? Well the right-brain is about ambiguity, and relationships, and the group, and about stories and imagination and metaphor.

So what we need from our bruised and battered and fearful leadership is a re-presentation of our founding stories, emphasising what is held in common and placing each left-brain chessboard into a much larger portrait of meaning. We need leadership of poetry not prose, communication not speech, awe and wonder not compromising pragmatics.

It may be that this needs to be done before making a conclusion to the LLF process – yes it has been dragging on for years, but fruitlessly because the more fundamental spiritual work has not been done (and the same applies to the ordination of women – that argument is now mostly over not because of a winning of hearts and minds but because of political reality).

So what might this more spiritual work look like? For me I would emphasise a few things, where I believe – where I hope! – it may be possible to forge a consensus. So: the Anglican quadrilateral; the autonomy of the Church of England; the sinfulness of taking offence; the shape of discipleship in the world; the demonic nature of the Modern world and so on. With agreement on big things (the right brain stuff) the left brain approach would find its proper place. As it is LLF is the proverbial tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Ah well. One last quotation, and I shall ‘let the reader understand’ the relevance: “The right hemisphere is also much more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware, than the left hemisphere.”

In praise of dodgy women

This morning’s sermon is in praise of dodgy women. It is not a response to the nomination of the first woman bishop in the church…

I was asked for advice about reading the bible the other day, and one thing I said was ‘skip the genealogies’ – but sometimes they repay careful attention. I want to talk this morning about the lineage of Christ given in the first chapter of Matthew. There are five women listed, and I think that Matthew has a particular purpose in listing them. After all, they don’t have to be mentioned – Luke’s version of the genealogy doesn’t list them – so why does Matthew choose to do so? What is the point that he is making by including them?

First on the list is Tamar, found in Genesis 38. Tamar is a woman who impersonated a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law, and thus preserve the blood-line of Judah in Israel. Not a conventional hero.

Second on the list is Rahab, found in Joshua 2. Rahab was both a prostitute and a foreigner, who betrayed her own people in order to protect members of the Israeli army in their desire to destroy Jericho. Not a conventional hero.

Then comes Ruth, who has a whole book of the Bible telling her story – and it is a wonderful story – but at its heart is the tale of a foreign woman seducing her ‘kinsman redeemer’ in order to establish a safe and secure future. Not a conventional hero.

Fourth, and crucially, comes one that is not named – a woman who decides to take a bath on a rooftop in order to catch the attention of King David, following which comes tragic tales of murder and slaughter. Bathsheba is really quite far away from being a conventional hero.

So what do all these women have in common? They are all sexually compromised, they are all dodgy.

Which brings us to Mary, mother of Jesus, and the last named woman on the list. A woman of whom it can also be said that she was sexually compromised. A girl carrying a baby but betrothed to someone who isn’t the father. It’s quite possible that Matthew is responding to gossip about Mary, and the unusual nature of Jesus’ birth, by including all these women in the list.

He can do this for the simple reason that God works through them. That is, the whole point of the genealogy is that without these dodgy women then we wouldn’t have Christ.

From which I would simply want to ask the simple question: do we have room for dodgy women in our congregation? For those that society sees as sexually flawed or broken? And they don’t just have to be women! We are all of us dodgy.

I rather think that if we don’t have room for those who are dodgy, we don’t have room for Jesus either – if we say to the sexually compromised or unacceptable that there is no room for them in the inn, then I believe that Jesus will also move on. So as we prepare for Jesus’ arrival at Christmas, let’s also make room for those without whom he could not have come, and remember to give an acceptable place to the dodgy. Amen.

In Christ there is neither sexually legitimate nor illegitimate

So: House Group today, exploring the Samaritan Woman at the Well (John 4) and all the ways in which Jesus is taboo-busting by simply talking to her (actually, I would say: flirting with her). The Samaritan woman – the first evangelist, from the same gospel that also brought you the first apostle, also a woman – is disqualified from acceptability on several grounds. Firstly, she is a woman. Second, she is a foreigner. Third, her sexual identity is problematic.

So in the discussion around this passage I thought of Paul’s famous ‘In Christ there is no…’ and thought that the Samaritan woman is embodying what Paul is describing. So I think it would be orthodox and reflective of Christ’s actions to say: In Christ there is neither Jew nor Samaritan, there is neither male nor female, there is neither sexually legitimate nor illegitimate.

It’s *all* secondary. It’s not about whether you worship on a mountain or in the temple, it’s whether you worship in spirit and in truth. It’s not about how you apply your dangly bits, it’s about whether you love in spirit and in truth…

/rant over

Remorseless logic and a Bishop’s rest

So at least one Bishop has now made the decision to enact discipline with respect to a priest who has entered into a ‘gay marriage’. As Ian Paul rightly asserts, the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has now come to an end, and the Church of England is going to have to choose where it stands with regard to non-tradtional sexuality.

There is a remorseless logic to the situation that the Bishops now find themselves in. The remorseless side of things stems from the nature of the society that we now live within, which will consistently seek to assert pressure from the progressive side of the sexuality argument. The logic, however, is an internal one. After all, it was the acceptance of contraception at the 1930 Lambeth conference which has led directly to our present social understandings of sexuality. The Roman Catholic hierarchy recognise that the logic of accepting contraception leads inevitably to a much more progressive understanding of sexuality tout court, which is why they have held out against it.

I can see any particular Bishop resting safely on a traditional Roman Catholic understanding of sexuality. That much could be argued for, and we don’t have to go far to see how it could be argued for. To my mind, those who oppose modern sexual mores need to accept the internal logic of their position and accept that, if they are to reject gay marriage (for example) then they are also required to reject contraception and re-marriage after divorce and so on. There are people who have made that argument within the Church of England and it seems to me to be an honourable position to hold.

However, what of those who do not wish to accept such a stance? What might be a place of ‘Bishop’s rest’ – that is, how might a Bishop exercise due authority within his Diocese when it comes to questions of priesthood and sexuality? Is there a place to stand at the end of the progressive path?

I am concluding that there is, and I believe that the new substantive policy would rest upon: an acceptance that questions of sexuality and marriage are second-order issues; an acceptance of the authority of the individual baptised conscience; and an acceptance that we are called to exercise a radical non-judgement.

Practically, the outworkings of such a framework would mean a repeal of Canon B30 (which articulates the traditional view of sexuality) and an understanding that the sexuality of any particular priest is first and foremost a private matter for the priest themselves. I think that there would still be some room for the exercise of discipline over a wayward priest, but it would have to be on the grounds of either a) illegality (in which case the church disciplinary process would follow the secular one, as in other areas of misbehaviour) or b) bringing the church into disrepute. For the latter, an individual bishop would have to discern whether there was in fact clerical misbehaviour or whether there is simply a faithful position which is out of step with wider cultural mores (in other words, the Bishop needs to discern whether the disrepute arises from waywardness or a prophetic vocation).

Article 32 might be rewritten in the following form, to articulate the new perspective: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from sexual relations: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to develop lawful sexual relationships at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”

One last metaphor to assist contemplation: there is a remarkable sequence in Peter Weir’s ‘Master and Commander’ when the ship’s captain has to take the momentous decision to sacrifice the life of one crewmember. A storm has stripped away a canvas-filled mast from the main body of the ship, with the man on it, and the detached rigging has begun to work as a sea-anchor, and will eventually cause the entire ship to sink. The captain has to cut the ties to the lost mast in order to enable the ship itself to come right and continue to be a safe vessel for the other sailors.

I see the traditional view of sexuality within the Church of England as being that broken mast. Unless we cut ourselves free of it we shall all sink.

Things we cannot bear

Andrew Goddard’s article in Fulcrum lucidly sets out the challenge presently faced by our Bishops as they seek to adjust to the new social reality which is gay marriage. As Ian Paul points out, this is the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. The church is going to have to move in one direction or another.

The inherited position, still maintained by the Roman Catholic church, is that the telos of sexuality is procreation; and therefore all sexuality that isn’t inherently open to the procreative is objectively disordered and sinful. The insitution of marriage is the structure that the wider society has put in place in order to regularise sexuality. Any sexuality which is non-procreative or extra-marital (NPEM) is to be forbidden.

The fundamental shift that has taken place within our wider society is that the telos of sexuality is no longer seen as purely about procreation. As Rowan Williams has pointed out, once you accept contraception, all the other elements of the traditional position are also undermined. From that point on there are no coherent grounds on which to claim that a sexually expressed homosexuality as such is sinful.

This change in the understanding of sexuality has been going on for an extremely long time. Indeed, the language of the 1662 marriage service, in talking about the mutual society, help and comfort of the marriage, and not just simply referring to the right ordering of procreation, is part of the opening up (this is somewhat ironic in the light of the Bishop’s statement). The end-point of this development is our present worldly situation, whereby the ‘quality’ of the romantic relationship is what justifies sexuality and marriage, rather than marriage justifying sexuality and romance.

The contradiction takes form in the House of Bishops’ advice and so they shout ‘stop the world I want to get off’. They do not wish to accept the consequences of what they have already agreed to. The CofE really has to decide whether NPEM sex is inherently sinful, and then commit itself to working out and implementing the conclusions that flow from such a decision. It may be worth pointing out – although it is not necessarily a defect, it might be a virtue – that to say that NPEM sex is sinful is to adopt a minority position within the culture of today. After all, if the church commits to a re-affirmation of the traditional position, that trajectory does not simply rule out an acceptance of same-sex marriage, it will also commit the church to ruling out, inter alia, the remarriage of divorcees.

If we wholeheartedly accept that NPEM sex is not inherently sinful, then this opens up all sorts of other questions – questions which we have really only begun to wrestle with. Part of the answer will involve something like covenanted relationships – which is what civil partnerships could be, and blessed by the church – but is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

What, after all, is the sin involved in NPEM sexuality? What is the sin involved in consensual non-monogamy? Or polygamy? Do people have to be assorted into one of two clearly marked out boxes in order to have non-sinful sex, and then only with someone from the other box?

A quick sketch of my own thinking would be: there are profound sins, which the church must be more actively engaged in denouncing, to do with the raising of children and the breaking down of family homes, the betrayals of trust and so on. Yet on the question of NPEM sexual relations, beyond a clear teaching about the difference between I-Thou and I-It relating, I do not see any scope, apart from the tradition, for saying anything beyond ‘All things are permitted, but not all things are edifying’ and ‘It is not good for the human being to be alone’ and then leaving it to the individual conscience of the believer. In other words, it involves a radical non-judgement, and a taking seriously that baptism confers both a new creation and an authority to decide what is good (what can be ‘loosed on earth‘).

This might apply especially to the clergy, for whom the 39 Articles reserve the authority over whether a marriage is of God for them or not. The two options that the CofE will therefore end up choosing between – or, more realistically, splitting over – are therefore a re-establishment of the conservative position or an embrace of a progressive path, and this latter option will, in the terms of Andrew Goddard’s article, mean removing any understanding of marriage from Canon Law and leaving the assessment of any and all sexual relations to the conscience of the individual believer. As I intimated back in 2009 I do not see this as representing a major threat to any form of Christianity. Tobias Haller articulated this well:

“Marriage is not a proper subject of dogmatic theology, but at most of moral or pastoral theology. There is no core doctrine concerning marriage, and it is doubtful that the subject warrants a doctrine at all, and at least some of the efforts to construct a theological defense of marriage do more harm to theology than help to marriage. The church did very well without much doctrinal reflection on marriage for centuries. The creeds and classical Anglican catechisms are silent on it. The Articles of Religion refer to it as an estate allowed, and available to clergy as they see fit. There is no settled doctrine of marriage, only changing rules, laws, rites and ceremonies — all of these, as the Articles also remind us, subject to amendment by the church.”

I believe this is something that we cannot yet bear, and yet, it seems to be where the Spirit is leading the church.

Where is the redeeming grace?

There is one aspect of the conversation about gay marriage and so on which is really starting to become clear to me, which is, put simply, that to get from a conservative premise to a conservative conclusion you need to resort to some distinctly ungracious arguments. This is what I understand the conservative argument to be:

1. In the beginning were Adam and Eve, male and female, with no confusion between them. This establishes the pattern for human sexual relations, viz, monogamous, essentialist and heterosexual.

2. Through the Fall, disorder enters into the world. Homosexual desire is ‘objectively disordered’ and not part of God’s original intention for humanity.

3. To enable the consummation of homosexual desire is to assist in perpetuating the Fall, ie to connive in the furtherance of sin. As such, any support of homosexual relationships is to be rejected. Hence, no to gay marriage, no to gay partnerships, no no no no no….

I hope this is a fair summary, albeit a brusque one.

Where I think the ‘distinctly ungracious’ arguments come in is between points 2 and 3; that is, I think it is logically possible to accept premises 1. and 2. but reject the consequence of 3.

A parallel could be drawn with a physical disability. I am completely deaf in my left ear, since birth. I have no doubt that this is not part of God’s original intentions for humanity and counts as something which is ‘objectively disordered’. Yet society does not see the need to confine me to the natural consequences that follow from this disorder – indeed, it has very kindly provided me with a hearing aid, which I use as occasion demands. Also, unlike ancient Israel, I am not barred from a full participation in human life and the common assembly as a result of my human imperfection.

Why is the same grace not extended to those in the LGBT community, even when these conservative premises are accepted? In other words, why is the reality of the ‘disability’ not acknowledged but room given for God’s redeeming grace to come in and transform the situation as each context makes possible? Perhaps for some the redeeming grace might indeed be a life of celibacy, but for others might it not be the case that the way in which God’s redeeming grace takes effect is precisely through the stability, companionship, fidelity and so on that a covenanted and monogamous relationship gives? It’s still possible to say ‘this is objectively disordered’, but there is so much more human grace and compassion involved, and an openness to the God of Surprises. I say this because it also seems to me, given what Jesus says, and Paul writes, that heterosexual marriage is itself a falling short of the ideal, and not part of our eternal destiny!!

No, even though I remain sceptical about gay ‘marriage’, I’m more and more persuaded that the arguments against a full acceptance and inclusion of our LGBT friends in Christ are rooted in a theology which is itself objectively disordered. Where there is no law, there is no transgression. I’ll start taking such arguments seriously again when they recognise that Jeffrey John would make a good bishop.

The Lego movie and the House of Bishops Statement on gay marriage

A polished version of this morning’s sermon

In our reading from 1 Corinthians this morning St Paul writes of the importance of building upon good foundations, and then goes on to talk about what it is to be an ‘expert’ or ‘master builder’. This gives me the excuse I needed to talk about the Lego movie, which I took my boys to see last weekend, and which they are now pressing me to take them to again. The movie tells the story of Emmet, who is just your average Lego person, and who refers to the Lego instructions every moment of the day – to learn what to do when he gets up, when he goes to work, when he has coffee and so on. The arc of the movie is all about him becoming a ‘master builder’, someone who doesn’t just follow instructions but is able to be creative and new. Someone who can take the instructions for what they are but not be restricted by them.

I see the Lego movie as a good example of where our Christian heritage appears anonymously in popular culture. St Paul wrote (2 Corinthians 3): “Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

This is a commonplace within Christian culture. Our gospel reading this morning is a perfect example of the way in which Jesus pushes beyond a simple legal framework. Jesus repeatedly says “you have heard it said…I say unto you”. You have heard ‘do not murder’, I say when you are angry in your heart, it is as bad. You have heard ‘do not commit adultery’, I say when you lust in your heart, it is as bad. Jesus is pushing for a change of heart, a metanoia, one where consideration of the Law is simply the starting point for our journey into God, not the end.

There are wider issues at stake as well. When St Paul talks about ‘the works of the Law’ he is not referring to a legalistic righteousness; rather, he is talking about the cultural boundary markers which specify who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Where the Hebrew community of the time rested in a sense of identity that was bounded by things like circumcision, food laws and sabbath observance, for Paul these were overtaken by our identity in Christ. Hence in Galatians Paul famously writes that in Christ we are neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. What this does – and Jesus lives out this teaching before Paul codifies it, when he spends his time with the sinners and tells them that they will enter heaven before the religious teachers – what this does is establish a new form of social organisation.

Rather than a group being defined by the exclusion of the ‘other’ – in other words, all the lego parts that don’t fit, that aren’t given a role in the instructions – now there is an identity formed by the sinless victim, Jesus himself. We each come to Jesus and find identity with him on the basis of our redeemed sinfulness. There is no righteous group passing judgement on another ‘less’ righteous. This is the working out of the fundamental law that the measure that we give shall be the measure that we receive. We are all sinners. We either live by a spirit of judgement and condemnation, or we live by a spirit of compassion and forgiveness. One is a spirit of domination and slavery, the other, as St Paul writes, is freedom: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

As Christians, therefore, we are called to be on guard not to allow legalism, an emphasis upon certain particular actions, to define our identity but rather to recognise the humanity and ‘God-lovedness’ of the Other. To not to be legalistic, but to pursue the right Spirit and allow that humility and compassion to guide our choices; and to rejoice in the freedom from legalism that being guided by the Spirit can bring. After all, Jesus told us that we have the keys of the kingdom, what is bound on earth is bound in heaven and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven. In other words, it is not an antinomian distaste for a little book of Lego instructions that drives us. Instead, it is the liberty that comes from being a master builder. Everything is permitted, but not everything is edifying. The church community as a whole, commissioned in our baptism, has the authority and responsibility to pursue the free life of the Spirit, a Spirit that is known by the fruits of love, peace, joy and grace and so on.

This is what I believe the gospel to be, and I do not believe that I am alone in such an understanding.

So, having said all that, it may be possible to explain why I feel the need to have something of a rant. The House of Bishops of the Church of England has just issued a statement about gay marriage, and so far as I can tell the presiding spirit of the statement is in direct contradiction to the faith.

For those whose lives mercifully spare them from having to read such things, I will give a very rapid summary. The letter is addressed ‘to the clergy and people of the Church of England’, which is why it is right to discuss it with you this morning. Three key points:
it’s OK for a Christian gay couple to get married, so long as it is not in church – that couple can still be baptised and receive communion, and are full members of the body of Christ;
it’s not OK for a gay clergy person to get married, because clergy have to show higher moral standards;
clergy are forbidden from conducting gay weddings, also forbidden from conducting services of blessing for gay civil partnerships, but are encouraged to offer other things. In other words – I can invite a gay couple who have been married to have some prayers of thanksgiving said in church, I can bless them as individuals, I can pray for their future together, but I cannot invite them to be blessed as a couple. Despite the fact that the statement recognises that they can be admitted to communion. Obviously the House of Bishops consider a prayer of blessing to be more theologically significant than reception of communion.

In this debate, there are some consistent positions possible, and there are some creative positions possible. Sadly this House of Bishops statement is neither creative nor consistent.

EITHER – the church still thinks an active homosexual relationship is sinful, in which case we stick by established teachings, and the consequence of that is, logically, to disbar married gay couples from baptism and communion, due to their unrepentant sinfulness. The trouble with that is that almost nobody in this country is seriously suggesting it, and it runs very much counter to the warm words which the Bishops speak about homosexual relationships; OR they could say, we now accept that God is working through the culture, we have been in error and now see the light – and so fully buy into the changes that the government legislation enacts; OR they could say, we are working through these issues. There are still many conversations to be had around nature of marriage, but we no longer see homosexuality as necessarily sinful. Therefore, as a sign of our good faith, we are accepting blessings for civil partnerships and setting up some new liturgy for clergy to use.

The Bishops don’t choose any of the consistent or creative possibilities, they simply continue to fudge the situation. Why? And what is being held constant? It’s certainly not a strict reading of the Bible, for that would entail a much stricter approach to divorce than these Bishops have accepted, as Jesus discusses this morning. No, this is simply a political document. Sadly, the interests of this Church in England continue to be sacrificed to the altar of the ‘worldwide Anglican Communion’. This statement is quite clearly driven by placing interests of parts of the established churches in Africa ahead of the gay people in this country and abroad.

The real heart of the problem is the ‘us and them’ mentality, in other words, a form of destructive legalism which is used to ground a sense of identity. There is an official viewpoint which asks whether ‘Others’ meet certain standards or not, which says that some things are OK for some members of the Body of Christ but not for others. I am increasingly of the view that we will only be able to make progress on this issue when those speaking from positions of authority recognise that as the Body of Christ we are both queer and straight in the same way that we are male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek – in other words, we will only be able to make progress when our gay bishops feel safe enough to ‘come out’, when the Spirit that sets free from legalistic demands is able to act and guide our House of Bishops.

Let us remember that Jesus had this to say about homosexuality…

Whereas he had this to say about those in positions of religious authority: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

It is a sadness to reach the conclusion that this statement from our House of Bishops is utterly bankrupt theologically. It is mealy-mouthed and meretricious nonsense, a document driven by political considerations, designed to try and keep the different parts of the communion together, when most of the communion has already moved on, and moved on in different directions. It is a locking of the stable door after the horse has bolted. Elvis has left the building…

When did we become the Pharisees? When did we get so appallingly useless at what we do that the Lego movie is a better guide to Christian truth than official statements from our own House of Bishops?

We as the people of the new covenant are called into a relationship of freedom, led by the Spirit in which we can enjoy a relationship of non-condemnation and forgiveness, founding our identity on Christ alone. Perhaps the only fitting conclusion comes from this morning’s gospel:

Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

TBLA (11): the nature of heterosexual attraction (ii)

I wasn’t planning to come back to this so quickly after the last post, but I obviously didn’t make myself clear….

My language of ‘fundamental building block’ and ‘fundamental basis’ was meant to convey that this is where heterosexual attraction *begins*. It was not intended to reduce heterosexual attraction to this.

When St Paul talks about ‘the flesh’ I take him to mean precisely this biological inheritance. It is what we share with the animal kingdom, or, possibly more precisely, it is the nature of our ‘lizard brain’. It is the most primitive part of our personality. It is also what is most stimulated (in the male) by visual cues, which provoke the dopamine hit leading to addictions.

I believe that human desire – that is, the desire of one human being as a human being, not simply as an animal – is irreducibly complex. It begins with the biological for that is the stuff of which we are made, but it grows and develops until – ideally – the whole of a person is involved. This is what I believe the Christian notion of ‘chastity’ properly consists in. Not a simple repression of the biological but an integration of the biological with all the other elements of the personality. It includes all sorts of labyrinthine details of memory association, context and habits, friendliness and charm – all the things that poets have written about for a long time. Here, also, is where I think we don’t need to talk about ‘heterosexual’ either (I only brought in that restriction to try and simplify that first post).

So: sexy babies. That’s where desire begins for a human being. It isn’t where it ends, it isn’t even it’s most glorious flourishing – but I’m getting ahead of myself in my argument there.

TBLA (10): the nature of heterosexual attraction (i)

Image taken from – and this post prompted by – this post at one of my favourite film sites.

I want to sketch out a simple understanding of the nature of heterosexual attraction, in order to explain why I disagree with the line of argument expressed in the picture. It is an understanding which has only developed in me recently, and is still a ‘work in progress’, but the main lines of it seem to me to be very plausible.

The starting idea is this: the fundamental building block for what counts as sexy in a member of the opposite sex is “whatever makes for healthy babies” (and I owe that formulation to Athol Kay, whose writings I recommend). However, what counts as ‘making healthy babies’ is different in men and women.

For men, any particular act of sexual intercourse is ‘cheap’. It requires very little investment of biological “currency”, ie time and resources. For men, therefore, the question of what will make for a healthy baby is first and foremost a question of fertility, and therefore whatever indicates fertility is seen as sexy.

For women, however, the situation is directly opposite. However brief an act of sexual intercourse might be, the consequence, at least potentially, is immensely costly in terms of time and resources. Whilst there is undoubtedly an element of purely physical attraction (ie a purely ‘biological’ assessment of health and fertility) there is also a significant social element. That is, one of the key markers that trigger attraction for a man is ‘social status’, which is a proxy for the ability to command resources – and therefore ensure that any child born has a better chance of being raised to a healthy age.

So having said all that, what is my disagreement with people like MaryAnn? Well, that motorbike image is not comparing like with like. It is comparing an image developed to appeal to the biological instincts of heterosexual men – in other words, an image of a woman emphasising all the cues of healthy fertility – with a pastiche. The picture of the man by the motorcycle is not an image designed to appeal to the biological instincts of heterosexual women. What would such an image look like? Well, how about this:


In other words, not just that here is a handsome man, but that here is a man with significant social status and dominance.

What the objections to such images seem to me to be based on is a repudiation of the fundamental basis of male heterosexual attraction. Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps male heterosexual attraction is so inherently destructive to the social order that it really does need to be corralled and controlled. In many ways, traditional Christian sexual ethics is about just that.

Yet if we are not to be irredeemably sexist about this, we need to also acknowledge the fundamental basis of female heterosexual attraction, and the possibility that an unrestrained female desire can be just as destructive as the equivalent in the male. In other words, if we are not to be completely prejudiced, we need to ensure that those things which might turn women on are kept as far from them as possible, in just the same way that those things which might turn men on must be kept away from them.

We would end up with, among other things, a ban on images and a rigid segregation of the sexes. Something, perhaps, that looked a lot like Saudi Arabia.

Alternatively, we could just become a lot more relaxed about both sides of the equation, accept that men respond sexually in the way that they do, women respond sexually in the way that they do, and delight in our differences.

TBLA: reading list on sexuality and related issues

I’m planning to get back to my TBLA sequence as time permits – hopefully once a week on Fridays, as that is now my day off again! This post will be regularly updated – and where I identify gaps, I’d be grateful for pointers from the better-informed in the comments. Some of these are in my ‘to be read’ pile. Please note that I am trying to be comprehensive in my reading and studying on this, and do not assume that I agree with all that is described or linked to. In the nature of things, some of these are distinctly non-Christian. You have been warned.

Questions relating to homosexuality specifically
A question of Truth, Gareth Moore
Strangers and Friends, Michael Vasey
All of James Alison’s writings

Feminist writings
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Sexual Politics, Kate Millett

Alternative sexuality
Spiritual Polyamory, Mystic Life

‘Manosphere’ writings
Married Man Sex Life, Athol Kay

An evangelical perspective
Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Wayne Grudem

Secular philosophical aspects
The Sex Code, Francis Bennion
The Puzzle of Sex, Peter Vardy

Traditional philosophical/theological
The Bible

Sex at Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cecilda Jetha
Sex at Dusk, Lynn Saxon
The Myth of Monogamy, David Barash and Judith Lipton
Strange Bedfellows, Barash and Lipton
The Sex Myth, Brooke Magnanti

Marriage: a history, Stephanie Coontz
Uncommon Arrangements, Katie Roiphe

Church of England
Some Issues in Human Sexuality
The Way Forward, ed: Bradshaw
An Acceptable Sacrifice?, ed: Dormor and Morris

Other theology
Touching the Face of God, Donna Mahoney
Sex God, Rob Bell
The Education of Desire, Tim Gorringe

Selected novels, films and other culture
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James
Diary of a London Call Girl, Belle de Jour
Shame, Steve McQueen

Interesting blogs
Sunshine Mary
The Free Northerner
Donal Graeme
Chateau Heartiste
Married Man Sex Life
The Rational Male
Women for Men