"What is Disordered Sexuality?"Discussion Paper #2: Dialogue on Same-Sex Unions: Anglican Diocese of New Westminster (Canada)
Prepared by the Commission on Faith and Doctrine (Anglican Church of Canada)
Dr. Edith M. Humphrey (a member of the Primate's Theological Commission)
The phrase "disordered sexuality" is problematic. We have seen already (Paper #1) that the term "sexuality" is a modernly debated one that needs to be used with caution because of the various ways that it is understood in popular and academic contexts. This paper will concentrate upon what the Scriptures and the continuing tradition of the Christian community have said about sexual desire, sexual expression and sexual activity in a world that was created in wholeness, but which has been marred by deadly disorder and sin. "Disorder" will therefore be used in a general and theological (rather than technical or psychological) sense to refer to sexuality within the human experience of corruptibility, lack of integration, and sin.
According to the biblical story, disorder is to be seen on both the personal and creational levels. Popular readings of the narrative of the fall have frequently, but erroneously, focused upon sexuality. Such interpretations are understandable, given the emphasis in Genesis 1-3 upon male and female, desire, discovered nakedness, broken relationships, and the symbolic association of the serpent with the phallus. These features of the story, coupled with later worries (among some writers following Augustine) about lust and how original sin was transmitted, have sometimes overshadowed other more profound concerns in Genesis. More careful interpreters did not highlight sexuality, but described the root sin as pride, envy, lack of faith or simple disobedience, calling attention to various breaking points in the communion between God and humankind. In doing so, they followed the overall shape of the primeval drama, which begins with "Adam walking with God," continues with humanity hiding from God, and reaches a tragic climax where the couple is removed from the place of easy communion. Nevertheless, to include sexuality as a part of this drama was not totally wrong-headed. Where foundational communion is broken, there is far-reaching fall-out -- not the least the breaking of shalom or peace between the sexes, and the rebellion of the passions against the will and intellect at the personal level.
Alexander Schmemann argues compellingly that the primal sin, though it involved pride, envy, lack of faith and disobedience, is deeper than these things. It occurred because "hungry" humanity, created for communion with God, turned from that Life and Love. Humans no longer gratefully embraced the "sacramental" nature of a creation "shot through" with Godís own life. That is, they no longer appreciated creation in connection with the Creator, but chose to love the world as an end in itself. In eating food that had not been blessed by God (the fruit of the forbidden tree), humanity ceased to revere Godís creation as a gift intended to nourish communion with Him. Consequently, humanity rejected its unique and priestly role, which had been to offer the world, received from his hand, back in thankfulness to God. In this rejection, they no longer could participate, as it had been intended, in Life. "Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life." The sin, then, was that humankind ceased to be "hungry for God, and for God alone," and the fall implies that we have "fallen from the awareness that God is all in all." (For the Life of the World; Sacraments and Orthodoxy, St Vladmirís Press, 1973, reprinted 1995, pp. 15-18). Another way of looking at this is that Adam and Eve tried to make a divide between the "sacred" and the "profane," thinking that one could steal the world away from God, and live more fully.
ĎDisordered sexualityí, then, is a symptom of a general loss of order in our world. This is a loss that is reflected not only in how we see things, but in reality. "The angels may keep their ancient stations" which we do not recognise; yet we do in fact die, and do indeed act against our consciences, and do not normally walk with God face to face. We can recognise our disordered sexuality wherever it perpetuates this inability to see the creation for what it is -- a window of intrinsic beauty through which we apprehend the Creator. Thus, sexual disorder takes place wherever we do not see or pattern our sexuality as a symbol of Godís life, wherever we take sexuality too seriously as an end in itself, or wherever our sexuality demonstrates our inability to transform human love into a potent and life-bearing sign of the love of God for the world. Typically, the Bible does not set off sexual disorder as separate from other examples of our brokenness, nor has the Christian tradition done this officially. Lust is not singled out as the only "deadly" sin. Where tragedy occurs in the narratives of Scripture as a result of moral weakness (e.g., the careers of Saul, David, and Solomon), sexual immorality is neither ignored nor underscored. It is not described separately from other sinful behaviour. Again, in listing outward and inward sinfulness, sermonic passages of the Bible (e.g. lists of vices in Paulís epistles or the pastorals) include sexual problems alongside other human transgressions. Thus, 1 Peter lists licentiousness, uncontrolled passion, drunkenness and idolatry together (1 Peter 4:3) and Paul refers to various types of porneia (sexual immorality) alongside strife, jealousy idolatry and envy (Galatians 5:19-21).
It would be inaccurate, however, to say that sexual disorder is simply a superficial problem. Indeed, the New Testament writers consistently consider sexuality in terms of the whole person, considering both outward expression and less visible lust. In this brokenness, the whole person is affected, not simply the body. Thus, in understanding sexual disorder, we should not play off the physical against the spiritual. Nor will we be shocked at the potential or actual damage which occurs when sex does not take its proper place. Because we are in a fallen world, we should not be surprised by various expressions of the disorder which plague us as if they were rare or remarkable occurrences. We understand well from the Genesis story and from the saga of Israel which follows, that human beings tend towards death rather than to life, and that this tendency is seen in many aspects of their being. Clearly, we long to be integrated or whole. This very longing is a sign that we have lost what Aquinas called "the original justice" in which all our parts worked together without confusion. Our current state of disorder is even pictured for us as we pay attention to the spasmodic way in which our conscience operates: sometimes we feel no pangs of guilt where our minds and moral sensibilities indicate that we should; other times we are overly "scrupulous" and "feel" guilty about matters that are not our responsibility; sometimes our consciences work well, reminding us that we have not acted in accordance with what we know to be decent and true.
Our inner sense that things are not as they should be is confirmed by the story of the fall, and further explained by Paul's treatment of the Genesis story in Romans 5. Careful reading of these passages show that disorder is not the same as sin itself. What we experience as disorder is part of our ongoing process towards death, a tendency called "corruptibility" by classical theologians. Our life is not as it should be, and the end of our various disorders is death. Disorder (a subset of death) has come from sin, and most naturally leads to sin. Yet because of the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit, unchecked sinful behaviour (the outward expression of our disorder) is no longer inevitable. Further, we look forward to the time when we will be remade, and death will no longer make its mark on us. "Who will deliver me from this body of death? -- Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:25) The victory of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection is not a simple forgiveness of sin, which is a good gift in itself, but also the taking up of our human nature into God so that it may be healed.
Christians, then, find themselves in a transitional place. They are called to acknowledge with sobriety that all "natural" states (even a lawful marriage) bear within them the imprint of the fall. Regularly husbands and wives discover in their relationship the sentence of "domination" and enslaved "desire" spoken in Eden. However, Christians struggling with their sexuality, whatever their state, are also assured that because of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the domination of death and disorder has been broken. As they participate in Godís life and in the life of the Church, they are enabled through the work of Godís enlivening Spirit to "glorify God in [the] body" (1 Corinthians 6:20). From one perspective, the Christian mind will seem hopelessly pessimistic, for it must continue to acknowledge the full effect of the fall; from another, it will seem impossibly optimistic, for the resurrecting and enlivening power of God is an ever present sign that healing is at hand. Though we groan, we await "the redemption of our bodies" (Romans 8: 23).
By its very nature, sexuality brings together the personal with the social or corporate. Our sexuality is intimately connected to our identity, necessarily involved in our communion with others, and also provides a mysterious representation of how humanity is created in the image of God --"In his image created he him, male and female created he them." Perhaps no disorder is ever wholly individual, but this is clearly the case in the area of our sexuality. Our sexual lack of health involves at least one other person, but probably also an entire community, and most certainly our relationships together with God. Hence, Jesus does not characterise adultery and divorce as private matters, even when imagined acts are contained within the apparent privacy of the heart (Mat. 5:27-28). Rather, these envisioned or actual actions always affect others, and have no place in Godís call to a corporate new life (Mat. 5:45) -- a life made possible because God is doing something about hardness of heart (cf. Mark 10:5). Similarly, in the Corinthian letters, Paul deals with sexual disorder in terms of its mutual damage to the spouse (1 Corinthians 7:4), to the community (1 Corinthians 5:1-4), and to the communion which the transgressor shares with God (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). Again, in Romans 1:18-32, Paul sees an integral connection between humanityís spiritual blindness, our inability to view the world as transparent to its Creator (verses 20-21), idolatry (22-23), and various social expressions of disorder (26-32), of which homoerotic relations are a vivid symptom (26-27).
Sexual disorder is at once, then, profoundly personal and clearly communal in its effects. We see this at once when we ask about the various ways in which sexual disorder is sinfully expressed, or when another disorder, not primarily sexual in origin, expresses itself in sinful sexual activity. The most obvious expression involves our bodies, wherever humans hurt themselves and each other by sexual actions outside of, or in violation of, a marriage covenant. We can observe numerous examples that show how sinful actions, born of a less-than-whole sexuality, issue in yet more disorder and pain -- emotional, physical and social. The entire Eden scene is re-enacted: "innocents" question Godís generous provision (good sexual communication to be shared exclusively between husband and wife), seize what looks like freedom, see in the other person not a likeness of the Creator but a thing to be had in itself, and in the end experience (sometimes delayed) consequences. As in the case with the fruit of the tree, there are various motivations for disordered sexuality -- it is not always lust in itself ("good to the eyes") which is the catalyst. Sometimes instead there is a desire for other less tangible prizes (knowledge, freedom, acceptance), with sexual action exploited as the vehicle. George Orwell, in his novel 1984 saw the destructive influence of repressed and pragmatic sex, but remained blind in his idealisation of sex as "the thing in itself." There the counter-cultural hero Winston confronts his consort, asking about her motivation for having sexual relations with him: he is relieved to hear that her appetite is for the act, regardless of her romantic feelings. She loves "it" and not merely him. He is content. What Orwell failed to see is that there is no wholesome "natural" celebration of sex in-and-for-itself: that perspective leads to the enslavement of one or both of those involved, and the bestialisation of the human community. Humans, by their nature, are meant for God and for each other, and not for narcissistic erotic fulfilment. In all this, what remains constant is the inability to recognise Godís presence, either because fulfilment is being sought in a place unblessed by God, or because the couple is confusing their sexual energy for the ultimate love, making it an idol.
Yet we cannot consider particular sinful acts in isolation from societal sin -- whether we speak of unloving intercourse within marriage, erotic relations unconnected with a marriage commitment, erotic relations with someone elseís partner, or homoerotic relations. Currently there are two common and destructive attitudes towards erotic behaviour -- treating it casually, as something separate from our true identities, and idolising it as necessary to our well-being. Wherever society in general, and the Christian community in particular, buys into these perspectives, or tolerates them as inevitable in film, print, art, counselling or policy, we are all complicit. However, we are never encouraged by the gospel to be self-righteous in our response to such matters. A full-bodied understanding of the human condition will allow us to place these sexually related problems in a larger context: they are expressions of the blindness which we all have inherited, and the transgressions into which we all fall. For those few who are not tempted in these particular matters, self-righteousness is forbidden explicitly by such texts as Romans 2:1. Yet who is there who has not slipped at times into the mindset of our day? Lesslie Newbigin reminds us that "Our society is -- in its central thrust -- governed by a false creed, namely, that human beings are made for self-fulfilment apart from God, for Ďhappinessí on terms that they are free to decide for themselves and apart from any consideration of what may be the ends for which God has created us" ("Response to David M. Stowe," International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October ,1988, p. 152).
Christians are called to be countercultural in several respects: in their refusal to call disorder freedom, or evil good; in their "unshockability" regarding sin, their compassion towards those who have been harmed by the sins of others, and their ability to see a brother and sister in the other, who is (like them) disordered and sinful; in the frank admission of their own need for repentance and their own transitional state on the way to wholeness; in their humble ministry among those who, like them, are seeking wholeness through repentance and a disciplined loving life together in the Church; and in their open sharing of the light and health of Christ with every person, in whom they see, as in shadows, a picture of Jesus himself.