Friday, July 07, 2006

Williams: "The Body's Grace"

Before getting into today's discussion, I want to introduce a new resource I'm making available. The comments are getting quite lengthy, and often there's a few different conversations going on in one thread. Unfortunately, that means that once in awhile a question, or an insight, gets lost in the flurry.

As one response to this problem, I'm making available to the public a web community that I've been using for awhile to store pictures. Rather than just sitting there dormant, we might as well use it. The site has a forum, a picture gallery where you can park your own pictures, a place to store documents as well, and even a chat room. My thought is that if someone, especially those who don't have blogs, has a question or wants to start a conversation on a particular topic, they can use the forum to post their own entry. I'll try to refer folks to interesting topics on the forum from here.

It's an MSN community, simply because, imo, MSN provides the best product. Joining is fairly simple. Some may have to open a hotmail account. Don't be intimidated by that; it's free. Anyway, for those who might find this to be a helpful resource, the community is Stopping the World. I've added a link to it at the top of the sidebar.

One final note about the community; I let my 24 year old son use it to park his pics as no jokes about the rather goth images you'll find in my album!

The Daily Episcopalian points us to an interesting interview of the British journalist Andrew Brown:

...Stephen Crittenden: You say that in the future for the church that is outlined, the Archbishop of Canterbury is proposing changes that would make his own views a disqualification for the job he holds. What do you mean by that?

Andrew Brown: I think that the present compromise line that we need to talk about these things until we agree, is a polite political fiction because actually what both sides mean by this is we need to talk about this until you agree with me. And in particular, Rowan Williams' view that this is an unresolved question, that the traditionalist view might be wrong, and that it's reasonable to suppose it might be wrong, is not something that the traditionalists are going to admit. And I think if they do take over politically, which is the likely outcome of this, then nobody holding Rowan Williams' own views will ever become Archbishop of Canterbury again.

Stephen Crittenden: It's true, isn't it, and in fact we've spoken on this program about a famous piece he once wrote entitled 'The Body's Grace' in which he basically says same-sex unions can be a source of grace. His private views are not in any way coming to the fore in any of this, are they?

Andrew Brown: Well no, I don't think they are. I mean I think you could say that he believes it's not his job as Archbishop to have private views.

Stephen Crittenden: Well in fact he said exactly that, he said that he wants to put unity ahead of his personal views, that his role of Archbishop of Canterbury isn't to be a faction leader.

Andrew Brown: No. The trouble with that analysis, I mean it's true as far as it goes, but the alternative to being a faction leader would appear to be a faction follower, in a church as deeply divided as this one is...
Read the whole interview. There's a couple of other good lines delivered by Brown.

In the above segment, there's a reference to the essay by Rowan Williams, written in 1989, titled The Body's Grace. This is a brilliant piece, and dovetails quite nicely with yesterday's discussions. Here's some exerpts:

...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.

When we bless sexual unions, we give them a life, a reality, not dependent on the contingent thoughts and feelings of the people involved, true; but we do this so that they may have a certain freedom to "take time", to mature and become as profoundly nurturing as they can. 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.

In other words, I believe that the promise of faithfulness, the giving of unlimited time to each other, remains central for understanding the full "resourcefulness" and grace of sexual union. I simply don't think we'd grasp all that was involved in the mutual transformation of sexually linked persons without the reality of unconditional public commitments: more perilous, more demanding, more promising.

Yet 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. People do discover - as does Sarah Lay ton - a grace in encounters fraught with transitoriness and without much "promising" (in any sense): it may be just this that prompts them to want the fuller, longer exploration of the body's grace that faithfulness offers. Recognising this - which is no more than recognising the facts of a lot of people's histories, heterosexual or homosexual, in our society - ought to be something we can do without generating anxieties about weakening or compromising the focal significance of commitment and promise in our Christian understanding and "moral imagining" of what sexual bonding can be.

Much more damage is done to this by the insistence on a fantasy version of heterosexual marriage as the solitary ideal, when the facts of the situation are that an enormous number of "sanctioned" unions are a framework for violence and human destructiveness on a disturbing scale: sexual union is not delivered from moral danger and ambiguity by satisfying a formal socio-religious criterion. Let me repeat: decisions about sexual lifestyle are about how much we want our bodily selves to mean rather than what emotional needs we're meeting or what laws we're satisfying. "Does this mean that we are using faith to undermine law? By no means: we are placing law itself on a firmer footing" (Romans 3.31): happily there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!

...Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff', but - just as worryingly - of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material "production" is an embodied person aware of grace. It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in "his" attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy... ?

The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God's relation to humanity. God as the husband of the land is a familiar enough trope. but Hosea's projection of the husband-and-wife story on to the history of Israel deliberately subverts the God-and-the-land cliches of Near Eastern cults: God is not the potent male sower of seed but the tormented lover, and the gift of the land's fertility is conditional upon the hurts of unfaithfulness and rejection being healed...

...In other words, if we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be. When looking for a language that will be resourceful enough to speak of the complex and costly faithfulness between God and God's people, what several of the biblical writers turn to is sexuality understood very much in terms of the process of "entering the body's grace". If we are afraid of facing the reality of same-sex love because it compels us to think through the processes of bodily desire and delight in their own right, perhaps we ought to be more cautious about appealing to Scripture as legitimating only procreative heterosexuality.

In fact, of course, in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures. I suspect that a fuller exploration of the sexual metaphors of the Bible will have more to teach us about a theology and ethics of sexual desire than will the flat citation of isolated texts; and I hope other theologians will find this worth following up more fully than I can do here.

A theology of the body's grace which can do justice to the experience, the pain and the variety, of concrete sexual discovery is not, I believe, a marginal eccentricity in the doctrinal spectrum. It depends heavily on believing in a certain sort of God - the trinitarian creator and saviour of the world - and it draws in a great many themes in the Christian understanding of humanity, helping us to a better critical grasp of the nature and the dangers of corporate human living...
I encourage you to take the time to carefully read this lengthy essay. There's much in it that we might find helpful in exploring answers to yesterday's questions.


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