Western Culture & the Sexual Self
The Contemporary Challenge to the Christian View of Human Identity
This article is a summary of Martin's blog post on the same topic on Reflections of an Anglican Theologian. To read the whole review click here
St Andrew’s Day Statement
The St Andrew’s Day Statement, published twenty five years ago this month by the Church of England Evangelical Council, was an attempt by a collection of British Evangelical theologians to try to sketch out what a constructive Christian engagement with the issue of same-sex relationships should look like at a time when, like today, the Church was deeply divided about the topic, following the publication of Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 and in the run up to the Lambeth Conference of 1998. It was intended to ‘provide some definition of the theological ground upon which the issue should be addressed and from which any fruitful discussion between those who disagree may proceed.’
How Christ Determines Who We Are
The statement says concerning Jesus Christ:
‘In him’ — and in him alone — ‘we know both God and human nature as they truly are’; and so in him alone we know ourselves as we truly are. There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ. We must be on guard, therefore, against constructing any other ground for our identities than the redeemed humanity given us in him. Those who understand themselves as homosexuals, no more and no less than those who do not, are liable to false understandings based on personal or family histories, emotional dispositions, social settings, and solidarities formed by common experiences or ambitions. Our sexual affections can no more define who we are than can our class, race or nationality.
At the deepest ontological level, therefore, there is no such thing as ‘a’ homosexual or ‘a’ heterosexual; there are human beings, male and female, called to redeemed humanity in Christ, endowed with a complex variety of emotional potentialities and threatened by a complex variety of forms of alienation.
There are two reasons why our existence is determined by Christ.
First God has created us through Christ (see John1:2-3, Colossians 1:17, Hebrews 1:2). We are not our own creators and are therefore unable to determine the conditions of our existence. Nor should we wish to do so. Our existence as those created by God through Christ is just as it should be. As we have seen, God has ‘blessed’ our existence and declared it to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:29 and 31).
Secondly, God became incarnate in Christ to redeem us (that is, set us free) from our corruption and the death that flows from it and thus allow us to live in as God created us to be,
At the end of time there will be a renewed creation (‘a new heaven and a new earth’ Revelation 21:1) , and within it resurrected human beings will live as the people God created them to be. We do not yet fully experience the life we will have in this new creation, but the presence of the Spirit given to us by the risen Christ is the ‘first fruits’ (Romans 8:25) of the new life that is coming and enables us to begin to live now in a way that anticipates how we shall live then.
As the St Andrew’s Day Statement notes, because all this is potentially true of all human beings (‘potentially’ because human beings have the capacity to reject life in God’s new creation) it is true just as much for those who identify as homosexual as for those who identify as heterosexual. How someone chooses to identify themselves does not affect the issue. However they see themselves, in reality they are those who are ‘called to redeemed humanity in Christ’, that is they are those people who have been created by God in Christ, and redeemed by God in Christ, and are summoned to live now in the light of this truth.
The Shape of Our Created Existence
If we ask about the specific shape of our existence as those created and redeemed by Christ, the first answer is that God has created his human creatures to be either male or female.
Then there are two ways in which God calls women and men to live for either the whole or part of their lives – marriage and singleness. Because these are both states in which God calls his human creatures to live, neither of them is morally superior to the other. Marriage is not better than singleness, and singleness is not better than marriage. They are just different
What is not equally good, and what is never acceptable, is to confuse the married and single states by having sexual activity outside marriage, whether this takes the form of sex between two people of the opposite sex, or two people of the same sex (who cannot be married because marriage is between a man and a woman).
The Issues We Now Face as a Result of the Development of Western Culture
The Christian understanding of human identity and the Christian sexual ethic which I have just outlined have been dominant in Western culture for most of the past two millennia. However, they are widely regarded today as both irrational and immoral. This can be seen in the way that Christian opposition to same-sex sexual relationships and same-sex marriage is regularly labelled as ‘homophobia’ and Christian opposition to people choosing to define their own sexual identity is regularly labelled as ‘transphobia,’ both terms carrying the implication that this opposition is (a) irrational and (b) harmfully prejudicial to the LGBTQI+ people concerned.
If we ask how this seismic shift in attitudes took place, a persuasive account is now given in Carl Trueman’s new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. As Trueman explains in his Introduction:
The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’ My grandfather died in 1994, less than thirty years ago, and yet, had he ever heard that sentence uttered in his presence, I have little doubt that he would have burst out laughing and considered it a piece of incoherent gibberish. And yet today it is a sentence that many in our society regard as not only meaningful but so significant that to deny it or question it in some way is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia.
As Trueman goes on to argue, the result of cultural developments in the Western world since the eighteenth century has been to create a new ‘social imaginary’ (the way most people understand the world and how they should behave within it), that is based on ‘poiesis’ rather than ‘mimesis,’ and in which the idea of being a woman trapped in a man’s body makes perfect sense. Negatively, there is no fixed order of things, and no fixed pattern for human existence or behaviour, and so no yardstick against which one can say the idea is wrong. Positively, the purpose of my existence is to live as authentically as possible in accordance with what I perceive to be my true self, and if this involves seeing myself as a woman, even though I have a man’s body, then that is what I should do. The same factors likewise create a social imaginary in which the acceptance of same-sex relationships and the claim to a gay or lesbian identity also makes sense.
Trueman’s argument also mean that in the eyes of our contemporary culture the Christian anthropology contained in the Saint Andrew’s Day Statement could well be seen as a form of ‘hate speech.’ The key point here is that since the work of Sigmund Freud our sexual desires have come to be seen as definitive of who human beings are. This in turn means that the terms ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ are not just a description of someone’s sexual desire, but are a description of who they essentially are. It follows that the claim that there is ‘no such thing as ‘a’ homosexual’ is an attack on the very existence of the people concerned and as such, as Trueman says, ‘a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference.’
From this perspective, the theological approach expressed in the St Andrew’s Day Statement is as morally offensive as the theological arguments that were used to support slavery and apartheid.
For orthodox Christians in the Church of England, that is, those Christians who still hold to the anthropology and sexual ethics taught in the Bible and by the subsequent mainstream tradition of the Christian Church, the first thing this all means is that they need to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’
More specifically, it means that they need to accept that the opposition to traditional Christian anthropology and ethics is not going away any time soon. Even if the orthodox hold the line in the Church of England in the immediate aftermath of Living in Love and Faith, the campaign to change the theology and practice of the Church of England will simply continue.
In addition, orthodox Christians need to realise that being faithful to their beliefs will mean being willing to live as a member of morally suspect minority in our society. And they will need to develop a strategy to survive this particular time of trial:
Christians will need to understand the issues at stake. The immediate issues of sexual behaviour and identity facing the Church are, as we have seen, merely the expression of a clash between a mimetic and poietic world view, and hence between a world view based on the Christian revelation, and a world view based on its rejection. This in turn means that no compromise is possible.
Christians will need to be active in teaching and in catechesis. If Christians are to be faithful to the Christian world view, they will need first to understand it. Hence teaching about the Christian world view and the anthropology and sexual ethics that flow from it need to be central to the Church’s life. In addition priority will need to be given to the instruction of children and young people in these matters since they are the ones who are most exposed to the culture’s rejection of traditional Christian belief through the media and through education.
Christians will need to be active in apologetics. They need to be active in explaining to those outside the Church why the Christian world view makes better sense than the world view that has developed in the West since the Enlightenment. In particular they need to understand and highlight the shortcomings of the arguments in favour of the modern Western world view and the known damage that the sexual revolution stemming from it has caused in Western society, particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society.
Finally, the Church needs to be a community that, in Lesslie Newbigin’s words, acts as the ‘hermeneutic of the Gospel.’ In a society in which, for better or worse, lived experience is viewed as the guide to truth, then it is only as people experience the transforming love of God embodied in a loving and supportive Christian community that they will become open to explore the truth of that Church’s teaching and to accepting that Church’s ethics. That is why Ed Shaw was right to give his book on ‘the church and same-sex attraction’ the title The Plausiblity Problem. The problem orthodox Christians have to address is how can our community life make our worldview plausible?