When we talk salvation, sexuality matters

December 8th, 2016

In only a couple of weeks, most of us will sing one of our best songs: "Now in mystic union join, Thine to ours, and ours to Thine." Following the way the words run, the Wesleyan Christian imagination longs for participation in Trinity's life. We call this union "salvation." And yet, even as we sing these words, our imaginations are consumed with trying to foresee the future shape of our union as a church.

For most of my life, I have generally associated myself with progressive, liberal thought. So when progressive pastors and other leaders offer a wise word to us regarding the continuing struggles around sexuality and church division, I am naturally inclined to read them.

A particular form of the argument is made again and again by those voices, one that I believe has a key pitfall. The flaw at the heart of the common progressive argument is that the conversation on sexuality and the Christian life is an important one, it just isn't the main one. This progressive claim is a lovely argument of politeness and even an honest yearning for many seeking to find a way forward together, not at all unlike the arguments of tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism reflected in the wider progressive social view.

But what if that argument is still fundamentally flawed? What if that argument — that sexuality is important but not central enough to our faith to be a source of unity or division — is based on the same logic as the colorblindness and post-racial politics so beloved in progressive thought? Or, to put it differently, perhaps the same logic that says sexuality is an important issue that should still be bypassed for larger, deeper concerns is functionally the same logic maintaining white supremacy as normative even as we celebrate possibilities for multicultural diversity.

Progressive voices in the church, seeking to esteem our non-heteronormative brothers and sisters, might in fact be perpetuating the same tolerance-based arguments that reestablish white male heteronormativity as the good, the true, and the beautiful. Maybe it isn't surprising to find liberal arguments leading to conclusions largely similar to conservative ones, where people identified within the LGBTQIA community are still somehow on the outside. Those inside the "normal" keep trying to say this matter of sexuality and homosexuality isn't central because for those in the norm, it simply does not have to be.

In his recent article on a possibly divided United Methodist Church, Rev. Dr. James Howell claims that sexuality, while an important thing, is not the main thing because, fundamentally, salvation is the main thing. Our chief constructions of belief are claims about God and who God is and what God is doing — the essence of salvation — and therefore, sexuality is important as a part of our claims of holiness, but not essential. I find this claim confusing given our emphasis on sanctification as true holiness of heart and mind, but in either case the idea is that sexuality is adiaphora, or perhaps as other progressive voices would claim, not "status confessionis."

There is certainly something desirable about bracketing off sexuality as important-but-not-essential. Indeed, beginning in grade school our social formation shapes us to do just that, reducing sexuality to a private action, a place of shame and pleasure, a quiet matter kept to the spaces between bedroom walls. Theologians whom I respect and admire regularly note how little Jesus explicitly says about sexuality, all the while ignoring the larger framework and scriptural language of sexuality, marriage, desire, and unfaithfulness that underwrites the story from beginning to end.

In doing so, we diminish the richness of the metaphor of the Lord as the Bridegroom with a jealous, erotic desire for his Bride, the new Israel. We mostly ignore the theological tradition where Origen kept his students from studying the Song of Songs until properly instructed, or the continued work of Sarah Coakley and others who call us to see how similar and essential the language of desire and the erotic is to the mystical experience of salvation in the Christian life. We push aside the experience of so many Christians with complex sexual identities deeply intertwined with their experiences of salvation. We do this to categories that we usually laud as part of our beloved "Quadrilateral." 

More than these, however, is my fear that this "important but not the main" argument is a subtle Gnostic temptation. We do so love to dislocate and disembody the divine. And maybe it's the season, with its beautiful focus on the mysteries of the Incarnation, amplifying that fear. Sexuality is fundamentally a claim about our bodies and how the body experiences grace. If grace is "a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted," then sexuality in the fullest sense is the bodily communication of grace's depths.[1] It is the discovery of one's self as a human being in and through the desire of another. Sexuality is love enfleshed...or is it Jesus who is love made flesh? In any case, "this is my body, given for you" seems unambiguously salvific and erotic.

To separate sexuality as a secondary experience apart from "higher" considerations of salvation would be to undo Athanasius' hard work. Making salvation a concept apart from how the body experiences it would be to unravel our Trinitarian, Christological, and soteriological fabric simultaneously. When our core confession is that God became human, fully divine and fully fleshed in order to renew humanity and restore knowledge of the Creator, then salvation is necessarily a bodily experience, and one that encompasses — not bypasses — our sexuality.

We might wonder what would change in our self-understanding if we see sexuality as essential to the Christian experience of salvation. I doubt that our conversations will become magically clearer or less divisive. But we might find that we have actually been arguing about the right thing and the main thing, namely the reality of salvation that comes in learning to love and to be loved, the slow work of sanctification that takes shape in and through the sacramentality of the body.

I can feel the desire to affirm sexuality's importance without it being central. I agree with Rev. Howell; our sexuality is easily misunderstood, easily misconstrued, and easily mismanaged. But I am not so sure the Spirit agrees with our desire to minimize. I am deeply afraid that to do so would be a peril well beyond the possibilities of denominational dissolution.

Perhaps we can, following the Spirit's direction, learn to share in the body's grace for all of its complexities. Perhaps we can learn to listen for the stories of salvation experienced by enfleshed bodies in such a way that the church takes on a whole new shape in the world. Perhaps we can again look for the ways that the Spirit sanctifies bodies, delighting in lives continually enfolded into one another as they are enfolded into Trinity's own: "Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in Thy love. Let us Thee, though lost, regain, Thee, the Life, the inner man: O, to all Thyself impart, Formed in each believing heart."

[1] Rowan D. Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” in Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Eugene F. Rogers, Jr (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 311.

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