‘Liberal Christianity and sex’ revisited

 

You know how you were just telling me that you really wanted a follow-up to that post about liberal christianity’s unhealthy silence on sex and relationships I wrote back in 2013?

You know the one that said:

For a number of years, I’ve been attending various churches whose congregations would broadly be described as liberal. During that time I have heard sex mentioned once in a service. That was to admonish a preacher for using a wedding service as an opportunity to preach about abstinence before marriage. To be fair, that’s because the churches I’ve attended tended to be quiet and conflicted about their liberalism. Even those that are more assertive – like the church whose signs I blogged about earlier this week – tend to define their views negatively, asserting their differences from other Christians rather than discussing what they do believe. This reticence to discuss sex stands not only in contrast to an increasingly sexualised secular culture, but also to evangelicals and Roman Catholics who tend to be willing to opine that sex should only be within heterosexual marriage.

To the extent that liberal Christianity has a message it’s tolerance, but this is a very limited view. A hesitance to condemn is right but an outright refusal to do so is not. “Judge not lest the be judged” does not mean one cannot judge but that one must be prepared to live up to the standards you demand of others. Liberal Christians do not preach tolerance alone in other matters and are generally quite prepared to pass judgement on bigotry, greed and damage to the environment. And if you consider sex a subject uniquely immune to judgement, then may I ask you about your views on rape? Or if that seems an extreme example, may I ask if you’ve never been angered by a love rat? There is as much – perhaps even more – scope for people to be hurt where sex is involved as when it is not, and so we have to be ready call out people (including and especially ourselves) who do not “love their neighbour.” More fundamentally, while a call to tolerance can guide how we view the actions of others it is a useless guide to our own actions. Liberal Christians might not think that gay vs. straight is a matter of morality but we really ought to decide what is.

Of course, no one actually asked me for a follow-up to that. However, WordPress’s stats page tells me, that it is a surprisingly well read post even to this day. Plenty of people find it through google, which kind of proves my point. There is clearly a demand for liberal christian answers to these questions, and the supply is so meagre that people are finding their way to the blog of a nobody, who ironically doesn’t even provide any answers of his own. I concluded the post saying that for all my certainty that we needed positive suggestions, I had little idea what they might be.

Fortunately, the American journalist Conor Friedersdorf has actually come up with some. In an excellent article – that is nonetheless burdened with the mediocre title “When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets Hookup Culture” – he presents the case I wish I had known how to make. When I first read it, I felt like I was seeing my own post in a reverse carnival mirror: he’d made clear and crisp things that I’d left messy and distorted. I was particularly impressed that he’d express ideas I’d voiced as regrets, but as something constructive.

While I would recommend reading the whole article, the heart of Friedersdorf’s argument can be found in an address he imagines a fictional pastor delivering to a hypothetical group of university freshers:

Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.

The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.

Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.

What I take away from this is the notion that our moral duty goes beyond asking if someone is consenting. We must consider their welfare in the round. Which is not in any way to diminish the necessity of consent – why it is so important should be very obvious just at the moment – but to argue that it is not sufficient. It’s presence, even in its most robust form, merely demonstrates that you are not committing an assault, and we should all be aiming to clear a much higher ethical bar than that. There are ways to harm people other than violence, and before we have relations with someone, we are honour bound to check we are not about to perpetrate any of them.

Friedersdorf acknowledges that his guideline does not generally produce definitive answers:

I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers…

Nonetheless, I would suggest that thinking this way does lead to at least one blanket prohibition. I cannot see a way that it allows for casual relationships. Which is not to say all such relationships are harmful. However, it seems to me, that you cannot know if you are going to harm someone, without first knowing them pretty well. Something to ponder perhaps?

 

The Pope’s lessons in how to judge people

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I’ve done a couple of posts lately on Christian sexual ethics. I’ve argued that conservatives overemphasise them and draw the wrong conclusions from the bible; while liberals unduly neglect them. So I thought I would be remiss not to mention what Pope Francis has said recently on the subject.

His holiness has given a long and widely reported interview with a Jesuit magazine. I’ve waded through all 12,000 words of the English translation provided by an American Catholic magazine. Much of it seems rather esoteric to someone not initiated into the history of Jesuit order. However, amongst the clerical arcana are some profound passages.

What struck me is not that he has come up a convincing standard for sexual morality. He explains that the “teaching of the church…is clear and I am a son of the church”, which means sticking with the flawed doctrine that abortion, homosexuality and contraception are sins.  The interesting part comes when he talks about how to apply these rules.

The question of judgement is a difficult one for Christians. Doing so offends injunctions to humility by implying we are pure enough to call out others. Not doing it, leaves us unable to speak about morality. Pope Francis seems to have an instructive attitude to how to treat those on who it is necessary to pass judgement on.

For a start, he emphasises that morality has many facets. He warns against allowing the core message of salvation to be obscured by “the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently” and that the Church does not need to talk about sexual morality “all the time.” Recognising that there are many parts to morality allows Francis to conclude that someone falling short in one aspect does not make them a total moral failure – hence he can acknowledge the existence of gay people of ‘good will…in search of God.”

Most significantly, however, is Francis’ affirmation of the humanity of gay people:

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.

This is a timely reminder to all Christians of that central message of salvation. That someone sins does not mean god stops loving them nor does it give any human the right to hate them.

I realise that for the many people who’ve been damaged by the Catholic Church’s retrograde teachings on sex and relationships, the Pope acknowledging that they are human will seem like a rather puny gesture. I think that’s their right and that they are probably right to see it that way. However, for me while I disagree with what Francis thinks is wrong, I find his attitude to those he thinks have done wrong to be worthy of praise. I would be a better person if I could adopt it.