Sexuality and the Christian Body, Part 1: “Contrary to Nature” (by Richard Beck)


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
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Within about four minutes of announcing our yearlong series on Sexuality & the Church, I realized I was in over my head. You just don’t realize how many books there are to read, angles to take, and people to interview until you’ve gone and committed to yourself to exploring a multi-faceted, hot-button issue like this one. 

So I emailed Richard Beck (and some others writers I respect) and asked for help. Richard’s blog, Experimental Theology, consistently falls into my personal Top 5 list and I can’t recommend it enough. Richard is a psychologist, and so his reflections on theology, the Bible, church, community, and spirituality always include some new angle I never considered before. (For example, recently he’s been discussing “the impossibility of Calvinistic Christian psychotherapy!”) I  had the privilege of meeting Richard and his awesome wife Janna when I visited Abilene Christian University a few years ago. Richard is Professor and Department Chair of Psychology there. He and Jana have two sons, Brenden and Aidan. Richard's area of interest--be it research, writing, or blogging--is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. Richard's published research covers topics as diverse as the psychology of profanity to why Christian bookstore art is so bad. His books include Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality and The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience

Last year, Richard posted a review and some reflections on Sexuality and the Christian Body by Eugene Rogers—a book that has been recommended to me for the series, but which I just haven’t found the time to read. (Also, it costs 40 bucks.) Richard did such a good job discussing it on his blog, I asked if I could repost Part 1 of his reflections here. (You can read Part 2 over at Experimental Theology.) I hope you learn as much as I did. 

Sexuality and the Christian Body, Part 1: “Contrary to Nature”

by Richard Beck 

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Recently, I finished Eugene Rogers' book Sexuality and the Christian Body. I thought I'd devote a few posts to some of the main ideas in the book for any who are interested.

The book is a theological argument advocating for the inclusion of same-sex marriages into the Christian communion. Consequently, I don't expect everyone to agree with Rogers' argument. Regardless, what I found encouraging in Sexuality and the Christian Body was a vision of marriage that inspired me in my own marriage to Jana. More, Rogers offers a view of marriage that also lifts up singleness and celibacy. In short, regardless as to what you think about Rogers' views on same-sex marriage, his theological treatment of marriage is, from a theological perspective, very inspiring. Or at least I found it so.

A key notion in Rogers' book is that the vast majority of Christians need to recover their identity as Gentiles. This is important for a few different reasons. First, this recovery highlights the fact that we are not "by nature" children of God. We've been chosen and adopted. In the language of Paul we've been "grafted into" the tree of Israel. Second, this action of God, grafting in the Gentiles, highlights how the grace and election of God determines the people of God. We are not God's children because of nature. We are God's children because of election. This places election at the center of Christian notions of marriage (and celibacy) rather than a Darwinian focus on procreation. Marriage is grace, not biology. Finally, a recovery of our identity as Gentiles helps us understand why God's actions toward the Gentiles was such a shock and offense to the Jews (both Christian and non-Christian). Importantly, this shock was very much focused on issues of holiness and morality.

Early in the book Rogers has us consider what he calls "the standard argument." The argument is standard because it has been used throughout history, at various times and places, to argue for the moral inferiority of a marginalized class of people. Gender and race have been common targets. And a common example of this moral inferiority is evidence of sexual licentiousness. Thus, in the Middle East today we see the standard argument applied to women. Women are sexually promiscuous and, thus, require a variety of social restraints to keep them in check. This is also why women are blamed for adultery. The woman's lust for the married man causes him to falter. A woman is a Jezebel, a temptress.

The standard argument was also applied to blacks in the American South during slavery and segregation. In particular, the black male had a voracious sexual appetite for white women. And blacks generally were considered to be more promiscuous than whites.

In both cases we see how immorality generally, and sexual licentiousness in particular, get attributed to natural kinds (e.g., race, gender). In the Old and New Testaments this same reasoning was applied to the Gentiles. As a natural kind the Gentiles were considered to be naturally prone to immorality and sexual deviance. Paul gives us the standard Jewish view of the morality of Gentiles in Romans 1:

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

The important thing to note in this passage is that this is a description of the Gentiles as a natural kind. They are naturally depraved and deviant. Consequently, they engage in acts that are "contrary to nature." In all this we see another example of the standard argument, an argument that has been applied to all sorts of despised groups. Women. Blacks. Jews. And homosexuals in our time. What is important to note in all this is that it's not just that Gentiles do unnatural things. It is, rather, that they are morally inferior by nature.

This understanding helps us recover the moral shock of God's excessive grace in Galatians 3.28:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

We tend to read this passage as a condemnation of slavery and as a call for egalitarian gender relations. No doubt that is a part of the story. But what Rogers argues is that what we are seeing in Gal. 3.28 is a fusion of natural kinds. More, we are seeing a fusion of the morally inferior with the morally superior. In the 1st Century slaves, women and Gentiles were all considered to be morally inferior to the highest natural kind: The male Jew. For example, each group was characterized by the sexual perversions we've seen Paul describe in Romans 1.

So what we are witnessing in Gal. 3:28 is something really quite shocking. Galatians 3:28 isn't about slavery or gender relations. It's about morality and holiness. More, it's about God's fusion in Jesus Christ of natural kinds, kinds that were believed to represent either holiness or depravity.

And the shock of God's actions goes even deeper. Later in Romans the phrase para phusin ("contrary to nature") reemerges. Only this time it is applied not to homosexuality but to God! In Romans 11.24 Paul describes the action of God in grafting in the Gentiles to the tree of Israel (the vision of Galatians 3.28):

 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

Does Paul know what he's doing here? Is he intentionally pulling para phusin from Romans 1 to make a parallel to God's grace in Jesus Christ? The Gentiles behave "unnaturally" and God, in his grace, does something just as "unnatural," he overrides the category of natural moral kinds to create one body in Christ. Surely the readers of Romans would have heard the overtones between Romans 1 and Romans 11, that their biases about what is "natural" or "unnatural" have been unnaturally reconfigured in the Kingdom of God.

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How does Paul's argument apply to the case of modern day homosexuality? Rogers is clear that Paul is not offering his arguments in Romans to legitimize same-sex unions in the church. But what he does argue for is that Paul's arguments in Romans 1, Romans 11 and Galatians 3 are broadly isomorphic with the arguments offered to exclude same-sex unions from the church. That the arguments being made by the Jews to exclude the Gentiles are the same arguments being used to exclude same-sex couples from the life of the church.

In light of this, what we see in Paul is how the grace of God undermines the standard argument, an argument that there are kinds of people who are, by nature, morally inferior. And that these morally inferior natures cannot be "grafted into" in the church.

This is by no means the end of the discussion, but it does suggest that God does some very strange things when it comes to "nature." In fact, God himself often acts "contrary to nature" to erase our judgments about what is or is not natural or unnatural. This suggests that in the same-sex union debates we may have to rethink "nature" in light of God's election. God has chosen the Gentiles, by nature sexually deviant in the eyes of the Jews, and has grafted them into the tree of Israel. God overrides the standard argument in the minds of the Jews and, in doing so, also acts "contrary to nature." Such actions on the part of God should give us moderns pause when we reason about "nature" in the same-sex attraction debates.

How can you be certain of what is natural or unnatural worshiping a God who acts para phusin?

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Leave a comment with your thoughts if you like, and then be sure to jump over to Richard’s blog for Part 2: “Grace and Election.”

You might also like Richard’s previous guest post, “A Non-Zero-Sum Conversation Between the Traditional Church and the Gay Community

Check out the rest of our Sexuality & The Church series here. 

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