Sexuality and the Christian Body, Part 2: “Grace & Election” (by Richard Beck)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Wedding rings' photo (c) 2005, State Farm - license:

A couple of week’s ago, I shared Part 1 of our friend Richard Beck’s thoughts on the book, Sexuality and the Christian Body by Eugene Rogers. Richard has graciously allowed me to share Part 2 (which originally ran on his blog) today, and I am so grateful. Really. Richard has been incredibly generous to share these posts in their entirety with us. (You may want to thank him next time you're on his blog.

As an aside, I hope this post will also inspire you to check out Rowan Williams’ important essay The Body’s Grace. I’ve been told on multiple occasions that we can’t have a series on Sexuality & The Church without discussing that essay, which is exactly what Richard does here, in the context of Rogers’ book. 

For those who feel a bit overwhelmed by reading two deep theology posts, Richard has distilled much of the theological content in a compare and contrast format in a post on his blog entitled “Same Sex Marriage in the Image of God? There he presents both sides of the debate clearly, simply, and charitably.

Sexuality and the Christian Body, Part 2: “Grace & Election”

by Richard Beck 


A second major theme in Eugene Rogers' book Sexuality and the Christian Body is his interaction with and elaboration upon Rowan Williams' essay The Body's Grace. If you've not read The Body's Grace many consider it to be the most significant theological treatment of human sexuality in the 20th Century. You can decide that for yourself. Regardless, agree or not, The Body's Grace is considered required reading for theology students taking up the subject of human sexuality. So, before getting back to Rogers it might be helpful to sketch out some of the main moves inThe Body's Grace.

Williams opens the essay with the question: "Why does sex matter?" One part of the answer is negative: Sex matters because it is where our personhood is most exposed and vulnerable. This makes sex both tragic and comic:

 Nothing will stop sex being tragic and comic. It is above all the area of our lives where we can be rejected in our body entirety, where we can venture into the "exposed spontaneity" that Nagel talks about and find ourselves looking foolish or even repellent, so that the perception of ourselves we are offered is negating and damaging (homosexuals, I think, know rather a lot about this). And it is also where the awful incongruity of our situation can break through as comedy, even farce...
[Sex] is potentially farcical--no less for being on the edge of pain.

The reason sex can be so painful and tragic is that we expose ourselves to the perceptions of another. And this exposure carries great risk, psychically and spiritually. Consequently, we may choose to remove our sexuality from the communal sphere where there is so much risk, vulnerability, and exposure. Sex, then, becomes solitary and non-relational. Williams suggests that this retreat into isolation, removing sex from the perceptions of others, may be the best theological definition of sexual perversion:

 "Sexual "perversion" is sexual activity without risk, without the dangerous acknowledgement that my joy depends on someone else's, as theirs does on mine. Distorted sexuality is the effort to bring my happiness back under my control and to refuse to let my body be recreated by anther person's perception. And this is, in effect, to withdraw my body from the enterprise of human beings making sense in collaboration, in community, withholding my body from language, culture, and politics."

In light of this, healthy sexuality is allowing my personhood to be shaped by the perceptions of others. Sex is to enter into a communal space where there is giving and receiving, a mutuality, a sharing of selves and perceptions. This is why sex matters. It is a location where we discover our humanity through our being with others. Williams writes:

 "I can only fully discover the body's grace by taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. Such things are learned in the fabric of a whole relation of converse and cooperation; yet of course the more time taken the longer a kind of risk endures. There is more to expose, and a sustaining of the will to let oneself be formed by the perceptions of another. Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perceptions of another."

I'd like to grab a part of Rogers' argument at this point. What Williams is suggesting is that human sexuality is akin to a spiritual discipline. More, Rogers suggests that human sexuality is a form of monasticism, of living in close community, exposing our bodies and personhood to the perceptions of others and allowing those perceptions to affect and shape us. In both monasticism and marriage there is a "mutual kenosis," a shared self-emptying. Here is Rogers on this point:

 "Marriage, like monasticism, allows eros and the body to mean more...[M]arriage shares with celibacy the end of sanctifying the whole person through the body, of permitting the body something more to be about, something further to mean, something better to desire, until finally it gets taken up into the life in which God loves God. In this process of desiring ever more, one incidentally or intentionally gives up--lets go of, gets rid of--the petty things that one used to want, and in that way the life of ever-greater desire is one of asceticism, and asceticism in which self-control serves self-abandonment. In this way too the end of marriage and monasticism is one."

This might seem to be an odd claim, that sexuality and celibacy are two sides of the same coin. That eros can be a form of asceticism. But if you've ever been married and have tried to "work out" life in the sexual sphere I'm sure you can understand. Rogers' description of mutual kenosis is very apt. More from Rogers describing the relationship between eros and agape:

 Both these forms of community--monasticism and marriage--require time to complete the transformation of human beings by the perceptions of an other. Both the married and the monastic need somebody who loves them to call them on their faults from whom they cannot easily escape. The transformation is not only, or even primarily, the experience of falling in love (eros), but that is the intensity and the clue to the importance of something else: the experience of living with someone, the neighbor, who won't leave one alone (agape).

This view of human sexuality fits very comfortably with scripture. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians: "The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife."

Our bodies are not our own. They are "community property." I share my body with my wife. And it doesn't end there. My body belongs to the community of faith. I don't wholly control my own time, money, efforts, or talent. The community has a claim on me. Ultimately, because these loves--for my wife and for the world--are simply reflections of my love for God. As Paul writes: "You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body."

Monks are "not their own." And neither are the married. As Rogers notes, monks learn this lesson directly: By giving up eros for the love of God (agape). The married discover this more indirectly: Eros demands that I make my body available to the other (agape). But the lesson is the same: You are not your own.

Now all this talk about discipline, kenosis, monasticism and asceticism might sound kind of dreary. But this is where the language of grace comes in. As both Rogers and Williams note, marriage doesn't make any sense, theologically, without the pre-existent language of grace. Love, sex, marriage, friendship. These only mean what they mean because of God's grace. So what is grace? Williams offers this vision:

 Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.

The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ's body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God's giving that God's self makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this, so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.
The life of the Christian community has as its rationale--if not invariably its practical reality--the task of teaching us to so order our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.

I mentioned in Part 1 that I found Rogers' book a wonderful read in relation to my own marriage. A part of that was Rogers reminding me of Williams' account of grace, of finding myself in my marriage to be "an occasion of joy." True, it's not always like that, but if you've ever experienced grace you know the feeling. Just think of the last time--whether with friends or family--where you, in your personhood, were greeted and experienced as an occasion of joy. That feeling is grace. And the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is aimed at teaching us this: That is how God feels about you. You are God's occasion of joy.

As physical creatures, we tend to experience this grace in the presence of others. And that is what I was talking about above. These human experiences--love, laughter, sex, friendship--only make sense in light of God's grace. God's grace animates these experiences, we know ourselves to be loved by God through these experiences.

And this is where the body's grace comes in. Can my physical body be experienced as "an occasion of joy" by another? And for myself? Again, recall how risky sex can be. Can grace be experienced here, in the physical sphere, where I am maximally exposed--physically, emotionally, spiritually?

Yes it can, but again, this grace must participate in the life of the Trinity. There must be mutuality and communion. And when this mutual kenosis is present, Williams writes, we find in sexuality an experience of grace, the body's grace:

" For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. And that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body.

In this, sex might be the quintessential form of spirituality: Eros (desire) can only be experienced by agape (self-sacrifice). True love is only experienced when my joy is achieved by surrendering to your joy. In this, the sexual union models the life of the Trinity. The love of the Son is given to the Father and the Father gives it back to the Son through the Spirit. Each empties into the other, an eternal flow of self-emptying love--back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The tides of kenosis and love. Gifts given and received--back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Father, Son and Spirit finding each other to be occasions of joy.

This, then, is a sketch of Williams' essay The Body's Grace. And what it provides us with is a vision of how sexual love reflects the Imago Dei. Sex of this nature is holy, a participation in the Triune life of God. In his book, Rogers takes this Trinitarian vision of human sexuality and then folds it into a theological account of marriage.

We might say that a part of what Rogers is doing is asking a question similar to the one Williams asked. Where Williams asks, "Why does sex matter?" Rogers is asking "Why does marriage matter?"

Rogers' answer also follows the path of grace. Marriage is an experience of grace, of being found to be an occasion of joy. And as with sex, this marital grace can only make sense if a pre-existing language of grace precedes it. God's marriage to his people is what makes sense of human marriage.

So how does the bible describe the grace found in "God's marriage"?

Rogers argues that it is fundamentally described as a matter of election. God's grace is experienced in God's own choosing of a people. God chooses Israel to be his bride. And in this choice Israel is found to be an occasion of joy. Israel experiences God's grace.

In short, what makes marriage a reflection of God's nature is that it models God's election:  I choose you.

And again, this is where my own biography wells up. Jana and I have a little exchange we share when we are experiencing grace in our marriage. I say, "Thanks for saying 'yes.'" And she responds, "Thanks for asking." We experience grace because it is an occasion of joy to be chosen. To be selected. And this grace is not just for the married. We experience the grace of God's election whenever we are chosen to be an occasion for joy, by friends and family. As Williams describes, this is grace because we feel desiredand wanted.

Marriage, then, reflects the nature of God in that it participates in (incarnates) God's election and marriage to Israel. This is the grace of marriage: I choose you.

If this is so we can see why procreation isn't what makes marriage a marriage, theologically speaking. No doubt reproduction is a part of human sex. But marriage? Marriage is about God's election of Israel. As Rogers notes, it would be sort of odd to model Christian marriage after Adam and Eve. Do we really want marriage modeled after those two? Ummmm. No.

So Adam and Eve aren't the model for marriage. No, God and Israel are the model for Christian marriage.

And that marriage is one of election and covenant faithfulness. And, interestingly, the best biblical example of this faithfulness, read aloud in countless marriage services, is Ruth's pledge to Naomi:

 Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.

The fact that we use this pledge for marital covenants (!) highlights that this is what marriage is about. God's election and covenant faithfulness--incarnated in Ruth's pledge to Naomi--is what makes a marriage a marriage.

More, as noted in my last post, if we recover our identity as Gentiles (as Rogers insists) we soon realize that we are not a part of this marriage. God married Israel, not us. Yahweh is not our God. Yahweh is Israel's God. So, as Paul helps us see, we have to be adopted into this family. And "in Christ" we are adopted. We are "grafted in."

This identity as "adopted children" puts further strain on attempts to place reproduction at the center of Christian marriage. We are not God's "children of the flesh." We are not circumcised. We've been adopted through baptism. And what this again highlights is God's election. His choosing us. What makes us family isn't DNA but the free choice of God. Also known as grace. And this is how family is understood in the church: We are not biological relatives, but we are all "family" through God's choosing us in Christ.

And according to Rogers this understanding goes a long way in explaining why "non-standard" families can be full reflections of the Imago Dei: Sterile couples, step-families, adopted children, gay marriages, etc. These are all marriages and families that reflect the life of God. They are not incomplete or failures. They fully reflect the Imago Dei. Why? Because they model God's marriage to Israel, God's election: 

I choose you.

And that is an occasion of joy.


Be sure to check out “Same Sex Marriage In the Image of God?”  over at Richard's place and the rest of our Sexuality & The Church series here. 

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

Go subscribe to Richard’s blog now. You will thank me later. 


End of article logo.

Shareable Permalink

© 2013 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites without written permission is prohibited.
Read more in the category: Sexuality