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

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 in The 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 desired and 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.

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

  1. Let me try again.

    The metaphor of "emptying oneself" in sexual intercourse is strongly evocative - intentionally so - of the biological event known as ejaculation. Other forms of "emptying" are also present, but they are metaphorical, not concrete.

    In rejecting the most elementary biological attributes of sex as having any relevance, Williams and Rogers (and by extension, you, although I don't wish to make it personal) cut the kenosis metaphor off from its referent, ejaculation. They appear to do so because to admit biology a place at the table is to complicate their argument. But they want to use the metaphorical implications of ejaculation anyway, because it lends such powerful force to the rest of their argument. So it looks like going a-whoring, using a metaphor to gratify the authors' intellectual desires but denying the importance of the underlying biological reality, ejaculation, that gives the metaphor its potency.

    This has nothing to do with you and Jana, "kenotic sex," or anything like that. It has to do with rhetoric. Biology, which provides so much of the substance from which spiritual metaphors derive their evocative and rhetorical power, is simply used as a rhetorical whore.


  2. In retrospect, I was terribly remiss in not first thanking you for your kind prologue. So: thanks. And: please forgive my hastiness.


  3. Okay, but you'd be the only person I know of who makes the claim that the "concrete referent" of kenosis is ejaculation. Are you suggesting that in the song of Philippians 2 that when Jesus "empties" (kenosis) himself to become a servant we are to understand that the concrete referent of this metaphor is ejaculation? That Jesus ejaculates himself into servanthood?

    Plus, when you force this line of argument you end up with a male-centered view of sex (a common mistake amongst us males). If the concrete referent is ejaculation why are you privileging the male orgasm?

    In short, I find this whole line of criticism to be hopelessly muddled and confused.

  4. Richard, please give me an example of anything physical that goes on in the realm of sexual intercourse that constitutes "emptying" other than ejaculation.

    I am not making any claims about "kenosis" beyond the sexual act that forms the context of this whole kit and kaboodle, so as to your question about Philippians 2, qb simply answers: no, I'm not suggesting that.

    There is no unbalanced privilege of the male except that which is implied by the physical reality of "emptying into." For every "emptying into" there is a "willful receiving."

    Electricians understand it; surely theologians can grasp it as well. Until positive comes into range of negative - with no value or human-worth connotations implied by either - no current flows.

    Biologically, that's the way it works. And then we get to the question of female privilege, such as it is, because - news flash! - men don't get to bear the fruit of conception.

    qb is not privileging the male orgasm. But men do not receive, they deliver, as far as the biology of zygote production is concerned.

    It's not an argument, anyway; it's just a bloody observation that, in terms of their rhetoric, Williams and Rogers are johns cruising for a quickie with biology but not wanting to make any long-term commitments to her.


  5. Let me try as hard as I can to summarize what I think you are saying:

    You want to keep biological reproduction firmly in view. Not central, but a major player. So when Rogers and Williams discuss "kenosis" they play with the idea of "emptying" which strongly suggests, metaphorically, male ejaculation into the female. But this is the very thing Rogers and Williams are trying to marginalize in their descriptions of kenostic sex, suggesting that sex is more than reproduction. This seem slippery to you. They are conjuring up notions of reproduction, through the image of "emptying," when no real "emptying" (reproductively speaking) is going on. They are, in this, having their cake (using language of emptying) and eating it to (denying the biological role of emptying).

    Is that what you are saying?

  6. qb does not subscribe to the premise that homosexuality is innate, inevitable, or inexorable.

    qb, with all due respect, with this statement you've changed the discussion from one of theology to one of science. That is, you are making a statement that can be (and has been) tested against observable reality.

    It is not a premise, it is a conclusion based on evidence.

  7. Okay. *offers agreeable handshake*

    And you're certainly correct that a lot of implications stem from one's views on the nature of homosexuality itself--and so as a final thought (and to come full circle by referencing one of Richard's earlier posts), I suggest that continued discernment on that topic is highly important indeed.

  8. God's purposes? I count only one, i.e., to be glorified by His creation. His plan to accomplish this purpose does indeed include election of the likes of us.

  9. qb seriously doubts he's the first or the only one to draw this link. I'm almost certain we'll find it amply explored in the literary line from Augustine of Hippo to George Herbert. Is it really such a novel idea? Yagottabekiddin' me. qb

  10. Don't appreciate the disrespect qb. I've engaged with you respectfully and in good faith despite at this point you having used a lot of words to say nothing of substance, and various things that are ridiculous.

  11. Tim, for the record, I was asked a direct question: "what shall we do with same-sex attraction?" So I'm not the one who changed the discussion. I answered the question on the basis of the premises that I find compelling, and if it's a crime to appeal to science for those premises, then I gladly plead guilty.

    You are, of course, free to take this question up with Dr. Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project. I'm happy to defer to him. The difference between a "predisposition" and a "predetermination" is, precisely, the inexorability of the latter. So qb stands by his premise. Cheers, qb

  12. Well, that's Robinson's piont, too: continued "discernment," with all of the relevant data being considered. Cheers to you, qb

  13. How is discussion of election of all things not most importantly a discussion of God's purposes? The doctrine of election declares exactly what God's purposes are - God says "I will be your God and you will be my people." "I will be your father and you will be my children." You can't get too much more core to God's purpose than that.

  14. Aric, even granting all that - and qb has granted all of it, whether you realize it or not - you have not addressed the question of God's *purposes* as illuminated by the biology-spirituality dialectic. In fact, you present biology as an "utterly irrelevant" distraction, not a dialectical partner in the conversation.


    This corner of the blogosphere makes much of its insistence on dialectical understandings of this or that. Except in this case. Why is that?


  15. Fair dinkum. What I meant, but should have stated more clearly, was that "reproduction" includes both the biological act of spawning AND the religious (*cough*) or spiritual act of bringing others to discipleship by engaging their minds and hearts with good news. Some will not be able to do the one, others the other; and God's mercy upon all.

    qb does not subscribe to the premise that homosexuality is innate, inevitable, or inexorable. A lot of implications flow from that, but I take it that we don't share that premise, so there's not much piont in pursuing the implications.

    In any case, if we can at least agree that, when we ask our Judeo-Christian scriptures to enlighten us about God's eternal purposes, the accounts of Genesis (as well as the biological realities that persist today from those headwaters) must be granted their due, then that is all qb has been asking. It is dangerous to Williams' preferred conclusions, and to yours and others', but at least it is more honest than simply pretending, as Aric does, that there has never been a biological dimension to the creation mandate and the covenant heritage recorded in Genesis.


  16. qb, Adrenelin Tim, others,

    As regards to homosexual “nature” (or predetermination or even predisposition), I don’t think all the evidence is in. Though historically it was believed that the evidence was in, Catherine and not Henry VIII, was “naturally” shamed, blamed, and considered biologically responsible—like all women—for the sex of the child. Likewise, women were “by nature” shamed for infertility, not men. Personally, I prefer to reserve judgment about the biology of homosexuality and, as best as I can, err on the side of grace and liberality.

    Consider this thought experiment and the inferences we might draw: would we deny marriage and sexual activity to a male and female whom we knew beforehand could not beget and bear a child? They could, of course, adopt if they wanted to have children. Would we deny same-sex marriage and sexual activity to two males or two females who would not be able to beget and bear a child? Would we prohibit adoption? I would assume lifelong covenants and with sexual activity inside and abstinence outside the covenantal commitment.


  17. I strongly second the point about the male bias here. If we're going to talk about the "elementary biological attributes of sex", how about taking into account the fact that the clitoris, not the vagina, produces the most pleasurable sexual sensations for females. Orgasm is just as physical and real as are pregnancy and childbirth, and just as legitimate and a purpose for sexual activity. No "artificial" barriers are necessary to prevent pregnancy if the ejaculation takes place outside of a vagina to begin with.

    More than that, I think holding up ejaculation as some sort of exemplar of biblical kenosis is really problematic. Theologically, kenosis is about voluntarily giving up power. But ejaculation and penetration in our culture and in Western culture for as far back as I know of are vested with a symbolism that is the exact opposite of that. Thus we call weapons "phallic symbols". We see fellatio as a degrading thing--students at Texas A&M walk around wearing T shirts that say, "Baylor sucks. t.u. swallows". I hear it's trendy in porn these days to feature men ejaculating onto the faces of women.

    Not that penis-in-vagina sex is unredeemable. We can speak not of penetration, but of the vagina "engulfing" the penis. We can perhaps learn to see ejaculation as something other than an invasion (albeit a welcome one). But this is difficult, and takes effort and awareness, and I'm not sure it can ever be completely achieved when talking about PIV sex in the abstract instead of contextualized in a particular relationship with its particular power dynamics. So ultimately what I'm afraid of here is a conflation of altruistic self-sacrifice with patronizing domination.

    Oh, and here's another physical reality -- that this "kenosis" on the man's part takes nothing from him that he needs, but PIV sex of the sort that leads to childbirth carries great risks for the woman of disease and death. Or would if it weren't for birth control and modern medicine. So who's really being "emptied" here?

  18. We've been too free with our terminology, probably. I agree that we are embodied, carnal, beings, and that our biology can't be excluded from any conversation. It shapes everything to a degree. I do not dispute that in marriage two people give themselves body and soul to each other. Nor is kenosis a bloodless term either. It means self-sacrifice which quite often includes physical suffering.

    What is more precisely at issue here is not biology or matter or physicality itself, but just procreation. Are our bodies important in marriage? Yes. Is procreation appropriately included in a definition of marriage? No. Because marriages can and do exist that fulfill all of what is important to a marriage without any procreation being either possible or chosen. The basis of a marriage is other - it is our choice to be for another person uniquely and continually. That unavoidably includes our embodied self, but does not necessarily include procreation.

  19. Richard, qb, Aric, castelrook (in light of this discussion, mate anyone?),

    What am I missing in your exchange? It seems to me that if the Incarnation means anything at all, it means that biology, i.e. the embodied (including procreation) cannot be excluded from any theological teaching, including marriage. Both the 1662 and 1928 Book of Common Prayer (Solemnization of Matromony) states it eloquently: "WITH this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." (1662) "WITH this ring I thee wed; with my body I thee honour; and all my worldly goods with thee share; In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." (1928) Otherwise: docetism. Otherwise: "be ye warmed and filled."

    When I work with my addicted Veterans, I remind them that they promise to honor their bodies with their promises. Their addiction is complex but it is embodied, and what gives them power over it is embodied choice.

    As to kenosis: St. Paul's use of the term is followed by an incarnated story about God's agape. A story most "unnatural." Yet, a flesh and blood story about a God that through and in the lowly, disreputable, even criminal, body of a slave chooses and asks us to be his bride. A story too good to be true.

    Question for qb: do electricians ejaculate or discharge?


  20. You know, if you'd just replace "the only way we can ... pursue that commission" with "One important way we can ... pursue that commission" then I would have no disagreement with you. Why is biological reproduction the only way? Especially since, again, the planet is full of people currently outside the kingdom with whom we can share the love of Christ?

    I'm curious: in your view, what should a gay Christian do? Must he go against his nature and live as a heterosexual in order to fulfill God's commandment?

    My thoughts keep returning to the example of circumcision, and to your apt assertion that while the heart trumps the junk, the junk still matters. Indeed. Biological reproduction matters, and it will still matter if we assign a greater value to Love. Welcoming the uncircumcised into the covenant did not cheapen circumcision, and neither should affirming gay marriage cheapen traditional heterosexual marriage.

    Oh, and you're welcome. :)

  21. qb,

    "It appears that most here believe, as you do, that the biological imperatives have not only been exceeded but abolished."

    I don't know what most here believe, but I don't believe there ever were any biological imperatives. As I attempted to point out above repeatedly and dramatically in both the Old Testament and the New Testament God pays no attention to heritage or genetics, but picks the youngest sons, goes outside the tribe, and intentionally subverts any expectation that geneology is destiny. In all of scripture it is God's choice which is adamantly free that is determining. God can raise sons of Abraham from the rocks.

    Genesis 1 is poetic etiology. It describes the human condition as the writers understood it, but it is not law, and it is a theme that elsewhere is frequently downplayed, subverted, or outright contradicted.

    "To BEGIN to answer that question, qb asked whether or not the NT makes use of a biological language for any of its central themes. And that's all the first movement of qb's post was trying to do."

    Fair enough, but as I pointed out the examples you cited undermine your point precisely because they are employing procreation as a metaphor in circumstances that have nothing to do with procreation. The New Testament writers clearly were reading aspects of the Old Testament that you would claim are part of some biological imperative and not understanding it that way at all. They saw instead metaphors for virtuous behavior.

    Arguing that because a metaphor's concrete or original referent is "sex" means that we have to include biology in our definition of marriage is not very persuasive. It is like saying because the metaphor of a "rock" is employed several times to describe Jesus, or because weather is sometimes used as a metaphor for God that we have to include geology and meteorology in our definition of the godhead. You stretch the purpose of a metaphor beyond recognition when you do that.

    "The post claims that the theme of election supplants and excludes any consideration of biology, not that it is merely superior."

    Ok. If you say so. It is more modest than you make out because no one disputes that biology has a big impact on our lives. The question is merely whether biology belongs anywhere in a definition of marriage. I agree strongly with Rogers and Beck here who say that election is the key Biblical theme which helps us define marriage and election emphatically overrides biological concerns. Excluding biology from the definition of marriage does not prevent us from recognizing that it can have a powerful impact on a marriage the same way that debt, and the laws of physics, and cultural upbringing and many other factors can have an impact on a marriage without being part of the definition of what a marriage is. That is all.

  22. Wow. I'm pretty sure kenosis doesn't have anything to do with ejaculation. It didn't begin its life as a metaphor for sex. Its "concrete referent" is sacrificing status or humiliation. It is about lowering oneself beneath your rightful station to serve others. As applied to sex it means to put the desires and needs of your partner ahead of your own.

    I can think of several concrete possible interpretations of "emptying" besides ejaculation that would apply to sex and importantly apply equally in the other circumstances in which kenosis is often employed as a metaphor.

    One can be emptied of selfish thoughts and preoccupations. The death of the ego which is a strong psychological interpretation of Jesus' command to lose yourself in order to gain it.

    One can be emptied of worry and pain. This points to the fact that union with one another mimics union with God in that it provides release from suffering.

    One can be emptied of compassion - by which I mean focus our compassionate energy into and for another person. This is one aspect of what it means to give one's life for a friend.

    All of these have are concrete. All of these have biblical connections stronger than "ejaculation". All of these are gender neutral and apply to much more than sex which any definition of kenosis must because it is not principally a metaphor about sex.

    I think you are stretching your argument well past bearing in order to insert procreation where it doesn't belong.

  23. Richard,

    The higher-level argument seems good, but one of the essential premises of The Body's Grace seems problematic:

    > Sexual "perversion" is sexual activity without risk, without the dangerous acknowledgement that my joy depends on someone else's, as theirs does on mine.

    The "without risk" premise leaves out "harm" as a consideration, which seems fairly central to me.

    Furthermore, I have a hard time perceiving masturbation as a sexual perversion (although perhaps not "without harm"). And based on your previous posts about the topic, it seems like you'd agree. Surely Williams says something about this?

  24. Yes, except they're NOT saying that "sex is more than reproduction;" they are rubbing reproduction out of the picture altogether. Other than that, you've got it.

    Unfortunately, the delight qb found in the observation has vanished as we've started pinning all of its now-bloodless appendages to the tray. *sigh* qb

  25. I certainly agree that all the evidence is not in. It likely never will be. But the implication that because science doesn't know everything, we can't know anything is IMO a mistake. There is strong evidence that sexual orientation has both a strong heritable element as well as environmental influences (i.e., both nature and nurture).

    Scientists don't (yet) know the exact causes of dexterity (right- or left-handedness or ambidexterity), either—but again, the evidence points to a combination genetic and environmental factors.

    Otherwise, you make good points. Looking at the biases of history (which are, of course, more easily apparent than the biases of the present), I'm pushed toward an "epistemic humility". I'm with you that in an area of uncertainty, I want to err on the side of grace.

  26. AT,

    I think it possible to stipulate with great certainty that males determine the sex of the child and that both male and female can contribute to infertility. I am not an epistemic nihilist. What factors determine or contribute to homosexuality are, in my opinion, far fuzzier than you suggest. Much of the discussion is so ideologically charged that even the best trackers of the evidence may have their conclusions biased by non-evidentiary biases.


  27. Does "erring on the side of grace" have only one possible permutation? qb can think of at least one other permutation of "grace" than the exclusive one you appear to have in mind.

    We might perhaps be more accurate to describe your gambit as "erring on the side of permissiveness."

    qb objects strenuously - though good-naturedly and cheerfully - to the implication that permissives have cornered the market on grace. If that were so, my beloved children would be in a very different world around the house!


  28. qb,

    You are really slick. Permissiveness suggests fearful, apathetic, unthinking permission, i.e. cowardly, at best, cavalier ethical irresponsibility. You know, like "soft" on crime, terrorism, and . . . well, take your pick. You are talking about "cheap" grace. Not the grace I am talking about. AT can speak for himself.

  29. I'm still scratching my head a bit. Because, yes, they are saying that kenotic sex isn't going to reduce to ejaculation. Which is something you can achieve all by yourself. If you are saying that the "concrete referent" of sex is ejaculation then all we have is a simple disagreement on what sex is "about." That's the point: In kenostic sexuality the referent of my pleasure is the pleasure of my wife. She is the "concrete referent." I don't have sex with my wife to ejaculate. I have other means at my disposal for that. I don't "use" her for that purpose. Human sex is more. If you want it to be less, then, well, okay.

  30. A metaphor without a concrete referent is no longer a metaphor but a fantasy. And it appears that these authors, in their haste to reach the desired conclusion, are hell-bent to divorce their ideas about kenosis (as a spiritual reality) from the very concrete referent of ejaculation, which in the natural order of things requires either probabilities or artificial measures to prevent conception.

    It looks like buying a prostitute's services: I want you for the rhetorical force that you provide to me, but I don't want you in your substantive self.


  31. Those who are interested in engaging Williams' essay and a thoughtful, generous-minded, and erudite critique of it may wish to entertain the contrary view presented by John P. Richardson at

    It is a direct challenge to "The Body's Grace" and its implications, many of which are directly stated in Professor Beck's post. Reading it, qb senses that he is watching Hercules and Apollo grappling as half-brothers under Zeus' watchful eye. Great reading on both sides.


  32. I can't make heads or tails of what you are talking about here. (Other than my using kenosis as a cheap whore.) Are you suggesting that kenostic sexuality ceases when my wife gets pregnant?

    That's my best guess at what you are saying.

  33. One cursory thought occurs to qb as he re-reads this wonderful post: the concrete realities are sacrificed wholesale on the altar of the metaphorical.

    When the idea of "emptying" occurs at all, the author moves swiftly to the spiritual idea of kenosis, utterly ignoring the fact that, in the natural order of things, only statistical chance or a predetermined act of the human will stands between that "emptying" and the conception of a child, a child that demands from its Creator a soul, a spirit, and ultimately a Savior and Lord. With that move, the metaphor is suddenly without referent, emptied of any concrete content that gives life and vibrancy to it.

    It is as if one wishes to have his cake and eat it, to use the act of "emptying" as if it were a cheap whore, an object of rhetorical gratification with no fidelity to the concrete substance to which the rhetoric refers, achieving a sort of intellectual gratification but having no investment whatever in the union itself. Remarkable.


  34. qb,

    First off, this was a great comment that certainly adds a lot to the discussion. (I also got quite a kick out of the bit on circumcision!)

    Some thoughts:

    First, I would suggest that God's commandment to "fill the earth and subdue it" has been pretty much fulfilled already. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we should stop reproducing or that passing on one's genetic material is wholly unimportant. But I do think that God might deem us capable of noticing both the rate of global population growth and the increasing environmental impact of our species and, as a result, make some modifications to the importance of procreation to the marriage covenant. (again, I am not suggesting that it should be done away with entirely)

    So my view is that while we certainly should honor procreation as an extraordinarily sacred event, it is no longer a necessary component of a successful marriage; hence the ability to procreate should not be a prerequisite for marriage.

  35. This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read about marriage - and perhaps the most truthful. What if we had been taught this in Sunday School or in the Church regarding sex, and why it should be reserved for marriage? What if churches now taught this view - which from a positive perspective - gives incentives for moral behavior. Wow! Homerun on this post.

  36. Thank you. I have not read Williams' book, but its apparent challenge to consider sex as a foundational human identity realm in which to consider the radical call of Grace reminds me of Capon's troubling and beautiful parable on Grace in "Between Noon and Three."

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