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Sexual Agency

"In the end, the questions and doubts that generate so many crises of faith for so many can be met by sustained and careful reflection on the premises and perspectives from which such struggles spring"

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There may be no arena where religious and secular perspectives are more at odds than in their attempt to understand the nature and meaning of human sexuality. Unsurprisingly, questions about human sexuality are often at the center of the struggle many religious individuals have as they try to reconcile their religious faith with scientific certainties and modern views of life’s purpose and drive. Unfortunately, for too many, the struggle to understand the nature of sexuality has its roots in secular soil rather than gospel sod, and leads too often to significant crises of faith.

A great deal of ink has been spilled by scholars trying to explain the modern, secular world, its origins, assumptions, and implications (see, e.g., Del Noce, 2017; Gregory, 2012; Jacob, 2019; Taylor, 1989, 2007). A key feature of our modern age that is often identified by these scholars is our propensity to explain the world and ourselves in terms of powerful abstractions. These abstractions are the controlling, hypothetical forces presumed to form the very backbone of reality, what Einstein liked to call the “hidden variables” (see, Fox & Keck, 2004) and reflecting what Williams (1990) has termed “the metaphysic of things.” For example, we often seek to understand people’s behavior in terms of hypothetical entities like introversion and extroversion, entities whose existence we infer from observation. “Why is that young man always so quiet, hesitant and awkwardly uncomfortable in social situations,” we might ask. “Well,” the answer comes quickly, “because he possesses the introversion personality type (i.e., the “shyness trait”) and it is what makes him behave that way.” Similarly, it is typical for us to think we have an explanation for the actions of outgoing, exuberant, and cheerful people when we invoke the strength (and, thus, causal power) of the extroversion trait they must possess.

In our modern world, it is commonplace to hear sexuality spoken of as a powerful abstraction, one that is capable of defining identity at its most basic level and determining the vector of our most intimate desires, attractions, and thoughts. Public discourse tends to assume, without much serious reflection, that people “have” or “possess” a “sexuality” or “sexual orientation” – a thing, most likely rooted in our biology (i.e., DNA), that is ultimately responsible for how and who we are attracted to, and why we perceive ourselves and others as we do. We are relentlessly taught in our books, movies, television, and by celebrities and others that in order to live an authentic and fulfilling life, we must discover our “sexuality,” learn to “accept” it, take opportunities to “explore” it, become “comfortable” with it, and find satisfying ways to “express” it. In fact, a great many voices assert that unless we do such things, and, in the end, given free rein to our “sexuality,” the inevitable result will be deep psychological pain and anxiety, depression, or even suicide. Indeed, this thing is known as “sexuality” is taken to be so central to our identity that it colors and controls almost everything else about us, and almost every other aspect of our lives is thought to be best understood from the lens of sexuality. Sexual identity is typically thought to be the inescapable and founding context for understanding all interpersonal and political relationships.

Almost inevitably, contemporary notions about the fixed nature of sexual desire, same-sex attraction, marriage, and transgenderism can facilitate a faith crisis. Thus, it is not surprising to find many people struggling to understand the teachings and policies of their religious institutions and traditions regarding sexual intimacy and marriage, especially when those teaching and policies seem to contradict two basic, unarguable scientific truths: sexuality is identity and identity is the product of powerful abstractions. In our modern, secular world it is increasingly taken to be the case that one’s sexual orientation constitutes who and what one is. And, because of the central role this abstraction is thought to play in who we are and can be, any kind of limiting or constraining of expression of it is held to be inherently oppressive and spiritually destructive. For some, any possible prohibitions against personally desired expressions of one’s sexuality are seen as intrinsically and manifestly unfair and unjust.

However, as my colleague Jeffrey Thayne and I have argued in our recent book, Who is Truth?  Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith, our modern fascination with powerful, hypothetical abstractions like sexuality is largely a legacy of our Greek intellectual heritage, and not a feature of the Hebrew worldview we find articulated most fully in scripture. In contrast to abstractionism, the scriptural or Hebrew worldview is one in which “truth is not a set of abstract ideas, but a living, breathing Person who loves us as His children” (Thayne & Gantt, 2019, p. 3). The focus in such a perspective is fundamentally on the dynamic and relational, on the unfolding of contextual meaning in the vibrant ongoing activities of daily life and experience, rather than on pre-given, static, unembodied, timeless, and impersonal abstractions. In this alternate, pre-modern (pre-secular) worldview, such things as moral depth, meaningful agency, and divine activity are understood to be the very warp and woof of reality, rather than mere “add-ons” to a reality posited by one’s religious belief system – add-ons meant to provide some sort of psychological or emotional comfort in the face of meaninglessness in a cold, mechanical universe. Ironically, from this alternative view trusting in abstractions as an ultimate source of truth is itself, a particular belief system, one that functions in much the same way a belief in a divine power that gives structure or meaning to life and the universe does. Both require a sense of belief, faith, or fundamental grounding assumption. For this analysis, the meaning of human sexuality can be boiled down to a competition between these two basic worldviews: traditional religious doctrines and practices, on the one hand, and modern scientific and popular consensus, on the other.

From a pre-modern, Hebraic or scriptural point of view, something as sacred and intimately relevant to our lives as sexuality is not best understood in terms of powerful, impersonal or causal abstractions, as it is commonly described in a secular perspective. Rather, this alternative view argues that it is more helpful to think of human sexuality in terms of events and relationships; that is, as particular acts of sexual intimacy in specific contexts of sexual desire, meaning, and responsibility for and with particular people. In such an approach, the determinants of one’s sexual identity is not the issue at stake, rather what is of paramount importance is sexual agency and the moral context of relationships in which it finds meaningful expression.

It is important to understand that sexual agency is not about having the power to decide how best to obtain the sexual gratification you happen to individually desire, based on whatever sexual orientation you happen to possess – or which, perhaps more accurately, because it is a powerful abstraction, happens to possess you. Instead, a sexual agency is a matter of the way in which we, as embodied moral agents and fundamentally social beings, are situated in the relationship with Christ and our eternal brothers and sisters. Moral agency in sexual matters is manifest in the various ways in which we “give ourselves over to” and “take up” meaningful possibilities of sexual relationship and moral understanding regardless of our appetites or orientations. In other words, our sexuality as an identity has the power we choose to give it. As such, our sexual identity it is not something baked into our genes or brains, the expression of some powerful, hypothetical force or condition, but rather our own very specific way of being with others as shaped by meaningful, agentic acts and moral relationships. Perhaps we might compare this alternative view with the modernist perspective by looking at two contrasting examples from popular culture. Compare Lady Gaga, for instance, who sang “There ain’t no other way, Baby I was born this way!” with Professor Dumbledore who told the young Harry Potter, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

In this non-secular approach, sexual identity flows out of our “taking on” the meanings and moral possibilities of sexual desires and sexual possibilities as we encounter them in the moral geography of our daily lives and relationships. Identity and desire are not pushed in or pulled out of us by abstractions like drives, needs, social expectations or orientations. Rather, they are created in and through our ongoing choices as moral agents in genuinely meaningful relationships – relationships that live and breathe in an inescapable atmosphere of responsibility, obligation, and possibility. Sexuality is just who we choose to be as we connect, act, and relate to others in fundamentally and inescapably moral and meaningful ways. Remarkably, in such a view, our sexual identities and desires are no more central to our individual identity than any of the other meaningful phenomena of which our lives are made.

It should be no surprise that the alternative (Hebraic, pre-modern, or scriptural) view of sexuality, in which sexual desire is understood as active and morally agentic, has significant implications for a wide variety of human activities, including therapies, families, and even our conceptions of the good life. It also has implications for our deepest aspirations, chiefly our understanding of what it means to be a human being and to be “at-one” with one another and with Christ. Considering the arguments, assumptions, and methods of discovering truth championed by the secular scientists, it is no wonder many religious believers find themselves in a crisis of faith over issues of human sexuality. By observing this crisis in terms of a competition of worldviews, each dependent on trusting certain assumptions, we can clearly evaluate and choose what (or, I would argue, who) to put our faith in. Unless we take the assumptions of modern secularism seriously by investigating their claims and implications we will lack the ability to discern between what is merely popular and what is true.

In the end, the questions and doubts that generate so many crises of faith for so many can be met by sustained and careful reflection on the premises and perspectives from which such struggles spring. It may be the case that the assumptions and worldview that spawn such crises are in fact inadequate to the task of providing an accurate and compelling worldview or robust explanations for the way things are. However, in order for such reflection to do more than just recapitulate tried and tired assumptions and categories of thought, we must open ourselves up to alternate starting points and the different ways of thinking such alternatives entail. In so doing, we may more fully appreciate the fundamental differences between secular assumptions about powerful abstractions and scriptural assumptions about meaningful relationships. Perhaps, if we are sufficiently open to instruction, we will come to see that the living Christ, and our relationship with him and our brothers and sisters is our true foundational premise.


References

Del Noce, A. (2017). The Age of Secularization. Montreal, Quebec, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Fox, K. C., & Keck, A. (2004). Einstein:  A to Z. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Gregory, B. (2012). The Unintended Reformation:  How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jacob, M. (2019). The Secular Enlightenment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mayer, L. S., & McHugh, P. R. (2016). Sexuality and gender: Findings from the biological, psychological, and social sciences. The New Atlantis, 50 (3).

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the Self:  The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Thayne, J. L., & Gantt, E. E. (2019). Who is truth?  Reframing our questions for a richer faith. Seattle, WA: Verdand Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Williams, R. N. (1990). The metaphysic of things and discourse about them. In J. E. Faulconer and R. N. Williams (Eds.), Reconsidering psychology:  Perspectives from Continental Philosophy (pp. 136-150). Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.