What’s the Good of Sex? The Meaning of Sexuality in Traditional Christian Ethics

“It’s a funny thing that I ended up bargaining with Dr. Yonan for a chance to talk about sex. That was something I’d been avoiding talking about on this campus for about fifteen years. And then all of a sudden we were in a position where, as a campus, we had to talk about sex.” This was Dr. Phil Cary’s opening for his Honors Forum presentation on January 13, 2017. While he may have stayed out of the discussion for years, Eastern’s recent Task Force on Human Sexuality and the associated panels, lectures, and ongoing dialogue surrounding it have brought the conversation on Christianity and sexuality to the forefront at the University. What motivated Dr. Cary to enter into this conversation and give this Honors Forum lecture was a desire to represent a kind and loving position while faithfully representing the Christian theological-ethical tradition, and to discuss why that tradition says what it says about sex.

Dr. Cary remarked that traditional Christian teaching on sex originates from the understanding of sexuality as a good, a gift from God. “You know what we mean by the good, right? It means something that’s good to have,” he said.“And before we can address rules or notions of ‘right and wrong,’ we must start with what’s good to have. God is the Supreme Good, and sexuality is a great gift from God…” But how do we begin to rightly understand sexuality through the lens of the Christian tradition? It all begins with an understanding of our bodies, another great gift from God.

We must understand the meanings of our bodies (a central concept in John Paul II’s theology of the body), Dr. Cary says. Human beings are either male or female, categorizations determined by their bodies, and both male and female bodies are fundamentally oriented towards the other, Dr. Cary argued. There is a myriad of scriptural support for this understanding of humans as fundamentally male or female (as well as some strong Aristotelian, natural law arguments too lengthy to expound here). Perhaps the clearest biblical evidence is the fact that Genesis does not describe the rest of creation as male or female; only human beings. This would seem to suggest that there is something deeply human about this distinction. Thus, Dr. Cary argued, sexuality in the Christian context is fundamentally heteronormative. This, he acknowledged, while being something very deeply ingrained in the Christian tradition, is not a popular opinion in our culture. When two cultures clash against one another, the old culture will become offensive to the new culture, Dr. Cary said, and remaining a faithful representative of the “old culture” – in this case, traditional Christian culture – takes some serious courage.

This idea was just the beginning of Dr. Cary’s thesis; two other crucial ideas fundamental to the Christian understanding of sexuality are the the procreative good and the unitive good. In his explanation of them, Dr. Cary again appealed to Aristotelian terms: “Sexuality aims towards a good, aims towards a telos…[that is] a final cause. The idea of the procreative good is revealed in the first chapter of the Bible, when God says “be fruitful and multiply.” This, Dr. Cary clarifies, is not a commandment, but a blessing. This distinction is immensely important. Human beings are not “creative” in the true sense – the Hebrew word for “create” is only used with God as the subject. Human beings can make things, but never create. Human beings can, however, procreate by having children. To be male and female means to be potentially-father and potentially-mother, Dr. Cary argues. What an incredibly beautiful blessing – not a burdensome obligation – given to us by God.

This brings us to the unitive good. Speaking of Adam calling Eve his “helper,” Dr. Cary noted: “When it says that Eve is Adam’s helper, it doesn’t mean she sweeps the floor for him. She’s the one who rescues him from death.” Eve is the one through whom Adam has a future (through procreation). She is also the one with whom Adam can find unity. This idea of the unitive good is drawn from both the Old Testament declaration and the words of Jesus himself: that “the two shall become one flesh.” This is the heart of the unitive good: “otherness for the sake of unity,” “differences for the sake of unity, male and female for the sake of one flesh.” It is crucial that the unitive good and the procreative good must not be separated in what Dr. Cary calls “the fornicator’s desire” (the desire for “sex for gratification freed from the ‘danger’ of procreation”). “Responsible” sex is sterile sex, according to the current cultural understanding. The traditional Christian understanding, contrarily, holds responsible sex to be “marital sex, leading to starting a family.”

Dr. Cary’s lecture was an excellent introduction to the traditional Christian stance on sexual ethics, but perhaps one of his most timely and valuable insights was on how to approach the conversation about sexuality. “None of us in the whole history of the human race has been very good at sexual ethics. Read the Bible; you see that sexual sin is not a new thing,” Dr. Cary said. “So we all have to have a certain amount of patience, generosity, and mercy with each other. If you want mercy, you have to be merciful; you know that’s a biblical principle. So when we talk about the ‘rules,’ we are not saying, ‘oh, this is my club for beating people who are different from me.’ This is the trouble we’re all in together, and we all need some mercy about this.”

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