Patricia Beattie Jung and Aana Marie Vigen’s God, Science, Sex, Gender: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics

1] In the midst of Christian debates on sexuality that ultimately rest on various biblical hermeneutical schools and practices, Patricia Beattie Jung and Aana Marie Vigen have edited a multi-faceted volume on human sexuality that challenges an overriding focus in Christian theological discourse on one normative source, Scripture. As a whole, the volume’s contributors offer a richly interdisciplinary dialogue that nudges and provokes readers not only to seriously reconsider Christian ethical sources, but also to challenge moral understandings of sexuality not mindful of the Christian intellectual’s ultimate trust that the search for truth, both theological and scientific, is couched within our utter dependence upon God.

[2] The fifteen chapters are divided into three parts, each of which sets out to offer crucial questions in Christian ethical dialogue on human sexuality. The first part questions what rests in theological and scientific authority and how their respective quests for value and facts relate to each other, and wrestles with the meaning of and changes in authority in the Roman Catholic tradition. In the second part, we are led to ask: What do we know about sexual diversity? The disciplines of evolutionary biology, literary studies, Catholic thought, and biblical hermeneutics open up a reality of sexual pluralism. Given such a reality, the third section faithfully asks what sexual diversity means for Christian ethics, with particular emphasis on a theocentric, christocentric, and eschatological answer.

[3] Why should such a book interest anyone in the Christian tradition? The editors’ answer is the impetus that wrought this dialogue. Beattie Jung and Vigen assert that we need multiple perspectives to understand sexuality and gender because they are in themselves complex. An interdisciplinary, ecumenical dialogue is, indeed, messy, but, they argue, it is necessary because knowledge about sexuality and gender are found in other sources, none of which should be ignored by Christian ethicists. In their challenge to Christianity’s narrow focus on Scripture, Beattie Jung and Vigen remind readers that discoveries in other fields have continually shaped religious teachings on sexuality and gender. Such was the case when the female ovum was discovered; that the male was not a sole progenitor contributed to shifts in theological anthropology, and thus to other church teachings. Now the scientifically recognized existence of intersexuals challenges sexual dimorphism.

[4] In order to advance responsible Christian ethics, Vigen offers three methodological claims. First, the quadrilateral of sources (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) as it is understood must be expanded. In short, she argues, because of “the complex moral quandaries associated with twenty-first century science,” theologians and ethicists must specifically name science and attend to what science tells us. Second, there is no one, specific formula for using a list of sources for ethics; rather, because religious bodies have contexts and histories, we must attend to understanding their nuances and the ways sources overlap. Hence, interdisciplinary sources are necessary for Christian theological ethics. Third, one certain and influential move that the entire volume embodies is the priority of experience in theological ethics. This is the point on which the volume as an entirety speaks most forcefully and profoundly.

[5] In the conclusion, Vigen helpfully reorients the espousal of experience in Christian theological ethics. Given the significant resistance to the primacy of experience in theological and ethical method, Vigen rightfully draws us into a definition of experience that is at once more fulsome and more honest. First, experience refers to descriptions of reality that are as “thick and multidimensional” as possible. No one source dominates in relating what reality looks like. Second, experience refers to both personal and scientific experience; that is, personal and communal narratives are important in describing reality, but scientific observation of the world also uncovers “experience.” Together, personal/communal and scientific experience serve to describe reality and to serve as a kind of truth claim. History shows that how we view Scripture as a source is informed by experience, what we learn through scientific observation. Thus our definition of experience is more fulsome.

[6] Third, Vigen relies on Christian Scharen and Wendy Farley to honestly contest that experience is a primary source because it infuses all others. For example, how Scripture and theological and social traditions are interpreted depends upon experience. In other words, a central premise of the volume is that our values shift to align with experience, a claim that confirms that rather than seeing experience in conflict with Scripture or science, values shift to align with experience. The impetus for the book is the fact that most Christian sexual ethics rely almost entirely on scriptural interpretation and denominational teaching. Thus with methodological sophistication, the book probes a variety of sources in order to rectify such methodological occlusion.

[7] It is important to note that Vigen’s methodological extrapolation comes in the conclusion, an important inductive move, for the weight of the chapters carries readers into embodiments of her argument simply by their natures and content. Even though some chapters outshine others, taken together this volume is an excellent starting point for any sophisticated discernment on human sexuality, ecclesial and academic, as related to the various emphases and interpretations of the Roman Catholic tradition and interdisciplinary inquiry.

[8] In terms of an ecumenical engagement, I think there are four distinct emphases that the volume offers according to the quadrilateral, each of which strengthens Vigen’s redefinition of experience.

[9] Reason
In the realm of reason, within which one can place science, biologists contribute provocative research from evolutionary biology. Consider the following examples. Joan Roughgarden argues for a social selection view of sexuality, which acknowledges that sexual relations contribute to the well-being of a species so that its members are prepared to care for one another. Observations of numerous animal species reveal homosexuality as a common sexual expression. Homosexuality and other forms of physical intimacy strengthen the “social infrastructure” in which to raise offspring (103). Rather than seeing homosexuality as against nature, Roughgarden’s research shows it to be “an adaptive part of nature” (103). In a related vein, James Calcagno studies primates to learn about humans. Of distinction to the questions raised in this volume, he points out that monogamy is rare among mammals and among primates, at about three percent in each group. This means that primate sexuality is varied across and within the species, leading him to confront our anthropocentric view of our own sexuality by stating that human sexuality compared to our nearest evolutionary siblings is “relatively boring” (164).

[10] Terry Grande, Joel Brown and Robin Colburn study the evolution of sexuality, noting that adaptive sexual behaviors for a new situation for a species may linger even after the new situation is no longer influencing sexual behaviors. They contend there is “the possibility that the sexuality of modern humans may be under selection to change” (106). Although they think that sexual dimorphism is more common than Roughgarden thinks, they point out that “[k]nowledge of biological variation allows us to conceptualize the less frequent middle spaces as natural, although statistically unusual” (113). Humans, they acknowledge, think about social responsibility, motives, and justice in sexual relations, and such consciousness influences human sexual practices. Remarking on this human characteristic in the complexity of sexual relations, they close with the important question: “If the function(s) of sex/gender is constantly evolving and allows room—even if unintentionally—for nonprocreative expressions, can Christian traditions claim a timeless and ordained model of human sexual behavior?” (121).

[11] Experience
Although the entire volume wrestles with Vigen’s contention that experience infuses our use of and access to every source, several chapters remark directly on human experience, one in particular through memoir and literature. Pamela L. Caughie raises a thick constellation of gender theory in order to goad readers into disconcerting questions that surface when the dress of gender is undressed in relationship to biology. Caughie investigates what it means “to read people as if they were texts” through the memoir of Alexina, an intersexual person from the nineteenth century, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. What Caughie deftly points out is that neither Alexina nor Orlando can be “read” as either male or female. We simply do not and cannot know. Their sexual identities are ambiguous from the vantage point of a dimorphic expectation. We see, then, the dress of gender for what it is, the costuming of dimporphic sexual identity. Caughie’s literary answer, which should also be a theological answer, is that imagination is critical in the move beyond sex/gender binaries. What we need, when intersexual persons like Alexina are recognized, is “the possibility of a different truth” from the one that the dress tells. In so doing, she emphasizes “textual analysis as an ethical imperative” (xx).

[12] Tradition
One remarkable contribution to an unfolding interpretation of the Roman Catholic tradition is John McCarthy’s chapter on a theology of creation. Plumbing the tradition, McCarthy draws out a hermeneutic of creation in order to understand personhood and difference that counters the current proclivity to interpret these according to a natural moral order. His two hermeneutical proposals are first, to recall the view that humans are created as a gift because of God’s love and that a Trinitarian conception of God’s love in itself leads us away from binary thinking in terms of personhood and difference. Second, and most compellingly, McCarthy recalls the theological assertion that the Genesis account of creation holds the absolute difference to reside between God and creation, not between male and female. Therefore, the theological relationship of creation is primarily about “what is God and what is not God” (134). This particular binary, between God and creation, is defined by love, not by an exclusive gender binary. The binary set up in Genesis between God and creation has the possibility to inform a theology of hospitality far more faithfully than would a hermeneutic of natural law that is based in gender binarism. Perhaps, he concludes, “if creation is itself the constantly transacted ‘betweenness'” of God and creation, then we might have an essential ethical hermeneutic (136).

[13] Scripture
Robert di Vito picks up on the Vatican’s focus on Genesis 1-3 and challenges it with a careful exegesis of Galatians 3:26-28. Di Vito counters the “traditional allegorical-typological reading” of Genesis 1-3 (171) in Mulieris dignitatem with a strong historical-critical reading. In short, the Priestly account of creation refers to male and female, yet P’s concern to stress the distance between God and humanity, he argues, means that it would be unlikely for P to claim male and female as the image of God. Instead, Di Vito explains, P’s focus is first on the “order of creation and humanity’s position in it” and second on “the theme of blessing and fertility” (173). This means human resemblance to the divine is depicted in its relationship to the rest of creation as “nothing short of godlike” (174); in other words, humanity is understood in its relationship to God and to creation. Strengthening this position, Di Vito points out that P is just as androcentric as other biblical sources, but this androcentrism is curiously neutralized in its choice of socially neutral words, “male and female,” rather than “man and woman,” which in P’s context held social meanings about their relationships to one another.

[14] Yet what could this all mean for a reading of baptism in Galatians? Galatians 3:28 refers to the restored divine image, one without sexual dimorphism. Baptism radically ushers in a new unity, one that is understood through Genesis. Of course, what is old is simply in the process of becoming new in Christ and will only be consummated in the eschaton. But this study raises important questions for ethics this side of the eschaton as it seeks to ask, “What ought I/we to be?” Di Vito turns his scriptural study back to Mulieres dignatatem and argues it “undermine[s] the vision implicit not only in the baptismal tradition Paul found in Galatia but also his own adaptation of it” because Mulieris dignitatem tries to reinforce gender essentialism, a move that he explicitly argues goes against a reading of the scriptural texts. Unlike the more common moves to read Scripture literally, Di Vito models an exegesis that is Trinitarian, for retrieving such interpretations as this is important because it strengthens Christian movements to “embrace people marginalized by the model of sexual dimorphism that larger society or its dominant institutions endorses” (181). This move, I would argue, is both Trinitarian and incarnational, for it seeks all who live because of God’s love and takes their created bodies as worthy of God’s hospitality.

[15] In the end, the volume models what it encourages: dialogue across denominational identities and across the disciplines, modeling a constitutive learning and listening that seeks to know God’s desire for and in creation and to love the other, one of the many in the diversity of creation, which is God’s alone. Perhaps the question is: What role do Christian traditions hold when scientific observation that normalizes intersexual persons meets a theological anthropology rooted in a doctrine of God’s love?

Mary Streufert

Mary J. Streufert, Ph.D., is Director for Justice for Women for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.