Response: Proposed Statement on Human Sexuality

[1] Of the many provocative and interesting aspects of the ELCA proposed social statement on sexuality—“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust”—I want to focus my analysis on one particular theological assertion; and then elaborate on five key ethical and theological ramifications of that assertion.

A Relational Anthropology

[2] Repeatedly, in a variety of places, this social statement emphasizes the core relationality that stands at the very center of what it means to be human. Two representative examples of this emphasis can be found first in line 342: “God created human beings to be in relationship with each other;” and second in line 165: “Human beings are created for trusting relationships with each other.” This is a central theological assertion not only about who we are as human beings, but also about how we relate to God, and how we are bearers of the image of God. Few scholars articulate this idea as beautifully as Catherine LaCugna, who argues that human relationality is a primary manifestation of our imago Dei, as God, too, is inherently relational in God’s very being.

[3] One of the ways LaCugna articulates this is through a theology of baptism. She writes, “Baptism is the sacramental and ontological act that transforms solitariness and separateness into communion. The ‘ontological change’ of baptism is radical: We claim to live now not from ourselves but from God, not for ourselves but for others.”[1] Thus, we see that not only is relationality at the heart of what it means to be human, even more so is relationality at the heart of what it means to be Christian; and thus for Christians in particular, made one body through incorporation into the body of Christ, this emphasis on the formative nature of human relationships should be held up and celebrated in all aspects of our lives, and certainly in our conversations around sexuality.

[4] A good example of one practical application of this insight can be found in what the statement says about marriage. “Marriage is intended not only to protect the people who are married, but to signal to the community their intention to live a peaceful and mutually fulfilling life, even as they endeavor to strengthen the community in which they live” [lines 531-532]. This sentence reminds us that any single relationship in which we participate always occurs in the web of multiple other relationships; and each individual relationship either strengthens or weakens the whole. Thus: “neither individuals nor families can succeed alone; they need healthy and supportive communities. Individuals are deeply social and therefore profoundly shaped by these communities, even in their most private and intimate moments” [lines 1071-1073]. In the rest of the article, then, I suggest some theological and ethical ramifications that follow from the anthropological claim that being human means being fundamentally and inherently in relationship.

Sexuality in Service of Relationships

[5] The first ramification of this claim is a particular understanding of the purpose of sexuality. When we understand ourselves primarily as relational beings, who can only survive and thrive in the context of healthy relationships, then we are led to affirm that our sexuality is first and foremost for the building and strengthening of relationships—not primarily for procreation, and not primarily for personal pleasure, even though these two components of a sexual relationship are also important.[2] Without this affirmation, there is the danger that a sexual relationship will become the means to an end [an orgasm or a child—neither of which are inherently bad, of course!], rather than an inherent part of the end itself. In such situations, sexuality can be misused as a means of manipulation to get what one wants, possibly even through deception and/or violence. In sexual relationships that are pursued for any other reason besides the deepening and strengthening of relationships, there is a much greater chance than sexual relationships will be “unjust, abusive, and exploitative” [lines 1019-1020].

The Concept of Family

[6] The second important ramification of a relational anthropology is a recognition that the whole concept of “family” needs to be reconsidered. Indeed, the document itself suggests this, saying: “In contemporary society, the term ‘family’ includes a variety of forms, more akin to the older term of ‘household,’ exclusively employed by Luther to include immediate family members, relatives, and others” [lines 678-681]. The fact is, the nuclear family is not now, nor was it ever the norm.[3] Sarah Hrdy, in her book Mothers and Others, notes that “Even though there was only a blip in time when a single wage-earner could reliably and predictably support an average family, this myth of the nuclear family, with a nurturing mother at home and a providing father at work, became an American idea.”[4] Broadening our understanding of ‘family’ to include grandmothers, uncles, godparents, and friends creates a more flexible space in which Christians can affirm the centrality of the many and varied life-giving relationships that nurture our sexuality. Without such flexibility, it is much more difficult to give the support for “living faithfully” that is so desperately desired by “many of our sisters and brothers in same-gender relationships” [lines 604-606], to say nothing of the children in those and other ‘non-nuclear’ families.

Sin as brokenness

[7] The third point I want to raise relates to our understanding of sin. In a fundamentally relational anthropology, I argue that sin is best thought of as brokenness in relationships, not individual perversion, deviance, or transgression. To illustrate this, let me use the example of pornography.[5] In an interesting article on pornography in the Atlantic Monthly [October 2008], the author notes that recent surveys among Americans show that “Americans are almost evenly divided on questions like whether porn is bad for relationships, whether it’s an inevitable feature of male existence, and whether it’s demeaning to women….One perspective, broadly construed, treats porn as a harmless habit, near-universal among men, and at worst a little silly.”[6]

[8] If sin is reduced exclusively to issues of private morality, I might well argue that there is nothing wrong with viewing internet pornography as long as I don’t do anything illegal, as long as children are not involved, and as long as my habit doesn’t interfere with my flesh-and-blood sexual relationships. However, if sin is understood more communally as brokenness in relationship, then my participation in and support of an industry that does, in fact, exploit children, perpetuate negative stereotypes of women, and eroticize power and violence is sinful, because all of these things contribute to brokenness in the human community.[7] Instead of living out our sexuality this way, we should instead strive for what Marie Fortune calls “the eroticism of equality,” which strongly rejects the “widespread acceptance of the dominant/submissive model” of sexuality the vast majority of pornography promotes.[8] We may think that what we do in the privacy of our own homes does not affect anyone outside its doors, but that is an illusion: “We do not live in private worlds” [line 274].

The Inherent Goodness of our Physical, Sexual Bodies

[9] The fourth point I want to emphasize is the inherent goodness of our physical, sexual bodies, each in its own individuality; and the promotion of the idea that there is no ideal/perfect body. This is a central concern for a document on sexuality, since it is clear that “a healthy sense of sexuality is related to having a healthy body image” [line 921]. This theological assertion allows us to firmly reject the way false ideals of physical beauty and sexual desirability can introduce and perpetrate sin in a relationship, especially by demanding one alter one’s appearance through harmful or artificial means, or by insisting that one take on a sexual role that is not consistent or comfortable with how one perceives oneself.

[10] What I am describing here is an incarnational theology, which asserts that in the Word becoming flesh, all flesh is infused with the grace and goodness of God, and therefore our physical bodies also are included in a positive theological understanding of selfhood: we are not heavenly spirits imprisoned in corrupt bodies, but instead divinely created spiritual, sexual, physical, emotional beings, who experience and nurture our relationality through our bodies. This is a “holistic understanding of the interrelationship of body, mind, and spirit” that “enables us better to affirm the many dimensions of beauty and to celebrate human variety and particularity” [lines 941-943]. As Gerard Manley Hopkins affirmed in “Pied Beauty,” we can see the beauty of God reflected in “dappled things…all things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim….” Or, in paraphrase, we might say that we can see the beauty of God in fat, skinny, dark, light, blind, sighted: God is glorified in the very diversity of our physical bodies.

[11] I want to note here the positive ramifications such insights have for ecotheology as well, which challenges any form of the body/spirit dualism that throughout the Christian tradition has been so detrimental not only to women, but also to the entire physical creation. In the words of Elizabeth Johnson, “In this alien dualism of body and soul, it is virtually unthinkable to assign the earth a serious religious value. By concentrating on the salvation of the immortal soul and denigrating the bodiliness of human nature, patriarchal theology also disregards the larger matrix of physical life, the whole world in which human selves are embedded.”[9] An incarnational theology that affirms the goodness of human bodies in relationship also affirms the goodness of the body of the world, with which we are all fundamentally in relationship.

Not Rules, but Love

[12] Finally, the fifth affirmation I want to lift up is that a relationally-based anthropology leads us to affirm an ethical code for living that is governed by concern for the well-being of others, rather than perfect adherence to black and white rules of conduct for oneself. One of the great realizations of this sexuality statement is that it frees us to live beyond such a “rules-based” sexual ethic. As stated in the document, “sin does not have to do simply with the keeping or breaking of rules or laws” [lines 94-95]. Marie Fortune makes clear the limitations of such a view: “If sexual sin is understood as the violation of the rule that sexual activity should only take place within heterosexual marriage, then ethical questions about consent, bodily integrity, choice, power, and vulnerability are never asked. If, however, sexual sin is understood as the harm caused by violation of the bodily integrity of another person through sexual coercion, abuse, or assault, then questions about consent, bodily integrity, choice, power, and vulnerability take center stage.”[10] It is of critical importance that such questions can and should be asked as a part of one’s own sexual awareness and the exercise of one’s sexuality in relationship.

[13] To foster this helpful process of questioning, it is encouraging that the document notes that programs of sex education “should avoid simply requiring compliance with approved or rejected behaviors, but should emphasize the exploration of why certain behaviors are rejected because they are damaging, why and how some pressures should be resisted, and what differentiates mature and rewarding sexual love from exploitative and demeaning forms” [lines 856-860]. Perhaps in this way, not distinguishing right from wrong but discerning love from harm, the church can come to a new understanding of what ‘natural’ behavior means, more in line with Catherine LaCugna’s definition: “What is most ‘natural’ is what corresponds most fully to right relationship at all levels: we to others, to the earth, to God, to ourselves.”[11]


[14] This proposed social statement on human sexuality begins in the context of love, and that is where I would like to conclude as well. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes, “We are given a lifework: to receive God’s love; to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love neighbor as self. We are here to let God work through us, in us, and among us to bring healing from all forms of sin that would thwart God’s gift of abundant life for all. This is our vocation as Christ’s body on earth today.”[12] Our sexuality is one fundamentally, inextricably human means through which we love others and receive their love back, and through which we experience and share the love of God. “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” offers some excellent guidelines for how we might best accomplish this lifework to which God calls us.

[1] Catherine LaCugna, God For Us, (San Francisco, CA: HarperSan Francisco, 1973), 404.

[2] The statement itself notes that sexuality involves all three of these, and in this order—see lines 246-247.

[3] See footnote 31 of the statement, which is a helpful corrective to the somewhat misleading statement about nuclear families in lines 725-730.

[4] Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 144-145. On page 166, Hrdy notes that in hunter-gatherer groups, both ancient and modern, “What we idealize as the nuclear family (father, mother, and their children) was often just a temporary phase, a less-than-optimal phase at that, since by themselves two parents would have been unable to meet the needs of several children. In describing the typical or natural Pleistocene family, the descriptors I prefer are kin-based, child-centered, opportunistic, mobile, and very, very flexible.” I am indebted to Gary Simpson for suggesting this resource to me.

[5] In lines 1101-1102, the statement notes that “the ELCA opposes “the sale and purchase of pornography.”

[6] Ross Douthat, “Is Pornography Adultery,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 2008, 82.

[7] On pornography, Marie Fortune writes, “Is it possible to imagine non-exploitative erotica in which women (and men) are not humiliated and victimized for the entertainment of others? Perhaps. But in our culture at this point in time, it is hard to imagine because most of the sexually explicit material produced in this industry still reflects and reinforces the dominant sexual themes of our society…The one thing that women and men of conscience can do about pornography is to avoid using it in their sexual relationships.” Love Does No Harm, (New York, NY: Continuum, 1995), 125.

[8] Ibid., 48

[9] Elizabeth Johnson, “Heaven and Earth Are Filled with Your Glory,” in Finding God in All Things, edited by Michael J. Himes and Stephen J. Pope, (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 96.

[10] Marie M. Fortune, “The Conundrum of Sin, Sex, Violence, and Theodicy,” in The Other Side of Sin, edited by Andrew Sung Park and Susan Nelson, (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001), 131.

[11] God for Us, 290.

[12] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “A Theology of the Cross for the ‘Uncreators,’” in Cross Examinations, edited by Marit Trelstad, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 188.