Review: Thinking About Sex (Fortress Press, 2015)

[Originally published in JLE June 2016]

[1] Adrian Thatcher is honorary professor in the department of theology and religion at the University of Exeter in the UK. He is highly regarded for his work in theology and human sexuality. He has edited the 2015 Oxford Handbook of Theology, Sexuality and Gender. His most recent book is God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction (2011). Thinking About Sex, part of the Fortress Press “Thinking About” series, was published in cooperation with Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, England and originally titled, Making Sense of Sex. Accordingly, all the chapters in this little volume begin with “Making Sense of…”

[2] Thatcher opens with the observation that the rigid moral demands of conservative Christianity and Roman Catholicism in matters of sexuality are out of step with changes in contemporary attitudes. As such, Christianity may not be considered helpful in making sense of sex since it has often fostered a body-soul dualism, pitting mind and spirit against flesh and desire, leading to a the dualism of male-female that underlies sexism. This moral tradition of pessimism about sex and sexuality runs counter to the incarnational theology Thatcher wants to affirm as true to the biblical witness and the foundation of a mature union of spirituality and sexuality together. The task is to “…make sense of the God-given pleasures of intimacy and the enormous responsibilities that accompany the sharing of it.” In this way we can find our way between the pessimism of repressive sexual morality and “…the fleshly indulgences of a decadent capitalist culture.” (5)

[3] Thatcher reviews the traditional sources of theology and ethics: scripture, tradition, and reason, as well as experience, conscience, and wisdom. The approach he wholeheartedly affirms in deploying these sources for making sense of sex is that of liberal theology. Liberal theology is to be distinguished clearly from fundamentalism, conservative evangelicals, and Roman Catholicism. He then makes his point by contrasting liberal theology’s Christ-centered, gospel-centered approach to scripture as opposed to the problematic nature of biblical literalism among conservative evangelicals and the rigid traditionalism of Roman Catholicism. “Liberals will want to conserve everything in the Bible and Tradition that speaks compellingly of Christ, and either to revise or abandon altogether those things that do not.” (11) Thus, liberal theology sees itself in the mainstream of a Christian tradition that respects the gifts of reason to engage in critical thinking when approaching the interpretation of scripture and tradition in its engagement with the ever changing world. However, as the book progresses it is clear that the term “liberal” does not denote permissive relativism.

[4] The title of Chapter Two, “Making sense of desire – from repression to expression,” captures the argument that will follow. Thatcher provides a brief, familiar account of how the Christian tradition became sex negative from earliest times to present interpretations of scripture. The controlling, repressive views that have emerged and been sustained Thatcher argues will not help us in today’s world. A rereading of the sources with help of reason and experience can get us in touch with our desire in healthy, responsible ways that affirm our sexuality, the joy of sex and the pleasure of our partner. At the same time, uncontrolled sex can be exploitative and demeaning.” Sexual desire can lead us away from God: to selfishness, to exploitation of the other, to deceit, to reducing persons to objects.” (28) However, Thatcher contends it can also lead us to God. As we seek loving connection with the beloved other, we may also connect with the “beloved Other who infinitely desires us.” (28)

[5] Making sense of our bodies is the focus of Chapter Three. Created as we are in the image of God, Thatcher wants to emphasize that that means created in the image of the Trinity. The contemporary renascence of seeing the unity of the Trinity as a relational unity, a community of mutual love – God is love – provides the foundation for how we are to understand that love is the quality of a relation between human subjects. This is a corollary of our being in the image of the Triune God; we are made for communion. He quotes Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler, two Catholic theologians, who contend that sexual intercourse in self-giving love and self-surrender, provides insight into the love shared within the Trinity. This can be so only because of the materialistic character of the faith as expressed in the Incarnation. “Flesh is capable of receiving and embodying the divine.” (35) Can this experience of sexual intercourse as an intimation of the love of the Triune God be solely the experience of married spouses? The simple and very preliminary answer to this is “Yes” but he does proceed to say why it is “very preliminary” and what more there might be to say in answer to the question. Instead he goes on to explore the implications of our bodies as sexual bodies finding their reality in the Body of Christ and the relational unity that expresses. Thatcher realizes that the experience of intercourse between loving partners is not always a transcendent intimation of divine love or a spiritually significant event. Sex is often playful and can be routine or exploitative. However, “good sex”is open to such meanings.

[6] Thatcher turns in the next two chapters to the discussion of sexual difference in general and homosexuality in particular, leading eventually to the question of whether only heterosexual couples also can experience the positive, even lofty, faith based vision of sexual intercourse that he has been describing and advocating. The liberal view he proposes is distinguished from the conservative view by embracing constructionism, the belief that nothing about gender is fixed, in contrast to essentialism, the conservative doctrine that God created a fixed heterosexual humanity, whose natures cannot change. This liberal perspective also feeds the critique of “complementarity” as affirmed by both Roman Catholicism and traditional Anglican theology. Complementarity is implicated in the sort of rigid sexual dimorphism that has pitted men and women against each other and abrogated any acceptance of sexual difference. Interesting in this discussion is Thatcher’s observation that until the eighteenth century the Western world did not believe there were two sexes, “The sense of difference between men and women in the classical world was based on a sliding scale of being, not on two different sexes.” (47) This pre-modern view has been eclipsed and with it the sort of patriarchalism it fostered. However, with that corrective in mind, Thatcher sees some benefits to a one sex idea if we think of different genders in our one humanity in the Body of Christ and celebrate the unity in difference we see in the relationality of the Trinity. In this revised vision of one sex thinking patriarchal thinking and dimorphism falls away. He quotes Miroslav Wolf: “Instead of setting up ideals of femininity and masculinity, we should root each in the sexed body and let the social construction of gender play itself out guided by the identity of and relations between divine persons.” (54)

[7] The discussion of homosexuality that follows rehearses the well know arguments from scripture and tradition adduced by each side. Thatcher ultimately concludes that liberal acceptance of same-sex love goes hand in hand with the argument in the previous chapter against sexual dimorphism and its history of supporting the inferiority of women and excluding those whose sexuality does not fit the fixed genders of essentialism.

[8] In “Making sense of marriage – from patriarchy to partnership.” Chapter 6, Thatcher offers seven biblically and theologically grounded pictures of marriage. He affirms in these pictures that, “Doctrinal heart of marital theology is God, and nothing else but God, revealed in Incarnation, Trinity and Eucharist.”(76) Given his arguments against essentialism, dimorphism, and complementarity it is not surprising that he concludes that the liberal view believes same-sex marriage to be as capable of fulfilling the seven pictures of marriage as any heterosexual marriage is.

[9] In the brief final chapter Thatcher discusses Gal. 5 and Paul’s call to freedom and responsibility with regard to the gratifications of the flesh. Thatcher identifies Paul’s enemies here as the Judaizers who believed that they must fulfill the Jewish law. He goes on to argue that contemporary Judaizers are those Christians who want to turn sexual morality into a law. This kind of legalism, which, once again, he finds in Roman Catholicism and among Evangelicals offers a pseudo-security. Paul (and liberals too!), he contends, did not counter legalism with antinomianism but with a call to responsible use of freedom.

[10] This book is a good orientation to the contemporary debates on sexual ethics among Christians in our rapidly and dramatically changing social climate. It will appeal to those who hold to what Thatcher defines as the liberal approach and likely be unconvincing to those who are conservative traditionalists. Not all the arguments against the traditionalist opposition to same sex love are made that could be made. For example, a critical discussion of biblical anthropology that challenges “natural law” and “orders of creation” from the standpoint biblical eschatology is essential and missing. “Orders of creation” doctrine like natural law tradition, if unchallenged theologically, by declaring homosexual love as “disordered,” gives credence to the disputed texts that appear to condemn all homosexual love. Thatcher also hints at the possibility of relationships other marriage having morally acceptable potential but does not follow up on them. He mentions bisexuality and cautions against extreme constructionism but does not discuss them. However, in fairness, this is by design a small book that cannot be expected to follow every lead. And for a short book it is rich and gives us a responsible liberal perspective.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.