Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sex as Glue

In a fine article, "Is Sex That Important?" the NT scholar John Nolland, Academic Dean of Trinity College, Bristol, uses a striking and effective metaphor for sex by comparing it to glue.
"To put it crudely, saying ‘the two will become one flesh’ implies that sex is for gluing two people together into a single unit. In other words, sex makes its own vital contribution to the formation of the psychosomatic unity of husband and wife. A man and a woman well glued together is God’s pattern for the main kind of fundamental human unit within society.

I say ‘God’s pattern for the main kind of fundamental human unit within society’, because Scripture elsewhere makes it quite clear that there are particular people and people in particular kinds of situations for whom singleness not marriage is their proper state of being.

If sex is the glue for marriage, then sex outside of marriage is using the glue in the wrong way.
. . . snip . . .

To make his particular point Paul points to yet another kind of unitive activity. He talks about the uniting that happens when we become Christians. We are united to Christ. ‘United to the Lord’ is how he puts it in v 17. ‘Your bodies are members of Christ’ is how he puts it in v 15. Also in v 17 he says that one ‘becomes one spirit with [the Lord]’. This last piece of language ‘one spirit’ is specifically intended to be a counterpart to the Genesis language of marriage as ‘one flesh’.

Paul is clearly after a sameness and a difference between the kind of unity involved in sex and that involved in being linked to the Lord. To say that one is physical and one is spiritual would partly catch the difference, and would be well reflected in Paul’s juxtaposition of ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’.

For Paul, however, ‘flesh’ is not just physical. It is rooted in the materiality of our bodies, but it catches up as well attitudes and values and impulses that we would be more inclined to describe in psychological terms and in terms of the whole person.

This is profound and theologically responsible exegesis. Thinking of sex as glue helps us conceptualize how and why sex outside of marriage is so destructive, when sex within marriage is so healthy and life-affirming. I especially applaud his clarity on the NT meaning of the word "flesh" and the way that he shows how this word does not permit us to interpret sin and sanctification in a way that allows us to focus on the spirit only or on the body alone, but only on them as two aspects of one being. Clearly, a realist metaphysics is implied here in which the being of the person is more than disembodied mind or the sum total of the choices made by the will. One is reminded of John Paul II's theology of the body at this point.

He also (without mentioning them in particular) demolishes the misleading rhetoric of certain left-wing Evangelicals who call themselves "Red Letter Christians" and claim that their preoccupation with socialist politics and lassitude toward sexual morality is justified by appeal to the words of Jesus. Aside from the hubris of implying that the rest of the Church is somehow beneath them because they alone have the priorities of Christ and the theological error of interpreting the words of Jesus as more inspired and more authoritative than the rest of Scripture, they also happen to be wrong on a simple, factual level.
"One kind of index is to compare how often he talked about sexual matters with how often he talked about other matters. I choose for comparison Jesus’ teaching on love and Jesus’ expression of concern for the poor. Nobody doubts that Jesus cared passionately about these two areas.

So what do we find? Fourteen references to love, thirteen plus a couple of extras for concern for the poor and twenty-six references to matters concerning sex. Maybe sexual issues did matter quite a bit to Jesus!"

Read it all here. It is brief, thoughtful and theologically excellent. HT to Virtue Online.

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