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Christian Ethics and Gay Desires: The Earthen Vessels Symposium (Ch. 8)

January 4th, 2012 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

On page 28 of Earthen Vessels I quoted Oliver O'Donovan's standard for theological ethics:  "The Church can be committed to ethics without moderating the tone of its voice as the bearer of glad tidings."

On the question of homosexuality, I felt the burden of that responsibility more keenly than anywhere else.  Brian Hedges deploys the language of contextualization to explain what I'm up to.  It's an astute point, and one that is applicable to the book beyond just this chapter.

Some of the early reviews suggested that Earthen Vessels read like a collection of blog posts that had been (more or less) stapled together.  I thought that description is wrong then, and I still think it wrong now.  But until Brian's review, I don't think I had reflected well enough on just how deeply my experience blogging shaped my book.

Those who stopped at its formal arrangement stayed only on the surface:  somewhat paradoxically, while the book uses the most polarizing language possible (sin) and references a narrow sliver of Christianity far too often (evangelicals), it is often shaped by public concerns.  Baptism and communion are hardly "private" events, but as practices they are unique to the church.  Tattoos, sexuality, cremation, video screens--these are the points where Christianity's claim to affect every part of creation begins to matter to those outside the fold, for they are places where our Christian witness either affirms or denies the practices of the world.

As someone whose writing has, for the better part of seven years, happened almost exclusively in public, I feel that obligation to "contextualize" pretty deeply--more deeply, I think, than I have realized.  We call it "Mere Orthodoxy," but we didn't spend the early years doing very much at all within the Christian online community.  That's changed, slowly, and I'm mostly sorry for it.  Most of my "friends" online are Christians, but I still love places like The League, where a broad range of positions have a voice.

But when it comes to my thoughts on homosexuality in that chapter, my hope was to give people categories for understanding the sort of cultural pressures that are at work and provide pastors some tools to see how sexual activity can be closer to the center of our identity than other forms of activity without being the center.  The link, surprise, is the body.  Our identities are outside ourselves, in Christ and his love (and his body, the church).  But because of who we are, the unions that we enact with our body are of first importance to Christian ethics.

There are, though, other ways of formulating things.  For instance, sexuality is not only about "identity," but also about organizing and arranging our lives together.  What's more, sexual desire is a tricky, complicated thing.  Someday I'm going to write a book on it directly, and explore more deeply the nature of desire and how gay and lesbian desires are similar and different from heterosexual desire.  Desires might be all the same sorts of things, but as they are intimately bound up with the object they don't always have the same effect on us.

At any rate, Brian is right to highlight the language of contextualization.  But contextualization is not enough, and going forward evangelicals need to push our thoughts even further than we have.



Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.