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A Christian Ethic of Sex in a Pornographic Age

February 7th, 2019 | 11 min read

By Joshua Heavin

In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the church had no shortage of theological controversies and societal crises at hand. Yet several prominent theologians nonetheless devoted significant time to writing about marriage and human sexuality. St. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, amidst fierce debates over the Trinity, Christology, and the Spirit, while vigorously denouncing the injustices of slavery in a declining empire, devoted fifteen beautiful homilies to theological and mystical reflections on the Song of Songs. He also wrote On Virginity, which concludes:

Indeed, the crown of every hope, and of every desire, of every blessing, and of every promise of God, and of all those unspeakable delights which we believe to exist beyond our perception and our knowledge — the crowning result of them all, I say, is this. Moses longed earnestly to see it, and many prophets and kings have desired to see the same: but the only class deemed worthy of it are the pure in heart, those who are, and are named “blessed,” for this very reason, “that they shall see God” [Matthew 5:8]. Wherefore we would that you too should become crucified with Christ, a holy priest standing before God, a pure offering in all chastity, preparing yourself by your own holiness for God’s coming; that you also may have a pure heart in which to see God, according to the promise of God, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, to Whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Amidst our own temptations to sensationalize each provocative fad or legitimate concern of the present, the abiding wisdom of Gregory’s theological vision has much to offer our age that undoubtedly has no shortage of theological controversy, systemic injustice, and declining empires.

However, the occasion of a new book this month, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber, welcomes reflection on the recent essay she wrote promoting this book: “Honor Thy Pleasure?”, which rightly argues that “consent and mutuality are essential, but a Christian ethic of sex requires more.” But we should ask: to what extent is her ostensive ‘more’ an identifiably Christian ethic of sex?

Pastorally, Bolz-Weber is especially concerned for those disillusioned with hypocrisy and trained into self-contempt from their experiences in church:

As a pastor, I find myself concerned for the self-hatred my parishioners who’ve struggled with porn describe, and I wonder how we could begin to honor sexual pleasure as something that can connect us more deeply to ourselves and others and God, yet still speak the truth about the ways in which our behaviors around sex can also do the opposite. Perhaps we could start by remembering what St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: that all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial.

Moreover, in addition to particular concerns against sexual abuse or exploitation, Weber concedes that “problems can absolutely arise from the consumption of pornography, including sexual partners’ feelings of betrayal and compulsive behaviors that inhibit healthy sexual activity.”

In light of these concerns, Bolz-Weber proposes a constructive approach to Christian sexual ethics that attempts to prioritize love for neighbor. Notably, her discussion of “lust” (Greek: epithymia) in Matthew 5:28 rightly criticizes those who would deny that humans are created by God as sexual beings, but her analysis ultimately reduces Jesus’ prohibition in Matthew 5:28 to nothing particularly concerned with lust: “in this text from Matthew, Jesus is saying that Though shall not commit adultery is not simply a matter of not screwing someone other than your spouse. He’s saying, once again, ‘Love your neighbor. People aren’t objects. Let’s not cause each other harm.’”

Similarly, while expounding Luther’s use of the Law not only as prohibiting the bad but also commending the good, the good here is reduced to concern, specifically “concern means taking notice of how our sexual behavior affects ourselves and each other.” From her pastoral work, Bolz-Weber concludes that “the more someone was exposed to religious messages about controlling their desires, avoiding sexual thoughts, and not lusting in their hearts, the less likely they are to be integrated physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually. I’ve also noticed that the less integrated physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually someone is, the more pornography they contend to consume.” This discussion is extremely significant, because it leads her to the following conclusions:

Viewing sexually explicit images doesn’t have to be harmful, just like eating cake doesn’t have to be harmful. There is potential harm in both, and the harm varies according to who we are individually: our wiring, our histories, our relationships…. Some people can watch porn and still have a very real and intimate connection with their partner; for them, watching it together doesn’t diminish or disrespect their relationship. I have heard this story in my parish. Others have to steer clear entirely. For them, just a few minutes of porn and they cannot stop no matter all the reasons they can conjure to control themselves, and their compulsion causes insecurity in their partner and intimacy problems in their relationship.

Since the name of Martin Luther has been invoked in support of such claims, we should recall that perhaps Luther’s most valuable insights is succinctly captured in his 1518 Heidelberg Disputations. Rather than triumphalistic, speculative theologizing that can be used to exploit and harm people, Luther insisted that any distinctively Christian speech about God speaks on the basis on the revealed things of God seen specifically in the suffering and death of the cross; a theologian of the cross “…comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

Now, a short essay should not be expected to address every tangent related to a Christian ethic of human sexuality. But the striking absence of the cross and Christ from the moral imagination of Bolz-Weber’s argument are noteworthy precisely because her stated intentions are to use a Christian ethic of sex to help people wounded by the church and mitigate against abuse and self-contempt. Those commendable goals are not only missed by an under-developed Christian ethic of sex, but are sharply undermined by commending something dehumanizing and perhaps cruel.

An identifiably Christian ethic will find its source and life in Jesus Christ. As New Testament scholar Grant Macaskill has recently written:

“…the moral vision of the New Testament is not simply one of following Jesus, but rather of living in him, of sharing in his eschatological life and identity through the activity of the Holy Spirit. While his particularity determines the moral identity of those who live in him, their particularity is not lost, and nor is the distinctiveness of the moral questions that the face.”

In Holy Scripture, human dignity and sexuality are not merely tethered to God having created us in the image of God. The crucified, risen, and ascended Messiah is the quintessential “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Through union with Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection, our present life and glory are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4) as we put sin to death and put on the self renewed after the image of Christ (3:5-11).

Consequently, speaking about human sexuality as those created in God’s image must have an eschatological dimension connected with God’s ‘already/not-yet’ reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ. Thus, celibacy is not some lesser, incomplete status in relationship to the marital union established at humanity’s creation in the image of God. Christ, as the image of the invisible God, was celibate; moreover, Jesus’ riposte to a trick question indicates that at the resurrection we will somehow be like the angels, who neither marry nor are given in marriage (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25). Simultaneously, marriage is significant not only in relationship to humanity’s creation in the image of God, but especially signifies the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church for the healing of the cosmos (see Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 7, Revelation 19, 22).

Hence, that we are created by God as sexual beings is not in itself a point of departure for individual self-actualization via our preferred mode of gratification. Bolz-Weber’s recognition that “there is nothing wrong with the fact that our bodies are created to experience pleasure” is no warrant for abstracting sexual intimacy from the covenant of marriage, especially when making an argument that “I think the church could be a place that bravely encourages a healthy exploration into what the erotic actually is, at its best. The erotic can be that which opens us, peeling away our protective layer.”

If she is correct, that the erotic “exposes complex layers of surface area: psyche, heart, body, desire, beauty [and] is worthy of our attention and concern,” then that is precisely why the covenant of marriage provides the only secure context of commitment in which the most vulnerable aspects of our bodies, souls, and selves can be shared with another. Within a for-better-or-worse, life-unto-death commitment, a one flesh union is explored and desired, but not for purposes merely of self-discovery or self-realization, and certainly not for the purpose of exploitative self-gratification. The aim of this oneness terminates not on ourselves as our own telos, but rather intends, despite all its imperfections, to signify the union of Christ and the church. Such a union requires cross-bearing, about which Calvin provides refreshingly brutal honesty and realism to our age of instant gratification and expedient spirituality:

The pious mind must ascend still higher, namely, whither Christ calls his disciples when he says, that every one of them must “take up his cross,” (Mt. 16:24). Those whom the Lord has chosen and honoured with his intercourse must prepare for a hard, laborious, troubled life, a life full of many and various kinds of evils; it being the will of our heavenly Father to exercise his people in this way while putting them to the proof. Having begun this course with Christ the first-born, he continues it towards all his children (Institutes III.8.1, “On Cross Bearing”).

The call of the crucified Nazarene to take up the cross and follow him is not a call to have contempt for the body, self, or human sexuality. But it is nonetheless the irreducible, summoning word of the risen Lord to the church, and a word of liberation to captives. It is a word that must accost us, cut us, heals us, and free us for the strange beauty of gaining life by losing it and integrating the whole of the Christian life as lived with and in the crucified one.

Even though those on the left and the right who decry pornography are often hypocrites, and even if participants in pornography feel very intimate connections with their partners, as Bolz-Weber notes, viewing pornography is nonetheless always harmful. Apart from the claims of faith, numerous studies in recent years have documented the severe and damaging effects of pornography upon the brain and society.

A particularly noteworthy and disturbing article in the New York Times last year profiled how teenagers are learning sex-ed from violent pornography. Such trends have even prompted calls for banning porn as a public health crisis. Although drawing immediate parallels between oneself and the apostle Paul can be dangerous or opportunistic, Bolz-Weber has already directed us to 1 Corinthians, and we would do well to heed also Paul’s astonishment at how pleasure was honored at Corinth: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans… And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let the one who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:1–2). But beyond the growing concerns of pagans about pornography, viewing pornography is always harmful because the gaze of lust is a necessarily dehumanizing inferno.

Contrary to popular belief, a very real relationship is created by pornography. In the bond of pornography, there is first the beholder: typically, a self who gratifies itself in isolation, not with the actual body of another person made in the image of God, but exhilarated only with the likeness of an image of God’s body, skin, flesh and bones. The beholder in this union necessarily disintegrates another human being physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually into an object for consumption. Second, there is the person beheld, a psycho-somatic unity created in the image of God, who willingly or unwillingly has the most intimate and vulnerable portions of themselves used for the pleasure of others. In perhaps the most macabre contempt of all for the body and human sexuality, the beheld, now disintegrated, is used apart from any semblance of abiding commitment or embodied care for their being.

Finally, there is the child produced by this union, not an actual human baby, but rather the self who is re-produced by this stylized intimacy. Because the human self is constituted-in-relation, and one’s environs indelibly shapes us either for ill for gain, the self is now trained by the pornographic liturgy to regard others differently than before putting on the yoke of this bond. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we are necessarily formed and habituated into the persons we are and will become through our embodied practices.

Casting an objectifying gaze on the flesh-and-blood, real body of our non-virtual neighbor is strangely a more familiar practice now as a result of this inalienably moral exercise, especially when regularly devoted to its daily office. Here, the perhaps lonely or disconsolate participant’s desires are cultivated in time devoted to focusing and training the human eye upon an icon, and so the body’s instincts are inevitably shaped for a commensurate form of relationships and moral action towards others. Perhaps the anti-God powers of Sin and Death are not so much sacramentally present in this ritual as performing an evacuative action, emptying the self of life under a deadening illusion of a celebrated freedom and integrated personhood. It is precisely such an illicit union that Paul held forth to the Corinthians as incompatible to those united with Christ; “do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Corinthians 6:16–17).

Arguably the real power and mystery of marriage – or rather, its real terror and beauty – is that it is a commitment made with and before a holy God, not only in spite of the present flaws of spouse and self, and not only in light of the fact that a spouse will certainly change over time, but it is made not even knowing who we will be when we change over time. Singles and marrieds alike are called to be chaste, and we all the more so need practices that conform us to the image of the crucified Messiah from Nazareth.

As intimated above from St. Gregory of Nyssa, those who are ‘in Christ’ are called to not only cultivate but traverse the limits and possibilities of human desire, and arguably more than any humans on earth. By striving to be pure in heart – however unfashionable or prudish that might sound in Late Modernity – we so prepare for the beatific vision, a sight our exhausted age of restless searching pines after, even if unknowingly.

We need scripts that form us “to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4), and that cultivate habits, appetites, and dispositions that comport with the fidelity requisite for a life of celibacy, or, for instance, where we or our spouses are persons with disabilities in our fragile, mortal bodies. Even in the best of scenarios, no husband or wife will ever be able to compete with the legion of on-demand pornographic amusement, whether in its most or least exotic and abusive apparitions. It will always fight mercilessly with an advantage against the frailties of both celibacy and a one flesh union for our limited resources of patience, loyalty, charity, and friendship; it will breed disregard, if not contempt, for the marginalized, rejected, and unlovely humans in our midst. Those who worship a crucified Jew from Nazareth should be the foremost agitators against, rather than complicit in, what Elizabeth Bruenig describes as “disdain for the weak.”

If we are content to define human integration apart from God’s action in raising a crucified Messiah, or, if we champion a sexual ethic that holds no intention of signifying the union of Christ and the church, then advocacy for the use of pornography and an ethic predicated on the self’s fulfillment – and the self’s arbitrary capacity to perceive how the self affects others – will not only be wrong, but cruel to the self and others, and cruel in the name of God.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is right: “Consent and mutuality are essential, but a Christian ethic of sex requires more…. Perhaps we could start by remembering what St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians.” Quite: “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18–20).