Struggling to find a New (Sexual) Identity
I read Jenell Williams Paris’ remarkable book, The End of Sexual Identity (published by IVP US), over the summer, and have been cogitating on it ever since. It is a brave book, not least because it wouldn’t surprise me if it invites potshots (and worse) from all sides. It doesn’t take a degree in political science to gather that the cultural climate in the west has shifted significantly in recent years.
To put it crudely, Europe has shifted over the last few centuries from a politics of raw power and imperialism to the battle of political ideologies. But the 20th Century put paid to that as the world witnessed the bankruptcy, not to mention the horror, of the extremities of BOTH left and right. For all kinds of reasons, a post-ideological politics is much more concerned with personal identities. So the current North American and European culture wars are hardly a surprise.
But how on earth is it possible (let alone right) for Christians to wade in without causing terrible offence … or worse? Are there ANY alternative paths into mutually respectful, civil, and hopeful dialogue? Not as things currently stand in the popular mindset. But recently there have been a few grounds for hope. And it strikes me that they all revolve around our understanding of human identity. I enter this area as one conscious of going where angels fear to tread – and am sure that a blog post is hardly the most comprehensive nor adequate place for discussing such things. But here goes – 3 recent means of finding a new way to navigate these choppy waters.
- Emma Scrivener‘s A New Name (reviewed before on Q) is a deeply personal but vital contribution to our understanding of identity (though of course the presenting issue for her was not bound up in sexuality but eating disorders).
- Just in the last few days, EN published a powerful interview with my old friend Vaughan Roberts by Julian Hardyman. Not only was it very brave of Vaughan to speak so openly (pray he doesn’t become a magnet for the less than savoury elements of ‘public discourse’) but it will open the door to a much healthier and honest discussion. As Vaughan said, ‘No one battle, of the many we face, however strongly, defines us, but our identity as Christians flows rather from our relationship with Christ.’
- And there is Paris’ book. She is an anthropologist and a Christian, and she has specialised in the area of sexuality over many years. The book has a provocative title – but it gets to the heart of what she is saying. And for many, from either side of the culture wars, there will be challenges. But she does so to plead for what she calls for ‘Respectful Conversation’.
As evidence that she engages in such conversations, it is clear throughout the book that she has many friends and colleagues who take a range of sometimes very different views on sexuality. A conversation with a fellow anthropologist (who just happens to be lesbian) about the sexuality culture wars led them observing the very aggressive and polemical rhetoric employed by both sides. So they decided to do some proper research on it and published a joint paper:
Our conclusion was that, despite the deep differences between gay and lesbian activists and conservative Christians, they might agree that violence is wrong and change their approach in the light of the abundant evidence that violent speech promotes physical violence. (p71)
Amen to that. It helps no one – and simply entrenches people, and crushes those caught in the crossfire. And one group who hardly ever get heard are those, like Vaughan, who seek to take a more traditional view, while battling with their own difficult realities.
Desires do not an identity create
Because heterosexuality and homosexuality are concepts that have only really been around for 100 years or so, what were initially medical terms have had all kinds of funny things done to them. In fact, according to Paris, the words were originally used to describe people who pursued sexual pleasure in whatever way without concern for procreation! (p42) The idea that doctors would even feel the need to label such behaviour with a specific medical term seems utterly laughable and pointless today.
The major problem for Christians with heterosexuality, and sexual identity in general, is that it is a social construct that provides a faulty pattern for understanding what it means to be human, linking desire to identity in a way that violates biblical themes. No pattern is perfect, but this one isn’t even close. And ‘Christianizing’ sexual identity – whether by affirming or negating the morality of various sexual identities – doesn’t help, because it doesn’t address the faulty connections that sexual identity categories make between human desire and identity.
Heterosexuality implies that what you want, sexually speaking, is who you are. A pervasive biblical theme, however, is that human desire is fickle, a mystery even to our selves. Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jeremiah 17:9-10 is helpful: ‘The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out. But I, God, search the heart and examine the mind. I get to the heart of the human. I get to to the root of things. I treat them as they really are, not as they pretend to be.’ (The Message). We are known by God more truly than we will ever know ourselves. And even when living righteously, we, like Paul, find ourselves wanting things we don’t want to want and doing things we don’t want to do. Desire is not a trustworthy indicator of human identity.(p43)
So she has a nice line to help clear away the debris: God created sexuality. People created sexual identity. (p75)
But if desire is not a trustworthy indicator, then what is? Well in a Christian framework, it must be the gospel of grace – that in Christ we can never be more truly loved than we are by him because we can never be loved less than we are by him. So Paris proposes a new identity label: lover and beloved
When desire is seen as the sun around which identity orbits, both become rigid and unassailable; to question desire is to question a person’s selfhood and worth. However, when desire is seen as a shifting planet that moves around the stable sun of belovedness, one’s desire as a child of God can remain in place regardless of how desire changes (or doesn’t change). And when desire is respected as a site of conflict and a venue for grace, it remains responsive to discernment and care – though this may or may not mean that desire will respond to attempts to change it, as Paul lamented so poignantly in Romans 7. (p98)
The result is that whenever people ask Paris what her sexuality is, she invariably replies that she is ‘unlabelled’ (despite being a married mother of 3 children). And she is not trying to be pedantic – it’s simply a helpful way for redirecting our assumptions. And of course, this has relevance far beyond the current culture wars. For it means that my identity is not derived from my social status, physical appearance, wealth, intelligence, power, respectability, or anything else. NONE of these things does any justice at all to what it means to be truly human.
Creating Real Communities
As Vaughan says in the interview, the biggest challenge of this decoupling of identity from sexuality is that churches have much to repent of and change – not least in how it helps, nurtures and loves single people (regardless of the reasons for their singleness).
Any discussion must start here – for there is SO much about the church of which I am deeply ashamed when it comes to this issue. In this light, one of the most helpfully challenging sections of the book is Paris’ articulation of different understandings of holiness and sanctification (p84ff). In particular, various paradoxical definitions are all biblically compatible – that sanctification is both a crisis and a lifelong process; that the process is one of both great blessing and sometimes great suffering; that becoming Christlike involves both incarnation and separation; that it happens individually but also corporately. I would go so far as to say that very many of the conflicts and ethical horror stories in church life perhaps derive from a failure to battle with both ends of the paradox.
In the post-sexual identity church, there’s no moral high ground for heterosexuals and no closet for homosexuals. There’s just people, each of whom is lover and loved. (p92)
If it doesn’t we are all in danger, especially as the culture wars heat up:
In place of discipleship, the adversarial approach offers morality and the inclusive approach offers affirmation. In both approaches we can cling to these outward forms of godliness but deny the real power of holiness. (p106)
Then for people who are single but committed to celibacy, we need to find ways of nurturing all the wonders of human relationships at their fullest within the Christian community: intimacy, comfort, practical support, encouragement and sharpening up. We desperately need to recover the practice of deep and committed friendship – especially between men. We need to encourage the Davids and Jonathans of our time. Of course the very notion of celibacy is regarded as absolutely ridiculous and even harmful. But as Paris points out:
Sexual holiness is strange, and celibacy all the more, because they aren’t reinforced by dominant plausibility structures…
Whether married, single and hoping to be married, single and satisfied, living with some degree of same-sex desire, or some combination of these, the practice of holiness makes strangers and aliens of us all… Long-term celibacy becomes plausible when there are widely held values, positive languages, meaningful social roles and real social support for celibates. For example, a church could review the language used to describe its groups and programs, and make sure they make room for celibates). (p129-130)
There is MUCH more to this book than I’ve been able to cover here – it will be a book I will revisit, for there were a few things I need to think through a bit more carefully. But as a helpful aid to dialogue and above all respect, I sincerely hope that it will be read by many, whether its central premises are accepted or not.
For my profound longing is that the very idea of hatred of others who are different from us doesn’t even come into it. But it can’t … if our identity is grounded grace from outside of ourselves.