Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sex and the Christian (Part Three)

Perhaps the most topical and challenging issue facing Christians today is that of homosexuality in the life of faith. Christians everywhere must often respond to a question that most well-meaning non-Christians would ask: “If two people love one another, what’s wrong with it? We need more love in the world!”

It’s a loaded question, and at the core of its difficulty lies a single word: love. What do we mean by love? For folks who have no particular religious belief, love can mean any number of things: commitment, fidelity, an emotional or psychic bond. But what do Christians mean by the word? If some kind of dialogue is to be held concerning the nature of homosexual relationships, both sides of that conversation need to at least define their terms. After all, a conversation where two parties are operating with different definitions, is no conversation at all, but merely parallel monologues that can never meet on common ground.

For those of us who define our Christian beliefs in a manner consistent with Christians since the beginning, love is a reality rooted firmly in God. “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), which is to say that God is made known to us fundamentally by an action that is loving in nature. God’s love for the world is expressed in the giving of Himself through Jesus Christ to His creation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The above verse is so familiar, that we can easily forget how astounding it really is. After all, God is utterly transcendent from His creation, totally separated and apart from it in every way. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) Eastern Orthodox theology describes this transcendent God as “inconceivable,” “ineffable,” “beyond life, beyond being.” He and His creation are mutually exclusive realities, fundamentally and eternally other.

That God would then give Himself to His creation, unite Himself to it, constitutes a paradox that no amount of reasoning can resolve. In the end, Eastern Orthodoxy throws up its theological hands and calls it a Mystery—something that no human intellect can encompass, but that we can know on a level deeper than the intellect as an expression of God’s love. By His love, it is said, God transcended His own nature and joined Himself completely to that which is utterly other than Him—His creation—in the person of Jesus Christ.

This ‘otherness’ is crucial to the classical Christian definition of love. Founded in the Incarnation as the expression of divine love, we define human love is the act of giving oneself wholly to one who is other—wholly different in being and life—than ourselves.

Love can make itself known in different ways, of course. The ancient Greeks had four words for love: eros (sexual love), agape (spiritual love), storge (love for family), and philia (love for friends). We might suggest that these different kinds of love draw from different parts of our being: emotional, psychological, spiritual and biological. But whatever level on which we relate to each other, the Christian understanding (as I have stated it) would teach that otherness must exist in order for the relationship to be a loving one.

To put it simply, I cannot really love someone who is just another version of myself. Any counsellor or psychologist will tell you that if I am constantly seeking my emotional, psychological and spiritual twin—someone whose only purpose is to mirror back to me who I am or who I imagine myself to be—then there is something wrong. I am suffering from an acute case of narcissism. If I am to engage in healthy relationships, I must root them in otherness. I must find another distinct individual to whom I can learn to relate by bridging our differences, while maintaining a sense of personal integrity and freedom.

What does this have to do with homosexuality? Well, if a loving emotional, psychological and spiritual relationship is founded on the principle of otherness, a loving relationship that exists on the level of biology or sexuality must also be founded on otherness, that is, on the union of different sexes. In the Christian view at least, sameness on the level of sexuality is the biological equivalent of adoring one’s reflection in the mirror. If sexual relations are to remain the biological expression of God’s mysterious paradoxical love for creation, they must be differently sexed, or “heterosexual.”

Of course, just because a relationship is heterosexual does not mean it is also loving. Sexual narcissism is a common problem in the so-called “world of dating.” I recall a scene from Seinfeld where Jerry starts dating a woman who is actually a female version of himself. When he realizes the fact, he declares something to this effect: “Now I know who I’ve been looking for all these years—myself!” A heterosexual relationship where one or both persons are merely seeking the gratification of their own egos, is just as void of love as a relationship in which no sexual otherness exists in the first place.

To return, then, to the well-intentioned question about homosexuality at the beginning: “If two people love one another, what’s wrong with it?” If love is just affection, fidelity, some kind of bond between two people, then what’s wrong indeed? But if love means one person emptying him or herself for the sake of someone truly different—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and biologically different—then human relationships have a greater purpose to fulfill. They are not just the most expedient way to get happy, but living proclamations of a higher love of the Creator for His Creation in a profound and mysterious union that has no end.

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