Nature and Grace – A response to Richard Beck

Rachel Held Evans is hosting a discussion of human sexuality on her blog, and has invited Richard Beck to lead the conversation. Yesterday he posted his second reflection on the subject, addressing the question of a gracious sexual intimacy, and the relationship of such intimacy to marriage. His post can be found here.

Following Rowan Williams and Eugene Rogers, Beck argues for an account of sexuality that is modelled on the self-offering love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the divine life. In this framework, sexual intimacy and marriage are seen as a risk-filled venture and occasion for mutual joy and discovery. He argues, further, that marriage should be defined in terms of grace (love and commitment) rather than nature (child-bearing) and that the defining feature of marriage is election: “I choose you.” This is consistent, he argues, with the fact that our relationship to God is rooted in grace rather than biological lineage.

At some level I am deeply appreciative of Beck’s initial reflections on sexuality. In many ways I think that his words (owing much to Williams, obviously) are right on the mark. I can only agree when he writes: “The reason sex can be so painful and tragic is that we expose ourselves to the perceptions of another. And this exposure carries great risk, psychically and spiritually.” Extending the thought of Rowan Williams, he also argues: “Sex is to enter into a communal space where there is giving and receiving, a mutuality, a sharing of selves and perceptions. This is why sex matters. It is a location where we discover our humanity through our being with others.”

On the other hand, I must confess that it strikes me as curious (astonishing, in fact) that the possibility of the child is utterly and completely absent from these reflections on sexual intimacy. A kind of levelling appears to have taken place where anything that doesn’t fit a broad/generic account of sexuality has been excluded. Thus for Beck there is risk, but it is never the risk of the third, the child. There is mutuality, but not a mutuality that leaves room for an infant. There is giving and receiving, but no receiving of a child. There is openness, but no openness to a new life.

[In a way Beck’s approach mirrors that of Close Relationship theorists – social scientists who for the sake of their research into intimate or close relationships must exclude variables that are not present across all such relationships. This is acceptable for social scientists, of course, who have their own questions to ask and answer – but for a theologian?]

In relations of sexual intimacy between women and men, from their teenaged years through to menopause (for the woman), the possibility of the child is very often the elephant in the room. Indeed, beyond coitus interruptus, there is a massive industry dedicated to preventing that child from making an appearance – condoms, contraceptive pills, surgical procedures, and innumerable pharmaceutical products. In so many instances, there is great anxiety about the effectiveness of these techniques. And these techniques have, in fact, come to define human sexuality in the modern west. The logic of safe sex (which is, in part, sex that excludes the child) dominates our culture.

As much as we might try, the possibility of the child cannot be separated out from sexual intimacy as it is experienced by a huge number of those who are sexually active (even if the possibility of the child is present only in a negative way). Yet Beck elides this aspect of sexuality rather effortlessly. The possibility of the child NEVER appears in his descriptions of a grace-defined sexuality. (It reappears in his later discussion of marriage, only, where he offers the rather banal and sterile observation that “no doubt human reproduction is part of human sex.”)

I for one am not at all satisfied that such a denial of the natural, of the child, should come to define a theological account of human sexuality – its risk, vulnerability, beauty, and its potentially comic and farcical nature. Sexual intercourse between man and woman need not be reduced to reproduction. Indeed, who could do such a thing!? But the possibility of a little one appearing on the scene – who looks like me, or my great aunt, and yet is utterly different from me – is, as they say, a game changer. Am I open to learn from her, to care for her, to share with my wife in the painful and joyful and demanding task of raising this one produced through our union? These questions define sexuality between a woman and a man.

As an aside, I see no reason why we should not interpret the ‘one flesh’ of the second creation account in terms of a rich and fecund (fecund both spiritually and biologically) intersubjectivity – rather than in the terms of ‘reproduction’ (a graceless term!) I have tried to get at some of this in my own reflections on Adam and Eve, in a paper in Modern Theology, which can be found here.

From the perspective of sexuality between woman and man, Beck’s account appears to cut off nature from grace. The grace of the triune God is a grace that encounters us and renews us in our embodied identity and relationships. Grace does not encounter me as an abstraction whose sexual intimacy with his wife can somehow neglect or be forgetful of the possibility and reality of the child. Indeed, the possibility and reality of the child defines that intimacy (even when it does so negatively, if you will). Further, openness to the God of grace means openness to the gift of the child that God may give – and to everything tumultuous that this child implies. The child is not merely nature. The child is also grace. As is openness to her.

To amend (emend?) Wiliams’ words, as quoted by Beck, in relation to sexual intimacy between a man and woman:

“Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perceptions of another and because there is a commitment of openness to the other, and to the child that God may give.”

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One thought on “Nature and Grace – A response to Richard Beck

  1. Surely the underlying problem here is that much contemporary theological discourse on sex and marriage is framed by the desire to represent marriage and sex as realities that can be predicated univocally of a relationship between a man and a woman and one between two persons of the same sex, to downplay any ethical significance to openness to procreation and another sexual kind (the personal otherness of individuals is typically stressed, but not sexual otherness – the fact that the human race has two ‘personal kinds’), and to cut off the natural realities of sexual dimorphism and procreation from our reflection on sex.

    The origin of the oversight that you identify is the self-imposed oversight of theological writings that set out with the clear aim of affirming, being inclusive of, and often stressing the equality of same-sex relationships. Williams’ piece was first delivered to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, Rogers’ work is an argument for same-sex marriages, and Beck’s work is also clearly shaped by a desire to affirm same-sex marriages. With such aims, it is virtually impossible to avoid severing nature from grace. Consequently, for all of their genuine merits, each of them will purposefully ignore or mute the features that mark out male-female sexual relationships as possessing a unique moral, social, and theological significance.

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