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Why the Church must shut up about sex


SOME have labelled those with homosexual orientation as sick and in need of expert attention. As Giles Fraser says ( Comment, 4 March), this places them in a position of powerlessness. But there is much more to the story concerning sexuality and our society.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault states that the homosexual is a modern invention. Homosexual sex existed before the modern era, but, before the 19th century, no one defined their being by the biological features of his or her sexual partner's body. Foucault also claims that modern sexuality is spoken into existence as the result of Victorian sexual mores, including both that which gets called homosexuality and that which gets called heterosexuality. He says that modern sexuality is the inverse of Victorian sexual repression. The quietness of Victorian sexual mores gives rise to our current outspokenness on sexuality.

Foucault would have resisted any label that reduced his being to a biological function. Yet referring to people as homosexual or heterosexual does just that. Modernist society insists that we are primarily sexual in the core of our nature.
The godfather of my children experiences himself as a homosexual man, yet he refuses to be placed within a category of homosexual. He often says: "I am first and foremost a Christian, then I am the son of Bob and Mildred, and the godfather of Madeleine, Isabel, and Lydia. Homosexual is way down the list."

OUR identity as sexual beings may be the result of a kind of neurotic obsession to reduce behaviour, including sexual behaviour, to its biological features. Foucault would have argued that this is a kind of sickness that possesses society. He would have said that all things perceived as social ills by either the Left or the Right are the chronic neuroses of modernity.

Foucault seems to be saying that modernity keeps obsessively attempting to solve its problems through discourse with the scientific expert. In an older psychiatric definition, a neurosis is any series of behaviours that are repeated out of an unfounded and irrational fear, with the expectation that a different result will be achieved. The modern condition, says Foucault, is one where we keep applying the same tried and tired approaches, expecting a different result. The illness is in modern society, whether left-wing or right-wing. Both belong to the same political beast.

Perhaps we need to look to an older understanding of sickness and health, as it relates to sin and redemption. In ancient Christianity, and in contemporary Eastern Orthodox Christianity, our condition as sinful creatures is understood as one of illness. All things, whether food, money, power, or sexual desires (even sanctioned sexual desires), can draw us away from the love of God. Anything can become an idol constituted by our sinful desires. All of us are in need of the Great Physician who can heal us.

I believe that the ancient Christian era, which produced the creeds, is an era that did not try to simplify Christianity, but, paradoxically, tried to articulate our knowledge of God. There is a difference between God and what we say about God. What we say about God cannot be captured in simple phrases. The development of the creeds was in response to those who would simplify the nature of Christ as either just man, or just God.

Thus the creeds attempt to maintain the enigmatic quality of the Christ. God and the incarnation remain, at some level, enigmatic to human minds. Insofar as God is ineffable, and insofar as we are made in the image and likeness of God, we necessarily are enigmas to ourselves.

Our sexuality is no different; so we must stop simplifying it with these labels of hetero- or homosexuality, and look at it as just one of our many desires. Yet this does not mean that there are as many sexualities as there are people, for that would mean that our desires are not directed towards the highest good, namely God, but towards a myriad of different objects. Rather, it means that until all our desires - sexual desires included - are directed to the highest good, we are disordered. We are thus sinful, and unhealthy - all of us.

There is a neurosis about sex in our society. In a culture where men and women are presented as objects to sell us things, no one's sexuality can be thought of as healthy. My sexual desires have been shaped by what has been presented to me as an object of desire. What I find enticing is different from what men in the 17th century thought of as erotically desirable.

Thus, all our desires are distorted, because they lure us away from the heart 's desire, as Augustine might say. There is no reason to think that modern heterosexual behaviour is "normal".

Yet trying to normalise homosexuality according to heterosexual norms, by giving it the Church's blessing, will not work either, for it, too, is disordered. The Right claims that heterosexual is normal; the Left claims that homosexual is just as normal. Each hopes for some scientific expert who will proclaim its position to be the correct one. Society is ill indeed.
 
PERHAPS we should all stop speaking about sexuality so we can listen for the healing word from the Great Physician. This will require us to look for the log in our own eye before we look to our neighbour's.

 On the Right, it will mean that we cannot allow a capitalist economy to shape our understanding of the economy of salvation, where good behaviour is rewarded with wealth, happiness and heaven. It will mean examining why sexuality seems to stir up so much negative energy - energy that might shape our reading of scripture, as well as our dealings with our brothers and sisters.

  It will also mean that, on the Right, we have to acknowledge that the reading of scripture is not a simple task. To claim that reading scripture is simple is to read it simplistically in our own historical categories. It will also mean that we have to listen to the stories of those who experience themselves as homosexual, knowing that we also experience ourselves as sexual beings.

On the Left, it will mean that we have to listen to those on the Right who legitimately note that the tradition's interpretation of scripture is really clear, and take that seriously. To reject outright a plain reading of scripture for a more esoteric reading smacks of élitism and imperialist gnosticism. The Left will have to ask itself why it is suspicious of tradition. The tradition has been oppressive in the past, but perhaps it survives not because of political power, but because there is something true in it.

Our ill-health comes to distort what we say about each other, and what we read in scripture. We long for health, yet, enigmatically, we resist cures, because sometimes the healing of a wound can be worse than the wound itself. As the result of modernity, we are all wounded, and there is no health in us.

The Revd Dr Jeffrey Bishop is Principal Lecturer in Medical Ethics and Law at the Peninsula Medical School in the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth.

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