Giles Fraser: To be alive is to be more than physical (1)

22 June 2011

ONE of the things that drives me mad about the New Atheists is the way that they refuse to see humans as anything other than medium-sized portions of animated meat. In his new book, Aping Mankind (Acumen Publish­ing), the doctor and philosopher Raymond Tallis has a go at the re­ductionism that has be­come de rigueur in popular present­ations of science. He argues par­ticularly against the way in which conscious­ness is often assumed to be the same thing as brain activity. Human beings are so much more than their physicality.

The Church should be cheering on this sort of observation. But, instead, the more conservative-minded among us are doing exactly the same thing in a reduction of making love to a physical act.

The debate about gay bishops has alighted on an apparent settlement — the distinction between orientation and practice. It is OK to be gay, as long as you don’t have sex. This seems a simple enough distinction, but its simplicity is misleading. Sex is not simply a physical act — lumps of flesh colliding — but is best ex­pressed as an act of love. And it is talk of love that has been most absent from this impoverished debate.

Can gay bishops hold hands with their partner if they don’t have sex with them? Can they kiss each other? Can they stroke the back of their partner’s neck? These acts of physical intimacy cannot be made sense of by our canon lawyers because the same act can mean very different things in different circumstances.

The proper context for physical intimacy is a stable, committed, and loving relationship. The orientation/practice distinction takes no account of love, and thinks of sex as a mere physical act. I thought it was part of the Church’s understanding that sex is never mere sex, but always means something much more. That is why there is a world of difference between having sex and shaking hands — both of which can be seen as mere physical activities. The really important thing is what these physical acts mean. It is this meaning that transforms sex into something which, for so many of us, is essential to human flourishing.

Yes, there are some who are called to celibacy. But, as the Archbishop of Canterbury observed before he was Archbishop, celibacy is a vocation, and not one to which all gay people are called. The orientation/practice dis­­tinction is a denial of the full mean­­ing of sex as making love, and a cruel refusal of human flour­ish­ing.

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote St Irenaeus. The prohibition against love-making for some is a prohibition against being fully alive. This is a refusal of the glory of God. The Bishops’ restate­ment of their guidelines makes sex an act of lifeless physicality. They are the Medusa’s stare of modern church politics.

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