A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life. Article 2 – Sexual ethics and God.

In the first article in this series we looked at the issue of what we mean when we talk about sexual ethics.

What we learned is that sexual ethics is concerned with how we should make use of the possibility that we have as creatures with bodies and souls to make free and rational decisions about how we should behave as men and women, how we should behave as people capable of engaging in sexual intercourse and other sex acts, and how we should behave in our relationships with other people (parents, siblings, friends, work colleagues etc.).

The possibility that we have to make free and rational decisions about how to behave in these areas then raises the question of how we should make use of this possibility. What should we do and what should we not do? What would constitute right behaviour and what would constitute wrong behaviour? 

In order to begin to answer these questions we have to consider on what basis some forms of behaviour are right and other forms of behaviour are wrong. Why is it right, for instance, to help old ladies to cross the road, but wrong to mug them, or to defraud them of their life savings?

The traditional Christian answer (and the one that has traditionally been accepted by Western civilization as a whole for most of the past two thousand years)  is that what determines what is right and what is wrong is the will of God. According to Christian teaching, God created human beings to live in a certain way. Behaviour that is in accordance with this is right and behaviour that is not in accordance with it is wrong.

At this point some thinkers have raised what is known as the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’ (so called because it is first formulated in a work called Euthyphro written by the Greek philosopher Plato), This dilemma raise the question whether things are good because God wills them, or whether God wills them because they are good. If we go for the first option, this would mean that ethics is arbitrary because absolutely anything (such as torturing small children for fun) would be good simply because God willed it. If we go for the second option this would mean that God is unnecessary for ethics since what is good is determined not by God, but by some other authority to which even God is subject.

In response, many Christian theologians have pointed out that the dilemma is a false one. As the creator of all things God is the source of wisdom and goodness. It follows that God himself must be perfectly wise and good, and this in turn means both that  his will is not arbitrary and that he does not need any external moral guidance in order to will what is right. Because God is perfectly wise, he knows what the right thing is, and in because he is perfectly good, he always wills it.

In relation to us, God’s perfect wisdom means that he knows perfectly what will best enable us to flourish as the kind of creatures he has made us to be and his perfect goodness means that he wills that we should live in this way. This means there is no good reason why we should not live in accordance with the way God created us to live in every area of lives (sexual ethics included) and every reason why we should.

If we say that what God will for us is how we should live, this raises a further issue which is how we know what God wills. We shall look at this issue in the next  article in this series.

A basic Christian primer on sex, marriage and family life.

Talking to members of many different churches over the years it has become clear that there is a widespread concern that a lot of ordinary Christians (and even a large number of the clergy) do not really understand the orthodox Christian view of sex, marriage and family life. In the lead up to the publication of Living in Love and Faith later this year, it seems  to me to be important that there should be a resource that would give a really basic introduction to the orthodox Christian understanding of these matters so as to provide anyone who wants it with a benchmark against which to measure what is said in LLF.

For this reason, I shall be posting a series of short articles in which I shall outline the orthodox Christian viewpoint as simply as I can in order to provide this kind of basic introduction.

Article 1 – What do we mean by sex and sexual ethics?

The term sex has three meanings.

First, it refers to the biological distinction between men and women. With the exception of the tiny number of people who have a genuinely mixed biology almost all human beings (some 99.98%) have bodies which are oriented to playing either the male or female role in sexual reproduction and as result are either male or female.

Secondly, it refers to sexual intercourse. By this we mean most basically the penetration of the female vagina by the male penis and, by extension, acts intended to lead up to this and also acts (‘sex acts’) intended to reproduce the physical pleasure caused by penetration through some other means.

Thirdly, it can refer to the innately relational nature of human beings. What has been called ‘social’ or ‘affective sexuality’ refers to the need that all human beings have to be in a range of deep and diverse relationships with other people (the vast majority of which will not be sexual in the sense of involving sexual intercourse).

When we talk about sexual ethics what we are talking about is how human beings should behave in relation to these three forms of human sexuality. Sexual ethics is about how we should behave as men and women, how we should behave as people capable of engaging in sexual intercourse and other sex acts and about how we should behave in our relationships with other people (parents, siblings, friends, work colleagues etc.).

Probing further, we can say that sexual ethics is only possible because human beings possess both bodies and souls.

 It is as creatures with bodies that we have the different forms of biology that make us men or women. It is as creatures with bodies that we can engage in sexual intercourse and other sex acts and it is through our bodies that we are able to enter into relationships with other people.

However, we are not only creatures with bodies, but also creatures with souls. This means that we have a non-material part of our being that enables us to understand the world around us on the basis of the information we receive through our bodies and to then make free and rational decisions about how we should act through our bodies.

Without our bodies we would not be able to act at all and without our souls we would not be free to decide how to act.

Sexual ethics is thus concerned with how we should make use of the possibility that we have as creatures with bodies and souls to make free and rational decisions about how to act through our bodies in the three areas we have noted.

In the next article I shall go on to look at the relationship between sexual ethics and God.

M B Davie 10.2.20