Western culture and the sexual self – the contemporary challenge to the Christian view of human identity and sexual behaviour.

Introduction

The St Andrew’s Day Statement, published twenty five years ago this month by the Church of England Evangelical Council, was an attempt by a collection of British Evangelical theologians to try to sketch out what a constructive Christian engagement with the issue of same-sex relationships should look like at a time when, like today, the Church was deeply divided about the topic, following the publication of Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 and in the run up to the Lambeth Conference of 1998. It was intended to; ‘provide some definition of the theological ground upon which the issue should be addressed and from which any fruitful discussion between those who disagree may proceed.’ [1]

The statement was welcomed by many at the time of its publication as an important statement of the Evangelical position, and it has been read, re-read and referenced constantly in the quarter century since. It has also been the foundation for a series of subsequent statements by the CEEC on the issue of same-sex relationships, the St Matthias Day Statement in 2011, Guarding the Deposit in 2017, and Gospel Church and Marriage in 2018 and for the CEEC’s contribution to the Living in Love and Faith project, Glorify God in your Body, which was also published in 2018.

The Statement is in three parts. First, there is an introduction setting out what the statement is intended to achieve. Secondly, there is an affirmation of three basic ‘credal principles’[2] concerning Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father. Thirdly, there is a threefold ‘application of these principles to the question of homosexuality as it presents itself to the church today.’ [3]

In this paper I shall explore what is said in the first paragraph of the first application about how human beings find their true identity in Christ, and then look at how developments in Western culture mean that this view of human identity is now widely seen as immoral. Lastly, I shall look at how orthodox Christians need to respond to this situation.

How Christ determines who we are.

The paragraph says concerning Jesus Christ:

‘In him’ — and in him alone — ‘we know both God and human nature as they truly are’; and so in him alone we know ourselves as we truly are. There can be no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ. We must be on guard, therefore, against constructing any other ground for our identities than the redeemed humanity given us in him. Those who understand themselves as homosexuals, no more and no less than those who do not, are liable to false understandings based on personal or family histories, emotional dispositions, social settings, and solidarities formed by common experiences or ambitions. Our sexual affections can no more define who we are than can our class, race or nationality. At the deepest ontological level, therefore, there is no such thing as ‘a’ homosexual or ‘a’ heterosexual; there are human beings, male and female, called to redeemed humanity in Christ, endowed with a complex variety of emotional potentialities and threatened by a complex variety of forms of alienation.[4]

The first point to note is that the ‘we’ mentioned in the first sentence is not just Christians, but all human beings. The reason that this is the case, says the second sentence, is because there can be ‘no description of human reality, in general or in particular, outside the reality in Christ.’

This claim leads to the obvious question, in what way is a first century male, Jewish, human being, determinative for the existence of all other human beings?

The answer is twofold. First of all, Jesus Christ was, and is, not just a human being, but rather God incarnate. This means that he was, and is, both fully human and fully divine, and that the person who united the human and divine natures was God the Son, the second person of the Trinity who, possessing the divine nature from all eternity, assumed human nature at the incarnation, thereby taking humanity into the life of God. In the words of the prologue to John’s Gospel, it was the word who was ‘with God’ and ‘was God’ who ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:1 & 14).

As the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, together with the Father and Holy Spirit, created the world and humanity within it.

In the words of John: ‘He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.’ (John 1:2-3)

In the words of Paul:  ‘….in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.’ (Colossians 1:17)

In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, God the Son was the one through whom God the Father: ‘created the world’ (Hebrews 1:2)

To put it in systematic terms, what the Bible teaches is that all things have their existence from God the Father, through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit.

It follows from this that our existence as human beings rests on the fact that we, along with everything else, were created in this way. Furthermore when all things were created through God the Son we are told that God looked at what he had made ‘and it was very good’ and that God then blessed it and ‘rested from all his work which he had done in creation’ (Genesis 1:13 and 2:4). God preserves what he has made and acts to bring it to the goal he intends for it, but he does not change it or create it afresh. As Karl Barth writes: ‘It is part of the history of creation that God completed his work and confronted it as a completed totality.’ This means that there is a created order ‘which neither the terrors of chance nor the ingenuity of art can overthrow.’ [5]

What this means for our existence as human beings is that ‘the order of things is there, it is objective and mankind has a place within it.’[6] The nature of existence of human beings is therefore given. It is something that we can discover, but not something which we can create.

God has created us through Christ. We are not our own creators and are therefore unable to determine the conditions of our existence. Nor should we wish to do so. Our existence as those created by God is just as it should be. As we have seen, God has ‘blessed’ our existence and declared it to be ‘very good.’  

It is true that, since the human race was originally created, sin and death have spoiled the goodness of what God has made. We have become, in ourselves, corrupted creatures heading towards death. However, God has not abandoned us. The second reason that our existence is determined by Christ is that God became incarnate in Christ to redeem us (that is, set us free) from our corruption and the death that flows from it.

On the first Good Friday Christ died on the cross in an act of divine judgement that put to death our old corrupted natures and this took place in order that we might receive instead a wholly new life through his resurrection (Romans 6:6-11).  As John Calvin puts it:

‘…. our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’[7]

Oliver O’ Donovan develops this point further when he writes:

‘The resurrection carries with it the promise that ‘all shall be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22). The raising of Christ is representative, not in the way that a symbol is representative, expressing a reality which has an independent and prior standing, but in the way that a national leader is representative when he brings about for the whole of his people whatever it is, peace or war, that he effects on their behalf. And so this central proclamation directs us back also to the message of the incarnation, by which we learn how, through the unique presence of God to his creation, the whole created order is taken up into the fate of this particular representative man at this particular moment in history, on whose one fate turns the redemption of all. And it directs us forward to the end of history when that particular and representative fate is universalized in the resurrection of mankind from the dead. Each in his  own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ’ (15:23). The sign that God has stood by his created order implies that this created order, with mankind in its proper place within it, is to be totally restored at last.’[8]

At the end of time there will be a renewed creation (‘a new heaven and a new earth’ Revelation 21:1), and within it resurrected human beings will live as the people God created them to be. We do not yet fully experience the life we will have in this new creation, but the presence of the Spirit given to us by the risen Christ is the ‘first fruits’ (Romans 8:25) of the new life that is coming and enables us to begin to live now in a way that anticipates how we shall live  then.

It is true that the conditions of our life in the new world that is coming will not be entirely the same as our existence now. We will have bodies fully empowered by the Spirit and no longer subject to decay or death (1 Corinthians 15:42-44) and if we are married in this world it will no longer be true in the same way in the world to come (Matthew 22:22-33) because our marital relationship will be caught up and transcended in the universal ‘marriage’ or eternal communion of love between God and all of his redeemed people.

However, this does not mean that we will cease to be the people we are now. We will always be that particular human being God made us to be. To quote C S Lewis:

‘… it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction.’ [9]

As the St Andrew’s Day Statement notes, because all this is potentially true of all human beings (‘potentially’ because human beings have the capacity to reject life in God’s new creation) it is true just as much for those who identify as homosexual as for those who identify as heterosexual. How someone chooses to identify themselves does not affect the issue. However they see themselves, in reality they are those who are  ‘called to redeemed humanity in Christ’, that is they are those people who have been created by God in Christ, and redeemed by God in Christ, and are summoned to live now in the light of this truth.

The shape of our created existence.

If we ask about the specific shape of our existence as those created and redeemed by Christ, the first answer is that God has created his human creatures to be either male or female.

Observation of human beings shows us that they have many things in common. All human beings have bodies and souls, and human bodies have common features such as heads, feet, hearts, and fingernails. However, alongside the things humans have in common, there are also differences which allow us to tell one human being from another.

For example, some people have red hair while others are blonde, some have blue eyes while others have brown eyes, and some people are tall while others are short. Such differences enable us to distinguish Frank, who is blonde, has blue eyes, and is tall from Bill, who has red hair, has brown eyes and is short. The most significant of these differences between human beings is that they differ in their sex.

There are various physical and psychological differences between men and women which develop from the moment of conception. All of these differences are characteristics of people who are fundamentally differentiated by the fact that their bodies are ordered towards the performance of different roles in sexual reproduction and in the nurture of children once they have been born. It is because male and female bodies are ordered in this way that the human race continues to exist. Every human being is in existence because one parent had male physical characteristics and the other had female physical characteristics.

Scripture agrees what our observation of the world tells us. It teaches us that God created humanity to exist in two sexes, male and female. ‘God created men in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1:27)  It is because they are male and female that human beings can fulfil the command God gives them to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ through sexual intercourse (see Genesis 4:1 where ‘Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain’). Furthermore, God has also created marriage as a life-long exclusive relationship between one man and woman to be the proper setting for sexual intercourse and the begetting and raising of children (Genesis 2:18-25).

However, as we have already indicated, sex and marriage as we know them now will not continue to exist in the world that is to come. While those who are men and women in this world will continue to be men and women in the world to come, they will exist in a state of perfect, intimate, communion with God and all God’s people. This state of communion is the ultimate fulfilment of our human need for relational intimacy and, as such, it is the transcendent reality which sex and marriage in this world foreshadow.

Because all this is so, it follows that sex and marriage are not the ultimate goals of human existence. Those who are not married and do not enjoy sexual intercourse in this life will not lose out because they, just like those who are married, will be able to enjoy the reality of perfect intimacy with God and all God’s people in the world to come. In this way, they, too, will be able to experience the perfect fulfilment of their creation as male or female human beings.

Since it is not necessary for human beings to be married and have sex in order to achieve the goal for which they were created, it follows that it is not necessary for people to be married or have sex in this life. We can see this most clearly in the case of Jesus Christ. He lived a perfect human life as a male human being with the capacity for sexual desire and sexual activity, and yet he remained for the whole of his earthly life unmarried and sexually abstinent.

Both Jesus and Paul teach that God also calls other people in addition to Jesus to live as sexually abstinent single people for the whole of their lives (see Matthew 19:12, 1 Corinthians 7:25–35). Those who are called to live in this way are free to give themselves to the service of God in a radically wholehearted way, free of the responsibilities which marriage and family life bring with them. Their singleness also points forward to the life of the world to come in which, as we have said, no one will be married.

In addition to calling some people to be single for the whole of their lives, God also calls most people to be single for part of their lives. This is true for people before they marry, and it is also true for people whose marriage has come to an end and who have not re-married.

What all this means is that the second part of the Christian answer about the nature of our created existence is that from a Christian perspective, there are two ways in which God calls women and men  to live for either the whole or part of their lives – marriage and singleness. Because these are both states in which God calls his human creatures to live, neither of them is morally superior to the other. Marriage is not better than singleness, and singleness is not better than marriage. They are just different.

What is not equally good, and what is never acceptable, is to confuse the married and single states by having sexual activity outside marriage, whether this takes the form of sex between two people of the opposite sex, or two people of the same sex (who cannot be married because marriage is between a man and a woman). 

The issues we now face as a result of the development of Western culture.

The Christian understanding of human identity and the Christian sexual ethic which I have just outlined have been dominant in Western culture for most of the past two millennia. Obviously, people have not always lived in accordance with the Christian ethic, but this ethic, and the view of human identity that underlies it, have shaped the way most people in the West have viewed the world and have found expression in Western religion, law, education and art, as well as people’s day to day lives.

However, they are widely regarded today as both irrational and immoral. This can be seen in the way that Christian opposition to same-sex sexual relationships and same-sex marriage is regularly labelled as ‘homophobia’ and Christian opposition to people choosing to define their own sexual identity is regularly labelled as ‘transphobia,’ both terms carrying the implication that this opposition  is (a) irrational and (b) harmfully prejudicial to the LGBTQI+ people concerned.

If we ask how this seismic shift in attitudes took place, a persuasive account is now given in Carl Trueman’s new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self [10]in which he draws heavily on the workof three seminal modern thinkers, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the American sociologist and social critic Philip Rieff, and the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

As Trueman explains in his Introduction:

‘The origins of this book lie in my curiosity about how and why a particular statement has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful: ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body.’ My grandfather died in 1994, less than thirty  years ago, and yet, had he ever heard that sentence uttered in his presence, I have little doubt that he would have burst out laughing and considered it a piece of incoherent gibberish. And yet today it is a sentence that many in our society regard as not only meaningful but so significant that to deny it or question it in some way is to reveal oneself as stupid, immoral, or subject to yet another irrational phobia.’[11]

What Trueman shows in his book is that the reason that it has come to be regarded as coherent and meaningful to say ‘I am a woman trapped in a man’s body,’ and unacceptable to deny or question this statement, is because of a number of interrelated developments that have taken place in Western society since the eighteenth century. Taken together, these developments mean that what Trueman calls the ‘social imaginary,’ the way most people understand the world and how they should behave within it,[12] has shifted radically and the acceptance of the claims about their existence made by transgender people is a result of this shift.

The developments in question are as follows:

First, the secularisation of Western society and the consequent loss of the sense of the world as God’s creation means that there has been a shift from a ‘mimetic’ to a ‘poietic’ view of the world. As Trueman explains:

‘A mimetic view regards the world as having a given order and a given meaning and thus sees human beings as required to discover that meaning and conform themselves to it. Poiesis, by way of contrast, sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual.’ [13]

Secondly, there has been the related loss of  the idea of  ‘sacred order.’  In Western culture  today most people no longer believe that there is fixed moral order which has been established by God and which all human beings need to respect in consequence.

Thirdly, as a result Western culture lacks an agreed basis for ethics, and so as MacIntyre has argued, the basis of ethical decision making has become, by default, emotivism, ethics based on personal feeling and preference.[14]

Fourthly, there has been a change in the way in which most people view the purpose of human existence, the good to which human beings should aspire. What has emerged is what Taylor calls a ‘culture of authenticity’ which he defines as follows:

‘The understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late eighteenth century, that each of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or by the previous generation, or religious or political authority.’ [15]

Fifthly, there has been the development of what Rieff calls the ‘therapeutic society,’ a society in which the role of social institutions is viewed as being to foster the individual’s sense of psychological well-being as they live out their authentic existence. [16]

 Sixthly, since the work of Sigmund Freud, it has come to be widely believed that ‘humans, from infancy onward, are at core sexual beings. It is our sexual desires that are ultimately decisive for who we are.’ [17] The acceptance of Freud’s ideas has been facilitated by the huge growth in pornography and developments in modern medicine which make the results of sexual activity less serious through separating sex from childbirth and providing more effective treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Seventhly, the work of Neo-Marxist scholars such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse has led to the idea that the traditional view of the family as consisting of a married couple and their children, and the traditional sexual morality linked to this, are inherently oppressive and need to be overthrown

As Trueman argues, the result of these seven developments has been to create a social imaginary that is based on poiesis rather than mimesis, and in which the idea of being a woman trapped in a man’s body makes perfect sense. Negatively, there is no fixed order of things, and no fixed pattern for human existence or behaviour, and so no yardstick against which one can say the idea is wrong. Positively, the purpose of my existence is to live as authentically as possible in accordance with what I perceive to be my true self, and if this involves seeing myself as a woman, even though I have a man’s body, then that is what I should do.

Furthermore, society should support me in so doing because it is in this way that I will achieve psychological well-being. Conversely, thinking otherwise is immoral because it involves damaging my psychological well-being through a refusal to give recognition to who I know myself to be.

The same factors likewise create a social imaginary in which the acceptance of same-sex relationships and the claim to a gay or lesbian identity also makes sense. As before, there is no fixed order of things and no fixed pattern for human behaviour, and so no yardstick against which one can say same-sex relationships are intrinsically wrong. Positively, the purpose of my existence is to live as authentically as possible in accordance with what I perceive to be my true self, and if this involves having sex with someone of my own sex then that is what I should do. In addition, because, as Freud has taught us, sexual desire is at the core of human identity, my desire for sex with someone of my own sex defines who I am. I am gay or lesbian.

As Trueman goes on to say, within this world view:

‘…mere tolerance of homosexuality is bound to become unacceptable. The issue is not one of simply decriminalizing  behavior; that would certainly mean that homosexual acts were tolerated by society, but the acts are only part of the overall problem. The real issue is one of recognition, or recognizing the legitimacy of who the person thinks he actually is. This requires more than mere tolerance, it requires equality before the law and recognition by the law and in society. And that means that those who refuse to grant such recognition will be the ones who find themselves on the wrong side of both the law and emerging social attitudes.

The person who objects to homosexual practice is, in contemporary society, actually objecting to homosexual identity. And the refusal by any individual to recognize an identity that society at large recognizes as legitimate is a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference.’ [18]

The point made by Trueman in this quotation means that in the eyes of contemporary culture the Christian anthropology contained in the Saint Andrew’s Day Statement and expounded at the start of this paper could well be seen as a form of ‘hate speech.’  This is because the claim that there is ‘no such thing as ‘a’ homosexual’ is an attack on the very identity of the people concerned and as such, as Trueman says, ‘a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference.’  From this perspective, the theological approach expressed in the St Andrew’s Day Statement is as offensive as the theological arguments that were used to support slavery and apartheid.

This is also why LGBTQI+ campaigners object so strongly to the idea that those Christians who object to same-sex sexual relationships can ‘hate the sin but love the sinner.’  In a Post-Freudian world view sexual identity and sexual behaviour cannot be separated. Hence to hate the sin is necessarily also  to hate the sinner.

Lastly, this is why LGBTQI+ campaigners will not be content with anything less than the transformation of the Church of England into a body that fully and unreservedly affirms lesbian and gay relationships and all forms of transgender activity. Anything less is an attack on the fundamental identity of the people concerned and as such morally unacceptable. Viewed from this perspective, the hope of the powers that be in the Church of England that we can simply learn to live with difference is naïve.

What all this means for orthodox Christians in the Church of England.

For orthodox Christians in the Church of England, that is, those Christians who still hold to the anthropology and sexual ethics taught in the Bible and by the subsequent mainstream tradition of the Christian Church, the first thing this all means is that they need to ‘wake up and smell the coffee.’

More specifically, it means that they need to accept that the opposition to traditional Christian anthropology and ethics is not going away any time soon. Even if the orthodox hold the line in the Church of England in the immediate aftermath of Living in Love and Faith, the campaign to change the theology and practice of the Church of England will simply continue for the reasons set out above.   

In addition, orthodox Christians need to realise that being faithful to their beliefs will mean being willing to live as a member of morally suspect minority in our society. Fortunately, protections to religious liberty are sufficiently well entrenched in our society that Christians do not need to fear the sort of persecution for their beliefs that Christians face in other parts of the world.  However, they will face what Rod Dreher has called assaults from ‘soft totalitarianism’[19] in that they may well face moral opprobrium from their friends, colleagues and family because of what they believe, they may face harassment from official institutions, they may find it difficult to find employment or to advance in their careers, and they may be denied access to the either the mainstream or to social media. All these things are already happening, and they are likely to get worse.

The second thing orthodox Christians need to do is to develop a strategy to survive this particular time of trial.

This strategy, based on the experience of Christians in other times of persecution, will need to involve four elements

1.Christians will need to understand the issues at stake. The immediate issues of sexual behaviour and identity facing the Church are, as we have seen, merely the expression of a clash between a mimetic and poietic world view, and hence between a world view based on the Christian revelation, and a world view based on its rejection. This in turn means that no compromise is possible.

2. Christians will need to be active in teaching and in catechesis. If Christians are to be faithful to the Christian world view, they will need first to understand it. Hence teaching about the Christian world view and the anthropology and sexual ethics that flow from it need to be central to the Church’s life. In addition, priority will need to be given to the instruction of children and young people in these matters since they are the ones who are most exposed to the culture’s rejection of traditional Christian belief through the media and through education. 

3. Christians will need to be active in apologetics. They need to be active in explaining to those outside the Church why the Christian world view makes better sense than the world view that has developed in the West since the Enlightenment. In particular they need to understand and highlight the shortcomings of the arguments in favour of the modern Western world view and the known damage that the sexual revolution stemming from has caused in Western society, particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable sectors of society.

4. Finally, the Church needs to be a community that, in Lesslie Newbigin’s words, acts as the ‘hermeneutic of the Gospel.’[20] In a society in which, for better or worse, lived experience is viewed as the guide to truth, then it is only as people experience the transforming love of God embodied in a loving and supportive Christian community that they will become open to explore the truth of that Church’s teaching and to accepting that Church’s ethics. That is why Ed Shaw was right to give his book on ‘the church and same-sex attraction’ the title The Plausiblity Problem.[21]  The problem orthodox Christians have to address is how can our community life make our worldview plausible?

M B Davie  26.11.2020


[1] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Timothy Bradshaw (ed), The Way Forward? 2ed (London: SCM Press, 2003), p.5.

[2] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.6. 

[3] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.6. 

[4] The St Andrew’s Day Statement, Introduction, in Bradshaw, p.7.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (London & New York: T&T Clark, 204), p.222.

[6] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order (Leicester: Apollos, 1984), p. 61.

[7] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press: 1961), pp.122-123.

[8] O’Donovan, p.15.

[9] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (Glasgow: Fount, 1978), p. 135.

[10] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020).

[11] Trueman p.19.

[12] Trueman pp.36-37.

[13] Trueman p.39.

[14] This is the argument put forward by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1983).

[15] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age ( Cambridge Ma and London: Belknapp Press, 2007), p.475.

[16] See Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1966).

[17] Trueman, p.27.

[18] Trueman, pp.68-69.

[19] See Rod Dreher, Live not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York: Random House, 2020).

[20] Lesslie Newbiggin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989), Ch.18.

[21] Ed Shaw, The Plausibility Problem (Nottingham: IVP, 2015). 

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