In the Beginning Was the Relationship

Jack L. Stotts 
President Emeritus, 
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

Friday, November 5, 2004

I am delighted to be here as part of this conference, to share with you in our exploration of questions of theology and sexuality.

The late Joseph Sitler, the distinguished theologian, is reputed to have said on the occasion of his retirement, “I am an old man. The world has changed, and I don’t understand it.” I identify with Dr. Sitler. One of the areas I flunk when it comes to understanding is a changed world of sex and sexuality. I want to share with you some comments and quotations, some statements about this or that, that I find of interest. Some of the things I will be quoting will seem quaint to some of you, but I will say them anyway. Also I apologize in advance for anything I say that may be offensive. It is not intended to be that way, but sometimes it is heard that way. As I say, one of the areas I flunk when it comes to understanding is the changed world of sex and sexuality. Here are some examples of the changes in the world that I have seen and do experience, even today.

When I was 50 years younger, birth control devices were metaphorically and literally sold under the counter. They were available, if at all, only on request, request from a stern pharmacist who presided over the cash register, or from vending machines that in bold print announced that these items were solely for the prevention of disease. At least, that is how it was in Dallas, Texas in the 1940s and 1950s. The world has changed. Now condoms line the shelves of our local drug or grocery store. They can be checked out at the counter along with candy bars and toothbrush and bath powder; and the amazing thing is, the clerk doesn’t even avoid your eyes or elevate an eyebrow. My most recent research on this matter occurred last Saturday, as a matter of fact, when my wife and I were shopping – now don’t jump to conclusions. We were shopping at Central Market in San Antonio, Texas, one of those vast emporiums, and I knew I had to say something today. So I parked my grocery basket, sneaked over to where I thought these items that are unmentionable might be available, and sure enough, there’s a whole row (did you know that?) of condoms. In San Antonio they were under the title, “Lifestyles.” The world has changed. I don’t understand it.

In the same manner, pornography was tucked away out of sight under the counter, available only on request; but the world has changed. Now these publications adorn airport bookstores, occupy a section of their own in local bookstores, and stride through the Internet. I remember a Supreme Court Justice who once commented that he couldn’t define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. Some of us take that suggestion. We ought to look around a little more than we do. — I don’t recommend that, either. It is amazing to me, quaint perhaps to you, that in 1947 the New York Times, the arbiters of taste and news, refused to advertise an allegedly scandalous study on male sexual behavior. It came to be called the Kinsey Report. Ironically, three weeks ago, in the New York Times Book Review, there was an article honoring the work that Dr. Kinsey had done in breaking through the boundaries that enclosed him and others in the area of human sexuality.

As to homosexuality, that was a matter less than 50 years ago, of whispered snickers and derisive comments at best, and at worst physical abuse. That world has made slow progress in being overcome. Still there is subtle and overt homophobia which rules many of our hearts and minds and bodies, but some progress has been made. Some progress – there is more to be made. The world has changed in 50 years. 

The church in that period was very clear about the moral guidance it should stand for and propagate. The basic moral norm was abstention from sexual intercourse before or outside of marriage. Adultery and fornication were clearly ruled out as legitimate morally. You know about the elder who came to see his pastor and said, “Sir, I’m reading my Bible and trying to understand the difference between fornication and adultery.” The pastor thought a minute and said, “You know, I don’t know. I’ve tried both of them, and they seemed the same to me!”The world has changed, and I sure don’t understand it. Can you blame me?

The environment of sexuality is not something out there. It is in here as well. Its presence surrounds me and, at times, threatens me. Items like the following reflect competitive proposals that vie for my behavior, attitude, and understanding. They come in no particular order, priority, or logic. Some can be heard as pleas for help, others as affirmations, still others as descriptive observations. Listen to the jumble of some of the comments:

  • Item: From a Purdue University women’s dormitory window, a banner hanging down had these words: “All we want is love. All we get is sex.”
  • Item: As Karl Barth wrote (he’s dead, you know, but he is still speaking) – Karl Barth wrote, “We no longer have a bad conscience about sex; but we don’t have a good conscience, either.”
  • Item: Masters and Johnson, sex therapists: “We never treat the individual. We treat the relationship.”
  • Item, from a movie some years back, An Indecent Proposal: Robert Redford offers a financially strapped young couple a million dollars if the wife will sleep with him for one night. After anguished reflection the couple, who are in desperate financial straits, agree. The next morning the husband is furious with himself and his wife. The woman says to her husband, “Why are you so upset? It wasn’t love, it was only sex.” — Is any sex “only sex”? A question.
  • Item: Who won the Super Bowl this year? Anybody remember? The Patriots. What was the score? Nobody remembers the score? I don’t either. The morning after the Super Bowl, these comments were made by Jim Wallace. “What everybody was talking about the next day was the baring of Janet Jackson’s right breast, the finale to a stimulated sex dance done to a song called, ‘Rock Your Baby’ which ends with the line, ‘I gotta have you by the end of this song.’ Why is it the outstanding thing we remember about the Super Bowl is not who won or who lost, but the references to Janet Jackson’s breast?” It is fascinating to me also, as a kind of a sidelight, that no one mentioned the reality of the violence of that act. It wasn’t just sex. It was violence against another human being. “I gotta have you by the end of this song.”
  • Another item: “I subscribe to the ‘drink of water’ theory of sexual intercourse. When you are thirsty you drink a glass of water. Then your thirst is quenched. Same thing with sex. You feel tense. You relieve the tension with sexual intercourse. It is a natural biological drive. That’s all.”
  • Item: From the health center on a university campus, this posted sign: “Condoms distributed without charge between 2 and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.” Directly below was another poster: “AIDS kills.”
  • Item, an old timer: “Love and marriage, love and marriage / Go together like a horse and carriage. / I was told by Mother, / You can’t have one without the other.”
  • Item: Martin Buber: “In the beginning was the relationship.”
  • Item, from an article in the New York Times Magazine about teenage sex: Brian, a 16-year-old from New England, reports on the advantages of “hooking up.” Hooking up, I learned, is the name for sexual intercourse that is quick, casual, and shallow. “Being in a real relationship just complicates everything,” says Brian. “When you’re ‘friends with benefits,’ you go over to the person’s house, you hook up, then you play video games or something. It rocks.” A teenage girl named Melissa was asked whether she thought hook-ups worked equally well for girls and boys. She surprised me with her answer. “It’s equal,” she said. “Everybody is using each other. That’s fair.” Is it fair?When you are dependent, by the way, on a quote like that from a person like myself about sexuality of teenagers, you know you’re in trouble. I am reminded of Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers. In the play, someone says to the wife of a professor of moral theology, “My dear, you have no knowledge about these things. After all, you are the wife of a professor. Therefore you are, by definition, twice removed from reality.”
  • Item: “There is no such thing as love; there is only power.”
  • Item: “Sex sells.”
  • Item: “Sex is not anything. It is everything.”
  • Item: “Sex in the City.”
  • Item: “I don’t care what they do, as long as they don’t do it in the street and scare the horses.”
  • Item, in this season of politics: A semi-sexist poem from W.B. Yeats, written in response to an affirmation of Thomas Mann, the German novelist. Mann proposed that “In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.” Yeats responded:

    “How can I, that girl standing there,
    My attention fix
    On Roman or on Russian
    Or on Spanish politics?
    Yet here’s a traveled man that knows
    What he talks about,
    And there’s a politician
    That has read and thought,
    And maybe what they say is true
    Of war and war’s alarms,
    But O that I were young again
    And held her in my arms!”
    [W.B.Yeats, “Politics”]

  • Item: “When all is said and done, more is said than done in the locker room.”
  • Item, from Fiddler on the Roof: “Goldie, do you love me?” “For twenty years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned the house. . .” “Yes, but Goldie, do you love me?” “I suppose I do.” “And I suppose I love you, too.”
  • Item: John Dedek, a distinguished Roman Catholic ethicist, begins his study of sexual ethics this way, commenting on the presence of the “f” word in everyday usage and rampant in the entertainment world. He writes, “Dogs ‘f’; people make love. The problem is not the language,” — although that is a legitimate issue to be addressed – “but the basic issue is the reduction of sex to bios, not anthropos — to biology, not to the meaning of life in its richness and fullness.”

These random references swirl around my head and maybe are present in some of you. They are unsettling for me. They unsettle my need for some kind of certainty. They unsettle my need for some kind of clarity about what is going on and what should be going on in the area of sex and sexuality. In today’s sexual environment, are many sexual encounters tied to immediate pleasure rather than enduring responsibility? Do we in the United States stake sex and sexuality to a short-term rather than a long-term intention? Sexual relations are shattered today by the threat and the presence of HIV AIDS. The acceptance of living together as a valid form of short- and long-term relationships is rampant. What do we say? I don’t know.

The ongoing debate about the ordination of gays and lesbians, the exploitation of sexuality by the media who themselves are hostage to the gods of exploitative consumption, entertainment, and consumerism …we could go on. The world has changed, and I don’t understand it. But I hope the point has been made and not belabored that when we deal with sexual matters, we live in a confusing and confused world. This world is, perhaps, summarized by the title song of the Cole Porter Broadway musical, Anything Goes. What do we make of all this?

Of all things to bring to this discussion, a word from the past, from almost 40 years ago, a familiar, not outdated word. The Confession of 1967 provides a summary statement of the sexual ecology that still holds true. Listen.

“The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of man’s alienation from God, his neighbor, and himself. Man’s perennial confusion about the meaning of sex has been aggravated in our day by the availability of new means of birth control and the treatment of infection, by the pressures of urbanization, by the exploitation of sexual symbols in mass communication, and by world overpopulation.” (C67, 9.47d)

The Confession of 1967 acknowledges that the society of which we are a part is “anarchic” in terms of sexuality. That’s followed by the call to the church to be agents of reconciliation. It affirms God’s good intention for the gift of sexuality, and our responsibility to lead people to ”the responsible freedom of the new life in Christ,” where “each person has joy in and respect for his own humanity and that of other persons.” (9.47d)

“Anarchy,” from 1967. The word sounds all too familiar to us today. What is lacking in that world is an integrated sense of what we mean by love and sexuality separately and together. There is sufficient evidence to recognize that there is in our day as in previous eras considerable confusion about how to understand the gift and the claim of human sexuality and how to live responsibly as Christians within this realm. 

There is even evidence that in our supposedly enlightened age, the conspiracy of silence within families about sexuality remains in effect. In the magnificent sermon last night, there was mention of how you learned about sexuality, and reference to a book being given. It was often the way it was done. I want to report that things are better now. Now you are given illustrated books.

In 1967, the primary presenting issue was contraception. But that particular issue provoked discussion about the primal question of the authentic meanings of human sexuality. It was the time when the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae was presented, and the Roman Catholic position was set out with reference to contraception. The same thing occurred in many Protestant communities and denominations. For the last 25 to 30 years, the presenting issue has been not primarily birth control but homosexuality; for homosexuality raises the issue of the fundamental nature of human sexuality.

I wonder, quite frankly, if the struggle over the ordination of gays and lesbians is not fueled to some degree by the need to avoid sexual issues that are closer to home, that are more intrusive and immediate to countless persons and families. For instance, living together and the legitimacy of non-marital sex — under what conditions would we say it was legitimate or illegitimate? One way of avoiding that question is of course to raise another question, about homosexuality. But that pushes us back to basic questions about human sexuality, not one gender or another, one orientation or another orientation, but what is basic in our nature?

We in the church and in the society are today confronted by an ethical occasion. By an ethical occasion, I mean the recognition of the need to examine a particular issue or issues, attitudes and behavior, because the received ones no longer bear the compelling mark of authenticity and validity. Yet the question here is sexual ethics from a Christian perspective, binding together diverse elements into a basic exploration of What is human sexuality? What is it? What are the continuities? A perennial question, as C67 says, but a question that must be addressed.

The danger of reducing the issue to one of the issues is always present in a case like this, an ethical occasion. This is in accord with H. Richard Niebuhr’s understanding of Christian sexual ethics as “reflection upon current moral attitudes and behaviors in the light of some standards of excellence.” Or again, Jim Gustafson, distinguished ethicist, “Ethics is an intellectual discipline that seeks to order one’s own life individually and corporately in response to God’s ordering of the self and of the world.”

What I want to do with the remainder of this address is to treat three different elements that are necessary as we consider human sexuality. The first is an introductory and very preliminary suggestion about one source all Christian ethics must employ, namely the interpretation of Scripture. Second, we will focus on sex in a case study of the ethical tradition that has had important consequences for our sexual life today. The third is an analysis of the way of doing sexual ethics that is known as Covenant ethics.

An essential component for a Christian sexual ethics is Scripture. I never thought I would be saying that here because it has been said so often and repeated so often. I think it is correct that the basic issue for us in dealing with any human issue, any human behavior issue, is the Scripture. It’s the ground on which we move. It is the ground to which we return. The question, then, is: How do we use that Scripture?

There are two camps, it seems to me, as I reread the material about sexuality and about other social issues over the years — there are two hermeneutic camps that have been identified. The first is what I call the thematic camp. Here one finds or is grasped by certain dominant themes that course through the Bible — they run through the text and provide an ordering principle for examination and reflection of what we are to be and to do. For example, one such theme is clearly reconciliation. It’s a pervasive theme in the Scriptures, not located only in a few verses. The theme has integrity in relationship to the whole history of that word, that concept, and that way of living. That pervasive theme observes the principles of interpretation that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. The Bible is a cradle in which Christ is laid, that all Scripture is interpreted by Jesus Christ in the Spirit. The ethical responsibility is to order our lives around God’s reconciling presence and power as we are able to discern it. The thematic camp is the one I’m referring to.

The second camp proceeds by taking particular verses as specifying for all time what is to be done. Here the Bible is seen as something of a manual which orders how we are to order our and others’ lives. Some verses are elevated as intrinsically right or good. In a confusing world and one laced with sin, these are seen as generous gifts of God to illumine our way. They make concrete what we are to do. Again, this approach sees a disordered world, an anarchic world, if you will, and worries about that and looks for moral laws that can be followed, that can be shared, that can be proposed. These laws come to be known by some degree of reason, but some are given in revelation.

Two fundamentally different ways of looking at Scripture, both present in our church. and we are trying to address them — the theme that runs throughout, of liberation for example, or specific rules about homosexuality, or what have you, and how you put those two together.

The second component of ethical reflection is the tradition which has shaped us, often unconsciously. We Presbyterians have not been really big on being informed by our tradition. The word most used — and used very loosely – is Reformed. We forget, I think – and it’s an American problem, not just a Presbyterian problem – we fail to recognize that history lives in us. Bruce Rigdon, a good friend and former colleague, says, “The past isn’t gone; it isn’t even past!”

So let’s look at the past, specifically the 17th Century, in a study of Puritanism by James Turner Johnson, distinguished historian at Loyola University here in Chicago. In his book A Society Ordained by God, James Turner Johnson charts the differing content of what he calls Roman Catholic and Puritan perspectives on sexual matters. He does so by addressing the Biblical anchor points of each. I will be caricaturing, of course, what he says, but I hope you will find it helpful. Johnson understands the Puritans as revolutionaries, struggling for liberation in all aspects of life — the sexual, economic, political.

These two traditions, Roman Catholic and Puritan, are shaped by where they began Biblically. With reference to matters of sexuality, the Roman Catholic perspective, he contends, is crucially shaped by Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” The Puritan position begins with Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the human should be alone. I will make a helper as his partner.”

The first position pulling from these starting points, Johnson calls the Biological Model. The latter he calls the Covenant Model. We will look at that later. Both of those models, the Roman Catholic and the Puritan, presume and teach monogamous Christian marriage as the only legitimate location for sexual intercourse. Both rise from a patriarchal perspective. Both are addressing the purposes of marriage. According to the Roman Catholic view, the primary purpose of sex is procreation, which includes the requirement to have and to rear children in the church. Other purposes are secondary — companionship, remedy for sin, sacramentum or sacrament. In a class I was teaching in church, we were talking about the purposes of marriage and sexuality, and we got into this discussion about the multiple purposes. One of course is to maintain the ongoing life of the people, against which contraception speaks. We went very seriously through the other purposes, secondary, but they are there — companionship is one. Another one is, as the King James version says, human sexuality as a remedy for sin. “It is better to marry than to burn.” I think we all agree with that! We went through all these purposes, and I thought we were through. Then this young man in the Sunday School class said, “You’ve forgotten one purpose of sex.” “What’s that?” “Fun!” — And you know, we sometimes don’t take the delight in this gift that we ought.

What happened in the 17th Century was a change in the order of the priority of the purposes of sexuality. If you look at the history of the Roman Catholic and Puritan perspectives, what you have is one that begins with relationships and another that begins with moral, natural law. Those two are starting points. It’s been shown over and over again that if you begin with relationships, you are open to change. If you begin with moral law, there is no way you can open yourself to change – you can apply, but not open yourself to change. Just think of the differences in the moral positions around the question of divorce, for example. You can see in our own tradition, how divorce becomes acceptable over a period of years, and one of the reasons is the relationship shifts, and you are able to bring in different factors, making divorce not a legal situation primarily but a human situation, with human relationships being primary. If you think of others as well — divorce, contraception, responsible parenthood — all these become important. The important point is that the covenantal or Puritan approach is one that centers the issues, the law, on relationships. The law has a terrible job, a necessary job, of trying to change in the midst of a world which by definition cannot change morally.

Concluding the point of the Christian sexual ethic is an ethical model that is in keeping with our Puritan forbears as well as others, called Covenant. We are called the Covenant Network. Let’s talk about Covenant for a minute. A Covenant model gives some structure and order to the untidy world of swirling moral and ethical decisions that must be made. The Covenantal model is also one that self-consciously lies behind the various studies of sexual ethics that have been brought to General Assembly in the last fifty years. In every case that I have discovered (and I’m sure it is not complete), the studies that have been done — the 1991 study, the 1976 study, a variety of studies that have been done on human sexuality — all had as their content base a relational theology. Every one of them. Every one of them has been rejected on the basis of moral law. Such is the way it is.

The relational model says that the substance of the relationship is love. The structure of the relationship is moral law or rules. The whole purpose and promise of the Covenant is that which stands before us. Let me repeat that. The purpose of the Covenant is shalom, peace, salaam. The substance of the Covenant is love, justice — general principles. The moral law is what comes out of the substance, the Covenantal model. What you can do is to change the law, the regulations or guidance. It’s like Calvin’s third use of the law – it’s for guidance, for help. It’s important, very important; but it is open and flexible at the same time. We live in a world where the Covenant is a Covenant initiated by God. The substance of that relationship that God initiates is love and justice, and the structure of that relationship is You shall do this or You shall not do that. The third part is open to change. What is not open to change is the substance. It’s the old question of law and gospel: Which comes first, which is the most powerful, which belongs where? The commandments are expressions of the content of the substance. They fit the category of Calvin’s third use of the law. They lead to behaviors that are clear, that give direction to what is going on.

Today the normative setting of Christian marriage is the creation of a monogamous community where individuality and mutuality are linked together across time and space with the intention of permanence. What has happened, it seems to me, in the last two or three decades, is that the central meaning of marriage has really become philia, friendship. That is what is at the heart of the relationship. Friendship in the context of male and female in a monogamous relationship, an excluvistic relationship. That is the power of what is going on today. Or the marriage is a sexual community where the intention is that two shall become one, recognizing that becoming one is a process, not a state of affairs. Two shall become one. That is the promise.

A Covenantal model, sexual model is driven toward concreteness, but the practices that are derived are often at a very high level of generality. For example, in the booklet Sexuality and the Human Community, a marvelous study, by the way, this direction or guidance is given for dealing with an ethical norm: “In place of the simple but ineffective and widely disregarded standard of premarital virginity, we would prefer to hear our church speak in favor of the more significant standard of responsible, appropriate behavior. Responsibly appropriate behavior might be defined as sexual expression which is proportional to the depth and maturity of the relationship, to the degree to which it approaches the permanence of the marriage covenant.”

Such a definition clearly means that sexual promiscuity is neither responsible nor appropriate. That position was rejected, but you see the struggle. What do we recommend? We recommend a relationship be established of maturity. When does that set in? Age 16? Age 30? Age 50? Age 70? Age 80? Somewhere in there, surely! That kind of advice and guidance – like Calvin’s Third Use of the Law — cannot be finally enforced. It must be learned. It cannot be accepted in the church or has not been accepted in the church today. You can look also at how the different content of what is acceptable shifts. We have had marriage defined in so many different ways — polygamous marriage is still an issue, I am told, in some of our sister churches in some other parts of the world. The structure changes; the content changes.

I’m going to tell a little story about McCormick Seminary. When I was President of McCormick, down in Hyde Park, the Jesuit School of Theology had its headquarters right across the street from the central McCormick building. This was at a time in the 1970s when, quite frankly, the Jesuits were doing almost anything to get vocations and recruit people for this religious order. They had especially focused in on one person who really wanted to become a part of the order, and that young man was invited to spend the day on the campus of the Jesuit School of Theology with others from the cluster of scholars who belonged to those schools. Well, he came first at 9:00 in the morning to the best class they could design for him to attend. It was marvelously stimulating, and they had a break. They had cakes and cookies and fruit; then they went to another class, and it was a wonderful class. They went to lunch, and they had a great lunch. There was faculty there, and wines being poured, proper wines for the proper course. There was a little time for rest, then back to another class. Back at 4:30 to, what shall we call it, the Happy Hour? The time for gathering, I think we called it. There one had whatever one wanted to drink, but certainly they had the best of it. It wasn’t just plain old Scotch; it was Chivas, or single malt. The young man was very impressed. They went in to dinner and had prime rib — that was when prime rib was acceptable — twice baked potatoes, doubly good! — some kind of asparagus, a great meal, a wonderful meal. Then they adjourned to the coffee room across the hall from the dining room. Coffee was served to you – you didn’t have to go get it. As they sat and drank and pondered and talked and made the Jesuit order seem to be the very best possible order that a young person like himself could enter, they said, “You finished your coffee. You finished your dessert. Do you have any comments to make?” The young man replied (I am told this is accurate), “Well, sir, I think I have only one thing to say. If this is poverty, I can hardly wait for chastity!” By the way, it didn’t work. He didn’t go.

There are so many components to ethical decision making around the question of sexual ethics. Let me list some of them that may be helpful to your discussions. What is the place of power in sexual relations, positive and negative, including the asymmetry of power? Second, we need to deal with the questions of taboo and shame regarding sexual relations. We need as well to think together about the role of the church in giving specific direction or more generalized direction to its members and at what age and what time. What kind of material is helpful and necessary? and so forth.

Those are some thoughts about Christian sexual ethics. There’s lots more that could be said. Do you remember 16-year-old Brian and Melissa from the New York Times article I cited a few minutes ago? “Being in a real relationship,” Brian says, “just complicates matters.” About that, those two are right. Being in a real relationship does complicate matters. To be in a real relationship with a God who has come among us in Jesus Christ complicates our lives. We have to think about what it means to be a member of a community committed to learning from all its members and not excluding any. You have to struggle for thirty years, and that would be only the first thirty years with thirty more years to go. We have struggled for thirty years to be an inclusive church. We pass the torch to those who come after us. It complicates our relationships.

We have to admit our dependence upon a power beyond ourselves, who is, we confess, ordering our lives even as we gather here in this sanctuary. We have to admit that we are dependent upon a power who comes to us and through our neighbors, in particular those neighbors of difference, to whom we come beseeching their forgiveness and asking for their leadership.

For in the beginning was the relationship – God’s relationship with creation. It was good. In the future is the relationship with fulfillment of the promise that the world shall be completed in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ’s reign over the world. In the middle of our lives, the relationship is complicated. It is not only complicated, it is difficult. It is threatening from time to time. It is ambiguous and ambivalent; but it is there. Reconciliation, love, liberation — they are all there. I am an old man. The world has changed. I don’t understand it, but with the help of you, my friends, we will find a way. Thank you.

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