Ethics for a Mystery: Meeting Sexuality with Grace
David R. Weiss – February 20, 2023
This post is a lightly edited pair of essays I wrote back in 2009. Fourteen years ago. Even at that time, these thoughts had been percolating and making cameo appearances in my writing since around 2003. Twenty years ago. These are still conversations we need to have today—with grace. And they are conversations we continue to have with reckless harm instead.
As a straight man, I share these thoughts foremost with other straight persons of faith. It is, after all, mostly our assumptions and biases (as straight people), reflected in personal attitudes and institutional policies and practices, that foment so much harm. Still today. I remain committed to being a faithful, humble, gracious participant in these conversations. May they bear fruit.
Removing the training wheels on sexual ethics (originally, April 2009)
As churches, locally and nationally, make slow but sure strides in welcoming LGBTQ+ persons of faith, there looms a conversation that many wish could remain quietly hidden in the corner but is sure to become the elephant that crowds the entire room.
You can sum it up in a single word: monogamy, but in truth it’s much broader, concerning the “acceptable” variety of sexual expression. Bluntly put, the question is whether churches will welcome LGBTQ+ persons of faith (including LGBTQ+ pastors) … only so long as they can fit their sexual expression within the approved norms of straight sexuality. And whether LGBTQ persons of faith are willing to accept these terms … and what if they don’t?
This conversation won’t happen quickly or easily. But, as is true of most crises, it represents at least as much opportunity as peril—and much hinges on whether we move forward with confidence or wait with trepidation as it approaches us. Between this month [April 2009] and next, I want to highlight several convictions that can help persons of faith move forward with confidence toward a new, more whole understanding of sexuality.
I’ll start with three observations that can help us frame the conversation so that it’s possible to say and hear some genuinely new things. Genuinely good things. In church that’s called gospel.
(1) It’s time we acknowledge that human sexuality is simply, profoundly, and mysteriously part of the fabric of who we are. It is not, as Christian tradition has often been tempted to regard it, some alien and untrustworthy force ever tempting us to sin. But it is much more than merely the psycho-biological means of attraction-mating-reproduction.
Ultimately, human sexuality is far more complex than either the puritanical strands of Christianity or the mechanistic descriptions of science have suggested. There are some things sexual we can “measure” objectively, but sexuality itself is one facet of the human eco-system in which we dwell. We discuss sexual ethics from the same vantage point as which we study it, reflect on it, and experience it—as participants in its mystery.
(2) It’s time to grow up and kiss the rules good-bye. Adults—real, mature, self-directed adults—don’t live by rules. I’m not saying, “anything goes.” Rather, as we mature into real adults in every area of our lives we learn to navigate more by principles or virtues than by rules. That’s part of what it means to grow up. And it’s time for straight Christians to realize that. It may not be easy, because for most of us who are straight the “rules” have largely reflected our experience (they were, after all, developed mostly by straight men).
But life beyond rules can be exhilarating—even for straight people—and not because it’s breaking rules but because this is how life is meant to be lived. Rules may have some value as “training wheels” on the bicycle of sexual ethics (appropriate as we enter adolescence), but we all know that to ride a bike the way it’s ultimately intended to be ridden, you take the training wheels off.
(3) Finally, it’s time to recognize, however uncomfortable it may be, that sex, like light, seems to be fundamentally paradoxical in nature. Light doesn’t behave neatly as either a wave or a particle; instead, it sometimes acts like one and sometimes acts like the other. And it seems that whether it is wave-like or particle-like in any given setting is determined at least in part by the expectations we bring to it (that is, the experiment we use). Many of us find this bewildering and frustrating. We want light to be neatly one or the other. That’s the way we like our world. But physicists, who find light’s ambiguity more intriguing than threatening, tell us that light simply doesn’t fit into the neat categories we’d prefer.
And, if we turn off our moral filters long enough to just listen to the voice of sexual experience, we hear something similar. For some persons sex has a sacred, creative, unitive character to it. For others, it is a deeply human, immensely satisfying, but not at all mystical experience. For others, it has a quality of ecstatic pleasure that is not necessarily tethered to marriage or monogamy. Bottom line: at the level of honest observation, of sincere listening to others, it simply doesn’t matter whether I “approve” or not. Sometimes sex is wave-like. Sometimes it’s particle-like. That’s just the way it is.
This is not a huge leap for us. Sometimes bread and wine and water are holy for Christians. And sometimes they’re not. But we don’t consider them sinful whenever they’re not holy. It’s possible for something to be wonderfully mundane. And even mundane fresh-baked bread is a delicacy. Even a fine glass of wine by sunset or candlelight can be transcendent. Even a waterfall can be awe-inspiring. And even sex that doesn’t aspire to be sacred can be beautiful.
All of us—straight and gay—stand to gain by speaking with clarity and convictions about the values that guide “the diversity and dances” of our sexual lives. Might we not be intrigued, like the physicist, by the rich and multifaceted ways that people testify to experiencing sexuality? That way, when we do turn to the task of making choices about what types of sexual expression are healthy and whole, we don’t do so by first silencing a whole range of voices even before they speak.
Discussing sexual ethics … or trading recipes for hot dish (originally, May 2009)
Sooner or later churches that genuinely welcome LGBTQ+ persons of faith will need to talk about sexual ethics. We’re hardly ready for this, but we stand before a rare moment, with an opportunity to reconsider the nature and place of sexuality in the whole of our lives—both gay and straight. That makes this moment both daunting and exciting. How might we frame a conversation for LGBTQ+ persons of faith that is sufficiently expansive to weigh openly and honestly the range of sexual behaviors and relationships before us while remaining recognizably rooted in a posture of faith?
I suspect this conversation needs to happen in a whole bunch of places, but as a church-going Ally, I am most invested in helping it happen well in churches. Also, because this conversation isn’t likely to go far at the generic level, the best I can do is offer principles that will resonate with other church-going folks. I surely don’t mean to suggest that the only “ethical” sex happens among Christians! I’m simply being honest to say I think these principles can help progressive Christians have thoughtful and respectful conversations about sexual ethics. Other communities may find other principles more helpful … and that’s okay.
When it comes to ethical principles, less is more. A well-chosen few will carry us further than a whole bunch that function more and more like rules. I’ll name just five.
I begin with three mentioned famously by the Hebrew prophet Micah (Micah 6:8) some 2500 years ago: do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly. Micah is talking about how to live a God-pleasing life in general, but his wisdom is pretty far-reaching.
Justice suggests that healthy, whole sex is not exploitive of power differences, whether based in money, age, race, gender, or social role. It raises real doubts about sex that eroticizes the dynamic of domination. But because this is a principle, not a rule, it doesn’t absolutely forbid anything. It simply says, “make the case that this (or any) particular sexual expression doesn’t transgress justice.”
Mercy is not pity but compassion. Healthy, whole sex involves mutuality, a genuine care for the other’s joy, comfort, and pleasure. It invites trust in moments of deep vulnerability. Part of the power of sexual intimacy is its capacity—its alchemy—whereby vulnerability becomes transcendence. Absent either justice or mercy, such vulnerability is neither wise nor safe. This implies fidelity as a corollary of mercy. But, and listen carefully: fidelity is about promised faithfulness that is honest and clear. It may not always be life-long. It may not always be exclusive. But it ought to be honest and clear in its terms. Fidelity is not a single cookie-cutter; I suspect it is a tin full of different patterns.
Humility offers two words of wisdom. First, to be patient with ourselves and others. Sexual intimacy is an unfolding mystery better paced by our own deepest intuitions than by the messages of the marketplace or the pressures of our peers. Second, that as we encounter persons—whether in our intimate relations or in our public communities—whose sexual practices and preferences differ markedly from our own, we begin by listening carefully, curiously, and graciously for the truth of their experience. We need not affirm everything we hear, but we are fools when we think we have nothing new to learn.
To these three I add two others: whole and healthy sex should be procreative and joyful.
Procreative does not mean relationships in which physical reproduction is not a biological option (or desire) are somehow deficient. But because this term is so often wielded against LGBTQ+ persons, it seems worthwhile to reclaim it in a broader—and truer—meaning. To be procreative is to care for this world, from natural eco-systems to familial and civic communities. This is a human vocation, quite independent of sexual activity. But given that sex is one powerful way we generate and share energy, it seems fair to ask that energy so deliciously brought forth between lovers also spill outward into the world and the relationships around us.
Joyful. Well, good sex ought to be fun. And if it’s clouded by shame, disgust, obligation, fear, etc., that’s pretty good evidence that the sex in question is somehow less than healthy and whole. For Christians this will be a real challenge because most of us have been taught either that sex is the primal temptation that turns us from God or at least that it is deserving of near total discretion in polite conversation. Good sex is neither. Where else in our lives are we so mistrusting or quiet about that which brings such joy? Learning to embrace and name the joy of our sex is what will make the rest of the conversation worth the challenges involved. It might be (to acknowledge my Minnesota-Lutheran context) as exciting as trading recipes for hot dish!
Naming these principles hardly settles every ethical question in advance by producing a fixed rule. But that isn’t how ethics works! It isn’t how adults operate. It isn’t how life is lived. Integrity—which is the goal here—is not rote repetition; it is improvisation grounded in creativity and character, framed by trust and mutuality. Ethics, then, is the fruit of good conversation, in which ideas and practices can be compassionately and appreciatively encountered and considered. Occasionally, contested, yes. Because ethics is about both individual and communal well-being. But sexual ethics, as an ethics for our participatory engagement in human mystery, is equally grounded in bearing witness to the good news we have known—and in welcoming the witness of others. There are so many gifts of the Spirit. Why would we imagine that they would find only one “standard” expression across the beautiful diversity of our flesh?
The principles suggested above are hardly the final word. Surely my own learning is as yet incomplete! But these principles may offer some helpful touchpoints as we navigate conversations long overdue. Conversations aimed at eliminating harms through gracious listening. And conversations aspiring to hear fresh truths shared in ways that might offer greater healing and wholeness to all of us.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.