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The sexual human: sexualizing the image of God

Megan DeFranza, a doctoral student at Marquette, presented an excellent paper yesterday titled, “Sex and the Image of God: Dangers in Evangelical and Roman Catholic Theologies.” Her paper discussed the recent trend toward understanding the human person and the imago Dei primarily through the lens of human sexuality. Although she thinks that there’s a lot to be appreciated about this approach, she also identified a number of concerns that she has with this development.

DeFranza began by explaining the historical process that led to the current situation. She points out that Christian thinkers have historically neglected gender and sexuality in understanding what it means to be fundamentally human. And, like many, she points to Barth as the key turning point. Barth identified the imago Dei with being created “male and female” and introduced the notion of gender-based relationality as fundamental for being human. To be fully human is to be in community.

This relationally-oriented anthropology, which DeFranza calls the relational imago, though, has developed even further in recent years. Unlike Barth, many contemporary theologians argue that it is not simply relationship that makes us human, but sexuality itself. And, this develop corresponds to developments in secular fields of study that also view human sexuality as fundamental to being fully human.  And, it’s this most recent set of developments that DeFranza is concerned about.

To explain this development further, DeFranza focuses on two representative figures: Stanley Grenz and John Paul II. According to DeFranza, Grenz sees the sexed nature of humanity as leaving human persons with a sense of their own incompleteness and a corresponding drive toward bonding with other(s), which finds its ultimate fulfillment in God himself. Thus, human sexuality isn’t fundamentally about procreation or even marriage, but about the innate yearning for completeness and bonding that grounds all human relationships and pushes toward God.

For John Paul II, sexuality is fundamentally about the human capacity to express love, an act in which the human person becomes gift, and thus realizes the ultimate purpose of being human. And, for John Paul II, this is best expressed and realized in marriage. In this approach, marriage itself becomes paradigmatic for true humanity, and even celibacy, which John Paul II still wants to affirm as a vital (and even higher) mode of human existence, is viewed through the lens of marital union.

So, for both Grenz and John Paul II, sex is now viewed as the lens through which we view all forms of human interaction. We discover our humanity through our sexuality.

DeFranza has no problem with the social imago and the emphasis on love, relationship, and community for understanding humanity. But, she’s quite concerned about the more recent move toward what she calls the “sexual imago” (Grenz) and the “spousal image” (John Paul II). And, she offers a number of reasons for this concern.

Uncovering hidden dangers:

  1. The conflation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She seemed particularly concerned with Grenz here. Although she recognizes that Grenz did not use terms like sexual and sexuality to refer to sexual intercourse, she still thought that his interchangeable use of these terms led to an ambiguous presentation that necessarily confused and conflated terms that are importantly different. DeFranza seemed perfectly willing to say that gender is fundamental for being human, but was concerned about extending that conclusion to sexuality in general.
  2. The sexualization of divine love. Although evangelicals and Catholics would certainly not refer to the divine love as sexual in the sense that there is actual intercourse among the divine persons, they are, nonetheless, willing to speak of the divine love as sexual in the sense that it involves different persons with a drive toward one another in bonding and love. But, since DeFranza thinks that using the language of sexuality to describe this love, their approach almost inevitably leads to the conclusion that sexual expression has now been given divine significance.
  3. The weakening of traditional sexual ethics. If human sexuality is grounded in divine “sexuality,” what parameters can we give for how this sexuality is properly expressed? While most evangelicals and Catholics want to continue affirming monogamous, heterosexual intercourse as the norm, others have not been so restrained. Why not homosexual love (since the Father and Son are both male) or sex with multiple partners (since there are three persons)? And, she’s also concerned that this approach is used to support adultery and divorce. What if you are in a sexually unfulfilling relationship? Would it not be better for one or both parties to find other partners with whom they can more fully express their humanity and experience the divine love?
  4. The undermining of celibacy. DeFranza routinely expressed concerns that the sexual imago and the social imago ultimately undermines the legitimacy of celibate lifestyles, particularly those who are involuntarily celibate. Such persons seem to be missing out on something fundamental for being human and an important experience of the divine love itself. She recognizes that both of the thinkers she reviews would reject this conclusion (John Paul II goes out of his way to affirm the importance of celibacy), but she still thinks that the concern is legitimate.
  5. Concern for the sexually dysfunctional. DeFranza is also concerned about what the sexualized imago will mean for those who experience significant sexual dysfunction. Once again, their essential humanity and their experience of God himself seems at risk.

So, DeFranza concludes that we should hold onto the positive aspects of the social imago, while avoiding the dangers that she thinks are inherent to the sexual/spousal imagos. She thinks we can do this by doing the following.

  1. Develop better readings of Genesis 1-2 that affirm the social nature of humanity without resorting to a sexualized notion of humanity.
  2. Clearly differentiate between the social and the sexual/spousal. The former does not entail the latter and should be an important part of any anthropology.
  3. Clearly differentiate between the sexual and the spousal. She thinks some of the dangers could be avoided if we recognized that spousal love involves far more than sexual love, so distinguishing them can help us appreciate the rich depths of spousal love. But, even with this distinction, she argues that we should not view spousal love as paradigmatic for all human relationships. It is one of many expressions of the social imago, not its essence.

I really enjoyed DeFranza’s paper. One particularly interesting element was when she addressed the ways in which the works of people like Grenz and John Paul II have filtered down to more popular level writings, and in ways that both thinkers would find highly inappropriate. I could be wrong, but I got the distinct impression that many of the concerns she raised came from her interaction with these works. While some might argue that it is not entirely fair to criticize Grenz and John Paul II for the ways that other people use their ideas, especially when those people use the ideas in ways that these thinkers would have disapproved, it does raise the interesting question of how much responsibility thinkers have for the trajectory that their ideas take after them. At the very least, if a concept or idea consistently leads others to inappropriate conclusions, the concept or idea should be seriously re-evaluated.

And, that gets me to my one real criticism of the paper. I think the paper would have been considerably stronger if DeFranza had distinguished between what Grenz and John Paul II were clearly trying to do and the ramifications that she thinks their ideas have had or might have. For example, she routinely critiqued Grenz’s approach for making sexual intercourse essential to humanity. But, Grenz himself did no such thing. I think he is very clear in his writings that he was not talking about intercourse at all, but the sense of incompleteness that results in a drive toward bonding. Whenever Grenz used terms like “sexual” and “sexuality”, it was this broader notion that he had in mind and not actual intercourse. Even if DeFranza thinks that this is an unfortunate use of language that conflates gender with sexuality and necessarily misleads others into concluding that sexual expression is fundamental to humanity (which, again, is a legitimate critique), I would have liked to see a clearer explanation that this was not Grenz’s actual position.

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating paper. And, it has caused me to re-evaluate my own use of terminology. Like Grenz, I have had a tendency to use gender, sex, sexual, and sexuality rather interchangeably when talking about the human person (e.g.,“Sexuality: Theological Perspectives on Being Gendered”). While I know what I’m trying to say, I probably need to be more aware of how this language might be (mis)heard and (mis)used by others.