Review: God, Science, Sex, Gender – An Interdisciplinary Approach to Christian Ethics

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While I have a long review, you have read most of it, so I am including the new material first, with the older review sections following:

In the conclusion, written by Aana Marie Vigen, questions still remain unanswered; however, what Vigen does is to neatly summarize what the symposium was about as well as leave the door open for the reader (or, originally, audience) to navigate the waters to reach his or her own conclusion. Admittedly, these questions on gender and sexuality are tough to grapple with, especially by those who have a personal experience with them; however, there is enough information to help those who feel that this is the next big question in Christianity.

My main contention throughout this book is the failure to rely upon Scripture as the starting point, although several essays focus squarely  on several verses. There is not a scriptural theologian among the original speakers turned writers, and while this doesn’t seem to be an issue with the Symposium or the information provided, for those who are used to reaching for Holy Writ to tackle tough questions, it may be a little off-putting.

Vigen does make a good point when she writes that Christianity is not about a static existence, but continues to ask the question of ‘Who ought I to be‘? (p241). Many of the essays in this book point to that question without providing clear answers. This is the preferred method of discussion, or should be, when entering into this type of discourse. It is not easy grappling with modern science or ethics concerning issues which people still blush when speaking about. Unfortunately, Vigen defines ethics and lists the sources of Christian ethics only after the topics are discussed at length. Some of these sections in Vigen’s conclusions should be placed at the front of the book.

Over all, Christians are struggling to come to terms with situations in which we simply have no clear answer from Holy Writ. For an example – while we might agree that homosexuality is a sin, the bible doesn’t cover the issue of intersexuality, in which the outsides do not match either the insides or the genetic level, producing for all intents and purposes an outward appearance of, for example, female, where genetically, and internally, the person is male. Simply put, looks are deceiving, and yet, we can only cast our Scriptural net based on looks. Several of these essays go into discussing these issues at length.

This book is not about condoning any type of behavior, as at least one essay deals expressly with the modern notion that if it is the animal kingdom, than some how, it is a trait easily conceived of in humanity. Instead, most authors uplift humanity above that of the animal kingdom and call special attention to our ability to love and create super-structures in society, something beyond that of evolutionary science. And in regarding evolutionary science, Darwin is hardly accepted as sacred, but at times, is placed at odds with theology and other sciences. The sciences covered in this book are not simply evolutionary, but so too literay, natural and other interdisciplinary approaches, including biblical translation experts.

It will be difficult for the conservative Christian to wade through some of these essays; however, the issues presented here will not naturally, nor spiritually, cease to exist tomorrow. It would be preferable to read and to listen to the voices which oppose most conservative Christianity, whether it is literalism or papal infallibility issues among Catholics, than to shut our hears and forget that there are issues not fully explored in Scared Text. I believe that this book, and the authors therein, provide more questions than we are used to answering, but in the end, they will draw us closer to the truth, whether or not that truth is one in which they or we lose our own.

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In what is bound to elicit heated arguments from all sides of the debate, the editors have compiled a series of essays, all connected to each other, delivered in symposium style concerning the ongoing debate in (mainly) the Catholic Church about the roll in which science should play in determining human sexuality ethics. I said Catholic because while this book has at the purpose ‘Christian’ ethics, it is generally written to that of the Catholic ethicist by prominent Catholic ethicists. This is not to say that others should not read and draw from the discussions, but the role of authority may be expressed and defined differently based on the denomination.

The book contains three parts, with the first part comprised of five essays essentially laying the ground work for discussion to come. Beginning with Jon Nilson‘s historical critique on authority in the Catholic Church in which Nilson doesn’t rely upon Tradition, but attempts to correct perceived notions of Papal infallibility and hierarchy. While the history of Papal infallibility may not be known to many, what is even more unknown is the deciding factor in which many of the Cardinals had already vacated the See to return home, leaving the vote easily cast in favor of the sitting Pope’s view. Further, Nilson goes into the loosening of the hierarchical rolls leading upon to Vatican II and what should have emerged from that Council. Detected in his language, is the acceptance of the present system but only as far as history would allow. For him, this insistence into monarchical authority in Rome must be challenged by courageous theologians because,

(F)irst, to remind us all that the whole Church is not yet of one mind on issues of sexuality and, no less important, to give heart to those who have been marginalized in the Church for their sexuality and/or gender who have suffered greatly on account of it.

Nilson’s view on authority is not based in Rome, but in changing trends, a view in which he meets with resistance by Anne E. Figert‘s essay on the disputes between scientific and religious authority.

She brings to bear her sociological background in helping to show several weaknesses in surrendering to the weight of Science that which may in fact be contained in the realm of Religion, especially when both hemispheres tend to be absolute only in public. She deals with Weber and Dawkins, discussing the roll in which Religion figures as an Authority and compares it to the Authority of Science, and rightly notes that challenges to both are ‘more driven by human politics, economics, and power struggles than their claims to the pure pursuit of the truth might suggest.’ Figert describes the current boundary disputes, and just what roll Science plays in the hearts and minds of followers. This is important, especially since she notes a report by Gilbert and Mulkay in 1984 in which it was found that scientists have a different discourse in private. They are much less absolute and often times presented as competent. Figert’s essay serves to remind us of the boundary disputes and that in both areas, human politics are a driving force.

Following this is Fred Kniss who admits that framing the debate on human sexuality in the way it has been has already ‘almost necessarily pitted itself against science.’ Admitting that conflicts, such as the one discussed, are social issues but still sees the need to rely upon Science. In a brief, but powerfully open-ended essay, Kniss never comes fully to determining ‘natural’ and which sphere of authority should decide it, but does present a solid overview of the impacts of the controversy into the arenas of our lives. In what should be a common chapter in most political science text book, Kniss shows the almost hypocritical political and religious spheres in which the individual as moral project is weighed against the locus of authority.

In the final two essays of the first part, Francis J. Catania and Patricia Beattie Jung bring into the discussion Thomas Aquinas (and by virtue, Aristotle). Both present a saintly picture of Aquinas as the example for allowing Science to share, in part, in the realm of Religious Authority, at least when it comes to dictating ethics based on observable fact. Dealing with the subject of ‘human flourishing’ and the changing notion of sexual morality inside the Roman Catholic Church, each author separately builds the case the science has and could benefit theological and ethical discussions. There is, without a doubt, a large change which has taken place in the teachings on sexuality by Rome within the past century, even before Vatican II. Both authors trace this, somewhat, to Thomas Aquinas, and indeed, the ancient writer has seen a resurgence in Catholicism lately, and indeed, Christian scholasticism. How far they could bring him, however, is yet to be determined.

Why? Because while the interdisciplinary approach works well, no one has laid the foundation for ‘natural,’ ‘nature,’ and who decided what is ‘natural’ is still morally, theologically, and ethically ‘good.’ While discussing gender roles, the role in which sexual intimacy plays in marriage, and the current role and future of celibacy, we find historical changes, opposition, and flat out refusal to abide by Roman attitudes to such for the past two millennia (even in Rome herself) but these discussions present a stark difference to the current one on homosexuality. While the others have been, at sometimes, heated, homosexuality and the question of ‘if it is natural, is it divinely sanctioned’ is volatile.

The essays are well written, well supported, and provide a great companion to the discussion on-going in many theological realms.

The second series of essays, classified under the heading of Reflecting on Human Sexual Diversity, provide a series of entries from evolutionary biologists who disagree with Darwin on sexual selection and one who does not disagree. This series also includes theologians grappling with recent Vatican documents giving theological treatments to them as well as important Scriptural texts used to justify the differentiation of genders. The strength of this series, so far, has been the diversity in approaches, mixing not only disciplines but also trying to have a parallel discussion with science and religion without making one bow to the other.

The first two essays, the first by Joan Roughgarden and the second by Terry Grande and Joel Brown (with Robin Colburn), are complimentary to one another with both challenging traditional Darwinist understandings of sexuality in nature. Far from the usual role applied to procreation by Darwinist science, such as sexual selection for the security of the species, Roughgarden postulates that more often in nature than not, sexual selection is made more for social infrastructure, providing for intimate bonds which prevent the dissolution of society. For Roughgarden, homosexuality then ‘is not against nature, it is an adaptive part of nature.’ (103). Here theories are hardly met with applause by the majority of evolutionary scientists who still follow Darwin’s thoughts on sexual selection in nature. Grande and Brown take Roughgarden’s hypothesis and further it by suggesting that humanity, especially sexuality, may be evolving because we are ‘now operating in environments and social circumstances for which they neither evolved nor were adapted in a Darwinian sense.’ (p106). It is, they rightly postulate, an environment (culture, society, etc…) that we have manufactured for ourselves, which has disconnected us from what has gone before. Of course, neither focus on the history of homosexuality and sexual uses in previous societies but they are approaching it from a scientific angle and in the end both determine that science must stand as a counter to ‘Christian traditions’ in their claim of ‘timeless and ordained model(se) of human sexual behavior.’ (p121).

The essays written by Pamela L. Caughie (“Passing” and Identity: A Literary Perspective on Gender and Sexual Diversity) and James Calcagno ( Monogamy and Sexual diversity in Primate: Can Evolutionary Biology Contribute to Christian Sexual Ethics?) are two of the most rewarding of the series, especially from a non-theological standpoint. Caughie delves deep into the making of the person, whether male or female, with social contributions. Using Michael Foucault‘s work with Herculine Barbin as well as the example of Virgina Wolfe, Caughie draws the implications of the ideal of a male and female only gender network, noting that there are medical examples to the contrary and they aren’t new. Further, while her stances hardly contribute to the theological understandings of such things, she encourages her audience to read past the rhetoric of gender ‘to the meaningful content beneath’ (p152) of the person. But using examples of literature which reflect ‘real life’ I believe that more should take note of her point.

Calcagno, in the tenth essay, writes, much to the chagrin of Roughgarden, I am sure, in support of Darwin’s natural selection theories. All the while noting the diverse sexual practices in primates and their social connections. He throws some heavy questions at both sides in the debate in noting that monogamy is not natural, but rather the perverse norm in most mammals, numbering about 3%. Of course, in the 900 human cultures survived by Murdock, only 16% of them were considered monogamous (p163). He also notes that the more financial independent the genders are, the less likely monogamy is in the culture. He cautions, at the end of his essay, about the use of the animal kingdom to set human ethics (pg164), noting that of all the mammals, humans have the capacity to love, to be faithful, and to be unselfish (p163, citing Fuentes). By far and large, it is clearly the most theological of the scientific essays, in that it sets human above the animal kingdom and focuses the discussion on not what can be excused, but what should be striven for – the ideal.

The remaining two essays in this section deal expressly with theological interaction which developed Roman Catholic discussions. John McCarthy writes on Interpreting the Theology of Creation: Binary Gender in Catholic Thought while Robert Di Vito writes on “In God’s Image” and “Male and Female”: How a Little Punctuation Might Have Helped. While McCarthy writes from the spectrum of the theologian, Di Vito employs biblical studies as well as the linguistic study of Hebrew to stand against the usual Catholic, and in many times, over-arching Christian theological treatment of Genesis 1.27. McCarthy urges that the theology of creation be used in such a way as to make the ‘love your neighbor’ infused with Creation. For him, ‘becoming a neighbor is, theological, participation in the love of God that makes a person.’ (p137). For McCarthy, the ‘other’ becomes a person to be loved inside of the theology of Creation. Di Vito almost takes issued with the theological only position such as McCarthy’s and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris dignitatem.

In his essay, Di Vito takes aim at the usual interpretation and thus theological understanding of Genesis 1, insisting instead that it be read in such a way that it produces unity of humanity at first. By doing so, he would hearken back to ancient philosophers, but allow as will the Wisdom Christology by later authors, and help to further the conversation on Galatians 3.26-28. His essay is one which is heightened by his ‘discovery’, providing not only insight into the New Creation, but He in whom we have this New Creation. I cannot say more about his essay without giving away the centrality of the argument, but it is one which must be developed later and used in the egalitarian and complimentarian debates which so many are having today.

Regarding gender issues, Di Vito stands as the most enlightening essay while in the arena of sexual diversity, Calcagno comes the closest to providing for Christian ethics in the discussion, all the while supposing that he is only a scientist.

The final section, Sexual Diversity and Christian Moral Theology, attempts to draw together theological reflection from the preceding essays, concluding with a commentary on the Ethiopian Eunuch as well as a conclusion which neatly summarizes the discussion thus far. With the breakthroughs in the second section, the third section especially Fennell’s contribution, seemed to be the back end of the peak, but that is, perhaps, purposed.

Stephen J. Pope‘s essay takes Roughgarden, Grande and other contributors plays them off one another while engaging the sexual ethics espoused by Pope John Paul II while attempting to force the interaction between the late pontiff and Feminist Catholic theologian, Margaret Farley, who he considers as standing ‘within the Catholic Christian tradition’ but ‘represents a signification modification of it.’ They are posed in opposition to one another, but their arguments are developed in such a way as to give merit and flesh to each one of their points. Reading the essay seems to be a give and take between Farley and the late pontiff in such a way, as if the reader was in the room with the two. Pope focuses on love as the Christian ethic missing from these debates and once again returns to the what McCarthy pointed out, that sexuality and gender, the consummate ‘other’, as a means to render hospitality.

The only essay to not fit into the book is Frank Fennell‘s work on Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” While fellow professor of literature, Pamela L. Caughie’s essay contributed to the overall understanding of how ‘the clothes make the man’ mentality, Fennell’s take is simply to focus on a poem, which concerns diversity, but adds nothing that I can see to the ultimate conservation. This is not the case for Susan Ross’ essay about the diversity of views when one ‘tweaks’ the image of Christ on the Cross. This is an essay which must be read to be enjoyed, and may be a subject of later reflection by myself, but in it, Ross tackles the “Bridgegroom-Bride” theological metaphor in recent Roman Catholic theology, seemingly ignoring the history of such a metaphor, even pre-Christian history. Her’s is not merely about depictions of that metaphor in art, or even the Crucifixion in art, but the idea that if certain things were reversed in the audience’s mind, they bring about a startling shift in attitudes about women. She gives the example of the art piece of ‘Christa’ a feminine portrayal of Christ which brought about immediate emotional responses from her students. It is an essay not for the weak, but for those wishing to encounter the idea of gender and theology, especially in dealing with ordained clergy or the all-male priesthood.

Roughgarden returns to the work along with an editor of the series, Patricia Beattie Jung, to pen a commentary of sorts on Acts 8, trying to force the story of the Eunuch into a gender-bending tale of early Christian gender-fluidity. In attempting to ‘retrieve’ for their discussion Acts 8, they fall into the trap so many have before, of making the Scriptures match up to their viewpoints as well as demanding that Scripture answers to science. Very little attention is paid to actual biblical studies, instead jumping off cliffs where other authors only looked over. The highlight of the essay is the solidly packed reinterpretation of patristics in which they bring in both old and new arguments that gender roles inside the early Church were not as strict as many have them now, although I think they go just far enough in some areas to raise a  few eyebrows.

In the conclusion, Aana Marie Vigen, begins by defining Christians ethics as something profound -

Christian social ethics, is never content merely with asking “Who am I?” It always addresses the question of: “Who ought I be?”

Going on, she ask, in relation to the community “Who are we and who ought we to become?” These questions shape Vigen’s conclusion as well as provide an overarching synopsis of the essay’s.

Post By Joel Watts (9,934 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, working on the use of Deuteronomy in the Fourth Gospel. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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