Our theme for the month of June is “sex and the church.” To read posts from our first pass at this theme, check out our June 2018 archives.
When one of those cool theology survey memes went around Twitter a few months ago, I said that my favorite theologian was Marcella Althaus-Reid. You can blame seminary for that. MAR is one of several writers I’d never heard of a year ago but who are now central to the way I see the world. And here’s why: MAR, like no other theologian I’d read before, writes about God and sex.
Don’t get me wrong—the fundamentalist church I grew up in loved talking about sex. Sex was everywhere, a constant temptation, a constant threat. Sex was why dating rules existed, why doors were left open, why marriages were rushed. Sex was evil until it was not, and then it was amazing even when it wasn’t.
But that, MAR says, is exactly the wrong way to talk about sex. Working in the tradition of liberation theology, she begins her theological reflection not with abstract ideas and principles but with the daily lives of ordinary people, especially those who are oppressed and marginalized. For first-generation liberation theologians, theology had to respond both to the suffering of the poor and to the poor’s own agency in resisting and surviving their suffering. But this first generation of scholars was mostly men, and they largely left issues of gender and sexuality to the side in favor of class analysis.
MAR, on the other hand, insists that ordinary people’s sex lives must also be a starting point for theology. The suffering of poor women in Latin America, for example, isn’t just classed but is also sexualized—their bodies are policed and instrumentalized in ways that uphold both capitalism and patriarchy. But sexuality can also be a source of joy and connection, a place of resistance to oppressive structures. Often, sex doesn’t fall neatly into either of these categories, but is instead a chaotic mess of vulnerability and freedom, pleasure and pain.
If Christians are going to talk faithfully about sex, that whole mess is what they need to be talking about. People do not experience sex in clean categories of right and wrong, and if there’s anything the incarnation tells us, it’s that God is more interested in participating in our chaotic lives than in regulating them. As MAR asks, “Can we keep bearing the burden of a theology which leaves us alone when having sex?”
MAR calls for an “indecent theology”—a theology that refuses to play the heteronormative, patriarchal games of propriety and prudishness. An indecent theology claims not only that God cares about our sex lives, but that our sex lives might have something to teach us about God.
For centuries, theologians have foreclosed this possibility in the name of purity. “While people struggle to find life and meaning in the relationships of the sofa beds of friends and lovers,” MAR writes, “Systematic Theology struggles to master and obliterate those meanings.” To bring things closer to home, I can’t see the CRC’s recent Human Sexuality Report as anything other than a project of mastery and obliteration, an attempt to erase whole categories of sexual experience not only from our theologies but from existence.
We don’t need more sensitive or more eloquent statements of old destructive theologies. We need stories: stories of queer joy, of asexual and aromantic flourishing, of broken hearts, of awkward encounters, of transitions and coming out, of healed pain, of unhealed pain, of bodies cooperating and not cooperating, of strained relationships, of revelatory experiences, of pleasure and regret and hilarity. Only a theology of sex that starts with all of this can begin to undo the harm done by the millennia-old lust police.
None of this is easy, of course. As MAR reminds us, “it is easier to live without God than without the heterosexual concept of man.” But that doesn’t mean we can’t choose, together, to live the other way around.
Josh Parks graduated from Calvin in 2018 with a BA in English literature and violin performance, and he completed an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University in 2020. He is currently a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, which means his plans to be in school forever are working out well. When not writing, he can be found playing violin, drinking coffee, making excruciating puns, and trying to learn Old French.