Staying on the Subject: Sexuality and Human Nature

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Monday, March 2, 2009

Staying on the Subject: Sexuality and Human Nature

March 2, 2009

In last week's column, I discussed Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan William’s position on same-sex marriage taken from an article by Paul Elie in the March issue of The Atlantic. 

At one point in the article, Elie sums up William’s position, “For the church to stand in the way of [grace-filled] relationships, straight or gay, is to stand in the way of God’s grace.” Then he goes on to gush:

It was brilliant theology: learned, human, equally open to tradition and to experience. And it was characteristically Anglican, following a via media between the traditionalists and the progressives. …Unlike the present pope, he didn’t change the subject, considering homosexuality chiefly in terms of its effects on a constellation of Christian teachings about human nature.

“Change the subject” is the phrase that jumps out of the paragraph. I wonder how many others involved in this debate agree with Elie that Christian teachings about sexuality are unrelated to questions about human nature? Rather than changing the subject, “the present pope” along with his predecessor moved to the core issue by their understanding that Christian teachings about human nature are precisely what are at stake in the debate over homosexuality.

Michael Waldstein in his introduction to John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body notes that beginning with Francis Bacon in the late-16th/early-17th centuries, there has been an erosion of the notion of a purpose or, to use the Greek word, telos—Aristotle’s “final cause.”

What is the acorn for?  The chief end of the acorn appears to be an oak tree. Ah, said Bacon, Descartes, and others, to say the end of the acorn is an oak tree limits the horizons of science. Perhaps the acorn can be used to cure cancer or to propel spaceships or to clean the environment or any of a nearly limitless number of other purposes. Final cause limits human creativity and so final cause has to go, they concluded, or else science will suffer. The purpose or telos of the acorn is anything we want it to be as humans assert our power over nature by means of science. Waldstein writes:

What distinguishes the master of nature over and above all is that he can decide freely what to do with nature. He is not bound by any preexisting purposes in nature, but sets his own purposes.

While removing a rigid notion of telos may be a useful aid to scientific discovery, it becomes a disaster when applied to humans. “What is the chief end of man?” The Westminster Confession ofFaith says, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” But if we reject the possibility of a telos, then our chief end is anything we want it to be. This means that there is no human nature except the purposes and meanings we assign to ourselves and others. In this worldview the highest value is freedom to choose for oneself.

Writing in the March First Things, Anthony Esolen, professor of English at Providence College and senior editor of Touchstone magazine, notes, “We share the assumption that freedom must mean freedom from—freedom from the limitations imposed on us by the old institutions: church, community, family.” This includes the limitations imposed by a fixed notion of human nature and telos.

Esolen goes on to write:

It is hard to recall the medieval definition of freedom, which was not the political license to follow our bellies or the philosophical encouragement to send our elders packing. Freedom was understood, rather, as a growing into the habits, the virtues, that allow us to fulfill our end as human beings without the impediments of vice.

Thus, if human nature is up for grabs, then the nature of our bodies is up for grabs and the nature of sex is up for grabs. The result is, in the words of Cole Porter, “Anything Goes.” Experience, salted lightly perhaps with tradition, becomes the measure of all things. It is in this intellectual context that appealing to human nature in a conversation about sexuality appears to be changing the subject. 

If, by contrast, human nature is fixed, the good gift of a sovereign Creator, then the nature of our bodies and the nature of sex are also fixed. These are also the good gift of a sovereign Creator to be received with the telos he assigned to them. Freedom is receiving and fulfilling that telos.

As it relates to sexuality, Pope John Paul II pointed out the obvious when he wrote in Theology of the Body:

…[M]an stands, as male and female, with the consciousness of the generative meaning of his own body: masculinity contains in a hidden way the meaning of fatherhood and femininity that of motherhood.

In conversations about homosexuality, talking about human nature does not change the subject because human nature is the subject. Grace enables us to fulfill the telos appropriate to the nature God has assigned to us—male and female, a matched set.

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