In my 20’s I was diagnosed with testicular cancer and, in one of my many trips to the hospital, was told that I wouldn’t be able to have children. To be more precise, an empathic doctor of one of the world’s leading fertilization clinics told me that I wouldn’t be able to have children without some form of medical intervention. The doctors were adamant. My wife and I were never going to have children with each other, without the benefit of late twenty-first century medicine. And even then, it was unlikely we would be successful. This, as it turns out, had nothing to do with the cancer. Apparently, this was always going to be the case, cancer or no cancer.
Fortunately, at least from an emotional point of view, my wife and I were young and had not started thinking about a family. For us, not having our own biological children just became the way things were, and, 19 years later, it continues to be so. Of course others, especially our parents, were also affected. For many years they would talk about us having children as a continuing possibility, adamant that the wisdom and experience of the scientific community was fallible. But it wasn’t to be. Beyond this however, and a developing awareness of the role children play in our Western European social matrix.
No one judged us. No one judged our relationship. No one questioned our commitment to one another.
Neither the church, nor society, judged us for being in a relationship which couldn’t bear children. At least, no one tried to persuade either of us that we shouldn’t be in a relationship because we were unable to have children without scientific help.
Vicky Beeching, on the other hand, has faced such criticism. Since publicly announcing she is gay, Vicky has received much support from the Christian community, and beyond, but she has also had to endure various levels of criticism.[i] And at the heart of much, if not all of this criticism, is the argument: it just isn’t natural.[ii] To many of her critics it is, seemingly, a simple case of biology. Sexual desire, they argue, is, properly understood, a matter concerning the reproduction of the species. Accordingly, sexual desire can only be properly manifest where the possibility exists that children could result. Two people of the same gender are patently not designed to have children together, and, therefore, any sexual desire they feel towards each other is corrupt. At least, they can’t have children together without the benefit of late 21st century medicine.
There is a real danger in basing ones sexual ethics on arguments from nature, or arguments from design.
Namely, that it distorts what it means to be human, and, in doing so, it distorts what it means to be a child of God.
To be human is to acknowledge, but to go beyond biological truths. It is not the fact that we have biological drives and realities which gives shape and meaning to our lives, but the life we aspire to. Indeed, it is only because we aspire to a world beyond the material that value can be found in our actions. Actions become virtuous precisely because they re-form materialistic truths. Actions are not virtuous because they are in line with contingent materialistic facts (unless you are a strict materialist).[iii] For example, courage is the reworking of a biological drive that is more commonly manifest in flight from a situation. Accordingly courage is often contrasted with fear. But not only fear. That there is a fine line between courage and foolhardiness is an ancient truth. But what separates fear, courage, and foolhardiness, cannot be easily formulated. We tend to think that the difference is obvious, but, in truth, to know the difference is the fruit of wisdom.
At the heart of every judgment regarding whether an act is virtuous (i.e. courageous, foolhardy or cowardly), is a consideration of how the action is related to underlying human desires (i.e. the desire to survive), in light of how we believe the world should be (or, indeed actually is). What we consider to be a good or bad response to our biological drives being dependent on the nature of the world we aspire to. Yet our understanding of this world is forever changing, as we envision it from different points within the infinite possibilities of human life.[iv] Accordingly, the responsibility is not to live a codified ethic, but to live a codified ethic within a continually emerging understanding of the ideal world that continually births this ethic. The wise person, or the person who remains accountable to the truth, is not the person who steadfastly follows a codified ethic no matter what, but the person who, in each given situation, takes time to judge what response has the best chance of bringing about the world they aspire to, in all of its glorious complexity.[v]
This then is far removed from developing a sexual ethic based on the biological compatibility of two people to have children.
If courage is a complex and constructed virtue, love is even more so, and Love, or Holiness, infinitely more so.
The question we all face is not, ‘am I biologically compatible with my partner’, but, what does Love look like, taking into account the reality of my own and my partners biological truths. The task is not to will an ethic into being, but to desire greater and greater insight into the Mystery of the Triune God that this Truth may be lived in all of our relationships. In the final analysis, our prayer is not for the strength to follow a codified ethic, but, with Job, our prayer is that our eyes may see.[vi] Discipleship of young people, therefore, needs, at some point, to engage with the Godly boundaries of our traditions ethical codes, in light of a growing understanding of the world we believe, in faith, God is restoring all into. Young people need to learn how to join with the church body in discerning, with wisdom, humility, and care, how God’s kingdom can best be lived, experienced and thus understood today, and, in light of this, the best codes we can give to the next generation.
[iii] Taylor, Charles. “Self-Interpreting Animals.” In Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 45-76.
[iv] Taylor, Charles. “Engaged Agency and Background in Heidegger.” The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 317-336.
[vi] Ford, David. Christian Wisdom, Desiring God and Learning in Love. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 90-121.