Divine Sex: Part 4: A Christian Vision for Sexuality

Preston Sprinkle

I’ll wrap of my 4 part review (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) of Jonathan Grant’s Divine Sex by looking at how he articulates a Christian vision for sexuality. As with any review, there’s always a danger of truncating the author’s argument due to the nature of picking out which parts to emphasize. I hope I’ve represented Jonathan’s argument well, and I know there are many things I had to leave out. That’s why I want to give you one last encouragement to buy and read Jonathan’s book.

 

Jonathan devotes the last half of his book to articulating a Christian vision for sexuality. The first half focuses on the culture’s vision for sexuality, which emphasizes individual freedom and the individual’s right to express themselves sexuality as they want. Be true to yourself; make sure it’s consensual; avoid suffering; and don’t hurt anyone else. These are the core values of a secular sexual ethic.

 

Grant argues that a Christian vision for sexual flourishing looks quite different from a secular one. His argument weaves in and out of several different questions and themes for about 100 pages, but there are at least four salient points he highlights that I found to be challenging and thoughtful.

 

First, Christian discipleship, of which our sexuality is a part, is intrinsically eschatological. That is, a Christian vision of “the good life” is always oriented toward the future. We should never expect to find full satisfaction in this life. Everything about Christian obedience has an already/not-yet shape to it, and we must view our sexuality along similar lines. This is not some hope for a pie-in-the-sky future devoid of earthly materiality that we used to sing about in Sunday School. That’s not Christian eschatology; it’s neo-Gnosticism. The eschatology Jonathan’s talking about is a Christian life oriented toward a new creation where our fullest human potential will be realized. The apostle Paul “consistently contextualized the purpose and form of Christian living”—of which sexuality is a significant part—“within the greater arc of God’s cosmic story of redemption” (p. 148). Again:

 

When properly focused, the biblical vision of our ultimate future is an empowering one in which our present sacrifices and struggles are put into proper perspective. Only this stunning reality can give direction and genuine significance to the cost sand consolations of our present sexual lives (pp. 149-150).

 

Jonathan’s not saying that this life will bring nothing but suffering and pain. “We cannot encourage people just to cling to the wreckage of life because of a future hope. On the contrary, the core of the Christian vision is that our lives now can enter into and reflect the realities of heaven” (p. 150). The current demand for “fulfillment now” is not a Christian demand. “Those who demand fulfillment now, as though it were a right or a guarantee, are living in a state of adolescent illusion.” Viewing our sexuality through a Christian, eschatological lens “lies in working out how to live lives free from bondage to sin without presuming to be translated prematurely into a condition that is free from ‘the sufferings of this present time’” (p. 149 citing Richard Hays, Moral Vision, 393-394). Put simply, humans will never be fully satisfied (sexually, or otherwise) this side of the new creation.

 

Second, and related, suffering and incompleteness is part of every relationship—even sexual ones.  “Christianity takes suffering seriously and treats it as an important, inevitable, and even necessary part of our spiritual and moral development” (p. 53). Since all sexual longing is part of a greater human longing that will only be fully satisfied in the new creation, we cannot idolize sexual fulfillment or expect to experience it fully in this life. Or as Paul says: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Much of our current conversations about sexuality, even within the church, either does not believe what Paul says to be true, or they think that sexuality is not part of “the sufferings of this present time.”

 

This life is defined incompleteness. “Our sexuality in its fullest sense—that is, its spiritual, emotional and physical aspects—plays an essential role in the relational vision of the kingdom of God because it speaks of our ‘incompleteness’” (p. 146). “Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom puts our present desire for sexual and relational fulfillment in its ultimate context” (p. 147).

 

Third, sex is connected to our relationship with God—hence the title of his book, Divine Sex. The title “Divine Sex reminds us that in sex within marriage, we express something essential about God’s own relationships within the Trinity, as well as point to the age when we will participate in these relationships directly” (p. 152). “Our experience of romantic love, sexual desire, and all forms of beauty…is testimony to our ultimate desire for God” (p. 153). Pastors and leaders throughout church history understood this well. This is why there have been more commentaries written on the Song of Songs than any other book of the Bible, and almost every one of those commentaries viewed the human expression of sexual intimacy as a metaphor for our intimate relationship with God. Now, recent commentators argue that it’s not an either/or; the Song probably includes both human sexual relations and our ultimate relationship with God. And, of course, Paul twisted the two together so that our marital unions and our union with Christ are inseparable (Eph 5:22-33).

 

To separate sex from divine union is to sever sex from its Christian vision.

 

Sexual intimacy in marriage gives us something like a momentary glimpse of our future ecstasy. It is a fleeting and shadowy foretaste of the social intimacy we will experience in the age to come, even though sex itself will pass away…This new emphasis in the New Testament relatives the importance of marriage and sexual intimacy because our future destiny so completely overwhelms all of our present sexual longing. (p. 147)

 

Thus, any vision for sexual flourishing that seeks to satisfy our sexual longings in this life—free from suffering and incompleteness—is also not a Christian vision. Christians shouldn’t be shocked when our sexual lives don’t bring the full satisfaction we’ve been programmed to expect. They were never meant to.

 

Fourth, sex is designed to belong in the context of marriage and family. Only recently has sex been completely separated from procreation, and this recent separation is a movement away from a Christian vision for sexual flourishing. “Sex within marriage, at both the symbolic and practical levels, is essentially an expression of our openness to new life beyond our exclusive relationship as a couple” (p. 155). Early on in the book, Grant argued that the sexual revolution was able to catch on only after contraceptives were introduced. Severing sex from its procreative potential is the foundation for sexual freedom and expression.

 

Now, as I said in my first blog, I’ve been trying to get inside of Grant’s argument so that I can understand it. I’m not necessarily agreeing with everything he says, and his argument on procreation is a bit underdeveloped, in my opinion. For instance, Grant says that “if we use contraception or are unable to have children for other reasons, we are symbolically open to the possibility of children and the responsibility of providing a stable context for them” (p. 155). This sounds good, but it’s not clear what he means by “symbolically open to the possibility of children.” It’s also unclear whether Grant thinks that every sexual relationship (or sexual act) should be oriented toward procreation. His section certainly raises a lot of questions about infertility, sex in old age, couples who chose not to have biological children or a limited number of children.

 

However, I would say that at the very least, the modern evangelical church has often wrongly severed sex from its procreative design too quickly, and I’ve been challenged on the sex and procreation question by Protestant scholars like Wes Hill and Steven Holmes, along with the Catholic tradition. I’m not convinced that all legitimate sexual relationships must be oriented toward procreation. But I’m also not convinced that sexual relationships, if we follow God’s design as revealed through special and general revelation, can be understood apart from procreation. It is interesting that it was a secular quest for expand sexual boundaries that first separated sex from children in an effort to ensure more individual freedom. Severing sex from procreation doesn’t have roots in Christian thinking, even though it’s been baptized by popular Christian marriage gurus in the late 20th century.

 

As you can tell, I’m currently working through my own view on sex and procreation, and I found Grant’s discussion to be thoughtful and compelling.

 

If I had more time, I would love to dive into other interesting aspects of Grant’s book, such as singleness, same-sex relations, and sex difference in marriage—all of which Grant considers. But I’ve already written more than I had planned. I hope you enjoyed the series, and I hope you enjoy the book!

 

I’ve now moved on to Dr. Dale Kuehne’s book Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship beyond an Age of Individualism. Once I finish it, I’ll write up another review. 

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