Tag Archives: a theology of beauty

,

Could a theology of beauty fix how we talk about ‘attraction’ and help us tell a better story about God, the world, and ourselves

There was a massive controversy in the church in the United States recently around a conference called Revoice.

Revoice was a conference held for Same Sex Attracted Christians who hold to a traditional sexual ethic. The Same Sex Attracted Christian camp who hold to a traditional sexual ethic are occasionally called ‘Side B’ as opposed to ‘Side A’ — those who affirm that same sex attraction is natural and to be embraced with body and mind. Within the ‘Side B’ tent there’s an emerging discussion about how appropriate it is for a same sex attracted Christian with a traditional sexual ethic (a commitment to celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage) to use the label ‘gay’ for themselves; whether a ‘gay identity’ is compatible with the lordship of Jesus. My friend Tom has some thoughts on this question over at Transparent (part 1, part 2), and he’s much better equipped to comment on the lived reality of this tension than me.

The conversation has recently made it to our shores, in various networks, and while my inclination had been to not give the drama any oxygen because it is within the Christian bubble; both the way that conversation seems to be taking shape and the mainstream media coverage of Wesley Hill’s visit to Australia (he’s aligned with the Revoice conference, and one of the best voices on imaginative ways for Christians to maintain a traditional sexual ethic because of faithfulness to Jesus), here’s my contribution. It goes beyond questions about sexuality though, and into the realm of our relatively anaemic approach to aesthetics within the Reformed tradition, that I’ve written about previously.

The danger in these conversations, at least as they’ve played out in the blogosphere in the US, is that words are tricky to pin down and so people keep talking past each other. Identity is a pretty nebulous concept and a pretty recent one — the desire to have and perform an identity is a reasonably recent trend for us people; that comes with the collapsing sense that who we are is a ‘given’ from a transcendent order (God, or ‘the gods’), and something to be crafted by us as individuals. Identity the way we talk about it now — both as Christians and in the wider world — is a novelty, check out how both ‘identity’ and ‘sexuality’ are increasing in frequency in publication (using Google’s ngram data) and how recent that increase is. Certainly the Bible has lots to say about what it means to be human — but our current conception doesn’t immediately overlay on the Biblical account of our anthropology — and we need to be careful with that…

One of the reasons we need to be careful is that we might freight significance into terms that just isn’t there; and cause division in the body rather than working with one another to pursue greater clarity. We need to be careful not to assume that one’s sexual orientation is fundamental to a person’s identity (or personhood), but that it will shape their experience of reality (especially in a sexuality obsessed culture where identity construction is fundamental to being an ‘authentic’ self). We need to listen to those wanting to use a label like ‘gay’ to understand what they see encompassed in that label — if it’s just sexual attraction, or sexual desire, or a temptation, or lust, sexual expression, or some combination of those things, then we need to carefully parse what is and isn’t part of our inherent sinful nature. I’m going to assume, as someone operating in a particular Christian tradition, that all of us male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, cis- gendered or trans-gendered, are naturally sinful — that our hearts are, by nature, and from birth, turned from God and that this nature expresses itself in our sexuality, our gender identity, and even in our embodied experience of the world. One of the reasons to be careful is that I don’t have to walk around labelling myself as a ‘straight Christian’ — and it’s easy to, as a result, assume that all aspects of my identity at that point — from attraction to expression — are ‘licit’ or untainted by sin; and I know that not to be true, even in marriage. Parsing this stuff out carefully teaches us all something about the place sex has in our world; and about the problems with operating as though we are autonomous units engaged in the task of authentic identity construction (even if as Christians we want to ‘autonomously’ construct that identity centred on Jesus). As a general rule I want to push back on expressive individualism and the pursuit of an authentic ‘identity’ that we then perform, and cobble together through consumer choices and labels. That’ll probably increasingly be a theme in what I write… but in this particular instance I want to zero in on the part of this debate that argues that attraction, a same sex attraction, should be put to death, that to use it (or gay) as a description of one’s identity is to embrace and celebrate sin, and suggest an alternate approach where repentance is better (and rightly) understood as a same sex attracted person turning to Jesus as the source of their personhood and object of their love (and worship), such that this love re-orders their experience in the world and their attraction. I want to suggest that in my own ‘straight’ experience; and perhaps in the gay experience of others, attraction is an experience of beauty; and that there is a ‘right use’ of that beauty. I’m not suggesting anything that you won’t find better expressed by Hill and others; especially Augustine. I want to carefully listen to my same sex attracted friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ, when they say there’s more to the ‘gay’ label than temptation, lust, and sexual expression — and to ask if there might be something about the world God made that these brothers and sisters see that I do not, and that if ‘rightly used’, this might bless the church beyond just helping us support, care for, encourage and disciple our same sex attracted brothers and sisters… and I want to suggest that a better account of beauty might help us in this area; but might also help us be a witness to our neighbours.

From the first page of the Bible we get a picture of God as an artist — as creator — as one who delights in the beauty and goodness of the world he made. It’s a mantra repeated piece by piece as the beauty of his handiwork emerges to be met with him ‘seeing’ that what he made is ‘good’ and then the final declaration:

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” — Genesis 1:31

There’s a link here between goodness and seeing — there’s also a link between function and seeing (following John Walton’s work on the verb ‘bara’ — create or make — where he shows that to create something is to make it for a purpose). Goodness is ‘teleological’ — it is not just arbitrary. But God is pleased with what he sees; he rests in it. This includes the pinnacle of that creation week — humanity. Male and female. Made in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26).

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:27

There is a beauty to the world, and to humanity, that reveals something of the nature and character of God as the creator of beauty. This seems a reasonably straightforward case to make from Genesis 1 (and one that Paul seems to make in Romans 1:20).

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. — Romans 1:20

Something of the divine nature is revealed — clearly seen and understood — from ‘what has been made’ — including, presumably, from its beauty.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” — Genesis 3:6

It’s not the beauty of this fruit; or even appreciating the beauty of it (God had made it pleasing to the eye) that is at the heart of Eve’s sin here. She is attracted to the fruit because it is beautiful; it is what she desires about that fruit — a different purpose to the one that God created it with (a different ‘telos’) that is illicit. The fruit is beautiful and attractive. Desiring and eating the fruit is sin. Because it represented a desire contrary to God’s desires — and, indeed, a desire to be ‘like God’ in a manner different to the likeness we were created to enjoy. In this moment Eve is presented with a false picture of God by the serpent; and so she loves a created thing more than she loves the creator — and from that flows all sorts of sinful acts.

This might sound like a totally abstract thing, disconnected from sexuality, lust, and attraction; the idea that a piece of fruit might be the subject of erotic desire in any way analogous to sexuality… except that the writer of 2 Samuel makes a pretty explicit parallel (so too does the writer of Joshua when it comes to Achan’s sin with material things, and Judges when it comes to Samson’s desire for his first Philistine wife). It seems that theologians like James K.A Smith who want to suggest that there’s a link between worship and eros, so that idolatry is misdirected eros, or eros not first directed to God, aren’t far off the Biblical data. When David sees Bathsheba exactly the same patterns play out. I’ll bold the words that are the same as Genesis 3 in the Hebrew.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba,the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. — 2 Samuel 11:2-4

The ‘saw’ is the same root, רָאָה (raah), the ‘beautiful’ is the same as ‘good’ in Genesis 3:6 טוֹב (tob — where the ‘b’ is a ‘v’ sound), and the ‘to get her’ is the same verb as ‘took’ — לָקַח (laqach). David’s fall mirrors Adam and Eve’s — except with the additional dynamic of the Genesis 3 curse, where instead of a man and woman bearing the image of God together in relationship, he uses his power and strength (and position as king) to ‘take’ her (which is why this isn’t ‘David’s adultery with Bathsheba’ but ‘David taking Bathsheba with soldiers according to his desires’). There is nothing David does right with his sexuality here (and very little he does right with his sexuality his whole life). But… It seems to me that those who are saying Christians shouldn’t use the label gay because ‘attraction’ is inherently sinful must look at this episode and say the problem was Bathsheba’s beauty, or at least that once David saw it he was immediately captivated by it — that seeing her bathing and noticing her beauty he had no other option but to sin; such is his heterosexual orientation. But is there another way of approaching this narrative?

It seems difficult to separate our apprehension of beauty from the lust to possess that beauty that seems innate — that seems to be what we inherit as part of the ‘human condition’ since the fall. And yet both Job and Paul seem to posit an alternative account of faithful engagement with God’s beautiful world. One that doesn’t leave us taking or grasping, but thanksgiving. Job famously (at least in terms of Christian accountability software) declared:

I made a covenant with my eyes
    not to look lustfully at a young woman.” — Proverbs 31:1

Presumably there’s a difference between looking at a beautiful young woman, and looking lustfully at a beautiful young woman that requires the exercise of the will as an act of faithfulness. Presumably David could’ve exercised that same faithfulness from the rooftop when he saw Bathsheba. Paul follows up his statement about the telos of creation (including beauty) with a diagnosis about the heart of sin. He sees the start of sin as a ‘wrong use’ of creation — or, basically, a deliberate rejection of the first two of the ten commandments.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:21-25

He also says this leads to ‘shameful lusts’ — our lust, or desires to do things with created beauty on our terms, flows from an inability to truly see God in his glorious goodness and for created beauty to be part of that picture. There’s a ‘right seeing’ of those things we then lust after, or desire on our terms. Whether we’re heterosexual or homosexual. Or, as he puts it in his first letter to Timothy, talking about people who want to draw particular boundaries to prevent idolatry by forbidding the right use of things God has made:

They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. — 1 Timothy 4:3-5

The appropriate response to beauty is to avoid grasping-for-self — the Eve/David option, by thanksgiving-to-god.

I gave a talk recently on what this looks like with beer and sex. There’s some great stuff in Alan Noble’s book Disruptive Witness on this (review here), picking up on an article he wrote on lust and beauty that I’ve found exceptionally helpful personally and pastorally in terms of cultivating a different sort of ‘male gaze’. What does it look like to apply this framework to sexuality? And same sex attraction specifically.

If our sinful nature is a natural, fleshly, inherited, putting created things in God’s place — loving those things ‘inordinately’ — then that nature is, for all of us, worthy of God’s judgment. This includes heterosexual attraction if attraction is the same as lust, or exclusively sexual. Our sinful hearts — and the state of putting created things in the place of the creator means any actions, even apparently ‘licit’ actions, that flow out of that state of being, however ‘good’ they might be will be sin (all deeds that do not flow from faith are sin — Romans 14:23). This also means our fallen heterosexual attraction is not ‘good’, but will be tainted by our inordinate love of sex instead of God, or our pursuit of identity/meaning/significance in our sexuality (let’s call it ‘worship’ and let’s call that worship idolatrous). There isn’t a ‘straight’ morally upright sexual orientation, even if one’s behaviour lines up with God’s design (the theological label for this idea that our natures earn judgment, not just our actions — concupiscence — is a double edged sword that those of us who are ‘straight’ can’t just pick up and wield here).

Here’s the problem though with making ‘attraction’ or one’s orientation the equivalent with one’s sexual desires, not one’s predisposition to a certain sort of desire (in Paul’s terms, making it part of the sinful flesh rather than a distortion of the image of God in us)… I don’t have to repent of recognising that women who aren’t my wife are beautiful or attractive; I can thank God for that beauty and resist that ‘pull’ grabbing my heart and turning my mind towards lust. I have to repent when I objectify a beautiful woman who isn’t my wife and lust after her, and I have to guard my heart — by proactively loving God, and then my wife, in order to avoid my ‘sexuality’ being the centre of my identity — the driver of my personhood. When I say I’m attracted to women I don’t exclusively mean I lust after women, I mean that I’m drawn to appreciate the beauty of women in a way that I don’t appreciate the beauty of men. I can’t tell you what is a good cut for a male T-shirt, or reasonably predict which men on TV are considered ‘attractive’, but I can appreciate a nice dress or a beautiful woman; and I believe I can thank God for them in ways that reflect a certain sort of discipline instilled by the Spirit as it works to transform me.

When anyone, by the Spirit, is re-created as a worshipper of God, being transformed into the image of Christ, what seems to go on in terms of that worship is a re-ordering of our loves so that we love things in their right place. Paul comes back to the idea of worship, given to God, not created things in Romans 12 — instead of sacrificing everybody else for our desires we become, together, a ‘living sacrifice’ captured by the vision of God’s beautiful mercy to us. This absolutely involves a giving up of what we previously loved in God’s place for the sake of loving God — a re-ordering of our hearts so that creation serves its purpose again; revealing God’s divine nature and character.

Why is the ‘recognition’ of beauty or attraction between members of the same sex subject to a different standard? It’s because we’ve first committed to sexualising attraction. If we say ‘same sex attraction’ or to be ‘gay’ is always sexual; and so is impossible to split from lust (not just temptation) then adopting a gay identity would be to adopt and celebrate an aspect of our sinful, fallen, disordered selves. If this is the case then we need to check whether that’s a standard we apply to our own ‘attraction’ and how much our sexuality forms our identity if we’re going to play the identity game. But when a same sex attracted person says they are ‘gay’ and we jump to hearing it as describing, exclusively, a sexual preference and set of desires when they might first be describing an aesthetic orientation that produces those desires we’re not being consistent with how we view our own attraction, or actually listening to what is being said, at least this is the case in Wesley Hill’s own account of his attraction and experience, and what ‘gay’ means. Here’s what he told the Age:

Being gay colors everything about me, even though I am celibate . . . Being gay is, for me, as much a sensibility as anything else: a heightened sensitivity to and passion for same-sex beauty that helps determine the kind of conversations  I have, which people I’m drawn to spend time with, what novels and poems and films I enjoy, the particular visual art I appreciate, and also, I think, the kind of friendships I pursue and try to strengthen. I don’t imagine I would have invested half as much effort in loving my male friends, and making sacrifices of time, energy, and even money on their behalf, if I weren’t gay.  My sexuality, my basic erotic orientation to the world, is inescapably intertwined with how I go about finding and keeping friends. 

Here he’s using ‘erotic’ the way James K.A Smith does — not just sexual, but sensual — as the sort of love that guides our interactions with God and his world. Hill’s writing in the magazine Smith edits, Comment, is some of the best writing on how to imaginatively pursue faithfulness to God via a traditional sexual ethic going round, he’s worth following (check out this piece on ‘jigs for marriage and celibacy’ for starters).

I think a category of aesthetics and beauty is sorely lacking in our theology; which leaves us oddly platonic (separating mind and body), and in weird legalism when it comes to relationships between non-married men and women (where we hyper-sexualise them so that men and women can’t be friends or alone together — and there’s a vicious cycle thing going on here where the sexualised culture we live and breathe in predicts that those sorts of circumstances will be sexualised). This then makes life for same sex attracted people in our churches almost impossible, who can they be in a room with?

What if ‘attraction’ is, before anything else, a predisposition to appreciate a certain sort of beauty? What if when somebody says they are ‘same sex attracted’ that includes sexual desire and lust as a result of our fallen hearts, but redemption of that attraction does not look like ‘turning it off’ but directing it to its telos — knowing the divine nature and character of the creator? This must necessarily mean encountering beauty on God’s terms, not through our idolatrous hearts that seek to possess beauty for ourselves as an object for our pleasure — making ourselves little gods who take and destroy others.

What if the goal of a same sex attracted Christian is holiness — a wholehearted devotion to God, including an appropriate response to the beauty that fires their hearts?

What if our inability to separate attraction from lust is a cultural issue that is the result of our perverted human hearts and the idolatry of sex (the idea that sexuality is the core of our personhood)?

But what if that is a misfire when it comes to beauty (the sort of misfire that means, when, for example, a father puts his hand on the chest of the nervous teenage girl in front of him the internet melts down and the meltdown continues even when it turns out he’s comforting his daughter because we sexualise all touch in our depraved imaginations)?

What if it is not that they stop recognising the created beauty of members of the same sex but they stop desiring that beauty in ways that reveal they don’t first desire God/holiness?

What if we were able to discipline ourselves across the board so that our ‘attraction’ is first a disposition towards the ordinary recognition of beauty in God’s good creation; recognising that this is then perverted by idolatry and disorder in a culture that idolises sexuality and individuality such that we’ve first invented a concept called ‘identity’ and then made sexuality central to it?

What if this was beneficial to all of us when it comes to understanding relationships with other people who we find beautiful.

What if the desire for male friendship and the recognition of male beauty is something our particular culture has beaten out of most heterosexual men, and what if that’s part of the problem? That I can’t conceive of a man as beautiful does prevent me from lusting after men, but it also prevents me rightly appreciating God’s artistry in the men in my life. What if my same sex attracted friends are open to more of that created goodness than I am, and so tempted in ways that I am not?

I think if we managed to move the conversation, and our practices, in these directions we’d have much better things to say about God, about human identity, and about the proper place of sex and sexuality in our lives (and personhood). I think we’d be able to better adorn the Gospel in our communities in such a way that relationships between men and women, women and women, and men and men were enhanced. I think we’d be more convincing when we talked to the world about sex and marriage. We’d tell a better story. As it is, we’ve bought into the same truncated humanity as the world around us and we’re unable to conceive of beauty and attraction without admitting that we’ll fall for it, so that the only way to be properly sexual (and thus properly human) is to marry, or turn off our recognition of God’s beautiful creation — including people.

And here’s the real rub. Our Side B brothers and sisters are at risk of being alienated by both sides of an increasingly polarised world. They are the most likely to face the ire of a world that believes the path to flourishing humanity is to authentically embrace and express your sexual desires. They are the most likely to be the public face of conversations around ‘conversion therapy’ even if they aren’t articulating anything like conversion to heterosexuality. They are also the ones we’re most likely to crucify because their experiences of sexuality are marginal within Christian community and so ‘outside our norms’ even as they prophetically question whether our norms have become worldly. These brothers and sisters are the prophetic voices we should be turning to in a world that idolises sex and sexual authenticity, and in this conversation we’ve turned on them.

It’s interesting that everybody wants to cite Augustine in this conversation. He’s a very helpful conversation partner here — and a particularly integrated thinker when it comes to how our loves shape our actions. Here’s two concepts from Augustine that should be in the mix — rightly ordered loves, and the maxim that ‘wrong use does not negate right use’…

Underneath our sinful decision to worship creation rather than the creator there’s a good creation that points people to the divine nature and character of God — that’s the ‘right’ love of creation; loving the creator first. The right love of male or female beauty is to thank God for it; I suspect there’s much my same sex attracted brothers can teach me about the goodness of God’s creation if they’re seeking to faithfully do this.