‘Sodomy’, celebrating the Eucharist, and other disgusting acts

One evening few weeks ago I tried out the perspective I have been developing over the past couple of years on a Christian ethics of sexuality on a lay audience for the first time (previously, I’ve aired it before academics and/or ministers); the general response was pleasingly positive, but, inevitably, there were folk who were not prepared to travel with me. One stood up to ask a question. ‘Dr Holmes [always a bad sign], what we are talking about here is sodomy. Do you not find sodomy disgusting when you think, when you really think, about what people are doing?’

Now, it was news to me that we were talking about sodomy: I’d talked a lot about marriage, a bit about fallenness, quite a bit about love, and a lot about asceticism, nothing that I could recall about anal intercourse; nonetheless I tried to respond. I commented that, if surveys are to be believed, many gay couples (and, surely, virtually all lesbian couples) never engage in anal intercourse, whilst a fair number of straight couples do. I further offered the comment that I don’t actually spend a lot of time ‘thinking, really thinking’ about what other people do in (or indeed out of) bed; I didn’t quite say that if the questioner did, then he might need some psychological help, but the implication was there (which I regret). I was taken aback by the question (and indeed the language) and didn’t handle it well.

As a result it has stayed with me; what would a good answer have looked like? I now think that this question, whilst extreme and offensively-phrased, is indicative of a very common pattern in Christian debates about sexuality, and so worth reflecting on seriously in public. The basic falsehood at the heart of it, formalised, is something like this:

  1. Gay/lesbian couples are/do X
  2. Straight couples are not/don’t do X
  3. X is disgusting/abnormal/against Scripture/…
  4. therefore gay/lesbian couples are morally beneath straight couples.

Anal intercourse isn’t it, but let us assume that there is in fact at least one X for which 1. and 2. are true; what of the rest of the argument? In the conversation I have related, I offered the standard ‘liberal/affirming’ way of refuting it, which is to refuse 3: there is nothing disgusting/immoral about anal intercourse, or X, whatever X may be.

Now, in this, I over-reached myself: I do not have any views on the morality of anal intercourse as an act. I have never considered the question at all; it is far from obvious to me that it is self-evidently disgusting or immoral; but I could easily be wrong about this. (Obviously the issue is different from a Catholic perspective, where every particular sexual act should be open to the possibility of procreation; the Protestant position, to which I hold, is merely that every particular sexual relationship should be open to the possibility of procreation, so individual sexual acts need not be.)

Somewhere near the heart of the arguments that I am trying to construct about sexuality, however, is a belief that this is the wrong response; to say that a particular act of anal intercourse, or any other particular act, is immoral is not wrong; what is wrong is the smuggled premise in my argument above:

3′. Y, which straight couples are/do instead of X is not disgusting/abnormal/against Scripture/…

That is, my questioner’s argument depended not just on a claim that anal intercourse is self-evidently disgusting, but on a claim that vaginal intercourse is self-evidently not disgusting. Moving from the cultural category of disgust to the ethical category of immorality, the claim is something like: ‘acts of anal intercourse are immoral; acts of vaginal intercourse are moral’.

Thus stated the claim is clearly false: there are many acts of vaginal intercourse that are profoundly immoral (rape; adultery; …). So we need to refine the claim to something like ‘at least some acts of vaginal intercourse are moral’.

This, however, is also clearly false. East of Eden, every human desire is distorted, and so every human act is immoral – this is Augustine, straightforwardly. And this is not true just of sexual acts, but of all acts. When I celebrate the Eucharist, or preach evangelistically, my motives are mixed and warped, and so my actions are less than perfect, and so immoral – disgusting in the sight of God. As a recent Pope (if memory serves) had it, ‘not only my worst sins, but my most fervent prayers, stand in need of Christ’s forgiveness’. Everything we do is morally compromised; we cannot single out anal intercourse – or anything else – as being peculiarly morally compromised.

Now, there is one further refinement to the argument that might be possible: ‘acts of anal intercourse are necessarily immoral; whilst every particular act of vaginal intercourse is immoral, it is possible to imagine an act of vaginal intercourse that is not, and so acts of vaginal intercourse are not necessarily immoral.’ (Obviously, there is a question of what ‘necessity’ means here, which has actually been well analysed in Calvinist dogmatics, but my argument does not depend on this analysis.) It is theoretically possible to celebrate the Eucharist in a way that is not obnoxious in God’s sight; no-one has ever yet succeeded in so doing (except, perhaps, in the Upper Room), and no-one ever will succeed, but the possibility is morally significant…

…to which my only response is, no it isn’t. A morally-repugnant act is morally repugnant, whether its repugnancy derives from species or defect. In God’s sight, my celebration of the Eucharist is disgusting – and forgiven through the sacrifice of Christ, insofar as I acknowledge and confess my failure. Exactly the same might be said of any given act of anal intercourse (whether the participants are two men, or a man and a woman). Every human act is morally repugnant, disgusting, in God’s sight; my questioner’s failure was not in naming acts of anal intercourse as disgusting, but in not recognising that acts of Eucharistic celebration are also disgusting.

As I said, it seems to me that this is a very common pattern of argument in discussions on human sexuality: on the ‘conservative’ side, there is an assumption that act X (associated with LGBT people) is morally repugnant, whereas other acts are not; on the ‘affirming’ side comes a rejoinder that insists that act X is not morally repugnant. A theologically-serious response, it seems to me, denies both positions, insisting instead that not only X, but all human acts, are morally repugnant.

Practices of the Christian life are not about finding ways of acting that are not morally repugnant in God’s sight, they are about finding practices that serve to reorient our desire. Marriage is one such practice; celibacy another. There is a live debate to be had as to whether ‘marriage’ here is extensible to same-sex couples; my present belief is that it is not. This belief, however, is not based on a differing estimation of the morality of various human acts, but on an account of the ascetic practices to which the gospel calls us.

[The argument above is entirely my own; that said, I acknowledge my debt to my colleague John Perry, who - unlike me - actually knows something about Christian ethics, in helping me to articulate it on one crucial point.]

8 Comments

  1. Ian Paul
    Mar 22, 2015

    Steve, I am really surprised by a good number of points in this piece.

    First, anal intercourse has an almost universal cultural status (across time and place) of subjugation and humiliation, hence its common use by conquering armies.

    It also has (my wife tells me) profound and virtually unavoidable negative medical consequences. Quite apart from any arguments about biological design, these factors suggest that there is an intrinsic moral problem with anal intercourse.

    Are you honestly saying that either none of this has occurred to you, or that it has and you haven’t considered it to have any moral consequence?

    The reason why this issue arises is because marriage is an intrinsically sexual relationship. Therefore the nature of sexual consummation has been a constant factor in question of the moral aspects of this sexual dimension. In gay ‘marriage’ the question then arises: what does sexual consummation look like?

    I know people who drive on the left who break the speed limit and are wholly inconsiderate. I know people who drive on the right in the UK who are very careful and attentive drivers in all other regards. Therefore, we cannot say that there is anything intrinsically morally superior about driving on the left.

    This appears to be the consequence of your use of Augustinian understanding of fallenness…

  2. steve
    Mar 23, 2015

    Hi Ian, thanks for stopping by.
    On the two points you raise: no, I have never read or heard anything about the medical consequences of anal intercourse (as I say, I really don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the details of what other people do in bed!); if it’s as bad as you say, then that’s significant, agreed. Second ‘almost universal cultural status’ is a very big claim, and not one I have seen evidence to substantiate (I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that I genuinely don’t know enough to judge either way, which is what I said in the OP). Surely though the point here is in the ‘almost’? Anal intercourse in the late modern west, whatever else it may be, is rather obviously not a cultural marker of subjection and humiliation.
    Consummation is an interesting issue; English marriage law has been endlessly fascinated with the question in a way that Scottish marriage law just hasn’t (one of the reasons why the Westminster same-sex marriage act was more difficult, and more of a mess, than the Holyrood one) – I am told that there is not, and never has been, a formal definition of ‘consummation’ in Scottish marriage law, and we seem to have coped OK for the past few centuries without one!
    I’ve heard the argument about a definition of consummation being necessary to an account of same-sex marriage before (from John Milbank, as it happens); for reasons like this I’ve never really found it to be convincing. The best I can do with it is something like this: inasmuch as marriage (on my ethical understanding) requires an openness to procreation, there is a moral requirement for a married couple to engage in sexual acts that could result in pregnancy. That does imply some account of consummation, I suppose, but only as a consequence of a prior commitment to marriage being procreative, so the point does not transfer to accounts of same-sex marriage.

  3. edward pillar
    Mar 23, 2015

    Steve – thank you for your article. a brave and sensible approach.
    I was intrigued by Ian Paul’s response.
    First, Ian states that anal intercourse has a ‘universal cultural status (across time and place) of subjugation and humiliation’ and a key evidence for this is that it is used by conquering armies to subjugate and humiliate. This is surely is logically flawed in the sense that while I’m sure that anal intercourse has been used by conquering armies to subjugate and humiliate, so too has vaginal intercourse, and no doubt, many other practices. The acts of conquering armies do not determine what is or isn’t otherwise good practice. We must surely examine a particular act within a context and thereby determine whether it is good or not. Within a consenting relationship there are all sorts of acts that may be considered normal and acceptable.
    Second, Ian raises the medical consequences card. Again, I have no reason to doubt that this may be true. However, if we are going to suggest that anal intercourse is ‘sinful’ because it has negative medical consequences – as I think Ian is – then we really should speak far more loudly and clearly about the sinfulness of the many more pressing issues that are considered normal but have profound negative medical consequences and prove to be a significant detrimental burden upon the resources of the NHS.
    A final note is that I too was intrigued that according to a recent survey couple within same-sex relationships ‘many gay couples (and, surely, virtually all lesbian couples) never engage in anal intercourse, whilst a fair number of straight couples do.’
    thanks Steve, Blessings…

  4. Andrew Kleissner
    Mar 23, 2015

    My first comment (not to be taken seriously!) is that you would have made a good medieval Sophist – or do I mean a Scholastic? (Probably something else entirely!)

    More to the point, I very much like your argument, and think that it takes this debate in an original and helpful direction which is not usually discussed. However, while I agree both that “everything we do is morally compromised” and “every human desire is distorted,”, I’m not sure if I’d necessarily go on to the conclusion that every human act is “immoral” and “disgusting” before God. While I do recognise both human sinfulness and Christ’s forgiveness, this somehow seems to be an unremittingly bleak view both of the nobility of human aspiration and the generosity of the divine nature.

    • AlexC
      Mar 24, 2015

      I agree with Andrew. Every human act is morally compromised, absolutely. Every human act is disgusting? That doesn’t fit with my understanding of God’s view of a Christian. Hopelessly inadequate, tainted and ineffectual, yes. Inducing God to feel sorry for us, absolutely. Inducing disgust in God? I don’t think I really see that in the New Testament, when speaking of people honestly seeking to do God’s will as best as they’re able (falling far short though that be).

  5. AlexC
    Mar 24, 2015

    I agree with Andrew. Every human act is morally compromised, absolutely. Every human act is disgusting? That doesn’t fit with my understanding of God’s view of a Christian. Hopelessly inadequate, tainted and ineffectual, yes. Inducing God to feel sorry for us, absolutely. Inducing disgust in God? I don’t think I really see that in the New Testament, when speaking of people honestly seeking to do God’s will as best as they’re able (falling far short though that be).

  6. Steve Weatherly-Barton
    Mar 25, 2015

    Thank you, Steve, for having the courage to speak so openly. In the general matter of homosexuality two factors have influenced me very powerfully. (i) The number of young men who came forward for very public prayer at a church I was pastor of in the 1980s, seeking desperately to be set free from homosexual feelings. (ii) The steadfast and committed friendship of a gay Christian man who prayed for me and supported me at a time when my life was in ruins and when (to be ruthlessly honest) those to whom I was looking to for help were very busily ‘passing by on the other side’.
    I freely confess that I still suffer from inhibitions when thinking about some aspects of gay sexuality; and I am struggling too with recognising gay marriage as a fully equal expression of Christian marriage (as indeed are some of my gay friends!). But I fear that some Christians who express horror at the thought of homosexual relationships have never fully come to terms with the fact that sex was God’s idea, God’s creation; and though they might well deny it, they are probably uncomfortable with sex in general, hetero- as well as homo-sexual.
    I accept and embrace your insight that when I preach the gospel or celebrate the eucharist my motives are deeply flawed. Nevertheless I can still enjoy the almost impossibly wonderful fact the God calls me and permits me, flawed as I am, to do those very things. Squalid selfishness and awesome privilege co-exist in my ministry, and will do so as long as I live. And it seems to me that those warring opposites have their place in sexuality too.
    One further thought which I hope is not too far off-topic, and which C S Lewis put far better than I ever could:
    ‘We must not be totally serious about Venus. Indeed we can’t be totally serious without doing violence to our humanity. It is not for nothing that every language and literature in the world is full of jokes about sex. Many of them may be dull or disgusting and nearly all of them are old. But we must insist that they embody an attitude to Venus which in the long run endangers the Christian life far less than a reverential gravity. We must not attempt to find an absolute in the flesh. Banish play and laughter from the bed of love and you may let in a false goddess.’

  7. Ian Paul
    Mar 25, 2015

    Steve, thanks for your reply. Perhaps I should put the two issues more carefully!

    First, I agree that ‘universal’ is probably an overstatement. But across a wide number of cultures, anal intercourse has been perceived as associated with subjection, control and inequality of the two parties. i guess there might be a discussion to be had on why this is, and of course in many cultures it relates to the perceived ‘feminization’ of one party. Given this, I am just genuinely surprised that consideration of this hasn’t come across your radar.

    part 1 b, on the health issues—again, this has been a consistent feature of the debate amongst evangelicals for several decades. For a serious but sensible exploration, see Thomas Schmidt’s ‘Straight and Narrow?’ from 20 years ago.

    Health consequences are an issue for two reasons. First, is the practical question: is it ‘loving’ to do something to someone which involves inflicting harm? I would suggest that there is probably a parallel discussion to be had about the Christian ethic of consensual sad-masochism—which of course is in the news because of 50 Shades.

    But the other half of the debate here has, again, been rehearsed quite a lot. In what sense could we count this expression of affection as ‘God given’ if there is intrinsic harm done in a way which is not the case for vaginal intercourse? This then relates to the ‘design’ argument, and connects with Paul’s critique in Romans 1 where same-sex activity is seen as a rejection of God’s evident intention in creation.

    I am not saying all this to invite a response—only to point out that there is a very well-shaped argument here, which has been around for some time, and which was at one point a significant piece of the argument which has now (more or less) been bypassed by other considerations. again, I am genuinely surprised that you have never come across this kind of reasoning.

    (I agree with Edward that, in the larger scheme of things, there are other harmful things which are more important; but this matters within this particular discussion).

    My more substantive point was to engage with your logic, which appears to move from the idea that all our actions are imperfect to the notion that there therefore cannot be more and less sinful forms of action—or, more specifically, that there cannot be forms of action which are God-given, and ‘blessed in creation’, and forms of action which God prohibits and which are therefore intrinsically problematic for holy living.

    First, I just think you are being illogical here, as my example of driving on the wrong side of the road illustrates I think.

    Secondly, you appear to be offering the converse of Romans 6: since we are completely sinful, why discern any difference in sin? Interestingly, this is a mistake often made by Reformed Conservatives, who appear to claim that, if I were to only ever have one sinful thought in my life, I would still deserve death.

    Thirdly, it appears to me you are either heading towards a situation ethic, or perhaps a virtue ethic stripped of any sense of form of actions. Yet this appears to go against the consistent pattern in Scripture, where holy (and sinful) action is described both in terms of intent and in terms of form. This is the essential weakness of Jeffrey John’s ‘Permanent, Faithful, stable’ which does the same—a loving relationship is *only* defined by its qualities, and never by its form. Although not necessarily a social consequence, the logical consequence of this is that there should be *no* limits to the form of any relationship, involving any set of individuals. I think the parallel here would be to say that there are no forms of sexual activity about which we can make any moral assessment.

    And finally, on the question of consummation, I think English law has it right, in the sense that the consistent language of Scripture is of ‘union’ and this refers to bodily acts as an expression of existential reality. So any ethic of marriage needs to ask ‘What form might bodily union take that faithfully expresses the union of hearts and minds which comprises marriage?’ The Church of England marriage liturgy expresses it in just those terms.

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