Part One: The Very Beginning
Then the Lord God formed Ha’Adam from the dust of the ground, and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and Ha’Adam became a living beingGenesis 2:7
The person across from me reaches into their chest removing glob after glob after glob of mud. They place each into a sieve resting in my hands and wait. Gently and purposefully I run clean water over the mud. Larger particles are trapped in the mesh. I take them out and turn them over and over. We discuss each bit and some we decide to polish, some to smelt, or some to throw away. There are hundreds. We do this for a little while, then the washed silt is put back in. There will always be more work, always new bits accumulating, the mud in front of me is alive, it moves through this world picking up new detritus every day, for good or ill.
In pastoral care I am often presented with questions of ethics by people who expect me to have solid answers. People come to me for consolation or absolution or just to vent when life gets overwhelming or confusing. To a substantial portion of people I am viewed as the person who is supposed to be able to sort things neatly into boxes. Whereas I view myself as another mud person holding a sieve.
When I say we are made of mud, that is as much a reference to Genesis as it is a simple concession that our lives are never easily divided into good and bad. Clean and Unclean. Water and Dirt. Humans, I remind my parishioners, are muddy. Our ethics are muddy. Our morals are muddy. Our lives are muddy. And this is the price of doing business in a world beset with dubious moral positions.
Do I buy this burger for my unhoused friend, knowing it will give him joy, even though it contributes to morally repugnant factory farming practices and exploitation of workers? Do I expect a young mother to avoid buying the only clothes she can afford for her children while other children are making them as a means to survive the systems of oppression our country helped put in place? Do I spend time with my own children or spend time trying to make the world they live in better?
The very nature of existence in our society is increasingly morally ambiguous simply because the social systems we exist under are exploitative and sinful. Our virtues are built upon our vices. Our Christian heroes of the faith are praised for standing against the principalities and powers, but if the camera pans downward all of them are standing on the backs of the oppressed of some other place or time. Indeed, that is how we can see them. That is not a condemnation, it is a lamentation. In my darker moments it often feels like Newton’s third law has translated to morality. For every action, an equal and opposite reaction. A maudlin, and in my opinion, false dichotomy but a real worry worth keeping sight of.
It is from this point. This understanding that human interaction is necessarily colored by the social institutions and power imbalances that plague us. This understanding that there is no perfect moral system within the empires of our world. It is from this point, that we talk about the fact that we are the breath of God.
We are not mere lumps of mud, we are children of the divine, and we contain within us the ability to love, to purify, to illuminate, and to breathe life back out into the world. We have the ability to reimagine, and recreate in the image of heaven. This is the other half of the equation when we delve into such a muddy topic as sexual ethics. We have to ask not only about how muddy each encounter is getting, how to limit ties to systems of power and exploitation but, as Christians, we must ask is this encounter life giving? Is this encounter illuminating? Is this encounter an image of heaven?
A Christian sexual ethic is concerned not just with the mundane but with the sacred and the relationship between the two. I believe that there are answers to some of our questions, and I also believe that there is nuance and humanity in each question that should not be ignored. So as we delve into the progressive christian sexual ethics, please carry these two concepts in tension.
We are human and divine.
We must accept the fullness of each if we are to enter into a fulfilling relationship with our own sexual nature.
May the Spirit walk with us and inform us on this journey together. Amen.