Top leaders of the SDA church will be meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, next week, March 17-20/2014, for the ‘In God’s Image’: Scripture, Sexuality, And Society Summit. Willie Oliver, director of the Department of Family Ministries at the General Conference, stated: “The principal purpose of this Summit is to have a conversation with key people in the global leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, to gain a greater understanding of the issues surrounding alternative sexualities, and to counsel together regarding the challenges the church is facing in this area, in order to find a way to be redemptive as well as obedient to the teachings of Scripture in a more consistent manner around the world”. He noted also that, “reasonable people can disagree, and this is especially so about one of the most controversial issues of our time. Nevertheless, the Adventist Church is duty-bound to be loving, respectful, kind and obedient to the teachings of God’s Word.”
The chosen title, the announcements made and the presenters invited give this Summit four following characteristics. It probably will be: 1) a top-down biblical, 2) a theological affirmative, 3) an ethical-philanthropical and 4) an ecclesiocentric Summit. Are these characteristics unjust? Not at all. They are appropriate and necessary. The SDA church couldn’t survive without them. But, are they “sufficient conditions” for reflecting meaningfully on sexuality today? I strongly doubt they are.
First, a top-down biblical approach to ethical issues tends to start from a “model” and only later go to “reality”. It’s a “model-defending” approach that can easily overlook, then sublimate and deform the concrete reality. Contrary to broad opinion it’s not the only possible biblical approach to ethics. The parallel and complementary bottom-up ethical approach – that which starts from the underlying reality itself – can also be biblical. The challenge in order to articulate a balanced biblical-ethical approach is to successfully integrate both models, then to privilege, based on context, one or the other. An exclusive top-down biblical approach to sexuality is biblical only in form, but not necessarily in substance. An example of a bottom-up approach to sexuality is given by the 2006 conference in Ontario, California, co-sponsored by SDA Kinship International and the Association of Adventist Forums and the resulting book published in 2008. An example of a top-down approach is the 2009 conference, run by Andrews University in response to the earlier conference, and the resulting book, published in 2012, entitled “Homosexuality, Marriage, and the Church”. The fact that the Cape Town Summit organizers have promised this second book as a gift to each attendee may be a sign of the orientation this conference will take.
Second, an exclusive theological affirmative approach is the natural consequence of an exclusive top-down biblical strategy. Even though an “enlightened biblical reading” may include some degree of “experimental theological reflection”, this is only possible if we move from the bible to immerse ourselves in the concrete reality of people’s lives and tragedies. It’s the concrete human and existential experiences of men and women, young and adults, gays and straights that make our theological convictions flexible, meaningful and relevant. Without concrete human reality and suffering our theology becomes blind and bigoted. While a healthy theology can’t be a doubting one, an exclusively “affirmative theology”, particularly on sexuality, is surely a poor one.
Third, an exclusively ethical approach to sexuality would make people believe that sexuality is fully controllable. This is a typical contemporary, pragmatic assumption. Maybe we are more guided by our sexuality than we actually are able to guide it. In the biblical narratives, and also in non-western cultures, “sex” and “body” still have a mystery that cannot be managed exclusively with ethical and moral strategies. The parallel philanthropic compassion we pretend to have for people with “sexual problems” (LGBT people for instance) doesn’t correct but rather reinforces the same exclusive ethical approach to sexuality. We need to enlarge this necessary ethical approach to a more comprehensive anthropological method that shifts the main attention from “control” to “orienting” sexuality. All persons, not only LGBT people, face the challenge of having to listen, to know, to accommodate and to orient our own sexuality in a human and shared experience. One that is more than just a procedural, ethical event.
Fourth, the necessary SDA church’s attention, care, study and regulation of sexually related issues needs to include dialogue and cooperation with civil society and state initiatives (school, medicine, legislation, minority groups, mass medias etc). In contrast with other historical periods, when believers’ lives were more oriented to the church, important sectors of these lives are today lived and conditioned not by the church but by society. It would be anachronistic, in such conditions, for the church to pretend to regulate, orient and know completely what sexuality is all about without cooperating with non-religious institutions. With this necessary larger social perspective on sexuality in mind, and to have this Summit in Cape Town, our church ought not to be indifferent to what is going on elsewhere in the African continent. The news from there this year for LGBT rights is grim and disheartening. Per the laws issued recently in Uganda LGBT people there can be put in prison for life if they contract marriage. In Nigeria they could go to prison for 14 years if they just have a meal or talk with other LGBT people. Parents as well could go to jail if they don’t denounce LGBT relatives to authorities. This is just a reinforcement of the already draconian laws on the continent where 38 countries still criminalize homosexuality. And the SDA church, which has a significant presence in both Uganda and Nigeria, hasn’t said anything to condemn these new human rights violations.
Why is important to accompany a top-down approach, biblical or ecclesiastical, with a parallel bottom-up approach? Not only for biblical reasons, as we mentioned before, but also for cultural reasons. Our explicit and implicit Adventist anthropology on sexuality has grown both unilaterally and unbalanced in this respect. We tend to underline the Unity (Holism), the Continuity and the Stability of human beings and human behaviour, as well as Sexuality. Research observations from various fields, and common sense experiences on human identity and sexuality, tend instead to show the heterogeneity, discontinuity and developmental characteristics of today’s sexuality. This is, for instance, what the young German philosopher and pundit Richard David Precht describes in his best-seller, “Wer bin ich – und wenn ja wie viele?” (Who Am I?: And If So, How Many?)
To become aware of our own sexuality is not uniquely a sexual problem but a structural identity problem for us all. It implies an arduous anthropological process. This doesn’t occur in a neutral or aseptic human environment. Sensual desire, sexual excitement, masturbation, self-pleasure, lusting imagination, bodily attraction, intimacy, sexual intercourse and even chastity are human experiences we usually go through, at various stages of our life, to engage in that process. We are born with genitals, male or female, but the awareness of what it means is not given at birth. We learn it, in suffering and frustration, but also in joy and satisfaction, in a life-long process. Sexuality is not reducible to its biological component. It implies a complementary, multi-faceted maturation on various levels: psychological, sociological, relational and spiritual. And this process has a subjective as well as objective dimension. I’m a man or woman – not because the physician tells me I am – but rather because deep inside I feel myself such. The subjective moment we appropriate our own sexuality is not a secondary process and cannot be painlessly overlooked. But that is also true for the relational-social dimension of sexuality. I feel I’m a man or women also because others consider me that way. This is the complementary, but also contrasting distinction Judith Butler establishes between sexuality and gender. For this reason we are called to live this anthropologically normal process according to the shared ethical principles of the group we belong to. But since gender is a socially and culturally conditioned process we must also approach it critically. And, in addition to this, the believer chooses to live this complex human process in God’s presence, after biblical principles and with God’s grace and mercy. Nevertheless, this religious help and support doesn’t free anyone from going through the demanding anthropological process in all its various dimensions.
In this sense LGBT Adventists don’t represent a danger for heterosexual Adventists, but rather an opportunity to better understand ourselves. We heterosexuals share much more common ground with homosexuals than is usually thought. Alfred C. Kinsey, Masters & Johnson, Albert Ellis and others have shown, in their pioneering work and research on sex and identity, that sexuality is a transversal, open, heterogeneous and paradoxical human condition and experience. This universal anthropological solidarity tears down the distinction between Adventists and Catholics, believers and non-believers, but also between morally “reliable” and morally “suspect” people. Morally “reliable” people have sexual problems too. And this is a blessing and a mark of their humanity. Feelings that are in and out of harmony with our environment are not only bound to certain psychiatric disorders but are also the common ground we all build our identity upon. And part of this life-process in managing and organizing our sexuality includes the experience of self-control and discipline. No sexual life – homosexual or heterosexual – could really survive without discipline and self-control. To dismantle this essential category would mean, at this level, to increase unnecessarily the risk of frustration and meaninglessness. Nevertheless self-control is a necessary but not sufficient means of dealing with sexuality. The “control” category presupposes only a mechanical understanding of sex and body. It could be reduced to Descartes’ reductive view of the body as being “disenchanted” flesh (“res extensa”). Here the body is reduced to one of its dimensions and thus made steerable. But this first illusion makes possible the emergence of a second one that is perhaps even worse: that which erroneously amplifies and inflates belief in our capacity of self-control (“res cogitans”). Now, believers should know that we can destroy our life and sexuality by not controlling them but also by trying to control them too much. Sexuality needs to be supervised, listened and oriented, rather than “controlled”. All the complexity of body and sex, its opacity, enchantment, paradox and ambivalence, its beauty, resistance, deepness and attraction is given in a famous prayer of Augustine: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet” (Confessions, Book VIII, chap. 7)
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department, Dean of the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.