In the first part of his book, Song has explored some of the dynamics of marriage and sex in scripture and theology, and along the way has dismissed the most popular arguments for accepting same-sex unions as on a par with marriage.
He then turns to the question of ‘covenant partnership’, and appears to hit another nail into the common arguments for same-sex marriage. Some relationships which are not heterosexual, it is said, can express the same virtues of marriage in a generic but ungendered relationality. Song appears to have in mind here the position of Jeffrey John, which parts of his previous argument actually seem to parallel. But this is also close to the ‘kinship’ view of James Brownson, though Song does not mention him. Whilst Song is ‘sympathetic’ to this approach, it will not do for him, since ‘it is in danger of denying the goodness of the material creation’ (p 24).
This includes not merely the materiality of creation but also the form in which it is made…To abandon the notion of sexual differentiation entirely in favour of a generic relationally…is to run the risk of denying any meaning at all to the phrase ‘male and female he created them.’
This has consequences for theological thinking about marriage, and removes us from the biblical understanding.
In particular, [this approach] may come to serve as a legitimation for modern notions of abstract individuals contracting together for reasons of mutual benefit (p 26).
Song then goes on to explore the significance of his earlier conclusion that procreation is ‘theologically redundant’ in marriage. He highlights the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant teaching on the question of childlessness, distinguishing between marriages which happen to be childless and marriages which are entered with the intention of being childless. Catholic theology explicitly rejects the latter, but Protestant theology has given such marriages more recognition; might deliberately childless marriage offer a pattern for a non-procreative covenant relationship? To open the discussion on this, Song summarises his argument so far in these terms:
If we are to introduce the category of covenant partnership at all, the fundamental distinction it connotes is not between heterosexual and homosexual relationships but between procreative and non-procreative relationships.
This then leads to the fourth section (chapter 3) on sexual differentiation, sex and procreation. Here he argues that sexual differentiation is fundamental to marriage. This is not about hierarchy between the partners, since the most persuasive reading of the biblical texts is that marriage is about mutual subordination in a context of basic equality. It might, though, be about complementarity—so Song lists, then questions, the three main articulations of this. First, the form of male and female bodies in particular the form of the genitals suggests comlementarity—but ‘without an understanding of their function, namely reproduction, their structure is meaningless’ (p 45). Second, complementarity could be found in psychological difference—but perhaps the next batch of research will undermine this. Thirdly, we might turn to marriage as a theological model (as in fact Song has earlier)—but most who do this return to its procreative nature.
Covenant relationships clearly do not have to be sexually differentiated, and we find examples of them in scripture, such as between David and Jonathan. But could they be sexual? It seems clear that procreation is not the only purpose of sexual activity; we see in Genesis 2 the language of ‘union’ and in the Song of Songs sex as an expression and fulfilment of desire. This, combined with the notion that contraception is acceptable,
…is to admit that sex may have, intrinsically and objectively, a different and separable meaning from procreativity. And this in turn implies that covenant partnerships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, may be sexual in nature (p 59).
And the nature of desire in sex means that (as Rowan Williams has argued) sexual activity can also point towards our desire for God.
It is in this section that Song does most of his work ‘towards a theology of same-sex relationships.’ But it is not clear to me that he is being entirely consistent with his previous argument. If heterosexual marriage-with-sex has such an important role in offering an analogy for God’s relationship with humanity (as he has earlier argued), how can we now simply separate sex within marriage leading to procreation from sex without marriage as an expression of pleasure? In what sense does the latter point to God when removed from the former? What God has joined (the act of sex and the context for sex of heterosexual covenant relationship) let not theologians divide! This division arises from Song’s own dividing of Gen 1 from Gen 2, rather than seeing both of them together as providing a theological understanding of sex-within-marriage. If sex is expressed genitally, how can we so easily dismiss the form of the created body the moment we focus on desire—something again Song himself has argued against?
On the other hand, that which God has divided let not theologians join! In his discussion of the meaning of sex here, Song makes no reference at all to one of the most striking features of the biblical approach—and one that makes both the OT and the NT distinctive within their social and cultural contexts: sexual activity is a strictly bounded thing. There are certain relationships within which sex may occur, and a good number of relationships and context where it may not occur. In other words, there are strict boundaries around the kinds of relationships, covenant or otherwise, that can become sexual. You might regret or resent this (as Diarmid MacCulloch clearly does in his current TV series Sex and the Church) but it is impossible to ignore it when considering the meaning and purpose of sex from a theological perspective.
So when Song draws the line of demarcation between procreative and non-procreative relationships, he is doing so over an already existing demarcation between sexual and non-sexual relationships. This means he is creating not two but three categories: non-procreative non-sexual relationships; procreative sexual relationships; and the middle category of non-procreative sexual relationships. Since Scripture locates sex as pleasure and sex as union firmly in the second area, and these relationships are heterosexual, Song is left without any clear justification for why the third area might include same-sex relationships—other than reasons he himself has previously ruled out. If the theological logic of NT eschatology has led Paul and Jesus to see celibacy as an appropriate alternative to marriage, rather than sexual, same-sex covenant relationships, what has changed at the level of theology which would lead us to come to a different conclusion?
In his last major section, Song returns to the exegesis of particular passages. He sets out a fairly conventional reading of Romans 1, whilst noting Paul here is not ‘providing a complete, considered sexual ethic’ (p 67). What is slightly odd is Song’s failure to note the importance of the ‘visible creation’ in Paul’s rhetoric, which as Robert Gagnon has noted is a key part of Paul’s argument, and chimes with what Song himself has said earlier about the goodness of the material creation, including its form in the male and female bodies. Lev 18 and 20 ‘are difficult to see as referring to something other than homosexual anal intercourse’ (p 69), and cannot be dismissed as no longer applying to Christians. This is because we cannot throw out OT law in general, but also because we find NT texts reapplying these particular principles. In 1 Cor 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.9, ‘Paul is restating the Leviticus case, which in turn is based on the claims in Genesis about sexuality in creation’ (p 70).
How then does Song fit the previous argument within this reading of the texts? It is by ‘drawing a contrast between the surface meaning of texts and the deeper structure of the biblical story’ (p 63). Song is clear that, in trying to do this, he has his work cut out for him.
We can therefore be open to taking the criticism on the chin: even if there is no surface trajectory in the New Testament towards same-sex relationships, there are still a variety of reasons for finding such a rationale that arise from within the New Testament and that are in sympathy with its fundamental commitments.
Song needs to be given credit here; he is quite honest in admitting that the NT texts themselves offer no trajectory whatever in the direction that he wishes to travel. But in doing so, he is creating yet more challenges. In relation to the text of the NT itself, he is in effect arguing that it is theologically and semantically incoherent—that what we read on the surface actually points, not just at right angles, but in the opposite direction to the ‘deeper structure’ of the biblical story. That would mean that, on this vital question of human anthropology, and the implications for sexual ethics in the light of eschatology, the actual texts of the NT are fundamentally misleading.
He is also arguing that his own understanding of the implications of eschatology for sexual ethics are to be preferred to either Jesus or Paul’s. Jesus offers no revision of the Jewish understanding of Lev 18 and 20 or the creation narratives in this regard, and Paul, seeing himself as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus, relocates the Levitical prohibitions precisely within an eschatological context of the coming kingdom. Yet Song suggests that both Jesus and Paul have failed to understand the ‘deeper structure of the biblical story’.
Despite having, from the outset, rejected the ‘programmatic liberalism’ of prioritising experience over Scripture, it is hard to see that Song has not done something similar, by prioritising a theological pattern over against what Song agrees is the meaning and significance of the relevant texts. In amongst this, what we are left with is a lucid, elegant and powerful theological case for retaining much of the church’s current teaching on the nature of marriage.
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