WARNING: This post is, at times, sexually explicit.
I can see on the horizon that April is going to be a busy month for me. Seeing a particular week in which I know I won't be able to write anything, I'm setting this post to publish during that week. Ah, the wonder of computers, by which we can appear to be doing something that we actually did long ago!
Of course, the risk is that, although what I'm blogging about is current now, it may be old news by the time this post goes up. I disagree with Mark Driscoll's book Real Marriage in many ways. The controversy over the book has generated a lot of heat in the early reviews. I think it deserves to generate some heat, but I'd also like to try to contribute some light, not only to reviews of this book but also to the subject matter of sexual ethics in general and the human relationship with the created order (nature).
It seems to me that the role of nature in sexual ethics is woefully understated today. The Driscolls' book is a prime example. The Driscolls ask of sexual practices whether they are lawful, helpful, and non-enslaving. They ought further to have asked of each sexual practice under review, is it natural?
The Bible, after all, explicitly includes the question of nature as a key component of sexual ethics:
For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the NATURAL function for that which is UNNATURAL, and in the same way also the men abandoned the NATURAL function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
Notice the prominent use of nature in this assessment of homosexuality. Here, by the way, is one of the places where this essay is much more than a critique of Mark Driscoll's latest book. In discussions about homosexuality, too often we allow people to frame the discussion as though the argument against homosexuality is essentially a religious argument or an argument from tradition. Really, the argument against homosexuality is biological, scientific, and natural. Clearly, it is the design of penises and vaginas to function in cooperation with one another. Yes, people have devised all sorts of other things one can do with a penis or a vagina, but the design of the created order—the natural function of penises and vaginas—is indisputable.
The argument against homosexuality is not necessarily religious (for gay marriage has never, before this century, existed in ANY religious, or irreligious, culture or among any people), but is instead anatomical. Certainly, anatomy has spiritual implications, and religious faith is affected by these observations about the created order that God has given us, but one need not be Southern Baptist to look at the design of human beings—of vertebrates!—and conclude that these beings have been designed for heterosexuality (even if you somehow believe that randomness has done the designing).
Nature is not always such a faithful guide—nature will kill you, for example, if you drink "natural" water out of the wrong stream. But when it comes to sexual ethics, for anyone who believes that God is Creator, nature must be among the factors that we include in our thinking.
Which brings us back to the Driscolls and their failure to incorporate this concept.
How would it change Real Marriage if the Driscolls had considered the concept of "natural function" from Romans 1 in their thinking? Are there modern sexual practices that are "against nature" (the literal translation of the words rendered "unnatural" in Romans 1:26)?
Consider, for example, anal sex. The Driscolls conclude that, within marriage, a husband and wife may participate in anal sex with certain conditions in place. Anal sex, according to their analysis, can be lawful, helpful, and non-enslaving. They envision circumstances in which anal sex, done the wrong way, might not be helpful or might be enslaving (for example, if one spouse were uncomfortable with the idea and were being pressured), but they also consider circumstances in which it would not be.
What happens if you meet that case study with the question, "Is it natural?" I think you must conclude that it is not. The natural function of a vagina is (a) to have intercourse with a penis, (b) to serve as a birth canal for babies, and (c) to provide an outlet for the uterus. The natural function of an anus is to provide an outlet for the intestines. To insert a penis into an anus is an act against nature.
In this world of genetic splicing and the like, it is easy for us to conclude that nature is there never as a guide for us to follow but always as a limitation to be overcome and shaped according to our desires. This is, of course, nothing more than our desire that I rather than God should be the creator and that I should have the opportunity to make corrections where I think He got things wrong.
This post contains a lot of salacious material. It may be difficult for anyone to read all of this and to see past the hot-button issues to the deeper concepts. For that reason, I want to close the post by reiterating explicitly the deeper concept that is the focus of this essay. The design of nature is a factor to consider in many aspects of Christian theology. Sexual ethics is one of those areas in which the role of natural design must play a role. Real Marriage is just one example of an attempted Christian treatment of sexual ethics that has failed, among whatever other reasons, precisely because it has made no effort to include the design of nature into its process of reaching ethical conclusions, but it is hardly alone in this category. If we would be biblical Christians, we must be more careful to consider the design of nature in our future deliberations on the subject matter of human sexuality.