Last week, controversy broke about an extract from Josh Butler’s forthcoming book “beautiful Union.” I’ve written something about that here. In my article I challenged some of the reaction which seemed quick to write Josh and his book off as weird, icky, misogynistic etc. I don’t think that this was the case as I argued in that previous post.
However, I do think that there are significant problems in his book and I highlighted one. Josh takes the concept of “one flesh” and says that this is about sexual union, but in a way that suggests that sexual union is itself constrained to the act itself. He then focuses on how he thinks the act of sexual union points to Christ. Exegetically, what I think he has done is take the use of “one flesh” in 1 Corinthians 6:16 and read that usage onto the other usages in places like Ephesians 5 as well as Genesis 2. That seems to be a misstep because in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is talking about an aberration of relationships and sex. So, what we should do Is go into 1Corinthians 6 with our awareness of what the term means from Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5.
However, this is not an article about one flesh, sex, Josh Butler or even particularly about exegesis, so I don’t intend to go into further detail on that question here. If there is interest, then I’ll write some more another time. What I want to talk about here is the anatomisation of our thinking. Josh’s biggest problem, in my opinion, is that he has taken something (sex) and separated it out, he’s isolated it to examine it theologically.
Sticking again with the particular issue of sex, I have argued for some time that this is a general problem for how we approach it. We think of sex as this thing, hopefully as a good and enjoyable thing. It’s something most of us want. So, in the secular world there’s lots of conversation about how to get it, how to enjoy it, who controls it etc and its assumed that sex is something that should be available to everyone, everywhere providing consent is present. Meanwhile, Christians insist that sex is a good thing, seeking to correct past tendencies to treat it as bad. We however add the disclaimer, as I think Josh does in his book, that sex must happen within the context of marriage.
We’ve put sex back into marriage and that’s a good thing. However we have still treated it as something distinct and separate from marriage. And although Josh says that the act of sex belongs in marriage, I want to suggest that he begins to theologically examine it at least semi-detached from marriage. Therein lies the error. It links to something else we are seeing in the theological world.
There has been an attempt in recent years to recover a belief that everything is theological, that if the whole world is made by God and for God’s glory then every aspect of it points to him and is worthy of theological attention.
I want to affirm this. However, I want to suggest that we need to take care in how we do it. First, of all, there can be a kind of dull and formulaic way that we do things so that we end up producing Biblical Theologies on everything from trees to toilets. I recently saw that there was a children’s book called “When I grow up I will play for Bradford City.” I was excited and also curious as to the author’s, quite reasonable, interest in our brilliant team. However, it turned out that they have produced such a book for every team in the Football League. So, I’m a little bit suspicious that they’ve done one of those things where you produce the template and them swap the names in and out. Our Theology of everything can function like that. If all the different things point to God, then his decision to create a diverse world should encourage us to see and say different things about him.
However, the other problem is that I am not convinced that we are meant to theoretically dismantle and deconstruct things in the clumsy way we see in the examples. Yes, sex itself has something to say about God, Creation, Humanity and New Creation but I don’t think we are meant to separate the act of sex out from the entity of marriage in order to see those things. We are meant to look at it holistically. It is marriage itself that points us to Christ and so we want to talk about how marriage does that. This means that such conversations will also talk about sex but not in a way that dismantles it and takes it out to look at on its own.
This applies to all of the other examples we can think of. For example, we can talk about trees and birds etc but within the context of a theology of creation. We can talk about a theology of work but that needs to be firmly contextualised within a theology of humanity.
What God has put together let no man separate!