On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (4): Thomas Nagel, handmaid

Thomas NagelOne of the accusations that is sometimes levelled at ‘The Body’s Grace’ is that Williams, abandoning the sources of properly Christian ethics, turns instead to a secular philosopher, Thomas Nagel, for his inspiration. The lecture, read that way, is a gift to anyone looking for confirmation of a standard caricature of liberal theology: drop God’s revealed command because you don’t like what it says, and cast around for some man-made substitute that you find palatable. Thankfully, that’s not really what’s going on here. In fact, if you want confirmation of a standard caricature from this lecture, the one it gets closest to providing is of philosophy as the ‘handmaid of theology’.

Williams begins with his already-established theological understanding of the Christian gospel; that’s a point I’ve laboured enough in the earlier parts of this discussion. And he begins with an interest in seeing how sexual relationships might connect to that gospel. He also begins with a sense (to which we will be returning) that the Bible does not actually tell us a great deal about the character of sex itself: what it is, and how sexual relationships work.

What he finds in Thomas Nagel is an attempt to describe as clearly as possible the nature of sexual desire and of sexual activity – am attempt that happens to work in a way that enables Williams to make the connection between sex and the gospel very directly.

Nagel’s paper (‘Sexual perversion’, Journal of Philosophy 66.1 (January 1969), republished in Mortal Questions (Cambridge: CUP, 1979), 39-52) argues against any account of sexual activity that starts by saying ‘Sexual desire is simply one of the appetites, like hunger and thirst’, and that the different ways of satisfying this appetite should no more trouble us than do the different ways of satisfying hunger and thirst (40). Nagel tries to show that all such accounts are failures, because they simply don’t do justice to the specific nature of sexual desire – to its psychological complexity.

He develops his argument by describing a fictional scene between two characters he calls Romeo and Juliet, designed to capture this inherent complexity (45-46). It starts simply enough, but as Nagel adds layer upon layer of description it quickly spirals into intense complexity – but that’s the point. He begins with Romeo regarding Juliet with sexual desire, and being aware that he does so; Romeo is aware, to some extent, of this as something taking place in his body, and also (very) aware of her body). Juliet, it so happens, also regards Romeo with similar sexual desire, and Romeo notices this. Noticing this both sharpens Romeo’s desire for Juliet (sharpening his sense of her bodily presence still further), but also makes him aware of himself as a bodily object for her desire, and of her as a bodily subject of her own desire, not just as an object of his desire. Juliet now notices Romeo’s desire for her, and she too finds her desire for him sharpened, and in the same way becomes more aware of him as a subject and herself as object. And, says Nagel, things can get still more complex: Romeo might see that Juliet not only desires him, but that she has seen (and been aroused by) his desire for her – and this itself might further feed his own desire; and similarly Juliet might be aroused not just by Romeo’s desire for her, but by the very fact of his arousal at her desire for him. At this point Nagel’s conceptual description begins to boil over; as he says, beyond this ‘It becomes difficult to state, let alone imagine, further iterations, though they may be logically distinct’ – and one might be tempted to think that even this last iteration is pretty difficult to isolate in the actual experience of sexual desire. He continues, however,

Ordinarily, of course, things happen in a less orderly fashion – sometimes in a great rush – but I believe that some version of this overlapping system of distinct sexual perceptions and interactions is the basic framework of any full-fledged sexual relation and that relations involving only part of the complex are significantly incomplete. (46).

What does Williams do with all this? Well, as a first approximation we could say that he takes it at face value – accepting it as Nagel presents it: an attempt at a neutral description of sexual desire, rather than a normative account of what sexual desire should be like. Its usefulness rests upon some kind of recognition: yes, that’s the sort of thing that happens. Yet Williams finds in Nagel’s descriptive account resonates very deeply with his own understanding of sanctification:

All this means, crucially, that in sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am. Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire”. We are pleased because we are pleasing.

If Nagel’s description is a plausible one, it shows us how sexual relationships can be part of the process by which we are called out of egocentrism and called into community: called into a recognition that our action is not simply the gratification of our own appetites, but is a language that we speak to others – and that it therefore catches us up into webs of responsiveness and responsibility: we have to ask whether we are hearing the other person, and whether we are speaking so as to be heard. What calls us out into this responsiveness and responsibility is the other’s desire for and delight in us – as object and as subject; our being called out involves our desire for and delight in our partner – as object and as subject. Sex, if Nagel’s description of how it works is a good one, is inherently and unavoidably tangled up with the most basic themes of sanctification.

This is fine as a first approximation – but a second, more precise approximation is possible. Ultimately, it seems to me, Williams does not actually accept that Nagel’s account is as neutral as he claims. Nagel claims that this is the ‘natural’ form that sexual relation takes, and (implicitly) that it can be identified as such by any reasonable human being. Yet Williams says that all this ultimately

only makes human sense if we have a language of grace in the first place; and that depends on having a language of creation and redemption. To be formed in our humanity by the loving delight of another is an experience whose contours we can identify most clearly and hopefully if we have also learned or are learning about being the object of the causeless loving delight of God, being the object of God’s love for God through incorporation into the community of God’s Spirit and the taking-on of the identify of God’s child.

In other words, Williams does not accept that there is a neutral, non-theological, purely philosophical route to the declaration that this form of sexual relationship (rather than something more asymmetrical) is the natural paradigm against which all sexual relationships can be judged. He privileges this description of sexual relations on theological grounds.

That in turn means that he can broaden the focus of his account much more easily than can Nagel from individual sexual encounters to ongoing patterns of relationship, and to the questions of faithfulness and commitment that they raise. It may be difficult to see how to get directly to those questions simply from a phenomenological account of how sexual desire happens to work: could we really claim in some neutral sense that a long-term, faithfully committed relationship is the ‘natural’ outworking of the patterns of mutual desire that Nagel describes? Yet as soon as Nagel’s account has been given its fuller theological grounding within an account of sanctification, the connections follow easily.

This theological recontextualisation of Nagel’s ideas also means that Williams can include a much greater sense of the fragility and difficulty of this kind of sexual relationship: a sense, perhaps, that far from this being the ‘basic framework of any full-fledged sexual relation’, as Nagel puts it, it is seldom realised in actual sexual relations in anything like the symmetrical and complete form that Nagel describes.

In other words, Nagel’s account provides a stepping stone – and not the first or the last – in the development of Williams’ account. It helps him to articulate his sense of how sex is (or can be) caught up in sanctification, and so of how it can be (and often is) caught up in its opposite. Nagel does not act as an authority for Williams: the structure of Williams’ argument cannot at all be reduced to the claim that certain kinds of sexual relation are okay because Nagel says so, or wrong because Nagel says so. No; Nagel acts as handmaid, and only as a handmaid, providing conceptual tools that Williams borrows, and bends to his own use.

2 Thoughts on “On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (4): Thomas Nagel, handmaid

  1. Is this series meant to be merely descriptive of Williams’ position in The Body’s Grace? Or will it have some prescriptive component? The reason I ask is that your thus-far four posts strike me as something which is mostly unapproachable and impractical for a Christian seeking counsel on the subject of homosexuality.

    Also, Rowans can reconceptualize sexuality in terms of the gospel all he wants, but I find this position problematic: “the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts . . .” That is, he brushes off the scriptural witness rather flippantly. One can talk about thinking theologically all he or she wants, but I cannot seriously consider a Christian ethical pronouncement which does not seriously consider scripture.

    At any rate, I am enjoying reading what you are writing.

  2. Don’t worry – we’ll get to criticisms eventually. (I said something about that at the end of the second post.) And we’ll also get on to questions about pastoral applicability, and to questions about scripture – so I hope it will address some of your concerns. Thanks for reading.

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