On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (5): Black, white and grey

So, where have we got to so far? Well, one way of summarising what I have said so far is to say that, for Williams – it’s all about love. Sex matters because it is deeply bound up with love. Sex is good when it builds up love. Sex is bad when it works against love. It’s that simple.

Simple? Well, yes – as long as we are willing to pay attention to two big difficulties.

  1. We are very good at misunderstanding ‘love’. The real nature of love is something we are taught (painfully and slowly) by the gospel: by God’s love winning us gradually away from the distortions we have taken for love, and winning us into Christlike love. That’s why I’ve delayed focusing on the language of love until now, and instead spent my time talking about the gospel, and about sanctificiation – in the (no doubt vain) hope that readers will recognise that by ‘love’ I mean something you learn on the way of the cross, not something you learn by watching romantic comedies. And this creates a real pastoral problem: how on earth do you say, ‘It is all about love!’ without people hearing, ‘It’s all about how you feel!’?
  2. Perhaps the strongest message of ‘The Body’s Grace’ is that the connection between sex and love is deeply fraught. It is messy, complicated, and risky – and it is hugely tempting for us to fall into deeply misleading platitudes of one kind or another (and, as we will see, Williams wants us to avoid liberal platitudes just as much as conservative platitudes). And that has important implications for the kind of moral clarity one might expect in this area. It is possible to be extremely clear about what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean in this context, and about why the good is good and the bad is bad. But that doesn’t mean that the job of discovering where on the ground the good and the bad are actually to be found is going to be at all easy. (Think of a analogous example: suppose I were advocating an ethical position that said: what really matters is whether you do x out of selfish or out of selfless motivations. That is, on the face of it, a very clear distinction; there’s real moral clarity there. But that doesn’t for a moment mean that the job of examining one’s motivations, and of discerning whether one is being selfish or selfless, is easy.)

    Put it this way. Conceptually, what I have been discussing so far is Williams’ description of what is black and what is white in sexual relationships. Building up love? Good. Undermining love? Bad. How much more black and white a description do you want? But, when Williams talks about the actual existence of sexual relationships in the world, things are not so neat. Of course, there are some kinds of sexual activity that he is, using these paint pots, happy to colour exclusively black: rape, paedophilia, and so on. And the analysis he has given of the connection between sex and the gospel enables him to give an account of why rape, say, is always and only wrong. But far from finding that outside these blackspots everything is white, he finds elsewhere only differing shades of grey. There’s no place on the map of real sexual relationships where we can simply breathe a sigh of relief and know for certain that we are safe. Sex is always more complicated, and more risky than that.

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