On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (7): Light in the darkness

Sorry to have been so slow recently: I’ve been distracted by a combination of going on holiday and finally getting some concentrated research time (and so getting absorbed in questions completely unconnected to this series of posts).

Where had we got to? Well, Williams has defined what is good about sex, in the light of his understanding of the Christian gospel – arguing that sex can indeed be part of God’s sanctifying work (so sex does matter). In the light of that, he has also defined what can be bad about sex: how it can work against the Gospel. Yet, despite the clarity with which he identifies the good and the bad, we have seen Williams acknowledge that actual sexual relationships are nearly always mixed. Last time, I discussed his insistence that marriage – or any legal framework within which a sexual relationship might be generically defined as ‘proper’ – is not enough to guarantee the good of sex. Such frameworks do not let us off the hook.

However, if Williams insists that the sexual relationships that the church has habitually thought of as ‘permitted’ might still be contexts for (and sometimes guarantees of) bad sex, he also insists that there can be good to be found on the other side of those boundaries. There might be ways in which sexual relationships that the church has habitually regarded as inappropriate might nevertheless be contexts for the good of sex.

That’s the point, after all, of the long re-description of events from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet at the start of the lecture. Williams finds there a powerful and convincing portrait of a particular sexual relationship, enmeshed in its larger psychological, social, and political context. He finds a portrait, in fact, of a pretty dark relationship: one which clearly has very little about it that speaks of the good of the Gospel. And yet he finds that, in the portrayal of that particular relationship, there is a faint glimmer of the real good of sex, a glimmer that refuses to be blinked away. The ‘relationship’ is in many ways a repulsive one – go read the novel, you’ll see what I mean – and Williams doesn’t suggest that it is somehow as a whole redeemed by the fact of this faint glimmer. Nevertheless, it is not all bad, not quite pitch dark through and through.

If the Church’s vision of sex is defined by the Gospel, such that it allows the Gospel to tell it what is good about sex, then it is put in a position where it might – where it must – recognise glints and gleams of good even in some sexual relationships that are genuinely and properly objectionable. To suggest that everything on the wrong side of the boundaries that the church draws is entirely and only wrong, so that no good at all can come of it, is a betrayal of the primary criterion by which Christians are called to identify the good.

There are several clarifications to make at this point

  1. This is not to say that all bad sex will have something of the good about it. Williams’ deliberately examines one very specific sexual relationship – and whilst the attentiveness that he demonstrates can and should be generalised to other relationships, what he finds cannot. This is not a facile sexual version of the claim that ‘There’s a little bit of good in everyone, you know.’
  2. Williams is not allowing his ethics to be dictated by Paul Scott, as some have suggested. As a first approximation you could say that he simply uses the novel as an illustration of a point established on quite other grounds. More accurately, one could say that he finds in the novel an enigmatic hint (Scott’s delineation of Sarah’s entry into her ‘body’s grace’), and asks what if anything he can make of it in the light of the gospel. Scott plays a role not entirely dissimilar to that played by Nagel.
  3. More accurately still, we could say that the use of the novel ends up being deeply fitting. Williams suggests that discovery of the patterns of good and harm in a sexual relationship requires a sustained and insightful attentiveness to the complex psychological, social, political reality of a relationship. His ethic requires, one might say, a novelistic level of attentiveness.
  4. The discovery of light in the darkness does not mean that the church will make no rules, have no policies, draw no boundaries. Williams does not say, for instance, that the church will stop insisting on faithfulness as the proper form of a sexual relationship (that’s something we will be coming back to). But it does mean that the church will have to operate its policies, police its boundaries, in the recognition that (a) it does not thereby create a sterilised environment within which everything is okay, and that (b) it does not thereby erect a fence beyond which everything is bad and only bad.
  5. Lastly, the bit of the argument I have been examining in this post not – absolutely not – secretly about homosexuality. Williams’ quite separate argument about homosexuality (which we have not yet come to) is very different. So he does not – absolutely not – argue that despite the real problems with such relationships, there is nevertheless a gleam of good, strong enough to suggest that the church should bless them anyway. His argument about homosexuality is not that the church should shift where precisely on the gospel-driven gradient from acceptable to unacceptable it draws its line, so as to take in a broader territory. Those who disagree with Williams on homosexuality can afford to take the present part of his argument seriously, without worrying that they are thereby leaving open the door through which he will bring same-sex relationships.

One Thought on “On ‘The Body’s Grace’ (7): Light in the darkness

  1. Thank you for this series of posts. I love to learn about Rowan Williams thoughts, and you always make this easier.

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