Monday, March 19, 2007

Book Review: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Book Review: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Margaret Farley (Continuum International Publishing Group, June 2006)

Dr Margaret Farley, a Sister of Mercy and a professor of Christian ethics – since 1971 - at Yale Divinity School, is one of American Christianity’s foremost ethicists.

In this book she tackles some of the most complex issues relating to Christian Sexual Ethics, and writes thoroughly, thoughtfully, compassionately and convincingly (but also, according to many conservative fellow-Catholics, too progressively). If you want to put her into a theological/philosophical box (which is difficult, given the breadth of her opinions and research) I’d say she’s a liberal, irenic feminist.

These days helps inform us about an author’s biasses/breadth/depth via her/his citations. This book, we are told, cites 287 books (it seemed like more!), principally: Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family by Rosemary Radford Ruether on 8 pages, Moral Theology: Challenges for the Future : Essays in Honor of Richard A. McCormick by Charles E. Curran on 7 pages, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex by Judith P. Butler on 6 pages, Being And Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre on 5 pages and Summa Theologiae by St.Thomas Aquinas on 5 pages. (I seem to recall stumbling over references to Ricoeur and Foucault more than five times).

Her main point? Justice and love should permeate all relationships, including sexual relationships. She ranges throughout history, across cultures, and tackles most of the big questions of embodiment, gender, and sexuality – including thorny issues relating to same-sex relationships, marriage and family, divorce/ remarriage, celibacy, and sexual behavior. (She doesn't touch abortion, interestingly).

She’s frank, but there’s nothing titillating here. On the contrary it’s an academic book replete with hundreds of valuable footnotes (ideal, probably, for Christian Sexual Ethics 101), occasionally dull and heavy-going, but generally jargon-free. There are surprisingly few case-studies. She’s sometimes repetitive (‘I have said several times..’).

The ‘large questions’ about sexuality she says have to do with the status of the human body, increasingly complex questions about gender, and the sources and aims of sexual desire. One online reviewer summarizes the scope of her work well: ‘Throughout history and across cultures, societies have regulated the sexual passions, channeling them mostly into heterosexual marriage involving either monogamy or polygyny; in both patrilineal and matrilineal societies, women were often subordinated to men; and polygyny presents special dangers to women's equality.’

According to Farley, the basic question of sexual ethics is, 'With what kinds of motives, under what kinds of circumstances, in what forms of relationships, do we render our sexual selves to one another in ways that are good, true, right and just? Her framework for "just sex" centres around seven criteria: do no unjust harm, free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, and social justice.

She’s realistic about the fluidity of modern notions of commitment, and indeed is quite relaxed about commitment being conditional and contingent because life is often too hard and full of unexpected surprises to live a permanent and unconditional commitment. What we must do, she says, is teach moderns just principles of relationships and sex.

What do these principles mean in practice? Farley can be quite explicit. Masturbation is OK when it serves relationships rather than burdening them. Use of pornography that weakens our capacity for healthy sexual relations and any kind of sexual abuse or use of power to obtain sex are wrong. Scriptural arguments cited in opposition to homosexuality and homosexual relationships are misinterpreted, ambiguous or part of a worldview in which the central issue was that men are superior to women. In the end there are no good reasons to apply different standards to same-sex and heterosexual relations. Both kinds are good if just, bad if unjust.

Her irenicism is quite marked in two areas where Western feminist liberals and others are mostly polemical: female circumcision and the gender-justice struggles of Islamic women. Farley is amazingly restrained, sensitive and broad-brush in her attempts to understand the background of these issues. She is also sensitive to the complexities faced by intersexed and transgendered persons. In terms of reproductive technologies she believes the key principle is that “no children should be conceived who will be born in a context unconducive to their growth and development in relationships.”

I hope that's whetted your appetite. It's a book filled with commonsense, which will gently dismantle many of your prejudices.

Rowland Croucher

March 2007

No comments:


Here's a Blog of articles and reviews.
For more, visit our website (with its 20,000 articles: so get comfortable!)


Rowland Croucher


Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Melbourne, Australia
Husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, pastor, teacher, writer, used-to-be-academic... See here for more: