At a time of high-volume recrimination, when all that seem to count are loud opinions on specific hot-button topics, few things require more boldness than quietly to propose a “framework for Christian sexual ethics” that asks readers to ponder basic principles rather than rush to precipitous conclusions. And few people are better qualified to offer such an unexpected proposal than Margaret Farley, the Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale Divinity School since 1971.

As a feminist, a Roman Catholic, and a religious (Sister of Mercy) teaching ethics in a liberal university during an era of ideological and ecclesiastical turmoil over sexuality, Farley could scarcely have hoped to avoid public controversy. And indeed, at times she has become a point of polarization, honored by fellow theologians and excoriated by bloggers for such positions as her stated belief that homosexuality “can be a way of embodying responsible human love and sustaining Christian friendship.” To the many students who worked with her over the past thirty-five years, however, and to those who have read her books and articles, Farley is best known for her largeness of spirit and for the demanding intelligence she brings to her teaching and writing.

Her new book exudes those qualities. In Just Love, Farley seeks not so much to persuade as to invite readers to a way of thinking that can move the conversation about sexual morality forward. Her project is constructive and, like any foundation-laying, requires patience. I must confess that in my own reading, I grew a little impatient with the space given to spadework, and felt the urge to page ahead. Yet serious readers will do well to pay attention from start to finish. Farley’s manner is academic but not obscure, and once readers grow comfortable with it, they will reap the benefits of wisdom gleaned from decades of teaching and scholarship.

In her introduction, Farley ties the need for a new framework for sexual ethics to the explosive growth in knowledge in our time. The natural sciences have tremendously complicated our notions of gender and sexuality, even as history and the social sciences have revealed the partial character of our prior normative discourse concerning what is “natural” and “proper.” Failing to work at a framework capacious and sturdy enough to encompass such new knowledge is intellectually irresponsible, Farley suggests; and bearing authentic Christian witness requires intellectual responsibility.

The next three sections of Just Love challenge Christian ethics to come to grips with a new cognitive situation. “The Questions and Their Past” takes up the complexities of sex, morality, and history in theories of interpretation from Foucault to evolutionary psychology, and charts the evolution of sexual ethics in the West, sketching normative positions from Greece and Rome to the Enlightenment and adding recent medical perspectives. Farley simplifies these large topics in an appropriate and illuminating fashion. In “Difficult Crossings: Diverse Traditions,” she briefly surveys the impact of cross-cultural realities, outlining the theoretical issues involved in learning from other cultures, and offering data from the South Seas, traditional African culture, Hinduism, and Islam. Finally, she gives explicit attention to “Sexuality and Its Meanings,” beginning with how the body matters, moving to whether gender matters, and concluding with sexuality and its meanings.

Up to this point all the attention in Just Love has been on the “is,” with no element of “ought,” and some readers may grow restless with the apparent lack of a normative argument. Farley tests us further by turning in chapter 5 to still another apparently theoretical discussion. First, she elaborates on her decision to locate Christian sexual ethics within the framework of justice, instead of a number of available alternatives. Second, she discusses the sources for Christian sexual ethics, adopting a form of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. (Her understandings of Scripture and tradition are those of a moderate liberal, but her conception of reason and experience is more expansive than one might expect: reason, for example, clearly includes “secular disciplines of knowledge,” and experience seems to embrace a wide range of “contemporary experience.”) Finally, she defends “just love,” rather than simply “love,” as the proper approach to sexual ethics. Love may sound nobler, but it is also more elusive; justice may seem minimalist, but without it love is empty.

In chapter 6, “Framework for a Sexual Ethic: Just Love,” Farley turns to her understanding of justice, focusing on “the concrete reality of persons” and the “obligating features of personhood.” She lists seven norms that must be met in order for decisions about sexual acts and dispositions to be just: no unjust harm; free consent; mutuality; equality; commitment; fruitfulness; and social justice. This rich chapter concludes with Farley’s thoughts on how “just love” works as a Christian ethic, as well as a human and social one. Finally, all these discussions come to a focus in the closing chapter, “Patterns of Relationship: Contexts for Just Love.” The three patterns are “marriage and family,” “same-sex relationships,” and “divorce and remarriage.” For each of these complex questions, Farley summons resources arrayed in the opening chapters and moves toward normative judgments.

To criticize Farley’s “opinions” on any of these difficult questions would be to betray the entire spirit of her project, which emphasizes not particular conclusions, but the process of reasoning responsibly and well toward a conclusion. Nor would it be to the point to complain that Just Love does not cover everything that comes under the heading of sexual ethics, or even that it fails to cover adequately its own examples; all Farley’s topics were deployed to illustrate thinking justly within the framework she has established.

Instead, I direct my criticisms to the framework itself. Some elements of the ethical structure built up in Just Love are less clearly developed than they might be, especially in light of the “Christian” dimension of the book’s subtitle. Farley pays little attention to the ecclesial character of sexual ethics. How does the church’s standard of holiness with respect to the body come into play? How might the church as a community play a role in discerning appropriate codes of personal behavior? And how can this discerning activity (which properly puts emphasis on human experience) negotiate the often difficult declarations of the magisterium? The last is a special issue for Catholics, to be sure, but it is scarcely foreign to other ecclesial bodies struggling with sexual ethics.

Farley’s effort to describe a person-based sexual ethics that moves easily to a sexual ethics based in justice is certainly consonant with Christian identity; but is it distinctive to Christian identity, or does it arise from what is distinctive in Christian commitment? The answer may be that it need not be distinctively Christian in order to be fully Christian, but I would like to see the point argued more fully. Finally, while I appreciate that Scripture is but one of the resources available for normative moral discourse, I would have appreciated a more robust engagement with both the problems and possibilities offered by biblical witness; Farley’s method as a scholar ends up giving more space to the Samoans than to Scripture.

These questions, I want to make clear, arise from a deeply sympathetic reading of Farley’s argument. I consider Just Love an important resource and spur for further collaboration among Christians and others on the knotty issues of sexual ethics. Throughout her book, Farley evinces the sort of intellectual modesty that comes from great learning and an open mind. She recognizes how little we actually know about many of the issues on which we confidently make normative judgments, and I appreciate her insistence on our need to know “what is the case” before we proclaim “what must be so.” Such openness to other cultures (and to science) is not a function of political correctness but of theological appropriateness. Farley insists that the mystery of human embodiedness demands not only respect at the moral level, but also modesty at the cognitive one.

An example of how respect and modesty can make a difference for normative discourse within Christianity is the splendid discussion in Just Love of intersex persons, those born with both male and female sexual organs. Farley reveals how impoverished our Western world’s two-gender-only understanding of humans is when compared with the recognized place of “third gendered” persons in some cultures. She discusses how the obsession with “fixing” intersex children into an acceptable gender, through surgery and socialization, leads to numerous problems among the “fixed.” The lesson here is that we should not be impatient with what we do not understand. Farley notes that even if only a tiny fraction of the world’s population is born in this condition, it is still a massive number of bodies from which God wants us to learn something concerning what is or is not “according to nature.” Here Farley’s argument that the moral issue is not love but justice makes a great deal of sense.

Just Love does not provide all the answers concerning sexual ethics. But it does lay out a serious and solid framework for thinking about them. It is perhaps too much to hope that this fine effort can escape the sort of polarized responses that the temper of the times seems to elicit.

Published in the 2007-01-26 issue: View Contents

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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