Chapter 6: Human Sexuality

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 6: Human Sexuality

"It is in the controversial field of sexuality that the process theologians have made their real contribution to ethical thought today." So said the author of a book published in Britain a few years ago. He believes that sexuality is "one area where, because of the profound element of ‘mystery’ in inter-personal relationships, the secular kind of pragmatism has little to offer" (A.G. Woollard, Progress: A Christian Doctrine?, SPCK, 1972). A process approach certainly has the possibility of making a significant contribution to this "mysterious" area.

My purpose in the present chapter is to make some suggestions about this from the side of Christian faith and Christian morality, interpreted in terms of process thought. Because these are merely suggestions, others who are more expert in the field of ethical theory may be led to consider the matter in greater detail. My only excuse for writing on the subject is that it seems important to include it in a book on process thought and its use. Furthermore, as a personal apology, I am a human being and hence a sexual creature; and I am a Christian in faith, however imperfect that faith may be. As such, and as an adherent of the process conceptuality, I believe one can show how all three of these can fit together in a discussion of human sexuality.

One of the difficulties in much that has been written or said about human sexuality is that it has been altogether too much based upon what Mr. Woollard calls a "secular kind of pragmatism." That is to say, it is not grounded in a total view of human nature. When it talks about "man," in the generic sense, it looks at human life and speaks about it with no regard for what I have styled the cosmic context, the wider perspective of the world’s creative dynamic and structure. In addition, it is often prepared to consider human sexuality as an aspect or element in human beings that are assumed to exist as fixed entities -- as if one could speak of static and changeless "human nature." Hence, I begin with a brief statement about human existence in its cosmic setting when seen from a process perspective and interpreted in the light of Christian faith.

We have said repeatedly that humans exist in a world which is marked by movement and change and where the basic constituents are not things but events or occurrences. All such energy events mutually affect and influence one another; "reality is a social process," to use the words of Charles Hartshorne. Any energy event, and any grouping or society of such events, builds upon the inherited past, in relationship with which it makes its decisions in the present. And it has a future reference, since the potentialities given in its emerging provide it with an initial aim to which it may so respond that this initial aim becomes the event’s own subjective aim. Furthermore, there is freedom to choose or decide whether this shall or shall not take place. Such a freedom runs through the whole cosmos at every level and with the appropriate variations in subjective awareness of its existence. Thus the world is not predetermined but is in many ways an open world, although of course there are sufficient continuities or regularities to maintain it as a cosmos and to prevent disintegration into anarchic chaos. This creation neither explains itself nor finds its meaning in itself; there is a reality that is the source of potentiality and the recipient of achievement, a reality that works in the created order to provide aims, to lure events toward actualizing such aims, and then to accept into itself the good that this actualization accomplished. This source and recipient we call God, whose character and whose manner of working are nothing other than Love-in-act. We have argued for this "vision of reality" in earlier chapters, and we shall return to it in the next chapter. Here, however, we must add that for Christian faith the source and recipient which is Love-in-act is believed to be expressed decisively and specifically, yet not exclusively and without parallel, in the event we name when we say Jesus Christ. To use Schubert Ogden’s word, Jesus Christ is taken to re-present what God is always and everywhere up to, what God is always and everywhere doing, and what God is always and everywhere seeking to achieve in the world -- with which God is unfailingly related and with which God is in a relationship of mutual influence.

It is against such a background that a Christian process thinker sees human existence. Somewhere along the evolutionary line specifically human existence emerged, marked by a notable degree of awareness and self-awareness, able to appreciate and value, capable of response to possibilities, and accountable for choices made and for their consequences. What then does it mean to be human? I suggest that it means to be on the way to becoming human, that is, on the way toward actualizing human potentialities and in so doing becoming more open to the possibility of reflecting the Love that is God and of serving as the personalized and personalizing agent for that Love. To be human is to be moving toward the image of God, who is Love, to be moving also toward a richer existence as created, finite, and inevitably defective lovers.

However, because we are not souls who have bodies but animated bodies with mental and spiritual capacity, the business of becoming a lover includes our embodied, psychosomatic, and socially conditioned nature. This tells us that our human development in loving has for its basis the fact of our being physiologically and psychologically sexual creatures. If angels exist and are "disembodied intelligences" (as defined by Thomas Aquinas), we do not know how they learn to love. But for us humans, who are bodies quite as much as minds and spirits, such growth must be by those bodies as well as by activity of a mental or spiritual kind. We may notice that at the animal level sexuality is the means by which a species is continued through reproduction, while at the human level sexuality has become the basis for unitive or conjunctive relationships. Reproduction is indeed appropriate and probable in those relationships where it can occur, but for specifically human existence procreation should be conscientiously and responsibly undertaken, not reduced entirely to the biological consequence of the genital union of male and female bodies.

In these paragraphs I have tried to give the presuppositions we should have in mind when we speak of human sexuality. But perhaps I have not sufficiently stressed still another important matter, namely, that in all human decisions, and the actions that are consequent upon them, there is likely to be serious distortion of, or a sadly imperfect response to, the possibilities for good. Indeed, such distortion and imperfection is well nigh inevitable. There is an accumulation of social wrongdoing which influences us; there is the easy availability of less adequate satisfaction of desire. This means that human existence is unhappily marked by estrangement from God or Love-in-act and by alienation from the true development of selfhood. Religion calls this estrangement and alienation "sin." What is more, in no area of human experience is it so easy to deny or violate Love-in-act and to remain content in superficial and unfulfilling decisions and actions as it is in the realm of sexual behavior. Centuries ago Augustine saw this clearly enough, although he discussed it in a fashion that now seems jaundiced and cynical. Suffice it to say that it is precisely because sexuality is so central to humans as lovers-in-the-making that its misuse or distortion is a frightening, because readily observable, aspect of our existence. Yet there is no area where splendid opportunities for genuine fulfillment and joy may more wonderfully be found. Hence there is an ambiguity in human sexuality that may stand as a symbol for the ambiguity of all human life in its genuine potentiality and in its tragic failure.

Sexuality is a good thing in itself, and so are sexual acts in themselves. I am making an important distinction here. By sexuality I mean the all-pervasive erotic aspect of human existence that is present in all we say and think and do, in every relationship with others and also in our relationship with God as the source of human "refreshment and companionship." By sexual acts or sex I mean explicitly genital behavior in which human physiological sexual contact, with its psychological and emotional concomitants, is the means for a unitive or conjunctive relationship. Sexual acts, or sex, express the wider "sexuality"; they are enormously satisfying and they can establish deep and intimate one-to-one relationships with others.

There are three types of sexual activity in which human beings may act upon and express their wider sexuality: heterosexual, homosexual, and celibate. The last named may surprise some readers, but for reasons given later I am convinced that it should be included.

The heterosexual mode of expression is obviously the most common. Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy marries girl -- so it has gone in human history. Society has recognized this by setting up a pattern of relationship which in our Western culture is predominantly monogamous and finds its chief manifestation in matrimony, although there have been and are other cultures that have taken a different line in their attitude toward heterosexuality. So usual is the heterosexual expression, so much is it the common mode, that our Western ethical tradition has spoken of it as normal. I am not suggesting that homosexuality and celibacy are abnormal or unnatural, and I shall discuss the matter later. Nonetheless, nobody can doubt that most people have found, and still find, heterosexual genital contact, enjoyed within some societal context, satisfactory for them and their preferred way of intimate relationship with others of the human race.

There may be considerable diversity in heterosexual relationships, and there is today dissatisfaction with the inherited pattern. But it is not my purpose here to go into this, or to consider the various modern patterns, the question of divorce after marriage, the case often made for group marriages, and the like. Generally speaking, we find everywhere wide acceptance of heterosexuality where marriage is the aim and where the procreation of children is welcomed. We find that there is usually a wish to bring into existence a family as a cell of shared love, in which all members participate in mutuality or giving-and-receiving. At its best, this is a lovely and ennobling thing. Heterosexual marriage may well be preceded by some degree of experimentation and experience, but for the most part the aim is for boy to marry girl and girl to marry boy. Christian moral thinking has accepted this and has given marriage a special blessing, surrounding it with the aura of divine approval even if it has not always realistically grasped the fact that marriage is not inevitably an ideal state and that to insist on its continuance when love is absent is to condone what in effect is legalized rape and hence hardly an appropriate symbol for the Christian idea of marriage as representing "the mystical union of Christ and his Church."

Second, there is homosexuality. Many believe it is wrong to regard this as a legitimate mode of genital sexual contact; they condemn it as unnatural and deviant. I cannot agree. I hold that the approximately 10 percent of the world population who are homosexual in inclination and whose only satisfying sexual expression is that with someone of their own gender are acting in a fashion which is entirely normal and natural for them. It is natural and normal for people with that kind of sexual attraction and desire to wish to behave homosexually. Thus they are not deviant, although they are different from the vast majority of the human race.

In our Western tradition, biblical texts, taken literally or fundamentalistically, have been used to condemn all homosexual acts, and a particular version of natural moral law has also relegated homosexuals to the category of freaks. But if we interpret such texts in their appropriate context and with due regard for their cultural setting, and if we regard the argument from natural law as lacking content (even if Aquinas’ generalized summary of that law as "doing good, not evil" is formally true), we must acknowledge the goodness of homosexuality when and as it is practiced with due regard for the genuine moral norms, to which I shall refer at the end of this chapter.

The historical record of the Christian churches and of human society generally with respect to homosexuals is appalling. Men and women have been condemned, rejected, and led to think of themselves as the worst of sinners, whereas they ought to have been welcomed, accepted, and treated as human beings exactly like their heterosexual brothers and sisters, the one difference being the direction of their sexual drive. In due course, surely a more humane, more Christian, and more loving and understanding attitude will prevail, not least because society at large is slowly but certainly coming to accept this position about homosexuals.

Finally, there is the celibate expression of human sexuality. This is not an explicitly genital mode of contact, but it is a way of sexual living that makes its appeal to those who by religious vocation (e.g., monks and nuns) or a call to a particular kind of human service (e.g., Dag Hammarskjold) or some necessity (e.g., those who cannot find a life partner or a homosexual comradeship available) are forced to live without a genital way of being sexual. Of course, the danger here is that such persons may repress their sexuality, but this need not be the case. Many of us can think of monks and nuns (as well as of others who are not vocationally celibate but nonetheless actually so) who have been enabled to live fully and healthily, rechanneling their sexual drive toward other modes of expression that can make them loving, concerned, caring, and deeply devoted and committed people.

I have omitted autoerotic sexual activity from my list, not because it is evil in itself -- today there is general agreement that this is not the case -- but because it fails to include the social reference which is integral to human existence as such, as I held in discussing human nature. Youthful and adolescent masturbation certainly is not wicked; in older persons it will very likely be harmless, in the absence of other kinds of sexual activity and as a means of relieving physical sexual tension. However, it is almost always faute de mieux. The reason for this is that it is usual, even natural (to use here the question-begging adjective), for human sexual expression to be with others precisely because (as I have argued) human existence is a social existence, where sociality is the correlative of personality.

Let us now turn to what elsewhere I have styled the "controls" for the concrete actual sexual expression of pervasive human sexuality (see my book Love and Control in Sexuality, United Church Press, 1974). Perhaps guidelines would have been a better term, and in what follows I shall use it.

It seems that in all expressions of human sexuality, including especially the explicitly genital ones, there are five such guidelines: (1) Always act with due regard for the other as more than merely a means for self-gratification. (2) Always treat the other as a person, not as a thing. (3) Always act with responsibility for the other’s fulfillment and human growth; hence, aim at as much permanence as is possible for the relationship. (4) Always act with responsibility for the other’s self-esteem and with due consideration for the consequences of one’s actions. (5) Always act in such a fashion that the act is seen in its wider and more inclusive context. The basic intention in all five guidelines is to make possible the expression of love, both given and received. By love I mean, as I have already stressed, a relationship of sharing, mutuality, openness, self-giving, and gracious receiving, which is very different from sentimentality or emotionalism or easy toleration. Indeed, love has few more dangerous enemies than those last three, exactly because they give a specious appearance of being love, whereas they are denials of its true nature or cheap evasions of its claims upon us.

First, then, it is a violation of love to use another person for one’s own gratification, without regard for that other’s wishes or feelings. The reason is plain enough, since it is characteristic of love to seek a mutual relationship in which the welfare of the other is given first place. Second, it is a violation of love to treat somebody else as an object or thing, to be manipulated as one likes, rather than as a person with whom one is always concerned as a person. The reason is that love always personalizes and regards the other as "thou," or at the very least as "you." Third, it is a violation of love to seek to hurt or damage -- at worst to wish to destroy -- another or to "possess" the other for a time, with no concern for continuation of relationship. The reason is that love is always concerned to help, heal, and build up, never to harm another, and delights in establishing an enduring association. Fourth, it is a violation of love to disregard another, to imperil another’s self-esteem, to reject one’s own accountability for another, and to fail to consider the consequences of what one has done to and with another. The reason is that love is always respectful, always responsive to others, always prepared to take upon itself the consequences that may follow from actions undertaken with them. Fifth, it is a violation of love to center one’s whole attention upon and confine one’s interest to the strictly physical, without concern for wider personal context and social implications. The reason is that love is always proportionate in its concern and tries to see another as a whole human being in a whole human context.

This discussion of guidelines is very brief, to be sure, but I trust that it suggests a viable code for sexual behavior. Note that they are applicable both to wider human sexuality and to explicit physical sex. That is as it should be, since the point of explicit sexual acts is that they are the chief way or ways, among other ways, in which the human erotic drive toward union or conjunction manifests itself.

Some may wish for more precise and detailed regulations for sexual behavior in the narrower sense, but I believe that in this area of human experience, perhaps above all others, room must be left for spontaneity and freshness. Also, we need to recognize that we are living in a period of enormous change in the understanding of human sexuality and human sex. Out of this will come most certainly a new set of values and a new direction for conduct which will commend themselves as both human and humane. And if we have the courage to bring Christian faith into the picture, that new understanding may be more deeply Christian both in outlook and judgment. I am no prophet, and I cannot say in detail what this new set of values and new direction for conduct will be like. But I believe it was hinted at in the words of a young Cambridge undergraduate who told me that what he and most of his friends aimed at in their sexual behavior were three things: permissiveness, within the range of social decency and acceptance; affection, by which he meant genuine caring and the beginning of real love; and responsibility, which he defined as readiness to stand up and take the consequences for any and every sort of human contact.

I must make one final comment, which has to do with the religious dimension of human sexuality in all its aspects. I believe that the Christian churches, especially the more conservative ones, have been inclined to make both too much and too little of explicit physical sexual behavior. They have made too much of it in that they have assumed that if it differs from the conventional pattern of heterosexuality it must be wrong, more particularly if it includes approximations to or actual engagement in coition. And they have assumed that a single sexual episode will determine the whole direction of human lives. But the churches have also made too little of explicit sexual behavior because they have failed to see that here is one of the basic vitalities of human existence and therefore an important clue to the deepest drive in the cosmos toward what Teilhard de Chardin called "amorization." In other words, they have failed to relate human sexuality, in its genital expression, to process and sociality, which is the way God works in the world.

An example of this double error is the feeling that many Christians have been led to entertain about sex and worship. For many years the Catholic Christian has thought it improper to come to the holy table for communion shortly after engaging in sexual relations. Let me relate what I said to two people in their early twenties who told me that they liked to receive communion together after they had made love the night before. They were deeply in love and had lived together for some years. They were devout Christians. I told them, "Speaking humanly, as I must since I am not God, I am sure that God is delighted to unite you in the divine love after you have been united in your human love." God is happy when people enjoy good sex and rejoices enormously when they truly "make love."

There is a poem by Richard Hovey, included in his collection More Songs from Vagabondia, which speaks of the joy experienced in some moments of human life, one of which is the delight and thrill of making love, surely one of the highest experiences any man or woman can know. In his poem Hovey says that such human joy is forever part of the divine joy, received and remembered in the life of God: God has said, "Ye shall fail and perish,

But the thrill you have felt tonight

I shall keep in my heart and cherish

When the worlds have passed into night."

That is good process thinking. It is also profoundly relevant to the process insistence that nothing valuable achieved and known in the experience of human beings is ever lost. Such an insistence opens the way for our next chapter on religion as interpreted in process thought.