Sexual Difference, Liberal and Christian

Ethika Politika has published a fascinating interview within which the French Catholic philosopher Fabrice Hadjadj discusses his recent work on the subject of sexuality. While there are many points where our lines of reasoning as Protestants will sharply diverge from Hadjadj’s, there is also much that is deeply perceptive in the interview. Within this article, I would like to focus upon the themes of otherness and difference that Hadjadj highlights.

Central to Hadjadj’s understanding is the fact that we are created male and female, a difference embedded in our very bodies. As each sex is related to the other sex, they relate to something that is fundamentally other, yet not simply exterior. Through the sexed human body, we are opened up to a sort of ‘transcendence’. We are confronted with the reality of a personal world—the mysterious world of the other sex—beyond the one that is most immediate and familiar to us, a world that we can neither eliminate nor assimilate into our own. As we are opened up to the other as other, we sacrifice our self-sufficiency, yet find ourselves more deeply in that new relationship.

While our society typically frames sexuality around the theme of pleasure, Hadjadj argues that this approach is mistaken. Integral to sexuality is the difference and relation between the sexes. In light of this, ‘homosexuality’ is an oxymoronic term: where no relationship between the sexes exists there is no sexuality, just the conscription of the sexual organs for alternative ends.

The resistance to sexuality—to sexual difference and to procreation—connects with a resistance to transcendence more generally, one seen in the way that our culture substitutes the hedonistic pursuit of narcissistic pleasure for genuine encounter and engagement with otherness (think, for instance, of the assumptions bound up in terminology such as ‘my sex life’). Much of this could be an exposition of Romans 1.

Hadjadj frequently deploys the language of ‘otherness,’ speaking of the influence that Emmanuel Levinas has had on his thinking. While he observes that Levinas largely neglected the realm of sexuality, Hadjadj doesn’t reflect much upon this neglect.

Surely, however, it should pique our interest that so much of the conversation surrounding ‘otherness’ has either proceeded without explicitly speaking about the particular forms of otherness that surround human sexuality or have reduced them to a mere set of illustrative instances of otherness as such (this same tendency can be seen in much of the work of theologians such as John Zizioulas). These forms of otherness have been reduced to being merely one of a host of human differences, taking their place alongside differences in race, creed, ‘sexual orientation,’ gender identity, class, education, etc.

We will not understand the appeal that the vocabulary of otherness and difference holds for our age unless we appreciate how easily it is co-opted by our individualistic cultural ethos. The rapid proliferation of differences—why have two gender identities when you could choose from over fifty?—affords the individual a growing wealth of material for the construction of a bespoke identity.

The emphasis placed upon the ‘intersectional’ character of our identities—the way that each of our identities and the systems within which they respectively situate us interact with and condition each other—compounds this effect. Each addition of a further dimension of difference allows us to move towards a more purely individual identity, within which the enlightened person can assert the sovereign self-defining choice expressive of individual autonomy over against the unfreedom of external determination.

As such, ‘difference’ steadily eats like an acid through all human solidarities, eventually there is only one absolute that stands forth in bold relief: the sovereign self-determining individual. Before this absolute, all differences are reduced to an ephemeral level of indifference, as they fail to touch on the deeper levels of reality. At root—once we have extricated ourselves from the oppressive web of imposed differences—we are found to be the same. All of this is very much in line with prevailing anthropologies of the Western liberal tradition, with the particular form of public that it has created in the capitalist marketplace, and with its egalitarian ethics.

By now, the reasons why the ‘otherness’ that sexuality involves poses such a threat should be coming into focus. Here are five areas where this threat is keenly felt.

First, sexuality threatens Western liberalism’s account of the absoluteness of the autonomous individual and its transactional relations with others. Sexuality presents us with a humanity that has two distinct ‘genres’ of personhood, a male kind and a female kind. The Western liberal individual, by contrast, was always—under the guise of its androgyny—a sort of male, akin to an Adam before the creation of an Eve, a detached being without progenitors and possessing no womb.

Sexuality is a difference that cuts through the category of the individual, revealing fundamental asymmetries between two different kinds of human selves, human selves which move within the processes that give rise to our existence and form our closest bonds in quite distinct ways. The transactional model for our relations with others is unsettled by the presence of sui generis yet profoundly personal forms of relations that arise from sexuality, perhaps most noteworthy among them the relation between the mother and her unborn child. (James Mumford’s recent work, Ethics at the Beginning of Life is helpful here).

Second, sexuality is a threat because its differences exert an inescapable impact upon the subjective world of the self. It powerfully yet mysteriously affects the very way of being and perceiving that I mostly immediately identify as myself. It also dethrones the self, by confronting it with the contingency of its vantage point. There is a world of human existence of mysterious contours variously experienced by the other half of our race, a world to which I will never have direct access.

Third, sexuality is a threat because, unlike many bodily differences (skin colour, for instance), whose power over us is largely established by society’s conceptual purchase upon us, sexuality exposes a difference whose power is to a large extent internal to the body itself, with roots that go considerably deeper than the social constructs within which it is articulated. Sexuality reveals that the grounds of the self lie in the givenness of the body.

Fourth, sexuality is a threat because it exposes us to a force that lies beyond the body. Although this is a force that is found in our most intimate being, it belongs to a world beyond it, is also at work in other persons of our sex, and serves ends beyond those internal to our own bodies. For this reason, it alerts us to our bond with and belonging to a natural world beyond us, a world to which we must align ourselves, and a world for which our bodies exist.

Fifth, sexuality is a threat because it opens up the site of the self to the claim of the other. When a man and a woman become one flesh, they become mutually and personally involved with each other. And this opening of the body to the claims of others is even more powerfully evidenced in the bearing of children. Our bodies can never be our pure private possession, but are given to us through others and are rendered to others, through which gift they can give rise to yet other bodies, bodies who will always bear the traces of ours. The body—the site of the self—cannot be autonomous, but roots us within relations of gift, trust, commitment, and belonging.

In emphasizing the otherness relating to sexuality, an otherness grounded in God’s creation of humanity as male and female, Hadjadj furnishes us with a way to provide a truly Christian account of otherness. Such an account will sharply diverge from and undermine the account of otherness drawn around the Western liberal individual.

While our society celebrates otherness, what it typically emphasizes is otherness as such, the white noise of disconnected entities in indeterminate and indiscriminate relation. Within this form of otherness, particularity is devalued: Differences shouldn’t make a difference.

By contrast, in creating us male and female, God established an otherness whose specific form is given great significance. In our thinking about otherness, the form of otherness has often fallen by the wayside. ‘Difference’ is typically understood to be negative in its meaning—referring merely to the fact that we are not the same. What if we were to start thinking of difference as positive in its meaning, understanding it as naming the particular manner in which two entities are distinguished from each other within their relation?

If we were to do this I believe that a more ‘musical’ account of otherness would emerge. Sexuality exposes us to a world of musical difference, where, as we open ourselves up to otherness, we are caught up within the beauty and delight of a larger cosmic symphony (difference in relation is also characteristic of symbolism). As with musical notes the power and meaning of difference is located within relations, relations through which we belong to something greater than ourselves and which puncture our autonomy and detachment.

In our cultural flight from the otherness of sexuality we seek to dull ourselves to the reality that we exist in and belong to a world that belongs to an Other above all others. A rediscovery and celebration of the created otherness of sexuality holds great promise. As both the Apostle Paul and Fabrice Hadjadj realize, it may be a means by which human beings are freed from the idolatry of self-sufficiency and are comported towards transcendence.

Alastair Roberts recently completed his doctoral studies in Durham University. He is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged.

Share Button

  • In Medias Res Newsletter Signup

  • Categories