The structure of Sexual Ethics is telling for the aspirations of its method and its actual limited accomplishment. SE is divided into three logical parts: ‘Human Sexuality and Christian Theology,’ ‘Marriage as an Expression of Human Sexuality’ and ‘Singleness as an Expression of Human Sexuality.’ Ostensibly, then, Grenz is to begin with a general—one would hope robust—account of human sexuality viewed theologically, yet this shortest of the three sections is comprises a single chapter, with a focus on sexual difference. In functional truth, this one-third of the book’s outline is a mere prelude to the greater part of its substance, an ethics of marital sexuality. Having exhausted his method thus, the third section forms a veritable postlude, which engages a remainder of non-married sexuality with reference to the same criteria with which he defines the ethics of marital sexuality.
Ultimately, the success of Grenz’s project falters in its method because necessarily unable to cover the full scope of human sexuality. By beginning with the sex act, defined by its proper context in marriage, he leaves himself without a possible means to positively describe the sexual ethics that surround celibacy, what he terms only at the end of project ‘affective sexuality.’ As a result, he must in this final ‘third’ break from his initial method in favor of ad hoc prescriptivism, seemingly without any method or clear criteria. Only when the question of the propriety of the sex act again arises do we see a general continuity of argument: if not in the context of marriage, unable to bear the definitive meanings of marriage and therefore proscribed. What Grenz otherwise offers here is a series of ‘considerations’ and often flat valuative assertions about absence of an ethical problematic (e.g., the use of fertility technology) but generally does not evidence an argument or the means by which the consistency of his arguments can be assessed. It is hard to find virtue in this type of ethics, which seems far more to promote intuitionism than any particular ethical project. Even while I disagree with his particular method employed through Section Two and several of the assertions made therein, the consistency of his method at least was laudable, if limited.
The deficiency of this particular research project is evident. Yet it is not merely a matter of how Grenz constructs a sexual ethics around marriage but that he constructs a sexual ethics around marriage. The error is in the outline. By beginning the project of sexual ethics with marriage, sexuality is prone to be described—as Grenz does here exactly—in terms of the sex act, and any subsequent attempt to describe celibate sexuality or so-called ‘affective sexuality’ will occur in negative terms, with reference to the sex act and to marriage rather than with reference to itself, on its own terms and thus by its own positive criteria. Grenz having made his methodological gambit, the attempt to describe and analyze sexuality outside of the sex act either (a) creates an unaccountable dualism of active (sex act) and non-active (affective) sexuality—i.e., affective sexuality does not pertain to those for whom the sex act pertains—or else (b) doubles back on and undercuts the descriptive analytical work that previously took the sex act to be definitive for sexuality. In other words, Grenz’s very mention of affective sexuality as a workaround to the problem he creates at the inception of his method admits a precondition for the sex act. Affective sexuality (or as I prefer, ‘desire’) is necessarily, logically prior to the sex act and therefore to a discussion of marital sexual ethics. It betrays the fact, therefore, that it is desire as a precondition for all intercourse and celibacy, monogamy and polyamory, homosexuality, bisexuality and heterosexuality, that should be interrogated by ethics prior to its contextualization in or beyond marriage. Sexual ethics needs to begin not with the marriage and the sex act but with desire and the ethical preconditions for action that exist into and determine the act.
As a result, Grenz’s ethical analysis does not interrogate the precondition and essence of the act but leaves it unanswerable to criticism insofar as it bears his proposed triad of meanings that define the sex act. Along with failing to integrate and therefore thoroughly treat ‘single’ sexuality, this is the second weakness of SE. It would seem that for this project, insofar as marriage (a) bears a “sacramentality” (Grenz’s quotes openly qualify—if not negate—the theological significance of the term), (b) practices mutual submission and (c) maintains an openness to children, it is constitutes the proper ‘intended’ context for the sex act and a de jure ethical site for sexual activity. Grenz does not address such limit cases, however, as spousal rape. Grant it, such would negate the principle of mutual submission, but the criterion of mutual submission is posited as a characteristic of the bond itself, the institution, rather than the act or—still less—in desire as its condition. Spousal rape, or far lesser forms of intramarital domination and egoism, could be condemned in SE‘s system as violating the character of marriage, the definitional character by which marriage is the ethical site of the sex act, yet this seems a path to inconsistency. As Grenz points out, there are numerous cases in which the marital sex act cannot or does not manifest an openness to children yet is not, for Grenz at least, an unethical contradiction of marriage’s theological meaning. Because Grenz founds sexual ethicality on an institutional idealism (i.e., marriage is x and if a bond is not x it is not an ethical site for the sex act), he has left himself unable to evaluate morally the sex act (further, desire) within a marriage bond with any consistency; therefore, he does not.
Finally, SE leaves marriage unanswerable to criticism because Genz’s theological definition permits modern marriage as a phenomenon arising from individual volition, as proper to the individual, rather than to a society that authorizes it. The Church is essentially inconsequential in his project. Even in Grenz’s account of “sacramentality” the Church is absent. To be fair, Grenz does discuss in SE the public dimensions of marriage and sexuality, but these pages are ultimately undercut by leaving open the question, ‘Why can my partner and I not commit privately to each other? Why do we need to be married? Why can we not marry ourselves?’ SE may answer with pragmatism: because a bond that lacks accountability is insecure and cannot successfully bear the three essential meanings. Yet it would not be clear how successful common-law marriages, for example, could be problematized by Grenz except as ill-advised. Further, lack of accountability as cement to the sexual bond is not the extent of the problem thus created in SE‘s account. Rather, the marriage not dependent upon the Church for its definition is ethical independent of the Church, by appearances has a right to privacy in its independence, is closed for evaluation by ethical agents beyond the two wills that constitute it. Subsequently, marriage as defined by SE is permitted an ultimate self-enclosure surely problematic in the context of the missional community. That is, despite Grenz’s instance that marriage be open to the possibility of the other qua child, the ideal of marriage appears to close around the family unit against the other qua stranger. Grenz exalts the marital sex act’s capacity ‘to give of self freely and totally for the sake of the pleasure and well-being of the spouse’ (89) (yet curiously does not explain why it is not more ethical to receive no pleasure) against an orientation that is for the ‘ego-self,’ but in the mutually submitting and mutually fulfilling system that is the marital sexual bond, Grenz offers no term against the collapse of marriage into a community for-itself, given to its other but disengaged from its community and from a world needful of intimacy. Since marriage here does not require a (theological) community to authorize it, it its permitted to exist in the eye of the beholder, at the will of the willers and thus for their own—rather than theological, namely, globally redemptive—ends. Because Grenz does not address the metaphysics of sexuality (desire), he is unequipped to address the metaphysics of its moral failure (totality) beyond the terms of adultery and faithfulness. Because his method is based in idealism, he is left unable to perform ethics outside of the ideal and faces a number of limitations. SE must hope to be surpassed by a more comprehensive project, one that learns from these methodological shortcomings.