WIT welcomes Sarah Elizabeth Smith as a guest poster. Sarah is a theologian, teacher and coach at Heritage Hall School in Oklahoma City, OK. She is in the ordination process in the Episcopal Church Diocese of Oklahoma and leads Pub Theology gatherings for various churches in OKC. Sarah also played softball at the University of Notre Dame where she studied Catholic Systematic Theology and holds two masters degrees—one from Northern Colorado in Sports Administration and one from Vanderbilt University in Theological Ethics. She started the Theosophia podcast in December 2017 to empower and promote women’s voices in theology and religion.
If there is one trait all humans have in common, it is the innate and primal desire for connection. The Fathers of the Church name this as man being made as a religious being—for communion with God is where he will find his ultimate happiness. Augustine says it this way:
When I am completely united to you, there will be no more sorrow or trials; entirely full of you, my life will be complete.”
Therefore, what humans long for and seek in life is connection with the Holy. In the Catholic and Anglican traditions we call the ways in which humans interact with the Divine – sacraments, secrets revealed by God.
In my tradition, the Anglican tradition, we also affirm that we live in a sacramental world—an acknowledgement of God’s beauty and creation in every living thing. It is also a way in which we order our lives and understand how we ought to act in the world know as God’s Creation. All of Creation bears meaning, value, and potentiality for God’s transcendent grace in the world. In other words, we can know something about God through God’s creation. What I want to focus on here is how we can connect and know God through one another, which I think is our richest source for interacting with the Divine.
The most beautiful, mysterious, and hopeful part of Christian theology for many is the belief in the second person of the Trinity, the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. God comes down in human form to take on our flesh, to live among and with us, Emmanuel. Aquinas states:
The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”
It is not only that Christ came down to live among us, but too, that humans were made in God’s image (imago dei) in the beginning, the very fabric of our beings bare Divinity. Christ made God’s grace visible in the human body. Therefore our bodies are sacramental.
Through the Incarnation we also see that God is relational. God took on human flesh to be in relationship with us. God knows our flesh not only in that God made it but that God shared it (in more ways than one). Not only is God in relationship with God’s own self, as seen in the Trinity; but also longing for relationship with humans, as further exhibited through the Incarnation and Holy Ghost—God is relational. The Incarnation opens up another way for humans to come into that fold and share in all of God’s relational love; a relational love that is not stagnant, but one that bears fruit in us as we may share it with others. God’s relational nature, therefore, beckons us to be in relationship with each other. But now, understanding our world as sacramental we see each other holistically (mind, body, soul) as sacramental beings made to be in sacramental relationship with ourselves, each other, and our Creator.
So what does it look like to be in sacramental relationships with one another?
The first thing that must be addressed is our approach to ethics. In sacramental relationality, we start with the theological notion of Original Goodness. In the beginning, God made everything and it was Good. Our bodies our good, our sex is good and our need for relationships are good because God made them as such. And with affirming our bodies as good we take seriously God’s revelation in our bodies through modern science. This is quite different than starting with a concept of Original Sin and focusing on how corrupt we are as human beings. These types of relational ethics create negative rules that serve to simply control and stifle human flourishing. They are fear based and tend to lump all human experience into one box and refuse to allow for new understanding.
For example, let’s take high school sex education as an ethical task. We know that abstinence only education does not work. But many Christians insist this is the only way we should teach and view sex before marriage. As a species, we now know that humans are not monogamous creatures. Throughout time, human beings have never been very capable of having one mate for life. And I think it’s short sighted to view this as somehow our failure or as a result of our sinfulness. We have scientific proof that our psychological and biological natures do not function in this way and never have. We also know the psychological harm that’s caused by the repression of natural bodily desire. So how would a positive theological ethic approach such questions?
Margaret Farley asks the question of human relationality, is love just? Are we in right relationship with one another? In Farley’s framework, persons are treated as ends in themselves. So for example, to treat another person as mere means to experiencing sexual pleasure would violate the person as an autonomous being. This relational ethics is grounded in the notion that persons must have mutual respect for one another as individual persons with separate desires, wants and needs. Farley also includes seven norms for relational ethics including do no unjust harm, free consent, mutuality, equality, commitment, fruitfulness, and social justice. When all of these standards for relationality are held in balance between partners then the relationship may be deemed “right” or what I would also call “healthy.” What is even more helpful about this framework is how engaging these norms will look different for any kind of relational model. The rules of engagement are discussed and agreed upon for each relationship.
So now apply this to sex education. Instead of setting the negative rule of “no sex before marriage for anyone,” which might not be a healthy option for most, we ask if having sex with someone meets the criteria above, is it just for our particular relationship? How much more productive would sex education be if we actually taught how to have right relationships or relational ethics!? Sure, we need to talk about sex but the bigger issue, I think, is that we never teach our youth how to have healthy relationships in the first place. But teaching responsibility, commitment and respect is probably a lot harder than just saying “well, abstinence only.” We would have to actually invest in and put energy in giving a shit about more than just the scary evil desires of our bodies. But aren’t humans more complex than this?
I naturally chose to give an example about sexual relationships because historically this type of relationality has been the most policed by the Church. I think Foucault was right is observing that human sex is obsessed over and has become a means of welding power and control as if it (sex) is the entire essence of who we are as human beings. But shouldn’t the Christian narrative do better? As sacramental beings aren’t we more than our sex and who we have sex with? I think it is a shame that marriage is the only type of relationality that is held as an official sacrament of my church. Marking it as such seems to make it more holy and more valuable to Christian life than friendship, community or family relationality. I’m not saying it isn’t holy or that there isn’t great responsibility in such a covenantal commitment but can’t the Body of Christ manifest itself in other covenantal possibilities that, I would point out, may even last longer and can be stronger than the marriage tie?
What about friendship and familial relationships? They serve a very important sacramental role in the life of the Church as a way we engage with the Holy. These relationships are outward visible signs, a witness to the Holy and Her presence and Love in the material world. Stanley Hauerwas argues for ethics to be focused on the mission of the church and the goals/tasks of Christian community. Hauerwas says,
The Church is a way of life, it is a social ethic that brings in all modes of life into sacramental relationality. This ethic focuses on the virtues of peace, hospitality and love. In this framework, friendship and family relationships function just as they would in Farley’s framework. Each type of relationship works in and for the Church to build healthy and loving connections that help human beings thrive and flourish. In these systems, humans can engage with the Holy through one another and lift each other up and keep each other accountable by standards of virtue instead of standards of shame and guilt.
Sacramental relationality is a Christian way of life. It is also a source for Christian hope. It should change the way we relate to one another and the way we think about our ethics. Human life and relationships are complex. Any ethic that tries to nail down a one size fits all answer with a random biblical quote taken out of context isn’t doing justice to the narrative and history of the lives of our great tradition. Instead, we should work to understand our desires and how to direct them toward sacramental living, and knowing God more. As we wrestle with our sacred text and we should wrestle with our lives as we know them to be true and real for us today. Lastly, I hope we wrestle with one another to find God’s meaning and truth. But only out of Love can we really find and experience the secrets revealed by God through one another.
The Book of Common Prayer recognizes sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” The English word “sacrament” is taken from the Latin word “sacramentuem” which in Greek is “musterion” which literally means “secret revealed by God.” Sacraments are mysterious sources of Divine connection. The Anglo-Catholic traditions acknowledges seven sacraments while the Protestant churches only hold two instituted by Christ (Baptism and Communion) as proper sacraments
Hauerwas, Stanley. The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics, 1983.