Symposium Introduction

From the polling place to the pulpit, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality investigates the passions that are enacted in debates about same-sex marriage. In a critique that is at once humorous and unrelenting, Geoffrey Rees argues that sexual desire is fundamentally a desire to make sense of oneself as a whole person. Through a constructive engagement with the writings of Saint Augustine on original sin, Rees turns on its head the conventional wisdom regarding the goodness of sexual relationship, arguing that sin, not innocence, is the starting point in pursing justice in sexual ethics. To that end Rees boldly reclaims the wisdom of the most disreputable teachings of the Augustinian tradition: that original sin is a literal inheritance of all humanity of the singular disobedience of Adam and Eve in Eden, and the inherent sinfulness of all human sexuality. This work also engages theological readings of nineteenth-century fiction and literary readings of contemporary theological writings. In so doing Rees shows that debates about same-sex marriage are so compelling because the participants are all telling a common story in which they seek to establish the innocence of their own preferred forms of self-understanding as defined against some other persons’ sinful selves. In contrast to this, Rees argues for the acceptance of responsibility for the sinful exclusions that make possible finding the meaning of embodied personal identity through marriage between any two persons.



Sin in Search of a Story

A Few Unreconstructed Reflections on Rees on the Romance of Innocent Sexuality

“Mother, heart of my heart, truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.”

“Lord,” I wept and thought, “can that possibly not be true?”

—The Monk Zosima, recalling the death-bed words of his elder brother. From Brothers Karamazov1


IT’S A REALLY NICE PHRASE, “the romance of innocent sexuality.” It perfectly connotes a quixotic nostalgia for innocence on the verge of sex, but also, the times being what they are, with just the right hint of creepiness. As far as romances go, this one is not finally very romantic; Rees will exhort us to meet its pretentions with “mature humor” (sobering stuff) and “charitable anger” (good luck with the charity). Better we opt for the old stories that put sin before innocence and beg us off from ever expecting much in the way of sexual redemption. Sin will win out.

But what is it exactly that makes for a romance of innocent sexuality? I am now going to condense a great deal of the complexity of Rees’s characterization, a great deal, into what is admittedly a crude and simplistic schema. Assume that I am a narcissist afflicted with erotic longing. (Hey, I’ve been there.) As a narcissist I am uncomprehending of my own narcissism; I rather matter-of-factly see other people, when I see them at all, as my refracted self-image, as a distorted and scattered ego. These shards of externalized ego inevitably return me, by way of their imperfection (by way of their partiality), to the beauty that has always been fully my own. As a narcissist afflicted with erotic longing, I no longer feel that I am in full possession of this beauty. I can’t explain how I have come to feel this way; it is just palpable to me that I am missing something inside, some boon of vitality.

When I first fall for her, my beloved other, I am frantic for conjunction, for the oneness that is true sex. It is not that I want to possess her beauty (I’ve only ever wanted to possess my own); but there is something about her, something about being in intimate contact with her beauty, that promises consummation. I aspire, through her, to become one with myself, to become whole. I soon realize, however, that the sex isn’t working. Her otherness to me intrudes upon my erotic reverie like a noisy and unwelcome guest, and I find myself, for a time, looking for someone else. But I have gone this route many a time before, and I prudently remind myself of just how unsatisfying any lover can be. And so I condescend to stay with her and either work things out or tolerate some substantial degree of their not working out—not a very romantic resolve, perhaps, at least not in the superficial sense of romance, but honest, pure of heart, and even noble, like a knight’s quest or a good king’s love. And I take comfort in knowing that I am not in the sort of relationship, an unnatural sort, where consummation is a lie, imperfect consummation is in the service of a lie, and there is no virtue there for abiding one’s desire.

In the preface to his book, Rees tells us that he will be aiming to address a twofold question: “How does alienation from God as a result of sin become narrated as alienation from God as a result of incompletion of one’s sex? And how is it possible to engage in theological debates about sexuality without contributing to their narrations of sexed identity achieving its completion in marriage?”2 Rees does tend to fold these two questions together, but for the purposes of my remarks here, I need to pry them apart.

I am not precisely sure what the first question is asking. It puts into play two possible sources of alienation from God and imagines that one source has, in many people’s imagination, displaced the other. Begin with sin. Assume that sin causes alienation from God. Fair enough, but what story do we have of how sin came to be? Augustine’s rendition of Genesis 2:4b—3:24? Not hardly. (But stay tuned.) Move on to sin’s narrative doppelgänger, “incompletion of one’s sex”—here a painful form of self-incoherence. This pain or penalty of sin can’t be a cause of alienation from God; it can only be a symptom. We sin, we become alienated from God, and (presumably) such alienation renders us unintelligible to ourselves, a painful thing. But now notice how often we sexualize this symptom of sin and reduce redemption to a return to innocence, to Adam and Eve in the garden, minus the serpent. I take it that this directive is more or less what the first question is enjoining.

The second question, having presupposed the dubiousness of the romance of innocent sexuality, casts further doubt on the marriage that is taken to be its holy grail. In other words, can we please stop invoking marriage to idealize a sexuality that admits, in whatever orientation we care to attribute to it, of no idealization? While I am inclined to agree with Rees that a sexualization of sin makes too much of sex (we need to get back, strange as this may sound, to sin itself), I do not share his apparent distaste for the sacralization of marriage. It is very important to Rees’s critique of romanticized sexuality that we notice how much the romance here feeds on practices of exclusion. In my schema of erotically afflicted narcissism—a.k.a., the romance of innocent sexuality—I flag two basic forms of exclusionary practice. I exclude my partner when I reduce her to a means for my own self-realization; I exclude others, those I take to be in unproductive marriages, when I infer my own innocence and spiritual fecundity from the perversity I impute exclusively to them. The latter kind of exclusion, wildly popular in a culture obsessed with sexual orientation, is what Rees takes as primary. I see it as a dreary footnote to the former, albeit a distressingly repetitive one. There is no reason to assume that narcissists need to be bigots; they are narcissists first and foremost. So, to recapitulate: the sexualization of sin and the sacralization of marriage are two separate issues.

One rather notable illustration of the sexualization impulse has been Freud’s psychoanalytic reading of the Oedipus myth, where Oedipus comes to epitomize in his agonized self-knowledge a son’s struggle to renounce his desire for his mother, honor his father’s authority, and take heterosexuality outside the house. Such a reading turns Oedipus’s unintended acts—killing his father, wedding his mother—into unconscious wishes and suggests to other sons, with time still to normalize their sexualities, that they may yet hope to avoid an Oedipal fate. Here the besetting sin is misdirected sexual desire. But that is certainly not the sin in the story, not, at least, in the version that Sophocles tells of it. There we learn of the cruelty of the father. Laios gets word from one of Apollo’s priests, a servant of the oracle, that he is fated to be killed by his son, Oedipus, then barely three days old. Valuing his person and his power (same difference) over the life of his newborn son, Laius orders Oedipus to be left for dead on a wooded and lonely mountain side, but not before having the boy’s ankles pierced and bound together—so as to prevent his crawling off.

Even if we were tempted to frame this cruelty (perversely) as a case of self-defense, that wouldn’t change the fact that the self defending itself here has no love for his son. Sophocles doesn’t give us the slightest reason to believe that Laios, given more to rage than to sorrow, ever mourns for Oedipus. And we can be pretty damn sure that Laios never consults Jocasta and takes her feelings to heart before he decides to maim and cast off the child that is hers too. The sin that gets passed down from father to son is that of an extraordinary obliviousness to the natural ties that alternately bind and release a mortal life. When young man Oedipus, having grown up in Corinth, hears from a drunken rival that he is a bastard son, he goes to the Delphic Oracle for reassurance. He wants to know from Apollo, son of the Olympian patriarch, Zeus, whether he is truly his father’s son. Oedipus wants to know, more specifically, whether the man who has been calling himself his father—Polybos, King of Corinth—is really his father, his own flesh and blood. Being assured of this, Oedipus will be assured of his inheritance of power. But it is not just Apollo who speaks at Delphi. An old parting from within divinity—heavenly from earthly, male from female—speaks there, temporarily with one voice, to those who have the self-composure to listen and the willingness to check their self-images at the threshold. You don’t consult the Delphic Oracle for reassurance; you go to die to yourself and live forward. Oedipus, despite what he assumes, is given a direct answer to his question. He is his father’s son. He is a patriarch, and patriarchs are fated to displace their fathers, turn their wives into their mothers, and bring new into the world their monstrous, same-old selves. The saving grace for Oedipus is that this is a fate that he can suffer rather than own. He is not, the gods be thanked, only his father’s son, a truth that the sexualization of his sin does much to obscure.

The Hebraic analogue to the Delphic Oracle is the Tree of Knowledge in the Yahwist’s tale of creation and expulsion (or creation by other means). There too there has been a parting from within divinity, conveyed to us by the apparent divergence between the two perspectives in the story on the fruit of knowledge. Yahweh, a male sky god, who inspires life into moistened clay, warns Adam (a creature of the ’adamah, the soil) that knowledge adds death to life (Gen. 2:16–173): “From every tree of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it, you are doomed to die.” The other perspective, whose truth Yahweh never overtly denies, comes from the serpent, who speaks directly to the woman, the female part of Adamic humanity, and likely represents the interests of Yahwist’s counterpart, the deity who causes water to swell up from within the earth to moisten the surface clay. The serpent tells the woman that she will not be doomed to die if she partakes of life and knowledge (the two trees are never differentiated in her perspective); on the contrary, she will become divinely knowing (Gen. 3:4–64): “You will not be doomed to die. For God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods knowing good and evil.”

I am inclined to think that the ancient redactor of the different creation stories in Genesis—Priestly (later in time, but put first) and Yahwist (the older account)—positioned the unresolved drama of the man, the woman, the serpent, and the sky god to serve as a chastening gloss on the Priestly source’s disclosure of divine/human intimacy of being (Gen. 1:275):

And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God He created him,
male and female He created them.

We are, as female and male, the veritable image, though not the essence, of the living God, but accessing this image is no easier than living and dying, knowledgably, with our differences.

The relatively little that Rees has to say about Gen. 1:27 is largely cautionary in tone, a primer on how not to read the verse: “The male and female created by God are not the essence of the sex narrated by the romance of innocent sexuality. In theological discourse on sexuality the ideals of Man and Woman are ideals of orientation.”6 It is almost always a bad sign when Man and Woman are capitalized. Prepare for a not-so-sublime sublimation. Rees gently goes on to remind us, that “as a matter of contingent fact, it just happens to be the case that the opposition of orientations defined alternatively as ‘heterosexuality’ and ‘homosexuality’ constitute the dominant framework for the establishment of sex, idealized in the opposition of Man and Woman.” I take it that we could do better than to use as ramshackle a notion as sexual orientation to frame the divine image of sexual difference (and, note: not hierarchy, just difference). We don’t even know from the biblical text, Rees wonderfully reminds us, “which of the two creatures is the male, which the female.”7 Reading Gen. 1:27 to vindicate heterosexuality is rather like going to the Delphic Oracle for reassurance. It is not a practice that tends towards edification.

Bearing in mind all the sneaky ways that Gen. 1:27—a cynosure for a sacred wedding—can be snuck into a horrid romance (and you know the one I am talking about), I still think that the imaginary of male and female in God is worth a little incautious exploring. Rees lavishes a great deal of apologetic ingenuity on the doctrine of original sin, but he almost never lets himself play with Augustine’s actual reading of Yahwist’s tale and its drama of broken trusts. I find Augustine to be most compelling as an exegete when he is differentiating between the roles that the man and the woman respectively play in bringing about the original sin. Here I will confine my attention to a just few of the details in City of God 14, chapter 11, where Augustine’s mature exegesis of Genesis 3:6-7—the quick succession of eating, hers then his—is conspicuously on display. The serpent in this reading is not, as I would have it, the agent of Yahweh’s consort but (thanks in no small part to Augustine) the familiar figure of Satan, lord of lies, in serpentine form. The woman, being more of a sensualist than her male counterpart, slips seamlessly into believing the serpent’s promise of superabundant life, the knowledge that is both carnal and divine. When the man joins her in transgression and eats, it is not because he too falls for the serpent’s lie (he is too shrewd for that); it is not even because he craves sex with his suddenly supercharged partner, looking like life herself (made of strong stuff, that Adam). It is simply because he cannot abide being with Yahweh, the breath of his breath, but not with the woman, the flesh of his flesh. He assumes that Yahweh, who knows very well that it is no good for the human to be alone (Gen. 2:18), will be forgiving. But as Augustine chillingly puts it, Adam is “unschooled in divine severity” (inexpertus divinae severitatis).

There are two things about this reading of Augustine’s that I find particularly instructive. Go to the moment in the story when the woman has just eaten of the fruit of knowledge and the man has yet to. There is not much room in the pace of the Yahwist’s narrative for a dramatic pause here—she eats; he eats; eyes are open; loins get covered—but Augustine manages to find within the flicker of a moment a crisis worthy of a Hamlet. His Adam is pitched precariously between two great forces of life, male and female, and he must, more as a multitude of engenderings than as an isolated and self-assured man, wed human desire to the oracular logic of that queer conjunction. (Here is where I begin to think of a sacred wedding, even as I shun, along with Rees, the cul-de-sac of innocent sexuality.) Also notice in Augustine’s sexually differentiated reading of the original sin that Adam never breaks with God; he presumes upon the continual inspiration of this relationship as he ventures fretfully into dark waters. This Adam is no Satan-knockoff narcissist; he is not even much of a sinner.

Of course I readily admit, being a not utterly dense reader of Augustine, that Augustine resists his own inclination to parse sin along the lines of sexual difference and thereby run the risk of leaving divinity divided between heaven and earth. He constantly veers back towards a story where God, like imperial Rome, remains in the business of sparing the conquered and battling down the proud. The Adam who serves here as the human paradigm of pride is less pleased with himself than afflicted with a constitutional insanity: he would rather be related to nothing than to any source of life outside of himself. He does not really have a relationship to God, or to the woman, to break. And so there is no story to be told about how he goes about breaking it. The Augustine who would pretend otherwise is no ally to Rees in his desire to trade in the romance of innocent sexuality for “a more just theological understanding of human sexuality.”8

The Augustine who is an ally makes room in his paradise for the serpent. This is the paradise where each one of us is truly, as Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima comes prematurely to realize, answerable for the other: not a taking of responsibility but a presumption of it. We look for a place we never left.

  1. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: North Point, 1990), 298.

  2. Geoffrey Rees, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), x.

  3. Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton, 1997), 8.

  4. Ibid., 11–12.

  5. Ibid, 5.

  6. Rees, 51.

  7. Ibid., 50–51.

  8. Ibid., 289.

  • Geoffrey Rees

    Geoffrey Rees


    A Response to James Wetzel

    Writing these responses is no easy task. I am not sure what exactly my role is in the conversation. Books, I believe, have their own lives, separate from their authors. It has been several years since The Romance of Innocent Sexuality and I parted ways.

    We had lived together for about eight years, and on the whole really enjoyed each other’s company. We spent long days together, moved from the East Coast to the Midwest together, traveled together once to Yosemite and another time to the eastern shore of Maryland and also spent a delightful week on the beach in Mexico. Together we endured a lot of rejection, and, like most relationships, some stretches of boredom. We often kept each other company on nights when sleep eluded us, and whenever possible we enjoyed a nap—delectable—in the middle of the afternoon.

    When we finally reached the end of our road together, it was with much fond feeling and promises to keep in touch, and even with talk of some future we could still share.

    But like most partners, once the relationship ended, we quickly got used to having our separate lives, and much sooner than we anticipated. We communicated often in the first months, but after a year or so the emails and phone calls slowed to a trickle and finally ceased. The good will and the warm memories remain, but there isn’t any desire on either side to spend time together. Indeed, looking back, much of the attraction is hard to fathom, that we were once so passionately interested in each other.

    This isn’t to say we don’t continue to maintain a lively concern for each other’s accomplishments—quite the contrary—and in reading Wetzel’s unreconstructed reflections, it seems to me that the book has found such an intensely engaging discussion partner, that it is wisest to sit back and listen attentively, that it is almost impolite, obtrusive, to add my own voice to the mix.

    Nevertheless I will venture a brief observation: rich as the dialogue is between Wetzel and the book, on a crucial question it looks like they are in fundamental disagreement, and as a result talking past each other. Whereas Wetzel takes narcissism as the starting point, the book takes narcissism as the end of the romance of innocent sexuality. Whereas Wetzel asserts narcissism as a present fact, the book, I think, asserts that it is the greatest ambition of the fallen self to be capable of narcissism. And this is a really big, perhaps insurmountable, difference.

    • Avatar

      James Wetzel


      A Reply to Geoffrey Rees

      If Jeff doesn’t mind, I’d like to the drop the last-name calling and, in keeping with his lively image of book writing and reviewing as a romance, ask him for some further relationship advice. I am still trying to find my feet with The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (hereafter referred to simply as ‘the book’). It is an adventurously written, iconoclastic, densely argued book on a very delicate topic, and I am not especially surprised to learn that I may have missed something fundamental about its argumentative strategy. Jeff tells me that where I speak of narcissism as a given, “a present fact,” the book takes up narcissism as an aspiration, the devout hope of every well-wed fallen self. “And this,” Jeff concludes, “is a really big, perhaps insurmountable difference.”

      It is too early in my relationship with the book for me to have “a really big, perhaps insurmountable difference” with it. I’d like to earn this difference honestly, not just lapse into it unawares. And so my task for now is awareness. I just don’t get the force of the contrast between beginning with narcissism and aiming at it. I take narcissism to be a confusion of self with other and an eros for wholeness. In the classical myth (and here my source is Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Charles Martin), Narcissus is a child of rape; soon after his birth, his mother Liriope seeks out the transsexual prophet Tiresias and asks him whether Narcissus will live a long life. The answer: “If he knows himself—not.” Flash forward: while Narcissus is mooning over his image in a still, reflective pool, unaware of his self-fixation, his relationship to himself is unsatisfying but not fatal; when it dawns on him that he is in love with his own image, and still he persists in seeking consummation, he condemns himself to whither away and die.
      The moral I draw from the myth is that there is no way to consummate self-conscious narcissism; such a bereft eros for wholeness invariably presents itself as a death-drive (cf. Freud). Meanwhile, narcissism of the unselfconscious kind, which can be quite destructive in its own right, goes on blithely decorating the world in dimly lit self-images.

      I begin with unselfconscious narcissism because I think that most (all?) of us have to learn, against interior resistance, that our wholeness is garnered outside of ourselves, in the presence of alien beauty. Another way to put this is that we could stand to be less obsessed with wholeness. Narcissus will have had to surrender a self-image, no doubt a very lovely one, before he can move beyond himself and into fuller life. He doesn’t manage the surrender, not by half, and although that may be a way to end his story, I don’t see how it makes for a plausible, or even possible, beginning. I suspect, in any case, that “self-conscious” narcissism is still desperately lacking in awareness; there is an extraordinary presumption of self-knowledge in any who would aim at narcissicism. (Augustine’s Satan is one such narcissist; his Adam less obviously so.)

      Jeff, if the book wants to set up narcissism as a consummate ambition for romancers of innocent sexuality and not assume narcissism as “a present fact,” what do these romancers begin with? What is the nature of their desire for narcissism if not narcissistic?


    • Geoffrey Rees

      Geoffrey Rees


      A Reply to James Wetzel

      Greetings Jim –

      When I was writing my contributions to this forum last week, I was feeling a lot of anxiety over the idea of having in any way to explain myself, not that this is even a fair or accurate way to describe the assignment from the editors of Syndicate, but how, unexpectedly when the time arrived, it was received.

      Like most romances after the fact, a certain amount of distance feels safest, especially as I am doubting my abilities even to say anything helpful about the book I had written, as if I had better not say too much, as if the more I say, the more I risk dredging up the old hurts with the old pleasures…So in my reluctance, ambivalence,, self-doubt, a task that looks from the outside as if it must be welcome on the inside leaves me struggling to find a constructive distance between myself and the book and the questions the book raises. But does also leave me delighted that the book is finding other persons fit for itself to talk with.

      So I think it makes most sense to drop any claim that I can speak on behalf of the book, or that I know what the book thinks, and instead just have my own say on this big question that you have phrased more helpfully and generously than I was able: “if the book wants to set up narcissism as a consummate ambition for romancers of innocent sexuality and not assume narcissism as ‘a present fact,’ what do these romancers begin with? What is the nature of their desire for narcissism if not narcissistic?” My short answer, me speaking, Monday 26 May at 2:00 p.m. is: nothing. And my longer answer is something like: I regret that I don’t have any stable niche in academia where I could expect to spend the next decade or two working out in words the significance of this nothing.

      In writing of a perhaps insurmountable difference, and perversely not wanting to explain what I was writing about, gnomic pretensions busted, I was channeling ideas that have been floating freely and steadily in the back of my mind, sometimes at the front, the past several years, in the aftermath of my relationship with the book, and truly I am not sure if they map well onto the book or not. About the constructive possibilities of nothing, about the emptiness and openness of the future and its relation to the contingency of the past.

      There is no there there. A lot of speaking the word there to say it isn’t.

      The self in search of a self to call its own. It doesn’t really make any sense.

      And yet I find a lot of different loci for this train of thought, classical and contemporary, beginning most of all with the idea of creation out of nothing. If human beings are created out of nothing, then in some essential way human beings are nothing. It is the center of our existence. Where we come from and what we are continually becoming and what we are most capable of.

      The emptiness, very beautiful I say, at the eye of the storm of Kant’s Groundwork, the idea that all rational beings are bound to each other by a supreme principle of morality that is a supreme lack they share in common.

      Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments on suffering, on the idea that all coming into existence is a suffering, that the cost of all our actuality is the perpetual extinction of what we are not, all our possibility.

      In repeated readings of Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace and Iris Murdoch’s three essays in The Sovereignty of Good. The call of ethics: to attend to everything that oneself is not.

      The image of the empty mirror in “Sonnet” by Elizabeth Bishop. How liberating, if we could just see the emptiness in the mirror and become the rainbow-birds we are, flying wherever.

      (Below is the text, cribbed from an article by Lloyd Schwartz athttp:/C:/dev/home/

      But perhaps this is all a way of attesting to the present fact of our narcissism, that it is so endemic that it fuels its own emphatic denial? What else am I doing, in dwelling so much on the exhausting demand that we lose ourselves, lose the ambition that we have any self, in vision of everything we are not, except exalting what must be overcome?

      Only I don’t believe so, even as I don’t really know how to explain the difference…

      Wishing you and any readers traveling through a very relaxing end to the holiday weekend, as I head off with my folding chair to lose myself in the empty mirror of lake Michigan and the wobbling and wavering of needle and thread as I attach the binding on a quilt! Jeff.

      Caught — the bubble
      in the spirit level,
      and the compass needle
      wobbling and wavering,
      Freed — the broken
      thermometer’s mercury
      running away;
      and the rainbow-bird
      from the narrow bevel
      of the empty mirror,
      flying wherever
      it feels like, gay!

    • Avatar

      James Wetzel


      A Reply to Geoffrey Rees

      It seems to me, Jeff, that the nothingness to which you gesture is both what begins us and what releases us from ourselves. At some point along the way (a moment in and out of time), we find a void where before there was only nothing. That void insistently wants something from us. Romancing sexuality is one way we have to play for time, and in the book that you have graciously sent into the world, you remind us of the virtuosity, and also the futility, of all such play.

      It is hard, perhaps impossible, to strike the right note here. I am reminded of Cordelia’s dilemma in King Lear. Her father offers her the most opulent portion of a divided kingdom, if only she will speak the word that will conjure his void away. Her word is Nothing. Lear warns her (1.1.90): “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” He presumes, by asking her to speak again, to have heard her the first time. Her love has been preempted. What more is there for her to say but this (1.1.91-93): “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty According to my bond, no more nor less.”

    • Geoffrey Rees

      Geoffrey Rees


      A Reply to James Wetzel

      Hi Jim – In the book that I am not writing—one of several—I develop a lengthy discussion on Lear, on incest—“Thou perjured and thou similar man of virtue/That art incestuous” (III.2.54-55) and on nothing, about which Shakespeare has so very much to say.

      In my inchoate reading, what sets Cordelia apart from her sisters is that she questions Lear’s incestuous claim on her: “Surely I shall never marry like my sisters,/To love my father all.” (I.1.93) Cordelia is the daughter he can’t have, the daughter he favors because she is the one who doesn’t curry his favor, the one he hasn’t already been sleeping with.

      I can’t unpack it all off the cuff, while taking a break from the seemingly never-ending cycle of grading that organizes my days, but I think there is much evidence in the play that Regan and Goneril are sexually entangled with Lear, that Cordelia is not, yet, and that it is this fact of not yet that precipitates Lear’s descent into madness. So that when Lear, as his madness descends, famously exclaims “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” (III.2.60) he is both acknowledging his sin and placing the greater burden for that sin on his compliant daughters, blaming the victims.

      One big way then I think to read Lear’s madness is as a kind of inability to find a proper use for nothing. (Much work is necessary to unpack the misogyny in the punning, the concentration of desire in nothing, the sexual innuendo.) A key moment here is when Lear plays the fool in conversation with the fool: “FOOL…Can you make no use of nothing, uncle? LEAR Why no, boy. Nothing can be made out of nothing.” (I.4.126-27) If only Lear could recognize positively the truth of the identity that he is stating. That indeed nothing can be made of nothing, which is to say that everything is made out of nothing.

      Eliot in The Waste Land likewise has much to say on the topic. A couple of years ago I started teaching a humanities core sequence called Reading Cultures, and the poem is the final text for the fall quarter. Initially I dreaded having to teach it. A lot of bad memories from high school I think and also just a certain bias in my own tastes. Modern poetry? Give me Wordsworth any day! But it turns out it is predictably a poem that students love reading and playing with, and I got hooked too.

      In the second section of the poem, he writes “Nothing again nothing.” (II.120) In the space between nothing and nothing is, quite literally, a gain, exactly the space where I want to be working. (Eliot in recordings of the poem really pronounces the gain clearly.) And later writes “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.” (III.302)

      To attempt to bring this full circle, it would be a lot of fun I think to play with the image of wedding rings in this regard . . .

      Wedding Rings

      (Fingers crossed that the editors are able to upload this image. Otherwise here is a linkhttp:/C:/dev/home/

      Fodder for my own fantasy about having nothing to say. About being able to say nothing . . .

    • Avatar

      James Wetzel


      A Reply to Geoffrey Rees

      Jeff, I like the book that you are busy not writing (I have a few of that genre myself). And I think I have some flavor of the nothingness that engages your mythopoetic muse. Now that we have some sense of one another (and I hope it won’t be confined to our Syndicate exchange, much as I have valued this exchange), can I ask you to revisit what once led you to want (and perhaps still does) “a constructively critical theological sexual ethics”? Where are you now with that ambition? (Two thoughts: the romance of innocent sexuality is a misbegotten perfectionism, hardly confined to a particular sexual orientation; the desire for wholeness is, for beings ex nihilo, a matter of dispossession—strange as that may mostly seem.)


    • Geoffrey Rees

      Geoffrey Rees


      A Reply to James Wetzel

      Hi Jim – Yes, heartily yes, the desire for wholeness really is only incidentally to do with sexual orientation . . . Though the project of homo/hetero definition just is the contemporary discourse in which that desire especially works itself out. So I have been thinking for example about the symbolism of those wedding rings—two holes making a whole—and the discomfort that raises especially for people who are fighting marriage equality. To wear a ring on one’s finger has for a long time signaled something very specific—that there is another who also wears a ring on a finger. To see someone wearing a wedding ring is to see an order of the world, a world ordered around that empty space. But now that same-sex marriages are becoming common, and same-sex spouses are wearing wedding rings like all married couples, how is one to know what to make of that ring on the fourth finger on someone’s left hand. Could she be married to another woman? Could he be married to another man?

      [The story just in the news about Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Mike Fleck looks relevant to this line of inquiry . . . Fleck lost his reelection bid, after he publicly confirmed that he is gay, that he is separated from his wife. This is how one of Fleck’s colleagues explained it: “Eichelberger continued: ‘A lot of people thought that Mike was a homosexual. He didn’t announce it and it was OK. The feeling from many people is, he put them in a very uncomfortable position.’” If he would just stay married to his wife, stay in the closet, continue to not announce that that ring on his finger didn’t mean what everyone was okay assuming it didn’t really mean, then he was fit to represent his district in Congress. Whatever you do, just please don’t make us uncomfortable . . .


      And yes, heartily yes again, the perfectionism is most of all the problem. Why is it the case that wholeness has become the predominant trope of perfectionism? I have no idea, only it seems to me that this is a genuinely open question, that it should be possible to develop a history of the romantic idealization of wholeness through sexual relationship…That there should be other trajectories of perfectibility to recover, other tropes of perfectibility to critique…

      I got myself into this mess out of a want that I experienced in reading so much about theology and sexuality once I had started graduate school. It all seemed wanting, it all seemed to want a fit story about itself. And since I had spent the decade before Divinity School devouring the 19th century English novel, and since as a teenager I had lived on a strange diet of Mary Daly and Oscar Wilde, Dickens and the Gay Left Collective, D.H. Lawrence and Kate Millet, how could I not have wanted a constructively critical theological sexual ethics.

      Where I am now: The really big book that I am spending a lot of time not writing is about suffering and medicine, about suffering and the limits of justice in medical care. Clinical medical ethics I think is actually a much more open terrain to explore than sexual ethics, to explore the questions I obsess over, about interpretation of bodily experience, about fear of death, about the meaningfulness of suffering as a fragile accomplishment…But for now my ambition is frustrated by the vicissitudes of adjunct labor. So much uncertainty doesn’t conduce to a big commitment to an academic project. Instead it fuels continual doubt about the worth of making any such effort.

      I have been orbiting planet ivory tower without a steady job for several years , and feeling more and more like I am drifting irretrievably into deep space. The signals are still received and sent back, at ever lengthening intervals, but no rescue mission is on the way, as far as I can tell, and who knows for how much longer before the radio waves die out?

    • Avatar

      James Wetzel


      A Reply to Geoffrey Rees

      Jeff, it is distressing to learn that someone of your talent and humane vision is having to negotiate the demoralizing uncertainties of the adjunct job market. This is a problem for all of us who care about the well being of our educational communities, but of course it weighs most heavily on those who are continually having, from a side that is not quite in or out, to knock at the door. This is not an economic issue that can just be quarantined from our ethical and religious reflections. I will consider what it is that I can do, Jeff, to be an ally for you.


    • Geoffrey Rees

      Geoffrey Rees


      A Reply to James Wetzel

      Thanks Jim for your kind words! And to the editors and board at Syndicate who have made this conversation possible! For reasons developed below.

      I have puzzled and struggled a lot the past few years about how to stay connected, without a more secure position from which to do so, with my own work and with the community of scholars, writers, teachers I learn so much from. I think the folks at Syndicate, and at Wipf and Stock/Cascade, are doing something super important in this regard, creating a space for serious inquiry and exchange that isn’t so tightly bound by academic employment.

      I probably can’t say this without sounding self-interested (especially since it is) but I really do think that the quality of disciplines in academia, in the humanities most of all, not least in my own realm of ethics, is undermined if they can’t find ways to include more of the talent that has been so marginalized by the crisis in academic hiring.

      I am heartened by the innovations of Syndicate, and the connections they are fostering, the openness they are promoting, the efforts you and they are making to keep the conversation going, for myself and for others . . .

Linn Tonstad


The Perils and Promise of Imagining Otherwise

GEOFFREY REES’S THE ROMANCE OF INNOCENT SEXUALITY represents A major step forward in what he might term queer theology’s1 maturation into humorousness. Rees has done the discipline a service not only in terms of the specific argument he offers for a queer Augustinian theology of original sin, but relative to the discipline’s conventions of argument and engagement with sources. He exhibits an exemplary combination of care and fairness with a kind of gentle humor in his deployment of unexpected themes taken from Augustine and nineteenth-century novels in making theological arguments. Since I share many of Rees’s theoretical and theological proclivities, and in obedience to the dictates of the conversational mode of Syndicate, I raise three topics for further conversation: sin, utopia, and time. These areas of discussion combine interesting or provocative moves on Rees’s part with certain theoretical and theological questions that have either been underexplored or are only now beginning to be raised. These three topics for conversation are specific ways of reflecting on what the perils and promises of imagining that the “world” might be radically different from what it now is.

When I taught portions of Rees’s book in my course on queer theology at Yale Divinity School last spring, it was perhaps unsurprising that his rehabilitation of the doctrine of original sin via Augustine created the most confusion and dissent among students of any text we read. (And we read some very demanding and controversial texts, including Lee Edelman’s No Future, to which I return below.) The primary forms of dissent were two: on the one hand, some students showed distaste for the very notion of rehabilitating sin or original sin in any form for queer purposes. Is not the Christian problematic in relation to queerness precisely its over-enthusiastic designation of queer sinfulness? And do not queers who enter Christian spaces seeking to worship need to hear of God’s love rather than their status also as sinners whom God hates? On the other hand, students of a different bent were uncomfortable with this use of Augustine—could such a usage ever pretend responsibility to Augustine’s intentions or to the canons of Augustinian interpretive practices? In the first case, students allowed—as sometimes happens in divinity school—imagined and experienced situations of pastoral care to trump serious engagement with Rees’s argument for solidarity based on shared sinfulness. In the second case, students deflected engagement with the text on a different level while also missing Rees’s argument for (and use of) humor. These distinctions mirror the way queer theology is positioned in relation to more conventionally recognizable “systematic” theology as an identitarian discourse of liberation that some systematicians charge is inattentive to the need for canonical, traditional, and interpretive faithfulness that characterizes proper Christian speech.

The argument that shared sinfulness—or shared embeddedness in structures of original sin—can provide for solidarity among human beings is not a new one, and its structural form is particularly characteristic of liberation theologies. But a version of that argument—not about sin, but about sinthomosexuality (coined from the Lacanian sinthome)—has also appeared in one of the debates in which queer theory has been embroiled in recent years, about the nature of time and futurity. Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive2 developed concerns about inclusion and integration that have belonged to queer theory since its inception at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States. In No Future,Edelman argues that queers need to accept the way they are socially positioned as threats to society and the reproduction of the social order—figural positionings (like “homosexual recruitment” or the “predatory gay”) that may be summed up in the slogan: “But what about the children!” Queerness figures the repudiation of the future, as the future is figured by the image of the innocent child whose innocence, and even existence, the queer threatens. Social reproduction, Edelman suggests, takes place in part by mobilizing resistance to whatever threatens the continuation of the existing order. Social reproduction thus requires that someone stand in the position of ‘that which threatens the social order.” Queers are currently one of the forms in which such threat is represented.3

But Edelman’s argument is not only that society needs figures of threat against which it can summon its powers of resistance and destruction. Edelman also argues, on psychoanalytic grounds, that neither the subject nor the social order can achieve integration, wholeness, plenitude, and self-identity. That is, whatever the social order is, it will require someone to figure its intrinsic inability to be or become that which it must represent itself as. Similarly, the subject imagines a plenitudinous wholeness that, by reason of the very nature of subject formation, is unachievable. The social thus produces the sinthomosexual (the figural representation of that which threatens society and can’t be integrated into society) of necessity. If queers (as in gays and lesbians) no longer figure that threat as they too become decent and upstanding citizens, someone else will be forced into that figural position, with the concomitant consequences. Instead, Edelman argues, they should remain in the position of that-which-has-to-be-excluded, that which threatens the child and therefore threatens the future. (It is for this reason that Edelman’s argument, despite his protestations to the contrary, is clearly an ethical argument.) The queer is non-identity’s resistance to identity.4 Although “futurism . . . perpetuates the hope of a fully unified community, a fully realized social order, that’s imagined as always available in the fullness of the future to come,”5 such visions serve to constrain political possibilities in the present while representing those who threaten “the children” as in need of erasure.

We may seem to have wandered far from Augustine and Rees at this point, but in truth we have not. For Rees’s argument is informed by and in resistance to Edelman’s throughout. Edelman’s nonidentity is the refusal of the dream of intelligibility that Rees sees as a symptom of fallen sinfulness. As Rees argues, “The promise of intelligible selfhood is a necessary chimera in the formation of human community.”6 The social order of necessity generates such dreams of plenitudinous identity and transparent intelligibility. Indeed, Rees follows Edelman on the very nature of politics: “the struggle to effect a fantasmatic order of reality in which the subject’s alienation would vanish into the seamlessness of identity at the endpoint of the endless chain of signifiers lived as history.”7 Refusal to admit the chimerical nature of that dream serves for Rees as a denial of one’s own implication in original sin, and it causes disengagement from the struggle to remain “aware . . . as much as possible, of the continual shifting distribution of the burden of shame of unintelligibility.”8 That distribution is both enacted by the self and caused by changing historical dynamics, but it reflects sin either way in conditions of fallenness. “Blaming others, by shaming them, is a means of disowning one’s own responsibility for sin.”9 Rees’s solution is acceptance of one’s own sinfulness and responsibility therefore, along with the sacrifice of the dream of an achieved intelligibility in a fallen world. Instead, one ought to seek “to redress the continually unfolding harms that ensue from the inexorable present reality of sin.”10 Yet such action is informed, from the perspective of faith, by the hope of the resurrection and the gift of an achieved relation to a God who alone can render identity stable and intelligible and community non-exclusionary.

At this point, Edelman and Rees part company at a fundamental level.11 For Edelman, this solution is no more than the return of the same in an only slightly different form. As long as the dream of wholeness and identity persists, even if (perhaps especially if) that dream is unachievable in this life (but will be so in a life to come), the subject and the social will remain trapped in the destructive consequences that fantasy entails. In truth, Edelman believes the trap to be unavoidable; the sinthomosexual may at best serve as a witness (or perhaps as a brake) to society’s relentless march forward into ever-new atrocities.12 While Rees’s trap also catches all comers, for him, Christian theology’s emphasis on the resurrection, on hope for a different order, and the promise of identity in the life to come serve as spurs to free action. Giving up the dream of an identity fixed in and by sexuality permits “faithful responsiveness to God who creates.”13 The promise of resurrection and a transformation of the sinful self offers hope for temporal discontinuity, a difference between what is and what will be.

Indeed, in one of the most suggestive but underdeveloped passages of the book, Rees says: “More productive theologically is the fantasy of a communal existence where sex doesn’t exist, where the fictional expression of the fallen self’s dream of wholeness in a sex never arises, where the self projects no sex to image its completion, especially in another human being, instead finding that completion in God.”14

Rees here departs from an exceedingly common claim in queer or gay-affirming theologies of sexuality, that sexuality’s and gender’s distortions will be corrected in the life to come as sex, sexuality, and gender are transformed into an even better version of what they now are in their fallen forms, that they will then realize their intrinsic telos (perhaps toward participation in a triune and relational God).15 The queer version might project “communal, polymorphous indulgence of uninhibited sexual pleasure”16 backward into unfallen creation and forward into the life to come; the gay-affirming version might do the same for a perfected version of marriage. Rees’s suggestion implies that sex and sexuality may not be perverted by the fall: they may be results of the fall. Now that’s a queer idea!

Rees remains coy about whether he is willing to follow this suggestion to its logical conclusion. Surprisingly for someone who is so (rightly) critical of Eugene Rogers on this issue, he too ends on a queer wedding feast, although he does not specify who is getting married or even what a non-exclusionary “wedding” entails beyond a general image of a banquet.17 The resistance that many contemporary Christian theologians have to characterizations of Christianity as body-hating and sex-judging has heightened the volume in which such theologians insist that Christianity (alone?) can figure the truth of sexual desire and its fulfillment in the transcendent-resurrected sexual body in God. The heavenly body must be sexed, sexual, and gendered, they insist; anything else is Manicheanism or dualism or Gnosticism or (insert preferred term of derogation here). But can a Christianity that affirms the basic goodness of sex, sexuality, and gender as they currently exist, refusing only their distortions (whatever they may be), ever be queer? Does not such a Christianity conform (or so I would argue) to the theological heresy of sexuality as identity of which Rees’s book is such an elegant and persuasive critique? How—if at all—can sex, gender, and sexuality be imagined as radically different from what they now are, if they indeed are fallen in the way that Rees argues they are?

The turn to temporality in recent queer theory focused intently on a debate between Edelman and José Esteban Muñoz over just this question, in a slightly different version: can and should a future (or a utopia) be imagined or invoked, and what are the consequences either way? As we have seen, Edelman insists that any vision either of fulfillment in a future to come or of a radically different future for the current social order is a (perhaps even ethically culpable, albeit unavoidable) chimera. Muñoz, in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity18 argues that a future utopia must be invoked, must be called upon, as the horizon of hope. Yet, at the same time, Muñoz remains wary of any content-filled utopia, any utopic imagination that populates its future with a too-developed vision of how things ought to be. Perhaps Rees draws back out of similar concerns with the possible and unintended consequences of filled-out utopic imaginations. (After all, attempts to achieve utopia in history are not notorious for their successes.)

In each case, different visions of the relation between present and “future” are in play. (“Future” is ambiguous: from the perspective of Christian theology, it is not clear that either the resurrection or the eschaton are in the “future” in any ordinary sense of the term.) Rees posits two radical discontinuities: between pre-lapsarian and post-lapsarian existence, and between the social order as it presently stands and what it will be in the world to come. Such discontinuities cannot take place on a single timeline. Multiple “times” and timelines are required in order to take seriously the literal character of original sin in the way that Rees proposes. In that, there is nothing new to Christian theology: the already-not yet and the simul both have the same requirement. This might suggest that all Christian theology and queer theory have yet to do in order to be speaking mostly the same language is to hash out which timeline ought to be in play where, and just how much continuity and discontinuity (or other, non-linear forms of time) will apply to any given element of existence in a Christian resurrection or in a queer utopia.

But here, Rees’s divergence from Edelman takes place at just the right point, and it raises a final question. For intrinsic to the very concept of sin is that things ought to be otherwise than they are, that the world ought to be or could have been or will be radically (in some sense) different from what it is. The ought not of sin cannot be made compatible with the inevitability of the sinthomosexual (as Rees suggests with respect to psychoanalysis in general19). Whatever hope of a different order the queer theorist or the queer theologian might allow for the future, there is a difference between affirmation of finitude itself (as psychoanalysis sees itself doing) and recognition of the guilt of distorted finitude (as Christian sin-talk requires). This difference brings us back to the assumption some of my students brought to their reading of Rees’s book last year, that talk of sin and guilt is an obstacle to good human becoming and right sociality, rather than their condition of possibility. I share Rees’s love for the doctrine of original sin and his sense of the discontinuity brought by fallenness. Yet I also wonder about how seriously the queer-theoretical or psychoanalytic critiques of the costs of such imagining-otherwise ought to be taken. Can those of us who take original sin seriously in this way affirm the world as it exists, and what, ultimately, is lost if we cannot?

  1. Note that in this discussion, I focus only on Christian forms of queer theology, in deference to Rees’s engagement therewith as well as my own positioning in that field. Whether there can be, properly speaking, Christian forms of queer theology is a question for another time.

  2. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

  3. Edelman wrote, of course, before the many victories in marriage equality gained by gay and allied political movements recently—but he, like many queer theorists, sees such victory as something closer to a capitulation to the insistence of social norms on the decency and upstandingness of any citizen the socio-political order deigns to recognize.

  4. See Edelman, “Ever After: History, Negativity, and the Social,” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:3 (2007), 471.

  5. Edelman, “Ever After,” 473.

  6. Geoffrey Rees, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 216.

  7. Edelman, No Future, 8; quoted in Rees, The Romance, 215.

  8. Rees, The Romance, 215.

  9. Ibid., 277.

  10. Ibid., 284.

  11. Although Rees is, as he notes in the introduction, “a moderately observant Reform Jewish writer” (xiii) rather than a Christian believer.

  12. See Edelman, “Ever After,” particularly 474–76.

  13. Rees, The Romance, 288.

  14. Ibid., 198.

  15. In my book manuscript, God and Difference: Experimental Trinitarian Theology, I offer an extended critique of these kinds of moves.

  16. Rees, The Romance, 198.

  17. Ibid., 289.

  18. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

  19. Rees, The Romance, 273.

  • Geoffrey Rees

    Geoffrey Rees


    A Response to Linn Tonstad

    Time and the cave. To come out of the cave, to be detached, means to cease to make the future our objective.”

    —Simone Weil

    What is it about the future? What is it about the world, as it exists, that we struggle to affirm?

    Nothing is more intimate to talk about than death. Talk about sex, by comparison, is a walk in the park. Politics and religion too. Talk about sex and religion and politics, and everyone knows you are stepping out of bounds. They know how to follow along if they like, and they know how to leave you stranded. Talk about sex and religion and politics can be wicked fun, and heated, and awkward, and it can catch people up in currents they wouldn’t normally risk, carry them downstream far enough that they worry how they will get back to their starting points. It can rupture relationships as much as heal them, expose old wounds, create new ones, forge bonds of intimacy, salve anxiety, instill hope or despair.

    Talk about death takes all these possibilities and pushes them to their limit. It is so intimate, because it is so ultimate. Talk about death is to push words to their limit. It is a test of language and the ties of language.

    Here it is important to distinguish between talk of death and talk of dying. Talk of dying is commonplace and consoling. Dying is something everyone experiences. Death is something no one experiences. Dying is an aspect of living. Aspect is an apt term, in a grammatical sense. It is a perspective, an inflection of the verb “to be.” Dying is on the positive side of the ledger. It is a credit.

    Death is a debit. It is an endless column of zeros. It subtracts and never balances out. Death is not an aspect of living. It is not another side of living. It is not an outside of living. These are all illusions of living. The intimacy in speaking about death is the opening to a view of this intense, inescapable interiority of living.

    One of the funniest and oddest and most frightening sensations, in the midst of the overwhelming sense of doom that is unique to fear of death, is the solipsistic imagination that there is an alternative. Fear of death is intensely solipsistic. You become sickeningly overwhelmed by the prospect of your own extinction, as if there were a world of people who didn’t also face the same future. You become sickeningly overwhelmed by the sensation that there is some other option, from which you have been excluded.

    But while solipsism in every other instance is a kind of mistake, in the case of fear of death, the solipsism is no mistake. It is a truth that again makes talk about death so intensely intimate. Death is something that happens uniquely to oneself, and to no one else. Other people don’t die, can’t die, in the same manner as oneself will die. No amount of theory about the sociality of human beings can overcome this existential nugget. The death of the individual is where death begins and ends. To talk about death is to pry open the gap between individuals, the breach between one and everyone else.

    This reminds me of a conversation years ago, with the wife of a renowned professor of philosophy. He was invited to Japan for two weeks. He is twenty years older than his wife, and they had two young sons. The wife decided that they would all take the trip together. It seemed foolish, taking two children on a trip to Japan. But when asked why, she explained, if the plane crashes, at least we will all go down together.

    A neat example of the warped perspective of parenting, where the death of the child is unthinkable apart from the life of the mother and father. She offered this reason as a proof of parental attachment. Yet lurking in the reason was proof instead of how completely that attachment contains a homicidal impulse. Unable, unwilling to envision the future of her children, that their death was not dependent on the lives of their parents, even if it originated in some crucial way in their lives, she imagined that they could somehow die all together one death. She couldn’t or wouldn’t see that the death of each child was his unique inheritance.

    The distinction between biological life and psychical life remains crucial, however unfashionable it is to think openly in dualisms. They are not the same, no matter how much the latter is impossible without the former. One need not posit any particular metaphysics, in order to recognize that they are distinct. Not just analytically distinct. But distinct in some more thorough sense. A natural supernaturalism perhaps. Or maybe just a healthy open-mindedness. Or maybe a more full-blooded materialism.

    Again, talk about death is most intimate, because it asks people to step out of the footlights and look up and see the trappings of the theater.

    Sounds a lot like Plato’s cave. But imagine emerging from the cave into the sunlight, and seeing with certainty the rocky shoreline extending as far as the eye can see, sheer brown and black cliffs dropping to a glassy blue expanse of ocean, a green shoreline just visible at the horizon, the pale blue sky streaked with ribbons of amber, the light of the sun at an angle pointing white the upper ridges of the clouds, gulls circling in the middle distance over a vessel, a pair of diamond sails flashing silver, and seeing with certainty that one’s desire is hidden back in the cave.

    The flickering of the fire, the dank rock, the soot, the chafing of the chains. It is all more desirable than this open landscape, the close, airless smothering warmth of the cave preferable to the soft, luscious, uplifting ocean breeze.

    Ahead is judgment. Behind is fate. And in between is our inability to imagine what has happened without imagining also that it must have happened. Our inability to imagine what will happen without imagining also that we caused it to happen.

    I can’t remember all the context, and I know I have heard the contrast proffered repeatedly, between a chronicle and a history, between a list of events, and a narration of how those events happened. And each time I have heard this difference made, it favors the history over the chronicle. Yet the chronicle tells greater truth in its barebones outline than the history in its richly elaborated musculature.

    That which cannot be otherwise. Looking forward, there is nothing to see. Looking backward, all is crystalline, fixed. Are these the only choices? Is there no point of view in which the fluidity of the past and the fixity of the future become open to investigation? Is there no hope of becoming detached?

    • Linn Tonstad

      Linn Tonstad


      A Reply to Geoffrey Rees

      Jeff, I don’t think I’ve ever taught a theology class in which I don’t at some point end up (perhaps too dramatically) reminding the students that each and every one of us is going to die some day. I do this in part because no one ever told me that, except in some sort of ‘account for your life’ kind of way. I want to name it and own it and claim it: I will die.

      I was brought up anticipating that we who are alive will be caught up to meet him in the air, so I wasn’t particularly concerned with my own death. After all, we live in the time of the third angel’s message. When I was seven, I read my first book by Seventh-day Adventist prophet Ellen G. White, Early Writings. There are two scenes in particular that I vividly remember from the book (and so probably mis-remember as well). One has simply to do with keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus when walking the straight and narrow path. But the other is of a scene in heaven where each of the saved, wearing a white robe – with the martyrs distinguished by the red border of theirs – and a crown walks into their own individual heavenly mansion (although in my mind’s eye, it’s much less a mansion than a very, very small house, of the tiny-house variety).

      To the right of the doorway in each house is a shelf, and on that shelf, the saved person places her crown when she enters. That crown is marked with the number of stars corresponding to the number of people saved by that person.

      The mixture of ordinariness and continuity (as well as the maintenance of social distinctions) in this scene implies a devastating lack of imagination. I’ve always been rather literal myself. It wasn’t until I re-read it at 9 that I understood that the first Narnia book was about Christ rather than a satanic mixture of hags and werewolves. Then again, there’s also something delightful in a heaven in which concern is shown for where you place your crown.

    • Geoffrey Rees

      Geoffrey Rees


      A Response to Peter Kline

      Thanks Peter for sharing this awesome image! It must happen for people in different ways, but for me the stitching the binding on a quilt, the baking a batch of turtle bars (pity that no one has figured out a way to send cookies via email), the folding a peacock out of a single sheet of 35cm square Tant paper, is about rowing, about detaching through immersion in a task, about salving anxiety.

      Linn’s opening comment stops me in my tracks a bit, since in my own teaching, whenever the conversation gets very close to any kind of we “are all going to die and is there anything else to say about that” moments, I tend to feel like I am doing something wrong, almost guilty, like I am abusing the students, and it always really haunts me, I will wake up in the middle of the night after one of these moments and the fragility of that community in the classroom is so palpable, it seems wild and unbelievable, that we can have these conversations, unreal that we are all together in this flow of time.

      I was not brought up to anticipate anything about death, or rather to anticipate nothing. I think the mode of instilling memory has mostly passed, but when I was briefly attending Hebrew School back in the mid 1970s, it was standard to herd us all into a basement auditorium and show films of the death camps. Seriously, this is how we would spend Sunday mornings. First a half hour or forty-five minutes practicing writing Hebrew letters. Then a lesson about how the Israelis are so smart and hard working, they are growing fruits and vegetables and flowers in the dessert. And top it all off with a good healthy dose of black and white images of bulldozers moving piles of emaciated corpses, the only sound the fan on the projector, the clack of the celluloid spooling off and back on to its reels.

      Perhaps as a result any promise of a beyond death less grim and drained of color tends to make me uncomfortable. I have a vivid memory for example, when I was about that age – nine – watching an episode of the 700 club, and the guest was telling a story about heaven. He had died and visited heaven and was describing what it was like. It was all bright green palm trees and the music of a harp merging with the rhythm of the blue surf lapping over pink sand beaches – everyone gets his own – and puffy white clouds casting shadows from a sun that never sets, and it sounded awful to me, truly awful, a nightmare, nauseatingly bright and clean and warm and under-populated and lonely.

      Even now I can’t help thinking, I don’t want to go there (I don’t know how to make HTML edits for this comments, but that last word is most emphatically italicized).

Margaret Miles


A Complication Further Pressed

GEOFFREY REES HAS IDENTIFIED an unexpected ally for his argument for the validity of same-sex marriage. St. Augustine is not usually the go-to author for support for liberal causes. Rees’s densely argued thesis is ingenious, a tour de force. Rather than bringing gay marriage to the status of “innocent sexuality” enjoyed by heterosexual marriage, he finds in Augustine’s most-criticized doctrine—original sin—grounds for finding all forms of sexuality equally sinful; the “romance of innocent sexuality” is negated by original sin.

According to Rees, the romance of innocent sexuality goes like this: alienated from God, who is the source and guarantor of the self, by original sin, North American society in our time considers sex “worth dying for”1 (Foucault’s phrase) because it seems to us to be the uniquely resonant individual possession by which the self (in alienation) can be constituted and unified (other societies in other times have chosen differently, for example, courtly love in medieval European elite society):

When marriage becomes idealized as a means of recovery of the unity of the self lost in original sin, marriage becomes a principal means of refusal of that loss, which is to say that marriage becomes a principal means of refusal of responsibility for sin. The romance of innocent sexuality is thus a disavowal of sin, the disavowal of the loss of unity of self in God through sin, accomplished through assertions of the innocence of certain persons’ sexuality, sexual desires, and corresponding relationships against other persons’ sinful sexuality, sexual desires, and corresponding relationships.2

Rees claims that the fiction of innocent sexuality informs the political combat over gay marriage in contemporary society. Both those who struggle to protect heterosexual marriage and those who seek to extend the illusion of innocent sexuality to same-sex couples have an exaggerated understanding of the benefit of marriage. Rees argues for a much more modest claim for marriage as a “good but limited human relationship” that nevertheless lacks the power to be the “origin and source of one’s personal identity.”3

Debate over same-sex marriage is so intense because its participants all share a common commitment to the narrative capacity of marriage to render the secret of the self, its sex, accessible. The question of who may or may not marry whom matters so much because it is finally a question of who will or will not experience a regnant fiction of intelligible bodily and psychic integrity.4

We think within narratives, Rees writes, and he finds the “fiction of sex,” to be damaging to the community of sinful humanity.5 In fact, Rees (and Augustine) claim that original sin is “the genuine unity of humanity.”6 Claiming to construct “an inclusively queer Augustinianism,” Rees argues for the “exclusion of all exclusion” from the community of sinners. Again, Augustine is an unlikely exemplar of inclusion, as his doctrine of predestination, discussed below, amply demonstrates.7

Rees is neither an Augustine scholar nor a Christian. He does not seek to intervene in “one specialized discourse” (presumably Christian theology), but to generate a “conversation across disciplines”8 In so doing, the task he undertakes is not to understand Augustine in the context of his own corpus,his cultural and intellectual loyalties, and his historical location. Rather he finds in Augustine’s theology tools—suggestions—that help him to address a contemporary debate. Similarly, Michel Foucault invited his readers to treat Foucault’s own writings as a toolbox, selecting useful and usable ideas for understanding and argument and discarding any that are not needed to get the work done. Although he does not acknowledge this, Rees participates in a tradition of “advocacy scholarship,” initiated in its contemporary form some decades ago by Vincent Harding for Black Theology. Advocacy scholarship acknowledges a particular perspective and attempts to think through present quandaries from that perspective for the benefit of those who share this perspective. Although it can be—and often is—argued that all scholarship argues from a particular social, cultural, intellectual, racial, and gender perspective (to name only a few of the variables that constitute a perspective), most scholarship implicitly claims the elusive, if not impossible, goal of unmediated “objectivity.”

Both approaches to historical authors are, in my view, legitimate. It is, however, necessary to distinguish an approach that seeks to render the complexity of a historical author understandable, and one that employs the toolbox approach to the author. Each approach is vulnerable to criticism. Those that help us to understand a historical author in her/his own context can be accused of ivory tower irrelevance. Those that seek tools with which to address a contemporary issue risk accusations of misunderstanding, or partial understanding, of the historical author whose ideas they employ. The Romance of Innocent Sexuality will not help its readers understand, for example, how Augustine could embrace both the affirmation that God is love—and that is all you need to know about God, as he preached in his homilies on 1 John—and his doctrine of predestination which leaves the massa damnata, by far the larger crowd, howling helplessly outside the gates, forever excluded from “the eternal felicity of the city of God in its perpetual Sabbath.” The democracy Rees seeks in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is, it seems to me, significantly, if not fatally, undercut by his insistence on irrevocable predestination. On this point I am not unsympathetic with Rees; I notice that I too tend to forget predestination when I wax eloquent on Augustine’s beautiful, and seemingly inclusive, doctrine of love!

Rees’s point is, of course, that there is no innocent sexuality, no place to stand outside original sin—no, not even in celibacy (recall the proud virgins who are inferior to humble wives in Augustine’s treatise On the Good of Marriage). However, the effects as well as the content of a doctrine should also be noticed. Rees sees in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin the foundation for a community of sinners who recognize that they have no grounds for judging the sexual orientation and practices of anyone else. If, indeed, it is impossible to exempt oneself from the sinfulness of humanity, it necessarily follows that one’s participation in the human community should entail hospitable and respectful treatment of other sinners like oneself.

The more negative effects of the doctrine must also be noticed. Generations of earnest Christians, like my parents, have attempted to stamp out every evidence of original sin in themselves and their children. Ironically, the admission of original sin—I am a sinner—has produced doubled and redoubled efforts not to act like a sinner, “as if the avoidance of sins somehow means the self is less fallen.”9 At this point perhaps, for just a moment, the doctrine of predestination could also be seen to have a potentially positive effect. If sin is quite impossible to stamp out in anybody, then the parents’ job becomes simply socialization, teaching the child to behave in ways that harm others minimally. The child’s salvation is not at stake, having been decided long before the child was born; thus, her or his eternal destiny is not within the realm of parental responsibility. This interpretation, however, has not had a noticeably relaxing effect for generations of Christians who took Augustine’s doctrine of original sin seriously.

Finally, why does Rees focus so exclusively on sex as the evidence and reality of sin?

The bottom line is simple: sin not innocence. Rather than attempt to discern whose sexual desires and relationships are innocent, and whose not, a more responsible sexual ethics—and more constructive also—starts with acceptance of responsibility by each person individually for the universal ruin of humankind in a single inheritable original sin that is meaningfully and appropriately associated with sexuality.10

From the early centuries of the Christian movement, theology identified pursuit of the objects of sex, power, and possessions as compulsions strong enough to displace and divert love of God as the source and stability of the self. Early monasticism addressed these addictive desires directly, substituting celibacy for sex, obedience for power, and poverty for possessions. After Augustine, medieval theologians named seven deadly sins, fascinations with sufficient power to distract and destroy the life of the Spirit: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. Each of these compulsive behaviors creates the illusion of a unified self. But Rees’s interest lies exclusively in what he identifies as “the hold of marriage on theological discourse,” namely, “its illusory promise of solution to the melancholy of original sin through the realization of the fiction of sex.”11

Harmful as the romance of innocent sexuality is—and has been—many or most advocates of same-sex marriage have much more practical (and less metaphysical) reasons for seeking marriage equality, namely, marriage’s social and economic privilege. Of course, metaphysical and practical motivations are not mutually exclusive. By recognizing and describing a factor that underlies practical reasons for legislating marriage equality, Rees has helpfully demonstrated the complexity of the struggle over gay marriage.

  1. Geoffrey Rees, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 1.

  2. Ibid., 34–35.

  3. Ibid., 34 and 190.

  4. Ibid., 57.

  5. Ibid., 27.

  6.  Ibid., 137.

  7. Ibid., 271, 287.

  8. Ibid., xv.

  9. Ibid., 223.

  10. Ibid., x. Emphasis mine.

  11. Ibid., 35.

  • Geoffrey Rees

    Geoffrey Rees


    A Response to Margaret Miles

    The view regarding same-sex marriage in many ways has changed significantly in the three years since the publication of The Romance of Innocent Sexuality. Before the ruling of the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry the future of same-sex marriage looked potentially protracted, so that it seemed safest for opponents of DOMA and Proposition 8 to take the long view . . . the arc of history and so forth. In the aftermath the tables seem turned, and the most ardent opponents of same-sex marriage, even as they carry on the fight, are also shifting tactics, so that at stake more and more for the defenders of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman is the liberty to declaim the sinfulness of homosexuality, and to safeguard the innocence of people who refuse association with same-sex marriage.

    As the spate of religious freedom restoration laws adopted or under consideration in many states underscores, appeals to the exceptional status in general of religion are closely linked to the exercise of the specific liberty to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. On the one side, religion is eyed suspiciously as the last bastion of homophobia. On the other side, accusations of homophobia are suspected as cover for a deeper intolerance of religion. If I can’t voice freely my repugnance at the sight of homosexual behavior, and call it what it is, sin, then the very possibility of calling out any difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, light and dark, sanity and madness, is dangerously undermined. If I can’t hold people accountable when they discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, when they deny equal access in housing, education, employment, when they refuse services to my family, when they slander me as a threat to children everywhere and equate the most important and loving relationship of my life to bestiality, incest, and alcoholism, then the promise of justice under law is dangerously undermined.

    Significant as the gains have been in the past few years for same-sex couples, the politics haven’t exactly become more conciliatory. And as many keep pointing out, the expanding freedom to marry is counterbalanced by a lack of protection from discrimination. Academia is no exception. Working as I do as an adjunct and lecturer on the fringes, struggling to sustain a semblance of an academic career, it doesn’t help to know how many colleges and universities deliberately do not include sexual orientation in their policies on non-discrimination. And that too often, when it is included, it is part of a liberatory agenda that sees queer questioning as a kind of drag on the momentum of progressive politics.

    In raising this example, I am thinking of the observation that Miles makes, at the end of her discussion, regarding the reasons people seek marriage equality, that “many or most advocates of same-sex marriage have much more practical (and less metaphysical) reasons for seeking marriage equality, namely marriage’s social and economic privilege.”  This line really jumped out at me, because a central concern that moved me to write from the start, is how to understand the link between what Miles calls the practical and the metaphysical, and in fact to think through the inseparability of the one from the other in such a way that the distinction becomes untenable. Not just because it promotes greater understanding of the limited goodness of same-sex marriage, but just as important, because it promotes greater understanding of the intensity of the opposition to same-sex marriage.

    Stated plainly, I do not believe it is possible to enjoy privileges of intelligibility (as I understand that which Miles is calling metaphysical) apart from social and economic privileges; as if social and economic privileges are not imbued with implications for the self-understanding of those who enjoy them. Stated even more strongly: the ultimate value of social and economic privilege is at least as much psychic as it is material. So rather than say, with regard to the pursuit of marriage equality, that “metaphysical and practical motivations are not mutually exclusive,” I think it is important to try and collapse the negative admission into a positive embrace.

    Because the way that Miles states the case, generous as it is, does echo a common habit of treating queer theoretical argument as a kind of adjunct of women’s and gay liberation, as the secondary, metaphysical complement of the primary, practical pursuit of justice. When my own interest, rooted in a lot of reading of queer theory, but much more so in my reading of novels, is to think the indivisibility of the social and economic aspects of progressive justice and the meanings of those aspects.

    A big theme underway in The Romance of Innocent Sexuality, that I haven’t had the chance to develop in additional writings, is that the available meanings of personal experience, especially of persons at the margins economically, sexually, medically, ecologically—fundamentally politically—are a concern of social justice. So that the intelligibility of personal experience and the possibilities of progressive justice are mutually informing. So that as much as same-sex marriage was the occasion for the discussion, the goal is not to advocate for a position on the issue, so much as it is to explore it as an instance of a larger issue of meaning-making and self-understanding. To advocate for a conception of justice that recognizes the ways that possibilities of psychic well-being are formulated out of claims of justice, that recognizes that what counts as a claim of justice is inseparable from who is able to make a claim of justice, that recognizes that who is able to make a claim of justice arises out of practical theorization of justice itself.

    And therefore, because the horizon of progressive politics is foreshortened I think when it can’t play more openly with its own ethical ambivalence, when it can’t acknowledge the intense seriousness of the claims of those it opposes, that what is at stake in shifting the definition of who can marry whom really is the possibility of distinguishing right and wrong, truth and falsehood. When the theoretical is treated as somehow distinct from the practical, it is probably a lot easier to disregard that ambivalence.

    As politically effective as it has been to act as if incorporation of sexual orientation and gender identity into non-discrimination policies and laws is simply to expand the circle of inclusion, it is more just I think the more it can acknowledge its implications for the meaning-making, self-concern of the culture that is in fact changing. Queer theory isn’t easy for many readers, and the name itself unfortunately promotes the idea that it isn’t practical. But the starting point overwhelmingly for these writings is a profound sense of injustice and a concern, outraged almost, to challenge a conventional account of justice that is inadequate because it doesn’t own its inadequacy.

    Perhaps more to the point, these writings tend to start from intimate contacts, in multiples senses of the phrase, with communities and ways of life that are especially vulnerable, albeit not uniquely vulnerable. And this actually reaches out in powerful ways precisely to those points of view that seem most contrary.

    Holding together the theoretical and the practical helps to generate discomfort with the many ways that tangible privileges are achieved. For example, by acknowledging the mismatch between the privileges of immigration enjoyed by duly married same-sex couples, now that the federal government is processing applications for green-cards from same-sex spouses—and the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants who are being deported in record numbers.

    Another example: by acknowledging that for the florist, the photographer, the baker, each time they refuse to provide services to same-sex couples, the injustice of their refusals is no less real than the vulnerability and distress energizing and perpetuating the injustice.

    To experience a certain degree of restlessness, a certain degree of discomfort with every privilege gained, is itself a kind of privilege that remains, I think, regrettably undervalued.

    • Margaret Miles

      Margaret Miles


      A Reply to Geoffrey Rees

      I strongly agree with Rees’s insistence that “the ultimate value of social and economic privilege is at least as much psychic as it is material.” The “privilege of intelligibility,” (which, by the way, is not what I mean by “metaphysical”), does require “social and economic privilege.” I applaud Rees’s effort to demonstrate and promote “the indivisibility of the social and economic aspects of progressive justice and the meanings of those aspects.”

      Most of his rejoinder, however, rests on the penultimate sentence of my review, on the admittedly misleading, and therefore poorly chosen (parenthetical) word “metaphysical.” I was thinking about whether Rees’s use of Augustine’s idea of original sin would be considered useful by my gay and lesbian friends who advocate (as do I) same-sex marriage. A better word than “metaphysical” might have been “theological” or “academic”—thus questioning and contrasting learned—incontestably academic—argument with advocacy for human rights, broadly (universally?) distributed.

      On another point Rees raises, I acknowledge that I do take queer theoretical argument to be—not an adjunct, but a sophisticated voice—within the broad umbrella of liberation movements harking back to the civil rights movement. I understand queer theory to be, not in competition with, but at the very center of progressive politics.

      Having confessed my mistakes and omissions, I now acknowledge being puzzled by Rees’s non-engagement with (what I consider) my substantive remarks. Of course, what is considered “substantive” depends on the narrative within which one thinks and from which one speaks; thus, what I think is substantive differs from Rees’s idea of “substantive.” From his narrative perspective, my mistaken word “metaphysical” reveals something about my narrative assumptions, and thus is substantive.

      My serious doubt as to whether Augustine (or Dickens, for that matter), is the best man for Rees’s job evokes the ancient accusation of “ivory tower” scholarship. On this point, however, I decline the popular assertion that scholarship has nothing to say to current dilemmas. Indeed, I argued in my review that employing the writings of historical authors as a “bag of tools” can be legitimate and helpful. All Augustine scholars might not be so lenient! It is not, then, that larger point that I contest, but rather the particular use of Augustine’s idea of original sin to challenge the privileged status of heterosexual marriage. Whom does his argument convince? Does it help the broader-than-academic conversation? Does it redeem “religion” (as robustly represented by Augustine, and rejected by many—certainly not all—gay marriage advocates)? In short, the query of the Holy Grail is apt here: “Whom does it serve?”

      As Rees has reminded his readers, we all think (and speak) within narratives. Decades ago Thomas Kuhn pointed out “the structure of a scientific revolution.” His argument also fits a social/cultural revolution: namely, that we seek wiggle room within inherited narratives until they suddenly burst at the seams and we find we must adopt a new paradigm. Rees has detected and challenged a dominant cultural narrative, “the romance of innocent sexuality,” rendering that narrative available for scrutiny, replacement, or discard. I am grateful for the conversation his proposal has opened, and I thank Syndicate, Cascade Books, and Christian Amondson for providing a format for this—and other—important, thoughtful, generous, and penetrating conversations.

    • Geoffrey Rees

      Geoffrey Rees


      A Reply to Margaret Miles

      Greetings Margaret (in the spirit of the ongoing conversations, I am taking the liberty) and thank you for these remarks. They are very clarifying.

      In my initial contributions to this forum, I noted that I was struggling to find the right distance from which to write about the book, since I don’t believe it makes much sense for writers to try and explain or argue after the fact. At least I think the results are often unseemly and the outcome of such exchanges is not often satisfying. Books speak for themselves, and I am in a quite different place in my life these days in many ways, a harder place frankly, from when I was most immersed in writing The Romance of Innocent Sexuality, so that reading your comments, and the other comments too, is like reading about someone else’s book, not a book that I wrote, because that book is just a memory, a hazy one at that, and really I find it fascinating how different readers find different meanings in the book they are reading, and was stating sincerely, in my first remark to Jim, that it is a pleasure to listen to the conversation, and feels inappropriate to say anything on behalf of the book, to presume that I am now any wiser as a reader of the book than anyone else.

      Still I am comfortable enough (not wholly comfortable) in saying that in writing the book, and in my writings more generally, in medical humanities and medical ethics as much as in religious ethics, I have always been interested in trying to think creatively with texts across genres, disciplines, periods, to explore the ways that a present point of view can emerge out of an imaginative play of assembled texts. So that to raise questions for example about whether the book holds up according to contemporary standards of Augustinian scholarship, looks to me to ask of the book something that it is not, that it actively says it is not, instead of seeking to piece together more what the book is, a process of placing next to, reading together, hopefully not too shaggy around the edges, as a means of thinking constructively into a contemporary experience, and along the way challenging some of the conventions of academic disciplines, not least the field of ethics.

      So just as I once took care to distinguish between a biographical Augustine and an Augustine who is the projected author in a discourse that repeatedly invokes the name, and that it is the latter figure about whom I have anything to say, about whom I have any limited ability to speak, and about whom also I have no expertise, because how could I? So also the Augustine I continue to read is primarily of my imagination.

      As a result the language of use, toolbox, ally, advocacy, these are fascinating moves to read about, but not a vocabulary that I recognize as my own. This is not to say that they are not in some tenuous way my own, in the sense that this vocabulary emerges out of reading of a book to which my name remains attached. But I see them as attached to a name that is floating free, and therefore not as a present responsibility that I must claim in any way.

      Probably by ordinary standards I am an overly-sensitive reader, overly attuned to pick up small signals that others don’t hear or only hear as white noise, and to amplify them until they suffuse the foreground. It’s just something I do and from what I’ve been told it tends to make other people uncomfortable, though that isn’t what I set out to do. If am thinking about what I doing, it is more to explore what makes me uncomfortable, to explore the substance of what makes me uncomfortable, and in the process challenge what others own as substantive for themselves.

      I realize that for many people any attempt to associate sexuality and sin as positively useful is a hard sell. It seems that the association has been so positively useful for opponents of same-sex marriage, has served so well those whose aim is to condemn and exclude, how could it work in the other direction and prove positively useful by affirming and including, serving well those who have so far been condemned and excluded?

      And I can attest that the book so far has not served me well, at least by the use-standard benchmarks of academic achievement, i.e. peer-review publication and tenure-track employment.

      Nevertheless . . . When I presented an early draft of the final chapter in a Women’s and Gender Studies workshop my last semester I was in graduate school, I remember there was a student in the class from the nursing school, who told me she had shared it with her father, a Presbyterian minister in Colorado, and that he sent along his thanks, that it really helped him frame better his beliefs and teaching about marriage and hospitality and inclusion. Similarly, about six months after the book appeared in print, I received an email from a Baptist pastor in south Georgia, who wrote to tell me that he had been largely convinced by the argument and that it was changing how he was speaking about sexuality and marriage, that it was changing how he served his congregation and served in his denomination.

      It is very slender evidence, but evidence nonetheless I think that highly academic theological inquiry does sometimes filter down to make a difference in the pulpit and the pews, forging what seems like improbable allies in the process, and also that equality is promoted by a multiplicity of ways of thinking about the goodness of marriage.

      Thank you again for your patience and kind words. Jeff.

Dru Johnson


The Ritualization of Unintelligible Sex

ARE WE EVADING SIN through a story that claims our sexual lives are redeemed through marriage? Am I, as a monogamous, heterosexual (I’m using all these terms in their most naïve form) married man, sequestering sin from my sexuality? Geoffrey Rees counts sex as an integral part of the proliferation of sin into humanity (à la Augustine) and wants us to consider how Western Christianized culture has ameliorated sin through the fiction of sex.

Unintelligible Due to Romance and Fiction

In this rich and often dense text, Rees’s thesis plumbs our fictions about sex. He claims throughout that these fictions move sex from the dense nexus of its biological, social, and existential components to a comprehensible goal of marriage. This problematic story does not, however, square with the fact that, “no such thing as a stable sovereign center exists that fixes the intelligibility of the social order sustaining theological discourse on sexuality.”1 What is sex? “Sex is not something people do, nor is it something people are. It is something that people become, a possibility of intelligible personal identity with a history.”2 The claim seems to be that finding a coherent “I” in my “I-Thou” relation is so compelling that I am willing to do violence to my body while subject to theological fictions in order to locate the “I” that is a unified me. Sex becomes the unifying feature that redeems me, but at the cost of maintaining a romantic view of marriage. Thus, my epistemic restlessness—my need to understand the complex of sex—finds its rest in this romantic fiction of marriage. Rees’s precise words are worth reading:

When marriage becomes idealized as a means of recovery of the unity of self lost in original sin . . . marriage becomes a principal means of refusal of responsibility of sin, the disavowal of the loss of unity of self in God through sin. . . . The hold of marriage on theological discourse on sexuality is its illusory promise of solution to the melancholy of original sin through the realization of the fiction of sex.3

Rees offers us an incisive analysis on the role of sex in relation to self, spouse, society, and God. Tailoring Augustine’s account of sin to dovetail with Foucault’s dictum, “sex is worth dying for,” he offers fresh vistas to the well-worn discussions of sexuality and gender. Rees insists that no body—individual or social—leaves the room unstained by the profundity of sin, which allows him to then “humorously” explore the problem that we do not actually understand the complex of identities, bodies, relationships, and more that constitute sex. This makes our efforts to hew out a specific narrative for sex—namely, heterosexual marriage—untenable in making it intelligible. Rees argues against several fictions that have been romanticized: the innocence of children, the completion of sexuality in marriage, and the hetero-homosexual dichotomy. If there is no actual hetero-homo dichotomy within which one can situate her own sex, and marriage does not resolve the dilemma, then sex remains unintelligible.

Rees employs two main interlocutors to explore the unintelligibility of sex. The first is Foucault, focused through the lens of his statement “sex is worth dying for.” And the other is Augustine’s theological goose-chase for the self through concrete, embodied experience. I must admit at the outset that I am a neophyte concerning Foucault’s analysis of sex—a seminal subtext to Rees’s thesis. I am hopeful that our panelists will better exegete his use of Foucault in toto.

Rees also draws upon Augustine’s reflections on the body to show that the child’s common question, “Where did I come from,” arrests a concrete attempt to understand the self as a mysterious product of sex. This attempt then creates an analog for one to understand the mystery of creation writ large—an unseen genesis of the universe that we become cognizant of as is:

The point of sex, its power as a fiction, is the fictive unity it promises. Given the overwhelming force of the desire of self for unity, it is not surprising that sex has been unquestioningly assumed as a causal origin of personal identity, as a causal origin of the self who can experience unity through union with another.4

Additionally, marriage offers a powerful fiction that alleviates the unintelligibility of sex. (Though, for those of us who have experienced marriage, that alleviation only provides a thin veneer of intelligibility. The quest to find a unified self through marriage easily wrecks the fiction of sex by sober reality.) On multiple fronts, the cultural messages that play upon and extend the fiction of sex do nothing to make sex or marriage more comprehensible. In relation to God, our desire for unity is then corrupted into accepting these fictions of sex and thus, we actually “disavow God” by theologically excising sin from a sexually redeemed marriage. This move, the sequestering of sin from sex, produces subtle violence that we even perpetrate on children.

For Rees, the violence of this fiction comes from the hetero-homo dichotomy, especially when we attempt to secure our identity on one side of the dichotomy by making children’s bodies innocent, segregated from the narratives of our society’s sexual partisans. “The result is a fantastic innocence ascribed to children, most often figured as diminutive play of adult sexed identity fetishized almost under the rubric of cuteness.”5 The suggested antidote is caught by Augustine’s dictum: “So tiny a child, so great a sinner.”

Greater caring for children is therefore enhanced when they are recognized as the entirely sinful creatures that they are, as fully belonging to the community of fallen humanity. The violence of the sentimental spectacle of childhood is especially harmful in its capacity for erasure, its capacity to render invisible and inadmissible the ambiguity and complexity of children’s bodies.6

Ritualizing Sex

Catherine Bell’s brilliant tome Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice tackles a spurious dichotomy of a different sort that appears similar to Rees’s critique.7 Namely, she sought to oust the fiction that because humans are primarily thinkers, our actions directly reflect our thoughts. Instead of this thinking-acting dichotomy, Bell offered ritualization as a better paradigm for understanding human practices. Ritualization means that rites are strategically utilized human practices meant to form our bodies (think Merleau-Ponty’s “habit-body”) and create a new type of person within the social body of the ritual. For instance, John’s baptism in the Gospels is not like other Jewish baptisms (e.g., mikvah baptism) and not like the normal human practice of bathing. It has been strategically changed in order to shape the participants into people who understand their sin differently in light of the ritual. Hence, John ritualizes both normal bathing and Jewish baptism into a new rite.

Bell highlights the fact that our bodies are formed through scripted practices—what Rees might call “fictions”—of all sorts and this formation informs our epistemic perspective. In other words, rituals do not outwardly reflect our internal thinking; they craft our thinking. It seems to me that Rees’s critique aims at something similar: the ritualization of sex. Sex is not a byproduct of our thoughts about sex and the world, it is the biologically scripted practice that shapes how we see ourselves, and hence creation.

I am not certain Rees would agree with me here, but it might be that the very practice of sex—the very desire to do it—inescapably generates a perspective of my self. Regardless of that complex of sexuality, cultures always ritualize sex, which crafts how we think through our sexual desires and practices. In the same way that Bell argues that we are ritualed beings by constitution, not beings who merely choose to follow rituals, we are sexed beings. This reality of our being qua sexual burgeons from childhood in ever-unfolding and perplexing instances, entangled in and confused by our cultural fictions of what sex is for. These stories help us to situate ourselves as sexual beings and also prescribe for us how to enact the practice, ritualizing it beyond the brute experience of pleasure, procreation, or something else. We ritualize the practice of sex to make its meaning transcend the practice itself, its cultural taboo, and the confusion of its purposes and ends.

However, by admitting that we ritualize the complex of sex, we are not presuming that the reasons for ritualizing sex are clear to us. We could easily fall into a presumption found widely in ritual theory that when a normal human practice is ritualized, it acts as a solution to a particular cultural problem.

We can find a renowned version of this conflict-resolution approach in René Girard’s theory regarding cultural scapegoats.8 For Girard, a cultural conflict such as violence must be remediated by funneling the violence onto a victim. Every culture, says Girard, contains a ritualized outlet of violence and the resolution most often entails a central figure that is sacrificed by means of channeling their violent impulses. This focused violence sanctions the conflict, but alleviates the need to commit more mundane acts of brutality. Biblical examples of this trajectory range from John the Baptist’s beheading to the thousands of swine driven of the cliff at Gerasa, not to mention the scapegoat of Yom Kippur or Jesus of Nazareth. Although much of Girard’s work appears promising and on many fronts, critique has focused on his presumption that violence is a conflict that has a ritualized resolution.

To understand a ritual, Girard’s methodology requires one to look for a conflict that the ritual is meant to resolve. In the case of sex and its rites, the conflict created by its incomprehensibility resolves through a marriage that removes sexuality from the hetero-homo binary, placing the married couple squarely in the heterosexual camp. Even more theologically dangerous, this ritualization of sex in marriage removes the sex complex from the traditional discourse of sin.  Sex has been redeemed, strategically employed apart from sin.

On the whole, I found much of Rees’s dense text very helpful for articulating my own sensibilities. As I struggled to figure out what he was getting at, he forced me to think again about almost everything sex does and gave me new theological tools to wrest this conversation from the elementary categories like sexual orientation and same-sex attraction. However, it is not clear to me that Rees escapes this same critique of Girard. In fact, his analysis might project a conflict-resolution pattern into the discourse that neglects how the biblical authors might be ritualizing sex (more below).

Though I do believe that I understand what he means by the “incomprehensibility of sex,” I also know that my LGBTQ friends might have a different sense of the construct than do I, maybe even a richer sense. His use of Augustine helps to root the notion in something more tangible, but the notion never quite crystalizes and I suspect that reinforces the idea. On the other end, I often teach undergraduates that heterosexual marriage is just as “stained by sin” as is any other sex. In some way, I would suggest that we are all ritualizing sex—producing some conflict and set of rites that mean to resolve the conflict and offer something to transcend sex. We are all trying to get beyond sex and so we give it some purpose, a proper context, and prescribe rites and taboos to follow.

Slightly jarring for a theological account is the secondary role of Scripture in Rees’s understanding. Biblical authors were also ritualizing sex, prescribing the rites, conflicts, and roles to the human body within the social body of Israel. In the end, Rees offers radical hospitality (i.e., “queer hospitality”) as demanded by Torah in order to make sex intelligible, both within and without marriage. I think that he is largely correct there. Hospitality notwithstanding, I wished that he would have pressed on to consider the Torah’s ritualization of the sex complex on the whole.

For instance, procreation is central in the depiction of sex, but even procreation is not a patently good commodity in the Torah’s ethical economy. As it turns out, Israelites will later procreate for the purpose of making children who can be murdered in sacrifice to other gods (e.g., 2 Kgs 16:3). It is not sufficient to espouse that the purpose of sex is to merely be fruitful and multiply. Moreover, the times (Lev 18:19), relations (Lev 18:1–18), and procreative body fluids (Lev 15) of sex practices are all ritualized in the Torah with Genesis 2:18–25 acting as the foundational story which circumscribes all sex. I agree with Rees that “sodomy,” biblically understood, should mean something more like “egregious inhospitality.” Hospitality itself is also ritualized in Leviticus (see especially Lev 19:9–34). However, we cannot overlook the willingness to violently rape any human regardless of relation, fluid, or biology as equally egregious under an emic reading of Torah. These ritualizations of human practices seem to have something to say about the logic, and therefore intelligibility of sex too.


Rees thesis offers us generous portion of much needed critical discourse on the irascible categories that fly under the flag of human sexuality. Even now, I am guilty of falling back into that lingo that creates the fiction Rees so aptly critiques. The unintelligibility of sex does appear to me as the center of his thesis—the epistemological crux at the center of this text. As well, I am sure that many scholars will find in Rees a harmonic voice who never tires of warning about the power of fictions and romanticisms that too easily reconcile the murky swamps of life as it is lived.

I do worry that in following Rees’s argument, I could have substituted one fiction for another. But that kind of disparaging is too easy and wide-ranging—and could become a boomerang to my own work. More precisely, I worry that one fiction could be replaced without considering the “fictions” prescribed by the biblical authors. If they were ritualizing the cosmos for Israel, from which Christianity funds its ritualizations, then the question of their authority to situate sex among things such as hospitality needs to be meted out.


  1. Geoffrey Rees, The Romance of Innocent Sexuality (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011), 37.

  2. Ibid., 49.

  3. Ibid., 34–35.

  4. Ibid., 31.

  5. Ibid., 74.

  6. Ibid., 75.

  7. Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  8. René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

  • Geoffrey Rees

    Geoffrey Rees


    A Response to Dru Johnson

    The idea of the ritualization of the unintelligibility of sex I find very compelling and also suggestive. It takes the emphasis on the performative, and moves it into a distinct, albeit related, register. In either case, the crucial insight I think is that there is no substrate accessible, conceivable even, apart from its iterative production. And that the fact of iteration, the repetitiveness out of which oneself becomes accessible, intelligible, recognizable, is fraught with creative gaps, practically endless spaces of starting over, that are consequently endlessly demanding of self. So it opens out the possibility to think through some of the continuities between apparently extreme sexual practices and the romantic mainstream, between vanilla-scented candles and their leather-scented variants.

    Perhaps even more important, it provides another way to break down the illusion that sexual relationship is natural in any simple way, and least of all that it is pleasurable in any simple way. The line separating pleasure and pain is tenuous, and the fictions of sex are continually written on that line. The ability of anyone to have sex, as Johnson helpfully describes it, is evidence of a willful violence done to the body for the sake of the intelligibility of self that is thereby accomplished, a hurt that is so good; though it is crucial to note that there is no choice in the matter, even as there is powerful agency, that willful in this context is distinct from freely open to deliberation, that the energies of personality are no less personal because they channel the energies of impersonal forces. And that at stake is indeed a view of creation itself. So that it just is the case, though not of necessity, that “the very practice of sex—the very desire to do it—inescapably generates a perspective of my self,” with cosmic implications.

    Here again though it is important to emphasize that the very practice of sex is least of all something that happens between the sheets, but rather something that happens on the streets, over the airwaves, and between the lines. So it will be really interesting, for example, to develop a ritual analysis of the hoopla surrounding Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend on television. Or the spectacle of Conchita Wurst winning glory for Austria in the Eurovision Song Contest. Or to investigate how the language of the most passionate cultural warriors—Scott Lively, for example, on what he calls the “homosexualist agenda”—as much as the language of the mainstream marriage equality movement, is itself ritual language.

    Perhaps a simplest account of the reasons for the ritualization of sex is that a recognizably human life is impossible without it. Which is only to say that sex, like any other ritualized manner of conjuring an intelligible self, is at best an unstable and makeshift resolution of the underlying problem of self, the epistemic disaster, that defies human solution: “In your eyes I have become a problem to myself, and that is my sickness.”1

    With regard to biblical interpretation and debates on sexual ethics, the idea that the literal sense of Scripture is the simplest sense of Scripture I think is just backward. The literal sense of Scripture I think is the hardest sense of Scripture, the sense of Scripture where fallen human understanding most falters on its own, and most requires divine support.

    I say this as preface to some quick reflections on what Johnson calls the ritualization of sex in Torah, because I realize that I haven’t yet developed much of my own understanding of the literal sense of Scripture, which relies heavily on the writings of Hans Frei, and I definitely didn’t acknowledge this enough in my work. My own view is that Scripture is literally true, but that its ultimate truth is not comprehensible to our present human understanding, and that this is a kind of hermeneutic gift, a gracious concession to our fallen condition, since it renders Scripture a source of continually unfolding knowledge of ourselves and our creation.

    It also means that some of the seemingly most distressing aspects of Scripture need not become causes for despair, on the one hand, or causes to doubt the infallibility of Scripture, on the other hand. Instead I think that these parts of Scripture expose us to the hardest we can think about each other, in order that we can then start to think otherwise. So rather than oppose one kind of literal truth of Scripture—the claim of sin—against another—the claim of history, manifest in the tradition of historical-critical scholarship—I think Scripture is that which makes history itself intelligible, albeit only partially, to our endless discovery.

    Not until the end of history, as a result, do I think the relation of Scripture to that which we presume to call history will be complete. So I think it is only to be expected that the present fit between the two is somewhat uncomfortable, not least in the difficulty of fitting together scientific understandings of human origins and behaviors, and this includes human sexuality, with the Biblical account.

    A promise of Johnson’s proposal regarding the ritualization of sex within Scripture—what Johnsons calls an “emic reading of Torah”—is that it mitigates this dichotomy. Rather than attempt to explain away the bits of Scripture that seem so egregious, instead can we face their hardness as ritualizations of sex, not by explaining them away in historical context, but by thinking them through internally to the world of the text, the world the text makes inhabitable for us. Those unseemly details are there because they are true, and that truth is ultimately healing and liberating; only our inability to grasp that truth and benefit from it is a sign of how rife we are with egregious desires and practices, and God doesn’t turn away from any of it.

    It probably it comes out of my worship experience with the Hebrew text, since I have never learned the language well enough, so that I can’t not help but understand it when I encounter it; and it probably doesn’t contribute much to the academic conversation, but I think the fullest experience of Scripture is to hear it and not think about it. To lose oneself in the sounds of the language, in the materiality of the language. Spoken aloud, chanted, set to melody, the beauty of the Bible, its truth, is unbounded by its interpretation.

    1. Augustine, Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (New York: Oxford, 1991) 208.

    • Dru Johnson

      Dru Johnson


      A Reply to Geoffrey Rees

      First, I am very glad that my ideas about ritualization might possibly offer another discussion partner to Rees’s work (and that I properly, if even basically, understood some of the more difficult sections of his book). Second, I want to flesh out a bit more by what I meant about the Hebrew Bible ritualizing sex. This might just be a slight restatement, but seems to need clarifying giving your comments about literalism. It might just be, in the end, a point of departure between us.

      When I say that the Torah ritualizes sex, I mean most minimally that it has a coherent narrative that both describes and prescribes sex. I too can see how Frei would be helpful here to focus our gaze at that narrative, which has recently been eclipsed by asinine polemics such as “there is no word for ‘homosexual’ in the Bible” or “Sodom and Gomorrah proves that homosexuality is abominable to God.” Neither of these actually submits to the way the biblical narrative rolls out a consonant view of sex. In fact, the biblical narrators are most often morally silent about the questionable sexual practices of its most notable characters (e.g., Lot’s daughters plan for procreation, Abraham’s prostitution of his wife, Judah’s use of temple prostitutes, the impulsive sexual appetite of Potiphar’s wife; and we have not even left Genesis!).

      I want to maintain that by attending to that narrative and the ensuing Torah instructions about sexual relationships (e.g., prohibited sexual relations: relatives, spouses during menstruation, animals, same-sex, etc.; Lev 18) we can begin to cohere a logic to sex. In that logic, I contend that two things can be noticed. First, sex—its intelligibility, procreative power, pleasure, and others—is not portrayed in Scripture as a problem to be solved by ritualizing it (contra Girard).

      Second, the intelligibility of humans in their physical/spatial and epistemological relations forms the seminal narrative of the Torah: the Eden narrative. Notably, humanity’s nakedness is not a negative feature of creatureliness, however, their ability to know their nakedness as a problem (cf. Gen 2:25; 3:7) injects the unintelligibility of sex at the fore of the story of Israel. From this point forward, the act of sex is portrayed (immediately by the Hebrew verb “to know,” ידע) through a lens that supposes procreation as its natural consequence. Thus, when we look to the prohibitions about sexual relations or any negative portrayal of sex (which is a tricky thing to determine at times; e.g., Lot’s daughters; Gen 19:30f) we see that sex has a negative function when it cannot end in procreation (e.g., sex with one’s menstruating wife; Lev 18:19).

      None of this ritualization of sex, however, addresses sexual desires. Leviticus seems to presume that desires for variations of sexual activity will be encountered across Israel. Leviticus casually presumes that an Israelite man will want to have sex with women other than his wife, other men, and animals. If the internet indicates desire to watch such things, all of these variations form a regular part of our contemporary sexual appetite. Nowhere, however, does the Torah ever command what proper sex looks like, what would make sex intelligible, or who is the appropriate sexual partner for the act itself. Instead, it presumes that the reader understands the prior narratives that have constructed a logic to sex, not eclipsed by trite calls for proof-texting or ever-nauseating questions that begin: “Where in the bible does it say that we cannot …?”

      Neither does the Torah’s ritualization of sex appear to solve a problem by offering a romantically imbued fiction, such as marriage, for us to embrace. The Bible’s authors said remarkably little about marriage and left no instructions on how to enter into a marriage; though they told us how to end one. In other words, Scripture leaves sex somewhat or wholly incomprehensible, but always connected to procreation. So sex can remain enigmatic to me (a practicing Christian), but I cannot regard it apart from the actuality of children. Prescriptively, I cannot go much further than that. The Torah ritualizes sex and sex practices. This ritualization does not appear, to me, bent toward clarifying me to myself. Rather, Scripture’s ritualization forces me to see beyond myself to the other person over time with whom I commit to sexually and the family that ought to burgeon from such a union.
      Someone else might read the same Torah and see a different logic to sexuality in the aggregate. The inexhaustible complexities of sex entails that many perspectives can be commensurably true about sex. Nevertheless, my dialogue with those other positions will invariably turn upon the notion that the Torah has a logic to its ritualization of sex.

      Soapbox begins here:

      I am of the mind that theology will be best propelled forward when theologians share that commitment to the rich truth, diverse in its expressions, that the Scriptures are ritualizing the world for us. But to see what that means, we must inhabit those prescriptions. The commitment is dual, also entailing a gracious view that ancient Hebrews (including Jesus and company) were not Cro-magnons (no offense to Cro-magnons), but faced with savvy the same wrecked humanity we face today.

      I want to suppose that the Scriptures were not ritualizing sex in the abstract mainly because its intelligibility was not at stake—something already intractably broken in Genesis 3. Rather, Scripture’s employment of sex, on the whole, vectors from a very concrete understanding of humanity. That might be too idealistic for some, but it must be considered to be plausible for anyone who wants to do theology with a view of reflecting the content of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.

      Soapbox ends here.