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One of the most neglected recent books on sexual difference is also one of the most important. Christopher C. Roberts’ 2007 book, Creation and Covenant, is a remarkably comprehensive and detailed theological investigation of the topic. By giving us a narrative arc that stretches from the earliest Church Fathers to Pope John Paul II and beyond, Roberts considers not only the ways in which these figures disagree with one another but how they provide resources for understanding sexual difference today.

Roberts does not focus on the issue of gay marriage, but not because he wants to avoid controversy. Even Christians who defend gay marriage have to give an account of why God created humans male and female. We are created with gendered sexuality before we covenant together to become one. For Roberts, that makes sexual difference a more foundational moral topic than marriage.

Many of the earliest Church Fathers did not elaborate on the theological significance of sexual difference because they thought it could or should be transcended “en route to an angelical existence.” Still, they did not treat this difference as a trivial or indifferent manner. Augustine, unsurprisingly, becomes the pivotal figure in this story, because he integrates the created goodness of sexual difference into salvation history. Even celibates, he argues, anticipate an eschaton where sexual difference will persist without complicating or distorting relations between men and women. Marriage and continence are parallel paths to holiness for Augustine, because sexual difference within marriage requires couples to distinguish between love and lust.

Roberts demonstrates how Bernard of Clairvaux, building on Augustine’s thought, shows that sexual difference in marriage provides allegorical testimony to God’s love for us. From there, he gives us a (perhaps too brief) treatment of Aquinas, with the emphasis on his connection of procreation to the common good of the species. Then Roberts considers Protestant takes on sexual difference and marriage: Luther thinks that sexual difference is so definitive for humanity that it is practically impossible for a man and woman to live rightly without living as husband and wife, while Calvin also suspects celibates of overestimating their ability to tame their own concupiscence. Nonetheless, marriage, for the reformers, is not just a matter of managing erotic attraction. It is a means of expressing gratitude for creation and thus acknowledging God’s goodness. As a way of obeying and thanking God, marriage is most fundamentally an ecclesiological act.

In an intriguing theological move, Roberts groups together Karl Barth and Pope John Paul II due to their similar attempts to ground sexual difference in revelation. Barth looks to the incarnation as a reminder that “our created bodily forms are not meaningless or indifferent.” Humans encounter each other through gender, which is a kind of analogy of and preparation for the way we encounter the divine.

Pope John Paul II also identifies sexual difference with a call to be for another and thus a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality. Rather than appealing to Christ, however, he shows how the uniqueness of female experience is confirmed by the person of Mary. Roberts is suspicious of any appeal to subjective human experience in constructing a theology of gender, but John Paul II grounds his interpretation of femininity in the biblical narrative, not contemporary psychological speculation.

Near the end of the book, Roberts criticizes three theologians whose views legitimatize gay marriage: Graham Ward, Eugene Rogers, and David Matzko McCarthy. Ward’s postmodern Barthianism makes biology vanish altogether. Rogers’ reduction of procreation to a species good that not every union needs to pursue leaves marriage without any criteria other than desire. McCarthy’s emphasis on the social function of marriage strips it of its allegorical depth. Roberts also suspects that some theologians prize marriage too highly and thus make those who deny its benefits to gay couples seem cruel, while other theologians minimize its sanctity and thus make it seem peevish to limit it to opposite-sex couples.

That sexual difference is a created good, a gift that serves multiple religious needs, does not necessarily mean that all same-sex relations have no theological rationale. Nevertheless, Roberts’ argument puts the burden on the theological defenders of same-sex marriage to articulate how a gay marital bond can still do justice to God’s gift of sexual difference. Here is the thought his book leaves us with: “To be what we are, we must find ways of life that thank God for having made us male and female.” Can gay marriage do that?

In the end, what we understand from Roberts is that sexual difference is a vocation, not an accident of biology. It is a problem for the modern, secular mind because it is a physical constraint, limiting the way the shared form of humanity creates a common experience. For Roberts, as for all Christians, this constraint is genuine; which is to say, it is productive of meaning.

Put differently, gender is a task—or we could say that gender makes sexual desire a task. The task of sexual desire is an adventure in self-understanding, and like all adventures, it works only if there are real limits to what we are capable of accomplishing as well as real mystery about the ultimate destination of our voyage. The question for gay marriage proponents is whether these benefits of limitation and mystery bestowed by sexual difference can be reduplicated by same-sex desire.

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author of Jesus Christ, Eternal God and, forthcoming, Mormon Christianity. His book on Bob Dylan is Dylan Redeemed. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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