Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics

Article excerpt

Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. By Margaret A. Farley. New York: Continuum, 2006. xiii + 322 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Meeting the anticipation of at least ten years, Margaret Farley has published her book on sexual ethics and just love. It has been well worth the wait: .this book offers both a comprehensive presentation of the voices that have shaped the present state of the question and a constructive proposal that argues that these voices require a consistent and comprehensive account of justice as the foundation for sexual ethics.

Farley structures her argument in four layers. She begins with theories of interpretation, moving from Foucault's history of changing conceptions of sexuality, to feminist critiques of patriarchy and the social construction of gender, to evolutionary histories of change. This allows her to tell the history of sexual ethics using different assumptions regarding the nature of sexuality, power, and gender. Here she provides a concise and comprehensive account of sexual ethics in the West as informed by classical Greece and Rome, Judaism, developments in Christianity, philosophical views, and medical understandings.

A second layer uses cross-cultural understandings of sexual ethics to illumine the diversity in understanding sexuality and sexual ethics in the West. Considering specifically studies of the cultures of the South Pacific islands and of Africa, along with the Hindu Kamasutra and the "sex-positive" tradition of Islam, Farley concludes that there are common concerns "to make sense of sexuality as a positive force in human life that is also potentially destructive." Among those are "concerns for the procreation and rearing of children" such as incest taboos and gendered structures. Also of concern are the means of mediating the tensions between "asceticism and valuations of sexual pleasure, between communal concerns and individual preferences, and between past practices and new circumstances and demands" (pp. 103, 104).

History and cross-cultural studies thus yield three central questions: the nature of embodiment, of gender, and of desire. Farley's third layer of analysis explores each of these as they have come to us in the West. She argues against a dualistic view of the person, and for an incarnational view in which spirit is embodied and the body is "inspirited" such that redemption is not escape from creation but the consummation of creation. She notes that gender matters because sexual identity is constitutive of who we are as persons. However, gender is socially constructed. It cannot be understood narrowly in terms of a binary set of complementary opposites, male and female, expressed in specifically differentiated roles that are most often narrowly and hierarchically understood. …