Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Remembering James B. Nelson, 1930-2015

I was saddened to hear today of the October 15 death of scholar, teacher, lecturer, and activist the Rev. James B. Nelson (left). He was 85.

A statement on the United Church of Christ website contains an insightful quote from the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, UCC General Minister and President. "[James] knew that human sexuality had to do with more than just genital sex," says Dorhauer. "He helped us understand that sexual expression and intimacy were gifts of the sacred. He was ahead of his time, and endured much abuse and vitriol from those whose sexual ethics were more Victorian. I came to deeply appreciate his courage in the struggle, and his friendship on the journey."

In honor of James and his groundbreaking work – work that many Catholics have benefited from, myself included, I share this evening the following excerpt from his influential 1978 book Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology. According to the LGBT Religious Archives Network, Embodiment "provoked new Christian attitudes and approaches to human sexuality," including homosexuality.

For all of its continuity with animal sexuality, human sexuality is different. . . . As persons our sexuality means the possibility of expressing and sharing a total personal relationship in love, a relationship which contributes immeasurably toward our intended destiny. Hence, abnormality or deviance should not be defined statistically, but rather in reference to the norm of humanity in Jesus Christ. Gay persons desire and need deep and lasting relationships just as do heterosexuals, and appropriate genital expression should be denied to neither.

Thus the ethical question [that many contemporary theologians are posing] is this: what sexual behavior will serve and enhance, rather than inhibit, damage, or destroy the fuller realization of our divinely-intended humanity? The answer is sexual behavior in accord with an ethics of love. This means commitment and trust, tenderness, respect for the other, and the desire for ongoing and responsible communion with the other. On the negative side, an ethics of love mandates against selfish sexual expression, cruelty, impersonal sex, obsession with sex, and against actions done without willingness to take responsibility for the consequences. Such an ethics always asks about the meanings of acts in their total context – in the relationship itself, in society, and in regard to God's intended direction for human life. Such an ethics of sexual love is equally appropriate to heterosexual and gay Christians. There is no double standard.

– Rev. James B. Nelson
Excerpted from Embodiment:
An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology
pp. 198-199

Related Off-site Links:
James Nelson, Groundbreaking Ethics and Sexuality Scholar, Dies at 85The Christian Century (October 21, 2015).
United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities Mourns the Passing of James B. Nelson – October 2015.

See also the previous The Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality – James B. Nelson
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light

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