A question of plausibility

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(from Alphonsian Academy blog)

It is part of the title of the book The Plausibility Problem (Inter-Varsity, Nottingham 2015) by Ed Shaw, published in Italy in 2019 (Edizioni GBU, Chieti) with the title Sexual ethics in the Bible. A question of plausibility. I discovered the book in the context of my work on the question of sexual ethics in the writings of St. Paul. 

The author, Ed Shaw, a Christian, pastor of the Evangelical Anglican Church in Bristol (England), starts from reality, telling the story of seventeen-year-old Peter, a “zealous Christian and enthusiastic member of the youth group of his local church”, and Jane, a forty-year-old divorced woman, an enthusiastic new convert who “became a Christian and plunged into church life”. They are two real people who discover in themselves an attraction to the same sex. Shaw admits, “This book was meant to help” (p. 21). In fact, “this book talks about how to make plausible [… ] the teaching of the Bible that sex is only for marriage between a man and a woman” (p. 131). 

To achieve the goal, the author – moving within the horizon of the concrete question of same-sex attraction – highlights first of all a not indifferent number of false statements (p.  9) present in contemporary thought on sexuality that influence the way of thinking about sexual ethics and to live it for many Christians. In addition, Shaw tries to think about this problem constructively by recalling that “it has often happened that God has used problems and people with similar problems to make his imperfect church more and more conform to the image of his perfect Son” (p. 30). 

It is not so difficult to agree with Ed Shaw’s statement that we have been living in a more sexualizing culture since pre-Christian times (cf. p. 14). Consequently, in a society “obsessed with sex” (p. 108), trust in the biblical teaching on sex and marriage is diminishing, even among Christians (cf. p. 17). For the defence of the truth revealed in the Bible on human anthropology and sexuality and its moral demands, our theologian and pastor invoke the plausibility concept in the reflection he proposed. 

I want to dwell on this term. According to the concise presentation made by the Treccani Encyclopedia, “plausibility” refers to two universes of precise meanings. The first is a logical and argumentative universe where plausible is almost synonymous with rational. The second, more faithful to the term’s etymology, refers to the plan of social processes: plausible is what is worthy of applause, of being appreciated, approved. Plausibility, therefore, expresses a social dynamic and not just a merely logical-intellectual dimension.

Ed Shaw rightly states: “We have a plausibility problem: what the Bible teaches seems unreasonable to many of us today. And so it is rejected (not unreasonably!) everywhere. [… So what can we do? […  We just have to make plausible again what the Bible clearly commands” (p. 21) to embrace the Word of God as an authority (p. 70). 

This indication appears as a simple return to duty, obligation, the present forbidden of biblical teaching about Christian sexuality. But nothing like that! At one point, Shaw notes: “Negative chastity, the kind of chastity that merely states’ you don’t have to do it,” has never been able to persuade the postmodern world” (p. 20). 

It is precisely here that I seem to grasp the value of his courageous and convinced way of proposing the saving truth of God: our identity is defined in the first place not so much on the basis of the psycho-biological factor of one’s sexuality but from the pre-eminence of union with Christ (p. 33). From here, it follows that being potentially born “gay” does not necessarily make it right to embrace a gay lifestyle (pp. 54-58). (the genetic basis of homosexuality Similarly, the joy of sex is not the only way to true intimacy because God’s response to the problem of human loneliness is not only the sexual intimacy of marriage but also the family of the Church (pp. 73-74.108). 

Therefore, it does not seem true that sexual difference is irrelevant, nor that the sexes can be freely interchangeable (p. 84), given that humanity is composed of two different sexes not only for the purpose of the survival and continuity of humankind. In addition to helping us grasp the nature of God’s love for his people (p. 88), this differentiation also responds to the problem of loneliness, allowing human beings to complement each other (p. 86). 

Noteworthy, therefore, is the sociological horizon of the concept of plausibility proposed by Shaw. His book of a pastoral character is not simply a courageous and faithful reminder of the truth about human sexuality as transmitted by the Bible and taught in the community of faith. This, moreover, would already be commendable in the context of people’s growing conviction that “what the Bible asks for is not achievable in today’s world. The book Sexual Ethics in the Bible. A question of Ed Show’s plausibility deserves, in my opinion, more in-depth attention from Catholic theology. In a respectful dialogue, it could complement the perspectives indicated therein, for example, with the sacramental dimension of the reality of Christian marriage.  

In the reflection proposed by Show, it seems to me to personally find an essential value for Christian moral proposal. I see it in knowing how to highlight the role of the witness of life – proper to all those Christians today, who take seriously the likeness of Christ in every area of life – therefore in plausibility, that is, an attempt to “be” a serious and demanding proposal, but at the same time responsive to the Gospel and open to his joy shared with others. 

In fact, I believe that, in order for a truth to be not only reasonable but also socially appealing, it must be, precisely, “plausible” by virtue of a community that embodies it and testifies to its vitally attractive value.

Fr. Krzysztof Bielinski, C.Ss.R.

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