Un/familiar Theology: Reconceiving Sex, Reproduction and Generativity

My newest book, Un/familiar Theology: Reconceiving Sex, Reproduction and Generativity, is published this week by Bloomsbury T&T Clark.

Here's an excerpt from the Introduction:

This book is not about the ethics of reproductive interventions – such as IVF, ICSI and embryo screening – or related technologies for aiding conception. Rather, it is about the ways in which Christian theological conceptions of institutions such as marriage, family, parenting and reproduction have changed and are changing, and about what resources exist within and beyond the tradition to understand these changes not as a raging tide to be turned back, but as in continuity with goods deeply embedded in the collection of theologies concerned with the Christian faith. I will be arguing that how communities order themselves, and (in particular) how Christians speak about and out of institutions such as marriage, family and parenting, may endorse and promote – or otherwise compromise and elide – the full humanity and flourishing of all involved, and may give more or less acknowledgement of the diversity within the historical and contemporary traditions. I will also argue that our changing institutions are in dynamic relationship with us: we shape them as they shape us, such that they are not to be artificially fixed in a particular manifestation, but recognized as living.
In this book, I’ll attempt to show that forms of marriage and family understood as non-traditional – or somehow a departure from those the tradition has tended to endorse – may stand as signs of the hope of the possibility of change. I will show that generativity is about far more than biology, and that the transmission of values and culture, and the creation of legacies that transcend ourselves, does not exist only in those who survive us and share our genes.

Later, I explain,

Generativity and generation ... have their origins in genesis, the first origin of all. The Greek γένεσις, source or creation, is the root of γίγνεσθαι, to come into being, to be born. From here, we get the Greek γένημα, fruit or offspring, and γεννάω, the verb of begetting or bringing forth. So, in English, to be generative is to cause, to create, to produce; to engender is to bring about or bring into existence, which may or may not manifest in actual literal offspring or progeny. To be degenerate, however, does not imply a failure to generate; the root there is, rather, genre or genus, so degeneracy is the loss of qualities proper to one’s kind – or having deviated from the bounds of one’s genre. Generosity has this same history: to be generous is, in Middle French, to be of good spirit or good stock, that is, of good genus. Genre or genus is what levels us all. It is what says we are of a kind; that we are all in it together. Kindness, being of a kind, is also kin-ness, and Janet Martin Soskice reminds us that this kin-ness and kindness are at the heart of the interrelationships of the Triune God as frequently symbolized with human familial language such as Father and Son. As such, she notes, God in Christ is human kin, and human beings are veritably Christ’s mother and brothers (Mt. 12.48). The Latin genus (race, stock, kind) is cognate with Greek γένος, and closely similar to the Sanskrit gana (which implies flock, tribe, class, number, multitude or series) and the Persian jins (again: kind, stock, sort, mode, type – and commonly used in present-day Iran to mean sex or gender). But being of a kind might also be read, negatively, as lacking individuality: it is, from this same root, generic. (There is nothing complimentary about the term ‘genre fiction’ as applied to murder mysteries and hospital romances: such works are often dismissed as interchangeable, lacking in any character beyond the conventions of the subcategory and repeating tired old tropes.) Here I will be holding that, while human beings and their creations may be of a common kind, they are far from generic. Each human is a distinctive, non-interchangeable locus of being, and combines their biological, social and cultural history with something novel, something new. No person is entirely distinct from their background, but nor is any person entirely a product of it. So while accounts of what it is to be human – including theological anthropologies – may speak in general rules (i.e. rules applicable to every individual instance of the genus or genre), and trace genealogies (stories of descent), they will also transcend them. Humans push the bounds of our genres; we resist genericism. We push back at the limits within which we seem to find ourselves, and create new imaginaries which more fully acknowledge the interactive nature of our relationships with the world (and the divine). So while there will remain things that are true about all humans, it is also true that human worlds are malleable. We shape our societies and our institutions, and, in so doing, we shape ourselves. This is significant because, I will argue, it means that we are both ‘parents’ and ‘children’ of our social institutions. We are born of them and influenced by them, but we also shape their transmission and continuation.