Posts Tagged ‘god’

Masturbation…It’s a Christian Problem

Monday, May 3rd, 2010 by Wolfgang Vondey

Woody Allen once said that masturbation is like having “sex with someone I love.” The statement was made about the same time the Catholic Church restated its views on masturbation in its Declaration on Certain Questions concerning Sexual Ethics (Persona Humana, 1975). Briefly put, one might say that the Church’s teaching directly opposes that of Woody Allen. In a nutshell I would paraphrase the Declaration to say that masturbation is like sex with someone I learn to hate.

I was confronted with the drastic difference between these views at a time when masturbation was discussed as a form of “autoeroticism” or “self-satisfaction” in my high school biology classes. Make no mistake, neither Woody Allen nor the Church were ever discussed. In fact, no moral judgment was made at all. All sexual activity was discussed strictly under the idea of gaining understanding of the functioning of the human body. Surprisingly, the entire project addressed only the physical organs. At no time did we talk about the operation of the human mind, the imagination, love, hate, or desire. Don’t even think about bringing God into the discussion.

Allen was right when he brought love into the discussion of sexual activities. So did the Catholic Church. Love, correctly understood, is the proper context for all sexual activity even though, as C. S. Lewis reminds us in The Four Loves, sexual experience can occur without love. In the case of masturbation, Allen’s statement exhibits a particular kind of love that is perhaps best characterized as make-believe. It is shaped by two misconceptions: first, that love of self is an acceptable context for sex, and second, that sex is a sufficient manifestation of love. I say “sufficient” here, because sex, in the right context, is a manifestation of love, but it is not a complete manifestation. Sex alone always remains an incomplete manifestation of love. Thus, just as problematic as Allen’s statement is the popular euphemism for sex as “making love.” The question of masturbation finds its most potent implications in our understanding of love and its proper context.

In the history of Christian thought, Augustine offers a classic description of love when he states that love is not love unless you love someone (On the Trinity, VIII, 12). The point being: someone other than yourself! Love of oneself is seen as imperfect and ultimately unacceptable as an image for God. God, who is love (1 John 4:8), cannot exist only in his love for himself. Augustine here paints a picture of love as relational and as requiring a relationship with someone other than ourselves. In this sense, masturbation is a celebration of one’s own love of self. One is satisfied with oneself and content with one’s own love. For a Christian, nothing could be further from the truth.

The biblical Scriptures show that it is important to love yourself, since we are to love others in the same manner we love ourselves (see Lev 19:18 and its frequent use in the New Testament). Yet, this love is not a simple one-on-one relationship. the love of a Christian is not a simple line from one person to the other. Rather, it is always a triangular desire. It is only in the fact that God is love that human beings can also understand and direct their own love for themselves and for others. We love because God first loved us. For Christians, therefore, masturbation is fundamentally a theological concern about the right ordering of desire.

Masturbation presents the Christian with a theological dilemma: how to reconcile love of self and love of God in the sexual activity of the human person. One alternative is to shut God out of the picture. As I have stated previously, we keep God out of the bedroom. Theology does not engage sexuality. The other alternative is to excuse our actions in one form or another (“God does not care” or “This does not affect my salvation”). In any case, we suppress God. More precisely, we suppress our love for God. And by the same token, we suppress our love for ourselves and for others. The Catholic Declaration emphasized this point when it rejected psychological and sociological factors as the sole explanatory powers for accepting or rejecting masturbation. The problems of masturbation as a habitual practice lie deeper. Christians who continually practice masturbation find themselves in the way of their own love for God and others. Masturbation becomes a form of self-gratification when no such gratification seems warranted. Studies show that the frequent response to this insight is guilt and often the resolve to discontinue one’s practice. As it has become habitual, however, many Christians find themselves caught in a loop between masturbation, guilt, and resolve. In this loop they learn to love themselves less and less. Masturbation becomes sex with someone we hate.

How do we respond to this problem? It is precarious to discuss this aspect, since there seem to be only two sides in the issue: those who practice masturbation and those who do not, and few want to locate themselves squarely on the first side. If recent studies are correct, then masturbation continues to be the most prevalent form of sex. Period. If I am correct that masturbation is ultimately a theological problem, then we are justified in saying that masturbation is one of the most significant theological problems of our time. Were do we start to find a solution? Who should be engaged in the process? What does it take to overcome the problem? And what exactly do we see as the end result?

Pornography … the Distortion of the Divine Image

Monday, April 26th, 2010 by Wolfgang Vondey

Few topics are as difficult to discuss in Christian circles as pornography. We may find an occasional sermon about the human body and perhaps a tract on sexuality in the church pews. But can you recall a sermon, a Sunday School lesson, college class discussion, or just your everyday conversation with other Christians to broach the subject of pornography? The reasons are all too obvious. Pornography is the silent addiction that holds many Christians to the unwanted reality of their carnal nature. We do not bring up the subject in conversation because we fear that the other might be involved in it or might think that we are. And perhaps both of those assumptions are true.

Pornography is an addiction. And as all addictions, it seeks to destroy us. Once the hidden secret of those who purchased the magazines tucked away in certain areas of book stores and newspaper stands, pornography is now available openly to everyone. We expose our toddlers to the bikini girls in the check-out lines, sex magazines have moved next to home and garden publications, invitations to pornographic sites clutter our junk email, and a simple click on the Internet takes our teenagers to the pages that know no secret. Yet even in this scenario, the reality of the pornographic addiction is passed on to others. Yes, indeed, our children and spouses are at risk. But let’s change the subject more clearly. Let’s stop pretending that pornography is like a rare disease that strikes only certain people, certain age groups, a certain cultural demographic, and a certain gender. Pornography is available to everyone. Everyone is exposed. We all are. You are. I am. We have made the means to become addicted accessible to apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. And as Christians, we have surprisingly little to say about it.

I have noted in an earlier post that the absence of thought about God in the sex life of Christians is symptomatic of the problem that we isolate God to only certain parts of our lives. Pornography is no exception. The world of glamour (and especially the not so glamorous depictions) leave no room for the glory of God. Don’t get me wrong, the human body is created by God and as such is beautiful in all its forms. The sharing of our nakedness in the marital relationship can be a means to reflect the glory and presence of God as it was shared by Adam and Eve in their unfallen condition. But the Fall immediately led to a distortion of the image of God in the other. Aware of each others nakedness, they began to cover their bodies. In a manner of speaking, the opening of their eyes (Gen. 3:7) is the biblical way of speaking about pornography. What is implied here is that their eyes should have been closed. Closed, at least, to the temptation of visual pleasures offered by the serpent. Instead, their eyes should have been open to the glory of God, the beauty, and splendor of God’s presence. But pornography had distorted the image of God.  The same distortion of the image of God in the lives of many Christians is real and dramatic. It is a sign that God has been left outside of the technological revolution, the success and attraction of the new (and old) media. As we switch on the power of our televisions, computers, monitors, cell phones, and electronic book readers, we turn off our thoughts about God.

Addiction is not easily broken. Those who are addicted often cannot free themselves. Those who are not addicted do not know how to engage the addicted person. More importantly, both sides often do not know why they should engage each other in the first place. We fail to see the theological consequences of pornography. What is exposed in graphic detail is not only the exploited body of the human being–it is the image of God (in us and the other). Our theology books offer no help here, no sermons admonish, no Sunday school lesson teach. What’s worse, many Christians simply condemn the activity. Those who have become aware of their own addiction are often left with overwhelming guilt. In the aftermath, they accuse themselves to have lost all power of the Christian life. In the midst of the act, the choice between turning off the power button and switching on God’s presence appears overwhelmingly difficult. And yet, it is there where we have to open our eyes to God’s presence: in the midst of our struggles, in the maelstrom of our addictions, God is not absent! The very thought of God in that situation is in fact a reflection of God’s longing for us. Theology needs to invade these areas of discussions, the problems, hardships, and addictions of the human life. We need to bring God into our most private, most personal, most intimate moments. What we will discover is that God is already there!

Can you imagine what Christians would have to say about pornography? About sexuality? About the physical reality of the human life? About the beauty of God and the reflection of the divine image in the human body? All of those questions are the subject matter of Christian theology. Why do we hesitate?

Sex…and Why We Keep God out of the Bedroom

Monday, April 19th, 2010 by Wolfgang Vondey

There is one place most of us stop thinking about God: the bedroom. No, I do not mean when we sleep. I mean when we have sex. For most of us, God stops at the door to the bedroom. In the most intimate moment between husband and wife, God is polite enough to wait outside. God is not a voyeur, no Peeping Tom–or Peeping Jesus, if you will. God obtains no sexual gratification by observing others surreptitiously. But does God’s participation in our lives exclude our sexuality? Does God gain no satisfaction from our engagement in the most intimate form of interpersonal relationships? For God, is sex only a means of procreation? The answer, I think is that we envision God fundamentally as a non-sexual being. As a result, we see sex as an element of the Christian life that does not engage the existence of God.

Of course, sexuality is a precarious topic, even on a blog (and particularly when the blog is an official blog like this one). We are comfortable discussing politics, economics, and popular culture, but there is a barrier when it comes to sex. While we should respect this barrier when it is the result of a particular cultural formation and tradition, there is no reason to shun the topic from theology, in principle. In fact, the absence of questions about sex in theology books, sermons, seminaries, and classrooms is symptomatic of a much larger problem: relegating our thoughts about God to only certain areas of the Christian life. We engage God when we have the time and place and occasion to do so. What we forget to ask is when God desires to engage us.

God desires to engage us at all times. God is never tied up, never tired, never ashamed. We, on the other hand, live a constant battle with the most immediate result of original sin: shame–the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something we consider dishonorable, improper, or ignominious. Original shame is the reaction Adam and Eve show with regard to each other’s nakedness. But more importantly, it is seen in their desire to hide from God.

Even as Christians, we often continue to live out the consequences of original shame. We may attribute to God the creation of a child, even the moment of conception, the ability of the sperm to fertilize the egg. But often, these things are spiritualized or seen from a clinical perspective. We hesitate to find God in the sex itself, the way husband and wife honor and engage each other, the sexual intercourse, and the orgasm. All these things are too … well, what are they? Too graphic for us to consider as Christians? Too offensive? Too untheological? Too human? Too private? Too personal?

These questions are compounded when it comes to sexual activity outside the biblical paradigm of marital relations. Sexual immorality, homosexuality, and masturbation are just some examples where we would rather not consider the presence of God. Overeating, extreme dieting, hurtful exercising, visual over-stimulation, and many other activities that engage the physical body often show a similar avoidance of God. The question is not whether God condemns such activities but to what extent God is present in them. We can answer this question only if we first of all reflect on it, not as outsiders or in hindsight, but while we are pursuing these activities. We may discover that God is deeply interested in engaging us on these most intimate levels of life, because these acts fundamentally engage us with our own selves. In the sexual act we are the most vulnerable. Sex engages us as a whole person, body, soul, and spirit, and it is this engagement that shame is trying to hide from us. As a result, we dichotomize God’s engagement also in other areas of human existence, especially when those areas include any activity of the physical human body. God has become a God of soul and spirit only, and to most of us that is sufficient enough to say that we have made God the Lord over the whole of our lives.

The solution to this problem is, of course, to allow God into the bedroom. But let me suggest that that is the end result; it does not suggest a way to get there. What we need first is an extension of theology to all areas of Christian living. We need to take our doctrines of God, the Trinity, Christology, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the like, and celebrate them at all moments and events of human existence. Theology is not a particular activity we engage in only at certain times. All of Christian life is theology.

… To be continued