The apostle Paul offers some advice in 1 Cor. 10:23-33 on discerning the good or evil in the context of eating meat bought in the market place. The options are either that no such meat should be eaten, since it may have been from a sacrifice made to idols, or that all meat can be eaten, since the manner of its use is of no significance. In response, Paul provides an important answer: meat itself is neither good not bad; what matters is the manner in which we engage it in relation to our neighbor! “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (v. 31). In using this analogy, I am deliberately reducing human sexuality to the idea of the flesh—-at least for a moment. As far as our bodies are concerned, no part of our flesh is bad. We are at liberty to have sex as long as it is for the glory of God. Read the rest of this entry »
Posts Tagged ‘sex’
Where do we start? In light of my previous posts on the subject of sexuality, and given my emphasis throughout that Christians keep God out of the bedroom, it seems to me that the correct starting point is the location of sexuality in the context of the human relationship with God. In other words, as long as Christians discuss the issue without theological concerns, there is little distinction between the Christian and the non-Christian debate. My concern here is what a Christian debate would look like.
In principle, homosexuality is a term that refers to one thing only: the sexual act with a person of the same gender. The euphemistic terms “gay” or “lesbian” do not distract from the core of the issue. The ultimate concern is not with love, civil union, human rights, social acceptability, or genetic dispositions, although any of these issue have come to impact the debate. The ultimate concern underlying all discussions on homosexuality is the sexual component. Homosexuality is sex with a person of the same gender.
The Christian contribution to this discussion should engage the precise issue of sexuality in light of its involvement of God. The consequences of the homosexuality debate add great urgency to the need to bring God back into the bedroom. In some way, my previous posts have illuminated some of the aspect of this path.
- The debate on homosexuality cannot shy away from a debate that includes God. As Christians, the first question is how homosexuality engages God’s presence, involvement, and intentions for our lives. As with all actions, the sexual act should direct us toward God. A debate about homosexuality that avoids the fact that this debate is ultimately about sex, and from a Christian perspective therefore about sex and God, such a debate exacerbates the gap between God and the bedroom.
- The debate on homosexuality has become pornographic. Regardless of which language we use and what concerns we add to the debate, homosexuality confronts us with the sexual act between persons of the same gender. Open and loud-mouthed advocacy of gay and lesbian rights as well as the sometimes equally harsh reactions of the so-called “straight” alliance are ultimately a public depiction of the sexual act. The growing popularity and publicity of ”coming out” is a pornographic act that confronts the public with the graphic reality of the homosexual behavior. There is a place for this kind of discussion, but it does not belong in front of the eyes and ears of children and teenagers or anyone who cannot yet responsibly deal with their own sexuality. A pornographic debate about homosexuality continues to separate sex from the rest of the human life and the human relationship with God.
- Like masturbation, homosexuality is in some way directed toward one’s own sexuality, albeit represented in the other. Theologically, this is a complicated point, since homosexual behavior involves more than one person. Yet, in the sexual engagement of the other, and I am only speaking about the sexual act, one’s interaction ultimately reflects back on oneself. The sexual act between two persons of the same gender has no means to escape the gender boundaries of that sex. Homosexuality is the engagement of another person on the basis of one’s own sexuality. A debate about homosexuality, which avoids the significance of a sexual act that cannot transcend one’s own sexuality avoids the foundational questions of the function, purpose, and goal of the human body and its male and female forms.
- Until homosexual marriage was legalized in some locations, all homosexual behavior was extra-marital sex. In this sense, it is a separation of sex from marriage, thereby separating sex from its purpose. The legalization of homosexual marriage does not change the consequences of engaging in sexual behavior that excludes the physical and spiritual union of husband and wife, the importance and the joy of the consummation of the physical and spiritual union in the heterosexual sexual act, the possibility of the procreation of another human being as a result of the openness and commitment of husband and wife to become father and mother. A debate about homosexuality that avoids the question of marriage as it relates to sex isolates the reality of marriage as an abstract idea from the reality of marriage as the purpose of sex between two spouses of different gender.
These considerations are directed primarily at the nature of a Christian debate. How do we carry out such a debate in a manner that preserves human dignity? How do we avoid further separation? How do we educate Christians on both sides of the debate? How do we integrate a holistic image of sex into a world that separates sex from the life of the mind, the soul, and God? How do we bring God into the debate without bringing in the idea of judgment and condemnation but preserving the integrity of the biblical words on sexuality? All these and more remain unanswered questions. But the first step can be taken by asking them!
As I have outlined in previous posts, the importance of Christian discourse about sex is that we bring God into the debate. Extra-marital sex is no exception. Sex outside of marriage is sex for the sake of sex. Its primary scope is physical, its duration temporary, its goal the fulfillment of one’s own desires. Extra-marital sex distorts the image of marriage. Its widespread practice has undermined the public idea of marriage to the extent that one might think marriage had nothing to do with sex. Stand-up comedy portrays marriage as the problem of sex. The laughter of the audience betrays that many people find truth in that caricature. Unwittingly the comedy act betrays that everyone is in on the joke; it is confirmed by their own experiences. Marriage is not sex, but it has everything to do with sex. In fact, sex within marriage is marriage’s greatest ally.
Sex outside of marriage separates the idea and the act of sex from the idea and practice of marriage. Reduced to a self-rewarding, physical act, it is discovered that sex works—without marriage. The powerful idea that sustains sex outside of marriage is the actual lack of any idea of marriage. Pre-marital sex, often seen as a testing ground for the “real” life of marriage, actually becomes a counter-practice that contradicts marriage. Extra-marital affairs, sometimes seen as an escape from married life, are more than that: they destroy marriage. More precisely, sex outside of marriage destroys the purpose of sex.
As Christians, we have to find the purpose of sex in the human relationship with God. Even in Christian families, sex is often reduced to the human spouses. The good or the bad of married sex are directly related to the good or the bad of husband and wife. What is missing in many Christian bedrooms is an understanding of marriage that is not consumed by the human persons. Augustine’s classical theory of love may again be helpful here: “Now love means someone loving and something loved with love. There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love” (On the Trinity, VIII, 14). We may adapt this idea and speak of three things in marriage: husband, wife, and marriage itself. It is the latter that marks the purpose of husband and wife. All things are directed not only toward the spouses but towards the marriage. To put it bluntly, marriage is the purpose of sex.
This definition of the purpose of sex requires a thorough dealing with the Christian image of marriage. A simplistic idea of marriage as an end in itself must be avoided. A biblical image of marriage includes the union of husband and wife, physically and spiritually; it includes a covenantal relationship between the spouses ordained by God. It includes the importance of intimacy and the joy of the consummation of the physical and spiritual union in the sexual act, not to mention the possibility of the procreation of another human being as a result of the openness and commitment of husband and wife to become father and mother. In short, marriage involves a commitment to the other person because of and beyond the reality of sex. Put differently, sex is a significant part of marriage but it does not exhaust marriage. Marriage is everything that sex cannot be. Marriage is what allows us to bring God into the bedroom.
In Augustine’s view, love is the Holy Spirit. It is a gift of God in which God gives of himself. The biblical view of marital love shows clearly that it is intimately connected with sex. And yet, we hesitate to call sex a gift from God. More importantly, it is not a gift that God simply left on our doorsteps, anonymously. In the gift, God is still present. It is forever God’s gift. The separation of love and sex in extra-marital behavior is itself an act of separation, and it carries this separation into marriage. Whether due to shame, guilt, ignorance, or willful repression, the married couples who engage(d) in extra-marital sex are separating themselves from God and from each other.
What do we have to say about this in our churches and academies? What do we say to the large group of singles? How do we bring healing and restoration to marriages that suffer as a result of extra-marital sex? How do we bring God back into the bedroom?
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 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?
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