DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sex

If there is a ready-made stumbling block to ordinary people entering into and enlivening the life of the worldwide Church it is the latter's general attitude towards, and teaching about, the subject of sex.

Nothing, apart from staying alive, grips the human psyche with greater force that the sexual act. From puberty to old age it invades the consciousness of us all. It is a blessing and a curse, a joy and a sorrow, a pleasure and a pain. To be substantially dysfunctional in this aspect of life is to suffer in ways little understood by the functional majority.

The centrality of sex in our lives accounts for the attention given the subject by everyone. Many laypeople suppose that there is an orderly, well thought out, body of Christian teaching about sex. It has, they think, been derived from Jesus himself and from the conclusions of those who knew him and who were the founders of the Church.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It turns out that traditional Christian teaching about sex has been deeply influenced, if not largely determined, by influences far removed from Jesus and the early Church. It is a hodge-podge of directives and folklore, some plainly sick and some containing a kernel of wisdom and practical guidance.

One of two major tributaries feeding the river of Christian doctrine flows from the Hebrew faith and culture. Jewish social rules required that every healthy male should procreate. There was immense pressure to do so, in common with almost all ancient (and mainly tribal) societies.

It can be difficult for us to fully understand this pressure today. It appears to have derived from at least two factors:

  1.  In modern times - at least since the 19th century in the West, and increasingly elsewhere - a government will be concerned if the annual death rate of young children exceeds 20 in every thousand births. An educated guess is that in ancient times, the rate was more like between 500 or more per thousand births. That is, a woman could expect no more than half or less of her offspring to survive into adulthood.

  2. War was a constant fact of life for the ordinary man before modern times. The loser in conflict could expect short shrift and male mortality could be high. There were times when men were in short supply. If a social group wished to survive as a unit, its males had to be good procreators.

It's not surprising therefore that the Jewish historian Josephus claimed that Jewish law allowed sexual intercourse only for procreation - a teaching maintained until this day by the Roman Catholic Church. Craig Keener writes that, according to the Jewish philosopher Philo,

... a man who knowingly marries a woman who cannot bear children is an enemy of God and nature and acts likes an impassioned animal [1]

which may indicate that some men would rather have done just that rather than venture into a marriage with children. At any rate, many Jewish rabbis required husbands to divorce a barren wife after a 10-year trial period - a religious edict which would raise storms of protest today in most cultures.

The other major tributary flowing into today's Christian teaching issued out of the Greek and Roman cultures. As with the Hebrew culture, pressures were placed on men to marry and bear children. According to J Ford,

Roman laws discouraged celibacy, placed penalties on bachelors and rewarded women who gave birth to three or more children. [2]

Despite social incentives, both Greek and Roman men accepted what we today call homosexuality as common practice. There were debates about whether cross-gender or same-gender sexual love was superior. Alongside that was the frequent holding of a concubine as well as a wife. The sexual exploitation of slave concubines was considered shameful by some, but practiced by many.

Enter the early Christians. There is strong evidence that two aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus of strongly influenced their attitude towards sex:

  • Jesus had supported the Hebrew rule of monogamy. Unlike the Jewish rabbis, however, he came out against divorce. Sex was therefore with one partner for life - since, amongst other considerations, it usually resulted in the birth of children.

  • Jesus had lived out the principle of mutual acceptance. He refused to exclude anyone from his life. By implication, this meant that gender, religion and social position were - at least in the ideal - no longer grounds for discrimination. Women, non-Hebrews and slaves were no longer beyond the pale. By implication, therefore, sex was now to be regulated by Christian love (agape) rather than desire, social convention or political and social advancement.

Within a few centuries of the death of Jesus, however, the Christian position about sex had changed radically. Official Church teachings had moved a long way away from the early years.

Jerome (345-420) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430) may appear extreme examples of Christian attitudes of the time. In fact, they represent a strong strain of official teaching about sex which has persisted to this day. (Though it must be said that the full, more complex, reality of that teaching can't be presented here.)

According to them and many others, we consist of two parts. The one is rational and spiritual, potentially pure and holy. The other is physical, the source of passion and desire. Unless the latter is tamed, it will distort and corrupt our eternal spiritual beings. In  his Phaedo, Plato (who was hugely influential in Greek and Roman thought) had complained that the body

... fills us up with lusts and desires, with fears and fantasies of every kind and with all sorts of trash with the result that we can't think properly.

A popular image, used since the time of the famous Greek poet Pindar (518-438 BC), suggested that a winning athlete achieves godlike status. Paul uses this image in 1 Corinthians 9.24. There he likens the worthy Christian life to training for the games - though now for victor's wreath of bay leaves which will never wither. In short, keeping bodily desires on a very short leash makes for a smoother path to heaven.

By the time of Jerome, this ascetic strain had become dominant - so much so that he argued that the main virtue of marriage was its capacity to produce more virgins. Paula, his companion religious, went so far as to tell her fellow-nuns that "a clean body and clean clothes betoken a dirty mind". And the holy Augustine proposed that sex was the mechanism by which Eve's primordial sin is passed from generation to generation.

So within three short centuries sex in the Christian mind had become associated with sin and corrupting desire. It followed that those who lived without sex - ascetics in the desert and monks and nuns in their monasteries - were to be regarded as intrinsically holier than ordinary Christians. The latter perforce trod warily through the spiritually hazardous swamps of sexual passion.

The Christian archetype of sexual control was and to many still is the desert ascetic Antony. His biographer wrote that Antony

... possessed in a very high degree apatheia - that is, perfect self-control, freedom from passion - the ideal of every monk and ascetic striving for perfection. Christ, who was free from every emotional weakness and fault, was his model. [3]

And if Jesus was free of sexual tides, argued the Church's scholars, then so must have his mother been since she was (as the Bible states) a virgin mother who preserved her virginity even through the process of birth.

But if the Mother of God was eventually accorded assumption direct into heaven, other women were often neither so fortunate nor so honoured. For if virginity is prized then the sexually active, childbearing woman was transformed into a temptress. The Christian Montanist author Tertullian took females to task:

Do you not realise that Eve is you? ... The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world ... You are the Devil's gateway ... you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the Devil could not prevail by force ... [3]

If Jesus was a normal Jewish lad he could easily have been married - but any such suggestion is inevitably greeted with dismay by those who cannot countenance the possibility that Jesus, the pure in spirit, could ever have had sex with a daughter of Eve. When Bishop John Spong advanced this possibility more than a decade ago he discovered that

... the deepest resistance to such a suggestion ... comes from those whose image of a woman is so negative that they cannot imagine that a divine Christ would ever associate intimately with a polluting woman. [4]

Having said all this, however, it's critically important to recognise that these older ideas of sex and women are not necessarily wrong in any absolute sense. If some reject them today, it is because their perspectives on sex, procreation and women have changed. Even so, in many parts of the world similar ideas persist - and they do so frequently with the consent and support of women themselves.

Despite the above, all through the millennia a clear current of teaching and practice has continued to flow, one which praises womanhood for what she truly is. 

This current accepts sex as good in itself, to be enjoyed and celebrated by all. It refuses to banish those for whom sex is other than a male-female act, while at the same time affirming the goodness of what is generally called normal. Sex is taken as a blessed means of co-operating in God's clear intention to perpetuate the human race as a part of the great natural system we call Planet Earth.

The question arises: What are we to make today of the crowded, jumbled, superstitious traditional framework from which Christians are asked to form and frame their participation in (or abstinence from) sexual activity? Is it possible to formulate a viable body of teaching about sexuality?

As author Tony Windross remarks, 

Sex is not a subject much discussed in Christian circles in anything other than a negative sense. It tends to raise its head only in connection with "problems" ... Many Christians ... see sex as something rather embarrassing, not very nice really ... [5]

It seems that nothing much positive will evolve about sex in the Church unless ever greater numbers of Christians bring it out from the shadows and into the open as a matter vital to the Christian way of life. The erotic needs to be celebrated in balance with the process of making babies.

And unless this debate relates to real life in a real world, the outcome is likely to perpetuate a current lack of joined-up thinking. Is sex any less important to us than, say, eating? If not, why do we hide it away in the closet? Why the prudery and double standards of public life in which murder and violence are aired freely and the joys of sex censored as smutty?

Casting off the dead hand of sexual tradition in the Church is not by itself enough. New focal points need discovering and developing. For example:

  1. What happens if the focus is upon Jesus as a man who lived as do we all, who had sexual drive as do we all? Why should it not be normal and good to grant him sexual experience, if not marriage?

    It may be that if we examine the Jesus of history we will find someone who celebrated all aspects of life and refused to exclude others from fellowship with him because of their sexual behaviours.

    The Jesus of the Church has been buried alive by millennia of false accretions. This fantastic myth can't be allowed to rule humanity's sexuality except where it matches or supplements the historical Jesus.

  2. Jesus did not pronounce on the ethics and morals of sexuality as such. At best, his words and actions prompt certain implicit responses from us. Official Christianity seldom, if ever, draws out a critical implication of this for its doctrines - namely, that we are all bound to work most of it out for ourselves.

    To put this another way: The sociology of sexual behaviour may no longer be discounted as a so-called secular discipline. No: its methods, limitations and successes are vital for a proper Christian approach to sexuality. Provided its precepts are congruent with the life of Jesus, its findings are just as binding upon Christians as is any papal pronouncement. 

    If, for example, we discover that having more than two children condemns a society to long-term misery, then we may have to face up to the need for determined population control. This kind of choice may already be upon us as the planet's population moves towards the 7 billion mark in the second decade of the 21st century. The church's tradition is unlikely of itself to yield viable answers to this sort of problem.

  3. Similarly, the findings of the physical sciences will have to form part of a viable Christian response to life. Whether the official Church likes it or not, the Platonic model no longer gives us a satisfactory framework to sexuality. We know beyond all doubt that our world is an undivided system which cannot usefully be interpreted from a dualistic point of view.

    Sexual prudery and double standards fade in the searching light of the scientific method. This is not to say that the mystery and joy of sex necessarily also fade. I may know just how the male and female orgasms occur but I can still lose myself in the mystery and joy of the sexual act.

__________________________________________________
[1] Dictionary of New Testament Background, IVP, 2000
[2] A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
[3] From The Closing of the Western Mind, Charles Freeman, Heinemann 2002
[4] Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999
[5] A Thoughtful Guide to Faith, O Books, 2004

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