Sexuality and Religion
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 16, 2005
The American writer Gertrude Stein may have been correct when she said that “Sex and death are the springs of the most valid human emotions.” It is our thinking about sexuality and death that hit us on the deepest level, Stein said. But, paradoxically perhaps, sex and death are also probably the two subjects we are taught to avoid speaking about, unless we absolutely have to. There is something of a dichotomy there—especially, perhaps, as far as our religions are concerned:
“When I listen to what religion in the West teaches about sexuality,” Matthew Fox has written, “I hear two things. The first… is silence… [The] second is moralizing… If I were to name in one word the message I have received from my religion regarding sexuality over the… years of my life, I would answer: regret.”
From whence comes this silence and regret with which, traditionally, religion has greeted matters of sexuality? Why is there, deep within many of us, this blocking mechanism which brings silence, nervous laughter, or even a feeling of shame, whenever the subject of human sexuality is even mentioned?
The American journalist Frank Harris lays the blame for our wounded psyches on St. Paul. In the early years of its development, Harris wrote, “the Christian church was offered two things: the spirit of Jesus and the idiotic morality of Paul, and they rejected the higher inspiration and took up the latter.” “Following Paul,” Harris concludes, “we have turned the goddess of love into a fiend, and have degraded the crowning impulse of our being into a capital sin.”
Of course, it’s always easy to blame St. Paul for all of the (real or imagined) sins of Christianity—he was there at the beginning, after all. But even Paul wasn’t completely original; his ideas had to come from somewhere, too. In developing his own ethic and ideas, he also internalized some of the prevailing ideas of his own time. Maybe there are even earlier sources we can “blame” for our shame and discomfort about sexuality.
Perhaps we can blame it on Moses, and the development of Judaism, the religion of the Old Testament God Yahweh. Yahweh—the sworn enemy of all those gods and goddesses of the polytheistic pagans of the ancient Middle East; the sworn enemy of all those gods and goddesses whose religions so often centered on fertility rites and who (or so we are told by the followers of Yahweh, at least) often incorporated strange, lewd, immoral practices into their religious rituals. Perhaps for all these centuries since, subconsciously and not so subconsciously, we have carried on the Jewish tradition’s battle with paganism and sensuality and sexuality. If we want to let St. Paul off the hook, we can blame it on Moses instead.
Or we can blame it on the Greeks; blame it on Plato, or Aristotle. One of the most important ideas of classical Greek philosophy was its body/soul dualism: its elevation of the soul, and its denigration of all things having to do with our earthly (and earthy) bodies.
In the fourth century, St. Augustine imbibed deeply of this dry spiritual wine of Hellenism (Greek philosophy) and started to preach a sexual morality which shunned the senses and the sexual, and saw sexuality in all of its forms (even within marriage) as intrinsically lustful, and thus sinful. All children were conceived in lust, Augustine taught, and thus all children, at birth, were tainted with sin. That’s how the Original Sin of Adam and Even got passed down from generation to generation—in our very conception, in our very birth.
That’s really healthy stuff. No wonder we’re so messed up when it comes to sexual matters! And the Christian Church never really has shaken off this Augustinian nightmare when it comes to matters of sexuality. Following Augustine’s lead, the medieval Church became preoccupied with questions of sin, death, and hell—while all about it, the internal structures of the Church were in a state of decay and corruption— a bit of transference the Church in our own time hasn’t gotten over either, it seems to me.
Then came the Protestant Reformation, which was supposed to fix everything. But for the most part, the leaders of the Reformation concerned themselves with reforming church structures and politics within the church, and didn’t deal much with “quality of life” issues like human sexuality. So, they left the Augustinian “sex is bad” model largely unchallenged.
Since then in the Western church (and that includes us, because that’s where our roots lie), we’ve had 400 years of pietism, Puritanism, and Victorianism, none of which exactly rewrote the book as far as matters of human sexuality was concerned. This has been followed in our own day by a narrowly individualistic and hedonistic “sexual revolution” which has promised much, delivered little, and may have even created greater problems in its wake.
That’s where we are today, with any number of our religious ancestors whom we can “blame” for the rather sad state of sexual enlightenment within the faith community. But as in any dysfunctional relationship, there comes a time when we have to let go of all the blame, and get on with rebuilding a new life. Ages change; the spirit of civilizations change; and the religious institutions which reflect that spirit can change, too. Religious traditions can move beyond the imitations and errors of the past, and can come to embrace a worldview which is more holistic, more healthy, and more just. Oftentimes, too, the means of this liberation is found right there in the tradition itself—in its original spirit, freed of all the accumulation and diversions which the years have brought with them.
In coming to a clearer and healthier understanding of the relationship between sexuality and religion, maybe one of the first things we need to do is come to some better understanding of what we mean by the term “sexuality” in the first place.
Our sexuality refers to our totality of being a person, especially those aspects that relate particularly to our being male or female. Sexuality encompasses all the ways in which we express ourselves in our drive to know and to relate to other beings. As Junella Hanson has written:
If we view our sexuality from this broader perspective—not just of the body alone—I think it liberates us to usher in a new relationship between sexuality and religion, based upon a series of seemingly new (but actually very old) building blocks:
The first of these is the assumption that men and women are equal, and that male and female sexuality are equal gifts in the eyes of God. This my seem obvious to us; but if we look at the abuses women have suffered at the hands of religion in the West (and I think in the East as well), then it bears repeating. Augustine may have mused that women were not really created in the image and likeness of God as men were. But we must also remember that Jesus himself befriended women openly (something not done in his time), and seemed to have no problem welcoming women as his disciples. St. Paul wrote many things tied very closely to the patriarchal culture of his own day, but he also wrote, in his letter to the Galatians: “In Christ there is neither male nor female,” and this seems to have been the bottom line for him on this issue.
A holistic paradigm of sexuality within the Western tradition begins with the assumption that we are all equal—not all alike; not all the same; not all blessed with the same gifts or strengths or temperaments; but all equal. Our religious and social relationships need to be centered in our respect for this basic equality, one with another.
The second building block of a healthy sexuality is the recognition that there is great diversity inherent within human sexual relationships, and that we need to use the same criteria in judging the morality of both homosexual and heterosexual relations. That criteria is what Matthew Fox calls “the test of justice”. All sexual relationships should enable the individuals involved to realize the same degree of wholeness and empowerment in their lives. Healthy sexual relationships are about exercising “power with” one another, and not “power over”. It is about treating the other person as a living being, and not as an object. Questions about whether this or that kind of sexual relationship or orientation is right or wrong, natural or unnatural, are really beside the point. What’s important is the nature and balance within each relationship, and whether it is healthy and empowering for the people involved. Beyond this, the inherent diversity among sexual orientations is as much a blessing as the diversity in any other aspect of this amazing creation.
The third thing that a healthy religious attitude toward sex would do is to declare in the clearest possible terms that our sexuality is an important part of the original blessing of creation. Leave out all of the commentary and the basic story of the first chapters of Genesis is this: “God created them male and female… they became one flesh… they were fruitful and multiplied… and it was good.” The Old Testament myth of the Garden of Eden reminds us that in the beginning we were created as sexual beings, and were invited to express our sexuality in a creative manner—and that this is the way the Creator intended it to be. It’s not a sin, then, to be glad that we’re sexual beings, and that we yearn for ways to express that sexuality.
It is our sexuality which connects us to the natural world. This is not to say that the ways in which we express ourselves sexually are always good and always bless the world and the people with whom we share it. Hardly. Abuses of human sexuality can readily become means of distrust and fear and brokenness. I’m not suggesting “If it feels good, do it” as a healthy sexual ethic. We are most true to our deepest humanity, I think, when we strike an inner balance between eros (on the one hand) and chastity (on the other). It is through the dialogue between eros and chastity that our sexual relationships can best meet the test of justice. If our sexuality is only about selfishness and exploitation and promiscuity—about getting what we want when want it-- then it is going to flunk the test of justice.
The fourth thing a healthy sexual outlook would declare is that sexuality is related both to body and spirit. Listen to how sensuous, how em-bodied ancient sciptires can be. This is from the “Song of Songs” in the Hebrew Bible:
“Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from washing…
Your lips are like scarlet thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like the halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil…
You are all fair, my love,
there is no flaw in you…”
Now we, obviously, might use different language, and update our metaphors a little (A flock of shorn ewes?) But, obviously, this is completely free of the loathing of the body which characterizes so much of Western religion. But even here, it isn’t just the body of the beloeved that is seen as the be-all and end-all. Rather, the canticle also celebrates just as clearly the spirits¬—the souls—the living essence of those who love each other. It glorifies the joy of communion on both the physical and the spiritual levels. It celebrates the fact that, in a truly loving and just relationship, the spiritual and physical cannot, in effect, be divided one from another. You often can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, and that’s really the point. Two lovers, in their very speaking—touching-- reaching out to each other—are engaging in the spiritual act of two becoming one. Feeling yield thoughts; touches yield words; and through their physical communication, the two souls become one.
Fifth (and finally) a healthy and holistic religious outlook can serve to remind us that our sexuality can serve as a means of knowing not only another human being, but also as a means of transcendence. Through our sexuality, we can transcend the limitations of this linear-rational, mundane existence, and come to know some sense if union with the Absolute—some sense of the grace of God.
As the theologian Dorothy Soelle has written:
Through our intimate sexual relationships, we can experience a great breakthrough to the Spirit of Life that makes all things new. We can receive a deep and profound gift of grace. And we can help to impart those gifts to another.
When two people discover each other in love, Matthew Fox has written, the wings of the seraphim and cherubim beat with joy. The sacred heart of Creation is echoed in the heartbeat of lovers.
When we find one another in the full expression of our love, the daily dances of our lives become sacred rituals; the days of our lives are made holy and whole. When we reach out, in love, and in justice, to touch one another, we reach out beyond ourselves as well; we reach out and bless the Earth and all of its creatures. And we reclaim once again, perhaps just in the momentary beating of two hearts as one, that small bit of the Garden.