Everyone has a period of history that bothers them. At one point, mine was early 20th century American history, the period before and just after WWI. Thanks to Dan Carlin and the Hardcore History podcast, I now have a better appreciation for that period of history. (His Blueprint for Armageddon 5 part series on World War One is a masterwork of historical storytelling and commentary.) Once that hill was climbed, American history in general seemed dull and bothersome. Once again, a podcast saved the day: the My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast with Bruce Carlson helped me gain a better understanding and interest in the particulars of American history.
But there is one period that still irritates me because its effects linger on in today’s cultural milieu. (“Milieu” is such a fun word… I never get to use it in Children’s Ministry, so you all get to enjoy fun words with me.) This irritating period is the 4th and 5th Century in regards to Christianity and its relationship with marital relations.
Note: the following is a broad oversimplification of much more complex cultural and societal questions considered from a modern perspective with the hindsight of give-or-take 1500 years. (And also coming from someone who tries to recognize the limits of his own perspective when it comes to complex issues.)
Consider that, for the most part, the Jewish culture had a fairly positive view of sex as part of a healthy life and the creation of subsequent generations to carry on the name of God and His praises. There was a sense of obligation, joy, and worship in the making and sustaining of a family, which models God’s own choosing and sustaining of the Jewish family. (I find it amazing and a testament of God’s faithfulness that the Jewish people continue to thrive despite the hardship they have faced.) Genesis is very frank about sexuality and what constitutes a right, faithful sexual relationship. (See previous post.) Sex in the Torah seems to connect the ideas of procreation and faithfulness with marital relations, and sex outside of that system leads to long-and-short-term conflict. (See Abraham, Sarah, Hagar; Lot and his daughters; Jacob and his wives; Abraham and Issac lying about their marriages to foreigners; just to name a few.) On a complementary note is the Song of Solomon which, on its face, seems to be a celebration of the pleasures of sex as enjoyed by two impassioned lovers. (Or at least the enjoyment of the anticipation, since upon closer inspection the lovers never get closer than being on either side of a door.) So, we see multiple aspects of sex illustrated throughout the Hebrew Bible: procreation, faithfulness, and pleasure.
With the entrance of Christianity things got more complicated (than they already were.) Around the 4th and 5th centuries, though developing earlier, the church began to separate sharply from its Jewish roots, tending to lean more often on Greek philosophy and modes of thinking to interpret the Bible, Gospel accounts, and letters written to churches. (Despite, however, the overwhelming Jewish nature of both the authors and their intent to further the Jewish story by pointing to its ultimate end with the incarnation and return of the Messiah to put all things right.) This entering of Greek thought also lead to the entertaining of Gnostic ideas, such as the utter separation of spirit and physical matter. Simply put, the spiritual was good, and the physical was bad. (This despite the Creation account in Genesis having God call his creation good, and the subsequent outpouring of God’spirit on that physical matter and even more important sending of Jesus as fully God and man, a unity of spirit and matter on a scale we still can’t quite grasp entirely.) Suddenly, amidst persecutions and the rise of Gnosticism, the church found itself sorting out complex theology concerning Jesus, the Spirit, and how these concepts applied to the life of the church and its sacraments.
Following the gradual dying out of the official fire of persecution, the church found itself in an odd place. This place was a church that had survived persecution, but now had a bevvy of new recruits that were clamoring to enter because of the change in status of the church, not only of the recognition of, but alongside official imperial support of, the church. No longer did the church have martyrdom, dying for the faith or persevering through intense persecution, as the pinnacle of holiness for its members to strive towards so it sought a new form of martyrdom. Based on the idea that physical pleasure is, at best, a temptation and enslavement to it something to be avoided, or, at worst, simply evil, asceticism became the new standard. Asceticism is any intentional lifestyle designed around self-discipline which can include abstinence from luxury, self-deprivation, isolation, or other practices intended to bring about a spiritual holiness via purification of the body. Some of the early ascetics were the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) who left the cities in search of isolation where they would spend their days in fasting, prayer, and meditation on the scriptures, battling the spiritual evils. Following this, a more organized effort was launched in order to create intentional communities of fellow ascetics who all sought to aid one another in their spiritual disciplines by holding one another accountable.
Some of those writing around this time found that voluntary celibacy aided one in maintaining spiritual purity. Young men and women were encouraged in these writings to abstain from any sexual activity, and in marriage, sex was only to be used as a method of procreation… and even then enjoyment was out of the question. One thing to consider is that many of those authors whose writings we have from this period espousing this view were themselves voluntarily celibate, and were writing from that viewpoint. While I can get behind the idea of celibacy as a choice for some, who for their own reasons don’t desire a sexual relationship or are dedicated enough to make that decision, I find more problems with celibacy being required in order to have a sense of “holiness.”
This idea seemed to persist in different forms through the centuries where it still seems to have a place in mainstream Christian thought, if not in practice. In some ways we have swung perhaps a bit too far the other direction, which shows up in the pestering of singles to get married instead of enjoying that period of their life as one of adventure and discovery. However, I still hear stories of women terrified of marriage because of the sex involved, the stories they have heard. I still hear talk of sex being “dirty” and “not a topic to discuss in church.” If the church won’t talk about sex, how can we expect people to have a healthy attitude toward it?
Today, secular society seems to be in the thrall of three gods: Mammon, Mars, and Venus. Money, Violence, and Lust rule the roost. CS Lewis, in a lecture series that turned into The Four Loves says that Eros, erotic love, is a fickle, angry god, but can also be taken too lightly and made into a vulgar joke. Sex, in and of itself, is good because God made it. A healthy attitude toward sex includes an understanding of its goodness, of its symbolism as an act of ultimate faithfulness, of its place as a sign of joyful love, and of its place as the method of human procreation. Things that are necessary for survival can be enjoyable. A cool glass of water is both needed, and pleasurable after working in the sun. A delicious meal is pleasurable even though it is necessary. The act of reconciliation, while challenging and painful, can also lead to the joy of a renewed relationship. And, sex, while necessary for the continuation of our species, is, when done right, enjoyable.
To be fair, I can sense these thought patterns in myself. The word “pleasure” contains for me an almost lustful sensuousness about it that makes me wary of typing or saying it. Is that true, though: pleasure as something deemed concerning or controversial? I should probably stop and sum up my thought before I end up on another several thousand word philosophical tear about the rightness or wrongness of pleasure.
The church has a history of downplaying sex in particular, and pleasure in general, tending to view it not as something good to be enjoyed in proper context of covenant faithfulness, but as a tool for procreation to be used in the proper context of covenant faithfulness. I have come to the understanding that this belief has its roots in secular Greek thought rather than Jewish thought, (or even Pauline, though even making that any distinction with Paul and Jewish thought is a false dichotomy) though I am open to rebuttal.
How do your discussions of sex sound? Do they reflect a healthy, God-reflecting view of sex? What has your experience of church discussion surrounding sex been? What are your personal views of sex and its place in in the life of a Christ follower?