The current debate about marriage, same-sex marriage, and the relationship of both to orthodox Christian teaching, all seems to finally come down to sex itself. I am convinced, however, that if we draw this conclusion it is incredibly flawed.
I ended yesterday’s post by saying that we have inherited two fallacies regarding sex. First, we have inherited the idea that sex is nasty, dirty or disgusting. This is often (wrongly to a large extent) blamed on the Puritan ethic. In reality this idea is generally due to a virulent strain of old-fashioned Manichaeism. The Manichean heresy taught that the spirit was good, nice, clean. The body, and thus all matter, is dirty and evil. This is total heresy. The church teaches that matter and spirit are both equally good since God created them. If you’ve ever read that the church taught the world at large that sex is unclean then you have read something that is far, really far, from the real truth. (St. Augustine’s personal issues and concerns, rooted in his life of promiscuity before conversion, aside.)
The Romantic and Freudian notions that now permeate our culture have made sex holy in and of itself. Where sex is made holy it will eventually be made dirty. Whenever you have a resurgence of this kind of teaching, and with it an advanced kind of false piety, then you will have an increase in unchastity. No one raised in America has entirely escaped this reaction. You can raise a child as emancipated as you like but if she goes to school, and socializes with her peers, she will soon learn that sex is dirty.
This leads to my second fallacy. All of this thinking grows out of an increase in the widespread notion that sex is only a bodily appetite to be satisfied like thirst and hunger. This fallacy reduces sex to biology. The late Episcopal priest, Fr. Homer F. Rogers, concluded: “Viscerally, most people feel there is something evil about sex. Intellectually, most people think that sex is a natural biological appetite. As an expected consequence, sex becomes a necessary evil. One of the most difficult tasks in modern society is to emancipate oneself from both of these fallacious notions, which influence thinking about sex” (The Romance of Orthodoxy, 1991, 274).
Consider each of these fallacies one at a time. Sex as sex is neither morally bad nor morally good. It is a natural good, like say the ability to walk. It acquires moral significance only in its circumstances. What is its purpose and what kinds of activities have moral meaning when it comes to sex? I want to argue that all sexual activity has moral consequences and for all the parties involved. This is not because of having sex but rather because of the circumstances surrounding it. Sex with a beautiful, attractive woman would be good for me, at least on one level. But it would also be a colossal betrayal of my wife and the Christian community. Adultery is, in every instance, a sin against my wife and the community of God. It violates the closeness of true community at every level, seen and unseen. Fornication (Greek: porneia), or sex outside of the covenant of marriage, is evil not because it involves sex but because it irresponsibly violates others. The same is true for a number of other sins; e.g. lying, cheating, stealing, etc. All such sins violate another person as well as the true nature of Christian community. The primary reason marriage is failing in America is because we have individualized our entire life and then argued that sex is ultimately about meeting my needs and pleasures.
Our present breakdown in marriage as an institution is thus a massive breakdown of true community. Without keeping our promises to God and others we have destroyed mercy, truth and real love. This is why the marriage covenant truly matters to all of us but particularly to the church as a congregation of faithful people who truly and rightly love one another.
Sexual arousal is prompted in many ways today. A person who is happily engaged in other (non-sexual) activities is not nearly as likely to be thinking about having sex non-stop. Boredom, and emotional anxiety, will both lead us to think about sex a lot. So do a host of other stimuli that are flaunted almost every waking moment of our day. We are bombarded with sexual images and suggestive appeals. But a perfectly healthy person can live day after day without constantly being aroused sexually and without “needing” to experience sex. If you do not believe this then take the time to get to know a celibate person who has willingly given up all expectations of an active sexual experience with another person. You will find such people are more often than not healthy, balanced, loving and wonderful people who are more sane than most married people!
I suggested yesterday that sex is a sacrament; i.e., a holy thing. In a certain way no sacrament is more obvious than sex and marriage. Why? Sex takes a space and place in time when a human being is brought into contact with God through a partner made in his image. This is why I have called sex a mystery that is powerful and soul shaping. What you are sexually will determine who you will be relationally. This brings us right back to the meaning of true love.
The late Fr. Homer Rogers, who I quoted above, said in 1991 that, “One of the reasons Americans are so obsessed with sex is that there is so little good sex here.” Sex is not about a release from tension, or an experience that removes our immediate desires for pleasure. Good sex is about giving more than receiving. It is about sex in a context of bonded and sacramental love. If my wife is simply an instrument of my pleasure then that is what I will think of her much of the time. This is clearly not why God gave her to me to be my companion.
Let’s face it, sex is a great pleasure and it was given to us by God. But you cannot enjoy this pleasure if you seek your own satisfaction as your priority. God has designed the whole creation so that anyone who desires to cheat, or to abuse others, can do it. You can even get away with such behavior at many levels. But if you cheat you will not experience the Creator’s intention for your lasting pleasure. The same is true regarding sex. If you want the maximum reward from sex then you must devote yourself to the other person, not to your own pleasure. To treat another person as the object of my personal pleasure is to destroy the ultimate intention of the designer.
Here is an amazing insight drawn from Fr. Homer Rogers book, The Romance of Orthodoxy (1991):
It is of first theological importance to understand that sanctity requires the flooding of our lives with rationality. That means, for example, that when the mother suckles the baby at her breast, it is a sexual event for the mother and the baby. Also, when daddy gets out in the front yard on a Sunday afternoon and throws a ball with his fourteen year-old son, it is a sexual experience for them. Part of a big Thanksgiving dinner is sitting around the room before dinner smelling the aromas, also part of it is sitting around afterward, kind of full, having a cup of coffee, and also part of it is walking back to the kitchen to do the dishes. Sexuality is like that. To be fully human, you’ve got to be fully sexually aware. There is nothing wrong with the Marilyn Monroe type of sex, but there is something wrong with having only that kind. Man himself is a sacrament of body and soul, and a fully developed man is both, but with the body subsumed and spiritualized, rather than subdued and denied (italics are mine, 276).
You might want to read that paragraph again. It is priceless.
Tomorrow I will address the issue of love and sex as they relate to marriage. We all have been given a number of different loves, all of them healthy and good. The question comes down to this: “How do we express our love in appropriate ways that are consistent with the design of the creator, the one who made us to enjoy him and to know lasting, true pleasure in this life?”
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I think you have shown the basic contradiction we have regarding sexuality in our culture. Excellent article.
It seems that a radical, atomistic individualism is at the root of not only our sexual relations but relations in general. I’ve had that thought before but this magnified it. Am I correct?
John, you’ve been on fire lately! i have some catching up to do on your blog but every one I’ve read these last few weeks have been some of the best writing on the topics i’ve come across. keep ’em coming!
Bruce I believe you are right and thanks for all your encouragement. As much time as I put into these it is rewarding to know they are read with some profit.
Another great article. I was reading an article about the ban on sexual surrogacy in France, and the vast majority of comments were against the ban because the respondents believe that sex is not only a need, but an inalienable right (both self-centered motives), that one cannot be happy and fulfilled without sex. Tragic, really.
Thanks Toni. I think you are right on, of course.
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