Monday, 30 December 2013

Theology of Sex

I spoke about abortion and the unborn in recent posts so I thought I should probably be clear on my theology of sex just to give it all a context.  

            When people found out that I was in seminary a common topic they would bring up for discussion was Dan Brown’s novel “The DaVinci Code”. They would look at me with scandal in their eyes and ask me about what I thought of Jesus being married.

            One of the contradictions in the book was that it was somewhat based around a 12th century Gnostic group in France sometimes called the Cathars. Gnosticism was a Heresy that has been with us for a long time. One of the main points of Gnosticism is that they deny the goodness of creation. In Gnosticism an evil god created the world, and it was a better and more pure God that came to rescue us from this evil physical material world. The Gnostics believed that the body was a kind of prison for the soul and that the true Gnostic found a way to free the soul from its slavery in the body. The most devout Gnostics were celibate and wouldn’t have children because they believed that having children was causing more souls to be enslaved in bodies. Having children was actually a bad thing to do.

            There’s the contradiction. In Gnosticism, they probably wouldn’t like the idea of Jesus having a physical body, let alone producing children. It’s a contradiction in the DaVinci Code that Jesus would have had children with Mary Magdalene who would have gone on to become the royalty of Europe.

            The funny thing is that Gnostics have a problem with a married and reproducing Jesus. We don’t have to have a problem with that possibility. In Christianity there is no sin in being married, or in being single. Our problem with the idea of a married Jesus is that the scriptures don’t say he was married. We wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. A married Jesus is not a less holy Jesus. However, according to scripture Jesus was celibate. It is the Gnostics who have a problem with a married and sexually active Jesus, not Christians.

            I sometimes think that it was an incredible act of mercy that Jesus chose not to marry. Can you imagine Jesus being married with a wife and children and then going to the cross? There are some vocations that require us to be celibate. There are other callings that require us to be Married. 

     It might be helpful to differentiate two uses of the word "chastity". The word sometimes describes a virtue, and at other times a spiritual discipline. As a virtue "chastity" is character trait a person has when they routinely, consistently, and without much effort, keep sexuality in its proper place in their life. As a spiritual discipline, chastity is when someone abstains from sexual expression so that it doesn't become an addiction or an idol in our lives. Ideally, the 'discipline' will help lead us to the attainment of the 'virtue'. The discipline places our lives in a position where we are able to receive God's grace, which in this case is the virtue of chastity. Chastity as a virtue is freedom and a proper functioning sexuality.  

    Here's how one book puts it, “Chastity is the virtue by which a person integrates his or her sexuality into his or her own Christian life” (Lawler, Boyle, May- Catholic Sexual Ethics). That means it is a discipline for both single and married people. It's how we integrate our sexuality into who God has called us to be and what he has called us to do. 

            In C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters the demon Screwtape is advising a lesser demon, Wormwood, on the art of leading a human soul astray. At one point, on the topic of prayer, Screwtape advises, “At the very least, [humans] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (p16). It is a point that is worth thinking about because if we don't take that seriously we will begin to slide towards Gnosticism (the false belief that God didn't make the material universe and that our goal is to escape the material world). We have bodies and we live in a material world. It is a fallen world in many ways, but it is still the world created and called "good" by God. Our bodies are good. Our sexuality, our femaleness and our maleness, is good. Our desires are good and sexual pleasure is good and created by God. When we place these desires and pleasures in proper context in our lives then they play an important role in our perfection and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Screwtape bemoans the fact that demons have not found a way to produce a pleasure. The craft of the demons is to twist the good pleasures and place them out of context and towards false goals. It is God who is the true creator of pleasure. Our sexual desires and pleasures are good, but since we live in a broken world we often find our desires to be broken. We hardly need examples of how our sexuality is fallen.
    
       
            In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are first commanded to go and reproduce. Sexuality was a part of the God’s plan before the fall. Think about that, the first command of God to the first human couple is to reproduce.

            But when they fell they began to feel shame about their nakedness. They hid from God and they hid their nakedness from each other. They felt shame and they felt the need to protect themselves from each other. They were no longer free to be intimate with God, but they also damaged their intimacy with each other. They were no longer free to know each other as fully as they wanted to because they were afraid. They felt shame.               
           
            We all desire intimacy. We desire to be fully known. We want to have every deep dark corner in our souls exposed to another person, but we are afraid that if that other person really knows us fully, then they might not love us, so we hold back. We feel shame. We hide our nakedness behind the fig leaves that we sow together.

            This issue with intimacy along with a bunch of other stuff gets mixed up with our view of sexuality and it gets twisted.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that we, as a culture, have issues with intimacy and sexuality. In our desire for intimacy, sex can seem like a shortcut to intimacy. But, really that ends up being a false and temporary intimacy unless it is placed in a strong relationship like marriage. Promiscuous sexual expression can never fulfill our desire for intimacy. It gives the illusion of intimacy, but it doesn't last. 

            Thinking about our sexual desires, C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity asks us to imagine a culture where people gather around a covered dish. The cover is slowly lifted while people hoot and holler. The cover is finally lifted to reveal a porkchop.  Now we might suspect that these people are starving, but when we look into their culture to see if they are a starving people we find that in fact they are not starving and are actually eating quite well. We would suspect that something has gone wrong in their desire for food.

            Now we imagine that instead of a porkchop, say we have under the cover, a naked woman. It is an image of strip clubs and the pornography industry. Mix these influences with all the sexual images we are fed everyday through the media and through advertizing- is this evidence that we are sexually starved, or that something has gone wrong in our sexual desire? I would imagine that it is plain that something has gone wrong with our desire.

            To strengthen his argument, Lewis points out that if a young man were to obey all his sexual urgings in a pre-contraceptive culture, he might well populate a small town quite quickly. Isn't this evidence that our sexual desires have become twisted in some way? Our desire is our of line. We are in danger of becoming slaves of our desires under the illusion of freedom.    
            
The result of this twisting is that we can end up treating each other as objects for our own personal sexual gratification. We forget that we are persons to be respected and valued, not to be used and abused for our own selfish use.

            What I have found most helpful in terms of the discipline of chastity is to get my head around God’s vision of sex, as expressed in the Bible. This is a huge topic but I want to just hit the main points. Before I get into this, I want to apologize to those who have been called to life-long celibacy. Yours is a valuable and important calling, but this is a bit more geared towards those dating and married. I hope it will still be of benefit though.

    (We do need to remind the Protestant church that celibacy is a valid lifestyle. Jesus himself lived a celibate life, as did many saints throughout the church's history. It is a counter-cultural calling in our overly-sexualized culture, and is a strong witness against slavery to our desires in a culture that sees celibacy as unhealthy or impossible.)    

            First of all, the assumption of the Bible and Christian Tradition is that the context for sex (intercourse) is marriage. This isn’t about God trying to ruin anyone’s fun, it’s about where sex belongs and what it was made for. It is about where sex is of most benefit to our transformation into the image of Christ and is of benefit to the further development of the Kingdom of God. There are generally four Biblical visions of sex within a committed relationship like marriage. 
1) Sex is a unifying force. 
2) Sex is sacramental or symbolic.
3) Sex can lead to new life through procreation.
4) Sex in the context of marriage provides a proper and safe outlet for our sexual desires so that it doesn't become destructive.



1) Sex is a unifying force.        
Jesus quotes Genesis In Matthew 19-
21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.  22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  23 Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."  24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.  25 And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:21-25)

            One of the truths about sexuality is that it unites people. It draws them together as few things can. It unites them physically, but also emotionally as it is a very intense and pleasurable act. The biological chemicals released in the act leads to something called 'bonding' which has a relationship solidifying function.
            Just as the act of sex can lead to greater intimacy, it can also be an expression of the unity and intimacy that already exists between the couple. They are two sides to the same coin. One feeds into the other, which ideally leads to greater and greater intimacy. 


                       
2) Sex is sacramental or symbolic.
           Sex is meaningful (rather than meaningless). Even a handshake means something, and sex means something more than a handshake. It points to something beyond the physical act. It points to a relationship and ultimately and mysteriously it points to God. 
          One way to understand a sacrament is that it is a sort of symbol that points to God.  Paul talks about how marriage points to God in Ephesians 5 where he says:
   25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, ...   28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church,  30 because we are members of his body.” (Ephesians 5:25-30)

         One distraction in this text is that we can get really hung up on the gender roles. Instead, try to see through that distraction to the deeper truth. A wife and a husband are to love each other the way that Christ and the Church love each other. Think for a moment about what it means to be loved by Jesus. Imagine the church at its best. Envision the Church’s service and worship done all over the world because of the love for Jesus.

           All over the Bible we hear God speak about his relationship with His people as if it is a married relationship. When they turn their backs on God they are a adulterous spouse. They are cheating on God. The best vision is in the Song of Songs- a poem that the church has viewed as the passionate love of God for God’s people.

           In a mysterious way sex and marriage symbolize God and God’s love for His people. A long-lasting marriage shows us something about God’s commitment to us and how God desires to be intimate with us.           



3) Sex can lead to new life through procreation.
            The first commandment for the human beings in Genesis chapter 1 is to be fruitful and multiply- to procreate.
            27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”. (Genesis 1:27-28)
            Sex and marriage until very recently has been connected with the possibility of children. I’m not saying this has to be the case for every act of sex or every marriage even, but it is important for us to recognize that this is important. Sex involves all the stuff that is needed in the creation of human life.
            It is only because of recent contraception technologies that we can even question this. And we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t take procreation into account when we thought about God’s vision of sex.



4) Sex in the context of marriage provides a proper and safe outlet for our sexual desires so that it doesn't become destructive.
            This is a bit of a negative purpose for sexuality in marriage in that it actually prevents something bad from happening rather than promoting something good (like strengthening a relationship). 
     A reality of having a physical body is that we have biological desires to express ourselves physically with another person. Married sexuality provides a safe outlet for that very real physical desire to be expressed.
            Sex is a powerful force and it can be destructive if not placed in its proper context. Think about electricity in a lightning bolt vs. the electricity that allows your TV to work. Similarly, Sex is a powerful force that needs to be in its proper context if it is not going to cause damage.      
            Paul says something about this in 1 Corinthians 7.  He says that because people were letting their desires go wild in Corinth,
“each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. 5Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” 
            The point is that sexual expression is a part of marriage, and is the proper context for sexual release. Paul is saying that our instincts and desires matter.  Our sexual instincts and desires are good and given to us by God, but they do their best work when they are expressed in the context for which they were made.



Marriage as Spiritual Practice
            Marriage can be seen as a spiritual practice. In this relationship we are called to grow closer to God and to become the kind of people God wants us to be.

When we live as married people we are learning to give of ourselves in selfless love- putting our partner’s interests before our own. We learn to be happy even though we don’t always get our own way.  We can learn self-control. We learn to be patient when they annoy us. We learn to forgive and be forgiven when we hurt our partner, or are hurt by our partner. We learn to compromise. Marriage teaches fortitude- the ability to be strong and stable. In marriage the couple challenges each other to become better people. Marriage teaches us to be drawn into deeper and deeper intimacy- even though it’s not always easy. But, all this doesn’t mean that marriage is always serious work. Marriage is a cure to profound human loneliness and need for intimacy (to know and be known). Marriage is also a gift to us and it is a source of an amazing amount of joy and in that way it is a little taste of heaven. Research has shown that those who are married are usually happier, wealthier, healthier, and have children who adjust better in society (Waite and Gallagher, 2001).    

Hopefully this helps us to understand what the church means when it says that sex is meant for marriage.  Among many other things, marriage gives a safe home for our sometimes wild desires and turns them into something good.  Through marriage our sexuality is linked to the greater story of what God is doing in the world and this takes away our need to feel ashamed of sex.  If a child is to be conceived from sex, the context of marriage provides a social context that is an ideal framework for a baby baby. (Just because a married relationship is unhealthy it doesn't follow that the framework of marriage doesn't work. Math done badly doesn't mean we should give up on math.)  Sex is also a very concrete expression of the deep joining of two people that happens in marriage, it wouldn't make sense for one to happen without the other.

Chastity, is the practice of keeping our sexuality in the context it was designed for, which spiritually trains us. Chastity is not an end unto itself, rather, it is a practice that helps us draw closer to God as we live a life that is more in tune with who God created us to be. Chastity puts sexuality into perspective. It helps us keep our priorities straight. And so, Chastity is a practice for both single and married Christians.

Chastity trains us in love. Chastity teaches us that there is more to human relationships than sex. Chastity teaches us that intimacy is different than sex. Chastity teaches us to not objectify people. Chastity teaches us to live in freedom, rather than being enslaved by our sexual desires. Chastity teaches us that there are more important things than sex. Chastity trains us to place eros (passionate sexual love) in the broader context of agape (unconditional and sacrificial Godly love).

Chastity, especially in the context of a marriage (a high-commitment covenant relationship) trains us to love even when we don’t feel like it. Love is beyond our own grumpiness, or our state of digestion. While the romantic feeling of love is important, that is not all love is. Love is also an action and a commitment. Chastity teaches us to become less-selfish and more generous and self-controlled as we are also living for our spouse and possibly children. We also learn to be more courageous because we understand that others rely on us. We are trained to become more humble in taking others’ opinions into account, rather than getting our own way all the time. We learn to become more patient because we live with someone who is different than us who will inevitably do things that annoy us. Marriage teaches us how to forgive. Marriage teaches us about God’s unconditional love for us. All these are ways that a healthy relationship can train us as spiritual beings.

          Through marriage our sexuality is linked to the greater story of what God is doing in the world. Through our training in chastity and by the grace of God, our character and our love spills over into our communities and becomes a transformative force in our world.


          Though the discipline of chastity is difficult. The end result, through God’s grace, is the virtue of Chastity. This means that chastity becomes a part of who we are. That means it will stop being a struggle and we will have peace and tranquility in our lives as we become more who God created us to be. 

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