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About Sex – Part 1

September 13, 2013
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and ...

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve. Beech wood, 1533. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Erworben 1830, Königliche Schlösser, Gemäldegalerie Kat. 567) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often misrepresented but intrinsically connected to our history and doctrines, sex always played a conspicuous role in the perception of our movement. In time it became less of an issue and today it’s only the replay of outdated news that reminding us of it. There are a number of possible reasons for its de-emphasis, like the bad rap we got due to some past abuse, changes in culture and attitudes about sex, wishing for less controversy and so on. There is also a tendency to ascribe some of our colorful past, especially the sexual aspects of it, to some kinkiness on the part of our founder. These are just some of the things that come to mind when one tries to rationalize the changes that have come about.

Whatever we may think of it now, it is impossible to ignore the role that sex and sexuality played in our understanding of the Christian message. From the very first Moletter, “Old Church New Church Prophecy”, to “Revolutionary Sex” and on to the more recent “Loving Jesus Series” there is a long tradition of views and attitudes about sex that carry deep theological significance. Having written on a number of other pertinent matters, I could not avoid this one, so here it is.

I will not attempt a synopsis of our sex-related doctrines, as I suppose everyone is already familiar with them. I am also aware of the many and varied interpretations of this ever-changing aspect of things, where the progression hasn’t always been linear. There have been inconsistencies, contradictions and the reboot, with its following silence on past doctrines, has given rise to further questions. Many have drawn their own conclusion, even consigning some of our past doctrines to the department of failed and to be forgotten experiments, and this is especially true about our sexually liberal theology.

A bit of history

I joined the COG in the early seventies. Doctrinally we were sexually liberated, but in practice we lived like monks and nuns. Unless you got married there was no sex. Nudity was OK and so was masturbation, no guilt linked to that, but nothing more could be had. In 1978 everything changed. Our founder issued a declaration of liberty and from then on everyone was free to do as they pleased.

Freedom at last, but freedom got out of hand and some took things too far, perhaps acting also on some wrong clues given by David. This led to an inverse process which gradually reined things back, not doctrinally but in practice. The process continued all through the eighties and by the late nighties sexuality was regulated by an elaborate system of rules and bureaucracy. At a certain point our youth faced more sexual restrictions than their average catholic counterpart.

Now the reboot has done away with the past and there is no more group micromanagement of people’s personal lives. Sex is not spoken about anymore but is a personal matter. None could agree more but there is something about our liberal sexual theology which I would like to still consider. If possible I would like to separate it from our history, past practices and malpractice and look instead at its implied premise.

Traditional views

All through history and well into the present, religion always had a negative and demeaning view of sex. We came from a generation deeply suspicious of that bias and so we supported David’s challenge to it. Anyone wishing to refresh on it I recommend the compilation “Sinless Sex” – ML 1969. It is what you would term a liberal view on sex supported by a fundamentalist view of the Bible, not the usual mix.

David based his views on a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. From the same literalism, Augustine derived instead a sexophobic theology, which has permeated Latin Christianity since. Regardless of what one may believe about a literal Adam and Eve, none can deny that David’s theology was a liberating antidote to the medieval mindsets that saw sex as synonymous of original sin.

The implications of David’s challenge were many and we spent years exploring them. Our cumulative experience became a broad mixture of failures and successes and, at some point, one likes to take stock and see what it taught him. I see my own experience with mixed feelings. I have some regrets, but none too serious and the pluses appear to outweigh the minuses. I understand, however, that for some it isn’t so, that things happened to them that shouldn’t have happened.

In hindsight I am a bit like the old man who said “I wish I had been old first and young later”, meaning I wish I was wise when young and young when wise. Well, it doesn’t work that way and making mistakes is part and parcel of being young. That’s how we get wisdom and, as someone rightly said “wisdom hurts”.

So what’s our wisdom today? I would say it’s something worth digging for, talking about it and consolidating it. We have a unique experience, therefore a unique wisdom, but we got so many scars getting it that it’s a bit sensitive. It’s hard to talk about it. It’s touchy, highly polarized and so it’s easier to just move on and not bother with it, but I think we stand to lose a lot by ignoring it.

The case that got me writing

Religious institutions are still rooted in old mindset and people suffers for the lack of a coherent, to-date and applicable sexual theology. There has been some progress along these lines but there is little in print, on the web or on the way of Christian counsellors who would buck the religious establishment. Recently I came across some real life situations that led me to study the matter and seek for some viable conclusion; mostly so that I would have something to offer and learn how to help those who struggle with such issues.

One such case is a young man, whom I shall call Paolo, who’s been struggling with depression and panic attacks. Paolo has tried to overcome this debilitating condition using traditional, as well as alternative therapies, but says his greatest help came when he converted to Catholicism and found Jesus.

Last week Paolo contacted me on-line and was pretty down again. He wasn’t as open as usual, but after some probing, he said he felt terribly guilty for having watched porn and masturbated. He said he felt the need to go to confession and get absolution and that it was a terrible things that he kept falling into. His agony and sense of hopelessness were rather intense. I shared some scriptures and reassured him of God’s unconditional love and that helped, but there were some things still frightening him; things which he could not get around because he saw them as part and parcel of Christianity, as coming straight from the book.

Having encountered a number of similar cases I was searching for qualified Christian counsel which I could offer. I wished for a database, links and material for those struggling with this type of fears and hopelessness. To my dismay I couldn’t find anything “Christian” that wouldn’t, in effect, make things worse. Most available material worked from that same old medieval presupposition and made the same old unrealistic demands. No matter how professionally modern their presentation, most Christian counsellors seemed more concerned about church doctrines than truly helping.

In only one website I found a counsellor who gave an honest appraisal of the problem, its dynamics and symptoms. Christian counselling was rightly criticized for being ineffective and fuelling instead an endless cycle of sin, guilt and absolution. He explained how it never really cured people of their perceived malady, but then gave no alternative answers or solution. My guess is that he could not state the obvious answer without crossing some doctrinal line, which would put his church standing at risk. Perhaps he hoped that his listener would come to the right conclusion on his own. For some, however, it is not easy to overcome deeply ingrained fears, especially if they have a bible reference attached to it.

In Paolo’s case the fear was linked to the perceived sinfulness of masturbation. Since masturbation needs some kind of visual stimuli, like nudity, porn or imagination to work, the sin of lust was closely related and merited even stronger condemnation. The story of Onan is often quoted in relation to masturbation, but it is obviously about something else and there is ample material on that. Most preachers, in fact, acknowledge that the Bible does not explicitly condemn masturbation, but affirm that it most definitely condemns lust, and for that they usually quote from Matthew and Paul.

The best that some can say is that there is nothing wrong with masturbation, but the sin of lust will get no leniency. I know that the scripture appears clear on that but it’s like saying food is good but craving it is a sin. It doesn’t make sense. Everybody knows that there is desire involved with eating as well as with having sex; they are one and the same. I would dare to say that God designed it that way and made all of life’s necessary function to be literally irresistible; the more vital and the more so.

Lust may sometimes lead to excesses and be a problem, but we couldn’t live without it. Sexual lust, for example, plays a big part in the formation of families and ensures vital reproduction. The same goes for food. One may pervert his appetites and crave the wrong foods, but having no craving for food would be lethal. No food and life ends – no sex and life doesn’t even begin. The fact that it is humanly impossible to resist certain cravings is not a proof of demonic influence, or animalistic instinct, but of God’s wisdom applied to human design.

Clearly, just as there are complex mechanisms that regulate our eating habits, so there must be about our sexual ones. Speaking of habits, studies have revealed that about 95% of men and 73% of women do masturbate http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masturbation#Frequency.2C_age.2C_and_sex. Some analysts put the figures even higher, saying that women are shier when responding to this type of survey. In any case if 95 % of men do it, that goes for Christians as well. This alone demonstrates the enormous dissonance that exists between practice and belief.

As the counselor I spoke of earlier described, religious teaching says masturbation is a sin, the believer cannot help but do it anyway and that makes him feel terribly guilty. He then goes through the prescribed procedure for absolution and feels better, but it only last for a little while. The process then starts all over and the cycle continues. If I was to think of something that could most effectively keep people controlled, within a religious environment, I would say sex is it. Teach people that it is a sin and that you hold the key to their being made right with God again, and they’ll be attending church regularly.

Paolo‘s is not an isolated case. There are millions who suffer that same type of guilt and psychological wrenching, as induced by sexophobic religious indoctrination. Millions who would need to hear some better news. In our short history we went from openly declaring a sexually liberating theology to concealing it, or even denying it. There are understandable historical reasons for it and perhaps we can relate to this words from James B. Nelson, professor of Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary:

The sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s is mostly over, and some of its superficial and exploitative forms of freedom have proved to be just that. Hurt, boredom and disease have sobered more than a few—and the forces of religious and political reaction rejoice. But this revolution was a harbinger of a much more significant change that Ricoeur foresaw. The change is just beginning. It is uneven, misunderstood and resisted, as well as eagerly welcomed and hoped-for. Nevertheless, in my view a paradigmatic shift is indeed under way.

This will not be the first time in Christian history that a major shift has taken place in the perception of sexuality. In the 17th century some Protestants—especially Puritans, Anglicans and Quakers—began to affirm that loving companionship, not procreation, is the central meaning of sexuality. This cultural-religious revolution is still unfinished. I take heart from the fact that even more far-reaching change is taking place as we investigate how sexuality and spirituality are part and parcel of each other, and as we affirm that the Word continues to become flesh and dwell among us. This revolution has just begun”.

We did also fall into the pattern described by J. B. Nelson. Many things didn’t pan out as we expected, there were hurts and disappointments. The fundamental premises of our revolution, however, were valid and do continue to fuel a paradigm shift within Christianity. There is a revolution happening, even if doesn’t always appear to be moving forward. As with all revolutions, there are human failures and setbacks, but changes are inevitable.

Our failures shouldn’t deter us from pursuing those core premises. It would be wrong to assume that because we went off the road on a few things, we should now discard all that we believed in. Our mistakes do not invalidate the cause for change. The bigger mistake, would be to assume that the messiness of change proves tradition right, and then fall for its lure.

It wasn’t wrong to revolute and abandon traditional sexophobia. The extremes of the sixties and seventies might have proven somewhat wrong, but that does not vindicate what was before. Change cannot be stopped. There might need to be correction of its course, but there is no turning back. The world needs a new gospel that will include and redeem sexuality.

Many Christian leaders, preachers and theologians are seeing the need and doing their part. Our days for championing such causes may be over, but neither can we revert to medieval Christianity. There is still a lot that we can do to help folks in need, like Paolo. Just preaching bible and salvation isn’t really going to do it, if it is from the same old perspective.

(End of Part 1)

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