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About Sex – Part 2

September 14, 2013
Suomi: Skoptsy-woman with breasts cut off

Suomi: Skoptsy-woman with breasts cut off (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this second part I would like to examine the relationship between the Bible and attitudes on sex.

Christianity and Sex

In 1995 an internal document was published, in two parts, called “Christianity and Sex”. As the compilation “Sinless Sex” (ML 1969) contained David’s viewpoints, this paper aimed at broadening the discourse to include the views of various clergymen and scholars who, to varying degrees, voiced similar opinions. Today we might find reasons to critique it, but considering the time it was written, it remains a very useful tool and a good start into further research.

The document addresses a variety of sexually related issues. Some were well supported by reference material, while others were kind of forced through, with little to go by. Some issues were instead left hanging, such as the one that I will address in the following pages. I will, in any case, use “Christianity and Sex” as my starting point and since most Christian suppose to derive their faith from the Bible we’ll start with what it said on that.

We must remember, however, that although we did regard the Bible as our foundation, we nonetheless held a paradoxical view of it, a mix between liberalism and fundamentalism. I have already explained how this came about so here I will focus mainly on the sexual aspects, those on which David adopted the more liberal stance. With Paul’s writings on sex, women, marriage and celibacy, he chose the non literal, non inerrant view. Most Christians, to varying degree, do the same, even those who profess faith in an inerrant Bible. More on this later.

The Bible

From “Christianity and Sex” Part 2:

The Bible — Relic, Anti-Sex Handbook Or X-Rated Reading? –

L. William Countryman prefaces his book Dirt, Greed and Sex with the following comment:

Controversy over sexual ethics have pervaded the Western world in our century, and the Bible has been an important factor in them. Some voices invoke its authority; others attack it as a baleful influence. Some hold that it lays down a clear-cut sexual ethic; others hear in it a multiplicity of messages not always in agreement with one another. Whichever may ultimately be right, we have at least learned that interpreters of Scripture do not all agree with one another and that people can invoke the Bible on behalf of a variety of contemporary ethical positions. Such a situation calls for a fresh and careful reading of the Scriptures. . . . I began looking into the Biblical texts on this subject [sex] with several quite definite presuppositions. . . . I expected to find no more than scattered and independent moral pronouncements on sexual issues. . . . [and] that the biblical authors as a whole were negative toward sex and regarded it as something to be avoided in general and indulged, reluctantly, only under narrowly defined circumstances. In both cases, I have found that close study of these texts has modified my understanding of the matter sharply and in directions that I could not have predicted (Countryman, 1988: 1).

Many liberal theologians suggest we now set aside our Bibles as antiquated artifacts, no longer needed in the present stage of human spirituality. The very liberal Bishop Spong is known for making some very strong pronouncements about the Bible’s validity, or lack of it, in today’s world. Still, although critical of anyone taking too literal an interpretation or application of Scripture–which he believes needs to be considered more in the context of the time in which they were written–he still admits that for Christianity to survive, somehow our perception of Scripture and our human sexuality need to be brought more into perceivable harmony, for a house divided against itself simply cannot stand.

I do believe that there is a spirit beneath the letter that brings the Bible forward in time with integrity. That spirit must be sought with diligence. Without it the Bible will not be for our times a source of life or a guide in the area of sexual ethics (attributed to Bishop Spong).”

David wrote much in favor of that spirit beneath the letter leading to a more accepting view of human sexuality. At the same time he remained fairly committed to some of his more fundamentalist views. Though he overcame many of his past mindsets, to his own admission, God had to almost force him to. Eventually his life became characterized by this moving out of the old and into the new. His revoluting from churchianity’s mores on sexuality was what eventually set him on a different path, to grapple with issues that are now major concerns for most Christian institutions.

The Gospel of Matthew

What does the gospel of Matthew have to do with the issue at hand? A lot! David often addressed the question of Pauline injunctions on sexuality, as well as OT ones, but did not address Matthew as effectively. It is in Matthew, however, and not in Paul’s letters, that we find the strongest indictment of human sexuality, demanding the most radical and ascetic denial of it. The passages that most people struggle with are:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30)

There are other instances in which Jesus quotes the old Mosaic Law and then adds, “but I say unto you”. Sometimes it is to promoted a more loving and forgiving approach, but in this case Jesus is actually making things stricter than in the law. It’s somewhat similar to what he had just said about anger:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:21,22)

Theologians and clergymen who developed the doctrines of their respective denominations, had to deal with these “tough” passages. Most explained them away as not to be taken literally. By reading them through the lens of other scriptures, they somehow hammered them onto the rest of their theology.

Different churches adapted things differently, but the passages remained problematic for most, with the exception of some on the extreme side of fundamentalism. Quite correctly, these will interpret the passages as meaning exactly what they say, though they usually desist from plucking eyes and cutting limbs.

We must note, however, that throughout Christian history there have been multiple cases of castration and other self-mutilation, which were carried out in the strength of these scriptures. Paradoxically, the Church Fathers condemned such practices, while endorsing the ideas from which they sprang forth. One of them, the great theologian Origen, was amongst those who castrated themselves in obedience to Matthew 19, 10-12:

His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

In the fourth century, at the Council of Nicaea, the practice was officially banned, which sows how widespread it had been. In spite of it being illegal, castration continued to be practised all through the middle ages and even into the twentieth century, like with the Skoptsy of Russia. These, practised not only male castration and total emasculation, but even their women practised breast amputation, supposedly in obedience to the same scriptures from Matthew.

In a recent case, a man gouged both his eyes out with his own bare hands. It was in church, during mass, and he said that a voice had told him to do it, and that it was God’s judgement. Though the man suffered from mental disorders, it is all too obvious that sexual guilt and the scriptures in question, had played a role.

The difference between Matthew and Paul

When dealing with human sexuality, Paul gave some rather stringent requirement, but nothing like Matthew. It’s also fairly easy to adapt Paul, since in 1st Corinthians 7, when writing on such matters, he clearly makes a difference between God’s word and his personal opinion; he clearly states “I speak this by permission, and not of commandment” and “the rest speak I, not the Lord”.

The same cannot be said about that which is considered to be Jesus’ own words in a canonical gospels. This is why Matthew’s passages carry more weight, when dealing with sexual matters. They are also what weights heaviest on people’s conscience, ministering the greater condemnation and feelings of guilt. After all, Matthew’s indictment renders a mere thought, provoked by a passing woman, into actual adultery, and the viewing of nudity merits the plucking of one’s eyes, while using hands for self-stimulation deserves amputation. Failure to do so merits being cast into hell. It is an unreachable goal, even for the most devoted ascetic, and thus only results in extreme disappointment with one’s self. In some cases it has even lead to severe anxiety, mental disorders and extreme remedies.

David could not avoid these passages and this is how he reasoned about it:

Every time that Christ himself quoted the law he was illustrating a point for a particular purpose, just like we sometimes expose people with their own arguments when they contradict them themselves. He said, “ye have heard that it was said,” quoting the mosaic law, “thou shalt not commit adultery,” but i say unto you: “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (mt.5:27.28.) Now what man on god’s earth can possibly look upon a beautiful woman, no matter who she is, without lusting after her? Nobody! Nobody’s that saintly, nobody’s that good, and Jesus knew it! He was quoting that scripture to prove to the self-righteous hypocritical scribes and pharisees that not even they could possibly keep the law! He was proving that it was impossible for any man on god’s earth to ever keep the mosaic law, and that’s why it was given, to show the righteousness of god, the perfection of god. (ML 647)

David had a point in saying that none could keep such a rule, but took the Matthew verses out of their original context. Jesus was not speaking to the Scribes and Pharisees alone, using this as a sort of mock argument aimed at exposing their hypocrisy, or the absurdity of their legalistic claims. To the contrary, as is clearly stated, he was mainly instructing his own disciples. What comes before and after these verses makes it absolutely clear that the author of Matthew meant exactly what he wrote. In that same talk Jesus’ disciples are also told:

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” and “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”.

It is all too clear that the disciples were being instructed to abide by a higher and stricter interpretation of the law than what was commonly expected, even by the Pharisees.

The author of Matthew is therefore in direct contrast with Paul, the major contributor to the NT. To harmonize it with the greater quantity of Pauline text, preachers and theologian had to devise some metaphorical interpretation for Matthew. What usually happens is that the original context is overlooked and Matthew get filtered through the lens of a pre-established theology. Many read back into Matthew, somewhat forcefully, what was later adopted from the writings of Paul. David did this as well.

To be clear, Paul wrote first, but his views were not readily accepted by the Jewish Christians of Palestine, who favoured Matthew’s and a number of other Jewish gospels, such as that of the Nazarenes, Ebionites and Hebrews. You may in fact say that Matthew and Luke represent the opposing views of the first great Christian schism. Matthew’s is the position of James, the Concision and the Jerusalem church, Luke is the position of Paul and his gospel to the gentiles. Matthew’s position on the law was later rejected, but the book itself was widely used and demanded inclusion in the canon.

Matthew’s Christians regarded themselves as the “original” ones, perhaps rightly so, and resented Paul’s new Christians who had no regard for the Law (see Galatians). They considered Paul a heretic perverting true Christianity and caused him all kinds of problems. Scholars have marvelled at how Matthew and Paul ended up in the same Bible canon, wondering what it would have been like if the two authors actually met face to face.

Now we have become accustomed to seeing their work in the same book. We have inherited a Christian theology in which everything has been fused together, even opposite views. An explanation has been devised to smooth over every difference and an image of God has been painted that fits everything into it, but it wasn’t always like that. There was a time when some books of the Bible were scripture for some but not for others.

A useful exercise, is to imagine what type of Christian one would be if he knew only the gospel of Matthew, and nothing else in the New Testament, as was the case for Matthew’s intended audience. If you try you’ll be surprised by what you would end up believing or not believing.

(End of Part 2)

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