I don’t think “obsessed” is a strong enough word to describe our cultural relationship with sex.
We worship it.
And I am as guilty as anyone (contributing to the struggle I’m having with my tone as I write this).
We bow down at the feet of sex: to have mind-numbing, toe-curling sex however and as often as we can find it has become one of our most sacred pursuits.
Sex is so cherished that it has joined race and gender as one of our primary means of establishing identity.
As I hope has become clear throughout this blog, I think locating our identity in any physical / psychological trait is a drastic mistake with far-reaching, unintended consequences (not least of which are the walls and divisions we establish when we implicitly label different people as “other”).
As children of postmodernity, let’s deconstruct a false myth.
The idea that our social relationship with sex is unique in history is flat wrong.
Granted, our evolving understanding of what constitutes marriage seems to be philosophically original, but the social relationship itself outside of conceptual definitions is hardly revolutionary.
In Ancient Greece and Rome, what we label today as “sexual liberation” was tame: promiscuity was similarly common, but even within the context of marriages prostitution was a normal recreational and religious practice (reference particularly the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth and worship festivals connected with Venus and Flora).
According to ever-reliable Wikipedia under Prostitution in ancient Rome, “The practice…reflected the ambivalent attitudes of Romans toward pleasure and sexuality. Prostitution was legal and licensed…Roman men of the highest social status were free to engage prostitutes of either sex without incurring moral disapproval, as long as they demonstrated self-control and moderation in the frequency and enjoyment of sex.”
Temple and social orgies at parties were hardly rare occurrences. Concubines were legally allowed and not uncommon. Life-long relationships outside of the context of marriage, both hetero and homosexual, were fairly commonplace.
It is only with the growing influence of Christianity in the first centuries C.E. that the concept of monogamy – in theory if not consistently in practice – began to be taken seriously as something more than a legal agreement but also as a moral commitment.
Western society takes for granted that there is a moral commitment within marriage, a commitment that owes itself primarily to Christian influence.
This is partly why the contemporary issue of redefining marriage is sensitive – the West has not understood marriage outside an orthodox Christian mindset for nearly 1,600 years. If the rhetoric being used was more precise I think we would see less discord.
What needs to be spelled out – because it’s true and there’s no point denying it – is that societies in the West are removing orthodox Christianity from their understanding of marriage.
And that’s perfectly within a society’s rights; no argument here!
But when a society attempts to force an alteration on orthodox Christianity…that I don’t like. There are legitimate places within the communities of said Christianity to debate such things; at gunpoint by secular society is not one of them (nor vice versa).
Right here is one legitimate place, where an orthodox Christian can describe his views on sex after contemplation and interaction with other orthodox Christians, non-orthodox Christians, and those who aren’t Christians.
This isn’t in support or opposition to any legislation; this is moral and philosophical from within a Christian worldview.
And here’s my dirty secret from within my Christian paradigm: I’ve been a sexual sinner.
Wait, that’s not a secret, is it?
Not in point-of-fact, but in perception it unfortunately is for most people (Christian or otherwise). Because we forget, we forget, we forget: there is no hierarchy of sexual sin in Christianity. Sexual sin is sexual sin.
In a hard-to-comprehend manner, sin is sin. Lying on one level carries the same moral gravity as murder (the temporal effects differ, but the moral guilt each carries is in some sense the same: lawbreaker).
Those who feel like their actions permanently separate them from Christianity are mistaken. You hear this a lot but, God, how little we actually take to heart what it really means: WE ARE ALL SINNERS. I’m no “better” than you; you’re no “better” than me.
But that does NOT excuse sin nor give license to live however one wants within Christianity.
In many ways, Christianity is a religion of balance between the tensions of foundational truths. If you overemphasize one aspect, you lose the vital truths of others.
It is popular today to emphasize God’s grace, forgiveness, and love, and YES, a million times “yes,” GOD IS LOVE. He is forgiving, He is merciful, we are saved by and through His grace alone.
Yet – not only do we misinterpret what love actually is (reference earlier blog posts – there’s a four-part series on love) – in our fixation on God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness we forget that He is also Holy.
A strong argument can be made that God’s holiness is His defining attribute in the Bible – in Hebrew, the repetition of a word denotes increasing emphasis on the intensity of its meaning, and frequently within Scripture God is ascribed as “Holy, holy, holy,” which communicates that He is HOLY. No other word is utilized in that manner concerning God.
A great way to illustrate the tension in God’s character comes from C.S. Lewis’ children’s classic, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” from The Chronicles of Narnia. I have in mind two sections where Aslan, the lion who is King of Narnia (and an allusion to Jesus), is described. In one place one of the children in the story asks about Aslan, “Is he – quite safe?” To which Mr. Beaver responds, “Safe?…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But He’s good.” Near the end of the book, as Aslan is leaving, Mr. Beaver says, “He doesn’t like being tied down…you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
The lesson is we don’t define and control God, and when we insist that the only attributes about Him that matter are His grace, His mercy, and His love, we’ve just placed Him in a box because we’ve limited Him.
Only when combined with holiness do we get the sense that, “wow, I’m thankful God loves me and has forgiven me, but He’s not on my leash and I better respect and obey Him because His holiness is something I just can’t wrap my mind around.”
This is not intended to make you pee your pants or instill fear or a slavish duty to law: Christians have a slavish duty to God and what He wants, a duty that is empowered within us through His Spirit, not through our own efforts.
But know this: effort – sanctification, the process of becoming more like Christ – is NOT anathema to grace; earning is anathema, while effort is requisite for sanctification.
The catch is effort isn’t supposed to come from our own strength but from an utter reliance and rest in the strength and power of God coming through us. And this takes discipline and practice – there’s a reason we’re called “disciples.”
Sin is serious business because of God’s holiness. We can’t take it lightly. Jesus died for it.
We can’t compensate for one area where we allow sin to exist in our life by being “extra good” in others; it doesn’t work that way. It is mandatory that we call on God for help in the eradication of ALL sin in our lives.
We’re all equally guilty, so we’re all in the same boat. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But there should be conviction.
Specifically concerning sex, our proclivities are not sinful; it’s the thoughts we entertain and the actions we take regarding our sexuality that can be sinful.
And the worldview illustrated in the Bible is fairly clear – when honest scholarship is applied (reference N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, Luke Timothy Johnson, the doctrine of Roman Catholicism, the Greek Orthodox, and all Protestant denominations with a handful of exceptions) – in presenting a portrait of human sexuality.
You can rationalize what the Bible states as representative of the culture at the time (which of course is true, but that rubric does not limit the application of the proper understanding of New Testament teaching) or you can reject it straight up (thus leaving the realm of orthodox Christianity). But it’s an understanding that starts at the beginning with the creation story(s) in Genesis.
[You don’t have to take the account(s) as actual history; it’s not told as a historical narrative but as a way of properly understanding the intention of humanity and creation]
And Jesus and Paul both affirm the validity of the meanings conveyed in Genesis.
The underlying principle that must be remembered by the Christian when discussing sexuality is that humanity is supposed to be God’s image bearer (as stated when God creates humanity in His “image”), whatever that exactly means. Humans being human in the way God intended reflects Him.
If we assume the much later Christian tradition that establishes God as Triune in nature (three Persons that are distinct yet one substance: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), then we make sense of what God proscribes for human sexual relationships – and how they bear God’s image – as follows:
The nature of God in the Godhead (Trinity) is rooted in love that expresses itself by creating other life. God’s love eternally creates the fullness of even Himself: the Father is the source of the Son and (according to Western tradition) the relation between the Father and the Son is the source of the Holy Spirit.
As many Church Fathers understood it (Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, et al), creation resulted as a further effect of the love within the Godhead.
Colin Gunton wrote in “Act and Being: Towards a Theology of the Divine Attributes” that: “The love of Father, Son and Spirit is a form of love which does not remain content with its eternal self-sufficiency because that self-sufficiency is the basis of a movement outwards to create and perfect a world whose otherness from God – of being distinctly itself – is based in the otherness-in-relation of Father, Son and Spirit in eternity.”
In other words, the default relationship within the Godhead is committed with such deep love that the natural result is to create life.
Within the dynamic of Genesis – when humanity enters the scene – it is man at first who is created in God’s image and woman who is then created (out of man) also in God’s image. As the woman was created from the man (she had been part of his flesh), so when a husband and wife sexually unite the two again become one flesh.
If humanity is to emulate God, the way to do that regarding sexuality is within the context of a fully committed relationship between two persons that together represent the fullness of humanity and have the potentiality of creating life as a complete expression of their love.
I am guilty of violating this paradigm. My sexuality has been broken.
Thankfully my God forgives and offers fresh starts.
And while as a Christian in submission to God I am not free to do whatever I want with my sexuality, the freedom from sin I experience in submission is true liberation – the “freedom” I thought I had by doing whatever I wanted was delusional because it enslaved me: whatever satisfaction I found was never enough because it didn’t address my true, deepest longings.
But the freedom found in submission to God is legitimate because it offers something that nothing else can: it enables me to fully embrace my true identity as God’s child and remove constricting false identities; I am able to be what I was created to be – a human as humanity was intended.
Being who and what I was made to be: as hard as it often is in practice, it feels great.