Living in the World - Issues that Christians face

Housegroup leaders - We'll be running an evening session to pick up some of the themes emerging from this topic on Nov 6th, 8pm at SGCC.  

Sexuality - Notes for housegroup leaders

By Way of Introduction

Probably most people will have homosexuality and gay marriage on their minds when they encounter this topic. However. It is arguable that part of the reason this topic has caused so much trouble and heart-break is that we’ve jumped to decisions, one way or the other, on this particular aspect of human sexuality without first seeking to understand more deeply the the meaning of human sexuality in its broadest sense.

“Human sexuality” is too vast a topic to address fully here so all we can hope to do is consider some important aspects of it in order to help ourselves think humanly and Christianly on this issue which has so many controversial aspects. The first thing for us to consider is that even if we never have sex we are all sexual beings always: each of us is a man or woman, and from the moment of birth biological and cultural factors begin to shape our lives as women or men in the world. To give an obvious example, consider the toys baby boys and girls are commonly given: boys are given cars, girls dolls; and so they are being shaped into cultural-sexual roles they will play or perhaps resist, but which will affect their lives deeply.

This is why Morton & Barbara Kelsey in Sacrament of Sexuality define “sexuality” on thirteen levels: levels 1-6 deal with physiological and levels 7-13 with social and cultural factors. In short, when we talk about “sexuality” we are not always talking about “sex”.
In his presidential address to the recent General Synod the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “We live in a time of revolutions. And the trouble with revolutions is, once they start, no one knows where they will go”. He then applied this to sexuality: “We may or may not like it, but we must accept that there is a revolution in the area of sexuality, and we have not fully heard it”.

++Justin didn’t spell out how he understands this sexual revolution in any detail but in these notes I offer a few of what many commentators on the subject believe to be its most significant features. Broadly speaking, the first properly-scientific study of human sexuality was published as recently as 1948 by a biologist, Alfred Kinsey. Before this report we knew virtually nothing about ourselves as sexual beings; but his 1948 “Report on Male Sexuality”, followed a couple of years later by his “Report on Female Sexuality” unleashed a flood of research into sexuality from every possible angle, a flood that continues to flow ever more strongly now. The result has been that we have learnt infinitely more about ourselves in the past 50 years than in the previous 2000 and we are different people from our ancestors as a result.Increased knowledge, however, often complicates Christian reception of teachings developed in earlier times. The issues we face bear testimony to this reality.

The question I am posing is: “How does this revolution impact our traditional teachings on human sexuality?” This is why I am not focusing this part of these notes on the Bible, but rather on helping you to understand the insights of research from a variety of disciplines to give you a good framework for a creative interaction with your faith. The intention, then, is to offer you the opportunity to ask questions, rather than to arrive at answers.

Four Central Features of the Revolution in Human Sexuality

The goodness of desire

I said earlier that “sexuality” is a broader term than “sex”. “Sexuality” is in fact quite a new word, having appeared formally in our language only in the 1799 edition of the OED. It comes from the Latin secare to cut off or amputate and so points to our incompleteness without an Other. Our sexuality pushes us to connect with an Other in order to complete ourselves. At the heart of being human, then, we desire the Other, and it is through desire that we reach out to the Other. When it comes to sexual relationships that desire is sexual, but this same fundamental desire pushes us into connections with Others in all sorts of ways: we desire the good for our parents or grandparents so we help them as they become infirm; we desire to belong to community so we join a tennis club or U3A or a church; we desire to help those less fortunate than ourselves so we help in the local soup-kitchen or charity; we desire to belong to our country so we enter politics or public life in some other way; we desire to contribute to Others so we work as doctors or lawyers or accountants etc.

Sexual desire, then, is at one with all these other expressions of desire, though it is unique in its ability to give us an almost-total completeness of being. This is why the popular spiritual writer, Richard Rollheiser rightly says: “Having sex…offers humans the greatest opportunity for genuine intimacy available this side of eternity”. This ability of sexual desire to take away the ache of incompleteness is the result of its being an expression of the Divine in us. (This is not to imply that single people are intrinsically incomplete: in terms of what I’ve said about desire, we may find completion in other desires than the purely sexual).

This is why there is a very close connection between sexual desire and desire for God; and this is why we have the Song of Songs in the Bible, where God is portrayed in overtly sexual language as our passionate lover and we, the Church, as his equally passionate loved one. This is why at the end of Revelation, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come’…”, and if you read the whole quotation (22.17-21) you can’t help but be struck by the orgasmic throb of the language by which the Spirit and the bride express their desire for each other (“come” repeated five times).

Further, if you read the great mystics you will soon see how desire to love and be loved by God is driven by a passion that is akin to sexual passion. Here is a typical example of mystical experience of God: “God…touches her, (spiritually), He embraces her, He penetrates her, He flows into her faculties, He gives himself to her, He fills her with the fullness of his being. The soul in return, ravished by his charms, and by the spectacle of his beauty, holds him, embraces him, clasps him closely, and, all on fire with love, she flows, she plunges, she buries and loses herself deliciously in God…”.

If the above be true, then sexual desire is not evil, as the church has traditionally taught it to be; and it is not something you have to cast off if you’re going to be truly spiritual. Unfortunately one of Christianity’s most influential teachers with regard to sexuality was St Augustine who, having been in his pre-Christian life, an absolute libertine, turned into an absolute prude in his Christian life, teaching a hatred of sexual desire because he made it responsible for original sin which he taught was transmitted physically in the male sperm to the child. In addition, in his reading of Genesis 3 he taught that Adam’s and Eve’s sin was sexual which is why their first act was to cover their genitals which were forever more to be called pudenda from the Latin pudere, to be ashamed.

Fortunately, today we have begun to recover the more truly biblical position that sexual desire is good in itself in that it is part of who God has made us to be; desire, in all the forms it can take, is part of, in fact, the driver of, our spiritual life. Rollheiser again expresses this powerfully: “Sexuality is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy, given us by God…to overcome our incompleteness, to move towards unity and consummation with that which is beyond us. It is also the pulse to celebrate, to give and receive delight, to find our way back to the Garden of Eden…Sexuality is not simply about finding a lover or even finding a friend. It is about overcoming separateness by giving life and blessing it…”.

Further, if desire, including sexual desire, is fundamental to our humanity, most of us are going to need to express it. This makes “virtuous” life in the sexual sense extremely difficult for unmarried people today for a variety of reasons, one of the chief of which is that the gap between puberty and marriage has grown extremely wide. In earlier times marriage followed puberty closely – girls commonly married when they were around 14 and men around 20 years old; and puberty occurred later than it does today. Hence in earlier times people moved almost immediately from sexual maturity to marriage, whereas today sexually mature individuals commonly have 10-20 years of unmarried existence to cope with in which they are supposed to live celibately. How does the Church’s teaching help them to do so? (This is a question related to next week’s topic when we’ll pick it up again).

Of course desire is also dangerous because it’s so powerful, which is why it needs to be regulated; but everything in life has potential for good or bad. The sexual revolution has been far too little aware of the dangers of unleashing human sexuality, but we in the Church have arguably laid an unbalanced stress on these dangers with the result that we have made people feel guilty about something that is a fundamental part of their being and as such a cause for celebration.
This unbalanced attitude to sexual desire is also related to biology, our knowledge of which has always been influential over our attitudes to sexuality. Before the modern era human ignorance of sexual biology was profound so that, just to give you one example, right into the Victorian Age in the UK, people believed that male sperm was actually blood agitated into a froth by passion. Hence it was dangerous to have sex too often because it meant that a man lost blood, so Victorian couples were taught that they shouldn’t have sex more than once a week (a view that lingers in an ongoing fear about the elderly having sex).

Most Victorian men were happy to hear this because men weren’t really supposed to desire their wives anyway (remember Augustine’s teaching!), but apparently they could desire prostitutes: in the mid-Victorian period in London there was one prostitute for every ten men. Most women liked this teaching, too, because women had been given no resources which enabled them to see sex as pleasurable. At best it was a ‘duty’ a woman had to perform.

Love as the primary purpose of sex

What is the primary purpose of sex? Traditionally the Church has taught that its purpose is to reproduce; it is the means for us to obey the command in Gen 1.28 to fill the earth. However, and this is the second aspect of the modern sexual revolution I want to highlight, modern research has taught us that the primary purpose of sex is to build intimacy, not to reproduce – though reproduction is of course always a possibility in the sexual relationship of a man with a woman. This is not a contradiction of the biblical command because in the first place the Church went beyond what the text means under the influence of its own, extremely neurotic attitude to sexual desire – right into the Middle Ages the Church taught that sexual desire, even in marriage, was evil; that a husband and wife should have sex only for the purpose of reproduction, not because they desired each other. Basically, the Church tolerated sexual desire only because it was necessary to obey the command in Genesis. Luther called marriage “an emergency hospital for the illness of human drives”.

Although we are a church that has accepted contraception and therefore accepted the revolutionary idea that sex is primarily for intimacy, the old idea of the primacy of reproduction continues to influence discussion on same-sex relationships, especially the issue of same-sex marriage. Leaving aside for the moment issues surrounding the word “marriage” as applied to same-sex couples, if sex is for intimacy, and if the need for intimacy is fundamental to being human, is there really a basis to deny people whose desire is orientated differently the right to form a life-long relationship in which they can express their need for intimacy?

Traditionally, and I think rightly, the Church has taught that some people have a God-given gift of celibacy which enables them to live without the human intimate contacts most of us need; and it is possible that very few people really do have this gift which is about much more than just doing without sex. If celibacy is a God-given gift, then is the frequently-iterated church position on gay people that they are acceptable as long as they remain celibate, sustainable? Do all gay people have God’s gift of celibacy just because they are gay? If all don’t, then how do we the Church help them to express their sexuality, their need for intimacy, in a way that helps them to live full and holy lives?
Note that I am pointing out how the revolution in sexuality may influence the way we have been taught to think; and I’m doing this non-dogmatically: I’m suggesting things you should think about but not telling you what you should think.

Women discover their freedom

The third aspect of the sexual revolution I want to point you to is that women have now become subjects of their own sexuality, not objects of male sexuality. This may be the most profound revolution of all. Historically, in patriarchal societies men have always had considerable freedom sexually, while restraining their women, usually very strictly. Women were restrained because they were seen by Christian men as an impediment to their spiritual life (thus Tertullian: “Woman is the gate of hell”; Aristotle taught that a female child was the product of defective sperm). They were also believed to be close to satan (note the frequency of witchcraft trials in the Middle Ages) in that their very presence was a constant source of temptation to men seeking God.

Women were also restrained because they bore children and thus influenced the inheritance of things men valued – the family name, property, wealth etc.The danger that one’s child may marry the ‘wrong’ person, that is a person who would endanger the things one valued, led to the dominant model of marriage in the West, namely marriage-as-event, with a clear starting-point in a ceremony that was both religious and legal. Although we seem to think this was God’s view of marriage it actually took hold in England only from 1753 with the Hardwicke Marriage Act which made a ceremony a legal requirement for marriage in England and Wales for the first time (more on this next week).
Historically, women were not thought by men to have sexual desire, and any woman who did show that she felt sexual desire would be labelled a “whore”. You’ll notice a patriarchal viewpoint in Matt 5.28 where Jesus speaks about “lust” without reference to women (remember that although Jesus was worshipped as Divine quite early on he was a human being and as such a man of his time. As one theologian put it: “If you don’t realize that inasmuch as Jesus was a human being like us he believed the world was flat”, you haven’t understood the Incarnation”). In the examples I gave earlier from Victorian England, prostitution thrived in London in England’s most Christian Age because men had been taught that the purpose of sex in marriage was reproduction not pleasure so they got their pleasure outside marriage. In this they were doing what men have done in every patriarchal society, where there have always been a double standard for male and female sexual behaviour. It is not accidental that this suppression of female sexuality has gone historically with other forms of the oppression of women which deny them a place in society and the Church as the equals (though not the same as) men. Deny women an existence in one area and it follows that you will deny them an existence in other areas.

Today, however, we know that women have sexual desires as men do, though their desires are experienced differently from men. This recovery of feminine subjectivity has driven the feminist movement, and forced both society and Church to respond. This revolution offers us questions such as: How should it transform male/female relationships – in the pre-marital relationships of young people, in marriage, with regard to ordination and with regard to episcopal consecration?  And what help does Jesus in his relating to women give us in reframing the Church’s patriarchal perspective? Such questions will be addressed under next week’s subject.

The Understanding of Homosexuality.

The fourth revolution is the concept of sexual orientation which is now widely accepted. The concept is based on the insight by the pioneering student of sexuality, Alfred Kinsey, that hetero and homo sexual impulses are mixed in almost all people, Kinsey found that people commonly change position on a “scale” at different times of their lives for a variety of reasons, although about 90-95% of any population will settle at the heterosexual end of the spectrum, while a minority of between 5 and 10% will settle at the homosexual end. This means that being gay is part of the normal spectrum of human sexuality.

There is considerable debate about why some people settle at the homosexual end of the scale. Some say they are wired differently, the argument from nature, while others say that nurture, that is life experiences, are responsible. Yet others claim that nature and nurture interact differently in different people. That debate is interesting but not for us in this discussion we are having, in which the important thing is for us to understand that this new knowledge about homosexuality requires a new response from us in the church. If homosexuality is part of the normal spectrum of sexuality, why do we in the church continue to treat gay people as if they are diseased or unclean or belong to some other planet (which is how we do treat them)? So this new fact of orientation creates a new situation to which we can’t just respond in the old way, as if the revolution hasn’t happened.

An additional aspect to this revolution is that because our sexual desires are part of the whole complex of desiring which drives us into relationships with others in all sorts of contexts, it is wrong to label people in terms of how (we think) they have sex. Our sexuality, whether hetero or homo, is about the totality of our lives, not just about how we have sex. That is why it is nonsense to claim that we can love gays as long as they suppress their sexual desires: we can’t separate the person from any single aspect of how they are made.

A Summary and Final Question

If it is true, as ++ Justin has said, that we haven’t yet heard the revolutionary time we live in with regard to human sexuality that is because we have resisted the impact of all revolutions, which is, as the Archbishop put it eloquently, that they move the ground on which we have been used to stand and require that we find a different firmness. This means that we have to have the courage to face new questions and issues for which old and tried answers may be no longer adequate. I have identified three “sexual revolutions” which change the way we understand ourselves as human beings and thus must affect the way we think and teach with regard to sexuality issues. In summary:

1.    That contrary to the traditional view, sexual desire is intrinsic to being human and therefore part of our created Being. As such it is good, though, as with any aspect of life, because of sin what God gave us may express itself wrongly;
2.    That contrary to a tradition which has had an almost entirely instrumental view of sex, sex in fact is given for the non-instrumental purpose of building love. If God is Love, it is not  surprising that this should be the purpose of sex, just as the purpose of desire, in whatever way it manifests itself is to create webs of social relationships which enable us to form communities which reflect that God is Love;
3.    That women are sexual beings as much as men are so that the historical oppression of women which has accompanied their sexual oppression has to be recognized, confessed and changed by society and the Church.
4.    That the concept of sexual orientation tells us that being gay is a normal aspect of human existence, even though a minority has this orientation.
Many of these issues will have an impact on next week’s topic, “Marriage and Relationships” so I don’t want to deal with them here, but I want to end by asking what, if anything, we can stand on in this time of mind-rattling revolutions, all of us, whatever we think with regard to particular, controversial issues. To do this I can do no better than quote Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher and pious Jew whose work I admire deeply. He says that,  faced with all the change that is a constant of historical living, “ does not Israel attach itself to an ‘always’ – in other words to a permanence in time, to a time held by moments of holiness, by the way in which they have a meaning or are ‘so close to the goal’…”. In other words Levinas says that what has maintained Israel through a history of incredible change and persecution – near eclipse in the Holocaust– has been her habit of finding the “always”, which is also a “moment of holiness”, in her reading of the Bible by means of which Israel finds God’s deepest and truest purpose. It is this “always” that has enabled Israel to negotiate history’s changes without losing her identity or calling.

Applied to the changes in our understanding of our sexuality, only some of which I have outlined, the “moment of holiness”, the thing which is an “always” is not any particular regulation governing sexual behaviour, but rather has to do with an attitude relevant to every aspect of our sexuality. Let me come at this via what seems to me to be the underlying negative in the sexual revolution: in a world which doesn’t acknowledge God but loves freedom, sex has been reduced to a pleasurable commodity which anyone can have at any time they like. This is why, if you take note of how sex(uality) is spoken of and expressed in TV programmes you soon see that it is essentially like any other ‘thing’ there for the taking if you can. So, for example, sex is good for health, just like jogging – look at the place it occupies in health magazines to see what I mean. Now against this bizarre and humanly-destructive reduction we as Christians have the “always” that sex(uality) is God’s gift, reflecting directly the passion, intensity, and focus of God’s absolute commitment to God’s creatures and creation, and also, then, partaking of the Divine, and so full of the  mystery, promise, hope, new life, and joy we associate with God. This I suggest is the “always” we must insist on with regard to human sexuality.

Put differently, we might say that sex is never the matter-of-fact exchange, the exchange with pleasure but without consequence, that society increasingly claims it to be. Rather, whenever we have sex with another, our selfhood is given to that other; and that is always a very deep contact, one that shouldn’t be made easily, one that will damage us if we give too much of ourselves away too quickly to the wrong person. St Paul knew this when he said: Do you not know that whoever is united with a prostitute becomes one body with her? [1 Cor 6.16]. In other words, in having sex with another you give yourself to that other irretrievably. That is right to do if the supporting relationship with that other is deep enough, but damaging if that is not so. This is why the Church teaches that sex outside marriage is wrong – it damages those who have it outside marriage.

If human behaviour is directed by this understanding human sex(uality) will flourish. In short, I suggest that we don’t need to regulate human behaviour, which has been our focus traditionally. Rather, we need to help Christians understand the profound and direct connection between God and their human sexuality such that their desire (of whatever kind) will reveal itself in “moments of holiness”.

Some Good Reading

Foucault, M., 1981-1986 (English translation). The History of Sexuality, 3 vols. London: Penguin Books.
Kelsey, M. &. B., 1986. Sacrament of Sexuality. Massachusetts & Dorset: Element.
Nelson, J. & Longfellow, S. eds., 1994. Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press.
Rogers, E., ed., 2002. Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Malden (USA), Oxford (UK), & Carlton (Aus): Blackwell.
Tannahill, R., 1989. Sex in History. London: Abacus.
Williams, R. D., 2002. The Body's Grace. In: E. Rogers, ed. Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Malden (USA), Oxford (UK), & Carlton (Aus): Blackwell, pp. 309-321.
Tim Long
Oct 2013

Tim Long, 13/10/2013