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A Christian Perspective on Sexuality

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If you want to avoid falling out with someone at a party, it's considered wise to avoid three 'hot' topics: sex, politics and religion. Or so the saying goes. But it's really not possible to live a reflective and intelligent life without thinking about these important areas of life. An unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said.

 

Where does sex belong?

 

As I write the Church of England is fighting with itself once again over sex – who may do it, to whom, and under what circumstances. The source of the argument was decision by a London Vicar – against the advice of his bishop – to 'bless' a civil partnership between two gay men in his church. What's interesting about this particular blessing row – for many like it have been going on for years, but privately, away from the media – is that the couple decided to base their service on the most traditional and ancient of the Anglican Church's liturgies – the Book of Common Prayer's 'solemnization' of matrimony. Here's the opening section:

 

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.

 

You may find some of the attitudes towards marriage and sex here offensive - or just plain bizarre. It all seems a long way away from contemporary attitudes towards sex which might be summed up as: as often as possible and with anything that has a pulse. The 'official' position of the Christian Church on sex – though presenting a single, simple generalising statement on the subject is basically impossible – is this: between men and women and only in the context of marriage. Leaving aside the question of what qualifies as proper 'sex' (kissing full on the mouth? touching and stroking certain areas of the body?), we might well ask where this black-and-white approach comes from? According to my well-thumbed Catechism of the Catholic Church, the answer is … the Book of Genesis. But it's not a very convincing place to begin. Adam and Eve certainly had sex - but did they really get 'married'? If we look into the rest of the Bible for a clear vote for sex within marriage we find very little.

 

Homosexuality

 

Sexuality has given most of the world's major religions serious problems at some time or other. At the present moment, Christianity is finding it difficult to deal with homosexuality/bisexuality as it's played out between the liberal individualistic West and the traditional-minded developing world. The joke goes that God made Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve. Therefore, some argue, God does not approve of homosexuality. From the early days of the Israelites (God's chosen people, the Jews), the norm seems to have been marriage between a man and a woman for life. But whether these ancient people had any understanding of homosexuality as we understand the word today is a subject of great debate.

 

The Christian roots of sexuality, like so much else, are to be found within ancient Judaism. It's within the pages of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that key ideas about sex (that remain common and widely held to this day) can first be encountered. It comes as a surprise to some to learn just how open and honest the Old Testament is about sexuality. Adam and Eve are naked, after all, and they (at least at the start) find no shame in their nakedness. In fact God encourages their sexual desires to become sexual acts in his very first command to us human beings: 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.' (Genesis 1:28)

 

Celibacy

 

The business of sex and families changes quite dramatically in the New Testament, (the 100 or so years after the death of Jesus). The first Christians expected Jesus to come back to earth very soon. So what was the point of marriage then? St Paul, for one, thought it better to stay single and wait for the end of this world – which couldn't be far off. But Jesus didn't come back as expected. Life had to go on, more or less as before: men and women marrying, having children, paying the bills, dying. But then some Christians started to think again about celibacy (the idea of not having any sexual contact with another person). Some of this thinking was based on the fact that Jesus himself never married. So shouldn't we follow Jesus in all things? Wasn't celibacy therefore the best way to live a good Christian life? Around this time some influential theologians started to introduce into their books ideas that we can only call today sexist, if not completely misogynistic (the hatred, dislike or distrust of women). Saint Augustine – a saint with a rather complicated sex life – had a particularly vivid way of putting women and their sexuality down: 'What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman... I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.'

 

The modern dilemma

 

It took quite some time for Christians to regain their trust in the goodness of marriage and 'ordinary' human, sexual relationships. With the ongoing problems over homosexuality, some would say Christianity is still a long way from getting it right. Sadly, the idea lingers on that God doesn't much like us liking our bodies – bodies which he gave us! The best we can do with them is beat them down, avoid their temptations and turn our minds towards higher things. Thankfully, most contemporary Christians think this way of living is nuts.

 

The continuing battle over homosexuality illustrates clearly the recurring problem of what we could call The Bible versus The World. Today in the West, we live in secular democracies. Everyone – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever – is under the Rule of Law. These laws permit certain behaviours as well as prohibiting others. Because these laws are only partly based on Jewish and Christian traditions, they permit many things which the monotheistic religions historically haven't – things like sex outside marriage and homosexuality. We call this divergence the clash of cultures or clash of authority.

 

Ultimately, each Christian has to make up their own mind about how to live out and regulate their sexual needs and feelings. Few churches today would advise the denial or complete repression of our natural sexual desires. And so, some will side with their non-religious friends and neighbours by living out a sexual lifestyle rooted in secular morality; others will attempt to push against the tide by the following of older, more traditional sexual codes.

 

Most Christians I know are fed up with having to talk about what the Church is saying now about homosexuality, sex outside marriage, masturbation, pornography, etc. They point out – in exasperation – that Jesus spent much more of his time considering the abuse of wealth and power than the abuse of human sexual desire. Perhaps the biggest sin in connection with sexuality is to blow it out of all proportion to the rest of life, making it into a sort of anti-idol draining us of the energy needed to deal with more pressing problems. Jesus, if ever we stand before him, will want to hear from us that we visited the prisoner and fed the hungry. He'll be much less interested in finding out

 

 

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