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exploring historical Christian attitudes to sex

In body, Christianity, history, premarital sex on September 27, 2010 at 2:16 pm

The Christian attitude toward sex can probably summed up best in the word: ambivalent. Ambivalent means to have mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone. Christianity has nothing if not mixed feelings and contradictory ideas about sex.

So where did all the confusion come from? Naturally, there’s no one particular influence we can point a finger at. There are all too many historical and cultural factors that played into the development of ambivalence. One, which I find particularly interesting, is the influence of a strand of Greek thought, in which the body or physical matter was thought of as inferior to the soul. Anything connected to the body was considered a distraction and those pursuing “the good” or “virtue” sought to escape the limitations of the physical world. This way of thinking greatly influenced the early Christian thinkers and writers. They adapted this idea by equating the spiritual life, or the pursuit of God as “the good”, which was hindered by the body and its temptations. Some went so far as to claim the body was evil.

This had a special impact on women. Women were seen as more connected to the body than men, because of their menstrual cycle and the fact that women give birth. In many of the early writings women are vilified as distractions and temptations to men. Women were thought to be unable to reach the same spiritual maturity as men because they were more bound to their bodies (ironic how this later flipped and women were thought of as more spiritual, because they were “pure” and “innocent”, unlike men). Needless to say, these attitudes were incredibly damaging, not only to the status and ultimately the self-esteem of women, but also to the way in which Christians through the centuries have thought about and interacted with their sexuality.

The Bible also contributes to this ambivalence regarding sex, because it is often confusing and contradictory on that topic. It is both extremely explicit and extremely vague about sex. Sex is a prominent theme in the Old Testament. On one hand we have Leviticus, which meticulously details all the possible variations of sexual intercourse that are not allowed, on the other hand the biblical stories that involve sex are often highly complex and morally ambiguous. Tamar and Lot’s daughters come to mind, the concubine who was left to the townspeople and ultimately cut into pieces, David raping Bathsheba, Rahab and the Israelite spies, Absolam raping his sister, etc. In some of these stories the main characters are judged and punished for their actions by God and in others they aren’t, even when their actions seem to be equally reprehensible. Leviticus says very little about what age sex is appropriate to engage in and makes no mention of the issue of premarital sex as we understand it today. Then we have the Song of Solomon in which sexual intimacy is gloriously and exuberantly described in graphic detail.

In the New Testament, Jesus says very little directly about sex, but makes clear that our attitudes and desires around sex can be unhealthy. In his interactions with the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery, he does not condemn their actions for being sexual, but for being unhealthy, and most likely unfulfilling. Paul on the other hand has a lot to say directly about sex and he says it very strongly. Although he also does not explicitly mention the concept of premarital sex, much of our language around sexual immorality comes from his letters. We tend to forget however that he was writing to specific churches that were dealing with specific issues within their congregations, where many were converts from other religions and were navigating a new set of spiritual expectations, which were in turn influenced by Pharisaical law and the Jewish tradition.

Pleasure is another factor that has left Christians ambivalent toward sex and sexuality. What are we supposed to do with pleasure? Is it good, is it bad? Are we allowed to want something merely for pleasure? Christianity has had a very hard time with this word, because whether we like it or not, pleasure is a big component of sex. Even if we choose to spiritualize sex as a sacred act of marriage, or define it as a service to our spouse and part of our marital “duties”, pleasure is still there. Many of us come from backgrounds that emphasized “taking up your cross”, which seemed to equal being serious all the time, not having any fun and living only to serve other people. Pleasure is completely at odds with that concept. How do we connect our ideas of what we should be as Christians with our actual human body?

A few things seem clear. The Christian past has left us unsure about our bodies, unsure about how God really feels about sexuality and unsure about pleasure. How do we begin redeem this uncertainty?