November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
June 4, 2007
Sex in the church is completely screwed up. This is a conclusion I have reached, not based on my own experience or thoughts in an ivory tower, but by talking through the experiences of people I have known who have been, and still are, faithful followers of Christ.
Some of these have been married folk, some single. Some of them have been virgins and others of them have practiced sexual laxity. Some of them have been older than I am and some of them have been younger. But one common theme continues to emerge: married or single, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, we are infatuated with our sex, and yet, we have no idea what to do with it.
My conversations have led me to various extremes. On the one hand, I have talked to young women whose prior sexual experiences have left them feeling the presence of a void in their lives, a part of their soul missing and given to the many partners they have had.
On the other hand, I have talked to married men, who wed as virgins and yet who, two years into their marriage, had still not consummated it. I have talked with homosexuals who have battled the experience of thinking of themselves as unclean. And I have conversed with students whose chastity has been formed around the notion that sex itself is unclean.
The full spectrum of these conversations has led me to believe that something is wrong with our Christian understanding of sexuality; and for many reasons I believe our conceptions of chastity and marriage are the root of the problem.
While I realize that this statement may come as a shock to many, it is not my intention simply to be a “controversial” writer, as if that were something to be proud to claim.
I say that I think that chastity and marriage are the root of the problem because I believe that our current formations of them only serve to promote—if in an inverted way—the sex cult of Western culture.
Contemporary Western culture, both secular and Christian, is infatuated with sex, even if this infatuation takes on different forms. For the sake of this argument, let me boil the two prominent streams of thought down by displaying that they are really two articulations of the same basic idea.
In many church circles, the categorical imperative, “virginity until marriage,” serves primarily to allow an individual to experience his or her true sexual self within the confines of holy matrimony. Directly opposed to this, while remaining very much the same, are the advocates of “coming out,” a form of secular thinking that takes as a given that each individual ought to be liberated to express his or her inner sexual self through his or her desired form of exposé.
Both of these alternatives, however, I believe pay homage to a faulty notion, yet one that grew out of the influential conceptions of sexuality in the theology of many of the church fathers. This faulty notion, no doubt the byproduct of the conception of human nature in Patristic theology, took full-blown modern form in the idea that human beings are fundamentally and essentially sexual beings. And it is in response to this distorted configuration of sex that I hope to make the case for the need for new discourses of sexuality in the church, ones that actually help us to find our way out of our modern conceptions of sexuality.
In order to find a way out of the pervasive Christian sex cult, however, we will need to examine the history of the formation of sexuality in the West, especially in the theology of St. Augustine. While it is not my intention in this essay to attack Augustine or to belittle his understanding of sexuality, I do think that Augustine’s sexually-charged theology plants the seed in the history of the West that will eventually birth the contemporary Christian sex cult.
Yet, I also believe that by returning to St. Augustine we may find within his theology windows, egresses, passages or spaces to a new form of life no longer defined by the cult of sex. This is not to say that I think we possess the possibility of escaping our point in history. I am not arguing that a simple recovery of a pre-modern Augustine will lead us out of the sexual conundrums of our present age, for this would be to naively assume that we could divorce ourselves from our place in history. It would not be to gesture toward a reformation or a revolution of our culture, which is what I hope to do, but it would be to argue for an annihilation of that culture.
Instead, I will set out to read Augustine with respect to what we have learned through modernity, especially what we have learned about virile society, in order to articulate new Christian practices of freedom as a means of revolution in this world and a way out of the worship of sex.
How Did We Get Here?
Why is it that we have become so infatuated with sex? How is it that we have come to define ourselves with respect to our sexuality and why is it that this has become such a primary way for us to understand ourselves? To answer these questions we must take a gander at the history of sex in the West.
The usual narrative reads something like this: The world was a place of fornication, orgy, sexual deviance and debauchery until Christianity came along. Then, celibacy and marriage were established as the God-given ways to practice one’s sexuality. Ever since, the world of flesh—inflamed with sexual desire—has been warring against Christian morality in order to overturn these Christian conventions and reopen the world to pornography, drunken orgies and sexual promiscuity.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality of the matter is that since the ancient world, through the time of Christ, and even into our own time, sexual practices and teachings have not changed all that significantly. While this may come as a surprise to some readers, those acquainted with the writings of Plato, Seneca, Epictetus, and Philo surely realize that both sexual laxity and austerity have been alive for quite a long time in Western societies. What has changed, however, as a result of Christianity is the way we think about sex (but we’ll come back to this point).
Christianity did not invent codes of sexual morality. In fact, many ancient writers gave admonitions to self-control in regard to sexuality.1
Greco-Roman philosophical texts are full of rules for austerity. Pagan culture was not liberal, at least not on the whole. These philosophers (and here I am speaking of those persons at an economic level capable of doing philosophy), primarily understood life to be a work of art. They thought that life was something to be made beautiful, that one’s task was to perform a beautiful life by acting in certain ways, that is, primarily by caring for oneself (epimeleia heautou).2 Hence, caring for oneself carried implications for his3 sexuality.
For instance, when Plato wrote about the love for boys (pederasty was a prominent practice in Greek culture), he found that he could not reconcile it with friendship. Because friendship was reciprocal and sexual relations were not—in that one person penetrates and the other is penetrated. Plato recognized that it was difficult to have sex within a friendship.4 As an act of friendship, self-control then became an important discipline for anyone wanting to live a beautiful life.
While these acts of self-control did not function as obligations in Greek culture, they remained important for anyone wanting to care properly for himself and were strongly recommended to those who wanted to enter politics and philosophy. The discipline of self-control was fundamental to a good reputation, a beautiful life, and to the ability to rule others.
The reason for this way of understanding sex was based upon the virile society of Greek culture, a culture obsessed with penetration and the threat of losing one’s power and energy;5 for to be penetrated was to be made soft and as a result to lose one’s heat or masculinity. If one wanted to live a beautiful life, then one needed to aim at masculinity, that is, one had to take care not to allow himself to be penetrated.
It is in this respect that we can understand how virginity began to function as a feminine ideal in the ancient world, something that Christianity in certain ways definitely inherited. To remain a virgin was a mode of self-integrity for the Greek woman.6 By doing so, she did not allow herself to be penetrated and as a result aimed closer toward the beautiful life at the pinnacle of ancient virile society; she aimed toward the ideal of the rational male creature, or citizen. In this context, virginity was not based upon a concern for purity, but a function of integrity or being true to one’s goal.
All of this is to say that we actually find very stringent rules for sexual conduct when we examine the texts of the Socratics, the Cynics, the Stoics, and even the Epicureans. Each of these schools taught its followers that they should be truthful to their wives, not to touch boys, and to act with self-control sexually if they hope to live the beautiful life.
With this in mind, we can see that the New Testament writers, and particularly Paul, did not introduce anything new to the community of Christ’s followers with regard to sexuality. Paul did not create the notion of self-control and neither did he invent the notion of sexual austerity. In fact, in many ways he simply regurgitated the common teachings of these groups, a point I will emphasize later in the essay.7
What did happen, however, early on in Christianity was that the way one knew oneself changed. While in the Greek framework, a person sought to know himself with regard to how he functioned in society, in the third century of Christianity, confession and self-renunciation became the primary mode of knowing oneself.8
Now, what do I mean by this? What I am trying to show is that, within the monastic orders of early Christianity, a person’s desires became the focus. Whereas self-examination for Greco-Roman philosophers was a tool used in the attempt to care for oneself,9 that is, to make his life beautiful, the use of this tool shifts in early Christian thinkers. Self-examination changed, because it became possible that Satan could get inside one’s soul and present him with desires that he may not recognize as satanic.10 The concern shifted from the way desires were acted out toward a focus on the root of one’s desire.
For Plato it was not a problem that Socrates had a desire for young boys, but what was important was that, even when lying down with young Alcibiades, Socrates did not touch him.11 In Patristic Christianity, however, an alteration developed such that this desire became problematic and in need of purification because it was seen as ungodly. In this way, one’s task changed from the care over how he acted out his desires to the work of purging himself of all desires that did not come from God.
Purity became the focus instead of integrity; renouncing oneself as the ebullition of perverted desire was substituted for being true to one’s goal. In a vulgar way, one could say that the emphasis turned from penetration to the erection, as a passive form of rebellion natural to the fallen man.
Along with this change to a focus on self-examination, Christianity also altered the goal of life. Wherein the Greco-Romans were concerned with making their lives beautiful here and now, Christian monastics set immortality, heaven and complete purity as the goal of their lives.12
Christianity relocated the goal of life; no longer seeing it as what directs the art of earthly living, the destination for Christians was moved beyond life. And this implies that instead of viewing life as art, Christians began to understand life as preparation: the Christian was to use this life to prepare himself for the life that was to come.
When Christianity set its salvation only in the clouds, in a state beyond this life, this helped to secure that the main task of Christian existence became self-renunciation because purifying oneself for a truer state of being in the future downplayed any goal for this life. The emphasis shifted from a concern over the actions at hand to a fixation on preparing oneself for the life that was to come. Hence, purification became the mode of being and the discipline of one’s life became the practice of purging oneself of all faulty desires, especially sexual desires.
It goes without saying that the central figure in the genealogy I am developing was St. Augustine. While Augustine would never have endorsed the body/soul dualism of modern Christianity and secular culture, he was responsible for planting some of the seeds of this later development.
For Augustine, though the soul and the body were not separate, he did believe that the soul was in charge of the body; it was the director of the body, remaining over it. Yet, Augustine realized that as a result of sin, his soul was divided; willing both good and sin.
Furthermore, the soul was not only at odds with its own desires, but it was also at odds with the desires of the body. He thought that this was primarily the case with regard to sexual desire, the main point of opposition for Augustine between the soul and the body.13 This was not to say that Augustine would have explicitly thought of the body as bad, but he did notice that there was a peculiar shame in the reversal of the natural order in sexual concupiscence, for going against nature here the body (lower) took control of the soul (higher).14 As a result he became fixated on it, and in his writing it became the primary location for the connection between the soul and the body.
While Augustine formulated his own understanding of the configurations of human sexuality, he did not think in a vacuum. He was not the first to begin this line of thinking that focused so much attention on sexual desire, and it is evident that he simply inherited many of the biases of the theologians who had written before him, especially those of Tertullian in regard to continence. It was “[w]ith Tertullian [that] we have the first consequential statement, written for educated Christians and destined to enjoy a long future in the Latin world, of the belief that abstinence from sex was the most effective technique with which to achieve clarity of soul.”15
In the event that the likelihood of facing the challenge of martyrdom was becoming an ever-shrinking possibility in the wake of the success of the late 2nd to early 3rd century church, Tertullian instead sought to establish the suspension of all future sexual activity as the criterion on which to prove a prophet’s authenticity.16 In doing so, however, “he sunk sexuality deep into the human body.”17
The sex-drive, instead of death, became the universal location of spiritual authenticity for Tertullian, the place within every human where he could immediately sense the forces of the new kingdom of the Spirit waging war with those of the present age.
One needed to no longer wait for the possibility of martyrdom to display the power of the Spirit in one’s life, but he could now display the first fruits of holiness through continence. And in his own way, Augustine, through Jerome, received Tertullian’s configuration of and fascination with sexuality, only then to develop his own “darkened humanism that linked the pre-Christian past to the Christian present in a common distrust of sexual pleasure.”18
For this reason, Augustine, as well as St. Anthony, Cassian, Gregory of Nyssa and others, became infatuated with purity, primarily sexual purity. His own battle with sexual desire led him to understand that, “The disintegration of the wills and loves of fallen humanity was most manifest in the continuing assault of sexual passion upon the proper presidency of reason.”19
Furthermore, Augustine believed that the blow of sin had fallen with unequalled measure upon the desires of human sexuality.20 As was consonant with his fixation on the male libido, carnal desire became for Augustine the primary battleground for the divided will. We might even say that libidinal desire emerged as the primary location where, in between the City of God and the Earthly City, the Christian person was made most aware of himself as a divided will.
As a result of these developments, Augustine and these other monastic writers initiated a formulation of Christianity based on one central confusion: that, while sexual passion was strictly forbidden and strictly regulated, each person was to know him/herself in the confession of this misdirected desire.
Simply put, in this schema, Christians were forced to come to know themselves in relation to a desire that they were not supposed to have. They learned to understand themselves as sexual beings, but at the same time they were taught that this was the very self they were supposed to deny and renounce. Yet the assumptions that led to this conclusion were problematic and, in fact, birthed the modern cult of sexuality that soon swallowed Christianity and all of Western culture.
Hence, in that our contemporary formations of chastity and marriage emerged from this obsession with masculine libidinal desire, they still remain bound to the claim that sex is what is most essential about us.
Today, with respect to chastity, we maintain the notion that our essential nature is sexual desire even if this essential nature is what we are to renounce. Also, in the case of our present conception of marriage, the great savior, we find a location where we can embrace our true selves, finally acting on what we take to be our essential sexual passions. In this way, both marriage and chastity must pay homage to this basic, but constructed, nature of human beings, a basic sexual nature in the form of the male libido.
Though many centuries stand between Augustine and us, this confused formation directly relates to many of the structures of our contemporary churches and explains why our Christian subculture is just as infatuated with sex as is secular culture; because we both share this same sexual heritage.
One example of our belief in the idea that we are essentially beings comprised of sexual desire can be seen in the organization of our churches. Frequently, churches organize along sexual lines.
We develop special classes for singles, that is, the virgins or those not having sex—or at least not supposed to be doing so. We create married classes, that is, classes for those who are having sex and therefore with more freedom to talk about it. Seniors’ classes emerge for those who understand sex and have had it, but with whom we have no desire to think about having sex or care to discuss it with.
Furthermore, within the singles demographic (the one that I am most familiar with), smaller groupings are then developed in order to discuss the ways to renounce this essential nature. Male and female groups are established and divided out in order to discuss, or should I say confess, the intricacies of one’s life, meaning one’s sexual life. Friendships in these groups even come to be defined as “accountability partnerships,” a person to whom you are close not because you share with each other a vision for the world, the beautiful life, or the kingdom of God, but because they help you renounce your essential sexual nature as you divulge to them each and every sexual desire you have. The presence of these groupings makes clear the fact that we have organized the church according to what we seem to think is essential of human nature, namely, sex.
It is not my desire to attack the notion of “accountability partners” or those who have them, or to push aside the sexual ethic of the church in order to make room for sexual liberty (my argument is in no way intended to revive an ideology of sexual revolution), but it is simply to show how the church functions as a sex cult centered on the virtues of chastity and marriage.
Much of the confusion, frustration, and ire which arise in our discussion of sexuality springs from the fact that both conservatives and liberals have bought into the same lie. It’s just that we have developed different accounts of how to tell it. We both have believed that sex is what is most essential about us; we just have different ways of dealing with this fundamental belief.
The liberals of Western culture argue for the answer of “coming out” so that one ought to be able to experience him/herself authentically in sexual freedom.21Christian conservatives, on the other hand, are a little more confused, for they argue two things at the same time. Marriage and chastity allow them to argue for the practice of one’s authentic sexual self in the marriage bed at one moment and to proclaim the virtue of deep self-renunciation in virginity the next. (This may in part explain why, while given the depressing statistics on divorce among Christians, conservatives are so protective of marriage, because it is the only location in which to affirm one’s authentic self).
Is it any wonder that we are so very confused when it comes to discussing and understanding sexuality in the church? What else could be the result of the paradox of the obligation to denounce what is most essential about a person, that is, unless you are married? Many people have found themselves trapped inside this perplexing arrangement or lost in the transitions from one sexual category to another giving birth to sexual confusion and a church that is really screwed up when it comes to sexuality.
Where Do We Go From Here? Scintillations of Revolution
Is there any way out of this mess? How could the church begin to understand sexuality differently? Is this even possible without divorcing ourselves from our own tradition and the New Testament?
While I will not be able to give complete answers to all of these questions, I will try to offer some helpful suggestions to lead us in a new direction. By a new direction I mean to say that I want to offer us some practices of freedom, unrealized possibilities in the Scriptures and Augustine, which may help us to find ways out of our current formations of sexuality.
First, let’s revisit the text. One thing that we quickly realize when reading the gospels of the New Testament, is that Jesus is not as family or marriage-friendly as we would like him to be. In fact, he makes some very enigmatic and uncomplimentary statements about both of these institutions. While I do not have the space to deal with each and every one of these statements, a few particular passages come ready to mind.
Each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) describe an encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees concerning the question of the resurrection. In order to problematize a belief in the resurrection (a belief that the Sadducees did not agree with), these leaders presented Jesus with a hypothetical situation, as recorded in Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27 and Luke 20:27-39.
In this scene, they ask Jesus to tell them, if a woman is widowed by seven brothers and then dies herself, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus’ response to this proposed problem, however, is very controversial.
In Matthew and Mark he responds by saying, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30; Mark 12: 25).
In Luke’s gospel, Christ goes even further, stating, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34-35).
Given the devotion of Christians to marriage today, doesn’t this reply appear a little odd or out of place? Jesus seems to be saying here that marriage is not all that important and that it is certainly not essential to the age that is to be born with his resurrection from the dead some weeks later.
For Jesus, it looks as if marriage is not a part of the kingdom of God. At least, we can say from this that it is certainly not the goal, or essence, of life. We might even say that Jesus goes out of his way here to stress the fact that marriage is not the end goal for those who have chosen to follow him.
Furthermore, when propositioned on the propriety of divorce (Matt 19:1-12), Jesus concludes his answer by stating that it is better not to marry and, in fact, points to the ideal of becoming a eunuch for the Kingdom of God, apparently entertaining the same indifference when it comes to sex!
According to Jesus it appears that neither marriage nor sex is an essential practice for the Christian; they are not necessary actions to living a full human life. Does Christ simply want to challenge us with the notion that relationships within the Kingdom of God are not to be defined sexually because this is not what is essential about us?
It appears from reading the gospels that there is something more fundamental to being human than sexual desire and the struggle with where to put it.
While it is true that Christ refuses to make marriage and sexuality essential to those living in the Kingdom of God, that is, those following him, no discussion of Christian sexuality can ignore the writings of St Paul. In order to make my argument, it is clear that I will have to go directly into the lion’s mouth by engaging the figure whom most deem to be responsible for the obsession with sexuality in Christianity.
When perspicuously reading Paul, however, one realizes that he doesn’t go at sexuality in the way we think he is going to. None of Paul’s letters could be classified as sexual treatises. Paul is not the sex-obsessed maniac that many scholars and church leaders have painted him to be. More often than not, sex is something he mentions in passing as he proceeds on to discuss the more important matters of the church.
The reason why we do not notice this most of the time is simply because we have lost the ability to read even each of Paul’s letters in whole. Instead, we have settled for reading them in parts, as fragmental commands of God. (While I am not a huge proponent of textual criticism, I do think that this is one very important lesson we can learn from it. The partial word of God may be more detrimental to our health and life than no word from God at all).
Thus, any discussion of Romans 1, I Corinthians 6-7, or I Thessalonians 4 must not be divorced from a full and complete reading of each letter. When we are careful to do this, however, we quickly recognize that these “sexual morality” texts do not play the major role that we have given to them. In fact, we might even say that it is shocking how little Paul has to say about sex given the lewd practices of the day, especially when we compare the dearth of Paul’s discussion of sex to the surfeit of attention pastors today give to the topic.
While space will not allow for a complete study of all of Paul’s thoughts on sexuality, a reexamination of Romans 1:18-32 will suffice to make my point.
In the history of the interpretation of this text, most commentators read Paul as arguing the case for universal human depravity by employing a “decline narrative” typical to Hellenistic-Jewish texts of the inter-testamental period.22 “Stories such as these… were common in Greek, Roman, and Jewish circles; in the Jewish traditions, they usually functioned to set Israel off from the impurities and gross sins of the Gentiles,”23 as can be seen in the Wisdom of Solomon (chs. 13-14 on the foolishness of idol worship), 1 Enoch (concerning the watchers), and Jubilees 11 Jewish denunciations of Gentile-pagan culture. According to this typical interpretation, Paul, however, uses this narrative of decline to theologically surmise the fallen state of all of humanity.24 Paul sets the fallen world up (or down for that matter) in order to argue for the need to accept the grace of God through faith, both Jew and Gentile.
But this interpretation of Paul cannot make sense of his complete argument in chapters 1-3, and neither can it make sense of the letter as a whole.25 When we attempt to read the letter as a whole, contrary to the typical reading above, it appears that Paul employs this decline narrative as a rhetorical device in quite a different way. In fact, it appears that this decline narrative is the message of “‘another Gospel.’ And Paul [is] attacking its premises, along with their concomitants, in something of a masterpiece of ironic subversion.”26
Looking at the text a little closer, it appears that Paul is firing off a pre-emptive strike, or at least a riposte, against the Judaizers or those of similar conviction he so vehemently attacks for leading away the Galatian Christians (see Galatians 1-3). Paul, having not been to Rome (1:10), sets out in this letter to counter the teaching of these opponents, who are due in town any moment or have just recently arrived.
Paul employs the device of irony to begin his letter to the Roman Christians, implying that this decline narrative must be read with a tone of sarcasm—something most modern scholars have sorely overlooked. Romans 1:18-32 is actually the argument of Paul’s opponents, an argument he employs in order to turn their own words against them in the following verses. “Paul’s indirect approach in Romans then, that begins in 1:18-32 with a cameo of the preaching that he is about to attack, turning the argument from 2:1 in order to expose its underlying premises of soteriological meritocracy and a fundamentally retributive God, seems quite brilliant.”27
Paul’s ironic tactic parrots his opponents’ argument in order to display just how untenable it is, exposing their inconsistencies to illustrate that they are, in fact, trapped by their own commitments. Seen this way, their own Judaism is made obsolete by the fact that righteous Gentiles have found the law on their own, making both conversion to Judaism and Judaism itself unnecessary.28
Along with Paul’s use of irony, the fact that he is writing to a Gentile community that has encountered (or is about to encounter) the teaching of the Judaizers forces a bivalent reading of his understanding of natural sexuality. Given this background, “natural relations” (Rom. 1:26-27) has two different definitions, both of which Paul seems to play off of.
On the one hand, Paul seems to be reasserting that natural relations must be defined in typical Jewish terms as corresponding to the first command, that of copulation and procreation in Genesis 1:28. Yet, at the same time, the idea of natural relations in the Greco-Roman understanding would have coincided with the structure of virile society, which we laid out earlier.
Natural, for the Greco-Roman male (and female virgins) would have necessitated a refusal to be penetrated, or made feminine, and aimed towards the goal of reaching citizenship or, for the women, at least as was as close as possible to that ideal. Hence, the idea of a natural sexuality seems to have two definitions here, one tied to copulation for procreation and one joined with the need to resist penetration both of which Paul employs ironically.29
Furthermore, for us to make sense out of how Paul views sexuality, we must also take into account his immanent eschatological horizon. Paul thinks that the end is at hand, the return of Christ is on its way and in some sense is already becoming present. “The time in which the apostle lives is, however, not the eschaton, it is not the end of time…but the time of the end…or if you prefer, the time that remains between time and its end.”30
Christ, in Paul’s perspective, has broken the boundaries of human history, opening the new domain of messianic time and space. Paul’s soteriology is fully apocalyptic in nature, “characterized by a clash between two carefully delineated ages ranging across time and space…”31 The disruption of messianic time allows Paul to view the Christian’s body, and as a result her sexuality, differently.
The urgency of the moment, the presence of living in the time it takes for the end of time to come, forces one to view his or her body differently, for the impulse to survive or to continue the human race no longer defines the lines of one’s life.
When we understand that this initial section of Romans must be read with an air of irony, when we see the bivalence of “natural relations,” and additionally when we recognize the immanent eschatology of Pauline thought, we quickly realize that Paul’s argument here operates on multiple levels.
Whereas copulation for procreation defined Jewish sexual relations, the gospel of Christ, for Paul, alters the way in which the new people of God multiply. Proclamation of the gospel, in this time it takes for the end to come, has replaced procreation as the means to grow the community. The resurrection of Christ has opened up messianic time, a time that affords the follower of Christ the possibility to use his or her body in a new way—for the salvation and redemption of the world.
Even more than releasing the body from sexual procreation as the mode to maintain the community, Paul’s understanding of participation in the messiah works to free the body from the constructs of virile society.
In that, for every follower of the Messiah, his or her body and soul has been penetrated by the physical reality of Christ’s resurrected presence, sexual penetration no longer needs dominate one’s care of her or himself. Noting that, “Paul’s moral vision is intelligible only when his apocalyptic perspective is kept clearly in mind: the church is to find its identity and vocation by recognizing its role within the cosmic drama of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself.”32
The Christian has turned his or her body toward the participation in Christ and, while this does not imply that the follower of Christ becomes asexual or loses his or her sexed body, it does mean that his or her body is freed to become more defined by imitating Christ than by his or her sexual practices.
In this sense, the perfection of the human body, for Paul, is not male, and neither is it the copulation between male and female, but it lays in attaining toward the image of God through the practices that imitate Christ. Hence, the marks of Christ, the stigmata, become the goal of forming the human body rather than the penetrating or procreating male.33
In Paul’s anthropology, Christ becomes what is deepest about us and not our sex.
This realization, coupled with Christ’s teaching on marriage, leads me to believe that the Western church has paid too much attention to sexuality. Let me be careful about how I say this because I think this is a point that may be easy to misunderstand (and misquote for that matter). I am not saying that Christianity is actually lax when it comes to sexual practice, but what I am saying is that neither Christ, nor Paul, makes sexuality the essence of who we are.
Prior to Christ, there is nothing essential to who we are, and only Christ is essential to those who follow him. No one is obligated to follow Christ, but those who follow him will pattern their lives on the imitation of him, literally practicing the resurrected Christ.
Purity is not the goal here in the form of self-renunciation, but with regard to sexual integrity, following Christ becomes the reason to affirm certain restrictions on sexual practice. Against a Christian formation of sexuality that places the stress on failure while limiting the only affirmation of the practice of oneself to that of sex in marriage, this understanding points toward the affirmation of many ways we can imitate Christ, and surprisingly married sex is not one of them.
So what does all of this mean? Well I think at base we can say that we may be able to find our way out of understanding ourselves primarily as sexual creatures by affirming the resurrected Christ.
Choosing to affirm the resurrected Christ, we may affirm the resurrected body of Christ in the church and in the world through the formation of friendships. Friendships teach us that not every relationship has to be sexual and that, if Paul and Christ are right, relationships aim more toward the goal of imitating Christ when they are not.
While friendship based on the imitation of Christ retains some of Plato’s suspicion that friendship may not easily be reconciled with sex, it also works to free this understanding of friendship from the masculine terms of beauty determined by virile society while maintaining that a friendship might exist between two people who have sex. It implies that the sex shared between two people will be defined by their friendship, so as to say that their relationship will define their sex and not the other way around. In this way, imitating Christ in friendship actually breaks down the lines of sex because keeping one’s power is no longer a primary concern.
Let me explain this point by way of reference to the life of St. Augustine. It may appear that I have been fairly hard on Augustine in this essay, and to some extent this is true. Yet, in many ways I want to affirm that Augustine understands Paul’s radical soteriology. He realizes that the time of Christ has overturned the way in which the community is to survive and multiply, for he recognizes that the goal of the imitation of Christ establishes that virginity is now to be more highly esteemed than marriage.34
However, the division that sexual desire has driven between the body and the soul, resulting in a soul that is divided against itself, leads him to define virginity in terms of the purity of desire, instead of integrity to the goal as using one’s body to participate in God’s work of salvation.
Hence, abstaining from sexual practice and desire through denunciation of these bodily functions become the way to purity for Augustine, rather than chastity functioning as a setting aside these desires, not attempting to squelch them, for another more important and enticing goal. As a result of his infatuation, or fear, of the male libido, he is unable to connect the body with the imitation of Christ and therefore, unknowingly formulates Christianity around sexuality by establishing the Christian’s primary task to be the renunciation of these wrongful, bodily, desires.
The reason for this misstep, however, I think is due in part to Augustine’s context. It is true that Augustine formulates his understanding of the Christian self on sex. He is one of the primary thinkers to bequeath to us the Christian sex cult that has become a full blown reality in the Western world and church.
As a response to his lascivious life prior to becoming a Christian, Augustine finds his salvation in self renunciation of this base sexual nature; even if by grace, the soul, for him, must continually place itself in purity above the body by renouncing these passionate desires. Yet, this is exactly where he, and many of the monastic thinkers, went wrong.
Augustine makes this false move, not because he is perverted or dimwitted, but simply because, within the structures of the monastery, he does not have the possibility of befriending any women. The “woman” remains a source of temptation for him, a stimulus that places his body at war with his soul; she remains a sexual object. Hence, he is never able to break free of the notion that relationships do not have to be defined by sex. Yet if we are able to critically read Augustine with this in mind, we find that returning to this idea of the imitation of Christ may provide us with a way out of the problematic alternatives of Christian purity, virile society, or “coming out.”
You see, while the shear weight of the Augustine’s writing against sexual desire has led those who have read him, myself included, to believe that he located the center of human being in the experience of one’s battle with sexual desire, this was not entirely true.
Although concern over the libido filled many of the lines of Augustine’s texts, easily leading us into this reading of him, he did leave an egress open for us to depart from this conception of human nature. Interestingly enough, “For Augustine, martyrdom always represented the highest peak of human heroism. To have triumphed over the bitter fear of death was a far greater sign of God’s grace than to have triumphed over the sexual urge.”35
Though Augustine in many ways continued, and yes even promulgated, a theology of the Christian sex cult, he did not completely surrender to this formulation of the human being. In the end, it appears that it was his pastoral sensitivities that led him to subtly resist the impulse to cultivate and narrate Christian spirituality entirely in regard to sexual desire.
Following this pastoral intuition he thought that, “When a bishop preached, he was expected to preach, rather, against scelera, against violence, fraud, and oppression, not on sexual sins.”36 Here, Augustine recognized that death, not sexual desire, was the universal condition that Christianity must face and defeat. Hence, resurrection, not continence or marriage, was the goal of the Christian life, a goal that stressed the holiness of martyrdom instead of the spirituality of virginity and marital sex.
Taking a cue from Augustine here, and for that matter the gospel writers and Paul as well, it may yet be possible to refashion and revise our conceptions of being human and to find a way out of the prevailing constructs of sexuality.
It seems to me that this may take place in flashes, wherein Christian communities act out of the sex cult religion that dominates contemporary secular culture and the church. Simply put, we are a Christian church more formed by martyrdom than virginity or family programs. That is, we need more people taking lines of action that correlate with the resurrection and working toward friendship, not securing themselves in marriage of continence. In doing so, I believe we may initiate a revolution of Christianity away from the contemporary sex cult and toward configurations of sainthood born through the fires of martyrdom.
We must once again turn Christianity away from the diversion of sexuality and toward a true configuration that encounters and conquers the real enemy—death.
In the end, I am not saying anything that complex. I believe that Christians need to try to find ways out of sexuality, the very thing I see Christ and Paul trying to do in order to create a larger space for friendship. And this is possible, I believe, when we once again frame Christian action and living in regard to martyrdom instead of sexuality.
As some possible ways out of the contemporary Christian sex cult, I propose a few very simple practices of freedom. First, form friendships in which you speak more about imitating Christ, wherein you discuss your vocation, feeding the hungry, caring for orphans, challenging each other toward economic simplicity, and your redemptive vision for the world than you do about the topic of sex.
By this I mean to say, trade in your accountability partner for a friend who will challenge you to imitate Christ in your life by the way you spend your money, the job that you take and the day to day interactions you have with others. Although sex will continue to factor into your discussions from time to time, refuse to make sexual confession the central reason for meeting together but more often concentrate each other on affirming the imitation of Christ. Engage in holistic forms of confession as well as affirmation that allow for failure and are not bound simply to a focus on chastity.
Second, refuse to be organized in the church along sexual lines by forming deep friendships outside of your sexual category. Singles should get to know married folk; women should befriend men; seniors should befriend youths; heterosexuals should get to know homosexuals.
Thirdly, speak more openly about marriage and refuse any formulation of chastity or virginity based upon marriage. Reject the attempt to make marriage the ideal for Christian living, and refuse to focus too much attention on the family. That is to say, do not allow your notions of virginity and chastity to be defined as preparation for marriage or as purified holding stations for an eventual spouse, for this is to disavow virginity and chastity from any intelligible Christian formulation.
One does not remain a virgin in Christianity in order to keep oneself pure for his or her eventual spouse, but virginity and chastity are always defined in Christianity as functions of integrity toward one’s goal of imitating Christ.
And finally, refuse to acknowledge liberation as a “coming out” because this implies that one’s essential sexual nature must be recognized. Liberty is always the freedom to love one’s neighbor, not to sleep with her or him as an expression of who one really is.
Both Paul and Christ refuse to acknowledge any essential nature, especially a sexual nature, other than the new human nature given in the resurrected Christ that gathers the community of his followers in friendship.
These practices, I believe, may begin to lead us out of the contemporary understanding of ourselves as essentially sexual beings. They may lead us in a new direction toward an evangelical asceticism that reclaims the imitation of Christ as a complete form of life. Each of these is only a beginning, but they are an important beginning for finding our way out of the worship of sex.
1. See Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress,” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley et al. (New York: The New Press, 1997). p. 254.
2. For an illuminating discussion of the “care of oneself” see: Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France, 1981-1982, ed. Frederic Gros, trans. Graham Burchell. (New York: Picador, 2005).
3. My use of the masculine pronoun reflects the fact that in ancient culture it was primarily males who possessed the opportunity to practice philosophy, discuss politics and govern. Ancient Western societies were overwhelmingly virile, that is, within these societies females, slaves and children were not designated as citizens, but were thought of mainly as the property of the political males.
4. Foucault, “Genealogy of Ethics,” p. 257.
5. Ibid., p. 258.
6. Ibid., p. 274.
7. Suffice it to say for now that I believe it to be a grave error to reduce Paul’s thought to a Law/Grace binary as many have done. It is anachronistic at best to assume that this was the conceptual structure of Paul’s thinking. Furthermore, I believe that this Law/Grace binary is in fact the result of the binary structure of sexual identity established in Patristic thinking long before the time of Luther. I understand Paul to view Christianity as a form of life and not the supersession of grace over its antinomy of law.
8. For a more in depth discussion of sexual renunciation and its connection to Christian identity and self-knowledge see the insightful work of Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).
9. Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, pp. 247-269.
10. Foucault, “Genealogy of Ethics,” p. 270.
11. See Plato, “Symposium,” Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) p. 569-570. The discussion of the bedroom interactions between Socrates and Alcibiades occurs amidst the ongoing discussion of the nature of love and beauty. Similarly, Socrates also takes up theme of love in the “Phaedrus,” wherein during a conversation with the namesake of the dialogue he debunks the idea that the beloved should become the possession of the lover and instead argues that in the highest form of love the lover resists the desire to possess and, in turn, sees himself to be in service to the beloved. Speaking of those who resist desire’s initial will to possess, Socrates says, “And so, if the victory be won by the higher elements of mind guiding them into the ordered rule of the philosophical life, [the lovers] days on earth will be blessed with happiness and concord, for the power of evil in the soul has been subjected, and the power of goodness liberated; they have won self-mastery and inward peace.” See Plato, “Phaedrus,” Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) p. 501.
12. See Foucault, “Genealogy of Ethics”, p.268 and Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley et al. (New York: The New Press, 1997). p. 289.
13. Paul Ramsey, “Human Sexuality in the History of Redemption,” The Ethics of St. Augustine, ed. William S. Babcock (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991) p. 118-120. See St. Augustine,City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 1987) 14.23.
14. Ramsey, “Human Sexuality”, p. 123.
15. Brown, Body and Society, p. 78.
16. Ibid., p. 77.
17. Ibid., p. 81.
18. Ibid., p. 426.
19. Ramsey, “Human Sexuality,” p. 115.
20. Ibid., p. 120.
21. Interestingly enough, Foucault himself was opposed to the notion of “coming out.” He states, “I have always been somewhat suspicious of the notion of liberation, because if it is not treated with precautions and within certain limits, one runs the risk of falling back on the idea that there exists a human nature or base that, as a consequence of certain historical, economic, and social processes, has been concealed, alienated, or imprisoned in and by mechanisms of repression.” See Foucault, “Ethics of Concern”, p. 282. Also, see the wonderful essay by Mark Vernon, “‘I am not what I am’—Foucault, Christian Asceticism and a ‘Way Out’ of Sexuality,” in Religion and Culture: Michel Foucault, ed. Jeremy R. Carrette (New York: Routledge, 1999) pp. 199-209.
22. See Richard B. Hays, “Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1,” Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 14; no. 1(2006) pp. 184-215; Dale B. Martin, “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32,” in Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006) pp. 51-64; and Douglas A. Campbell, “Rereading Romans 1.18-3.20,” in The Quest for Paul’s Gospel: A Suggested Strategy (New York: T&T Clark International, 2005) pp. 233-261.
23. Martin, “Heterosexism,” p. 53.
24. Hays, “Natural and Unnatural,” p. 189.
25. See Campbell, “Rereading,” pp. 233-261.
26. Ibid., p. 233.
27. Ibid., p. 248.
28. Reading this initial section of Romans as a rhetorical ‘preemptive strike’ bathed in irony by Paul, helps us to understand why Paul also turns his attention in chapter 4 back to Judaism. Having sarcastically employed the argument of the Judaizers in order to illustrate its incoherence, Paul now rushes in to assure his readers (the Romans) that the Jews still have a place in God’s new work in Christ.
29. I must note here that I do not aim to assert that Paul did not have a decline narrative of his own. Clearly, Paul believes that “the whole creation has been groaning” (Rom. 8:22) even as have humans at the “bondage to decay” (8:21) we began to suffer with the fall of Adam. But I am noting that this first decline narrative, wherein homosexual behavior becomes the evil nadir of idolatry, is not the decline narrative Paul embraces.
30. Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005) p. 62.
31. Campbell, “Rereading,” p.62.
32. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) p. 19.
33. Paul does not herein seem to teach that the immanent appearance of the Son of God leads us to exchange our bodies for the things of our souls, but he seems to teach that the return of Christ, being at hand, leads one to do some interesting things with his or her body. This unique period of messianic time allows Paul to see the imitation of Christ to be a function of the body just as much as of the soul. Hence, he can bear the stigmata of Christ physically on his body so that even bodily he is becoming the risen Christ.
34. St. Augustine, Of Holy Virginity, trans. Rev. C.I. Cornish, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, vol. III (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978) p. 437.
35. Brown, Body and Society, p. 397.
36. Ibid., p. 425.
Dan Rhodes is Editor-in-Chief of The Other Journal. He is also Minister of Political and Missional Life at Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the author (with Tim Conder) of Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Baker Books, 2009). He is currently a candidate for the doctorate of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Elizabeth.