Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Spiritual Dimension of Sex: Body, Soul and Sex (#2)

God created our world. Nothing in it is evil in its sheer existence apart from its use. Rivers, oceans, mountains, sun, moon and stars! From galaxies to fireflies, everything is good. Plants and animals are good. Human beings as God’s creatures are good, body and soul. As Genesis says, human beings are made in the “image and likeness of God.” The image of God refers not simply to the mind or soul alone, nor to the body alone. It refers to the whole human being. Because human beings possess intelligence they can “see” God’s character, perceive his will, and know his truth. And because they possess the ruling power of reason, they can do his will even against resistance.

But because they possess bodies they can make these divine qualities visible and active in the world of creatures. Human beings are meant to be the rulers and caretakers of the created world. As body, we share in the nature of all other creatures, but as soul we are open to the Creator of all things. As the union of body and soul, our God-given task is to reorient the time-bound, circular order of nature to the spiritual order, to integrate it and elevate it into this higher order. Everything praises God by its sheer existence and beauty. But in us creation becomes conscious of itself and God and finds itself praising its Creator. We are called to be the priesthood and choir of creation. What an amazing calling!

In our role as priests of creation, our bodies acquire a sacred meaning. The human body is the first sphere of created nature to be spiritualized and reorient to God. The body, like the rest of creation, is time-bound and circular in its ordinary order. Our task is to break open that futile order and make our bodies holy temples that ring with praise to the Creator and shine with divine light. We serve as priests for the rest of universe by making our own bodies the first fruits of a spiritualized creation, examples in miniature of the destiny of the whole creation. In spiritualizing our bodies—and through our bodies the whole creation—we do not destroy the created order of nature; rather, we direct the natural order to its supernatural destiny.

But what about sex? If God calls us to become priests of creation and to make our bodies into holy temples that anticipate the eternal destiny of the creation, how does sex fit into it?  We have many urges. Some urges move us toward things and some repel us away from things. We want to live, breath, eat and drink, and experience sexual union. We fear pain and death. We usually think of these urges as located primarily in the body because of their instinctual and unthinking nature and because we share them with other animals. Other desires and fears are associated with the soul, for example, desire for approval and fear of rejection.

But the strict division of body and soul is artificial, and this becomes obvious when we consider sex. The desire for sexual union is multidimensional. The obvious natural end of sexual union is reproduction. Though physical pleasure accompanies sexual union, it is clearly not its natural end. It is a means and motive. Higher animals usually take care of their offspring and nurture them until they can fin for themselves, but animal parents cannot understand that their offspring come from sexual union. They cannot consciously decide to mate in order to have offspring. Hence the physical urge for sexual union in animals is purely instinctual and irresistible. The end achieved by nature was not sought by the animals themselves.

Human beings, too, possess the physical urge for sexual union. But the rational and spiritual dimensions of human beings dramatically transform the urge for sexual union by placing it into a radically different context. For human beings, too, the natural end of sexual union is a child, and this end should never be forgotten or rejected. But human beings, in contrast to animals, know about this natural end and, hence, can consciously adopt it as their own personal end. Physical desire precedes union, but for human beings sexual desire is not purely instinctual, and it is not irresistible.

Physical pleasure accompanies sexual union, but the pleasure is not purely physical. Human beings can receive joy from giving pleasure to each other and hence raise physical pleasure, which is limited to each individual’s body, to a spiritual act of love and union. But sexual union in its spiritual dimension cannot be isolated from the whole relationship between the two. In sexual union one enters that most intimate and tender area of human soul where dwell our deepest needs for approval and presence and our equally deep fears of rejection and abandonment. Great care must be taken. For human beings, sexual union is a soul-damaging lie unless it is also a symbol of a life of self-giving.

The idea of reserving sexual union to a man and woman committed to life-long, loving marriage is not an ideological construct of a by-gone era. It is the life form love must take to realize itself fully in this relationship. It’s part of our task of spiritualizing and reorienting creation to its supernatural end. And it is the only way to elevate sexual union to a level worthy of human beings who are made in the image of God, body and soul. Only eternal self-giving love can make sexual union a means of transforming our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit. Only by treating our bodies and the bodies of others as sacred objects can we fulfill our vocation as priests of creation.

To be continued…

Advertisements

Two Orientations: Body, Soul and Sex (#1)

[Programming Note: This post begins a new series on Soul, Body and Sex. But it continues the subject of the previous seven-part series on Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis. I recommend reading those essays as a foundation for this series.]

Where are we?

In previous posts I’ve tried to get to the roots of the moral crisis that engulfs contemporary culture. At the origin of this crisis stands the abandonment of the long-accepted notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as communities and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good.

Given its subjective view of the good, modern culture can no longer make sense of the right as a moral rule that conforms to the moral law. Hence the “right” becomes a private assertion of “what is right for me” or it is identified with legislated human law made through the political process. The simmering crisis becomes open conflict when society’s subjective views of the good and right become concrete disagreement about specific moral behaviors. These disagreements can be settled only by coercion in one of its modern forms: protest and intimidation or legislated human law.

Thoughtful (and faithful) Christians find themselves under fire because they submit themselves to the authority of Jesus Christ and the Scriptures and retain the traditional view of the good and the right. When Christians oppose the dominant culture’s subjective view of the good and the right they appear backward, oppressive, insensitive, cruel and downright hateful. Indeed, they appear as enemies of humanity worthy of marginalization, legal proscription and even persecution.

Two Orientations

We are now at the point in our discussion of the moral crisis where we need to speak about specific behaviors. And I might as well begin with the body and sex. In the contemporary controversy over the use of our bodies we see most vividly the clash of two irreconcilable moral visions. Though the particulars differ, the clash is not new. The New Testament is replete with warnings about this collision of worlds: two opposing kingdoms (Col 1:3), life and death (Col 2:3), visible and the invisible (2Cor 4:18), the way of the Spirit and the way of the flesh (Gal 5:13-26) and many others. One of the clearest contrasts is found in Colossians 3:1-14. Paul contrasts two ways of living as opposition between two orientations: to things above or to earthly things:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

The New Testament clearly views the moral life as an aspect of a comprehensive and internally consistent way of life, at once religious, spiritual and moral. Its specific moral rules are not isolated and arbitrary. The moral prohibitions in Colossians 3:5-11, quoted above, are interrelated. All of them are integral to the “earthly nature.” The list in verse 5 centers on misuse of the natural urges of physical body: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed.” The list in verse 8 has to do with misuse of our need for acceptance and fellowship from others: “anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language.” And the physical dimension cannot be separated from the social. We use our bodies to communicate with others and our physical urges almost always involve interaction with others.

The Body

The New Testament affirms the created goodness of the body. But the goodness of the body lies in the possibility for the body’s proper use. The body is not absolutely good, so that whatever we do with it is also good. It can be misused and misdirected. Those whose minds, hearts and wills are set “on things above” want to use their bodies for the Lord while those whose minds, hearts and wills are set “on things on the earth” view their bodies as instruments for their own pleasure and power. Those who direct their minds toward Christ desire to learn the purpose for which God created their bodies and the rules for their proper use. To those whose minds are set on earthly things, the Bible’s moral rules for the proper use of the body seem strange and unnatural.

The Bible speaks of human beings as body and soul. We are physical and mental. We possess freedom at some levels of our being, but at other levels the automatic processes of nature operate apart from our choice or awareness. The Bible is not concerned with the philosophical problem of the composition of human beings, with debates about the nature of the soul and the relationship between soul and body. It is concerned with the orientation of the whole human being toward or away from God. But the Bible acknowledges what we all know from experience: there is a hierarchical order in the relationship between body and soul. The mind is the ruling aspect and the body needs to be ruled and guided. Our minds enable us to gain wisdom to discern the good and right. The body apart from the mind possesses no conscious knowledge of the good and right. It works more or less automatically and instinctually.

Now consider the two orientations of Colossians 3:1-14 again in light of our created nature as body and soul. Paul speaks of the two ways of living, two possible orientations to God of our whole persons. As whole persons we are body and soul, and the body must be guided by the soul. (Note: the soul is more than the mind, but it includes the mind.) But the mind must be illuminated by moral and spiritual truth from above in order to guide the body to its proper end, which is to serve God. Paul urges us to set our minds and hearts on “things above”. Unless the mind is set on “things above” it cannot lead the body to do good and right. When the mind forsakes “things above”, the body–through its automatic and instinctual urges–begins to dominate the mind and the mind becomes a mere instrument we use to seek out ways to please the body. It thinks only about “earthly things”. Instead of rising higher to become more and more like God, human beings fall to earth to become merely smart animals. Dangerous ones too!

To be continued…

Future questions: what is the body for? Do I have a right to use my body as I like? Does mutual consent make what I do with another human being good and right?

Foolish Faith or Divine Light? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#7)

Why do Christian teachers invoke divine authority to substantiate the moral rules they advocate? What does viewing biblical morality as divinely commanded add to the moral authority of the Bible considered as a deposit of the wisdom of a long-continuous community? The last post (#6) began to address these questions. As we observed last week history shows that human beings tend toward sensuality and violence both as individuals and as civilizations. And although it is possible to learn much about what is good for human beings from experience, most people are more interested in immediate pleasure than the truly good. Hence the moral traditions of whole cultures can become polluted and self-destructive or so marginalized that they have little impact on the mass of individuals. The Bible assumes that human civilization has become corrupt and it sees divine intervention as necessary. The story of the Old Testament includes divinely commissioned lawgivers and prophets sent to a degenerate culture to reveal what is good.

There is also a second reason Christian teachers invoke divine commands. Human experience is limited to life in this world. Experience can teach much about what promotes human happiness and flourishing in this life. But belief that God is the Creator of this world sets human life in a larger context, beyond the range of what can be learned by ordinary experience. If our sole end is living long and well in this life, then the good is whatever helps us achieve this goal. But if God created human beings for another end, then the good is whatever helps us achieve that end.

If we have a God-intended end beyond living long and well in this body, only God can tell us what it is and how to achieve it. We cannot learn this good from individual or collective experience. It should not be surprising, then, that Christian teachers view all the moral rules Christians live by as divine commands. This view makes perfect sense because in Christianity the humanly chosen goal of living long and well is subordinated to the divinely chosen end of eternal life in God. This shift changes everything. Life in the body as a whole is now directed beyond itself. Living long and well in this life alone is no longer the end that determines what is good. We need God’s help both to know and to do the truly good. Those who believe that Jesus is the risen Lord will gladly receive his and his apostles’ instructions about how to live in view of the true end of human life revealed in him.

There are two big reasons the moral life to which we are called in the New Testament seems strange and oppressive to our age: (1) even experienced based moral rules, which focus only on living well and long in this body, sound strange and oppressive to most people. Never in any society has the majority been virtuous even by Aristotle’s standards! (2) Unless one whole-heartedly embraces the Christian vision of the God-intended end of human life, living here and now in faith for that unseen end appears extremely foolish.

Up next: Souls, Bodies and Sex.

Adding Insult to Injury: Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#6)

In the previous installment of this series (#5) we learned that human beings discover what is good for them through experience. Each new generation must be taught the knowledge of the good acquired and tested by billions of individuals over thousands of years. The knowledge of what is good for us is communal and traditional. It should be obvious to any thoughtful person that no individual can acquire this knowledge from private experience alone.

Allow me to anticipate my final diagnosis of the contemporary moral crisis: the crisis was precipitated when modern culture abandoned the notion that human beings acquire experiential knowledge of the good as a community and transmit it through tradition. Simultaneously, modern culture adopted a romantic notion of the good as a feeling of well-being and an individualist view of how we come to know the good. Only by gross inconsistency, sheer arbitrariness and threats of coercion can modern culture assert a moral order that limits the behavior of individuals.

Not surprisingly, when Christian moralists appeal to the Bible to determine what is good and right they are met with incredulity and hostility from the dominant culture. Appealing to the Bible strikes modern people as strange for two reasons. First, the Bible preserves a view of the good learned by a community over many thousands of years and passed on in a tradition. Since our contemporaries don’t understand that communal experience and tradition are the only ways human beings can learn about the good, they reject our appeals to the Bible for this reason alone. They would reject the authority of any other community and tradition.

Second, Christian moralists don’t just appeal to the long-term experience of a community. They also equate the view of the good presented in the Bible with divinely revealed moral law. The rules and laws of the Bible present themselves not only as discoveries of what is good for human beings but also as divine commands. The consequence of not adhering to the good is experiencing something bad as a natural result. But the consequence of disobeying a divine command is divine wrath and punishment.

Perhaps this second aspect of the Christian moralist’s message is the primary reason for the hostility of the culture. It’s one thing to warn people of the natural negative consequences of their actions. It is another to invoke divine disapproval and threat of punishment in addition to the natural consequences of the bad act. The first may cause people to smile at our naiveté, but the second will be taken as an insult and will evoke anger. It adds insult to injury.

But it’s not just outsiders who experience difficulty reconciling the good with the right and comprehending the relationship between learning about the good in communal experience and learning about it from a divine command. Believers, too, are often disturbed by the thought of God punishing bad behavior with pain in addition the act’s natural consequences. Or, perhaps they are troubled even more by the thought that God might command something unrelated to any obvious good and punish transgressors even when natural negative consequences are wholly absent. The moral crisis touches the church more than we would like to admit.

I want to begin to address these difficulties by considering the issue of why a divinely commanded moral law may be needed above and beyond humanly discovered good. I am assuming for the moment that we at least understand the reasonableness of looking to the moral tradition contained in the Bible for instruction about the good. As I argued above, it is most wise for an individual to accept the moral authority of a long, continuous community and tradition above private feelings and experience or abstract theory. But why divine commands?

(1) In view of human wickedness and the human tendency to degenerate into sensuality and violence, we can see the value of divine guidance and inspirations to help lawgivers, prophets, religious and moral reformers formulate the truly good for the community. This is certainly how the Bible sees it. After the fall in Genesis, chapter 3, humanity keeps on its downward moral trajectory until there is only one good human being, Noah. From the biblical point of view the customs of the peoples surrounding Israel are evil and inhumane. The laws given by God through Moses, however, are good and wise (See Psalm 119!).

Even though most of the moral laws in the Bible could have been learned—and in some cases were learned—from communal experience, human beings are inclined to follow their immediate desires rather than reason. And this inclination can even poison the moral traditions of whole cultures, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18 and 19). Hence, from the biblical perspective, God’s decision to educate his people about the truly good by giving laws is a gracious and kind act.

Next week we will consider a second reason divine commands are necessary: God has good things in mind for human beings that extend beyond individual and even communal well being, and only God knows this good.

To be continued…

How Do YOU Know? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#5)

To understand and deal with the contemporary moral crisis it is first necessary to get clear ideas of the good and the right. I think we’ve accomplished this in the first four parts of this series. The good is what is truly good for us in the most comprehensive sense and the right is what corresponds to moral law. But these concepts are still rather abstract. Perhaps it’s time to talk about how we know what specific things and actions are good for us.

The Good and Experience

We don’t come into the world knowing very much about what is good for us. As infants and small children we need adults to protect us from bad things and provide us with good. Almost immediately adults begin to teach us the difference between good and bad. Somewhere along the way to adulthood we learn from trusted others and from our personal experience enough to survive. We learn about what is good for our physical bodies. Fire, electricity and busy streets are dangerous. We need to eat our vegetables and drink our milk. We also learn social goods and evils. We don’t bite our playmates and we share our toys.

But all the adults in our lives were themselves at one time children and had to learn what is good and bad from the previous generation of adults…and that generation from the one before it. We can’t just keep resorting to the previous generation. From where did the knowledge of what is good and bad for human beings originate? Remember what we said in earlier posts: to say that something is good for us means that it enables us to flourish and achieve our end. The goodness of a thing or an act is revealed when it actually causes human beings to flourish and achieve their ends. It can’t be known theoretically. To say it another way: human beings learn what is good for them by experience.

Community and Tradition

But we cannot learn all we need to know about what is good and bad for us through our own experience! Indeed, by the time we can survive without constant supervision, we’ve already learned from others a way of thinking about the world and hundreds of rules about good and bad. We are born into a human community that is already heir to thousands of years of traditional wisdom. We inherit billions upon billions of years of human experience. Hence knowledge of good and bad comes to the individual in the form of traditional wisdom formulated in rules, maxims, advice, observations and sometimes in laws. And the best and most enduring parts of this wisdom are often preserved in fables, parables, and proverbs. In every age there are wise men and women who pay special attention to this tradition, collect it, organize it and write it down. We are all the beneficiaries of their work. (In the past, education consisted primarily of teaching this wisdom to the next generation…but that is another story.)

Notice that although experience is the original teacher of good and bad, the lessons of experience are mediated to individuals by language, the language of rules. Though the rules derived from the collective experience of the human race are not infallible, it seems foolish indeed for an individual to flout the lessons learned from billions of years of human experience in favor of their limited and as yet incomplete experience in living. Nor would a theoretical notion, such as autonomy or equality, suffice to overturn the authority of such a huge reservoir of experience. Traditional wisdom is derived from millions of completed lives, observed and assessed from within and without. Hence if we really desire the truly good we should acknowledge the limits of our individual wisdom and pay reverent attention to the wisdom of the moral tradition.

Where are We and Where are We Going?

We’ve learned some important lessons. Human beings learn what is truly good for them through experience and this good can be confirmed again and again by experience. But we’ve seen that we cannot discover what is truly good for us from our own private experience. We depend on the experience of generations of those who came before us. These lessons help us understand some things about the biblical vision of the good and the right that are often obscured in contemporary discussions. In anticipation of future posts consider this: given what we’ve learned about how human beings actually come to know the good, it should not be surprising that Christians look to the laws, parables, proverbs and direct moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments to learn what is truly good for them. Everyone looks to moral tradition in one form or another. We have no choice. But Christians understand the moral tradition contained in the scriptures to be based on more than mere human experience, and it is concerned with a wider horizon and a greater end than life in this world. Christians believe that this human experience was elevated and deepened by divine revelation and providence and by the working of the divine spirit.

To be continued…