Category Archives: Soul and Sex

Christ or Aphrodite? Body, Soul and Sex (#3)

In the previous post I placed before us an ideal for the meaning and use of our bodies. It’s a lofty ideal, I know. But it’s not too lofty given the greatness of human destiny. We don’t sink into a life devoted to sensual pleasure because we think too well of ourselves; we do not think well enough. Our noble task is to bring our bodies under the control of reason guided by divine light. In this way we participate in God’s eternal plan to unite all things to himself in Christ (Eph 1:10). By spiritualizing our bodies we make them instruments useful for bringing glory to God and communicating love to others.

By the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ unruly bodily urges can be made to serve the most beautiful harmony, as we see in Paul’s teaching about marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33. In submission to Christ, the union of husband and wife becomes a mystery participating in the Mystery of Christ’s union with the church. The union of body and soul in marriage signifies the larger uniting that is taking place in Christ. By their submission to Christ in the power of the Spirit the chaotic urges of the male and female bodies and souls are ordered, united and directed toward the higher end of the unity of all things in Christ.

As we all know, however, few people live up to this ideal. Indeed, most have never imagined it. Every society has rules about who can have sex with whom because without such rules even the most primitive civilization would not be possible. These rules and the punishments for breaking them vary from society to society and from age to age. I am not an anthropologist, but I know this: whatever the rules and punishments governing sexual behavior plenty of people will break them. And I think the explanation for this is very simple. For many, the urge for immediate sensual pleasure or acceptance is stronger than the threat of distant punishment or respect for order. To pursue this phenomenon further I would need to enter into psychology, a subject in which I have little competence, or the theology of the fall and original sin, which would lead us down a side trail. Instead, I want to deal with a cultural phenomenon that raises a very important moral question.

There is a growing trend in mainstream western culture to reject all moral and legal restraints on the use of one’s own body, especially in any area that has to do with sex. This trend involves more than the demand for tolerance. It demands approval and even celebration of whatever an individual does in this area. This cultural wave is full of ironies and contradictions, which I will point out in future posts. But for now let’s focus on the moral/philosophical perspective that underlies this cultural change and energizes it.

First, let’s consider the logic of individual autonomy or liberty, which finds its deepest roots in the seventeenth-century Enlightenment. For 350 years a significant number of western political and moral thinkers have been arguing for increasing the control individuals have over their lives and, correspondingly, lessening the sphere governed by state, society and associations. Thinkers have proposed a variety of justifications for such liberation: (1) nature has endowed individuals with reason; hence, they should be given space to use it to make their own decisions; or (2) nature has given individuals the desire for pleasure and happiness; hence, they should be given space to pursue it as they see fit. How many times have you heard the maxim that “individuals should be able to do whatever they want as long as it does not harm others”? This rule was most famously articulated by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty (1859).

A second moral/philosophical perspective was articulated by thinkers of the Romantic Movement. Rather than basing their appeal on the power of reason common to all people, these thinkers emphasized the unique feelings and sensitivities of each individual. No two individuals are alike; hence, there is no single way of life good for everyone, no one path to happiness. Moral rules are by definition general and apply to everyone alike. But if each individual must follow a different path to find happiness, depending on their unique combination of feelings, desires and needs, conforming to a one-size-fits-all moral code will produce unhappiness and alienation in individuals. According to this perspective, to force, insist or pressure an individual into moral conformity is to condemn that person to an unhappy life.

These two moral perspectives have been at work in our culture for 300 years, in art and architecture, in literature, the performing arts, in movies and television, in education and law. In light of these two ways of evaluating human behavior, think about how the dominant culture approaches the body and sexuality. At least until it affects them negatively, the average person in our society thinks that each individual owns their own body and possesses the right to use it as they see fit. As long as an individual is not hurting anyone else, the average modern person would be unable to think of a good reason to limit that individual’s freedom to do as they wish. Any such restriction would be considered unreasonable, attributable only to bigotry, exploitation or oppression; and in our world these attitudes are considered especially detestable. Ironically, then, the demand for adherence to a universal moral code will be judged immoral by the dominant culture.

Our culture has also internalized the romantic notion that every individual is unique and must pursue a unique path to happiness. The average person can make no reasonable response to a protest of the following type: “Do you want to condemn me to a life of unhappiness? You are following your path! Let me follow mine! Do you think you deserve happiness but that I do not?” There is no answer to this complaint within the romantic view of morality. Add to the romantic view of the individual the near deification of sexual experience that dominates our culture and suppression of the individual search for happiness becomes blasphemy. (Or “hate speech” in contemporary terms.) Sexual ecstasy is portrayed as if it were the meaning of life and the only way to ultimate truth and eternal happiness. In the popular mind, to miss out on sex is to miss heaven, to be less than a full human being. And to disapprove or deny individuals whatever form of sexual fulfillment they desire is to condemn them to a living hell. No modern person could feel good about themselves for doing that, nor approve of anyone who did.

One thing is missing in all this: God. The modern culture of autonomy, self-ownership, unique individuality, sensuality, and deified sex takes no note of God, creation or the moral law. Everything is evaluated from within the human framework. But once you acknowledge God, the whole thing falls to the ground. We have to seek again for the truly good and right. And we raise our minds again to that lofty ideal and catch a vision of our true greatness: we are priests of creation and images of God whose destiny is Spirit-bonded union with God through Jesus Christ our Lord. I for one will not settle for less.

To be continued…

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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…

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?