In my post on sexuality and fossilized morality, the main point I wanted to make is that sex and shame should not intersect. This week, I listened to a sermon that described how the flesh and the spirit are at odds with each other. This is a belief that’s been passed down through the centuries, creating ascetics, stoics, monks, hermits, and masochists intent on mortifying the desires of the flesh. But is controlling the flesh really what’s in the best interest of the spirit?
I have a desire to be part of a church, but, ideally, it would be one that chooses to evolve rather than cling. Since I would like young people to have something that will draw them back to church with the intent of helping them enrich their spiritual lives, the paradigm has to change from living by the values and beliefs of biblical times to the values and beliefs that have ripened throughout the ages and are relevant now.
The shift has already taken place all around us, with the emphasis on overall wellness and holistic living. Instead of repressing our bodily desires, we learn how to nurture them in a healthy way with the expectation of growth. This applies to fitness, nutrition, intellectual and spiritual development, sexuality, recreation, vocation, etc. The idea is that balance is the key to wellness, which means that neglecting your bodily needs will have a negative impact on your spirit and vice-versa. Flesh and spirit are not in a constant struggle, but are interconnected and dependent on each other. If you over-develop one dimension of your life at the expense of another, you’re probably going to feel like something is missing.
In a previous post, I promised to make some suggestions to modernize the way the church views sexuality. The flesh vs. spirit discussion provides a good backdrop for this discussion. I think it’s possible for the church to maintain that sex within marriage is the ideal circumstance while acknowledging that almost 100% of people are going to have sex outside of marriage, either before marriage or post-marriage. Since Jesus has been singled out as living the only fully loving human existence (perfect in love), it seems pretty natural for Christians to be able to acknowledge that sexual purity is lived out almost on the level of myth. The big change, then, is not to treat sexuality expression outside of marriage as something sinful in itself, yet the idealism is able to preserve a bit of room for people to fulfill their sense of rebellion against institutions like the church and even the values of their own upbringing (a psychological breaking away and assertion of individuality).
As in the case with other biological needs, it’s the nurture of sexuality that can lead to either abuse or neglect, with either extreme creating a climate for suffering in one’s self or others. Exploitative sex is hard to paint as natural and healthy and consistent with Christian love. But a couple of mature teenagers who responsibly make the decision to have their first encounter with each other have created, in all likelihood, a beautifully awkward moment in their lives. They will remember it forever. Likewise, two people who have sexual histories that end up forming a relationship are almost always going to have sex. It’s pretty much imminent, even if they try to resist temptation for a time. Unnecessary moral standards only cause needless shame and guilt that offer no clear spiritual benefit. Obedience for the sake of obedience is just not something that we do nowadays: there has to be a clear personal benefit.
The problem in Christian circles is that young people still have sex without doing so responsibly. Using birth control and protection is tantamount to sinful intent, which is why they tend to have irresponsible sex. This shows us that the Christian attitude toward sex has to change. Instead of emphasizing a repression of the desire, the church could talk about how sex is most fulfilling when love and physicality come together. Maybe the church could talk about the consequences of irresponsible sex, and how any encounter can lead to pregnancy. This could include discussing the repercussions of promiscuity or infidelity. Or perhaps the church could talk about how the decision to have sex will alter a person’s life forever; once you create the appetite, you can never go back.
If you’re engaging in the activity, you have to be prepared for the consequences. In other words, maybe it’s not a good idea to have sex with someone you can’t envision yourself having a child with. But the last thing a church should do is draw a hard line when it comes to sex and label all sex outside of marriage as sinful. It just might not be ideal for some people, since disease, unwanted pregnancy and emotional turmoil are the inherent risks. But it’s still the free choice to make one’s own decisions that matters—something that we should never lose sight of. And Christians should acknowledge that sexual exploration is a normal and healthy part of human development even if this is experienced outside of marriage.
In the previous post, I also touched on how Christianity has to keep pace with the social consciousness. While the idea of abstaining from masturbating is a meaningless discipline that the Catholic Church contends will help people avoid “gravely disordered” behavior, the disapproval of homosexuality among Christians is the perfect example of the lack of empathy in the church experience. I don’t think most young people buy it. They’ve been raised in a more tolerant society. If you consider homosexual intimacy to be unnatural or gross, just imagining almost anybody you know having sex seems unnatural and gross. You would never allow your mind to go there. The world of sex is private, just like what you do in the bathroom is private. But nurturing this need in a healthy way is so important for the soul. For homosexuals to have to abstain from intimacy altogether is like asking them to live out hell on earth on the off chance that they’ll be rewarded with eternity. The scary part is that nobody really knows anything about the afterlife, or even if there is an afterlife, so there are no guarantees that foregoing a sex life will pay dividends. It’s almost like we expect homosexuals to gamble their existence on a future happiness that may never find fulfillment. The unjustness of this expectation is appalling.
For me, the most difficult part of going to church is joining a body of believers (I’m not necessarily referring to the congregation I attend) who mistakes immorality for morality. When it comes to homosexuality, we’ve come a long way since Oscar Wilde went to prison. Even recently the DSM had it listed as a mental disorder. The bigger issue is at stake is that people are made to be ashamed of who they are and expected to deny their primal needs as a result. Living out your life in freedom to nurture your own existence and make your own choices should be among the highest moral positions (ethic of basic freedoms), as long as exercised freedom doesn’t violate the freedom of others (which is why it is ridiculous to compare active homosexuals and pedophiles, who have no regard for a child’s freedom). When there is mutual consent among homosexuals, the same standard for nurturing any bodily need or appetite applies. The right to marry validates their basic freedom to choose a spouse. Love should trump semantics when it comes to the definition of what constitutes a marriage and it seems that society is going in this direction. However, it should be Christians carrying this torch.
Neglecting or suppressing or overindulging the needs of the flesh will have negative consequences on the spirit, regardless of whatever appetite we’re talking about. A poor diet or an indolent lifestyle are as unwise as poor sexual choices. Likewise, neglecting the spirit will have consequences on the flesh. We have to stop asking God to forgive us for who we are and take responsibility for our needs: physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. We can’t expect young people to keep coming to church and living out their stages on life’s way in a spiritual community if we continue to regard human nature as sinful. Church should be a place where people are given the tools to help develop their own relationship with God and find healthy ways to nurture their own needs. You can’t breathe life into a fossil. Species go extinct for a reason. That’s why love in this world has steadily evolved toward inclusion. I’m on the side of inclusion.
A practical church should not imply that we relinquish our sense of the sacred. The church experience should help us expand our knowledge and experience of sacredness. How this can be accomplished will be discussed in a future post.