A PHYSICIAN FRIEND OF MINE spent two months in a remote part of the African nation Benin. The airplane on which he traveled home was showing current movies, and after two months away from all media, he found them jarring. Each movie centered on sexual intercourse, as though this were the only significant topic in the world, whereas David had just been dealing with weighty matters—disease, poverty, hunger, religion, death—while relating to colleagues in a way that had nothing to do with sexual intercourse. When the plane stopped for refueling at the Brussels airport, David saw rows of magazines for sale featuring women's breasts in various stages of exposure. That, too, seemed odd, for he had been working in an area where women commonly uncovered their breasts in public, not for sexual arousal but to feed their children. Welcome back to Western civilization, he thought to himself.
I know no clearer example of the modern, reductionistic approach to life than human sexuality. We survey people about their private sex lives, and write manuals based on data gained by watching people perform sex in a laboratory setting. To junior high students we teach details of sexuality forbidden to previous generations.
At the same time, I know of no greater failure among Christians than in presenting a persuasive approach to sexuality. Outside the church, people think of God as the great spoilsport of human sexuality, not its inventor. The pope utters pronouncements, denominations issue position papers, and many Christians ignore them and follow the lead of the rest of society. Surveys reveal little difference between church attenders and non-attenders in the rates of premarital intercourse and cohabitation. Surveys also show that many people have left their churches in disgust over hypocrisy about sex, especially when ministers fail to practice what they preach.
Nothing intrinsic in human sexuality keeps a person from experimenting with multiple partners, both genders, even children, close relatives, or animals. Yet every tribe studied by anthropologists has taboos that fence off some of these practices. As if by instinct, the most "primitive" of humans recognize in sex something beyond a merely physical act.
Only in technologically advanced cultures do people reduce sex to an act of pleasure we perform like any other animal. Music gives us away. A popular song by Bloodhound Gang urges, "You and me, baby, ain't nothin' but mammals, so let's do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel." Why not? The Discovery television channel often portrays close-up detail of sex in the animal kingdom.
The attempt to reduce human sex to a merely animal act, however, runs into unexpected problems. The more we learn about human sexuality, the more it differs from how the animals do it. Most obviously, humans come vastly over-equipped for sex. The human male has the largest penis of any primate, and the female is the only mammal whose breasts develop before her first pregnancy. Virtually all other mammals have a specified time in which the female is receptive, or in heat, whereas the human female can be receptive anytime, not just once or twice a year. In addition, the human species is one of very few in which females experience orgasm, and humans continue to have sex long after their child-bearing years have passed. Why are we so oversexed?
Relationship is the key. Human beings experience sex as a personal encounter, not just a biological act. We are the only species that commonly copulates face-to-face, so that partners look at each other as they mate, and have full-body contact. Unlike other social animals, humans prefer privacy for the act. In many species, females openly advertise their receptivity with swollen, colorful genitals, and the male and female mate in full view of the group.
Zoologists puzzle over the oddities of human sexuality, unable to find any evolutionary advantage in sex that does not directly lead to reproduction. Some conclude that for humans sex represents a huge waste of time—certainly true if the point of sex was fertilization rather than relationship.
In every feature, human sexuality encourages relationship. Humans negotiate a contract between consenting parties—a contract as simple as a marriage vow, a tourist paying for an hour of a prostitute's time, or as complicated as a Shakespearean love triangle. Unlike domestic bulls or rams, which service every receptive female within sniffing distance, mating humans demand some sort of mutual consent. When none exists, we call that rape and punish it.
Some people try to treat sex as an animal act. In a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind, the brilliant but socially inept mathematician John Nash approaches an attractive woman in a bar: "Listen, I don't have the words to say whatever it is that's necessary to get you into bed, so can we just pretend I said those things and skip to the part where we exchange bodily fluids?" He learns quickly, from the imprint of her palm on his face, that reductionism does not work well as a pickup line.
Schizophrenic is the best way to describe modern society's view of sexuality. On the one hand, scientists insist that we are organisms like any other animal, and that sex is a natural expression of that animal nature. The pornography industry (which in the U.S. grosses more money than all professional sports combined) happily complies, supplying sexual images of the famous and the anonymous to anyone willing to pay.
But when people truly act out their animal natures, society frowns in disapproval. John Nash gets slapped for telling the truth. A few states in the U.S. allow legalized prostitution, but no parents encourage their daughters to pursue such a career. Hollywood may glamorize adultery onscreen, but in real life it provokes pain and a rage sometimes strong enough to drive the wounded party to murder the rival or jump off a bridge.
The root cause of this schizophrenia is the attempt to reduce sex between humans to a purely physical act. For humans, unlike sheep or chimpanzees, sex involves more than bodies. In A Natural History of Rape, Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer report that only 22 percent of rapes involve "gratuitous" violence beyond what is necessary to subdue the victim, yet any rape counselor knows that the real violence occurs on the inside and may lead to years of depression, nightmares, memory loss, and sexual dysfunction. Victims of abusive relatives and pedophiliac priests testify that something far more than a body gets hurt when a trusted adult abuses a child sexually. Decades later, suffering persists.
In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress cannot outlaw "virtual child porn," consisting of computer-generated images on the Internet, since no one gets harmed in its manufacture. Their decision neglects the harm done to the people feeding on such images, for the real damage in sexuality occurs inside. Sex may engage our bodies, but unlike such bodily functions as excretion, sneezing, and burping, it also touches our souls—as tenderly, and as precariously, as they can be touched.
WHY DOES SEX PLAY SO MUCH LARGER in modern cities than, say, in the villages of the Amazon? Clothing fashions, billboards, and ads on the sides of city buses give human sexuality a prominence it never attains in the naked jungle. The French sociologist Jacques Ellul saw our modern fixation with sex as the symptom of a breakdown in intimacy. Having detached the physical act of sex from relationship, we can only work at perfecting the "technique"—hence the proliferation of sex studies, sex manuals, and sex videos, none of which address the real source of our pain.
When a society loses faith in God, lesser powers arise to take God's place. "Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God," said G. K. Chesterton. In modern Europe and the U.S., sex has a near-sacred quality of mythic, numinous power. We select our sexiest individuals and accord them the status of gods and goddesses, fawning over the details of their lives, broadcasting their bodily statistics, surrounding them with paparazzi, rewarding them with money and status. Sex no longer points to something beyond; it becomes the thing itself, the substitute sacred.
The very word sex comes from a Latin verb that means to cut off or sever, and sexual impulses drive us to unite, to restore somehow the union that has been severed. Freud diagnosed the deep pain within as a longing for union with a parent; Jung diagnosed a longing for union with the opposite sex. The Christian sees a deeper longing, for union with the God who created us.
Unfortunately, few people look to the church for perspective on the true meaning of human sexuality, since they view the church as an implacable enemy of sex. It should be obvious why the church so often falls on the side of repression, rather than celebration, of sexuality: No human longing is more powerful, more difficult to rein in. Sex has enough combustive force to incinerate conscience, vows, family commitments, religious devotion, and anything else in its path.
How the church got its reputation as an enemy of sex is a long story, in some ways shameful and in some ways understandable. Every society sets boundaries, or taboos, around sexuality, and in Western civilization Christianity was the main force to set those boundaries. Against the background of pagan Greek and Roman culture, which incorporated temple prostitutes into worship activities, the early church went through a period of purging.
Saint Augustine, converted out of that pagan background and tormented by his own guilty past, connected the transmission of sin with the act of intercourse and proclaimed that sex for any purpose other than conceiving is a sin. He came to regret that God had created sex in the first place.
Augustine's contemporary, Jerome, went much further. Plagued by sexual fantasies, he often found himself "surrounded by bands of dancing girls."
He turned to studying Hebrew as form of sublimation. His scholarship resulted in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible used by the church for a thousand years, but did little for Jerome's attitude toward sex. "I praise wedlock, I praise marriage; but it is because they produce me virgins," he said, and proceeded to give prison-like rules to the mothers who raised these virgins. To husbands he declared, "Anyone who is too passionate a lover with his own wife is himself an adulterer."
In the succeeding centuries church authorities issued edicts forbidding sex on Thursdays, the day of Christ's arrest; on Fridays, the day of his death; on Saturdays, in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and on Sundays in honor of the departed saints. Wednesdays sometimes made the list too, as did the 40-day fast periods before Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost, and also feast days and days of the Apostles, as well as the days of female impurity. The list escalated until, as John Boswell has estimated, only 44 days a year remained available for marital sex.
The Protestant Reformation brought about a shift in attitudes toward sex. Luther scorned the church's proscription against marital sex for the sake of pleasure, and transferred to the home much of the respect that had been accorded the nunnery. When secular revolutions swept across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, the church's position as guardian of sexuality faded. Yet in England and America, Victorians brought back an ethic of repression, even to the extent of covering the legs of furniture lest they arouse impure thoughts.
I dwell on the church's severe attitude toward sex because I believe we Christians bear heavy responsibility for the counter reaction so evident in modern society. Jesus treated those who had fallen into sexual sins with compassion and forgiveness, and reserved his harshest words for the hidden sins of hypocrisy, pride, greed, and legalism. How is it that we who follow him use the word "immoral" to signify sexual sins almost exclusively, and reserve church discipline for those who fail sexually?
Perhaps worse, though, the church in its prudery has silenced a powerful rumor of transcendence that could point to the Creator and originator of human sexuality, who invested in it far more meaning than most modern people can imagine. We have de-sacralized it, in effect, by suppression and denial, and along the way our clumsy attempts at repression helped to empower a false infinite. Sexual power lives on, but few see in that power a pointer to the One who designed it.
UPTIGHT CHRISTIANS forget the fundamental fact that God created sex. Having studied some anatomy, I marvel at God laboring over the physiology of sex: the soft parts, the moist parts, the millions of nerve cells sensitive to pressure and pain yet also capable of producing pleasure, the intricacies of erectile tissue, the economical and ironic combination of organs for excretion and reproduction, the blending of visual appeal and mechanical design. As the zoologists remind us, in comparison with every other species, the human is bountifully endowed.
A connected view of life assumes this is God's world, and that despite its fractured state, clues of its original design remain. When I experience desire, I need not flinch in guilt, as if something unnatural has happened. Rather, I should follow the desire to its source, to learn God's original intent.
"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." In this, the Bible's strongest statement about sexual desire, Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter. He affirms that sexual desire affects the inside of a person ("in his heart") whether or not anything takes place externally. He also connects sexual desire with relationship, startlingly, by linking lust and adultery. The voyeur wants to keep his desires both discreet and discrete, disconnected from any actual personal contact; Jesus exposes the deception.
Recently I came across Martin Luther's pastoral advice about lust:
But some might say, "Waiting for marriage is unbearable and aggravating!" They're right. It's very similar to other difficulties requiring patience that believers must face, such as fasting, imprisonment, cold, sickness, and persecution. Lust is a serious burden. You must resist it and fight against it. But after you have overcome it through prayer, lust will have caused you to pray more and grow in faith.
It struck me that most of the difficulties Luther mentions—fasting, imprisonment, cold, persecution, even most sicknesses—no longer confront Christians in prosperous democracies. We have eliminated many of the spiritual burdens common to our forebearers. Lust, however, we have perfected. In Luther's day, a teenage boy might get a glimpse of a girl's bare legs as she stomped on grapes or bent over to draw water from a well. He did not face the temptation of MTV reports on coeds who flash their breasts on the beach during spring break; he did not have photos of Britney and J-Lo and Anna Kournikova streaming digitally over his DSL line in the privacy of his bedroom. In modern lust, people sit in living rooms or even office cubicles watching strangers undress and make love. Yielding to such unattached desire can become addictive, and often damages true relationship. A wife who discovers her husband fawning over pornography may well feel rejected and devalued, her feelings of intimacy betrayed.
Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Temple of the Holy Ghost" tells of a precocious 12-year-old girl and two country boys who have come to court her visiting cousins. The girl overhears her teenage cousins mock a nun, Sister Perpetua, who has suggested a formula to use in fending off fresh young men in the back seats of cars. "Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!" the nun taught the girls to say. The cousins think such advice hilarious. The girl, however, is moved. The news that she is the dwelling place of God makes her feel as if somebody has given her a present.
The nun's formula comes from a passage, 1 Corinthians 6, that is among Paul's strangest. In trying to shock the Corinthians out of their wild behavior, Paul uses this astonishing argument: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, 'The two will become one flesh.'"
Whether or not such an argument might deter an adolescent's groping hands—much less the Corinthians' worldly escapades—Paul does reveal something of the multi-layered nature of desire. The biology of sex has a seamless integration with the deeply personal (Paul quotes God's original formula for marriage in Genesis) and also the spiritual. We cannot simply compartmentalize sexual desire. Luther correctly identified lust as a spiritual battle, not merely a physical one.
IN A REMARKABLY CANDID BOOK, Jean Vanier, founder of the worldwide l'Arche communities where the author and priest Henri Nouwen spent his last years, discusses what he learned in many years of working with the profoundly retarded. Man and Woman He Made Them (Paulist Press, 1986) describes men and women so disturbed or mentally challenged as to be incapable of a normal relationship with another human. Some cannot speak. Some are blind. Some cannot control their spastic movements. Some seem unable to process any sensory data from the outer world.
Still, most of the damaged people Vanier works with experience sexual desires. One young man masturbates almost constantly. Others "fall in love" with other residents, though they lack the social ability to express that love, and want to get married. Others have no comprehension of marriage and simply want to have sex.
Meanwhile Vanier, a lay minister, tries to live out his chosen life of celibacy. He confesses the difficulty of that struggle, a struggle to which many others succumb. He tells of the loneliness on the road, away from the supportive community he serves, when he feels most vulnerable to seduction.
Vanier admits that his life of celibacy includes very real suffering. Yet he prefers his own suffering to the suffering of those who exercise genital sexuality without responsibility or commitment. In his vocation, he has heard many of their stories in confession. Often they end up disappointed, and more isolated than ever. Relationships based primarily on sex do not wear well, for when the physical attraction fades, so does the love.
For Vanier, a commitment to purity is a sign of hope, an effort to bring personal order into a disordered world. Purity can be sought as a celibate single person or as a married person. Either state involves loneliness and sometimes anguish as well as hope. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God," Jesus promised. Note the extent of the promise: not that they will find complete sexual fulfillment and solve all loneliness, but that they will see God.
"We all have to choose between two ways of being crazy," says Vanier: "the foolishness of the Gospel and the non-sense of the values of our world." Both Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen (who looked upon Vanier as a mentor) cast their lot with the foolishness of the Gospel, leaving prestigious careers and living in community with some of the saddest, most neglected human beings on earth. To those who have known these men, however, the choice looks like wisdom and not foolishness.
At times I have given in to lust. I cannot deny that nude women, whether in art museums or magazines or over the Internet, exert on me a power like gravitational force. Our culture has mastered the disconnected "technique" of sex, and I have fallen victim. I must also say, though, that when I resist the temptation, and pour sexual energy into my marriage—a much more complicated and less selfish transaction, to be sure—the obsessive power of sexuality fades away. The air clears. Marriage becomes more of a haven. My life with God yields unexpected rewards.
LYRICS FROM THE LOVE SONGS broadcast on pop radio stations tap into romantic yearnings but promise more than any person can deliver. "You are my everything." "I can't live without you." Sexual desires and romantic longings are a kind of debased sacrament. If humanity serves as your religion, then sex becomes an act of worship. On the other hand, if God is the object of your religion, then romantic love becomes an unmistakable pointer, a rumor of transcendence as loud as any we hear on earth.
I credit three things—classical music, the beauty of nature, and romantic love—as responsible for my own conversion. The first two convinced me of the goodness of this world, and prodded me to search for the One who had made it. The third convinced me of the possibility of change in myself. I met a woman who saw worth in me where I had seen little. The hard, cynical shell I had carefully cultivated as a form of protection split apart like a carapace, and to my surprise I discovered that vulnerability need not mean danger.
Romance gives intriguing hints of transcendence. I am "possessed" by the one I love. I think of her day and night, languish when she leaves me, perform brave deeds to impress her, revel in her attention, live for her, even die for her. I want to be both heroic and meek at the same time. For a time, and only for a time, I can live on that edge of exaltation. Then reality sets in, or boredom, betrayal, old age, or death. At least, though, I can see in it a glimpse of God's infinite capacity for such attention. Could this be how God views us?
Charles Williams, a colleague and close friend of C. S. Lewis, wrote that romantic love gives us a new vision of one other human being, an insight into his or her "eternal identity." For a brief time, at least, romance gives us the ability to see the best in one other person, to ignore or forgive flaws, to bask in endless fascination. That state, said Williams, gives a foretaste of how we will one day view every resurrected person, and how God now views us. Romantic love does not distort vision but corrects it, in a very narrow range. The Bible uses explicit romantic images to describe God's love for us: What we feel in passing for one person, God feels eternally for the many.
DOSTOEVSKY'S Notes from the Underground contains a chilling scene in which the underground man, a disturbed egoist, visits a prostitute. He pays his money, she performs, and then the two of them lie there in silence. Suddenly he looks to the side and sees two wide-open eyes staring at him. "The look in those eyes was coldly indifferent and sullen, as though it were utterly detached, and it made me feel terribly depressed." Then it occurs to him that for two hours he has not said a word to the naked creature beside him, and has not even thought it necessary.
Now, however, I suddenly saw clearly how absurd and hideous like a spider was the idea of vice which, without love, grossly and shamelessly begins where true love finds its consummation. We went on looking at each other like that for a long time, but she did not drop her eyes before mine, nor did she change her expression, so that in the end it made me for some reason feel creepy.
An extraordinary conversation takes place. The underground man asks the prostitute's name. "Liza." He inquires about her nationality and her parents. He speaks of a funeral he observed that morning. He asks about her profession, and they discuss love, sex, and married life.
Gradually the two, who have wordlessly completed the most intimate act of physical union, become human to one another. A relationship, guarded and manipulative but a relationship nonetheless, stirs to life. In the remainder of the book, a plot plays out in which Liza penetrates the underground man's armor of cruel egoism by responding to him with tenderness and selfless love. "Something was not dead within me," he finally realizes; the prostitute Liza, a person even more pitiable than himself, has coaxed it out.
A few mysterious passages in the Bible hint that, besides being a token of human intimacy, sex has layers of further meaning. Weddings often include the passage from Ephesians in which Paul declares, "After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.' "
In one sense, we are never more Godlike than in the act of sex. We make ourselves vulnerable. We risk. We give and receive in a simultaneous act. We feel a primordial delight, entering into the other in communion. Two independent beings open their inmost selves and experience not a loss but a gain. In some way—"a profound mystery" not even Paul dared explore—this most human act reveals something of the nature of reality, God's reality, in his relations with creation and perhaps within the Trinity itself.
I will go no further because to do so seems a kind of sacrilege, an ignorant probing of what we cannot possibly comprehend, an attempt to reduce an irreducible mystery. Simply recognizing the sacramental nature of sex does, however, shed light on some of the sexual taboos of the Bible. I now see them not as capricious rules to spoil our sexual adventures but rather as guidelines protecting something of great value that can only be realized in an exclusive, covenant relationship.
Confining sex to marriage does not guarantee that we will realize anything beyond physical gratification in our sex lives. It may, however, create an environment of safety, intimacy, and trust where the true meaning of sex, the sacramental meaning, may at times break through. Marriage provides the security we need to experience sex without restraint, apart from guilt, danger, or deceit. Teenagers worry that they will miss out on something if they heed the Bible's warnings against premarital sex. Actually, the warnings are there to keep them from missing out on something. Fidelity sets a boundary in which sex can run free.
I ONCE HEARD AN ACTOR being interviewed on late-night television. "Tell me," said David Letterman. "You're a sex symbol who plays all sorts of exciting roles with gorgeous women. How does that compare to your real life, off-screen?"
The actor reminded Letterman that he had been happily married for 20 years. Then he said, "Here's the difference in a nutshell. In the movies, life is mostly about sex and occasionally about children. Married life is mostly about children and occasionally about sex."
Sex is such a powerful force that a young person may have trouble understanding how anything else could ever eclipse it. Most married people, like the actor, will tell you that sex within marriage is neither as easy nor as important as they had imagined before marriage. It expresses intimacy, yes, and provides pleasure. But much of marriage consists in making day-to-day decisions, managing the complexities of careers and schedules, rearing children, negotiating differences, juggling finances, and all the other effort involved in keeping a home running.
Marriage strips away the illusions about sex pounded into us daily by the entertainment media. Few of us live with oversexed supermodels. We live instead with ordinary people, men and women who get bad breath, body odors, and unruly hair; who menstruate and experience occasional impotence; who have bad moods and embarrass us in public; who pay more attention to our children's needs than our own. We live with people who require compassion, tolerance, understanding, and an endless supply of forgiveness. So do our partners. Such is the ironical power of sex: It lures us into a relationship that offers to teach us what we need far more—sacrificial love.
Philip Yancey is a CT columnist and author of Rumors of Another World (Zondervan, 2003), from which this article was adapted with permission.
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See more articles on sex in our Sexuality and Gender area.
Yancey is a columnist for Christianity Today.
Christianity Today has earlier excerpted several of Yancey's other books, including Reaching for the Invisible God, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, The Bible Jesus Read, and What's So Amazing About Grace?
See also today's interview with Yancey about Rumors of Another World.
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