Friday, January 05, 2007

In All Things, Sex

It's late - I'm tired and have a headache - but I wanted to throw together a few thoughts on the issue of sexuality tonight. I apologize for the sloppiness of the post/my thinking. Also, there are issues here that are of a rather sensitive and possibly offensive nature.

The ongoing sexual obsession of our society is disturbing. We see sex everywhere. And it has become who we are and how we think - so that a first grader who kisses a girl is suspended from school for sexual harassment. We do not understand innocence.

"With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
with the blameless you show yourself blameless;
with the pure you show yourself pure;
and with the crooked you show yourself perverse."

And Christians are no exception. We see this evidencing itself in our beliefs about sexuality. And our beliefs, or lack of beliefs, about sex are shaped by the silence of many of our churches on such issues as pornography and abortion, and an even greater silence concerning contraception and masturbation.

Our obsession is evidenced in our marital unfaithfulness and our pastoral sexual abuse.

Our obsession is evidenced in our immodesty and in our coarse humor - the very patterns of our thoughts relentlessly turn toward sex. And we begin to be unable to think of our thinking as possibly dysfunctional.

For example, in conversations about the ever-virginity of Mary, the idea of a man being married and also being chaste is, for some, inconceivable. Understand that I am not arguing here for Mary's perpetual virginity - but to be unable to even see chastity as a possibility is surely, at the very least, lamentable. (Mary's ever-virginity is not exclusive to Catholic and Orthodox traditions. The Reformers also believed in Mary's ever-virginity. So the rejection of Mary's ever-virginity is not simply a Protestant phenomena, at least not at Protestantism's own conception.)

Homosexuality and abortion are big issues in Christianity. Yet even these issues are, in some corners of Christianity, post-issues. I hear people making less of them. So it is no surprise that we do not talk much about more private issues, such as contraception and masturbation.

But it shocks me that 80 years ago, all traditions within Christianity opposed contraception. And tonight, on Nightline, the broadcasters seemed surprised to hear of a Christian group (the Quiverfull Movement) that was against contraception - as if this belief were a new thing, and extreme.

Nowadays, of course, most Christians do not think twice about contraception. That, in itself, is troubling. It is not even so much that Christians use contraception, though I believe contraception is wrong, but that we do not even ask questions about the dangers (the chemical regulation, shortening, or elimination of a woman's period) or morality of contraception - that it has become quite normal for us. Taking a pill or having a vasectomy is just what we do.

Finally, masturbation. I attended an evangelical Protestant college - perhaps fundamentalist, certainly dispensational. In my first year, students were not permitted to see movies. In my third year, as part of a Christian living class I took for my Bible minor, we discussed masturbation. The professor thought it possible to masturbate without sin, without sexual fantasy (or improper sexual fantasy) - that, perhaps even, Jesus masturbated.

Shocking as that may be, my point is this: The lecture was the only time I can recall hearing a discussion about the morality of masturbation. And outside of discussions about lust, I certainly was never taught that masturbation itself was disordered. In fact, we simply did not talk about it.

Ultimately, I suppose, I'm disheartened by our willingness (and even desire) to live broken lives. Our churches cannot afford to be shy about sexuality. Silence breeds acceptance. And impurity is still not the road to holiness.


Edmund C. said...


Thanks for writing this--you ordered for me some thoughts that have been rattling around in my mind for quite a while.

I grew up in slightly different circumstances, going to a strictly Calvinist church but with parents who attended out of duty, not so much out of active conviction. We never, ever talked about purity or impurity, contraception, abortion, masturbation, or any topic along those lines. What you did in private was, well, private. And you dared not condemn another person's choices.

So, it's been paradoxically liberating to convert to Catholicism, where we take seriously these issues. But, even within Catholicism, there's a huge problem of ignoring the truth. I'd wager that a large majority of parishioners are every bit as entrapped by our culture as the Evangelicals with whom we grew up.

And, to make matters worse, it's been my experience (albeit limited) that if you look at ex-Catholics who are now at Evangelical churches, the root of their move is disagreement with the Church's stance on sexual issues, usually irregular marriages.

I guess my question in this rambling is this: how do we help our fellow Christians to realize that there is true freedom in acceptance of traditional sexual morality, when they're bombarded every minute with an opposite message, even within our churches?

Dan said...

I have been thinking of making an entry on my blog that is somewhat related, albeit a bit tangentially. I found Jimmy Carter's eulogy of President Ford stimulating fodder for my thinking about Christendom, and the beliefs that are held by individuals and denominations. Carter spoke about how he and Ford shared a common faith in God, and that this caused them to love others. They also shared a belief in man's ability to make a choice, and by extension, they felt compelled to love others, regardless of the choices they make. Carter alluded to the schism in the Episcopalian church over homosexuality, and implied that both he and Ford were in support of homosexuals being able to participate fully in the church, including in leadership roles.

I was struck by seeing two men of faith, good men, (who have always discussed their relationship with God openly, not in a merely political means as a way to garner votes), and how their beliefs differ from many in Christendom. They both are sons of God, yet they believe that homosexuality is OK, counter to everything I've ever been taught, or believed. Carter is pro-choice as well, yet he is still a believer.

As I reflected on Ford's death, what I saw more than anything was that when all is said and done, the important parts of the funeral services were those dealing with his future with God. All other differences fell away, and seeing Carter there as well, regardless of his differing views on social issues, I was struck most with the fact that he is a fellow believer, whom I can call brother.

It made me think that there is room in the kingdom for well-intentioned men and women who differ on serious moral issues.
I suppose this is where my thoughts touch upon your blog.

I've seen bumper stickers which say you can't be Christian and pro-choice. There's a part of me that once believed that, but now, I don't subscribe to that belief. And the same goes for those who hold the belief that homosexuality is a normal expression of human love.

I don't believe this, but neither can I believe that those Christians who have invited homosexuals to participate in their churches are automatically jettisoned from the love of God. Where does grace end?

We need to stand up for truth, of course, but I think there is room for dissent and disagreement regarding some areas of sexuality. I'm intrigued by John Paul's the Theology of the Body, but I don't agree with it all, nor do I feel that the Catholic view of sexuality is something which I can identify with completely.

It begs the question though of what truth is. What if Catholicism is right? What then of those who have engaged in contraception? Have they sinned? What if their conscience is clear? Does this mean they have hardened their hearts to hearing the voice of God?

There are a couple of generations now of Christians who have lived in the era of the pill. Some have argued, quite compellingly, that our current moral bankruptcy came on the heels of the introduction of the pill: sexuality without responsibility. I think there is truth in some of this, but I don’t believe that contraception in and of itself is bad. That’s just my opinion, and I would be getting off target to begin a debate over that issue, because that’s not my intention.

As to our society being sexually obsessed, I’d have to agree with you. On the flipside, however, I think there is the risk of imparting an unhealthy view of sexuality by being overly prudish. I think back onto my own adolescence, and the ever-present twin ogres of guilt and shame surrounding sexuality. To me, that was damaging. It was a revelation to me in college when I was having a discussion about lust and sexuality with a college professor friend of my brother. I was talking about lust, wondering how Christ dealt with it. The friend interrupted me and said that there is a distinct difference between lust and desire. Desire is God given, and natural, and we should not feel compelled to stifle this. He expressed the conviction that if Christ was human, then he certainly desired woman, but had mastery over it, and didn’t allow it to cross into lust. It was really the first time that sexual desire was given the seal of approval for me.

There needs to be another way of teaching about sexuality, between the two extremes of permissiveness and the hard line view where sex is surrounded with shame, (and my experience was the latter). I don’t blame Catholicism for this, but rather my parents’ interpretation of Catholic teaching, and their own brokenness. There are some things in Catholic sexual teaching that I take exception with, however…but that’s neither here nor there. I suppose that in my own teaching of my children, I could run the risk of going to the other side of the pendulum. But I’ve got a long time before that becomes an issue.

You raised the issues of masturbation, and how it’s not often talked about in the church anymore. I know, speaking for me, if I were to talk about this with a son of mine, I would emphasize more than anything, the grace of God. In adolescence, I have come to believe that it’s so ubiquitous in male development, that I would call it natural and normal, though I would urge my son to gain mastery over it, without resorting to shame or guilt. I would be completely honest with him about my own struggles, and hope that by identifying with him, and letting him know that God is not going to strike him down, he actually would have a better fighting chance.

In the area of sexuality, usually my thinking is distilled most succinctly by thinking back to C.S. Lewis and what he said about sexuality in Mere Christianity. His thinking on the “ranking” of sins, by saying that “the sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins,” is something that I believe as well. He talks about the distinction between the Animal and the Diabolical sins, and of course he ends that chapter by saying that is of course best to not be in either camp.

This entry obviously stimulated some thinking in me…

Edmund C. said...


I hope I'm misreading your comment, but there seems to me a general theme that is emblematic of a deeper problem in our society than sexual immorality--subjectivism. It's not about me; it's not about my opinion; if something is true, then it's true regardless of whether I take exception with it.

I agree with you and C.S. Lewis that lust and sexual sin are not as serious as sins like pride, but they are still serious. They're particularly serious when they flow from a view of mankind where the individual is the most important thing. If I'm committing sin to give myself pleasure as opposed to entering into relationship with others and with God, then I'm placing myself in the position of God. That's a very quick way to separate oneself from grace.

If sin is committed out of passion, that's another story altogether.

Taking this framework, where relationship to others and to God (love of God and love of neighbor, in other words) are all important, then the answer to the question of whether one can be a Christian and be pro-choice is pretty clear. A person can consider himself a Christian and be pro-choice, but the objective fact is that in supporting murder of another human being, he has cut himself off from the Body of Christ.

Scott Lyons said...

Edmund, thank you for stopping by. How do we help people understand the freedom of trusting and obeying? I'm not sure, though I would first suggest prayer, which is powerful and always underestimated. Second, if one is married, to be fruitful and truly joyful in our fecundity. Our great failure as Christians is that we do not always live or love as richly as we are able.

As far as speaking of abortion and cutting oneself off from the Body of Christ - this might be ground better left untilled. It is not our part to judge, first. Second, it really depends on what one believes about abortion and about the Church. While the Church believes it to be, objectively, grave sin - there have been millions of abortions that have largely taken place in ignorance. Our duty is to love these people. We must pray for them and do whatever else it is we can do, whether it be providing a single teenage mother with a safe place, adopting, voting, working through pregnancy care centers, etc.

If I supported my wife or daughter or friend in having an abortion, however, I would be cutting myself off from the Body of Christ (though there is forgiveness and reconciliation even here). No question.

Scott Lyons said...

Dan, I've been thinking about your comment for a couple days now. Conversation is an exercise in qualification, I suppose. So let me begin clarifying my position, and my purpose for throwing together this post.

I certainly don't disagree that our behavior in regard to those with differing opinions on sin needs to be Love. I can and should not judge who is In or Out of the Kingdom. That is for God, not me. I discover that the less I busy myself with that judgment, and, instead, try to truly love other people, the better off I am.

I do not have a problem calling a man who supports "choice" or homosexual unions my brother, or loving them. Further, I do not have a problem loving someone who has had an abortion or who is an active homosexual. That doesn't keep me from recognizing and stating the truth that God has revealed to us about these issues, or even from stating that I believe He has revealed His will concerning these issues.

Of course, I am a sinner too - diabolical and animal - and I mean to show no special repugnance for those involved in what the Catholic Church calls sexual sin, or to call into question their eternal relationship with Christ. I am as much in need of the mercy of God as every other person in this world.

There is certainly room in the Kingdom for those who disagree with me or even who disagree with the Catholic Church on these issues. No question. Furthermore, we pray that all might come to Christ and be the recipients of His great mercy. Of course, that doesn't make a particular activity righteous either.

So I want to be careful here. My post was written late, so I hope you'll excuse anything that might have come across as judgmental in it. It was not my intention to judge anyone so much as to begin thinking about issues we are, in my opinion, too quick to hide or shush.

As far as there being room for dissent in the Church - I would agree to a point. But not where the Church has definitively, dogmatically spoken. And to have a conversation about our disagreement here, we'd need to discuss the authority of the Church and whether it is within the Catholic Church that the Body of Christ subsists. Ultimately, our disagreement here, stems from our disagreement there. (Recognizing that it is an amicable disagreement.)

My wife and I used contraception for years; we didn't entirely stop until about a year ago when I started reading about Catholicism and felt as if I could no longer contracept (other than NFP or abstinence). To be honest with you, for Laura it has been one of the most difficult teaching of the Church. This difficulty arises out of a number of places, not least of which is familial pressure and, at times, ridicule. I very easily could have had a vasectomy - I didn't because my wife and I never got to the point where we were entirely comfortable with the idea of not being able to have any more children. Meanwhile, every male in my family, and most of my friends, have had a vasectomy. I am certainly not seeking to judge them for that decision. It's just what we do after we've had the number of children we've decided we're going to have.

Laura's mother took her to the doctor to begin taking the pill about three months before we were married. It was the most normal thing in the world for both of us. It's just what we did.

And that's what grieves me. This post is not so much about what Catholicism teaches about contraception or abortion or masturbation - though I believe such activities are wrong. We take a pill or apply a patch and we never question what it is we're doing, what it is we're potentially doing, and whether God has any feelings about it one way or another. We have been so conditioned that we don't even consider the morality of sexuality, or whether there is a morality of sexuality.

I'm generalizing, certainly. Many consider the issues surrounding contraception thoroughly and still decide to contracept. My wife and I still used forms of contraception even after we came to the point where we believed that the pill, always potentially an abortifacient, was immoral. Barrier methods, of course, were not as cut and dry for us. And that's where JPII's Theology of the Body, and the Church's teaching on sexuality in general, is helpful to me. But that applies to me more than it does to you since I am Catholic and you are not. But setting my Catholicity aside, there needs to be more openness about the objective morality or immorality of such activities, even whether there is.

I would also agree with you about the extremes of teaching our children about sexuality. There is the risk of Grundyism, and those charges are appropriate on occasion. I do not want my children growing up afraid of sex or of their sexuality. I don't want them growing up ashamed of their sexuality. But I do want them to understand that there is an appropriate place and time for their sexuality.

And your ideas of teaching your sons about their sexuality, are excellent. I hope to teach my sons just so.

I have grown up in much guilt due to my own ignorance or mishandling of my sexuality - some of it unnecessary, or overly scrupulous, and some of it absolutely appropriate. Repentance and confession are not only beautifully efficacious but also practically beneficial in my scrupulosity and in my sin.

We aren't just born knowing these things.

As far as masturbation is concerned, the only mastery - the only liberation - I have ever been able to attain here is abstaining from it completely. And that only through repentance and confession - God's grace. That's my personal experience, and I'm certainly not saying that personally mastering your body without abstinence is impossible. I personally believe, however, due to the Church's teaching and my own experience with it, that it is immoral.

I've already gone on too long, and perhaps said too much. Our churches must begin having conversations about these issues; as responsible believers we must examine what our culture tells us about our sexuality.

Dan said...

Hi Scott,

Thanks for your comments. There was nothing in your post that I felt was judgmental, or that caused me to think I needed to debate the points you made, which I think are all good points. It was simply a stepping stone to my own thinking on the heels of watching Ford’s funeral.

Thinking about Christians who think and believe differently on issues that I feel are sacrosanct has always been troublesome for me. How do Christians of faith, who believe such contrary views on essential moral teachings, find common ground? It was a bit of an epiphany for me to be watching a funeral of a Christian who believed very differently than I. What I saw was a Christian brother being laid to rest. Everything else fell away for me, and it was an invitation, I felt, to rethink my prejudices.

That was really my motivation for my comments, not to disagree with you, though I alluded to my disagreement regarding contraception and certain teachings of the Church. It is indeed an amicable disagreement, as it is with the rest of my family. I had a discussion with my brother Steve over Christmas about some of these issues, and asked him why Catholics view certain things as immoral that I believe are morally acceptable. It was an interesting discussion, and food for thought.

I've always felt (as you express in this post), that the Church (in all its various incarnations) is too silent on all matters of sexuality. It's a subject that needs more candor and more debate. I think especially in the area of homosexuality, which seems to be the one thing in the church that makes one anathema. How unfortunate for the young people in churches today to think that they're alone in their church in struggling with this issue. And I think of adolescent boys, who undoubtedly have delved into the seedier parts of the internet, how difficult it is if they don't have honest interaction with grown men who've struggled as well. What is needed in this area is the shining light of truth, that even allows for being completely honest about the darkest corners of our experience.

And as to masturbation, my message wouldn't be one of license, but rather to communicate the commonality of the struggle, that it is common to all men, and that we are better when we gain mastery of it, but that to engage in that activity does not mean there is a grave malformation of one's character, which was what I was led to believe. I suppose that's where C.S. Lewis's comments have traction with me. Grace, grace, and more grace—that will be my message, alongside a call to act morally.

There is a quote that has meant a lot to me over the years, but I haven’t been able to find it exactly. In essence it says that all the sin that a man may say or do is to the grace of Christ nothing more than a burning ember tossed into the sea. I take great comfort in that imagery, and would want to impart that message dynamically to my children, second only to the call to obey and love God and others.

Scott Lyons said...

Excellent thoughts, Dan. If you ever find the quote about our sin (the ember) and God's grace (the sea), let me know. That's beautiful.

I appreciate your honesty here and enjoy the conversation.

I know that sexuality is not an easy topic to discuss, that it is easier to keep quiet about it and each of us to live our own lives. But I just get so weary of the mask of saintliness.

If we were more honest about our own mistakes coupled with our own discovery of grace, then we could do a great good.