I was led to think about this subject after reading this takedown at Sadly,No! Addressed to this piece from Townhall.com, where the author, Kevin McCullough attempts to address Barack Obama's advocacy of condom-use. I will waste little time repeating the very thorough beating McCullough received from Mister Leonard Pierce. I would, rather, address the issue of how sexual morality is discussed, and not discussed, in our churches and our society. I do believe I will probably anger pretty much everyone with what follows, but bear with me, if you would, because there is a point behind what might seem, at first blush, to be outrageousness for its own sake.
First, I think it is important to say, up front, that I do not believe an honest and thorough reading of the Bible can lead to "a" or "the" Christian ethic on human sexual behavior. The whole gamut is presented, from rape and honest sensuality to advocacy of celibacy. Granted, the practice of rape is hardly recommended, but were we honest enough, we would grant that it is at least present. Furthermore, the most thorough statement on sexuality is not Paul's letters, but the Old Testament poem THe Song of Songs, which celebrates that most intimate of human acts in a blatant, graphic manner.
What is odd is that, during the period when the western church held sway the strongest, the Song was the most commented-upon book of the Bible. It was interpreted allegorically, stripping the praise of the beauty of the human form and the joys human sexual congress bring of their power. Yet, we can appreciate now, I think, the simple fact that, here within the pages of the Bible is a definitive statement concerning the possibilities inherent in human sexuality.
It is not enough to just start here, however. It would be far too easy to do what has been done for centuries, and ignore some parts of the Bible in favor of those that seem to speak to our own concerns. It would also be wrong to ignore millennia of preaching and teaching that saw human sexual desire in all its forms as at the very least an occasion for sin, a trap and lure for the weak and fallen, pulling them away from the higher and more refined life to which some have insisted Christ calls us. So, on the one hand, we have a good starting point for developing a healthy, human sexual ethic that acknowledges the reality and goodness of human sexual desire; on the other hand, we are kicking against the pricks (no pun intended) of centuries of church insistence that sex, even marital relations between a husband and wife, should be limited to procreation, never admitting that the more pleasurable aspects of sex have any role whatsoever.
I have always wondered about this last. If the simple sensual pleasure of human sexual intimacy is a snare devised by the devil, why is the sex drive so much stronger than the will to survive? Why, indeed, are non-Christians as able to overcome it, if those who preach this idea are consistent? Buddhists, Jain, and other eastern religious practitioners are capable, after years of stern discipline, to deny this most basic human drive, sometimes far better than their western counterparts.
In any case, I believe that it is time to take Paul's advocacy of sexual denial except within marriage as part of his belief that Christians should be different from the society at large. Remember, he lived and taught during the period when Roman cultural dominance was at its height. Among the elite, sexual license was prevalent. As Christians were drawn from a variety of social strata, and were taught to be a people apart, part of this difference would be a different approach to human sexuality.
One objection to my own approach (which should be obvious) is that our society is no different. We are a culture inundated with sexual imagery. To be a people apart, it would seem, would continue to include limiting the sex act to reproduction, and ignoring the more beneficial aspects.
Except, while we are certainly swamped with the images and words of sex, they are images and words that reduce sex, not to reproduction certainly, but rather to a recreational activity. With the ubiquity of pornography, we could even call it a spectator sport. Yet, this is no more healthy than restricting sex to marital reproduction.
What I am advocating is the church teach a far more comprehensive, human, open, approach to the sexual urge. Recognize its power. Recognize the pitfalls and inherent dangers of abusing this wonderful gift from God. By "good sex", in the title, I am talking here not just about the quality, but the ethical nature of sex. Sex is good not just when it is physically pleasing. Sex is good when it is done with love, with concern for our partner, when it builds up a relationship, when it creates and strengthens bonds between two individuals. Sex is good, in other words, when the pleasure we receive from it goes far beyond the normal physical release. It should include an emotional and psychological component of joy and happiness.
At its best, whether one is a Christian or not, whether one believes in a god, or God, or not, human sexuality is the scene of one of the great mysteries of our existence. The bonds created are forged as we are stripped not just of our clothes, but of all the barriers we create that protect us from too close contact with others. At its best, sex leaves us as vulnerable as we could ever be, and yet feeling quite safe at the same time. The Church should strive to make sure that this kind of emotional and psychological vulnerability is understood not only as normal, but as a healthy spiritual reaction. By stripping away all our defenses, we can exist with another human being far better, in a far more open way, leading to better inter-relating.
Obviously, I will find few takers for such an approach to Christian sexual ethics. There are far too many people out there who are not only afraid of the power of human sexuality, but whose fear includes the fear that others will discover that power. Far better to limit it, than to expose it to the world as the same kind of power that Jesus displayed upon the cross - the powerlessness of the completely vulnerable. I believe the church should remember that, as embodied, created, whole beings who stand each moment of our lives in the light of grace, we have nothing to fear, and everything to gain, from remembering in our most intimate moments together, that God called all of creation (and sex is part of creation) very good.