Friday, September 23, 2011

When faith speaks to sexuality, and not the reverse

From the Daily Office reading today:

   Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is well for a man not to touch a woman.’ But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.
   To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:1-9

I cannot think of the last time I heard an Episcopalian deal meaningfully with this text. The assumptions behind it are so challenging to contemporary modes of thinking as to be outrageous to many. St. Paul’s discussion of sexual matters offends precisely because he takes the position that sex is a subordinate passion, something that must be brought into conformity to a greater truth—our life as disciples.

Right away, he transgresses typical modern American ‘morality,’ which implicitly or explicitly states that sexuality is the Great Truth, the Highest Reality about the human being. It has become the end, not the means. Therefore, everyone is to be allowed their own opinion, their own practice—within ever-shifting limitations. Sexuality, the pseudo-sacrament of secularism, must not be “touched” by religion. It must be allowed to “liberate” us from within. The best thing we can say about sexuality from the contemporary viewpoint seems to be: “It’s all good.”

But Paul has a completely different perspective. Sexuality is a desire in the human being. It has spiritual capacity… all of our God-given aspects do… but it is not unmixed with that “other law” at work in us, the one warring against our full participation in Christ. Our sexual lives must, like our money, emotions, talk, politics, leisure, and all other aspects of our life, be in harmony with the Gospel. This means we are going to have to talk through the complex and turbulent world of sexual life from a perspective of faith, not leaving it to those outside the Gospel to set the norms for Christian life.

So, St. Paul works through issues of marital life with nuance, generosity, realism, mutuality, and above all a guiding principle: self-control. The Christian is not to be mastered by any desire. We are free in Christ. We may not submit ourselves again to the yoke of slavery.

It is this principle that guides authentically Christian discussions of sexuality. Secular, non-Christian intrusions into our life are marked by a desire to turn sexuality into a walled garden, a place above and beyond Gospel scrutiny. I once heard a church member say in all sincerity: “I don’t think God cares what I do in the bedroom.” I was mystified. Why ever not? Why is a bedroom God-proof, but a ballot or a bank account not? This is a very pathetic, diminished understanding of the God who has numbered every hair on our head, as Jesus reminds us.

St. Paul steadfastly refused to allow Christians the luxury of compartmentalization. Christ Jesus broke down the dividing wall between God and humanity, and that wrecking ball of truth will be administered to every barrier to the Kingdom of God. Each era seeks something to be exempted from the Gospel’s reach. Once it was keeping human as slaves. Now sexuality seems to be the latest such ploy. None of them can work. God and sin cannot coexist.

The Blessed Apostle’s teachings are in the service of bringing the Kingdom of God to bear on the things of our life. He invites us let our faith speak to our sexuality. The misery we see in the culture around us comes from that conversation going the other way.

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