Last week’s sermon addressed sexuality.
People are not souls temporarily embodied. We are unities, body and soul together. One implication is that our gender is an essential part of our permanent identity — which further implies that our sexuality, along with every other aspect of our personality, is present, involved, in nearly everything we do.
Maybe that’s obvious to you. Maybe it should be. In some of the circles I’ve been in, though, it hasn’t been obvious at all. Sexuality is supposed to be virtually non-existent except in marriage. The courtship movement was in vogue when I was in InterVarsity in college — and it sure seemed to me that the basic idea is that you have extremely limited friendships with guys, in groups, in which you somehow get to know one another well enough to figure out you should marry — and then, on marriage day, sexuality is allowed. And it stays nicely put within the confines of marriage and impinges on no other area of life.
My limited experience with this movement and similar ideas was frustratingly not according to the plan.
Junior year of high school, there was A. We very carefully and purposefully did not date — mostly because he was a new believer, and everyone advised me that dating him would make his faith dependent on our romance instead of on God. So we did not date — officially — but we were electrically attracted to one another. Since we were not dating, we could not discuss the nature of our relationship. It was awkward. It was a sort of mutual use. I eventually named it covert dating. What would Elisabeth Elliot have advised us — to cut off the relationship just because we had this strong attraction? Her book talked about avoiding sparking such attractions, but I don’t remember it saying a thing about what to do once you already had one. Her book also included the worst marriage proposal in the universe, in which Jim basically told her he would likely never ever ever marry, but — if he did — it would be her. Yikes!!
I knew someone at the time who had had tremendous difficulty with sexuality in marriage, because it had been such a forbidden and negative and bad and nasty and dangerous thing before marriage.
When I first met Mark, I thought, “Here is an interesting person — let’s try to become friends.” It was not very long before I had a romantic attraction to him. And I was utterly dismayed! I hardly knew him. We hadn’t yet really developed a strong friendship. I must be doing this all wrong. And now what to do? How could I possibly pursue friendship with him, with integrity and holiness, with this interfering, intrusive, unsolicited attraction? How could I know if he would be a good marriage partner, since my attraction to him would obviously be a biasing influence? Yes — I seriously thought such things.
Friends once told us, when we were starting to seriously talk about marriage, that you still get crushes afterward, and that it doesn’t mean you married the wrong person or that you’re a horrible person. You just notice it, tell your spouse about it, and don’t act on it. Good to be aware ahead of time that such things happen — and to not be alarmed when they do. But — difficult to learn how to work through it. Sometimes avoiding the person is possible. Sometimes, perhaps, it is not only possible (or necessary, like in a work setting) but wise to learn how to have an appropriate relationship with a person to whom you have an attraction.
All that to say that, while this idea (of sexuality being as present and involved in all areas of life as the rest of our personality) makes a lot of sense, some parts of church culture have not adequately equipped us for living well with our sexuality, for living an integrated and true life in general.
There are reasons for this inadequate support. Parts of the church have considered sexuality dangerous and fearful, the biggest threat to spirituality. Therefore, they say, it must be firmly compartmentalized away. However, a dis-integrated life is never free of problems:
One of the results [of this fear], it seems to me, was a denial of how sexual we actually are in most parts of our lives, how deep-rooted the longing is for intimacy and union with others, and a general inability of men and women to be friends with each other across that sexual divide. Sexual desire which culminates in physical intercourse is one, but not the only way, that longing is fulfilled. We ought to be able to admit all this and talk about it.
The lopsided focus (in some circles) on sexual immorality as the most dangerous and heinous of sins reminds me of Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials, which is excellent in some ways and, to say the least, has an insufficient understanding of what the Church is really about, or should be; the “church” of the books has the fear and condemnation of sin — especially sexual sin and anything involving the authentic self — without any Gospel.
Confining sexuality to marriage does not solve all the problems. It doesn’t help anyone understand what sexuality is all about, what sexual love within marriage is supposed to be, how people are to relate to one another in the lesser — but real — intimacy of friendship and the family relationship of the Body of Christ, what single and gay folks are supposed to do with their sexuality, and so on.
But let us discuss what lust is and is not. It is not the mere fact of sexual desire. It is sexual desire that does not respect or even consider the reality of the other person. There is no love in lust. On the other hand, “[a]s Farley put it: ‘Love is the problem in ethics, not the solution… There are wise loves and foolish, good loves and bad, true loves and mistaken loves. The question ultimately is, what is a right love, a good, just, and true love?’ [ p. 197]”
Farley suggests three criteria for a just love: it must be true to the reality of the beloved, the reality of the one loving, and the real nature of the relationship. She also argues that, while we can’t control our loves, can’t turn them off or on, we can choose to either ratify or repudiate them — to either identify our deepest self with a love, or not to. She further suggests criteria for a just sexual relationship: “1. Do no unjust harm; 2. Free consent of partners; 3. Mutuality; 4. Equality; 5. Commitment; 6. Fruitfulness; and 7. Social Justice.”
As in the other sermons in this series, Fr. John considers what one can do to avoid, resist, or overcome these sins. The importance of living as our true selves has been a connecting theme with each of these sermons.
If lust is all about how we fail in our loving towards each other as sexual beings, especially in those areas in which we want to fulfill our needs for affection and physical connection and sexual pleasure, then of course the way to fight lust is to love in healthy ways — being true to ourselves, to the ones we love, and to the nature of the relationships in which we exist. A lot of this will be about our search to be the person God wants us to be — the question of our true self, again. If we are not seriously engaged in this search for the person God wants us to be, but are still foolishly trying to patch together a false self in competition with other false selves, we are likely to find a spiritual emptiness inside, a hollowness… And so people who are empty will seek something to fill the inner hollowness with what is easiest. In our culture that seems to be sex.
This emphasis on “loving in healthy ways” — a positive practice as opposed to the negative avoidances associated with the word “chastity” — reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ essay “The Weight of Glory,” in which, among other things, he argues that selflessness is a negative virtue and an empty one, compared with the positive and active virtue of altruism. We don’t love well by negating our selves, trying to minimize or erase our personhood, including our sexuality. On the contrary — love requires the participation of real selves, real people.
Fr. John’s concluding paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
I don’t really think Jesus was as fearful about sexuality as the Church has been. He had very close women friends as well as male friends, and seemed to welcome physical closeness and emotional intimacy. His advice about adultery of the heart, which has been used to frighten serious and over-scrupulous believers about the dangers of sexual desire, actually referred to something else. As Dallas Willard put it, what Jesus condemned was the lustful man who routinely looked at women as sexual objects and imagined how he could use them. That is quite a different thing from recognizing that a woman is sexually attractive, that one has a warm affection toward her as a good friend, and enjoys and is content with an occasional hug or a kiss on the cheek, and some good conversation. This latter accords with the principles of right loving: it realizes and affirms the reality of the one loved, and appreciates her for who she is, to the extent that she is known; it takes one’s own reality into account; and it rightly corresponds to the nature of the relationship one has with her. I think we would have fewer problems with lust if we had a more vigorous and full-bodied way of loving each other.
This doesn’t answer all particular questions, to be sure. We have a lot of work to do in this area. But in lust as in almost everything else, the sin is found along a trajectory that fails to love well. And it is defeated not by fearfulness or repression but by a love that is stronger and more faithful to Jesus.