As Christianity became the guiding religious ideology of Western Europe, and then later her colonial nations, the Christian view of sexuality became the de facto public norm of these societies. However, in the past century the West has witnessed a paradigm shift in it public norms about sexuality, from one built upon sexual complementarianism and reproduction to personal sexual fulfillment. As a consequence, the Church in the West inhabits a world of sexuality it is largely unfamiliar with within recent tradition, although there is a familiarity with it embedded in the memory of the Scriptures. Of course, you will hear a many conservative social critics bemoan the shift towards sexual liberation and propose solutions to the problem that essentially amount expecting people to have relationships and sex as it was from the 1950s prior, with hopes of returning to bygone era long past. As Adam and Eve ate the tree of knowledge of good and evil and irreparably let loose a set of forces into the world that could not simply be reversed, the Pandora’s box of human sexuality has been irreversibly opened in the previous decades, from which we can not just simply fit things back to the way things used to be. Sex has become a public religion, with its liturgies diffused into music, entertainment, business, advertisements, politics, etc., having obtained the recognition to ascribe to people their primary, most cherished personal and social identities that define our sense of belonging.
I use the mythical reference to Pandora’s box intentionally, as what came out was a mixed bag of blessing and curses, as all religious practice bestow, including Christian faith. With the upheaval of the Western Christian sexual ethos, which was actually a blend of Biblical sexuality, Augustinian disgust towards sex, and Roman valuation of manliness and patriarchalism, came the liberation of women and healthier views about sex in general. But at the same time, far from simply rejecting Biblical models of sexuality, we actually witnessed many ills that have occurred. The rates of rape in the US increased from the 60s onwards indicated at a rate that matched and exceeded the corresponding rise in rates of other crimes.1 That sex could be used in a very public way lead to the unrestrained formation of human imagination, altering how it is that we see people leading to an increasing objectification of women, who were paradoxically liberated, and even men. As sex has become idealized and worshipped, unrealistic views about sex and relationships have propagated, leaving many people used, confused, and abused from the torrent that comes when uncaring hearts trained by an unrestrained desire finds the power of control and seduction.
While I don’t have the statistics to back it up, I would hypothesize that while there have always been sexual abuse, brokenness, confusion, etc. that the present day and age has witnessed an unparalleled increase in sexual and romantic traumas due to the way the widely propagated liturgies of sexuality have dramatically altered how we relate to and see each other, particularly in the United States. With it comes to the rise of the stories of pain and tragedy that our collective hearts reach out in compassion to, compensating for the damage the religion of sexuality has not seen, conveniently scapegoating the past so that it can simply celebrate its virtues. Perhaps this intuition is simply due to my own traumas that come from being used and objectified making me see it, or perhaps it is my traumas that have allowed me to see it as one of it’s increasing number of victims.
The Church in the West lives in the midst of this and there is no reversing it by some collective, cultural action, wishing as some might. We can’t try to fashion the world into our idealized image, but instead, we can simply become witnesses to God’s image as it pertains to sexuality. How?
1) Ground sexuality in the image of God rather than in purity norms – While many of the religious myths contemporary with ancient Israel would anthropomorphically portray the gods and goddesses as sexual creatures, Israel never succumbed to this notion. Instead, they suggested that when God created humanity, he created them male and female. Sexuality was a fashioned means by which humanity could learn to be in the image of God, which wasn’t about sexual ecstasy but about joining with God in his creation project; reproduction, fashioning a world for one’s children, and the interjoining of different forces/persons, relationships of faithfulness, etc. are all acts and aspects of loving creativity in conformity to God’s image. This is a world apart from seeing sex as some ugly, dirty thing that we only reluctantly give into to satisfy some urge or for the business of keeping life going.
2) While accepting that well-directed sexuality is a way to participate in the image of God, sexual activity is neither necessary nor sufficient for being in the image of God – There is a common, standard assumption, at least in the West, that you are only truly a full person if you are married/sexually-active/etc., depending on how conservative or progressive one’s sexual ethos is. But sex and marriage is not the only way to realize our purpose as being in God’s image, nor is it necessary to it. While the First/Old Testament do not present celibacy as a serious option, the words of Christ and the instruction of the Apostle Paul both treat celibacy as a real option. However, the reason celibacy is an option isn’t so that we are free from any relational and romantic entanglement to pursue our own projects, but rather as it frees us to pursue the interests of the inbreaking of new creation in God’s Kingdom. Singleness and celibacy are also perfectly acceptable states by which we can direct and sublimate creative energies that would otherwise be directed towards romance, relational faithfulness, and family as part of the first act of creation towards advancing God’s Kingdom in God’s present acts of new creation. Thereby, whether married, a long-term celibate, or single wishing to be married, one can participate in the loving creative action of God. Furthermore, simply being married, celibate, or single wishing to be married isn’t itself going to transform us into God’s image; the life of Christ and the leading of Holy Spirit are jointly necessary to help form and guide us in ways that our marriage, celibacy, and singleness can operate as part of God’s image and creation.
3) Recognize the important roles of both faithfulness and suffering in coming to realize God’s image in His creation, including through our sexuality – Romantic love and sex is a mixed bag, with much to celebrate and much to suffer. God’s type love is something we must learn ourselves, learning how to establish faithfulness and trust that comes with honoring one’s commitments, which can clash with many of our other desires and interests. Furthermore, insofar as we either have desires that conflict with God’s purposes or things have been done to us that conflict with God’s purposes, suffering is an often painful necessity in our life to realize what God has in store for us. Suffering from unfulfilled desires can chasten and discipline us and mourning our broken desires can redirect our hearts from what was taken from us and can never be recovered. However, it is important to state that this suffering should never be outwardly inflicted by others, nor should the instrumentality of the experience of suffering be a reason not to help reach out and alleviate that suffering in reasonable ways; these acts of compassion are acts of faithfulness and trust-forming. Then, when we join the experience of faithfulness from others to us and from ourselves to others is joined with the experience of suffering from unfulfilled desires and stolen dreams, we will find the way to direct our sexuality within either marriage, celibacy, or singleness so as to formed into God’s image in His creation.
4) Know that God’s image is about our purpose within God’s creation, and not any specific ontological status, so that we can realize that our sexuality can be fashioned towards lovingly creative purposes. – Being in the image of God isn’t about any particular state that I am in, nor is it something possess as an individual person, nor does it inhabit me. Rather, it is a statement about God’s purposes for humanity to be reflections of His glory in creation and co-workers in His project of creation. As a result, the way we direct our sexuality is something we come to realize through the learning that comes from growth and maturity, which as with some much else can be quite messy and awkward. There is a specific telos and goal we ourselves in our humanity in general and our sexuality specifically are directed towards, which entails the ability to tolerate the messiness and appropriate mercy and grace for the sin2 that comes with trying to realize the rightly directed purpose.
This, of course, would entail a different set of liturgies and prescriptions; ones that do not simply reproduce the purity ethos of the bygone era but put it in new packaging, but seriously and radically digs deep into the Biblical narrative of creation and God’s image and brings out how those themes address and impinge upon sexuality. Perhaps and hopefully, a rightly grounded sexuality in that meta-narrative would counter the controlling harms and abuses that so readily emanate from the emotions of disgust associated with purity violations, working towards eventually establishing a space of integrity, grace, compassion, and trust with those who have a more progressive sexual ethic and those who have been harmed by errant sexuality within the Church, without having to sacrifice what is important to the lives of those who are conformed into the image of God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit..
- That rape rose as other crimes rose suggest the rise in rape was not simply a rise in reporting, but an actual increase in criminal behavior.
- By appropriate, I mean not simply letting the most damaging sins go unaddressed as there are some sexual sins that should be addressed, but even then grace and mercy can be extended to those persons in the midst of the discipline and punishment.