Delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston MA, July 31st 2011
Parable – "Alien Visitation"
And now, breaking news … Officials at the United Nations have announced that they have been in communication with a race of extraterrestrials, but that the aliens have decided not to pursue any further contact with the human race, as they consider us to be "bereft of moral fiber."
The aliens, who are referred to by Earth scientists as Orthophagians, seem to regard human dietary habits as indulgent, wasteful and unwholesome. UN diplomats reported that Orthophagian delegates actually shuddered at offers of food, explaining that their species only consumes one simple meal every other day in private, and that they regard utterances centered on eating and hunger to be vulgar.
One French official stated in disbelief: "Restaurants are not only shocking to them, but downright disgusting. One of the aliens commented to me that the very thought of using the same plates and utensils as thousands of strangers made him nauseous, and wondered how debased people would have to be to work in such an establishment. I tried to explain that many gourmet chefs are highly regarded educators and celebrities, but he dismissed it as more evidence of an unhealthy obsession on our part, and claimed that this was the root of our civilization being so backwards in their eyes."
There was apparently a debate among the aliens about whether to send educational teams to propagate their own approach to food, which they regard as more natural and allowing greater dedication to higher pursuits, but it was feared that prolonged contact with Earth customs could have a corrupting effect.
The leader of the Orthophagian delegation was reported to have ended discussions with a backhanded expression of gratitude at having encountered the human race. "There are many heretical sects among us seeking to loosen our moral strictures," she stated, "and now we can show them just what a sordid approach will lead to."
Seven deadly sins – Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony and Lust. How did it come to pass that lust gained such prominence, not only in the amount of energy dedicated to stamping it out, but in defining it so extremely that the mere desire for sex became dangerous in itself? The parable I offered is analogous to how many Western explorers, and Christian missionaries in particular, viewed the sexual mores and attitudes of other cultures with self-righteous disdain, and with how many on the Religious Right see much of the outside world.
With all the other sins, it’s a question of balance. Nothing wrong with a healthy sense of self-esteem, or finding time to relax and refresh oneself, or even to express anger at wrongdoing. Our culture and religious communities also tend to be more forgiving of transgressions in those areas.
But sex? Some might say that we’ve come a long way since the days of Augustine, Savonarola, the Puritans, and nineteenth century crusaders like Anthony Comstock. Still we have latter-day successors to that tradition, attempting to push sexual minorities back in the closet, interfere with women’s reproductive choices, deprive young people of accurate and meaningful education on sexuality, and even infringe on the rights of consenting adults in our private lives. And still we have a tendency to equate sexual and conformity with morality in general. Even when some attempt to redefine "lust" as unhealthy or excessive desire, we obsess over what we mean by "unhealthy" or "excessive." Fear, shame and obsession about sex looms not only over so-called "social conservatives," but over each and every one of us.
When I started Sacred Eros here a couple of years ago, providing a safe space for people to talk about sexuality issues, it amazed me how many people would contact me by email and phone to say that, as much as they wanted to attend and participate, there was still something holding them back – and yet there was still the need for advice, information, or even the simple assurance that having different desires did not make them depraved monsters.
How did we get here? How did we come to downplay the New Testament’s admonitions about anger and avarice, only to exaggerate to absurdity the idea that sexual desire itself was even worse? I would argue that it is no accident that this is tied to Eurocentric religious traditions, for the problem is not merely ethical or cultural or political, it is also deeply spiritual – and so too are the tools by which we may find a remedy.
In his book Body Theology, James Nelson offers that much of the problem stemming from the Christian tradition’s denigration and demonization of sexuality is rooted in a number of hierarchical dualisms – simplistic attempts to explain the world in binaries of inferior and superior elements. The first of these divides the world into mind, spirit and reason at the top, and body, flesh and passion at the bottom. Such a dualism did not really exist in the Hebraic sacred texts; indeed, many of the dualistic notions we take for granted in traditional Christian thought actually come from Hellenistic philosophy and various mystery cults such as the Manichees. But it is from that influence that the Greek words for love – eros and agape – were no longer interchangeable as before, but rigidly separated into the "higher, spiritual" love of agape and the "lowly, carnal" passion of eros.
The second dualism is that of gender – male over female. To this day, many churches persist in maintaining male privilege in the name of tradition and obedience to God’s law, despite the fact that a careful reading of the New Testament shows that women had a very prominent role in the formation of the early church, and Jesus himself broke the taboos of his day by freely talking with women, even those of supposedly questionable reputation. Even when first-wave feminists argued for reform in the Victorian era, many of them merely reversed stereotypical gender roles rather than challenge them altogether. Whereas before it was argued that men were inherently more rational and women more emotional, Victorian activists for sexual purity proposed that women’s essential spiritual natures should be put to use in guiding and restraining men’s animalistic libido – a theme we can still see being perpetuated in abstinence-only programs offered in high schools across the country.
These dualisms – and the very notion that reality is divided and stacked in such simplistic ways – are rooted in a misguided desire for order. Everything must be in its proper place, fitting into a precise and rational system prescribed by God and nature. Sex is for procreation, and the variety of "unnatural" sexual activities must all be done away with: masturbation, contraception, oral and anal sex, homosexuality and pornography. Forget how women’s lives are diminished and even extinguished by denying them the ability to control their own bodies. Forget the misery caused by such repression, and the energy expended to maintain it. Order must be preserved! I mentioned Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the leading crusader against all things which he considered obscene and immoral (including artwork, literature and medical texts). Not only did he take great pride cataloging all of the books and pictures and devices he had destroyed in his quest, he even included in that trophy list the names of fifteen individuals whom his actions drove to suicide.
There are many problems with this whole dualistic mindset. The most profound is that it cripples our creative ability to find better ways of addressing the questions and issues facing us. Forcing the world into polar opposites simply will not do, for the world is not so simple. Rather than try to impose our limited sense of order upon nature, why don’t we seek to understand its continual and complex dance towards balance? The US Park Service, for example, for decades would decree that every forest fire must be put out – until ecologists pointed out that natural fires were part of the balance of regenerating those environments. That point was driven home after the Yellowstone fires of 1988, when the burned-over areas exploded with new growth in the months and years to follow.
Let us also find balance within ourselves, and learn to celebrate our bodies and sensuality as spiritual gifts. In this holistic view, eros can be seen as the means by which we connect with one another and with the Divine. It is the means by which the Divine’s incarnation in our flesh, our breath, our thoughts and emotions, and indeed with all of nature, is made profoundly known.
Dualism also leads to moral, social and cultural double standards which restrict how each of us is expected to experience and express our erotic desires. Consider how fervently the Religious Right opposes marriage equality – indeed, any recognition of same-gender relationships – because in their eyes it would "redefine" marriage and even destroy it. Well, if you lived in their subculture, so heavily infused with strict gender hierarchies, you’d understand just how threatening it is to propose a gender-neutral way of looking at marriage and relationships. And think of the stereotypical expectations we have regarding the intersection of sexuality with race, ethnicity, class, age, disability, and so forth.
So how should we define (or re-define) sexual sin? Should we simply look at the list of what specific actions and relationship paradigms are permissible or forbidden, and either scratch things off or write in new ones? I’d suggest that we need something much more radical than merely replacing one form of legalism with another. We need a sexual ethic rooted in the fulfillment of justice – of compassion, right relationship, mutual joy and pleasure. Such an approach is at once liberating and challenging. It is liberating in that it clears away the debris of ancient prohibitions and double standards which have choked at the forest of our souls. But it is also challenging in that it calls on us to look at sexual desire and expression with fresh eyes, and to discern with a new set of questions:
* Is there full consent and awareness here?
* What are the full range of choices available?
* What role does power and privilege play?
* Will there be balance?
* Will there be joy?
My friends, eros calls to us, to let fires burn that life may be renewed, yet not to worship the fire itself, but instead to appreciate its place in the balance of things. We are called to restore that balance – within our hearts, within our intimate relationships, and throughout a world in dire need of justice and freedom, love and delight.
Eros is calling. Do you hear, oh my friends?