The dominant church has failed at offering a theology of sex
When I read the survey that suggested that half of U.S. Christians say casual sex between consenting adults is sometimes or always acceptable, I immediately was unsurprised since the church has done a very bad job of teaching much of a theology of sex beyond a blanket prohibition for premarital and extramarital sex. Teenagers all over the country who are growing up in Christian environments will often recite the rule they learned to obey, but they won’t have a lot more dialogue about sex. That lack of theology creates a void, and perhaps even without nefarious intent that void gets filled with other theologies and philosophies of sex.
In early Christianity, the Church Fathers largely rejected sex. Naming it as an ignoble activity, in fact. Augustine in particular named it as impossible to have without engaging in evil. “The action is not performed without evil.” Augustine got us on the wrong foot in terms of a theology of sex.
For most of Christianity’s history, sex was reserved for people starting families. It was clear that priests, nuns, and monks were to avoid sex, just as Paul instructed in 1 Cor. 7. In fact, in this passage Paul suggests that you might only marry if you cannot contain your passion. Paul makes it clear that he is offering his personal opinion, but nevertheless his teaching has been quite influential in the makeup of the church.
During the Reformation, Protestants rejected the notion that priests shouldn’t marry—and eventually rejected Catholic prohibition of contraception, as well. And so the vocation previously assigned to marriage and sex, to reproduce and create a family, lost some of its meaning when many Christians resolved that it was fine for priests to marry and for people to have sex without the intention of reproducing. Though it was still confined to marriage, the power and meaning of sex was diluted during the Reformation. Coinciding with the Reformation was a movement toward individualism that reinforced sex as an individual, private act. And via that movement, I argue, the locus of sex’s meaning became the individual. It’s challenging to maintain a communal ethic and meaning around sex when we’ve individualized it so much. But Christians still insisted on maintaining a rule, despite the rule’s insufficiency in creating meaning around sex.
The toxicity, nonsense, and hypocrisy of purity culture
What it created was something that people sometimes call “purity culture,” which transmitted a rule about sexual purity and chastity without a lot of other meaning. Ironically, it sexualized children and teenagers, which caused bigger problems. Children and teenagers should have more teaching on sex than mere prohibition or avoidance. Some people, girls in particular, were fed the idea that they were sexual objects to be covered so that they wouldn’t cause boys to stumble, which made matters even worse. It wasn’t just that sex was impure, their entire bodies were.
And the issue at hand wasn’t just limited to girls and their spaghetti straps. Boys, in youth groups across the country, were shamed for masturbating. Quite honestly, I can hardly think of a more normal thing for a boy to do than to masturbate, but somehow they were guilted into thinking that was wrong. I recall how intensely focused our youth group accountability group was on that specific issue. Contrary to its goal, it exacerbated the problem, it made us think about sex more than we needed to because we were constantly trying to avoid doing a fairly normal thing.
To imply that one’s body or the pleasure that we derive from it makes them less pure is to double-down on Augustine’s toxic teaching, but then offer little else. It only condemns, and never uplifts. It only creates a void, not meaning. We need our void to be filled with meaning, and if the church is merely emptying us of meaning it rejects, that’s woefully unsatisfying.
A rule without meaning and context can easily result in rebellion. And deconstruction and rebellion followed. So, to go back to the article above, I am unsurprised that people, Christians too, see sex as “acceptable.” The idea of accepting or damning sex is the binary that formed as a result of the church’s teaching on sex, but I’m not satisfied with that theology. In fact, in Christian circles, the prohibition of sex often merely became a prohibition of vaginal intercourse. Not only does that heteronormative approach leave queer people out of the conversation, it just isn’t deep enough. Christian couples, full of passion, decide to then skirt the line as close as possible and all of a sudden we’re talking about whether anal sex or heavy petting violate the Christian rule. To demonstrate the foolishness of the rule and the rebellion against it, imagine discussing with your partner that anal sex or heavy petting with someone other than him or her isn’t cheating because “it’s technically not sex.” That’s nonsense, because we know that the question of sexual intimacy is far more than merely something as clinical-sounding as “vaginal intercourse.”
What’s worse is the bald hypocrisy of the purity culture movement. Not only did it shame children, it didn’t hold their dads accountable when they were engaged in sexual abuse and assault. We see this plainly in the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse cover up (and similar ones in the Southern Baptist church as well), just in the last month, as scandals about abusive affairs have broken about Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Ravi Zacharias. Too often, proponents of purity culture turn a blind eye to abuse, assault, and harassment and shame or silence the victims and survivors of it. Even the best-intentioned faithful sound like they are full of lies when they try to fill sex with new meaning without deconstructing the sexism and patriarchy that preceded it.
A foot massage is never just a foot massage
The theology of sex and my theology of essence and meaning go hand-in-hand. If Sartre, the great French existentialist, was right and existence precedes essence, then the issue at hand isn’t just the church’s toxic view of sex, but rather assigning a cosmic meaning to anything. If meaning is merely individually derived, then its value is entirely arbitrary. Human flourishing has largely been the force that has guided our postmodern society, but it has had devastating consequences. 2020 is a hyperbolic expression of the failures of postmodernism as a totalizing ethic. Ultimately, a society where existence precedes essence is one where value and meaning are arbitrary, and that is not only damaging, it’s just hard to believe.
The issue is that through purity culture, through the dismissal of sexual assault and abuse as real issues, the church has forced an encounter with sex that allows it to develop a meaning after its existence. Rather than teaching its essence before, we learn to be ashamed of sex, or afraid even because we’ve been abused by it. What I mean to say is that the church has submitted to the postmodern project of assigning meaning to something that exists already through its lack of theology on sex. And so, ironically, the church has a theology of sex, one that it created by not saying and not teaching. By doubling down of prohibition, by shaming and sexualizing girls, by guilting boys, and by ignoring assault and abuse, the church has indeed said something by saying nothing.
And so before we can begin to name the essence of sex, we must deconstruct the sexism and patriarchy that filled the void before we can argue that sex has meaning. It doesn’t just have meaning because it results in reproduction, it has emotional and intimate meaning. I think this is an easy argument to make. The ecstasy of an orgasm itself is meaningful in a way that’s mysterious, isn’t it? There’s love in the air after that mutual experience occurs, and I don’t mean simultaneous orgasms, or some perfect sexual “performance” that turns sex into a physical feat. I’m not talking about pornographic examples of what sex should look like. I’m talking about mutuality and love between lovers, even if an orgasm doesn’t occur or climactic harmony isn’t achieved. There a mysterious, blissful connection, that occurs between lovers. Maybe that can be reduced to some evolved psychology that preserves the thriving of the species. But regardless, I think it expresses a meaning beyond merely the material. I’m not grandiose enough to suggest that the pleasure of an orgasm proves that God exists, merely that it offers meaning to sex. But it isn’t just the trance of an orgasm that offers sex meaning, it’s the relational and emotional quality of it.
My favorite illustration to describe the meaning of sex is a scene from Pulp Fiction. From my 2018 blog post:
It’s incredible to me that in what is decidedly a postmodern film (a film based on the idea that existence precedes essence), we learn about the meaning of sex. The two gangsters that play leading parts in the movie are certainly not bastions of morality, but Jules and Vincent get into a discussion (find the profanity-laced scene here) which is quite illuminating about the inherent meaning of sex. I’ve written and spoke about this before, but the image is so clarifying I have to keep telling the story.
You see, Marcellus Wallace is recently married. An associate of his, Antwan Rockamora, gives his new bride a foot massage. And that drives Marcellus to throw him off a balcony into a green house, giving him a speech impediment as it were.
The two discuss the incident with Jules saying Marcellus was totally out of line and Vincent coming to Marcellus’s defense. Vincent doesn’t justify Marcellus’s violence, but he does acknowledge that the foot massage has meaning, not unlike sex does. Jules agrees that sex has meaning, but that a foot massage, “doesn’t mean shit.” When Vincent asks him for a foot massage, his point is made. It’s clear the foot massage has meaning.
The power and meaning of sex means it needs a container
God is the one who gives sex meaning, and power. Throughout most of civilization, sex was reserved for special relationships, intimate relationships (this is a broad claim, obviously). This is why today adultery and cheating can devastate relationships; even if someone is cheating to escape an inescapable relationship, the intent is to destroy, nevertheless. Sexual violence and trauma demonstrate their destructive force in the lives they tear apart. It’s why even in open relationships, couples often prefer to communicate about who else they are having sex with (and for the ones that don’t, it’s for a similar reason: sex is intimate). Sex is more than just an exchange of fluids, there is meaning occurring during and after it. And of course, there is something distinctive about sex from other forms of human intimacy, isn’t there? It’s something more.
Because it has apparent meaning and power, and not meaning and power that we assign it, rather meaning that God assigns is through revelation, we then must practice care around sex. We do to limit what it can destroy, and I don’t just mean marriages through adultery, but livelihoods through assault, innocence through objectification and sexualization, our very perception of our bodies and our pleasure through condemnation. And we also take care to use its meaning and power to bring life and joy. Healthy sex between lovers is a wonderful thing, but it isn’t the be-all, end-all of human intimacy. Nor is it the only tool that we can use to bring life and joy. But it is a good one and it is one to exercise care around.
If sex is like water, it needs riverbanks and shorelines. If it’s like fire, it needs be controlled. I don’t think either of those analogies are perfect, but they lend themselves to the power of sex. And so my viewpoint is that sex is best expressed in containers. And as a basis, consent is an essential container. But it’s not enough, we need more than that, and I do think a covenantal container is a good one. However, the premise behind all of this is that sex has meaning and power. Rather than reducing this to a rule, my exhortation is to observe the power and meaning of sex—the passion of sex—and to acknowledge that this content needs a container. But also, because it has an inherent meaning, we are free to pursue it not in vain. When we have sex, something cosmically consequential occurs. Our sexuality doesn’t exist in a vacuum and is not merely an expression of our privacy, individualism, or rights. It affects all of us. Our society has lots of containers for sex, but for me, the container sex requires is communal and covenantal. Sex creates intimacy, it bonds us to others, and conscientiousness around that is important, at the very least. So unboundaried, unintentional sex can ruin communities, it can ruin marriages, it might even result in sex merely becoming an exchange of fluids or a moment of ecstasy, followed by backs turned to each other. Sex can create electric intimacy and connection too. There’s so much more possibility, and I think it begins with knowing sex has meaning that precedes it, giving to it by the One who precedes everything, and pursuing that meaning together.