The Strange Dance of Religion and Sexuality Diakon Lesson 4

The Strange Dance of Religion and Sexuality

Bishop John Shelby Spong, of Newark, USA, contributed this foreword to David Hart’s new book,
Linking Up: Radical Christianity and Sexuality, published by Arthur James, June 1997.

Religion and sexuality have been united for centuries in a strange kind of co-dependence. Both seek to define something basic that lies at the heart of human identity. Both are sources of enormous and intensive power. Both create fear. Both enslave and free the human psyche. Throughout the human adventure we call history, religion and sexuality have danced together in a fashion not unlike the Yin and the Yang. Sometimes religions and sexuality have been incorporated into one another so deeply as to be all but inseparable. The gods identified with the agriculture cycle of fertility were, for example, frequently worshipped with sexual orgies, temple prostitutes and even ritualistic sexual offerings. The first fruits of the harvest, in such a world, were offered to the deity in sacrifices. Sometimes they were human, sometimes animal and sometimes vegetable. We need to be aware that child sacrifice was a highly sexual worship response to the god of the agricultural cycle. Sometimes religion and sexuality were separated so totally that they were portrayed as enemies locked in a mortal struggle. In some traditions the prerequisite for being religious was to deny and to repress all aspects of sexual energy. In this tradition the holy man was defined as the sexless man. The holy woman was defined as the “undefiled” virgin. Sex was thought to be nothing but an expression of a “fitful animal passion” that would diminish one’s true spiritual identify. One vestige of this attitude still alive in our world today is found in our cultural designation of a sexual joke as a “dirty joke”. With these attitudes toward human sexuality emanating from within the orbit of religious activity, it is easy to see how sexual stereotypes reflecting these religious convictions gained the status of an almost unquestioned truth in the life of a religiously dominated society. One has only to observe the cultural definitions that are still operative today regarding what it means to be a man, a woman, a virgin, a homosexual man, a lesbian and even a bisexual to be aware of this reality. In the western Judeo-Christian world, far more than we recognise, the content of the great religious debates through the ages has been overwhelmingly sexual. The traditional Christian marriage service in the West has always assumed the definition of the woman as a male possession. The bride took solemn vows to obey her new husband and master. The ring on the brides’ finger marked her as the property of a man. (The double ring ceremony is a post-World War II phenomenon). The customs that surround the wedding, from the shoes attached to the get-away vehicle (which were symbols of the husband’s ability to physically punish his wife), or the carrying of the bride over the threshold of the wedding bed where her worth was determined by her ability to be the source of her husband’s pleasure, all reflected the stereotypically religious definitions of a woman. The man had the God-given right, it was assumed, to exercise total control over his wife’s body. It has been out of that unstated definition that the male-dominated Christian Church has sought to prohibit a woman freedom to escape this definition. That is why divorce was and is so vehemently resisted in traditional Christian circles. Divorce originally was only a male’s prerogative. As such, it was designed to cover the divorced woman with shame. She would not have been divorced, it was assumed, had her behaviour not warranted it. Marriage had never prohibited a man from seeking other sexual outlets. It only prohibited the woman. However, with a dawning sense of justice, alimony was added to the divorce mix and, still later, when a more equitable distribution of a family’s assets to separating spouses became law, divorce became for some women a doorway into freedom, as well as an opportunity to escape abuse. It also became a legal option for a woman to initiate this procedure. It was at this point that the intensity of the Church’s opposition to divorce became the most overt. Divorce is still the only human failing that has been written into the canons of the church as sin punishable by excommunication. It clearly threatened the male-female power equation which the male Church felt called to uphold. So even more deeply did the issues of birth control threaten the male-dominated Church. Both birth control and abortion represented emancipation proclamations for women. Both suggested that the body of the woman was her own possession to control. It was not the property of a man, nor was it subject to the control of a male-dominated Church. The emotional debate and violent action that accompanies the abortion battle today is deeply revealing. The intense negativity in some segments of the Christian Church toward the opening of the doors of the all-male priesthood to women has also been quite revealing. If the Church believed that it spoke with the voice of a God understood only under masculine images, and that it was the Church’s task to control sexuality in the name of this Father God, then having women in the councils of ecclesiastical decision-making as priests was anathema. So as the debate raged the world was treated to the amusing spectacle of a body of highly feminised, ordained men, robed in dress like silk and satin vestments, saying strange and bizarre things about both the maleness of God and their own authority as God’s male representations. When one of these males was removed from the ranks of the ordained, the process was called “defrocking”. That word made it obvious that vestments were in fact “frocks”, the name of a specific piece of feminine clothing. When the ecclesiastical blinders that guard our conscious life are pulled back, we become painfully aware of the gender confusion that goes on in church life which is the source of much of the ecclesiastical hostility toward women. Religion and sexuality are deeply intertwined everywhere one looks. When the issue of homosexuality arose in the life of both the Church and the world, the same threatened dynamics once more appeared. No issue is more viscerally resisted, condemned and debated in the churches of the Christian west today than is the subject of homosexuality. Surely the Church has had gay clergy forever. The priesthood has been for centuries the primary closet in which gay men could hide. The requirement of sexual celibacy was an open invitation to those who found marriage “unnatural”. To cover the obvious, the Church took the status of singleness, encased it in the vocabulary of sacrifice, and named it a virtue. Gay men who had no desire to abandon their singleness found in the priesthood an enormous personal affirmation. It not only relieved them from the cultural prejudice to marry, but it also offered them the prospect of living in an all male community, either in a monastery or a rectory. It is thus no wonder that the priesthood became the vocation of choice for the gay male population. Nor is it surprising that into the priesthood gay men flocked. Inside this all male community of the priesthood, gay partnerships flourished and the Church, while condemning homosexuality externally as sinful, depraved and unnatural, winked internally and hoped its cover would not be blown. It has been. Bishops have ordained gay men and lesbians openly and honestly in our time. Those gay men and lesbians ordained under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” regime of the past have also with increasing eagerness refused to continue to hide in their closets, which means that another stereotype totters today on the edge of oblivion. While this revolution swirls around us, the Church struggles just to reassert its control and when that fails, as inevitably it will, to find a way to accommodate the changes without sacrificing its claim to moral authority. At this moment even that appears to be a losing fight. Religion and sexuality have danced a strange dance together for centuries. So onto this stage comes David Hart’s book. Both parts of his title represent polarities that this author is not willing to sacrifice. He is a radical Christian. He will not surrender his claim to identify himself in this manner. There will be many conservative Christian voices which are both fundamentalistic in either an evangelical or catholic mode who will challenge this author’s Christian credentials. His Christian credentials however are real. That will not prevent his book from being deeply threatening to those who think Christianity must be defined within very narrow limits that will prohibit either debate or new insight. From the perspective of a radical Christian David Hart will also in this book explore the sexual landscape historically, psychologically, scientifically, and morally. His words present a dazzling, insightful analysis. Finally, David Hart will help these ancient aspects of our human identity — sexuality and religion — to play upon one another in uniquely modern and informed ways. The result is a highly readable, challenging and profound book. David Hart has served well both his church and his world.

Copy and paste the following questions into a new e-mail, answer them, and send them to the
Mystery School with the subject line reading: “Diakon  4 Sex/ Religion Answers”.

Match the following to the most appropriate statement based upon the reading.

a) Religion b) Sexuality c) Both

1. _____ is/are a source(s) of enormous and intensive power.

2. _____ enslave and free the human psyche.

3. _____ The gods identified with the agriculture cycle of fertility were frequently worshipped using various sexual offerings.

4. _____ In some traditions the holy man was defined as the sexless man and the holy woman as the “undefiled” virgin.

5. _____ “Sex was thought to be nothing but a statement of a ‘fitful animal passion’ that would diminish one’s true spiritual identity.”

6. Throughout the human adventure we call _________, religion and sexuality have danced together in a fashion not unlike the ____________ and the __________.

7. T/F Religion and sexuality have never danced together.

8. According to the article, what is the only human failing that has been written into the canons of the church as sin punishable by excommunication?