Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
Consider that we are all children of God, tangible yet peculiar glimpses of the divine in an increasingly mysterious cosmos. In each of us is consciousness, thus far unparalleled in its complexity. Every mind is the stuff of stars, fine-tuned in such a way that you might say we—humanity—are an extension of the universe reflecting back on itself. In this sense, every individual among us is a thinking, feeling, creative distillation of the cosmos. Though our understanding of the universe has changed since Paul the apostle was alive, the above is not so different from his assertion in 1 Corinthians that our “bodies are members of Christ.” Christ, son of man, a reflection of God the creator, whose essence sustains the universe from which we sprung.
What does any of this have to do with sex? Only to say that I think there is a divine vision at the root of “purity” that remains a potent challenge today: that apart from oneself, on the other end of every sexual encounter is another self equally as mysterious and indefinable as existence. Put simply, another human.
Too often, the presentation of this ethic is fearful. Somehow the focus shifts from how the other person’s magnificence should influence our every action to, instead, the influence of premarital sex’s wrongness, as if that is the primary issue. The act of not having sex offers no dignity to anyone. I spend a lot of time not having sex and am no more or less moral because of it. However, I do wonder about my past of shared sexual experiences, worrying I was gratifying a natural impulse without taking into account the absolute dignity of the other person. “Wait for marriage,” the simple, common encouragement among Christians regarding sex, offers no insight into a loving expression of our erotic desires that embraces this absolute dignity. Marriage doesn’t inherently make sex moral, because morality is a way of acting and being, not an institution. It’s unfortunate how many of my generation were hurt by sexual repression as a result of this misunderstanding. The fear shared by many in previous generations—that their children would not act rightly—manifested so often in nothing but rules, rules that do nothing to develop character in and of themselves.
My belief is that morality should be inspired by a worldview, not the other way around. The Christian worldview offers such a robust view of humanity that simplifying it into commands strips it of profundity. As an example, consider here what Paul says in Romans:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is a fulfilling of the law.
Referring to a portion of the ten commandments, Paul states that every commandment is inspired by love for one another. In other words, obeying the commandments themselves is not a fulfilling of the law, but “loving your neighbor as yourself” is. Waiting for marriage, then, is a meaningless practice if one fails to love their partner as radically as Paul continuously asks of Christians. Yet a firm belief in the value of every soul that walks this earth might result in waiting anyhow. It takes a lifetime to know someone, and our knowing is always limited.
This all relies on understanding sex as an important act, to which point there are many who disagree. Christians receive frequent criticism for placing undue focus on it, perhaps by creating more problems in that space than might otherwise be there were this focus placed elsewhere. I’m dubious on that point, since a healthy sexual ethic doesn’t simply rise up from the lack of a Christian one, or, more broadly, a religious lack. Sex is important because it’s an intimate coupling of two cosmic forces. Anything less than a careful consideration of it seems reductionistic to the point of diminishing our inherent value. There is, after all, another self involved aside from one’s own, another surprising appearance of consciousness, another child of God. Pursuing ways to love them more fully is the greatest gift we can offer them.
Paul has another passage, found in 1 Corinthians, that seems to transcend time and place, which I continue to come back to on this matter: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” In everything we do there is opportunity to build up others. This is true of sex, of course, and of everything else.
Will Montei is currently in pursuit of a Masters in Teaching at Seattle Pacific University. He has been writing for the post calvin since it began in 2013.