Contrary to premature
predictions that the age of AIDS would witness a winding back of the clock, and
a return to the standards of behavior that prevailed in the years before the so-called
"sexual revolution," now, in the opening years of the twentieth-first
century, it appears that the revolution continues. According to recent surveys,
1 in 5 Americans now loses his or her virginity before the age of 13. At least
one third of married men and women are having or have had an affair, lasting on
average nearly a year. And religion plays no role in shaping more than half of
all Americans' opinions on such issues as birth control or extra-marital sex.
Whether one deals with the question of sex education for children, co-educational
dorms for college students, the crisis of marriage and family life, or living
arrangements at a home for seniors, at almost every point in the passage of our
lives, sexuality is at issue. Not surprising then, that a survey of websites using
the word "sex" or "sexuality" turns up literally hundreds
of thousands of documents on this topic. Unfortunately, the vast majority, in
fact almost all of these websites are pornographic in nature. That is, they reduce
sex to a routine function of the body wholly divorced from any moral value or
the naked body ...
expect that as a member of the clergy, I would cry out against this transformation
of the Internet into a porn shop. In fact, I'm interested in the deeper question.
Why? Aside from the titillation of seeing a naked human body, and the sensation
of seeing human beings engaging in actions that are private, and in some settings,
forbidden, what is it that creates such a large demand to see the human body in
exactly the form that God created it and doing things that God intended it to
be doing? I strongly suspect that it's not so much sexual appetite that is at
work here, but rather a more commercial motive.
Notice that those unsolicited
email messages that fill your inbox almost always deal with just two topics: money
and sex. And in that order. And the two are closely related. Often the relationship
is one of cause and effect. In this case, simple human greed is the cause, and
sexually explicit websites are the effect. For if people see the Internet as an
opportunity to make a fast buck (by exploiting others), many of the same people
think sex is the quickest way to "make it." There is a profound connection
in this culture between sexuality and commerce, between lust and greed. But between
the two, I find greed to be the more alarming sin, and the most pervasive.
is not the problem.
has been said by ministers such as myself about the materialism of our culture.
But as you watch your nightly round of television commercials, or reflect upon
those glossy magazine ads, or even take a critical look at the banner ads on many
a website, ask yourself the question: If we are so materialistic, why is it that
sex is used to promote every conceivable product under the sun? One can understand
why one would find erotic undertones in advertisements for the latest fashions,
nightwear or swimsuits. But really! Is it absolutely necessary to use sex in selling
toothpaste, sparkplugs, or a savings account at your local bank? If we are so
materialistic, why don't these products stand on their own merits?
image of the marketplace men and women are transformed into sex objects and objects
are taken as a substitute for personal value and meaning. But it is a self-defeating
and self-destructive sexuality which is being expressed in this way. Whenever
sex finds expression as the exploitation of one person by another, rather than
the relationship between two persons as equals, then one has gone one giant step
toward the destruction of the very bonds that hold the human family together.
And that brings us to the alternative, to what I would call the biblical view
of human sexuality. Perhaps a better word for it would be the sacramental view.
begins in the beginning with the very first chapters of the book of Genesis. In
the beginning humanity was created in God's image; in the image of God they were
created, male and female God created them. And God saw all that was created and
indeed it was very good. Here in the imagery of the most ancient texts of the
Scriptures, life is stripped to its essence. The Biblical image of creation takes
us back to the simplest and most basic elements. Here in Genesis there is no radio
or television; in Eden there are no superhighways or high-rise apartments, no
fast-food restaurants, no Big-Mac or Burger-King. Likewise there are no schools,
no hospitals or churches, no politics, no business, no organized religion. Adam
and Eve were created in the image of God. There is a stark simplicity in these
verses, emphasizing what is truly important. And there were two elements in the
life of this man and this woman. The ties of love and affection which held them
together as a couple, and the religious or spiritual ties that held them to the
Creator. For Adam and Eve, sexuality and spirituality were not mutually exclusive,
but rather complimentary and mutually supportive. Thus Genesis says that human
sexuality is every bit as important as a modern day champion of free love would
contend, but Genesis insists that the physical and the spiritual dimensions of
life must work together.
Jesus was building upon this same vision when he
pointed out the connection between the love of God and the love of neighbor. That's
why he and his disciples affirmed that marriage is a sacrament. Any relationship,
if it is truly a loving relationship, is acted out in a spiritual as well as a
physical dimension. Not surprising then that some of the most evocative love poetry
in all literature is to be found in the book of the Bible referred to as the Song
of Songs. And not surprising either that the poetry of that book has been
used throughout history to describe the passionate love between two people, as
well as the mystical union between God and humankind.
The Christian gospel
calls for a reunion of the flesh and the spirit, not the triumph of the spirit
over the flesh, or vice versa. Note that in the Genesis story it was a corruption
of the spiritual side of human nature that led to the fall. It was their hunger
for a higher knowledge that led Adam and Eve to take the forbidden fruit, not
mere physical appetite. So in biblical tradition pride is the most deadly sin,
not lust. Rather than seeing a conflict between flesh and spirit, as the Greeks
much later did, Genesis sees the real tragedy as the separation of humankind from
God. From the opening chapters, Genesis tells the gradually unfolding story as
humankind is divided against itself. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the city of
Sodom and Gomorrah. The original unity of flesh and spirit, God and humankind
is replaced by a tragic polarity. Not only are human beings now at war with each
other, but mind and body are divided against themselves. And increasingly, perversions
of sexual identity are associated with perversion of the spirit.
this double edged quality of evil that Jesus so clearly recognized. That's why
he identified so openly with the so called "prostitutes and sinners."
He saw so clearly that they were not responsible for the evil of the world. Jesus
identified the corrupt religious leaders of his day and time as being more responsible
for humanity's moral problems, for the self appointed guardians of goodness and
truth defined sex as evil and thus made sinners of us all. Jesus saw that self-righteous
piety is equally dangerous as promiscuity, for both these attitudes intensify
the antagonism between flesh and spirit.
real problem arises, according to Jesus, when self appointed guardians of goodness
and truth define sex as evil and thus make sinners of us all.
Today the same problem is before us. Whenever sexuality
and spirituality are regarded as separate and unrelated things, then both dimensions
suffer. For sex is demeaning when it is reduced to the level of a commodity, and
religion is demeaning when it is a matter of dry ritual or abstract doctrine.
In America today the disembodied spirituality of popular religion is locked in
fateful struggle against the dispirited hedonism of the secular world. And the
resolution to the conflict is not the triumph of one side over the other, but
the rediscovery of what I would call the sacramental view of sex. It is in the
interplay of the spirit and the flesh that we find our salvation. The real question
is not the prurient question of who does what to whom and when? The truly important
question is whether our relationships with other people reflect the love of justice
of God. In the passing encounters and the fleeting moments, do we find values
that endure. Faith, hope and love, these three, said Paul, and the greatest of
these is love. But if love tends more and more toward love making, without the
faith and the hope that give it depth and power, then love itself is lost. If,
on the contrary, one is able to infuse one's sexual relationships with the saving
qualities of mutual respect, trust, and commitment, then one moves closer to living
a life which on earth becomes all that it shall be "in Heaven."
You are invited to join our Forum
and discuss any issues
pertaining to faith or the search for it.
Your comments are published here instantly.
(To see the current list of
topics your browser must allow Active Content)
Please take a moment to let us know you
Just send us an email to subscribe to our free newsletter.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.