combines sexuality with spirituality, the sacred and the secular
is a strange holiday indeed that turns our thoughts towards love, and most often,
romantic love, but at the same time bears the name of a Catholic saint and martyr:
I can think of nothing that more clearly reflects the
often strained relationship between spirituality and sexuality in Christian faith
and practice, than this.
First ... a bit of history.
Though the precise identity of Saint Valentine is not known, it is generally agreed
that he was killed during the Roman persecution for refusing to renounce his faith.
One tradition about the saint holds that Valentine was a priest who served during
the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made
better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young,
single men -- his crop of potential soldiers.
Valentine, believing that
this decree defied the will of God, resisted the emperor's authority by continuing
to perform marriages for young lovers. When Valentine's actions were discovered,
Claudius ordered that the priest be put to death. Thus, we are faced with the
fascinating coincidence of a holiday named for a person who died defending his
faith having been transformed into a holiday most closely associated in the popular
imagination with romance rather than religion.
Why religion and romance
In fact, this is far less strange than first appears,
for an emphasis upon the relationship between love for God and for another person
has been part of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the outset.
story contained in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis places God in the
role of chief sponsor of the love that connects a man and a woman. In the garden
of Eden, there was no conflict between the physical relationship enjoyed by Adam
and Even and their relationship with God. Indeed, everything began in a state
of perfect harmony. It was not lust that brought about the breach between humankind
and God, but rather pride, as the creatures concluded they could ignore the Creator.
To be sure, as the story was interpreted by theologians and church "fathers"
centuries later, Eve became a temptress, and sex was seen as somehow closely identified
with the sin that brought about the Fall. As a result, in the context of today's
culture wars, when the church defends the institution of marriage, it often comes
across as holding not only a negative view of the role of women, but of sex itself.
Here is one of the greatest ironies in the entire history of the church:
the same God who created humanity as "male and female" and thus made
sexuality possible, is portrayed in popular piety as a judge and policeman who
seems always to be placing restrictions upon the free expression of human sexuality,
and enforcing those restrictions with condemnation and punishment up to and including
hell, fire and brimstone.
Perhaps the secular holiday of Valentine's
Day represents a golden opportunity for Christians to recapture a more authentic
dimension of biblical tradition that has been too long forgotten or ignored. A
saint who went to his death defending young lovers against the abusive and arbitrary
power of the state, may be be precisely what the church needs to dramatize its
positive position with respect to human sexuality. But even more important, this
secular festival of love may be an opportunity for individual Christians to see
that God desires nothing more for each of us than that we find in loving relationships
with each other, something of that love which is of God.
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.