Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Chastity in the Age of Lust

To say that I seldom agree with the right-wing New York Times columnist Ross Douthat would be an understatement. But then, I’m surprised how often it happens that just when I’m ready to write someone off completely they’ll expose my small-mindedness by saying something  insightful. This happened with Douthat’s June 1, 2014 op-ed, “Prisoners of Sex.” In it, he reflects on the recent news story of the young Santa Barbara serial killer whose shooting spree may have been an attempt at revenge on the women who wouldn’t have sex with him. Douthat saw in this fellow’s motivation a symptom of a pervasive problem that might be seen as the principal downside of the sexual revolution, that, as he puts it:  “Sexual fulfillment is treated as the source and summit of a life well lived, the thing without which nobody (from a carefree college student to a Cialis-taking senior) can be truly happy, enviable, or free.”  

He’s right.  A huge amount of unnecessary unhappiness, frustration, and bondage is created by the notion that a fulfilling “sex life” according to the term in use (corresponding to “work life” or “spiritual life”) is necessary to a well-rounded existence.  The reality that lives beneath this idea and that’s seldom acknowledged is that such a sex life just isn’t available to a large number of people—and by that I don’t mean those who are thought to be forbidden sexual activity by the religious institutions who try, always unsuccessfuly, to regulate sex. I mean those who for a complex of reasons, usually for no fault of their own, end up without a romantic partner and who may lack the boldness or attractiveness necessary to seek out causal erotic connection otherwise.  I don’t take this group to be a minority these days when marriage is less of a requirement than it has been throughout history and when it is expected to be a sort of spiritual-sexual partnership whose ideal is difficult to achieve.
            The problem for me is that so many of the people who recognize this modern unbalance (Douthat would likely be one of them)  end up clinging to the traditional view that sex is dangerous, even something so threatening to one’s salvation that it’s best avoided altogether, apart from the loopholes one’s religious institution traditionally allows. In Christianity this limits sexual activity to heterosexual marriage, though extremer views are common that would further limit intercourse solely to the purpose of procreation. The most extreme view (and it’s found within our Orthodox Church in places) is that even procreative sex is pretty dangerous and that it should be facilitated with as little pleasure as possible.  This view is in conflict with one I’ve also heard expressed:  that Orthodoxy supposedly has no “hang-ups” about sex compared to, say Western Christianity (though those who say that usually award the joy of no-hang-ups sex to those who are heterosexually, sacramentally married, assigning the losers in this game either to monasticism or invisibility). That these two extreme views are both cited as the Church’s unambiguous teaching by their proponents--with Bible or Fathers quoted in each case--is pretty strong evidence to me that our church has never dealt adequately with the question of sex and that it is resisting doing so in this age when an honest response to the growing body of knowledge about sex should be required.
            But both of the extreme views of sex—the exaltation of it to something of ultimate value and the denigration of it to a source of peril and damnation—seem to me false to the point of absurdity.  And they both, ironically, seem to me to have a great deal in common with each other.  I can’t help but see them as two sides of the same coin.  They’re in complete agreement that sex is something of importance and great power. They’re both wrong.
            Because sexual desire is nothing but a thought that arises, and it’s as insubstantial as any other thought.  This can be discovered if you take up the practice of sitting quietly and still for a bit every day (you can call it meditation or prayer if you like, but you don’t have to call it anything). You begin to notice that thoughts naturally arise, and that as soon as a thought is recognized for what it is, it tends to dissipate, its essential insubstantiality having been revealed. A thought of sex is no different in that regard than a thought about food or about the argument you’re plotting to have with your boss.  This simple observation can have a revolutionary effect, because once the sexual impulse is exposed as a thought, it loses a good deal of the power we’ve mistakenly assigned to it.  If you’ve attributed it to demonic influence, you see how astonishingly little power those demons have—really only the power we give them.  Lust can sometimes be completely disarmed by this understanding.
            Once you’ve seen this, the idea of sex as a dangerous threat becomes laughable, as does the notion that sexual fulfilment is something of central importance in life (the idea that Douthat and I both dispute).  Lust arrives in the mind as thoughts do, on its own, sometimes possibly just out of biological cycles or sometimes generated by us out of boredom, sometimes helped along by the pornographic images that surround us these days.  The process can become a problem if it becomes habitual, though it’s also possible to examine the habit itself and to see through it.  In any case, assigning sexual desire to forces outside ourselves rings untrue as soon as it’s recognized for what it is.
            I’d go so far as to say that the greater part of all the foolishness and suffering sex has led us to throughout human history is a result of our lack of recognition of its essential powerlessness. Once we’ve assigned power to sex we tend either to fear it or to wallow in it, and we’re helped along by the cultures that have been created to reinforce those tendencies: such as, on the one hand, the idolatrous kinds of religious culture that place moral rules over the actual experience of God and on the other the sex-positive modern culture that creates a comparable amount of suffering by making sex too much of a focus.
            This understanding might make it seem that I should side with Douthat and those who advocate a “traditional” view of sex, but though they have genuinely valid points, I don’t.  The fact that sex isn’t as powerful or dangerous as we may have thought doesn’t mean that it’s not important. It has aspects of what all the sex-positive people rightly say (they have their valid points too), and it can truly be a wonderful expression of intimacy. We’re all biologically-emotionally disposed to want it, and one needs a very good reason in today’s world to give it up.  An unexamined statement like “The Church requires celibacy of you in your situation” works for few people these days.  It will work for even fewer in the years to come.
This understanding of the essential powerlessness of sex should enable us to look without fear at new knowledge about sexuality that arises from the study of it that has only recently begun. It should free us to reexamine without fear our ideas about sexual morality in the face of modern reality:  to admit that modern marriage and the way men and women enter into it bear little resemblance to the institution of even a few hundred years ago, to look honestly at the way women have suffered in relation to sexuality, and to acknowledge and address the existence of the sexual minorities who have been misunderstood and demonized for such a long time.  And also to repent of all the suffering we’ve caused each other in the realm of sexuality.
            The fact that this is not happening, that most of those who write and speak about sexuality in our church are dug into the view of sex-as-powerful, that they are braced against any new knowledge of sexuality, and that they behave as though everything one needs to know about sex was determined at church councils during the first Christian millennium is discouraging to say the least.  It’s a false view, and it’s one that will ultimately lead our church to isolate itself from the culture it refuses to engage in dialogue.  That refusal to engage is, I believe, a betrayal of our experience of Christ. 
            The extremes of Puritanism and profligacy both miss the mark when it comes to sexuality. Truth, as usual, is found in the navigation between the extremes.  I believe that chastity--which I assert to be our response to God in the realm of sexuality--is found there as well. Its exact address may not be known, but it lives in the same neighborhood as honesty and compassion.

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