Not a single one of us, whether or not we are directly involved in a religious tradition, has escaped the influence of religious traditions on our attitudes. Some of our shame or guilt over sexuality – our contradictory feelings about sexuality and spirituality – stems from religious traditions whose tenants and teachings emphasize spirit over flesh, penance over pleasure, an idealism over realism.
Religious dogma is not wrong; it is just not realistic. Nor is it supposed to be. The purpose of religion is to awaken our highest ideals and possibilities, make demands, stretch our souls, draw forth the highest and best within us. Religion calls us to our human maturity.
Ultimately you may be best, from a religious or spiritual perspective, to practice abstinence and direct our sexual energies into other creative pursuits until married. But this is not what most imperfect humans actually do. Even many priests and nuns, but dedicated their lives to their calling, have problems living up to the ideals of the church.
Give me chastity and self-restraint,
but did not give it yet. – St. Augustine
Whatever faith we practice we need to realize that sexuality has no inherent morality or immorality. Such ideas are a human invention. No absolute, sexual guidelines exist. Every culture and era has its own beliefs and ideas of sexual right and wrong. As Bertrand Russell insightfully observed, “sin is geographical.” According to one anthropological study I read years ago, the Trobriand Islands natives engage in sexual play and intercourse in public without any sense of self-consciousness. Yet they consider it inappropriate and shameful to be seen eating in public.
I find interesting several points in the excerpt above. I’ll outline them as bullet points to work through
- Postively, The author attempts to be neutral on the issue of religion. Yet, he clearly and explicitly endorses sexual relativism.
- Negativism, and related to point 1, Millman portrays himself as religiously neutral, while in fact asserting that the Christian understanding of sexuality and sexual mores is wrong.
- He fails to distinguish Christianity from institutionalized Roman Catholicism.
- His quotation of Augustine is self-serving and contrary to Augustine’s original intent.
- Millman commits the naturalistic, or “is-ought” fallacy in his reasoning.
Sexual relativism. In an earlier blog post, I noted that the Bible is anything but prudish on the issue of sexuality. Yet, it is clear that the Bible does lay out guidelines for sexual conduct. And these guidelines are not mere opinion, but directives from the Creator God. Those desiring to be faithful to the Bible have always claimed that God’s word speaks to the deepest aspects of our humanity, even our sexuality. Sexuality is an ethical issue, and if the biblical God exists there is no room for ethical relativism of any sort (1 Cor. 10:31).
Relativism relativized. Almost no relativist comes out and directly says another position is wrong, but whenever they do (in whatever language they use to imply a contrary position isn’t “realistic,” practical, etc.) they secretly smuggle ethical absolutes back into the discussion. This is self-refuting.
Priests and Nuns. Ever notice the frequency with which people who challenge Christianity tend to blur the distinctions between Evangelical Protestantism and the institutionalized Roman Catholic Church? One would think that the Reformation never happened. This reminds me of the frequently-asked question I received back when I first told people I was going to attend seminary, “Oh, are you going to be a priest?” But this is nick-picking…
Augustine. Millman quotes Augustine’s (in)famous prayer, “Give me chastity, but not yet.” When Augustine recounts this prayer in his book The Confessions, Augustine is explaining his struggle with an over-active and unhealthy sexual appetite. The point was that Augustine was “confessing” a moral struggle he wrestled with, a struggle to flee from sexual deviation and maintain sexual purity before God. Yet, the way Millman quotes Augustine you would think that Augustine remained in this position, continually praying that God would deter granting him chastity for “another day.”
Is/Ought. My most pointed criticism in this regard is related to something that I posted previously in my “Pointers” series. Non-Christians normally do not distinguish creation as it was intended to function and creation as it now functions and given the entrance of sin into the world. That is to say, they don’t distinguish between creation and fall.
Do both Christians and non-Christians find it difficult to live up to the Bible’s standards of sexual conduct? Yes. Is it just because there are no objective, God-given standards for the expression of one’s sexuality? No. It is an expression of our sin-sick addiction to living our lives as if we were God. We all suffer from this autonomous death-instinct, an instinct which, since the fall of Adam, drives us to rebel against God’s right rule over us even to our own detriment.
Just because people fail to obey God doesn’t mean there’s anything “normal” or healthy about it.