There’s been an outburst this past week from evangelical women bloggers against the idolatry of virginity. Three prominent posts have come from Sarah Bessey, Rachel Held Evans, and Emily Maynard. It’s been amazing to read in the comments about the toxic things that youth pastors and parents have said to conservative evangelical girls about sex (“No man will ever want you now,” etc). I grew up in a more moderate evangelical environment where I never encountered anything like purity balls or abstinence pledges. So I wanted to respond to Emily Maynard’s challenge to articulate a more holistic account of sexuality. Because I do believe that sex is a powerful force whose abuse can wreak havoc on our ability to worship God. And I also recognize that there are some very unhealthy distortions that have been at play in the evangelical consciousness. And I think that ultimately it all boils down to what we think heaven means. I’ll explain.
I. Distortion #1: Platonism
Christianity has a lot of overlap with Greek philosophy, particularly that of Plato and his disciple Aristotle. This philosophy did give ancient Christian theologians important conceptual frameworks for developing their understanding of the Trinity and other critical doctrine. But there are things within Platonic philosophy which distort the Christian understanding of holiness. I want to name two in particular.
First, Platonism divides human consciousness into three parts: reason, the passions, and the appetites. It says that the ideal human state is when a person’s reason is able to control and subdue his/her passions and appetites. The scandal of sex (particularly for men) is that a part of our anatomy reacts to stimuli in ways that cannot be controlled by our conscious thought. This was a huge issue for the two principal Western Christian theologians Augustine and Aquinas, who both speculated that Adam before his fall lived in a state of “original justice” in which (forgive the crudeness) his brain had conscious control over his penis. Augustine repeatedly uses the involuntary erotic stimulation that men experience as an example of the divine punishment of original sin.
Platonic assumptions about human reason belong to a pre-scientific view of the world. Physiology has taught us that there are many things about our bodies that are not controlled by our conscious thought. And yet we have inherited a theological anthropology which posits an ideal state of original justice in which Adam was the perfect Platonic man before he ate the apple. To a Platonist, sex must be granted the concession of procreation, but that is its only legitimate purpose, and people who want to be perfectly rationally ordered should be entirely celibate. Hmm… that sounds a lot like someone’s theology of the body. In a Platonic world, the most important thing is to minimize sexual stimuli (by making women wear unflattering baggy clothes so that men can live a relatively rationally ordered existence).
A second major problem that comes from Platonism is the duality it creates between the material world and the world of ideas, in which the material world is to be shunned for the “pure” rationality of the world of ideas. This duality is often conflated with the duality of the flesh and spirit in the writing of Paul with the assumption that anything physical is bad because it detracts from our focus on the world of ideas, whereas Paul is using flesh and spirit as terms for idolatrous and worshipful forms of physical existence. To shun the physical as such is a heretical contradiction of God’s affirmation of His physical creation as “good” in Genesis 1. Christians throughout history have used the term Gnosticism to describe Christian thought which has been hijacked by this Platonic duality.
As a Christian, I should not despise the physical for the sake of the abstract. Rather I should seek to enjoy physical creation as art which points to the beauty of its Creator instead of fetishizing or idolizing a particular physical sensation or object as my God. A work of art is either something which can be beheld and loved for its beauty or bought/devoured as a consumable commodity which feeds a fetish. This is also the nature of sex. It’s so potent that it can easily turn into a consumable good instead of a beauty which makes us worship the Artist who created it. So we have to examine ourselves to see whether our sexual ethics are based on a Platonist “abstract is better than concrete” schema or a Christian “beautiful is better than tacky” one.
II. Distortion #2: Patriarchy
Please excuse the explicitness with which I say this, but under a patriarchal conception of manhood, a daughter’s virginity can be described as a pissing contest between her father and her boyfriend. For some pimply 16 year old scrub to take your daughter’s virginity is perhaps equally emasculating to a man as catching another man in bed with your wife. I’m so glad I don’t have daughters so that my manhood can’t be destroyed in this way. If I did have a daughter, I would buy a gun so that I could be holding it on the front porch when her first boyfriend came to pick her up for their first date. It’s very easy for men to get seduced (no pun intended) by this kind of flamboyant machismo.
My point here is that there are ego issues for fathers and boyfriends that define female virginity in unhealthy ways. We think that we become men by having sex. We think that good fatherhood means keeping other men from having sex with our daughters. This mentality feels almost instinctual to me, but it creates a perverse taboo/fetish around the question of girls’ virginity that has no place in Christian sexual ethics. There is no Biblical basis for purity balls where fathers and daughters dance together. By doing things like that, you’re intensifying the taboo that guarantees its own demise and you’re defining sexuality as male control of female bodies. The ego issues of fathers and boyfriends need to be taken out of the equation in order to have an authentically Christian sexual ethics.
III. Distortion #3: Middle-Class Piety
One of the most important books I’ve ever read was Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume I. In it, he lays out the theory that bourgeois identity is justified by our moral purity, analogously to the way that aristocratic identity is justified by nobility of bloodline. What gives middle-class people the right to feel superior to the poor and the rich is the fact that we are clean and pure, the most important dimension of which is our sexuality.
If we can avoid getting knocked up before we’re married, then we can say that the reason poor people are poor is because they couldn’t keep it in their pants until they were married (and thus don’t deserve our sympathy or tax dollars). It really does seem like a concern about keeping your kids “clean” and avoiding contact with moral impurities is what drives much of the ethos of suburban middle-class existence whether it’s shopping at Whole Foods or putting your kids in private school. Historians have also described how segregation justified itself through this mentality with its assumption that all black men were ravishingly horny creatures looking to impregnate white girls. To me, Foucault’s theory that sexual purity is the primary self-justification of middle-class identity helps to explain why sexuality gets such disproportionate prominence in suburban Christian moral teaching compared to say gossip, envy, or selfishness.
Having said all this, it is important to acknowledge that teenage pregnancy is a very real and devastating thing. As a former high school teacher, I have suffered the agony of watching kids who were geniuses with tons of potential falling trapped into a life of minimum wage jobs because they had kids while they were still kids. Even though middle-class suburbanites shouldn’t judge poor people sanctimoniously and not all poor people are poor for the same reasons, I do know kids whose future poverty can be described as a result of their extramarital pregnancy. It has to be said that the social stability of marriage is a huge and important thing to the well-being of a society, regardless of the way that the family values movement has been distorted by self-justification (and this has nothing to do with whether or not two guys or two girls can get hitched).
There are very pragmatic reasons not to be sexually promiscuous. The problem is the unhealthy anxiety and fetishism that is brought into the equation when your zeal for keeping your teenagers out of sexual promiscuity is not just a pragmatic concern, but is grounded in a need to have the right to judge and hate poor people whose plight you presume to be the result of sexual promiscuity.
IV. The Pursuit of Heaven
In addition to these three distorting pieties, there is a more fundamental question in our theology that determines how we’re going to understand all questions of morality, and that is how we understand the nature of heaven and communion with God. Evangelical theology often reduces heaven to the mostly negative definition of avoiding eternal punishment. The way that an evangelical evaluates the orthodoxy of a congregation’s “statement of beliefs” is not whether or not it talks about heaven enough but whether or not it has a robust enough account of hell.
In contrast, for some Protestants, the Catholics, and the Orthodox (and in my interpretation of Methodist theology), heaven is primarily the beatific vision, being able to see God and gain intimacy with Him. Hell is basically a metaphor for being unable to see God because you have experienced life in such a way that your universe has curved in on itself and you are all alone inside your own personal little bubble. It is punishment because God allows us to spend eternity in isolation if that’s the destiny we choose, but this punishment is not something we experience due to any lack of love for us on God’s part.
If we take the evangelical definition of heaven as the avoidance of punishment, then what seems to follow is a morality that consists in a performance for a judge who is constantly evaluating you. Sure, you’re justified by faith according to evangelicals, but if you were sincere when you accepted Christ, then the sincerity of your decision will be evident in how you behave afterwards. Thus justification by faith is bludgeoned into a covert works-righteousness that can never be confessed openly since one of the things you are being judged for is the enthusiasm with which you declare your “belief” that you are saved by God’s grace alone. When heaven is entirely about avoiding punishment, there is little concern about whether we will be shaped in such a way that intimacy with God will be something we actually enjoy. The assumption is that God will “glorify” (spiritually lobotomize) us so that we will want to sing Chris Tomlin songs about Him for billions and billions of years without stopping (not that there’s anything wrong with Chris Tomlin ;-)).
If on the other hand, heaven describes the ability to see and gain intimacy with God, then morality takes on a very different meaning. Evangelicals presume according to their schema that the only reason to be moral is to prove your fidelity to God or the sincerity of your justifying “faith,” but if the problem and goal are perceived to be blindness and vision, then a very different moral vision results. When seeing God replaces avoiding punishment as the life-goal, then the goal of all personal morality is to gain a pure heart so we can see God (Matthew 5:8) and worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23).
Another way of articulating this that avoids some of the underlying associations we’ve made with words like purity and worship is to say that holiness is about becoming people who are capable of encountering beauty. When you’re a slave to your fetishes and idols, beauty is at best a distraction and more often something to consume, trample on, or deride with sarcasm. Worshiping God in spirit and truth is not putting on a pious show for God in which you are more smitten and “anointed” in your bodily gestures and emotional outpouring than anyone else around you. Worshiping God in spirit and truth means that you enjoy God in all things perfectly. You are able to love His world without getting tangled up in idols, fetishes, or power plays. You become someone who knows how to see God’s beauty in creation and delight in it.
One kind of sexual ethics will follow from a morality which seeks to prove the “sincerity” of the faith by which it “earns” a reprieve from eternal conscious torment. I really think that this ugly, impoverished view of heaven is the primary cause of the hideous things that have been said and done to the “quivering daughters” of a certain perverse form of evangelicalism. I don’t think you can avoid that kind of covert works-righteousness unless you understand justification by faith to describe the emancipation that results from God winning our trust that He really has put our sins on the cross as opposed to our proof to God that we really do believe “in Jesus” (and whatever list of propositional doctrinal statements we include as part of that).
A different sexual ethics will follow from a morality which has the spirit of Psalm 42:1-2: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” Sex is beautiful in a way that taking a dump or blowing your nose is not. When we treat it as casually as taking a dump or blowing your nose, then it’s like giving the Mona Lisa painting to your dog to pee all over and sleep on. I really think that the fullness of intimacy with God will be something like the ecstatic experience of two people climactically losing themselves into each other at the same time. Imagine getting to heaven and saying, “Oh, that’s all.” What if all you’re able to see of God’s beauty reflects a life in which you selfishly consumed and cynically judged everything and didn’t allow anything to awe or surprise you? What a tragedy that would be.
Healthy sex is worship, understanding that worship is not putting on a show of piety but enjoying God in all things in the most liberated way. There are all kinds of landmines in our created world which can suck the life out of us if we let them become our idols and fetishes. We can idolize virginity; we can idolize sex; we can idolize the power trip of controlling and manipulating women. Just because our created world is filled with hazards doesn’t mean that it isn’t also filled with signs of wonder and beauty that can be appropriated holistically as part of a life of worshiping God. Sex is one of these wonders and beauties, so let’s treat it as such.