Holistic sexuality, distorting pieties, and the pursuit of heaven

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.

V. Conclusion

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.

38 thoughts on “Holistic sexuality, distorting pieties, and the pursuit of heaven

  1. “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”


    The above rhetoric sounds like zeal for pejoratively stereotyping people whose opinions differ from yours.

  2. Morgan, I like a lot of what you’ve written here and I appreciate your taking the time to thoughtfully pose a response to the three essays you note. I particularly like the emphasis on beauty and its connections to holiness – and Psalm 42 fits well with this whole line of thought. I am curious, however, that most of these responses are from male readers and almost all of them are ‘heady,’ theological points of agreement or disagreement. Yet the essays you note are far from theological treatises! They are thoughtful, honest, vulnerable stories that provide windows into theological truth. And from reading the responses here, I have to wonder if your readers have seen any of them. The cry of those posts was for a deeper understanding of what grace looks like and for the demolishing of what seems to have become an idol. I think your insights are truly helpful. It is just curious to me that very little of the comment section seems to resonate with that heart-cry. Instead, everybody pretty much ignores the reason for the post in the first place in order to critique your methodology and word choice. As a woman, I have to say that is really frustrating and even painful at points. Once again, we are not heard.

  3. “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).” Morgan, this on its own is gold. Brilliant.

        • What’s your hypothesis? For me, it’s been a lot of things coming together. I preached last week on Psalm 42 which is very much about understanding the goal of spiritual life as seeking God’s face. The week before I looked at Isaiah 58 and discovered the distinction between piety and holiness. So that all kind of dovetailed into the furious assault on the idolatry of virginity among the evangelical women this week.

    • “One of the most central, essential, and critical ideas in the gospel is that your past does not have to bind you or define your worth.” That is a beautiful line from your blog right there. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Your response to John was almost (almost) better than this entire blog… I love it when the comments are synergic—thanks for proving that this kind of public forum (to learn from one another) is necessary.
    Foucault was indeed, a pervert, but there has to be a vein of truth in any suspect concept that allows it to be palpable to the masses. Foucault is a great example (so are others in history).

    • Yeah it definitely helps sharpen me. I just hope I’m getting better at discussing rather than trying to shoot down. My instinct is towards the latter and its very hard to unlearn!

    • If the truth God gave me to proclaim were only as credible as my moral consistency, what a wretched situation I would be in!

  5. Wow Morgan – brilliant work that points to theological possibilities far beyond the initial topic of evangelicalism’s fetish for female virginity. I love the emphasis on beauty and would love to see more on that some time.

    • Plunder the Egyptians, just like Augustine did with Plato and Aquinas with Aristotle. It’s important to name the forces that masquerade as Christian holiness but have other objectives.

      • Sure, but the fact that Foucault said it does not make it true. Many scholars disagree with and critique Foucault’s work. His own life (which presumably embodied in some way his philosophical convictions) was not in keeping with the theology you are trying to construct here (at least as I understand it.)

        The critique of “suburban” American culture is a strong vein in your writing. But it seems like you set aside the biblical grounds for critiquing suburbia while appealing to non-Christian or even anti-Christian philosophies that as lived do not appear to go where you want to end up.

        You critique Christians for being too Platonist but embrace Foucault without appearing to notice the irony of doing so.

        • The insights of Plato, Aristotle, and Foucault can all be utilized as part of our theological process as long as we’re alert enough to what we’re doing that we don’t allow their paradigms to dictate to us. I don’t play the guilt by association game where a person’s own moral inconsistency invalidates whatever truth God chose to share through them. The truth belongs to God, not the scoundrel who happens to be given an insight and write a book about it. Truth must be evaluated on its own terms. Martin Luther King was a notorious philanderer and he also said some really amazing beautiful things which would be legitimate even if he weren’t canonized and made unimpeachable by American secular culture. So the “Foucault was a pervert; therefore I can dismiss everything he said” critique doesn’t work for me.

          When suburban evangelical culture focuses on sexuality to the point of obsessive paranoia and then describes poverty as a product of sexual promiscuity, it’s pretty clear that what’s going on is a need to be able to say, “I thank you God that I’m not like other men.” Foucault may have helped me to name it, but this works-righteousness is all over the Bible. American evangelicals have the same problem that the Galatians had though we justify ourselves with ideological purity rather than circumcision and we hide our works-righteousness by making it one of our pieties to say that God’s grace is the only thing that justifies us. When you’re invested in self-justification, then instead of being liberated from it by justification by faith, you twist justification by faith into a covert works-righteousness by which you gain for yourself the authority to condemn other people which means you never really got saved by it.

          Seriously John, read what some of these women wrote so you’re encountering the same things that I encountered before writing what I wrote. Also read the comments. Unless they’re all lying, many conservative evangelical girls have been treated in a thoroughly un-Christlike way that has resulted from a short-circuit in our theology. I’m just trying to find that short-circuit because without it, the rest would be beautiful.

          • My critique of using Foucault to reconstruct theology in no way invalidates what these women have written. There is no necessary link between agreeing with Rachel Held Evans and adopting Foucault’s critique of the middle-class.

            I do think Foucault being a sado-masochistic, promiscuous, drug user does affect how I read his analysis of human sexuality, especially when he is offering a normative account that is being suggested as a model for Christians.

            Knowing what I know about MLK, I would not take marriage advice from him or put much stock in anything he said about fidelity, but his critique of racism in American society, so far as I know, is not contradicted by his personal life.

            It strikes me that there are ample Christian resources to critique bad treatment of conservative Christian girls — and even middle-class American values. I don’t see how Foucault (who, again, many other European philosophers critique heavily) is more useful or more reliable than Christians. This is my only point.

          • Do you think in reading this post that my normative account of sexuality has come from Foucault?

          • Yeah I guess the way I look at it is that Foucault opened my eyes to what Paul was really saying. So it sounds like you’re more versed in philosophy than you let on.

          • I was a humanities major and grad student in the 1980s and 1990s. Foucault was the hot European thinker back then.

          • So in the past, when you’ve talked about yourself not being as “educated” as I am, etc, you were being facetious? 😉

          • No, I was making reference to all the theology you’ve read. and mention in your posts and comments. I can exchange views all day about mass communication theory, social science methods, writing process theory, and other stuff that does not come up too much in blogging about John Wesley and United Methodism.

            Being an English major in the late 1980s meant you had to read Derrida, Foucault, and some others. I’ve since dabbled in Habermas and Rorty (two critics of Foucault). My theological reading is much more limited than yours — which I know because you bring up people all the time I’ve never read and some I’ve never heard of.

            Most of my reading in the theological area are people who fall into the category of ethics or Bible scholars rather than systematic or constructive theologians.

          • I’m just messing with you. I haven’t been exposed to Habermas or Rorty. Rorty was actually a professor at UVA when I was there in the mid-90’s. He said he was a professor of “trendiness studies” or something like that and everyone thought he was really hip so I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. I actually had the same attitude about Hauerwas when I was at Duke to my detriment. I didn’t want to be part of celebrity worship. But then I started reading him and realizing he had some very helpful things to say. It was too late by the time I realized it would have been really cool to take a class with him. But the other things you read at Duke like Barth, Bonhoeffer, McIntyre, Yoder, etc. (and NOT the Neibuhrs) end up making you a Hauerwasian by the time you’re through.

    • I think Foucault is pretty good on critique, even if one doesn’t go far with him for thesis. The trouble with doing theology today is that you have to do a whole load of un-theology first to clear away the cultural garbage, some of which wears the vestments of Christendom. Foucault is excellent for that task of historical deconstruction. I’d also bring the likes of Marx, Nietzche, Freud and Jung to that party, and for similar reasons.

  6. Appreciated going into the various frameworks which form ‘our’ concepts of sex. I said something the other day about how our soteriology seems to have impacted our sexual ethics or perhaps the other way around. When salvation is reduced to this moment in the past for a moment in the future then things are neat and simple. Virginity becomes our only way of understanding sex. It’s either something you posses, or something you ‘lost’ in the past. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but holding a purity pledge card and holding a salvation card you signed seem to be two sides of the same coin. Sex, like every other aspect of my life must be in alignment with my new commandment, to love God and love my neighbor, how this results is more complex perhaps than just make sure you are a virgin.

    • “Maybe I’m reading too much into this but holding a purity pledge card and holding a salvation card you signed seem to be two sides of the same coin.” Sounds like you’re onto something right there.

  7. Some brilliant stuff here, Morgan. It’s interesting though, having grown up in suburban Evangelicalism in one of it’s best iterations, none of that stuff cut to the core of why I was told sexual purity was important. There was a lot more to it, but this text was kinda baseline for me in high-school:

    “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

    (1 Corinthians 6:12-20)

    My body isn’t my body to just do what I want, how I want, when I want–it’s Jesus’. He says that you’re supposed to use it one way, you’re supposed to unite with one person, the one you’re married to–that’s how he set it up at the beginning. (Gen 2) If you do that, there’s joy and blessing he’s intended for you. If you don’t, well, you can be forgiven and be made clean, but there’s a loss of some of that joy.

    I think this is totally goes with your alternative vision you present at the end. Well, just a thought.

    • Right. I would say that recognizing we are part of Jesus’ body is another way of narrating the goal of entering into joyful intimacy with God and I need to integrate it more into my language because my presentation at this first pass is too individualistic. What we need to do is narrate this in such a way so that what we’re saying is “Look, this is the beauty you really desire even when you’re grabbing at other things” instead of treating sexual purity like an obligation that God imposes on us just to show that He’s in charge.

      • Absolutely! It’s not arbitrary, it’s God’s good design that we violate at our peril and obey to our delight. Both the personal wreckage and the relational violation are to be avoided, and the joy of intimacy is to chased.

      • I was thinking about the individualism problem too. I take a more kingdom-focused narrative approach. The kingdom of God is the already-present but not yet fullfilled reign of God for the good of all people and all creation. God isn’t in charge just because “He’s in charge” God is in charge for the good of all people. Holiness is not about proving purity (or earning heaven) it’s about living more and more fully into God’s transforming grace for us (plural). In a kingdom-shaped sexual ethics, there is no need for a pissing contest among men for the control of women. Women are invited to own, to treasure, and to share as appropriate the wonder and complexity of our sexual selves. When we screw up and fall short, we rely on grace from God and our community and continue to grow. In a kingdom-shaped community, all people are empowered and responsible to be good stewards of sexuality. We don’t use it to sell products or to manipulate or to stand in for our other needs. We talk frankly about where we’ve been and where we want to be. We guide and advise each other about how to conduct ourselves, but we don’t make sexual holiness some sort of “special category”. Just a few thoughts…

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