rosenbergerFor people of countless faith traditions, sex has become inextricably linked with religious practice. Trying to discern God’s will in regard to sex can be daunting, and efforts to reconcile faith and life can cause confusion or guilt. Looking at Christian sexual ethics, Catholics differ wildly from Protestants, who in turn vary wildly from each other. For someone watching this conflict from outside the Christian community, it can be just as amusing as it is terrifying. Christians have struggled to create spiritually based constraints for such a framework capable of transcending modern realities. Extremely conservative, middle-of-the-road and liberalized Christians have thus divided more or less into three groups. While each group approaches sex with religion in mind, each reaches wildly varying conclusions.

The first group sees sex as exclusively for the purpose of procreation by a heterosexual married couple. Still, largely within this group, falls a subgroup that approves “natural family planning,” also known as the surest way to get pregnant quickly. This group often forbids divorce and certainly frowns upon remarriage. They largely disregard any spectrum of sexuality and would certainly be unequivocally appalled by Wisconsin Avenue’s sex shop, The Pleasure Place.

The next group claims the moralistic mantel of the group above but leaves huge caveats for sexual practices that could not lead to conception. Some of these groups even allow demonstrably sexually active persons, including those with children, to regain “spiritual virginity.” Amusingly, drawn out to their logical terminations, under some of the rules of these groups, gay people could be considered permanent virgins. Despite the fact that some persons of more evangelical persuasions deny the existence of homosexuals, one wonders if this logic could be used to push for acceptance ofnoncelibate gay relationships that would technically count as celibate.

The final group seems to have just given up on sexual ethics entirely. Sleeping around is somewhat frowned upon, but cohabitation, gay marriage, contraception and multiple divorces are seen as perfectly acceptable. This group seems to be gaining popularity: The newly appointed dean of the National Cathedral observed that, of the hundreds of couples he has married, he would be surprised if more than about a dozen had not been fully sexually active before marriage. His remarks also seemed to leave little doubt that he saw little wrong with individuals having premarital sex with multiple partners before engaging in a committed relationship.

Given that spirituality and sex are, for so many people, closely linked, there has to be some kind of ethic that provides a guideline while not completely abandoning the realities of the modern world. Eighteenth-century theologian John Wesley famously created a quadrilateral through which his followers examined issues they encountered. According to Wesley, reason, tradition, scripture and experience provide a lens for judgment and action. In today’s world, reason — and, for many, experience — seems to directly challenge tradition and some readings of scripture. What was God’s purpose in creating a sexual ethic, and why have we become so involved with the superficial elements of it?
According to Jim Brownson of the Western Theological Seminary, God created sexual ethics to frame the idea of a complete giving of the self. Marriage was designed to be a covenantal relationship of complete surrender between two individuals — a surrender uniquely captured by sexual action. According to Brownson, “We can see how premarital sex would undermine the intention of God, because it represents a total bodily self-giving that is not matched by a corresponding gift of life and promise of commitment, thereby falling short of the complete and loving gift of self that God intends.”

The goal of a spiritual ethic isn’t to deprive the faithful of sex or to make it daunting and, in some instances, weird. The ethic makes sex all the richer by tying it to a form of commitment and deliberate, thoughtful, utter surrender. The undue fascination that some religious communities have with the physical and social importance of sex only pulls them further away from realizing God’s ideal. Sex should never be divorced from total, selfless love, but within those constraints it should be encouraged and celebrated as complementary of spiritual completeness.

Tim Rosenberger is a sophomore in the College. THE CHURCH AND STATESMAN appears every other Tuesday.

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