"Pleasure is God’s idea, not the Devil’s." C.S.Lewis.
The Christian view of sexuality attracts controversy. Sex, and issues closely connected to sex, holds a central place in our lives, and our culture. We are all aware of the popular caricature of Christians who ‘look down their noses’ at sex as if it were something ‘dirty’, or at least rather odd. Christians, we would be led to believe by popular opinion, try to prevent as many people as possible from having sex, and from enjoying sex if they do have it!
The popular conception of the Christian attitude towards sex is well summed up by Bertrand Russell: "The worst feature of the Christian religion. . . is its attitude towards sex - an attitude so morbid and so unnatural. . ." (Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?) These comments come in a typically robust essay where Russell credits religion with helping to fix our calendar and causing "Egyptian priests to chronicle eclipses with such care that in time they became able to predict them." (ibid), and that’s all! "These two services I am prepared to acknowledge, but I do not know of any others." (ibid.) How remarkable that such an educated man as Lord Bertrand Russell should never have heard of hospitals, orphanages, schools, the preservation of Greek thought by Medieval Monks, or the abolishment of slavery; all of which owe a great deal to Christians. Readers would not be mistaken in detecting some heavy irony here. We should by now be alerted to the fact that, when Bertrand Russell makes a sweeping statement about religion, his words deserve to be taken with a Harrod’s-hamper-full of salt.
Russell accused Christianity of a "morbid" and "unnatural" attitude towards sex; although, when we examine Russell’s own sex-life, we feel ourselves more informed as to the well-springs of this criticism. If anyone’s attitudes were ‘unnatural’ then they were Russell’s, not those of the Christians he berated. Russell once remarked that he liked mathematics because it wasn’t human, and although he delivered papers on the rights of women he "privetley belittled their intellectual capacities" (Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? p371.) Russell condemned his brother for leaving his wife, yet his own four marriages "were marred by infidelities." (ibid.) Would it be too cynical to suggest that Russell’s motivation for calling the Christian attitude towards sex "morbid" and "unnatural" was that it contradicted his own desires? After all, by what standard did Russell condemn the Christian attitude towards Sex? As a committed moral relativist, the only standard Russell was willing to admit was the subjective standard of what he personally liked or disliked.
Would you say that the author of the following advice had a morbid and unnatural attitude towards sex?: ". . .rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer - may her breasts satisfy you always, may you be captivated by her love." I see nothing "morbid" or "unnatural" in this poet’s words, but this is a quotation from the Bible, from the book of Proverbs (chapter 5 verses 18-19). Take some time out to read the erotic love-poetry of the Song of Songs, again, from the Bible:
"Your lips cover me with kisses
your love is better than wine. . .
My lover has the scent of Myrrh
as he lies upon my breasts. . .
His left hand is under my head,
and his right hand caresses me."
Dr. Herbert J. Miles explains that chapter 2v6 of the Song of Songs describes foreplay: "This position of sexual arousal is described in the Bible in the Song of Solomon 2:6 and 8:3. These two verses are identical. They read as follows: "Let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me." The word "embrace" could be translated "fondle" or "stimulate"." (Sexual Happiness in Marriage.) Have you detected anything morbid or unnatural yet?! Moving to the New Testament we find the following advice given by Paul:
"Now, to deal with the matters you wrote about. A man does well not to marry [or ‘You say a man does well not to marry’]. But because there is so much immorality, every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband. A man should fulfil his duty as a husband, and a woman should fulfil her duty as a wife, and each should satisfy the other’s needs. A wife is not the master of her own body, but her husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deny yourselves to each other, unless you first agree to do so for a while in order to spend your time in prayer; but then resume normal marital relations." (1 Corinthians 7v1-5 GNB, my italics.)
That’s just a smattering of examples from the Bible on the subject of sex. Proverbs says to a man that he should find sexual pleasure in his wife - and be faithful to her. Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon) describes foreplay, or perhaps masturbation by a partner, from the woman’s point of view. Paul tells married couples to satisfy each other’s sexual needs, and not to go without sex except for special religious purposes, and only then for a brief period of time provided both partners agree. There is nothing "morbid" about the Bible’s attitude towards sex. There isn’t even a hint of sexism here. The wife’s body belongs to her husband, yes; but the husband’s body belongs to his wife. Husbands and wives, says Paul, should treat their partner’s body as their own.
"Ah", you say, "that’s the Bible; what about actual current practice and attitudes among Christians. Surely that is rather dower and po-faced?" Don’t you believe it.
In the mid 1970’s Redbook Magazine published a ‘Sexual Pleasure Survey’, showing the preferences of 100,000 women. This survey concluded that "sexual satisfaction is related significantly to religious belief." If the media have successfully ‘brain-washed’ you your immediate thought following on from this statement is that religious people must, of course, enjoy sex less than irreligious people; right? Wrong: "With notable consistency, the greater the intensity of a woman’s religious convictions, the likelier she is to be highly satisfied with the sexual pleasure of the marriage. . . Strongly religious women seem to be more responsive [and] more likely than the nonreligious to be orgasmic every time she engages in sex." (Tim & Beverly La Haye - The Act of Marriage, p9.)
American Christian Councillors Tim and Beverly La Haye undertook a survey of mainly Christian couples (3,377 people - 1,705 women and 1,672 men), which indicated, in line with the Redbook Survey, that "Christians maintain a higher enjoyment level in the intimacy of their love life than the population in general." (P210). The La Hay’s Survey showed that, generally speaking, Christian couples enjoyed sex more than couples with any other religious beliefs: "The women in our survey reported a 10 percent higher degree of sexual enjoyment, greater frequency of lovemaking experiences per month, and a more active part in [sex] than their "strongly religious" counterparts [in the REDBOOK Survey], likewise scoring much higher in these same areas than the average "non-religious" woman in the REDBOOK Survey." (P211).
The message is that "Christians enjoy the sublimities of the act of marriage more than others in our culture." (P212). Now isn’t that strange for a culture that looks down its nose at Christian attitudes to sex as being "morbid" and "unnatural"? If Christians really do dislike sex, isn’t it odd that "Christians are considerably more satisfied with their love life than non-Christians" (p218)? Surely the facts suggest that Christianity is doing something right so far as sex goes? And what can this something be other than the Christian beliefs which underlie the sexual behavior of Christian couples? "The more love an individual has from God to give his partner, the more fulfilment he will give and receive in marriage. It is hoped that these statistical facts will cause both the Christian community and secular councillors to recognize that a person’s relationship with God will improve his relationship with other people, beginning with his partner." (P219-220). For, "it is a sad paradox that so many of those who have rejected or neglected God in their pursuit of sexual freedom and happiness often live miserable lives, whereas the Christian, whom they tend to despise or ridicule. . . enjoys the very thing the non-Christian is seeking." (P230).
Let’s have a few more bracing statistics to blow away the cobweb’s of popular misconception: 61% of couples in the La Haye survey had sex up to twice a week, while 36% had sex up to six times a week. Praying together regularly made for a 10 percent increase in reported sexual satisfaction from couples.
We cannot but conclude that, "if we seek pleasure as a god, in the long run we find emptiness, disappointment and addiction. If we seek God, we find, among other things, ecstatic pleasure." (P56). For, "The real truth is that people who follow God’s guidelines are the people who really enjoy sex." (Chuck Yuill: And God Created Sex!)
The attentive reader will have noticed one consistent factor in this positive Christian attitude towards sex: Marriage. The Bible has nothing but good vibes and good advice about marriage, and about sex within marriage. The Bible has nothing but bad vibes about sex outside of marriage. This is what secular society really objects to, the Christian restriction of sex to an integral part of a male-female union with life-long intent. But look at the experience of those living beyond Biblical norms: In the La Haye survey, 76% of wives without any pre-marital sexual experience reported that they were "very happy" with sex. Of wives with pre-marital sexual experience, only 68% made a similar report. Asked "If you had your life to live over again, what one thing would you do differently?", the most popular answer by far in the La Hay survey was "I would not engage in pre-marital sex" (But yes, this response was rather self-selecting since the survey group was mainly Christian). Of couples who married for the first time in the 1980’s, those who co-habited before marriage were "60% more likely to have divorced after eight years" than similar couples who had not co-habited (p48). The La Haye’s concluded that, "Our survey indicates quite clearly that premarital sex is not necessary and, according to statistics, may hinder sexual adjustment." (P224). So, perhaps the Christian view of sex is worth a second look; after all, "God not only invented sex, he also invented marriage, and marriage is to sex what a well-insulated cable is to a powerful electricity supply. It allows it to be channeled safely for the benefit of everyone." (Chuck Yuill: And God Created Sex!)
The Christian view of sexuality finds its roots in Christian beliefs about God’s intentions in Creation. In several passages it is said that God created humanity "in the likeness of God" or "in the image of God" - which means that, on a non-physical level, humanity reflects the nature of God, a nature which includes (non-biological) masculinity and femininity. God introduces a division into humanity [adam], creating male and female humans (Genesis 2v18 following). God creates humanity not only masculine and feminine, but physically masculine and feminine, and intends each for the other: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.":
"If we were able to read the Old Testament in its original Hebrew language we would discover that when our modern english translations speak about a man being ’united’ to his wife they are representing a word which describes a bind that is both strong and permanent. God’s plan for the marriage of a man and a woman is that they should form a relationship which can never be broken, that nothing should ever come between them and cause them to part." (Chuck Yuill: And God Created Sex!)
The "one flesh" union of male and female reflects, symbolizes, however you like to put it, the unified masculinity and femininity within God.
This foundation is re-enforced, for the Christian, by the attitude of Jesus, whom Christians take to be the ultimate self-revelation of God within history, and who, being divine (as well as human) has a unique authority to pronounce the views of divinity on this or that. Asked about divorce Jesus replies by endorsing the message of Genesis: ". . .haven’t you read that at the beginning God ‘made them male and female’, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." (Matthew 19v4-6). Both genders are necessary to the "image of God" in humankind. In this way, Christian marriage forms a wider, deeper image of God’s nature than does any individual person, male or female.
A popular ‘truism’ about marriage is to say that it is, after all, "only a piece of paper". For the Christian, marriage is everything but a mere legal contract which can be broken at the earliest convenience of either party. What is marriage? Marriage is a way of existing; a way of existing which reflects the nature of God. For the Christian then, Marriage is a deeply religious thing:
"Time and time again, in the created order of things, God separates. He separates the land from the sea. . . but when he comes to human beings, what does he do? [After creating the differentiation between mal and female] He puts them together. In Genesis 2, verse 18, god says, "it is not good for man to be alone." He creates human beings to be together. This is what the great illustration of marriage is all about. Two people commit themselves to become ‘one’, to be put together. We often make the mistake of thinking that married couples become ‘one’ on their wedding day, as if the magical words of the minister or the mystical experience of the marriage bed constitute this process. They do not. They only inaugurate the process. The process of being one is just that - a process. A couple will spend the rest of their lives working towards it." (Michael Frost, Jesus the Fool.)
Sex is intended by God as an integral part of marriage; to rip it out of the context of committed relationship is thus to distort the "image" of God:
"Sex works best as part of a total package - loving each other, building a home together, planning a family, getting to know each other intimately, working through good times and bad - and when you try it by itself it’s a surprisingly unsatisfying experience. . . A good relationship depends on two people who enter it with the serious intent of making it work, and who sustain it with a determination to stick by each other through thick and thin." (Chuck Yuill: And God Created Sex!)
Catholic theologian and psychiatrist, Jack Dominion, gives a detailed account of the many meanings of sexual-intercourse in its intended context - marriage:
"Sexual intercourse is, first of all, a body language, through which couples talk and do things for one another. When couples make love they rejoice in each other’s presence and the pleasure they exchange. For this they want to give thanks. Thus sex is a recurrent act of thanksgiving. Second, because people want to make love repeatedly, they trust that their partners will respond to them again. So sex is also a recurrent act of hope: the hope of being desired again. Thirdly, in the course of the day couples hurt one another. Most of these hurts are forgiven and forgotten on the spot - But some are too painful to be forgiven so easily. Such hurts need a deeper level of love and communication to erase them. So sexual intercourse can also be an act of reconsiliation. Forthly, sexual intercourse confirms the sexual identity of the partners. Finally, every time a couple makes love, they are saying to each other: "I recognise you, I want you, I appreciate you." In this way it is a recurrent act of personal affirmation. As a result, sexual intercourse has the capacity to give life in more than biological sense. So sexual intrercorse not only gives pleasure. It also has a powerful personal dimension in which the couple enrich one another’s lives. . . Marriage provides a continuous, reliable, and predicatble relationship within which the rich potential of sex can thrive. In this sense, sex actually requires marriage for the realisation of its potential. . . sex is so powerful and meaningful that justice can only be done to it in a continuous and enduring realtionship." (The Capacity to Love.)
Any attempt to take sexual intercourse out of the context of "a continuous and enduring relationship" leads to a fracturing of the inherent potential for good, and essential nature, of sex.
To do so is to distort God’s image in us - and that can’t be good. Psychologically, having sex with someone promises the ‘marriage relationship’. To make that pledge, and then to break it - to make that pledge with no intention of keeping it - is like putting super-glue on you and your ‘partner’s’ fingers, and then tearing them apart. Bit’s of you are going to stick to bits of your ‘partner’, and visa versa. One cannot engage in such a profound experience as sexual intercourse and expect it to have no consequences for your mental, spiritual, and physical well-being. We can only do our best to see to it that the consequences are positive rather than negative.
Our culture likes to think it is very enlightened about sex, because it talks openly about ‘doing it’, non-stop. In reality, our culture has torn sexual pleasure out of its intended context, with devistating results. As the Christian Psychologist Paul Tournier wrote: "Our scientific world reduces even love to technique. We see young girls reading massive books on the psyiology of sex, and no doubt they could recite a list of erogenous zones, but no one has told them that for the enjoyment of sex, the abandonment of person to person is more important than any artifice." Sex without love is a travisty, and the sort of love that goes with sex, is the sort of love that promises, and demands, the sort of relationship we describe as ‘marriage’. Mark Twain wrote that, "No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century." Besides, as George Bernard Shaw put it, marriage "combines the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity."
Copyright © 1998 by Peter S. Williams (BA, MA).