Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Church and 'Sexual Immorality'

This is one of those posts where I want to talk about 'the church' and 'Christians' as being people somewhere over there, because I feel so inadequate to respond to his issue as a Christian. Moderate Christians have in a very muted way (to my mind) warned of the slide into sexual immorality within society. The muted moderates have found themselves between extravagant extremists - those who picket gay funerals on the one hand and those who advocate allowing adolescents to experiment with sex on the other. And all in the name of Jesus.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jennifer Thorpe on Thought Leader entitled Criminalising Adolescent Sexuality - Murky Waters  The article is mostly a description of current South Africa law, but here is hint of opinion.

If you are between 12 and 15 years, 11 months and 31 days you are still legally too young to consent to sex, and yet according to research done on children, sexuality is part of normal childhood growth. Indeed most South Africans have their first sexual experience in adolescence. What our law says is that anyone older who has consensual sex, or commits sexual acts, with someone between 12 and 15 years, 11 months and 31 days is committing statutory rape or statutory sexual assault. The complexity arises if the two people having sex fall within this age bracket. Technically they can both be charged with statutory rape or assault, even if they have both consented to sex or the sexual acts (including kissing as defined under our law). If they are convicted of this crime, then they will never ever be able to work in a position that allows them contact with children.

I don't want to live in a society where sexual experience for teenagers outside of a committed long term relationship is normal. I don't want to live in a society where the family is no longer a fundamental unit. I am afraid that our 'higher values' are being determined by our selfish desires rather than a desire for the common good. We are being extremely short-sighted.

What would Jesus do? I have my own answer for that, but as church I think we are too divided to speak into this possible future.


Pete Grassow said...

Hi Jenny
like you - I too would like to live in a society where the family is the fundamentsl unit of human socialisation. However the sad truth is that South Africa is not this kind of country. The group areas act, and the job reservation laws have created a society where the separation of families is accepted as the norm. When you add the scourge of HIVAids to this, then the vast majority of our people do not live in neat family units. We are therefore compelled to find ways of living out our faith within very broken families.

John van de Laar said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Jen.

One question - what would you define as "sexual experience"? This is a crucial question since for some "sexual experience" is limited to intercourse, whereas for others (and for the law referred to in your article) "sexual experience" can include simply a kiss.

Would we want to limit kissing, for example, to only those in a long term committed relationship? Holding hands? Hugging? Where and how do we draw the line?

Or, and I guess this is where I fall, do we even want to draw lines at all (from a Church perspective). Drawing lines is, for me, always the easy way out. The more difficult way is to work from a basis of community, communication and love for God and neighbour and self. Operating from this basis, for me, means not drawing lines, but being a mentor and companion on the journey of sexual awakening for my children. It's much harder, but also, I believe, much safer.

The problem, of course, is for those who have no mentors or companions. But, that there are people in that predicament is an indictment on the Church...

Macrina Walker said...

I sympathise with your reaction, Jenny - both regarding the strident voices that condemn and the moderate voices that would appear to have ceded sexual activity to the sphere of the amoral as long as it doesn't "hurt" people. I have become increasingly aware in the last couple of years that there are many layers (theological and spiritual) that do need to be unpacked, but have been a little hesitant to do so. But the failures of the churches in this regard do raise questions for me and make me think that there are deeper issues at stake.

By the way, if you don't know it, you might be interested in Sarah Coakley's essay on Pleasure Principles, the original of which doesn't seem to be available online anymore, but has been reproduced in three parts here.

Macrina Walker said...

PS I meant to add a disclaimer that I don't necessarily agree with everything Coakley says! But I do find her one of the more interest contemporary western theologians.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Pete - in a sense that is the privilege of ministry. And the difference between writing a blog post and living life.

John - by the end of your comment you are getting to what I am saying. Families provide a way of perpetuating culture and values in a supportive, loving way. The scary alternative is the 'Brave New World' (Huxley) '1984' (Orwell) where the state takes over the development and imposition of values. In a way you see the beginnings of it with Helen Zille's suggestion that it should be illegal to have sex without a condom if you are HIV+. Her logic is sound - if the state must fund healthcare for those with HIV, it can enforce 'safe sex'. But it invades our privacy and more. But I'm sure that Zille is just making a statement that we choose our future by how responsibly we live now.
If as Pete suggests our family structure is irretrievably broken, what better alternatives are there? Better than state control, I mean. Does the church have a contribution to make?
Macrina - I'll go and read it. I just wanted to respond to others. I'll let you know what I think when I have a chance! Thanks for your input.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Macrina - I think this is the key to Sarah Coakley's lecture, do you agree?
Gregory's vision of desire as thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified through its relations to God - which would then produce spiritual fruits of love and service in a range of other relationships and communal bonds - represents a way beyond and through the false modern alternatives of 'repression' and 'libertinism'.
I do like her uncluttered approach to discussions of sexuality. I wonder if I would have the courage to preach the above idea?
I like some of her other ideas, but don't want to muddy the waters of this post!
I think where distance comes between her thoughts and SA reality is that not enough people are dedicated to God to the point of living sacrificially. For how many people, I wonder, is sex and sexuality actually about a search for meaning in life?
Thanks for the link. I will keep it.

Steve Hayes said...

I am reminded of Gilbert and Sullivan:

Our great Mikado, virtuous man
when he to rule this land began
resolved to try
a plan whereby
young men might best be steadied
So he decreed in words succinct
that all who flirted, leered or winked
unless conubially linked
should forthwith be beheaded.

That's the one extreme.

And the other is those who want to make it a "hate crime" to say that sexual intercourse outside marriage is a sin that we need to confess.

Macrina Walker said...

Thanks Jenny, I agree that the contrast to our situation is striking - and I suspect that there are two not entirely unrelated aspects to that, i.e. both the breakdown of society and of family structures caused by our specific history, and also general western cultural shifts relating to sexuality.

But I wonder if this is really so different from the situation that the early Church faced? And that makes me ask what it was in their response that differed from contemporary Christian responses? Also, it's not just about sex - look at the unbridled consumerism that is rife in society! I suspect that this is not unrelated to a broader loss of an ascetical consciousness (partly in reaction to negative ways in which this had been understood) and a general loss of the the role of the body in salvation. Of course there's lots there that one should unpack, but...

Two very random and not properly thought through observations: I've recently been noting that some contemporary expressions of sexuality, with their desire for transgressing boundaries, are in a sense analogous to (if a perversion of) the desire for transcendence that religion traditionally provided. And I've also been wondering what the connection is between this and the denial of death in much of contemporary western society.

Also, on a not-entirely-relevant note (although not totally irrelevant either) I've been meaning to point you to this article ever since a previous discussion that I'm afraid I never followed up on (so many ideas, so little time!). I found it by chance as I have a 1791 edition of the Imitation of Christ edited by John Wesley to repair at work. I had no idea that Wesley had done this, so googled and found this article on him and St Ephraim which is rather fascinating. Anyway, for what it's worth!

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Macrina, you offer so many interesting ideas!
Different to early church? I think the difference is due to the direction of movement. In the early church Christianity provided a discipline and moral structure that was less noticeable (absent?) in gentile culture. People were drawn to it as they saw hope in the moral laws. (Of course Jews saw Christians as lax in comparison to themselves.) In our society, we are coming from Victorian moral principles and moving to greater license. In the first scenario, Christians are the radicals, the ones breaking with culture. In the second, Christians are the Mother Grundies, resisting change. In the early church, at some stages at least, it was a privilege to be part of the Christian group and so high standards were accepted. Now it is cool to trash the church and so who cares what it says. So I think it is different. And I agree that this is not only about sex, but about self-indulgence.
I'm not sure that I agree with you about sexuality and transcendence. I think that sex without boundaries is almost an admission of an inability to achieve transcendence and therefore a need to appropriate total debasement. But I do think it is a search for meaning - where meaning for some reason has not been found in God (or transcendence). But I doubt that many people think in these terms! [More likely 'I feel loved and a sense of satisfaction when I have sex, therefore I will not limit the experience'] I may be missing something when you talk about transcendental experiences.
I'm not sure about denial of death.
The Wesley article is interesting - I don't often read things about Wesley that aren't from a Methodist point of view! So much scope for discovery in the area of Wesley and the Church Fathers!

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Steve - Cool from Gilbert and Sullivan. Perhaps we look for our prophets in the wrong place. I like your illustrations of the poles.

Macrina Walker said...

Hi Jenny,

I don’t think that I’m expressing any of this well, and of course it’s all part of a much bigger picture that requires a bigger discussion – and some serious thinking through – and so it may not have been such a good idea to throw out ideas off the top of my head!

I was thinking about the transgression / transcendence issue against the backdrop of working on a fine arts campus and seeing various forms of media, often sexually suggestive, that seem designed to shock and push boundaries. It was in that context (although such things are of course also found elsewhere) that I suddenly thought “This is really about transgression.” And realised that when religion has lost its power to offer transcendence, people turn to other things. Something similar struck me when reading an interview with a body piercer while on a plane recently (and being educated about things that I never knew existed!) who spoke about her experience of being suspended by her skin (and needles) as a transcendent and spiritual experience.

I actually think that meaning, transcendence and transgression are deeply inter-related. Transcendence is not simply (if at all) about experiences, but about the horizon against which one lives one’s life and which gives it meaning. And it is also about transgressing the “natural” order of this present age (what Zizioulas calls the biological hypostasis which I once blogged on here ), which is the reality of death with its corollary that we may as well enjoy life while we can. While I agree that there is a sociological difference to the situation of the early Church (Mother Grundies versus hip young radicals) that makes our situation more difficult, I am inclined to believe that the power of the early Church was deeper than this, that their witness was ultimately theological. Sexual discipline, like the curbing, channelling and transforming of other passions, the recognition of our disordered state and the seeking of repentance, was not simply about keeping rules but was a living witness to Christ’s conquering of death and sin – not simply as an historical event, but in our flesh. It is a transgression of death. This comes out quite clearly in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation but my books are all in a box at the moment :-(

This is probably still not that clear but, as I said, there are things that really require more unpacking!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

You are right about short-sightedness. Certain sexual behaviours or arrangements are known to be ruinous over the lifetimes of all involved -- statistically, massive drops in income, massive increases in violent behaviour, and so on. If one decided to deprive a citizen of a million in earnings over a lifetime, for instance, there would be outrage, yet there isn't a ripple where the issue is more subtle or remote. I read somewhere that this is what is behind the promotion of family values in the USA. They have simply calculated the savings to the state, but it wouldn't go down well if it were packaged as an issue of cost or national interest.