Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Curse of Virginity

Lutherans (of whom I am one) teach justification by faith, not works. We say that we cannot win God’s approval by what we do; God loves us unreservedly. However, the history of the church, including the Lutheran church, shows that there is one work traditionally required for acceptance into the church family. This is sexual renunciation, which is often encoded in Christian scripture, liturgy, and hymns as: “purity.” The flip side of purity is fornication and adultery. This summer in the Lutheran Church, the epistles read in the liturgy have kept up the drumbeat condemning both, and St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians links fornication to impurity without defining either. Webster’s dictionary defines fornication as “consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other.” This seems quite nonjudgmental, particularly the “consensual” part.
However, Googling “fornication + Bible” produces, for the most part, very different results. Most sites point out how forcefully many Bible passages condemn fornication and how we fornicators are going straight to hell if we don’t repent. I found only one site that takes a different approach: “Liberated Christians” (http://www.libchrist.com), which writes of fornication: “I Cor 6:9 badly mistranslates "porneia" as fornication. Corinth was a wide-open port city. People there could get sex any way they wanted it. Where our English translations read 'fornication', Paul's original Greek word was 'porneia' which means to sell and refers to slaves bought and sold for cultic prostitution. What was happening in the Temples of Corinth was farmers were visiting the temple priestesses who represented the fertility Gods. By having sex with these prostitutes they believed their fields would be more fertile. It didn't even have to do with going to prostitutes, but pagan cultic worship.” So, perhaps fornication in the Bible is not “consensual sex,” but religious sex with gods (or their representatives) who are not the God of Abraham.
Adultery, of course, is a sin. It is defined in Webster’s as: “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband.” However, “Liberated Christians” has an interesting slant on adultery, writing: “The Jews understood ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ very differently than Church tradition. It only applied to men if they had intercourse with someone else's wife, but it was allowable for a married man to have intercourse with a single woman. Adultery was the sin of "trespassing" on a man's property. Until marriage women were the property of their fathers. After marriage they became the property of their husbands.” So, in this light, adultery is more about property than about sex.
Christian preachers (at least those I listen to) probably know all too well how “impurity, fornication or adultery” have been used in the past to shame their listeners and to attempt to control their sex lives. Preachers these days rarely use these words. They may speak about “broken relationships,” but they steer clear of Paul’s harsh language, leaving us pew sitters to figure out as best we can what to make of these words in scripture. The traditional Christian message has been (and, as most of the sites on Google attest, still is) that any sex, in thought, word, or deed, outside marriage is sinful. Augustine went further, claiming that even within marriage, sex was sinful if not entered into with the intention of procreation. The ideas that fornication might refer to idolatry or that adultery might be about property rights are lost on most Christians. So in order to be a good Christians, acceptable Christians, church people were directed to renounce sex. Thus, they have been asked since the church began to perform this work, this obviously very difficult work, to be good Christians and, it follows, to gain salvation.
Where did this emphasis on sexual renunciation in the church come from? In “The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity” (1988), Peter Brown traces the development of the thinking and practice of men and women in late antiquity, starting with Paul and concluding with Augustine, as they defined and sought sanctity. The result of their frequently very strenuous efforts at ascetic renunciation was that it moved to the center of Christian life early in the church’s history. Brown shows that the church, from its early period right into the Middle Ages, opted to make sex and contact with sex one of the main benchmarks of the hierarchy of the Christian life. Celibacy for men and virginity for women took on great importance.
We church people live with this works righteousness (the idea that our works will save us) even today. Although celibacy and chastity for men have always been important, it is women’s virginity that is emblematic of sexual renunciation. It is only a translator’s slip that has given us Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a virgin. Isaiah 7:14, the passage in the Hebrew Bible that speaks of the mother of a deliverer like Jesus, uses the words, “a young woman” not “virgin.” However “virgin” was the word chosen in the Greek translation, and virginity very early in the church became the ideal state for all. Of course, the cult of virginity brings the concept of purity to its fullest flower (If I may be allowed this sexually fraught metaphor). The Virgin Mary is revered not so much for her role as the mother of Jesus, but as an exemplar of virginity and, thus, purity. In high Mariology, Mary is conceived without sin, leads a sinless (think sexless) life, remains always a virgin, and as befits her special status was assumed into heaven without dying, a feat that not even Jesus could manage. Mary becomes the exemplar of virginity, rather than, as in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the servant of God, who, while noting her lowliness, is quite assertive, presenting a quite liberal, if not socialist, vision of a world where the poor are fed while the rich are pulled from their thrones of privilege. This is not the traditional virgin, meek and mild, but a strong woman with a radical program for social change.
So, I believe, virginity, or, more precisely, what it implies, is the curse of Christianity, making us, as sexual beings, always guilty and never “pure” enough. I think that, rather than being guilty about our sexuality, we should embrace it, and learn how to be responsible sexual people. What’s involved in this, is the subject of an upcoming blog entry.

1 comment:

Franklyn said...

Most interesting and helpful article. Christianity has always used the manipulation of when sex is OK to control its members. Even liberal Christians speak of "sex in a committed relationship". How about consensual sex just to have fun? The obsession of the religious with sex has had the same result as the obsession of some people with food. It has lead to abnormalities in a perfectly natural appetite. It is a distortion of how all living things are hard wired.