Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Thought for the week: Sex, sanctity and society

IT seems to me that the Victorians and British society in this country today have one thing in common: an

IT seems to me that the Victorians and British society in this country today have one thing in common: an obsession with Sex. The difference is that the Victorians knew how to handle their obsession.

The modern obsession manifests itself in two different forms: sexual licence and sexual equality. Both raise problems for organized religions. Both are confusing. The taboos on extra-marital copulation and the subjugation of women to men are primaeval reactions, evolving from the primitive need of a man to protect his property, including his family unit, and to ensure the transmission to future generations of his own genes, his immortality. Over the centuries religions built on these taboos. Religions set out doctrines which forbade extra-marital sexual adventures. Religions confirmed the subjection of women to men. Religions fostered fears of eternal damnation for those who broke the rules. The coming of the contraceptive pill and the economic emancipation of women has changed all that. Free from the fear of an inconvenient pregnancy women can offer their bodies to whomsoever they will. Free from pecuniary dependence on men women can fashion their own destinies on level terms with men. Free from moral and legal opprobrium men can sleep with men and women with women.

Modern means of communication have made all things sexual available to all people. For commercial tabloids, seeking profit, sex scandals, thinly disguised as moral crusades, sell. Online pornographic downloads make money. The result seems to be a growing society of young people conversant through television, broadsheets and the internet with detailed sexual practices, straightforward and bizarre, which lead unswervingly to voyages of mutual physical discovery from a discomfortingly early age. The barriers of shame and propriety are down. Where on earth is the Church in all this?

Ask young people today what is wrong with routine sexual encounters, with pre-marital cohabitation, with marriage between two people of the same sex, with contraception, with women acting as priests. Most of them, including many of the church-goers, are quite clear on the answer: nothing! They wonder what all the fuss is about. Yet these are concepts alien to the traditional teaching of the Christian Church — and indeed of other faiths.

Popular morals and philosophies come and go with the spirit of the age. How dreary it must have been to live in the puritanical nation of the 1650s when it was forbidden to celebrate even Christmas with jollity. How frightening to live through the religious persecutions of the 1540s and 1550s. Yet good people, responsible for implementing contemporary creeds, were convinced that they were right and that they were doing the will of God. How valid in a religious setting is the ephemeral popular Zeitgeist? Is the Vox Populi really the Vox Dei? It is the fashion to mock or to criticize, or simply to ignore, Church leaders who preach religious doctrines which seem outdated and not in step with contemporary thinking. So often a doctrine which seems to us in the short term to be ridiculous and outdated is in the long term valid. The eternal truths are, by definition, timeless, to be seen across centuries and generations, even though most of us in our weaknesses are quite incapable of living up to the standards which they set.

The Church can be surprisingly pragmatic in its dealings with the problems of daily life, often offering understanding and flexibility as well as compassion to those who cannot obey, or feel it inappropriate under given circumstances to obey, the fixed rules while still upholding those eternal truths. The time has come though to ask a horrifying heretical question: are the eternal truths really true or, conversely, are the truths taught over centuries really eternal? In short, what is Jesus actually trying to tell us today?

Jesus must be the biggest iconoclast, the biggest social and political nuisance, who ever lived. With Him no civilised convention or comfortable assumption is safe. He is also Love: perfect, eternal, overwhelming and incarnate, beyond man’s understanding. With Him the unthinkable becomes thinkable. Can it be that, notwithstanding the teachings of ages and the messages in Holy Scripture, He is calling us to think afresh? Does God see, for instance, a marriage between two people of the same sex, based on exclusive mutual love and commitment, as something which fulfils His commandment to love one another? Does short-term try-before-you-buy cohabitation provide a Christian common-sense way of testing the compatibility of couples before life-long commitments are made? Is the doctrine that a woman cannot be ordained as a priest theologically sound or is it the product of an early misogynistic hierarchy which denied Mary Magdalene a role as one of Christ’s first disciples? Is in-vitro fertilization, technically unimaginable to previous generations, acceptable to God, never mind whence the sperm comes, because it creates the great gift of Life in contrast to contraception and abortion which deny life? In short, is God calling us to look again at the traditional teachings of His Church?

As must be apparent, I am confused. In my confusion I am not alone. Here indeed is something to think about.

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