(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
How does one talk about sex in church? If the past is any guide, you don’t. How do the major world religions address the same topic? Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism generally define it as an activity that is only redeemed because of its reproductive usefulness.
The predominant message religions promote about sex is that it should be joyless, limited, controlled by men, and acceptable only between a husband and his wife. Women, when religious scriptures were written thousands of years ago, were considered property and less than men. They could only have one husband, while men could have many wives. Women were to be virgins before marriage, and if they were not, no decent man should marry them. Virginity was NOT required of men before they married. A female’s destiny was determined by her father, and later by her husband – but never on her terms. She could not own property. She could not testify in an any legal case. She had a status less than that of male servants. If she was raped, she was forced to marry her rapist. If she committed adultery, she alone would be punished – usually by stoning to death. Her partner was usually not punished.
Jews, Christians and Muslims believed – and many still do – that women are like the fictional Eve – gullible, prone to sin, and good only for bearing children and tending a home. Women, having inherited the sinfulness of Eve, supposedly deceive and incite men with sex – and so they must be hidden away not for their protection, but to prevent men from sinning.
A book entitled Sex at Dawn was published a few years ago that focuses on the evolution of human sexuality. During pre-historic times, when humans assembled in small hunter-gatherer groups, the book says people were likely very open and free about sexuality. Using observations from hunter-gatherer tribes that still exist and from bonobo primates, who are considered the closest human relatives, the book’s authors claim the pre-historic clans were very communal in all they did. The focus was on group well-being – and not on families. Men and women freely mated with all members of the group. Since fatherhood of a child could not be definitively determined, children belonged to the group as a whole. They were provided for and raised by all. This attitude toward sex and procreation mostly eliminated competition for mates, it kept peace within the tribe, and importantly reduced stress amongst its members.
Once humans evolved to agrarian based societies, however, people became more concerned about property rights and knowing exactly who were their offspring. It became essential that men knew exactly who their children were so they could insure the continuity of their property through inheritance. Men could be as promiscuous as they wished, but women who bore children were severely controlled. And that led religions and cultures to initiate their sexual rules.
Sadly, such moralistic and misogynist attitudes about sexuality still survive today. Human sexuality today is mostly not talked about in polite company, and it is still too often male dominant. When it is talked about or depicted, it’s often done in ways that hide it, make it seem shameful, or worst of all, in ways that focus on it as arousing. As puritanical as the culture can often still be, pornography is nevertheless a multi-billion dollar business, and illegal sex slavery is still a scourge. Theses dysfunctions point to a disconnect in society about sex – that it is dirty, shameful, and should be kept hidden.
Widespread sexual harassment, violence, and abuse of women results, I believe, from those attitudes of control and shame. Some men in our culture still think they can regulate female sexuality and reproductive rights. It’s historically been OK for men to use and abuse women as they wish – some women for sexual enjoyment, other women for marriage and bearing children. That approach boils down to patriarchy and the desire of some men to insure they know their offspring who will inherit their property. Overall, many people today are either embarrassed by the subject of physical intimacy, or have they have dysfunctional thoughts about it.
What is troubling is that it is relatively rare in our culture for there to be open, honest, and unashamed discussions, or depictions, of consensual and equal human sexuality – in ways that describe it as spiritual, beautiful, tender, joyful, healthy, life enhancing, and fun. Unitarian Universalism is one of the few organizations that promotes and teaches responsible and unashamed human sexuality through its Our Whole Lives – or OWL – programs. GNH, along with First UU and St. John’s UU, collaborate in teaching the program to our teenagers. But OWL has age appropriate curriculum for everyone – from kindergarten aged children up to senior adults. And the emphasis of each is on healthy sexuality that understands it is a fun and good part of life.
UU’s have also been at the vanguard of progressive views on sexuality by being one of the earliest denominations in the world to ordain both women AND lesbian and gay clergy. The other was the Metropolitan Community Church denomination which is comprised of mostly LGBTQ members. UU’s, along with MCC churches, were also the first to sanctify and bless same-sex marriages – in 1984 which was almost thirty years before that became legal. The UUA also recognizes the Unitarian Universalist Polyamory Awareness organization. Its mission is to educate and encourage awareness of the philosophy and practice of loving or relating intimately to more than one other person at a time – with honesty and integrity.
While any belief or practice supported by the national UUA does not mean each Unitarian Universalist must believe the same, it does emphasize the UU approach to spirituality. We support all paths to finding Truth – as long each path does no harm and is consistent with how one wishes to be treated him or herself. In that regard, open, joyful, responsible, guilt-free, and consensual sexuality that does no harm, no matter its form of expression, is good, moral and right.
And that is why I’ve included romance and physical intimacy in my three part message series this month on the theme, “Are We Having Fun Yet?” Life is full of challenges and can be quite stressful. Stress takes a profound toll on our bodies and our minds. But the antidote to it, experts say, is laughter, play, joyful goofing off, and, as I will assert today, responsible and consensual physical intimacy that is open and joyful.
The irony behind the moralistic and paternalistic approach many world religions have adopted toward sex, is that three of them, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, teach an open and unashamed attitude toward it in their scriptures. Found in both Jewish wisdom literature and in the Christian Bible is the poetry piece entitled “Song of Solomon.” Found within the Upanishads, the Hindu scriptures, is a piece entitled Kama Sutra – which as many of us know is a frank but joyous teaching on sex. Both Song of Solomon and the Kama Sutra were written over two-thousand years ago by spiritually minded people who well understood the life giving joy and wonder of sex.
The Song of Solomon is a poem describing the thoughts and words of a young man and young woman in love. Overall, it is poetry about lovemaking and the yearning, seeking and finding of pleasure between two people. It was literally thousands of years ahead of its time with regard to sex – and yet ancient rabbis and Christian theologians believed it worthy and valuable enough to include in their scriptures.
The piece was also ahead of its time in the equal way the young woman relates and speaks to both her lover and to the reader. She was both the pursued AND the pursuer. This was at a time when women were to be silent, passive and definitely not the initiator of romance. Even more, the young lady was a woman of color – the poem says this – and she was in love and in lust with a lover who was white. Finally, Song of Solomon was ahead of its time in championing the playful aspects of sex – apart from its reproductive function. The lovers were unmarried and yet they engaged in joyous intimacy. “Eat, friends, drink; and be drunk with love” is what the male lover tells the reader. In other words, the poem says that physical intimacy is fun, beautiful, and is representative of the spiritual forces that created everything.
Here are some verses in the Song of Solomon that the young woman says about the young man,
While my lover was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance. My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.
As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sit in his shadow, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. I will climb the palm tree, I will take hold of its fruit. My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.
And here is what he said about her:
I rose up to my beloved and my hands dripped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of her lock. O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks for wine. May your breasts be for me like clusters of the vine, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly.
I don’t know about you, but I feel like I need a cold shower after reading such verses! And they are, ironically enough, found in the Bible. What they indicate is that ancient religious people, despite some of their moralizing and misogyny about sex, were aware enough to understand the goodness and playfulness of it. Even more, they recognized what my message today speaks to. If we are to include more fun and laughter in our lives – in order to reduce stress and improve our physical and mental health – then a part of what we include should be more romance and intimacy.
Another ancient religious scripture agrees. The Kama Sutra is one book among many books in the Hindu Upanishad scriptures. Kama, in Hinduism, is one of four primary Hindu beliefs about humanity. Kama focuses on pleasure, desire, and love. Kama, for Hindus, exemplifies what love should be for humanity – an expression that incorporates the physical, emotional and spiritual sides of life. Kama, however, must never violate moral responsibility to others.
Sutra simply means instruction and so the Kama Sutra book is an instruction manual for relationships and intimacy. It is quite open with its descriptions of different ways to make love, its recognition that people might have multiple physical relationships, and its teachings on how to be giving and tender. Sex ultimately is, the book says, about mutual giving and receiving.
If the Kama Sutra has one drawback, it is its male centric approach. Men are the leaders in all things romantic and, while they are to be loving and good to their female partners, women are clearly not in control.
Even more than Song of Solomon, however, the Kama Sutra blesses human sexuality. There is no guilt, shame or sinfulness attached to its responsible expression to a willing partner. More importantly, the Kama Sutra recognizes that physical intimacy is a gift from the gods – something to be honored and not abused.
I have to admit to a reluctance to speak on this topic. Like many Ministers, I sometimes think the subject of sex is not one for Sunday mornings – unless it is to repent for what one did the night before! But my hangups are not healthy, nor are they so for anyone else. I fundamentally believe that our culture needs to grow out of its immature approach to sex. Many people want to know all there is about it, but they don’t want to admit it or talk about it. And that mindset leads, as I said, to dysfunction and harm.
Jesus told his followers, “Truth will set you free” – and that is so for a knowledge and understanding about physical intimacy. People both young and old need to know the truth about sex: that when practiced in healthy and affirming ways, it is good, moral, and for our benefit. It is clearly a yearning knit into human DNA that makes its pleasure something difficult to resist. Whatever it is that created us, it made us sexual beings and that is both to insure our species survives, and also to enhance our enjoyment of life. Without its fun, playfulness, tenderness, equality, and pleasure, our lives would be much diminished. If we are to enthusiastically answer “Yes!” to the question, “Are We Having Fun Yet,” we should resolve to honor, respect and enjoy all things romantic and intimate.
I wish you each much peace and joy!