Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Ordinariness of Sex

A recent post by Tony Jones (quoting Jamie Wright, who I was delighted to discover through Tony’s blog) has caused me to take a break from my Ordinary Time reflections in order to talk about sex, which in a way is a very ordinary topic (as my dad says, we’re all products of unskilled labor).

Tony wonders if maybe we Christians make too big a deal out of premarital sex. It happens a lot, he says, whether or not we think it should, and we shouldn’t relegate people who have had other sexual partners prior to marriage to the heap of damaged goods. Indeed, I would agree, we do need to think more deeply than we have in the past about redemption and new life and all that comes with following Jesus as new creatures. People shouldn’t have to wear Premarital Sex stickers on their foreheads for the rest of their lives.

Jamie, as she thinks about her sons, advocates for helping young people wait to have sex before marriage. As much as I agree with her, I get the difficulty in this conviction. Cultural pressures aside, we are asking kids to wait a decade or more beyond hitting puberty before they act on one of the most powerful hormonal forces that living creatures can experience.

I’ve also talked to folks who just think the whole conversation is silly. After all, it’s just sex. Big deal. Get over it. It doesn’t matter and people end up doing just fine, assuming they don’t get pregnant or get STDs or whatever. Outside of those common and inconvenient problems (which we now take care of, for the most part, with quick visits to a clinic), it’s just body parts having a good time. Right?

Well, if we say it doesn’t matter, that sex is only a physical release and doesn’t impact us in any other way, that sexuality is incidental to our humanity, then we’d better be right. Especially if we’re in a position to help people figure out how to live well, and if we are considered to be leaders of the Christian type. We’d really better be right.

If not, then we might be committing spiritual malpractice.

There are certain things that are incidental to our humanity, like eye color, physical characteristics, ethnicity, and even race. It’s not that those things are unimportant; it’s that they are not at the heart of who we are as human beings (some would argue against race or ethnicity being incidental, but I would say that both the biblical creation account and evolutionary biology would argue for the emergence of the human race from somewhere in north Africa, making our current racial diversity nothing more than multiple expressions coming from the same family tree).

Gender and sexuality, however, are not incidental to our humanity. They are essential to it. Our maleness and femaleness are not mere social constructs (although our roles often are). To be human as either male or female includes our differing body parts and hormonal chemistries. We can’t extricate our genders from our humanity and still be human. You can lose an appendage or start identifying with a different ethnic group and still retain your humanity, but gender remains essential to being human. And, by association, so does our sexuality.

In the movie Vanilla Sky, a desperate woman (played by Cameron Diaz) tells her cavalier sexual partner (played by Tom Cruise) that, while their ongoing and non-committal sexual relationship means very little to him, it means everything to her. She says,

“When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise.”

I think that’s a profound theological statement. We need to think in new ways about the whole human person, the integration of body, soul, and mind. What we do with our bodies matters, and promises run deeper than mere words. And if a person makes a lot of bodily promises along the way, those promises will be carried into marriage someday (assuming the person actually gets married). That could be a lot of passengers in the marriage bed.

I have a friend who used to tell her young adolescent daughters that faithfulness to their future husbands begins right now. I think she was right about that. Faithfulness doesn’t just magically emerge on someone’s wedding day.

So, there you have it. I’m for people waiting to have sex until they join their lives with a partner in the expectation of lifelong faithfulness (we used to call that “marriage.” Can we still do that?).

On the other hand, we do need to help people who have danced with other partners, so to speak, to find healing and restoration in their lives, and not label another non-preferred violation as the “unforgiveable sin.”

And we’d better stop saying that things like sex don’t matter. Because our bodies do indeed make promises.

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