I have written a lot recently about my quarrels with religion, especially with regards to sexual ethics. Some of my posts can be a bit bitter or even belligerent. But during this Christmas season I need say, that in the end, despite it all, I still believe in God. If I had to chose, between sensuality and spirituality, I would choose spirituality. However, I do not think God is asking us to make that choice. Rather, I think God asks us to live out a healthy sexuality. What do I mean by a healthy sexuality? I believe the best way to live out our sexual lives is by not going too far in either direction, either the direction of sexual repression or wanton excess. We are sexual creatures, and we are also spiritual creatures. We are made up of both body and soul. This has been a tension throughout my life, as I have said on this blog ad nauseum. And yet I still feel the need to say it.
As far as my internal debates with religion, my struggles are often with the shame, secrets and repression I see in the world of religion, and even the broader world, around me. Religion is often used as an excuse to deny what is a fundamental desire of human nature: being with other people, and the expression of love through a good and healthy sexuality. But again, the word “healthy” is key here. If healthy sexuality means for one person no sex at all, that is fine. There is nothing wrong with that. If healthy sexuality even means celibacy for another person, as a choice, that is fine too. If healthy sexuality means finding out what one’s boundaries and attractions are, that is fine too. To me life is a journey and we are on this path and we often have to feel our way along this path with all the strange twist and turns, unseen ditches and shadowy places. We often stumble, fall and make mistakes along the way. Sexuality can be a messy part of being human and being in human relationships. If we try to ignore or repress that aspect of ourselves, we do so at our own peril. I think idealizing sexual love into theological platitudes can also be as equally dangerous.
You really only figure out where you are on the sexual map through trial and error. Therefore, from a religious perspective, I would not put too much emphasis on the sinfulness of sexuality, especially when we are learning. Can there be a dark and destructive side of sexuality? Of course. We should always be aware of that. But it is usually only through experience that we learn what is good and what is bad about sex. When we begin to figure things out, then yes, we can begin to better understand what is right or wrong, or what is moral or immoral, but we have to learn first before reaching that point. And we learn through our relationships with others. I think it is dangerous to simply adhere to any kind of doctrine without at least first experiencing the realities of human relationships. Doctrine can help to a certain extent by providing some guidelines, but in the end we really need to figure things out for ourselves through trial and error, through actually living life and being with other people. We are flesh and blood beings in need of other flesh and blood beings.
Where does God fit in with all this? Where is God on our journey? I heard today how a terrible fire killed three children on this past Christmas day. The mother survived. When I hear something like this, the first thought that occurs to me is, “If there is a God, how can He let this happen?” For a moment, perhaps even longer, I begin to doubt my faith. “Perhaps there is no God, I ask myself”. But then, despite the horror of such a situation, I tell myself that I still need to believe, for my own sanity. Even more than that, despite the terrors of the world, I still have this deep longing for God. I don’t have the answers to such things in this world as suffering, no one does. All I know is that there is more to the world than what we see and experience around us in a material way. The spiritual is real. I have experienced it as much as I have experienced sexual pleasure or love. When I pray I feel the spiritual reality of the universe most acutely. Prayer for me is a like a wonderful elixir for my mind and soul. In many ways it is better than sex.
There is a prayer that the Orthodox Christians often say. It is called the Jesus prayer. It is prayed by most Orthodox monks throughout the day, constantly, non-stop. But anyone can pray it. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It reminds me that at the end of the day, I am dependent on the greatness and grandeur of God, that I am a mere man, fallible and prone to mistakes and in need of God’s grace and guidance. That how I often feel, despite my quarrels with everything, my questions about sexual ethics in religion, through all the problems of life, I am simply in need of God. I am also reminded how in Christianity, as we are reminded every Christmas, that greatness of God became the weakest of all human forms, an Infant. As it says in John 1:14, Verbum Caro factum est: “The Word became flesh”. That belief gives me hope.
N.B: In the Orthodox and Catholic world, Christmas as a religious feast is a season that last for a few weeks, rather than being a single day holiday as it is today. For instance, in the Catholic liturgy, it is still Christmas. Now would it not be nice if we could all have a holiday that lasts for twelve days? That is one aspect of Medieval Christianity I would not mind reviving!