Sex, Sin and Salvation

October 7, 2001
JAN VICKERY KNOST
THE FIRST PARISH IN NORWELL


Text: "Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?" Genesis 3:11


The arch-fiend, Osama bin Laden, has taken as his mandate from Allah the wholesale purification of Islam. He has channeled his rage at the occupation of his homeland by men and women from American armed forces. He feels he is justified in seeking to kill as many Americans as possible out of his confused reading of the Koran, the holy book of the Muslim world. His puritanism is aided and abetted by the Taliban government in Afghanistan. They profit from his millions then act as hypocrites by selling opium to other countries outside the land they have "purified". All the while deluding themselves on a massive level into believing they are directed by Allah to do these terrible things.

Such mis-reading of Scriptural teaching is not new in this world. It has been the case for millenia. The early Crusades which brought Knights in shining armor from Great Britain to the Middle East also claimed godly intervention in sending them to kill off the unbeliever so that Christianity would be "purified". Children died in the same way they do today only not by the starvation ravaging the hordes of refugees in Afghanistan, but by the senseless killing that occurred with the Children's Crusade, a wrong-footed program spurred by self-righteous Christian teachers and preachers back in England.

As far as we wish to go back in history we will find examples of the ways in which humans have sought justification for killing other humans for religious purposes. Some of the darkest events of human history have religion, hate, cruelty, torture and genocide inextricably tied to religious reasons.

Where did all this begin?

Actually a lot of it began with one individual. His name was Augustine and he was born in the city of Hippo in northern Africa as Aurelius Augustinius. He lived and was educated in Carthage and became Bishop of Hippo. He died when vandals sacked his city in the year 430 A.D.

Augustine was not born a Christian. He was first a follower of the Gnostic cult called the Manicheans. They believed that everything on the earth was sordid and profane. Only the spiritual was pure. And he was driven by two consuming passions – one was for religion and the other was for sexuality. They conflicted and tormented him for much of his life. You see, before accepting this faith system, our little "Augie" lived quite a different life. He was what many would call a "rounder".

During his younger years he made it a regular habit of visiting the local brothels. He was driven by a tremendous sexual urges. When he finally accepted Christianity the conflict became even more profound. He kept his vow of celibacy until his death but in his Confessions he wrote:

"...But I in my great worthlessness . . . had begged you (God) for chastity, saying: `Grant me chastity and continence . . . but not yet.' For I was afraid that You would hear my prayer too soon, and too soon would heal me from the disease of lust which I wanted satisfied rather than extinguished."

Augustine believed that following his OWN experiences, ALL humans must be driven by sexuality - therefore - they cannot be responsible; cannot govern themselves. Therefore - the church and the state must circumscribe their sexual lives.

We find, too, that up until the time of Bishop Augustine the church had never encountered such a polarizing doctrine. Seeing sexuality as a curse, Augustine reinterpreted the story of the Garden of Eden as Adam's sin due to sexuality. This was not the way MOST Christians read the message of Adam and Eve. They saw the story as symbolizing the importance of human freedom and the power of human choice. They felt that Jesus had said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount by demanding that his followers exercise their will and had to learn to master such emotions as anger and the control of sexual desire.

So for the first 400 years of Christianity, the exercise of one's free will to achieve moral ends was seen as the message of the story of Adam and Eve. Self-mastery was the source of such freedom. This released the early Christian from demonic powers. God created human beings as equal and responsible for their actions. Fortunately, remnants of this same early brand of Christianity survived notwithstanding the efforts of figures such as Augustine. They provided the seeds of modern democracy and freedom.

Bishop John Shelby Spong was our guest here as the Fogg Lecturer last month. Though a liberal Episcopalian, his words that evening found an easy hearing among those of us who were here. As I expected, he was turned his attention to the terrorist attacks, blending his understanding of a God immanent in humanity. Not a God of vengeance as the misguided terrorists would have us believe, but a God of Love whose spirit helps us to rise out of fear and to face our finitude with courage and purpose.

Though he did not go into it, the matter of human sexuality and Biblically-based admonitions have long been of concern to Spong. His book, Living in Sin published in 1989, deals with his rethinking of the whole matter. In perhaps his most popular book to date, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism he writes:

"...To speak of a Father God so enraged by human evil that he requires propitiation for our sins that we cannot pay and thus demands the death of the divine-human son as a guilt offering is a ludicrous idea to our century. . .
To see human life as fallen from a pristine and good creation {as with the Adam and Eve story} necessitating a divine rescue by the God-man is not to understand the most elementary aspect of our evolutionary history. To view human life as depraved or as victimized by original sin is to literalize a pre-modern anthropology and a pre-modern psychology. . ." (P. 234)

Augustine believed that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge their uncontrollable sexual desires were released, thus sexual desire became, for Augustine, the original sin. From then on, all human beings would carry that sin from the moment of conception. As a result, sex was considered too dangerous and uncontrollable for men and women to engage in EXCEPT under very special circumstances. Sex should be allowed ONLY for procreation and NEVER for pleasure – NEVER, not even in marriage. This juncture of sex and sin has influenced human thinking and views of human salvation to this very day. Believe me! We lived in Texas for over 15 years and the airwaves and television offerings were full of it!

Let me go a step further. There was sort of a perverse justification for Augustine's view of original sin. Since all human beings were sinners, therefore when bad things happen, the explanation is very simple. God's justice has been taken out on humans as sinners. People wanted simple answers to their tragedies, even if it meant a heavier burden of guilt upon their shoulders.

To quote Bishop Spong in one of his most recent titles, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, he writes:

"... When we examine the history of the Church, it appears that guilt, not forgiveness, has been the great lever of ecclesiastical control. Guilt has also been the source of so much of the Church's power . . .(p. 17) . . . they . . . ate of the fruit of the off-limits tree. God has been disobeyed. The perfection of creation had been ruined. Human life had fallen into sin. . . . The eyes of Adam and Eve were opened. They saw themselves as individuals separated from God. They felt shame and guilt . . . (p. 86) . . ."

So we really have to go back to Augustine to trace these pessimistic views of sexuality, politics and human nature. They became the dominant influences in western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant.

I hope this helps you to place a "handle" so to speak, on the many confusions that caused the liberal elements in religion to rebel. Let's take another step along history's way. Let's speak of the next giant of early Christian theology - Thomas Aquinas.

He lived from 1225 to 1274. He expanded on Augustine's doctrines with views that still prevail in the Roman Catholic Church. While Augustine emphasized the natural view that sexuality must be engaged in only for producing children, Aquinas took it to another level. He believed that semen was intended by "nature" to produce children and that any other use of it was contrary to nature and therefore, against the will of God. This meant that ANY acts that "impeded the natural propagation of the human species" must be condemned as "unnatural". Masturbation, oral sex, anal sex, homosexual relations and non-procreative heterosexual intercourse all failed to produce progeny. They were "unnatural" - "evil".

Using Aquinas's way of thinking, then, rape became even more acceptable than masturbation or sodomy because rape could cause progeny!

Some objected to the thinking of Augustine and Aquinas. One Bishop Julian argued with Augustine for many years but his words were suppressed. And others spoke out against the tight conservatism of Aquinas but his ideas eventually became Church dogma. The growing sexual and religious intolerance of the 13th and 14th centuries gave weight to the acceptance of his ideas and what followed was the "purification" deemed necessary by sinfulness. And we know that as the Inquisition.

Today these doctrines still have their effect. It is probably one of the reasons Bishop Spong is seen by many as a modern heretic, as evil incarnate, as the anti-Christ.

Today these old doctrines still have their effect. Birth control is still prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church though surveys show that only about 15 per cent of its members follow its guidelines. The other 85 percent either happily, stubbornly or with some manner of guilt, still insist on practicing that same birth control.

Years ago American Catholic Bishops expunged all mention of condoms. The African Bishops at the recent meetings in the Vatican formed a caucus that prevented any mention of their use to assist in preventing the widespread and horrible epidemic of AIDS afflicting millions.

Another theme that Bishop Spong has championed has been the equality of women in religion. His acts have borne out his beliefs in this. Years ago he was the first Episcopal Bishop to ordain women to the priesthood. He writes the following in his book, Born of a Woman:

"...Pope John Paul II ...proclaims `Women will never be priests in the Roman Catholic church because Jesus did not choose any women to be his disciples.' I submit that this is a literal misuse of the Holy Scriptures. ...Perhaps it has not yet occurred to the Bishop of Rome that Jesus did not choose any Polish males to be disciples either, but this did not exclude from the priesthood the Polish boy Karol Jozef Wojtyla who became John Paul II..." (P. 6f)

Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists also come down fairly strictly on the side of the ancients. Sex is only for the married. This in spite of the sordid affairs of the televangelists. The Christian family is ruled by the father and women know their place. Abortion and homosexuality are forbidden. The ideal family is the "Ozzie and Harriet" model of the fifties or the "Life With Father" model of Victorian times.

But the good old days were hardly that: married women were denied equal access to jobs, contraceptive information was legally banned (I know this by experience with the years I spent with the Clergy Consultation Service - and underground advisory group of clergy who arranged safe but illegal abortions outside the Commonwealth of Massachusetts back in the 1970's).

Male dominance was much greater in those "good ol' days". In all walks of life women were viewed as gullible and in need of male protection. Preparation for sex was almost entirely absent and high rates of disease and unwanted pregnancy were rampant for whose who ventured forth into what was called "Satan's Playground".

Behind the pronouncements of Augustine, of Aquinas, of the Catholic Bishops and the fundamentalists, not to mention many Old and New Testament texts is one word - "misogyny" - that is hatred of women or anti-feminism.

Mary Daly, a former Roman Catholic Nun who writes and lectures out of Boston College as well as a number of other world class universities, wrote a book titled Beyond God the Father. In it she said:

"...The history of anti-feminism in the Judeo-Christian heritage (is) well known. I need not allude to the misogynism of the church Fathers – for example, Tertullian who in the 2nd century informed women in general (that) `You are the Devil's gateway'; or Augustine, who opined that women are NOT made in the image of God. I can omit references to Thomas Aquinas and his numerous commentators and disciples who defined women as misbegotten males. I can overlook Martin Luther's remark that God created Adam lord over all living creatures but Eve spoiled it all. I can pass over the fact that (puritan) John Knox composed a `First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.' –We should take just a cursory glance at more recent history. Pope Pius XII more or less summarized official Catholic views on women when he wrote that `the mother who complains because a new child presses against her bosom seeking nourishment at her breast is foolish, ignorant of herself and unhappy.' In the early 1970's the Roman Church launched all-out warfare against the international movement to repeal anti-abortion laws. In 1972, Pope Paul VI assumed his place as champion of `true women's liberation' asserting that this does not lie in `formalistic or materialistic equality with the other sex, but in the recognition of that specific thing in the feminine personality – the vocation of a woman to become a mother.'"

Let me conclude this tennis match we've observed bouncing back and forth from the ancients to the moderns by making a few closing points.

The breakdown of the old caste system where women were socially and politically subjugated seems to be breaking down. Agree with them or not in their political thoughts and actions, you have to say that Corozine Aquino of the Phillipines and Margaret Thatcher have become good examples of women emancipated and effective in the modern day political arena.

Beyond this happy breakdown that finds women heralding equality in all walks of life (with the strong exception of the ways the Taliban imprison women) we find that most Christian churches now celebrate our human sexuality though still within the confines of marriage. Even homosexuality is becoming more acceptable although we found high rates of homophobia evident in the modern-day city of Houston over and over again.

So I would hope for the day to come and in light of the efforts of such modern pioneers as Bishop Spong when theology is a study based upon an individual's reflection of his or her own experiences of the sacred.

I look to a theology that is understandable to all because it discovers the sacred in the her and now and not in some unknown future place in the heavens.

I look for a theology which encompasses all people and is "genderless." A theology that connects the carnal with the sacred and finds the sacred in whatever moves and touches us; in what makes us tremble; in what is immediate rather than remote.

Oh, yes! The Church may still hope that it has a role in shaping this new theology but if you ask me, I think it is going to come from the secular realm. It is going to come from people who refuse to have caste systems standing in their way. It will come from women and men fighting for HUMAN rights stand in the forefront and not shirk such a call to action because of some guilt factor and the fear of God as some celestial "peeping Tom".

Words alone will no longer suffice, my friends. The "word" has to be rediscovered in the flesh of human experience and human interaction for what's right and true.

If Christianity is to survive the future it has leave the antiquated remnants of an earlier faith system as prescribed by Augustine. Original sin has to be considered an interesting and perhaps even quaint corollary of the ancient creation story and nothing more. Original sin ..... has to go. It's as simple as that!

Amen.

(A major source for this sermon in addition to quotations cited as the book An End To Shame by Ira Reiss)