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The Flourishing of the Body: Religion and Sex Part 1

2010 April 29
by Meg Gatza

On Monday, the Washington Post hosted a live chat and panel discussion about religion and sex.  The questions posed:

Can religion handle sex?

Do your religious beliefs exalt or stigmatize sex (or both)? Is religion a useful tool for helping young people navigate the treacherous world of sex, love and relationships? Does religion present an alternative view of sex and sexual relationships to the culture at large? Should it?

They’re asking about the broader culture of religion and sexuality, and asking if [a] religion can provide a support mechanism and possibly healthy sexuality, particularly among young adults.

I want to think about religion and sexuality in two ways through two posts: the ways in which a religion proscribes the use of sex and sex acts, and the ways in which those restrictions either harm or elevate women.

First of all, I want to take to light one of Sarah M’s comments from my post on Banning Burqas.  No religion is a monolith.  The concept of religion is not a monolith.  We can’t ask a question about or of “religion.”  We also need to recognize that there is not one Christianity, or one Buddhism, or one Hinduism.  Some forms of Christianity are not even recognizable by other forms.  A nondenominational Christian would not know much about anything going on at a Catholic or an Orthodox mass.  The differences are even deeper through forms of Hinduism.

To be fair, each panelist for the WP is talking about their own religion.  From Ramdas Lamb, former Hindu monk, to Donna Freitas, a Roman Catholic with whom I’ve worked on religion and sexuality at Boston University, to Starhawk, a radical feminist and leader in the neo-pagan movement, and Greg Epstein, Humanist chaplain at Harvard University.  (In fact I need to give a lot of credit to Donna regarding this post.  Her classes helped me think more critically about the idea of the body, banality, and women related to religion.  And she introduced me to the work of Grace Jantzen, philosopher of religion, who wrote most notably about the theology of flourishing.)

That all said, I’m going to use “religion” speaking in general terms, knowing my own error, and more specifically about certain religions when necessary. I’m not responding directly to the WP’s question, because I’m not approaching religion and sex from a religious perspective, but rather from a religious studies viewpoint.

Most religions contain an ethical system.  Such a system dictates social and bodily interactions generally, as they relate to the theology and practices of the religion.  For example, Hinduism requires dharma — or responsibilities — to be followed in the way that Rama fulfilled his dharma as prince, king, husband, and warrior in the religious text the Ramayana.  The code for dharma is soundly established through the holy texts and epics as well as in later writings of the gurus and schools of philosophy.  The same stands for other religions as well:  Buddhism takes its ethics not only from the sutras but also from later texts, Judaism from the Torah and rabbinical writings, Christianity from the Bible and the apologetics and other early church fathers, Islam from the Qur’an and the hadith.  I say this for two reasons: the holy texts of a religion provide a grounding for ethics, sexual and behavioral, but are expounded in additional writings and given the opportunity to evolve with culture.  And because different sects of a religion adopt different exegetical texts, not everyone within a religion is going to adopt the same sexual ethical practices.  (Which is why the WP asked people across the religious spectrum to address the issue.)

It’s easy to trace the path of Christianity’s relationship with sex.  The path of many of the early church fathers took the form of asceticism, abstaining from all worldly things from food to sex.  As Christianity developed through the Middle Ages, the monastery or abbey was an acceptable form of escaping from marriage, where monks and nuns stripped away the humanness of the body to attain the spirituality of the mind.  In many forms of Hinduism, the “householder” phase of life is generally accepted as the norm for middle-aged men, but at a later stage many become ascetic renunciants, like Shiva.  Across the board in nearly all cases, the body is renounced to come closer to enlightenment or salvation.  Even the exotic love poetry of Sufism or of mystic Medieval Christianity is chaste, casting spiritual love as physical love.  (This is a long-standing debate in the study of mysticism.  See: Teresa of Avila statue, orgasming as she receives her spiritual vision.  Much commentary on Song of Songs as well.)

I suggest instead of looking at the texts of a religion to look to the ever-changing community of the religion to look at religion’s relationship with sex.  Very little from a 4,000-year-old text can apply directly to a postmodern life.  Of course, we can draw upon certain principals from those texts: for example, we should still honor our mothers and our fathers and shouldn’t steal.  Many of what people thought was immoral millennia ago thought so because they thought the body and everything about it was dirty, and not just the acts.  Even in many forms of Tantra, the sexual acts are ones that are done under strict “supervision” (not in the sense that they are watched, but that they are instructed by) a tantric guru, or a practiced tantric woman (see: June McDaniel “Does Tantric Ritual Empower Women: Renunciation and Domesticity Among Female Bengali Tantrikas” in Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals ed. Tracy Pintchman).

So what of a community support system for sexual ethics in religion?  Lauren Winner suggests a concept of communal sex: of everyone “checking in” on one another within a community, of encouraging support and decision-making.  I don’t know how practical that is, but I like that her idea addresses the community of a religion: people within the religious community are supporting one another when it comes to sexual ethics, not the texts, and not the leaders who may be out of touch with the youth and young adults.  In this manner, one can allow societal influence but also a sort of religious influence.

Does religion have a right to define a young adult’s sexuality?  A right?  Probably not.  But a place? Yes, but only for an already religious individual.  Religions have no place imposing their sexual beliefs on people outside of their religious realm.  I think nearly all of the panelists from WP “On Faith” would agree with me.  Sex can be a very spiritual thing or it can be completely aspiritual.  If it’s spiritual, religion may have a place in it.  But when religion steps in, it must be to do more than say “WAIT until WE say its OK.”  Religion needs to continue to adapt to the sexual needs of its younger members, or it will lose them.

In the next post, I’ll take a closer look at something maybe more important: what a religion’s views on sex have to do with women’s bodies.

One Response
  1. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    May 9, 2010

    Its the same old problem I’ve had with religion all along (speaking as non-practicing Jew and borderline Atheist) is that I cannot stand people imposing their religious/moral beliefs on others. Freedom of religion, freedom of belief–and freedom FROM religion–is what makes this country exceptional. When the Bill of Rights was adopted, we were among the first nations to enumerate such rights to our citizens, and while our country has grown and changed a lot since then, recently we seem to be retrenching and society is again becoming extremely polarized. If you believe in being celibate until marriage, it is your right to do so, but it is not your right to regulate my sex life or what I do with my body. In a time when society, science, and technology has advanced so much, I’m still dumbfounded that people still believe that everyone should live by their particular religious/moral beliefs.

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