My Christian friend Ray and I have been having an interesting debate on the nature of early Christian attitudes on sexuality and women. I maintain, based upon my reading of Karen Armstrong, largely, that in the area of sexuality the early Christians, especially of the Latin persuasion, were, well, deranged is the word I think I used. I also might have said contemptible. Stuff like that.
Ray bristled a bit, so I thought I would see if I could justify my proposition in this blog post. So here goes.
My first contention would be that early Christians did not need to display a consistently contemptible attitude concerning sexuality and women in order to be considered deranged. It is sufficient if they display misogynistic, bigoted and unbalanced attitudes a sufficiently large percentage of the time. Consider the example of Hitler. No one would seriously maintain that Hitler was not deranged. However, I have read many accounts of folks who interacted with Hitler and found him utterly charming. This included folks who had every reason to hate Hitler, but when they were in his presence, they frequently found him agreeable to be with. Odd, but true.
The fact is: Most of the time Hitler was fine. But not always. A sufficiently large percentage of the time he was a monster.
So it goes with things like sexuality. It is a private matter after all. Much of the time, attitudes which are expressed may be very appropriate. But once in a while, truer colors will emerge. Let’s look at a few of the quotes from the early Christians concerning sexuality.
In fact, let’s start with the New Testament. Here are a few of my favorite verses concerning sexuality:
- Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 1 Corinthians 7:1
- I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. 1 Corinthians 7:8
- …and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake … Matthew 19:12
That last one is really sweet. Origen of Alexandria, an early Christian father, famously castrated himself because he believed that he was guaranteed entrance into the kingdom of heaven if he denied himself sexual temptation. (Apparently, this was a fairly common practice among the early Christians, so much so that the Council of Nicea in 325 declared that a man who had castrated himself was barred from the priesthood.) Later, Origen was a huge influence on Augustine, who was the most important person in Christian theology (especially in the Latin side) concerning sin, sexuality, and women.
OK, then let’s look at Augustine. He actually maintained that one should keep what he called “sexual continence” in marriage. In other words, the marital partners are not supposed to have sex at all, but should deny themselves sex for spiritual purposes. This one I find actually dangerous. I have encountered many relationships in which one or the other of the partners did not wish to have sex with their partner any longer, but still wished to stay married and receive financial support, and such. This sort of theology provides ample religious “cover” for that partner to weasel out of sleeping with their wife or husband. (I have actually been in this position myself, and surprisingly, I was the one denying sex to my partner, not vice versa. More on this later.) For Augustine, though, sexuality was sin, pure and simple. He became celibate the moment he became a Christian.
Tertullian, a bit later than Augustine, said the following concerning sexuality and women:
Do you not realise that Eve is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guilty, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil’s gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you who softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child’s play to you. You deserved death, and it was the son of God who had to die.
That last one is rather depressingly typical, so I will not include too many more. Here is one from St. John Chrystostom:
What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature painted with fair colours!
And then we get to Jerome, whose attitudes on women were so over the top, it is not even necessary to quote him. (Although that can be fun as well.) Some of his attitudes are enough:
- Jerome regarded women who wore cosmetics as “poultices of lust”.
- Women were gateways to the devil, the sting of the scorpion, and the way of evil.
I am not sure if it is necessary to continue, but I will throw in one more from Pope Gregory I:
Sexual pleasure can never be without sin.
And there it is. The identification of sexuality and sexual pleasure, and most especially in early Christianity heterosexual sexuality, as sin. And this is very relevant for me, as I am aggressively and stubbornly heterosexual. (Technically, I believe that I have a new sexual orientation I call a “one woman man”. More on this later.)
I will simply not survive or thrive in a movement which regards heterosexual activity, even in marriage, as sinful. Sorry, guys, not going for that.