Christian theology is a mishmash of ideas from two thousand years of history. The earliest Christians were Jewish citizens from Roman occupied Judea, a cultural and political backwater in the sprawling, cosmopolitan world of the late Hellenic era. Christianity was absorbed into the Roman world and its earliest centers were places like Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. Christian thinking evolved as it came into contact with the Hellenic world. Saul of Tarsus, later known as Saint Paul, has been described as having one of the most dynamic religious imaginations in history. Hyam Maccoby credits Paul with the “invention” of Christianity.
In the Hellenic world, Christianity absorbed so deeply the ideas of that world that they are largely invisible. Christianity defined itself by two dualisms – the first is the spirit/body dualism, the second male/female dualism, in case accepting that the first item is superior to the second. So deeply embedded in Christian theology are these dualisms that most Christians simply accept the theological outcomes of these dualisms without examining them.
Examining the behavior and policies of Christian churches you can see these dualism as play. The resistance in many denominations to women as priests and pastors can only be realistically defended if you accept that men are spiritually superior to women. Arguments that women “can’t” be priests are simply untrue – the skills and knowledge required to successfully preach and teach don’t require having a penis. Christian hostility toward women is often packaged in pleasant sounding crap – assertions that women have such a special role in rearing children that they shouldn’t work outside the home, think for themselves or generally behave a fully fledged, morally aware adults.
It’s no accident that strongly authoritarian faiths (the Catholic church, Mormonism) resist women in leadership, a resistance ultimately grounded in profound levels of sexism – distrust of and diminishment of women’s abilities and gifts. The teaching in many conservative faiths that men must be the head of household, that women are to support male leadership, to trust male judgement. (I don’t fully grok, but as I undrestand doctrinal Mormonism, any priesthood holder is considered worthy and able to give counsel to people, to make decisions, to lead even those who are older and wiser who do not “hold” the priesthood; there’s a lot that could potentially be unpacked from the language used in this area.)
In the Christian men’s movement, femaleness is openly disdained, a muscular, aggressive Christ embraced – a Christ who is more like Rambo than the Biblical Christ. In this men’s movement, women are treated as distant objects – simultaneously intoxicating and dangerous seducers and virginal vessels of virtue. Female sexuality is almost never regarded as something
At its most toxic, Christianity’s low regard for women approves and validates male sexism and ill-treatment of women, permitting men to see women (in the words of a rap I heard over the weekend) “ain’t nothing fuck holes”. In less toxic, though equally damaging and perhaps more pervasive way, it permits men to treat women with casual disrespect while loudly proclaiming women’s virtue. (I would offer a parallel exists within the gay community – where one confronts regularly a disdain of women alongside an embrace of women – the term fag hag is simultaneously one of affection and hostility, a term that both dismisses and disempowers.)
In Christian theology, women are often associated with the physical, the material realm, with sexuality and its products. The duality of spirit over body teaches that the parts of life associated with the body - with physicality – are treated as unworthy, as inherently filthy. Sexuality has received a full-measure of Christian disdain. The old joke – I’ve learned sex is something dirty and shameful and you should save it for someone you love – so perfectly encapsulates the primary Christian attitude toward sexuality that it barely requires comment.
Scratch the surface of most Christian teaching about sexuality and you come face to face with an ugly, body-hating theology. Take a good look at the most publicly gay-hating, sexophobic Christians and you find someone who spends their weekends in leather, being whipped or whipping their spouse. What’s common in these folks is a deep distrust and disdain for the human body – a terror that the body will overtake our good judgement, that if we enjoy sex, we’ll end up raping trees and sheep and marrying our dogs and selling our children to sex slavers in Baltimore. The Christian dislike of the body has led to extreme distortions of human sexuality. You spend centuries teaching people their bodies are shameful and they take you seriously – and do all sorts of horrific things to avoid shame; you deny the honest truth about sex and sexuality, about gender, and people learn all sorts of toxic and unhealthy things and act on them.
The dizzying number of revelations concerning sexual abuse in the Catholic church and the systemic coverup of that abuse has brought out the usual criticisms of mandatory celibacy for priests, of denying women ordination and so on. This crisis in Catholicism is only the largest and most visible example of Christianity’s deep denial of human sexuality and the realities of the body, of the toxic outcomes of denying the body and sexuality.
Andrew Sullivan has this to say about the Catholic hiearchy:
These men are too objectively disordered to run a church. They bask in self-denial, while they wage a culture war against gay men who have actually dealt with their sexuality, who have owned it, and celebrated it and even found ways to channel it into adult relationships and even civil marriage.
Irealize Sullivan offers a persona insight into the problem of the church’s approach to sexuality – namely that it will attract the most sexually immature persons.
Well: imagine you are a young gay Catholic teen coming into his sexuality and utterly convinced that it’s vile and evil. What do you do? I can tell you from my own experience. You bury it. But of course, you can’t bury it. So you objectify sex; and masturbate. You cannot have sexual or even emotional contact with a teenage girl, because it is simply impossible, and you certainly cannot have sex with another teenage boy or you will burn in hell for ever … so you have sex with images in your own head. Your sex life becomes completely solitary. It can be empowered by pornography or simply teenage imagination. Some shard of beauty, some aspect of sensuality, some vision of desire will keep you sexually energized for days.
I’ve said for years that Andrew Sullivan is one of the best authors out there concerning matters of sexuality. He succinctly captures the experience of the deeply closeted here – its pain, its arid emotional orientation toward the world, it’s dim, painful isolation. In Sullivan’s brief paragraph, I read the description of so many married, gay Mormon men – the one’s who glance yearningly from the baby stroller, who on lunch hours engage in furtive encounters in parks and bathrooms. I have had the good fortune to have had my heart honestly broken, to have fallen in love with the wrong men and to have hopefully learned my lessons.
Now suppose your powers of suppression and attachment to religious authority are also strong – perhaps stronger because you feel so adrift you need something solid to cling onto in your psyche. And you know you cannot marry a woman. But you want to have status and cover as a single man. If this is the 1950s and 1960s, it’s into the Church you go. You think it will cure you. In fact, it only makes you sicker because your denial is buttressed by their collective denial. And the whole thing becomes one big and deepening spiral of lies and corruption.
Sullivan may be addressing the specifics of the Catholic church but he could be and should be addressing all of Christianity. At some level, most of the Christian world is deeply engaged in systemic dishonesty about sexuality, about the body. Christian theology as it is currently configured and accepted by most churches is deeply disturbing, it offers a “cure” to something that is no disease, a cure that only makes the patient more ill day by day.
Christian theology also misses something deep and real; Jesus of Nazareth was a real person with a real body. He ate, sweated, farted, felt horny, probably sex. The “body” of Christ was a literal, human body with all the good and bad that means. Christianity must find a way to reconcile itself with the body – the real human body that is an inescapable part. Frantic and dire efforts to brainwash kids into abstinence, endless recitations of “sex is only allowed in marriage” and bloviating about the imaginary harm of masturbation, non-marital sex, same sex relationships and so on serve to deepen the denial, serve the make worse not better that which is already troubling.
Christians are taught that the Body of Christ is a mythical, mystical thing – it is the community of believers, it is the body mysteriously resurrected. We take the suffering human off the cross as fast as possible in a frantic effort to avoid facing the suffering, broken human who hung there and died. We escape into esoteric myteries and jibber jabber about mystical, unprovable assertions of atonement.
Remove the daffy metaphysics and the Christian story is still provocative and radical.
An itinerant preacher in Roman occupied Judea travels from place to place preaching through parables and stories. He so touches the hearts of his followers that after his death, they continue recounting his parables and stories – they mythologize his actions. Something about this man – this Yeshua of Nazareth – was so authentically human, so profound, that they couldn’t leave him behind, even if it meant they would give up their lives. (Hyam Maccoby argued in his book The MythMaker that Paul, possessed of an inventive religious imagination invented Christianity from the unlikely stories of this wandering rabbi.)
The earliest disciples were a motley assemblage – fisherman, tax collectors, widowed women, prostitutes, even a few Roman centurions and their catamites. Read the Easter stories in the synoptic gospels and confront a tale that is more stark and less comforting that our popular myths would have us believe. The main characters are the dead rabbi and a few of his female followers. The men have scattered. (The S&M fest that was Mel Gibson’s take on the Passion is pure bunk – the twisted and febrile imaginings of a deeply disturbed and body denying faith that glorifies suffering for its own sake, that sees sacrifice not as the ability to give up for the sake of others but purely a test of obedience; in the Gibson version, Jesus’ sacrifice is worthwhile only because it demonstrates his absolute obedience to the iron will of God; his value as a sacrifice is in direct propotion to his suffering.)
The earliest Christians were misfits – people who couldn’t quite fit in society, who could if needed play by the rules but who wanted something better, more fulfilling. John Shelby Spong theorizes that it was Peter who regathered the followers, who was unable to shake his memories of Jesus and who could not simply return to his previous life. I’m not sure it matters which of the disciples did it – but they did come together again and they tried to figure out the core of what made Jesus’ message so powerful and life changing.
For all its virtues, the Hellenic world was in love with myth and added to the very human story of that wandering rabbi layers of myth and deified him. The Jewish preacher – very probably the precocious, beloved illegitimate son of a teenage mother – who was very human, who ate, who drank, who loved his companions and who it seems reasonable to believe loved women heartily if not well, disappeared into stories of a demi-god who was the pure son of god, who was a pure sacrifice because only such a sacrifice is worthy. The classical world settled the argument by proposing that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Modern Christians have, by and large, edited out Jesus’ humanity and exaggerated his divinity.
The outcome has been a profound denial of our own human nature. Whether it has been expressed by fundamentalist Protestants asserting that only heterosexual married sex is valid or the Catholic church insisting that priests must be celibate, the Christian world has fallen into a deep state of denial about the body and the realities of being embodied. A Christianity which embraces and even celebrates humanity could find its way out of the current deepening crisis of sexuality that seems to be consuming much of the Christian world.
Unable to free itself of the complicated dualisms of male over female and spirit over body, the Christian world is in the grip of deepening paroxysms of crisis. It is not accidental that Ted Haggard was preaching against gays while hiring a male prostitute to knock his junk around. It’s not accidental that many of the most outspoken “family values” politiciasn on the right are keeping mistresses and hiring hookers and doing what they say we ought not to be doing. Nor am I surprised by revelations that RNC chair Michael Steele spent two grand on lesbians strippers at a bondage club. In the grip of unhealthy dualisms, these Christians are unable to embrace a healthy sexuality and so they end up expressing their sexuality in unhealthy ways. (I’ve blogged before about my support of decriminalizing sex work – I don’t think the problem is using a sex worker, although that’s certainly an issue, I think the problem is using a sex worker when you claim to be defending family values; yes, it is hypocrisy but it is a deeper problem than mere hypocrisy.)