20 December 2013
Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (16)
You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom
When I was a child, I wasn't allowed to watch much television, virtually none at all on school nights during the school year, and an hour or two in the evenings during holidays—certainly not as much as my friends watched. If the television wasn't already turned on when they arrived home from school, it was turned on almost immediately afterwards. It wasn't that my parents thought television was evil. It was more that they hadn't grown up with it; and when television arrived only the relatively well-off had it. My parents just thought I had more important things to do than sit mindlessly and passively in front of a television set. Consequently, my friends often looked at me like a foreigner because I hadn't seen the programs they had done.
As a result of that early experience I've never really been much of a television viewer. To this day, I really don't watch much television; and if the television is on so is my DVD player. I don’t have cable or dish, and there are only about five broadcast shows I follow with any regularity; and even then, I don't pay much attention, because I'm usually reading, the television serving mostly as background noise.
What always strikes me on the rare occasions when I come across TV shows that I don't follow is the extent to which sexuality has come to dominate the airwaves. No shocker there. Lust has always been popular and found expression in the arts. Promotion of illicit sexuality on television is nothing new, at least not in my experience. I would say the illicit sexuality on television in my youth was tame by comparison with today. For example, I recall an episode of the series, “Hunter”, in which a woman, dealing with the shock of the loss of a loved one, informs Rick Hunter, standing outside the door of his home, that she “needs to be with someone”. They go inside and the door is closed; the viewer, it's assumed, needs no further exposition. Things are a bit different today. Clueless viewers require further exposition.
There were limitations on what is acceptable and what is not. Now, it seems as if the writers of television shows have no idea how to write a story if they cannot parade, glorify and normalize illicit sexuality—and as much of it as possible. Every program seems driven to push the boundary further and further. This trend, not surprisingly, culminated in a series entirely devoted to normalized illicit sexuality: “Sex and the City”. (Movies, of course, were gone long before that, beginning, in my viewing experience, with “Animal House”.)
Of course, sexuality on television and in movies isn't just there. We are not assaulted with mere images of illicit sexuality. In those images, we are also presented with a message of sorts, a set of attitudes regarding sexuality. Illicit sexuality is virtuous, or even morally neutral, except maybe for adultery (depending upon whether the viewer likes the one being cheated on). Being virtuous or neutral, the open display and normalization of illicit sexuality is entirely understandable. People who engage in it are morally outstanding people, who genuinely care about their multiple partners, and are engaging in responsible, mature, adult behavior. To complain, or not be all for it (that is, to be a prude) is a vice. Now-days, chastity, not lust, is the vice. It's unhealthy. At a certain point, we just need to be “taken”.
Naturally, in this day and age, one doesn't have to own a television to get caught up in these messages. Advertising, fashion, music—all of these things conspire together to assault us in just the same way as television and movies. (If not for sexuality, Carl’s, Jr. wouldn’t be able to sell a hamburger.) Wherever our eyes and ears are, there, it seems Lust, like a lion, is lying in wait, its desire, to devour us.
The society in which we live, obviously isn’t bothered by it much, but it is a serious matter for Christians. At times, I think Christians are becoming numb to the sexual illness by which we are surrounded, so numb, in fact, I doubt very many understand the extent to which we are surrounded, or even consider the fact that we are unable to convert the culture because the culture has converted us. Even if we do not—yet—engage in the same activities (except perhaps in our attire), we are being sucked into the current, and opening up ourselves to powerful temptations. We may be subjecting ourselves to far too many harmful images and ideas, all the while insisting either that (a) there is nothing to worry about (and those who insist otherwise are prudes who need to read Song of Solomon) or (b) we can handle it because, after all, we are adults. St Paul, on the other hand, teaches us such enticements are sinful and we should run from them. As he explains, “Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6.18). Not only does it appear many of us are not running away, and, consequently, falling in the face of temptations, but actually embracing these temptations, seeking them out, and yielding to them, committing the same acts as the world, which I mentioned in Part 1.
How does one sin against his own body? Sex intimately engages our bodies and looses our emotions and our minds. Something very powerful is released when two people expose themselves to each other in the way they do in sexual intercourse, risking everything they are. For what purpose do we seek to release that power? Yes, of course, there is pleasure involved, but is that alone the explanation? The required explanation will have to tell us not only why we engage in it, but why it is such a unique sin.
Answering the question, why we seek to release the power of sex, will show us why sexual sin, in which so many proudly participate, is the ultimate transgression, the one St Paul tells us to avoid.
To understand sexual sin, as indeed with most elements of Christian theology, we have to consider the opening chapters of Genesis, where we read that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree from which they were forbidden to eat, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings” (Gen. 3.7).
What was it about this disobedience which made them feel exposed to each other? We should recall that God's purposes in creating was to make us one with him, to have us live in unity with him and each other in the same way as the members of the Holy Trinity live with each other. Union with God, fellowship with Him, is a connective theme in all Christian theology. As John Murray writes, in Redemption Accomplished and Applied:
“[Union with Christ] is an important aspect of the application of redemption and, if we did not take account of it, not only would our presentation of the application of redemption be defective but our view of the Christian life would be gravely distorted. Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ” (161).
All explanations of spiritual matters are grounded in this truth.
Union with God also helps us understand why sexual immorality is the most regrettable sin. It is clear that before they exalted their own wills above God's and attempted to seize control of their lives, Adam and Eve walked with God, living with Him, as we might say, “in the heavenly places” (see Eph. 2.6). God had created them in His image, endowing them with every faculty they required to grow into unity with Him, with each other and even all creation (over which He had given them dominion).
Think about how Adam must have seen Eve when he first laid his eyes upon her. He looks at her and says, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh....” At that moment in history they are living in intimate fellowship with God. That fact has to be taken into account, or we will think Adam is simply emoting, rather than saying something of ontological import. Adam is saying something about the way he truly sees Eve: as an extension (in the best sense) of himself. She is not, like he is, made directly from dust. She is fashioned from one of his ribs. She is something of a clone. And as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, she is truly him—and vice versa.
But since this awareness is possible only in the life of fellowship with God, it also means that something of cosmological import transpires at their rebellion, an insight I believe is lost on us due to the inroads of anti-supernaturalism and anti-mysticism. Their perception of oneness and unity with each other; their perception of being extensions of each other—these were lost in the Fall. And they were lost because they were the result of unity with God. When they broke that fellowship, they lost the source of their intimacy with each other. This is all the more tragic when we contemplate that they must surely have thought all would continue as it had done previously, as if God were incidental to it all. Life, they must have thought, would be the same, but without God as their sovereign. They would be equal to him in power, wisdom, knowledge and glory. They too, in short, would be gods. They may even have thought that by eating the fruit and, as the serpent said, becoming like God, they would thus be brought into more intimate fellowship with God. But one does not become closer to God by disobeying him.
They did not merely feel the loss of communion and intimate fellowship with each other, with God and with creation. One can truly say that they saw it, as well. They knew, or experienced, shame in their nakedness. Previously, as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, when Eve felt Adam's eyes upon her, it was like looking at herself. But now, he looks upon her and instead of seeing himself in her, instead of seeing his bones and his flesh, he sees an object, removed and distant from him, perhaps even a stranger, unknown and unknowable to him, at least not knowable the way she had been previously. Each now feels alone. I doubt we can comprehend all they must have felt at that moment. All they did, physically, was eat a bit of fruit, and the cosmos changed. And the cosmos changed because their relationship to it, through God, had changed.
Sin results in disintegration, as God looses the life-giving and preserving bond between himself and his image-bearers, which further results in a rift between them and the creation over which they have dominion. Life ceases and they begin to die. Again, they surely must have thought life, including the nature of their fellowship together, would continue unchanged, but without the necessity of obedience to God. Oh, he would still be around, of course, but they would be like him. Knowing good and evil, they would be, as St Peter would put it thousands of years later, "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1.4), without having to be in union with God. They could not have been more mistaken. Even the ground, which once brought forth fruit and vegetation without the slightest effort on Adam's part, would produce only "thistles and thorns" without tremendous sweat-producing labor, with no real assurance that even the sweat of his brow would yield anything at all.
And so, after their rebellious act, they begin to die, eventually to return to the dust which God had animated. They had been created for the purpose of being one with God (on His terms), who had filled their beings; but now He has withdrawn from them. Their meaning; their purpose; their source of life--all are gone. All that is left to them for fulfillment, for filling up the emptiness of a space once occupied by God, is a world of objects. Once, Adam looked to God for sustenance; now he must look to plants growing in the ground, waging war against thorn and thistle. Eve once looked to God for the fulfillment of her desires, now she must look to Adam who, though the very source of her being, has become a stranger to her.
Of course, God did not leave them in that condition. Union with God has been maintained, in types and shadows, through covenants. Now there is still the possibility of a fuller expression of union with God, here and now, through Jesus Christ, by the mediating power of the Holy Spirit (see WCF 21). And we should be grateful to Him for that.
For those who choose to live without God, there remains only the cold world of objects, and the attempt to achieve union with those objects through various idolatries. Their only hope of union is a distorted form of what God desires for man. So when such men and women look upon each other, they do not see one with whom they can achieve spiritual union and divine oneness. There is only an object they can use to bring momentary pleasure to the emptiness; or they become and permit themselves to be objects, used to bring momentary pleasure to another. (Recall Fincher's acknowledged objectification of "the beautiful body" before her, which I mentioned in Part 1.)
Sexual immorality is the ultimate perversion of God's intention for man. In the sexual act, two human beings completely expose themselves to each other, body and soul, in an act which is intended to be part of a relation which is a “type” of the relation between Christ and his Church (see Ephesians 5.22-32). In the intended (marital) relationship between a man and a woman, two people travel a “sacred” path toward spiritual growth in the kingdom of God which, through trust, self-denial, and openness, will lead to oneness. Both risk everything they are and have been until their union in marriage, each for the sake of the other; each one sees the needs and the desires of the other as paramount.
Those who commit sexual sins take the same risks; but they do so for their own purposes: personal pleasure and fulfillment of their own intentions, rather than the fulfillment of God's intentions. They turn a potentially unifying (and self-denying) act into self-gratification. (One should admit that this is something most humans do with most things, including professing Christians, mostly as the result of shoddy teaching and preaching, by shoddy teachers and preachers.) People in such relationships, to the extent they have relationships, will talk about their commitment to one another, but until their minds are joined together in the single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God, their commitment can only be to their individual sexual gratification. And when that is over, so is the commitment.
Of course, this happens to Christians as well. We know that God has redeemed us and set us free from self-love. We may acknowledge that we are no longer slaves, relating to other people as to objects. But the allure of sexual sin is so strong because the physical union of bodies is a successful counterfeit of true oneness. It grips and claws at us because it promises to fulfill a very legitimate desire, the desire for union with another. As a union of two bodies, which union in marriage is a type of our union with God, sexual union is an act of worship, but by virtue of taking place outside the bond of matrimony, it is an act of idolatry. In the idolatrous act, the “typical” nature of the marital union is denied and the participants both idolize each other’s bodies (in the truest sense of the term) and in turn present their bodies as objects of worship, used for pleasure, thus sinning against their own bodies.
With the “scene” thus set, we are now prepared to look at solutions suggested by the desert fathers in comparison with Reformation thought.
Desert Theology for Reformed People, Part 15
Desert Theology for Reformed People, Part 15
- James Frank Solís
- Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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