October 20, 2017

Natural Law and Sexual Morality

Song of Songs, Weil

Song of Songs, Weil

Any sexual act other than one man and one woman engaging in the type of intercourse inherently capable of procreation is an unnatural sexual act.

• Ronald L. Conte Jr.
“May the Marriage Bed Be Immaculate”

• • •

In light of the Irish vote to legalize same-sex marriage, a decision that has its Catholic leaders pondering what the future might hold, I thought we might discuss a few thoughts about traditional Christian teaching on sexuality, in particular the place of “natural law” in understanding sexual morality.

We traditional Christians tend to think our view of morality is a slam-dunk. That nature itself teaches clearly the purposes and goals for sexual relations, and that God’s revelation in the Bible and the Church’s Word and Spirit-prompted traditions are unequivocally compatible with those natural laws. As Peter Leithart writes at First Things: “Through the creation, human beings know the ordinance of God that there is a ‘natural function’ for sexuality.”

In Humane Vitae (1968), the monumental Catholic document about contemporary sexual morality, the Church teaches that moral sexual acts meet three criteria. They must be:

  • Marital
  • Unitive
  • Procreative

As the Catechism says:

“Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter—appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.”

This makes sense to me. I count myself traditional when it comes to matters of sexual morality.

But I wonder if appealing to natural law is really the best way to make the traditional point. It seems to me that nature teaches us some things fundamental about biology and reproduction. Male and female bodies complement one another. Human beings reproduce by joining them together in sexual intercourse. If we bring our Creator into the discussion, we might say that God designed our bodies this way for this purpose — this biological, procreative purpose.

We also know that the experience of sexual union can provide great pleasure, enhancing the concept of a unitive function for sex. (More on “pleasure” in a moment.)

I’m not convinced that nature teaches us that sex should be marital. Or that “marital” must involve only one man and one woman, joined together for life. It seems to me that we need more information than what we could get from observing the natural world to come up with that.

Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, thinks the Church may have overplayed her hand with its emphasis on natural law teaching, especially in light of the contemporary debate on same-sex unions.

The problem is that, rightly developed, natural-law thinking seems to support rather than reject the morality of homosexual behavior. Consider this line of thought from John Corvino, a philosopher at Wayne State University: “A gay relationship, like a straight relationship, can be a significant avenue of meaning, growth, and fulfillment. It can realize a variety of genuine human goods; it can bear good fruit. . . . [For both straight and gay couples,] sex is a powerful and unique way of building, celebrating, and replenishing intimacy.” The sort of relationship Corvino describes seems clearly one that would contribute to a couple’s fulfillment as human beings — whether the sex involved is hetero- or homosexual. Isn’t this just what it should mean to live in accord with human nature?

Noting that proponents also use natural law to show the immorality of birth control, masturbation and even non-reproductive sexual acts between heterosexuals, Gutting asks two questions:

First, why, even if nonreproductive sex were somehow less “natural” than reproductive, couldn’t it still play a positive role in a humanly fulfilling life of love between two people of the same sex? Second, why must nonreproductive sex be only for the selfish pleasure of each partner, rather than, as Corvino put it, a way of building, celebrating, and replenishing their shared intimacy?

Canto 6 (Song of Songs), Dali

Canto 6 (Song of Songs), Dali

He is making the argument that the unitive and marital functions of sexuality can be fulfilled in relationships and through practices that are not necessarily procreative. The most conservative Catholic teachers disagree, and deny that any sexual act that leads to orgasm apart from intercourse is legitimate, even for heterosexual married couples. Yet we know that married couples continue their sexual relations long past childbearing years when no procreative purpose is in view, and find ways of pleasuring one another apart from intercourse alone. I suspect that those teachers don’t have a full appreciation of the significance of mutual pleasure in the sexual relationship. As a traditionalist, if I were listing the essential elements of a “moral sexual act,” I would add for mutual pleasure to marital, unitive, and procreative.

This “pleasure principle” is where a closer look at nature and human nature in particular might backfire on the traditional view. For example, because of the male anatomy, sexual intercourse is perfectly designed for male pleasure. This is not the case, however, with women. The anatomy of the female orgasm is focused on the clitoris, which is outside the vagina. The vast majority of women do not experience sexual climax through intercourse, but through direct stimulation of this external organ, and it’s entirely possible that those who do have orgasms during coitus have them because they receive indirect stimulation there. In other words, if sex is for mutual pleasure, then nature provided women with the wrong equipment to receive that pleasure through the procreative act alone.

It is not only nature, but the Bible itself that emphasizes the “mutual pleasure” significance of sex. In fact, one entire book of the Bible is devoted to it: The Song of Songs. This inspired, canonical work celebrates the unitive and mutual pleasure facets of love and sexuality with little emphasis on its marital aspects and no emphasis at all on its procreative possibilities. Maybe this book is one way God laughs at our little moral formulae.

Now, none of this is enough to persuade me to be anything other than the conservative person I am when it comes to sex, marriage, and family. And I have no agenda here of trying to persuade anyone else of anything. All this is simply to say that observations like these make me more cautious about thinking any case for a certain form of morality is strictly black and white, especially when based upon so-called “natural law” teaching.

This also makes me want to take much less of an “us vs. them” approach to talking about sexuality. The fact is, people who do not practice traditional morality may find great meaning, satisfaction, and deep bonds of love in their sexual relationships. For me to simply dismiss those people out there in “the world” as enslaved and bound by selfish desires, seeking their own pleasure at the expense of others, is not an honest portrayal of the people I observe every day. Loving my neighbor means I can learn from my neighbor, appreciate my neighbor, and see the image of God in him or her even though we hold different moral views.

I can maintain my moral beliefs and still confess that things can get a bit murky.

There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Four which I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the middle of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maid.

• Proverbs 30:18-19, NASB

 

Comments

  1. dumb ox says:

    Science – the whore of conservatives. It’s hated when it’s not being used as a means to an end.

    • flatrocker says:

      Science – the trophy wife of progressives. She strokes an old man’s desperate clutch for validation.

      Now that we’ve got that out of the way, your point is…?

    • StuartB says:

      I like that quote/sentiment, dumb ox. Seems very true from my experiences.

  2. Appeals to ‘natural law’ can really go awry.

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traumatic_insemination

  3. Robert F says:

    I increasingly have a hard time putting any credence in any sexual morality that attempts to micromanage from outside what happens inside other people’s sexual lives. Such intrusion seems extremely unnatural to me, any way you cut it.

    • Right? I mean, Jesus and all them had some important stuff to say about the topic and all, but I kind of appreciate how general and vague they tended to be. There’s a few things clearly over the line, and the rest is “love your neighbor.” ….just not in that way.

  4. The Finn says:

    > I count myself traditional when it comes to matters of sexual morality.

    Same here

    > I’m not convinced that nature teaches us that sex should be marital.

    Agree. It does not seem nature has much interest in the matter.

    > the Church may have overplayed her hand with its emphasis on natural law teaching

    I agree. Natural Law upon analysis very often looks like “what we thought was ‘normal’ yesterday” more than it appears to be derivative of something from Nature. Nature is massive, you can find all kinds of things within it.

    > All this is simply to say that observations like these make me more cautious
    > about thinking any case for a certain form of morality is strictly black and
    > white, especially when based upon so-called “natural law” teaching.

    +1

    > For me to simply dismiss those people out there in “the world” as enslaved
    > and bound by selfish desires, seeking their own pleasure at the expense of
    > others, is not an honest portrayal of the people I observe every day

    Amen.

    I know some really amazing people ‘of the world’; to accuse them of selfishness in their personal relationship would be unconscionable.

  5. Robert F says:

    “The most conservative Catholic teachers disagree, and deny that any sexual act that leads to orgasm apart from intercourse is illegitimate, even for heterosexual married couples.”

    Shouldn’t that emphasized word be legitimate, CM?

  6. DennisB says:

    Hi iMonk,
    I fully agree that natural law doesn’t reflect the “real deal”. It parallels the fact that by just looking at nature, one doesn’t obtain a complete intuitive knowledge of God either. In both cases you get a partial picture of the desired goal.

    The problem is that the whole cosmos centred around humanity is fallen. Furthermore, mankind never fully became human. Revelation is the only complete way to discover how things are meant to work. So in regards to “normal” behaviour. What is normal ? If everyone is dysfunctional to some degree, why should it be assumed that fornicators, homosexuals or adulterers don’t retain some of the image of God in them ? (Just watch an episode of the “Sopranos”, the mafiosa have feelings too…) What good they do, comes from this. As “every good gift comes from the Father of lights”, whether regenerate or not.

    BTW, what happened to friendship/mateship ? Look at Jonathon & David in the OT (people…please don’t play the gay “innuendo” card on this one). Why do deep, caring, same-sex relationships, have to end in some sort of glorified “horizontal dance” or psycho-sexual foreplay? What is subtracted from a relationship, if no sexual activity is involved ?

    “The fact is, people who do not practice traditional morality may find great meaning, satisfaction, and deep bonds of love in their sexual relationships.”

    Yes, but would those bonds be there without the sex ? What does sex add to these “high ideals, qualities & bonds” that would not be there otherwise ?

    If you’ve ever read the Philokalia, you’ll notice that most of the teachings are centred on “disabling” sinful passions as these hinder ones progress in God. It also shows that many passions are inter-related with one another. Not only that but passions, due to the fall, can get twisted. (On top of this, I wonder if the myriad of thousands of child abuse cases worldwide, has assisted in the exponential increase of homosexuality ?).
    From observations in the Philokalia, I now think that the reason for sexual abstinence outside of marriage is that, as a passion after the fall, sex is inclined to spiral out of control. Outside its context, it has multiple negative effects and inflames lust. This in turn, can have a negative effect on a marriage, for example, where one may struggle to keep faithful or to perform “ones duties” with their spouse.

    IF we can only understand sexual relations via revelation, then I think understanding marriage as a sacrament provides the other reason for sex. It is there to assist in keeping the bond of unity between husband & wife, that is supposed to reflect Christ’s bond with His Church (& that’s a unity no pope or reformation could split !). Taking it out of that context, it is just another twisted passion that leads to all sorts of BS as pleasure becomes the idol.

    Pleasure needs to be kept in context as well, otherwise where do you stop ? Why not go for “open marriages” or bestiality ? (I read about an article of European sex tourism based on it – I kid you not).

    • CM, thanks for a well-written, thoughtful post. I struggle with finding the balance between loving, caring for, and welcoming homosexuals into the body, and declining to perform same-sex unions, based on my own convictions, which are grounded in scripture and church tradition. And I won’t perform a civil wedding ceremony, even for opposite sex couples. I’m not going to rattle off verses that deal with homosexuality, because I think we all know those. For me, it’s the traditional, sacramental nature of marriage that makes it a holy institution…one that governments have no business fiddling with. As far as sexual relation…Paul defined sexual sin as a special type of sin…a sin against God, and against one’s own body; however, he didn’t say that it held a greater weight before God than any other sin. Here’s where I’m struggling recently…If I deny persons with same sex inclinations the sacrament of marriage, what of the sacraments of baptism, and Holy Communion? If I offer the bread and wine of Communion to the local motorcycle club I minister to, whom I know have been involved in the drug and illegal gun trade in the past, and deny it to homosexuals, am I guilty of grading sin according to my own biases? If the forgiveness of sins is truly available in the bread and wine, as I believe it to be, who am I to deny that grace to those who need it? It’s a dilemma for me. Some input from the IM community is more than welcome.

      • Aidan Clevinger says:

        It’s not that same-sex couples are barred from marriage because they’re worse sinners than others. If that were the case, then you’d be right that no one could receive the Sacraments. The problem is that a same-sex couple, by definition, cannot participate in marriage. It’s not as though marriage is a thing which *could* be for anyone, and the Church’s job is to give it to the right people and exclude others. Rather, marriage is something which happens when God’s word is carried out; that is, when a man and a woman commit publicly to live with and be united to one another. It doesn’t matter who’s saying the words or what ceremony is used or how good the people are, two men committing to one another isn’t a marriage. Saying that same-sex marriage is wrong is kind of a misnomer; really, it’s *sex* between two people of the same gender that’s wrong, since there’s no such thing as a same-sex marriage.

        As far as giving Communion to a person who identifies as homosexual, I think it completely depends on the situation. If they identify as gay – by which they mean that they’re attracted romantically and sexually to people of the opposite sex – but have repented of whatever sins they’ve committed and are trying to live a chaste life, then you should absolutely offer them Communion. In that case they’re not different from the repentant members of the biker gang, or indeed from every heterosexual member of the congregation who struggles daily with unchastity. If they identify as gay and are currently in an active sexual relationship, they should be refused Communion, just as any person who is persisting in sin without repentance should be refused Communion. The Eucharist is for penitent sinners, no matter what their sins are; it is not for the unrepentant.

        • StuartB says:

          Rather, marriage is something which happens when God’s word is carried out; that is, when a man and a woman commit publicly to live with and be united to one another.</em?

          Proof? Especially for the former statement, especially for the genders in the latter statement.

    • “Outside its context, it has multiple negative effects and inflames lust.”

      This happens inside its context too. Traditional morality is not a foolproof remedy for lust.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Just ask anyone coming out of Christianese Purity Culture.

      • StuartB says:

        Traditional morality is not a foolproof remedy for lust.

        Nor is it an automatic kickstarter for natural, good lust. Look at the starting to become overwhelming stories of sexual dysfunction young married couples experience when they are expected to just “switch on” during their marriage night.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Lotsa horror stories about this on the Web.
          (Homeschoolers Anonymous and Hester’s Scarlet Letters are good places to start searching.)

          Especially when the groom has been bribed to Save Himself for Marriage with stories of barn-burning, swinging-from-the-chandeliers dynamite Married S*E*X and the bride has been raised on Virgin Unto Death or You’re Used Goods.

          And then she says “I Do” and is now expected to shift immediately from Virgin Unto Death to her hubby’s Personal Porn Star/Inflatable Sex Doll fulfilling ALL his built-up expectations (and acquired paraphiliae) IMMEDIATELY.

          • StuartB says:

            It was an early life changing moment for me when I was 14, 15 years old on a sports trip to a tournament at a Christian college and had to stay with some of the graduating seniors of the school. One guy was getting married in a few weeks post graduation. For a solid hour, all they could talk about was how glorious and lucky this guy was going to be for having sex soon. The groom to be was reveling in it, everyone was egging each other on, dudebro all the way.

            Was eye opening.

          • StuartB says:

            It says a lot that the goal/trophy/highlight of someone’s wedding day is that they get to have sex. And not to be united to a person of equal worth and value for life.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            A long, long time ago I came to the conclusion that “Married” is Christianese for “Getting Laid”.
            Otherwise, all the dynamics of “HE SCORED! HEH-HUH! HEH-HUH! HEH-HUH!” apply.
            Including “You’re not REALLY adult until You Got Some”.

            And as someone who ended up independently internalizing ALL the tropes of Christianese Purity Culture (including massive Virgin/Whore Dichotomy), all I can say is when you can’t find out anything about sex other than “Its SIN SIN SIN until you say ‘I Do’, then anything goes OK”, you WILL get a sex education on your own from “other sources”. And THAT will become your expectations. And paraphilas. And the baggage you WILL bring in.

          • StuartB says:

            “Thank GAWD for my smoking hot wife!! We saved our first kiss for the altar and kept pure, and BOOHOY, GAWD has blessed us every day since then! Yeehaw!!”

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            i.e. “SEE WHAT I’M GETTING THAT YOU CAN’T HAVE! HAW! HAW! HAW!”

  7. Stephen says:

    May I point out that a Church who privileges celibacy just might not be the best source of advice on human sexuality?

    And we should probably note that the Church’s teachings on sexuality are one of the most often cited factors in the rise of the ‘Nones’?

    I was reading an article recently on the so-called “Purity Ball” movement in some Conservative Christian groups where ceremonies are held in which daughters pledge their virginity until marriage to their Fathers. The article pointed out that polls show young girls who pledge their virginity are just as likely to have premarital sex as ones who do not. But there is a striking increase in the likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies among the pledgers because they aren’t taught about contraception!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Purity Balls(TM) and Purity Pledges(TM) are just CREEPY.

      It’s staged as a Prom or Date Night with Bibles. A FATHER-DAUGHTER Prom or Date Night.

      Craster’s Keep, anyone?

  8. Michael Z says:

    As a mathematician, here’s my take on this: the Catholics base their arguments on those three axioms: sex must be marital, sex must be unitive, sex must be procreative. Starting from those axioms, it’s easy to build an iron-clad argument that marriage must be heterosexual, and it’s impossible to argue the opposite. That is, the whole Catholic teaching on sex, marriage, contraception, etc. fits together perfectly and does not contradict itself.

    Take out the third axiom, and as CM shows with the quotations in the original post, you can just as easily build an argument in *support* of gay marriage. That is, if evangelicals want to argue against gay marriage, we need a third axiom of our own. Our previous “third axiom” was that anyone can become straight with enough faith and effort. That axiom has been disproven, and now we’re left without a sufficient logical basis for the moral code we’re trying to enforce.

    So, evangelicals are left grasping for something else to replace that lost third axiom, but everything we try (like the “natural law” argument) turns out not to be sufficient to defend our case. Which either means that there’s a better argument we haven’t thought of yet, or that the Catholics were right all along, or that we simply don’t have any iron-clad reason to argue against gay marriage in the first place.

    • Clayton says:

      Catholics don’t say that marriage must be procreative in the sense that infertile couple don’t have real marriages. Real marriages are oriented towards procreation, or are the same type of marriage that normally results in procreation. This is not a unique idea – it is how civilized societies of any religion has understood marriage up until very recently. Was it Chesterton that wrote something to the effect of, if you keep hitting your head on a beam in the attic, it would be wise to examine what the function of the beam is before you remove it because of the inconvenience.

    • In addition to the self-contained nature of Catholic teaching vis-a-vis the Three Axioms under discussion, the Church has also, largely as a result of the axioms, had the wisdom to carve out a space for the celibate. This often invites criticism (some of it warranted), but it also underscores a serious shortcoming in the typical Evangelical experience.

      Indeed, if heterosexual marriage is supposed to be the default evangelical form of adult life, and a person is gay, then necessarily the gay has to first become straight in order to partake in the institution. As you note, this attitude is slowly being abandoned, but the very idea of the celibate homosexual remains a strange notion to many evangelicals. If evangelicals could simply accept celibacy as a perfectly normal way of life, period, rather than a second-class citizenship, they’d be able to speak more credibly against gay marriage and also invite gays to full participation in the life of their churches alongside other celibates.

      So perhaps your new third axiom should speak to celibacy.

      • StuartB says:

        carve out a space for the celibate.

        They become brewers, that most noble of professions.

        Something else that the Protestants by and large nixed, lol. No wonder Protestant Celibacy is unattainable.

        • Give wine to the celibate, that they may drink and forget their misery. – some where in Proverbs, slightly modified.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      So, evangelicals are left grasping for something else to replace that lost third axiom, but everything we try (like the “natural law” argument) turns out not to be sufficient to defend our case.

      There’s still the Jonathan Edwards/Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God route.

    • Damaris says:

      Your logic is a thing of beauty, Michael Z.

    • Robert F says:

      Michael Z,
      I’m not evangelical, but my impression is that many evangelicals believe in those three axioms. Where they differ with the Roman Catholic Church is that they don’t believe the use of artificial birth control by a married couple is any different from the use of natural family planning terms goals and intentions with regard to procreation. The fact that neither method is 100% effective means that every act of copulation using either ABT or NFP is open in some degree to procreation.

  9. Clay Crouch says:

    CM, would you please explain what you mean by traditional morality?

    • I think the Catholic view expressed here is representative. Sex is for married, heterosexual couples to bind them together in love and to produce children. Marital, unitive, procreative. And, as I said, I would add “for mutual pleasure.”

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        But too much emphasis on the “procreative” leg of the tripod and you get Quiverfull and “Outbreed the Heathen”.

        • Clay Crouch says:

          HUG, remember the take on procreation in the movie K-PAX? Now there’s a theological refection for you!

      • Radagast says:

        And, as I said, I would add “for mutual pleasure.” – doesn’t that fall loosely under unitive?

        • Earlier in the post I mentioned that the pleasure factor enhances unity, but I think it’s more than that, especially when viewed from the standpoint of what nature teaches. By nature, the sex act is pleasurable and since both partners are capable of orgasm, it is apparently designed for mutual pleasure. I think that traditional teaching has understated this for fear that an emphasis on pleasure will undercut moral responsibility. In my view that has had disastrous consequences. Neither nature nor the Bible is shy about the pleasure sex provides. If God made our bodies and the sexual process, he apparently designed them for pleasure as well as procreation, and in the case of females that doesn’t happen usually through intercourse. I thought that these were points worthy of making “mutual pleasure” a separate point.

          • How are you defining natural law? Are you using the laws of nature and natural law as synonyms? From the Catholic perspective they are two different things. Natural law is the general moral sense of right or wrong that comes from reason alone. It is a standard of conduct for humans that can be argued based on reason alone: it has little to do with what we observe animals doing in the wild or what we observe in humans at a biological level.

            As a Catholic, I understand that unitive means that the couple is united emotionally, physically and spiritually and that an important part of physical unity is pleasure.

            • I’m not using it as “laws of nature,” though I think some of our commenters brought in that idea. Here is Gutting’s summary:

              The primary arguments derive from what is known as the “natural-law tradition” of ethical thought, which begins with Plato and Aristotle, continues through Thomas Aquinas and other medieval and modern philosophers, and still flourishes today in the work of thinkers like John Finnis and Robert George. This tradition sees morality as a matter of the moral laws that follow from what fundamentally makes us human: our human nature.

              Our human nature includes the ways our bodies are made. That is why I find the concept of “mutual pleasure” pertinent here, for Catholic teaching essentially leaves out women’s pleasure by failing to understand human anatomy.

          • Robert F says:

            From my perspective as a progressive Christian, I’d say that we are still discovering the content of our human nature, and that many earlier discoveries regarding our human nature need to be modified and/or expanded in light of the new discoveries we are making, and no doubt will make in the future.

  10. DennisB says:

    Hi iMonk,

    “This happens inside its context too. Traditional morality is not a foolproof remedy for lust.”

    Sure, but when dealing with our passions, if they are being “fed” outside their proper context, the struggle becomes harder once they are “in” their proper context. I wonder how many people have truly come to marriage “untainted” by their former lives ? A pretty low percentage I’d guess.

    Also, the marriage relationship itself can become pretty twisted outside the sexual area. This again is due to varying passions (not just lust), in both parties that needs to be healed.

    Dealing with passions is similar to any type of addiction, you need to work on it.

    Cheers

    • StuartB says:

      their proper context

      This is where the discussion needs to be. What is that proper context? Who defines it? According to what rules?

      • Clayton says:

        We’re dealing with issues of 1) morality and 2) law. Religion provides the context when it comes to morality, whether that religion is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, secular humanism, etc. Regarding the legal aspect, when a society has a diverse religious population with no consensus regarding the morality issue, then it seems to me the questions as far as the government is concerned become 1) what interest does the government have in granting legal status to any “romantic” relationship (for lack of a better term) and 2) what kind of romantic relationship best serves said interests?

        • Not forgetting the most important question of all: Do we want the government to have this power?

          • Clayton says:

            Personally, yes, I believe it is good for the government to protect and incentivize gender complementary marriage, because the biological family is the basic unit that civilized society is built on.

          • Clayton, I have to be honest, that answer makes no sense to me whatsoever. Ignoring for a moment your foundational assertion, I just can’t see at all the logical connection here. Perhaps you could explain a bit.

          • Clayton says:

            In other words, yes, I do believe it is good for government to have the power to give legal recognition/protections/incentive to opposite sex marriges because it is only opposite sex marriages that have the potential to produce biological families. The government has an interest in biological families because, historically, that has been the foundation of societies regardless of the religion. I really don’t know why that is difficult to understand. You may disagree, but I think it’s a logical assertion.

  11. Scripture says very little about marriage itself. There are no marriage ceremonies in scripture, and the closest we come to “ceremonies” is Jacob’s first night with Leah (though the actual agreement between Jacob and Laban for Rachel may be the marriage itself) and God’s extension of His garment over nubile, naked Israel in Ezekiel 16. (We have a wedding ceremony in Cana, but aside from lots of wine, no information on the ceremony itself.) What if the first sex act *IS* the act of marriage itself? There are clearly women who are prostitutes — women men can have sex with and not marry (In Genesis, Tamar is not condemned for being a prostitute, and neither is Rahab in Joshua), and there are woman who become wives *BECAUSE* sex happens. (Here is my examination of Ezekiel 16 and God’s marriage to Israel. http://charlesfeatherstone.com/wp/?p=1182)

    • Right. Marriage itself is unbiblical, a man-made construct that likely originated as a property deal. I give you my daughter, you give me something in return, and she will belong to you as a wife. That’s how those primitive contracts worked out. Even today, the state is in the business of marriage because of things like inheritance, property, and taxes. Strictly business, nothing romantic or spiritual about it whatsoever.

      This squares completely with the teaching of Jesus as well. He only refers to the “one flesh union.” That’s it. No white dress, vows, or ceremony. Simply that when a man and woman become one (through a physical act), they ought to stay that way. The idea is that we don’t love, or commit, or both, but rather, the two cannot be separated. Intimacy is a sacred covenant, around which the institution of marriage is rightly built, for the protection of the bond and the good of society.

      In regards to the ceremony in scripture, I’m pretty sure it is reasonably safe to assume that there was at least a celebratory feast held to commemorate the significant milestone in life when a man acquired a wife. This would be where Jesus was at turning water into wine. But what we view as the solmnity of the “I do” rituals was, I believe, in that early culture, accomplished by the consummation.

      • StuartB says:

        Marriage itself is unbiblical, a man-made construct that likely originated as a property deal.

        • StuartB says:

          I know a guy, a Christian, who has been with his girlfriend for close to 40 years. Multiple kids, no infidelity that I know of, just one man committed to a woman and vice versa through all of life.

          There’s no way anyone can tell me they aren’t married and are “living in sin”, whateverTF that means.

          • Damaris says:

            And pretty much all states would recognize that as a common-law marriage, I believe.

          • There’s no way anyone can tell me

            Not if you have your mind made up like that already.

            The truth is, he owes it to her to formalize a commitment. To say “you’re more than just a girlfriend I live with.” He might insist his actions have already demonstrated this. There remains a very simple question then: Why not follow through with it then? If she really is all that to him, what’s he so afraid of? There is no valid reason to not make that a marriage, but I can think of a few bad reasons not to.

          • StuartB says:

            Why does he owe it to her? Does she owe it to him?

          • Yes, but you were speaking of him as your friend, and as a Christian. They certainly owe each other.

            1. Christ commands “let not man separate.” So why, if he claims to be a disciple of Christ, is he afraid to say “I will not separate?”

            2. Refusing to formalize the relationship confesses that the commitment before God and society is not important.

            3. Refusing to formalize the relationship leaves the door open for a more convenient out if things take a downturn. Making it official shows that they are not concerned about that because it isn’t an option on the table.

            4. Too often people postpone marriage for terrible reasons (and I’ve yet to hear a good one). It would “ruin” the relationship. Somebody’s afraid of commitment. One person isn’t entirely sure that’s the best they can do. They don’t believe in the institution of marriage.

            5. Coincidental fidelity is not the teaching of the scripture. Intentional, lifelong fidelity is. The one-flesh-union is expressed, not simply assumed, especially after the fact, as in “Hey, it looks like we may have had a marriage the whole time.” It is not something that happens accidentally or incidentally. It is a commitment of intention. It is saying “this is our God-honoring one flesh union and I will treat it thus.”

            Your turn: Why not? One good reason. For a Christian.

          • Miguel, I know a Christian couple in a similar situation. They refuse to get a state marriage license because the way their state law is written, it gives the state the power of marriage, and they believe that is unchristian. I disagree, but for them it is a good, Christian, reason.

          • You don’t have to formalize with a legal document if you are a conscientious objector. But do formalize it before God and the community. There’s no reason they can’t have some sort of wedding simply to declare their commitment of faithfulness until death before friends and family. In the mean time, self-control a fruit of the Spirit, and this does refer specifically to chastity.

  12. Clayton says:

    To me the big issue – the one that traditionalists actually seem to have a fighting chance at winning the argument – is the idea that if the Supreme Court declares that it is unconstitutional for states to adopt a legal definition of marriage as being a permanent union between a man and a woman, then that paves the way for the destruction of marriage having any legal status at all in our society. It will become unconstitutional for a state government to adopt a definition of marriage that excludes – discriminates against – any particular type of relationship – polyamorous relationships, non-permanent relationships, etc. The concept of marriage goes away and it just becomes contract law.

    • StuartB says:

      The concept of marriage goes away and it just becomes contract law.

      So it’s basically reverting to what it’s always been?

      • Clayton says:

        No, marriage law has its own peculiar set of rules that makes it different from other types of contract law.

      • Clayton says:

        What I am saying is the legal status of “married” as we now know it may very well become extinct if it is decided that it is unconstitutional for states to define marriage in a way that excludes any persons in any particular type of marriage who want to get married. Marriage will become everything and as a result become nothing, at least in terms of the law.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          “And when Everybody is Speshul, THEN NOBODY CAN BE SPESHUL!”
          — Syndrome from The Incredibles

  13. DennisB says:

    Hi Charles,

    That’s a beautiful piece you wrote on Ezekiel 16. I guess the enormous love of God towards Israel / His Church, gives hope to some pretty miserable Christian marriages. God doesn’t give up.

    Cheers

  14. Let’s say I’m an ordinary, christian male. I get married at the age of 28.

    I’m around 14 when I first discover the practice of ‘socking the bishop’ (let the reader understand) and, as an ordinary christian male, continue this practice for around 2 years. But then, through the promptings of the holy spirit, I realise that what I’m doing is sinful, and slowly, gradually, learn to stop.

    I then go 12 years without ever intentionally inducing an orgasm.

    Is this realistic? The culture I grew up in seemed to imply (and sometimes directly stated) that masturbation is a sin. But as far as I can work out, almost no adolescent boy (I can’t speak for girls) manages to completely avoid masturbation. And I’m guessing that guilt that accompanies this ‘failure’ must be quite substantial. Is there a better, more healthy way we can approach this subject (rather than NEVER approaching it) that calls good things good, harmful things harmful (if that’s what they are) and doesn’t lead to an adolescence of guilt, a sense of failure, and a slide towards pornography?

    • Probably, but it most certainly doesn’t start with “since everybody does it anyways…”
      The typical response to guilt is either to self-justify by moral victory, or self-justify by moving the lines so that effort is no longer necessary. These are both wrong, because they are efforts at self-justification that ultimately lead to either despair or pride.

      For the Christian, the only solution is to be justified by Christ. Some people tend to harp on particular sins because they think that people will stop if they feel guilty enough. This is simply untrue, and people who act otherwise border on insane (they keep trying the same thing and getting the same results). The problem is not that those things aren’t necessarily sinful (though in some cases non-sins are certainly made to be), but rather, that the hammer of the law is used without the salve of the gospel.

      Call a thing what it is. It’s ok to hold ourselves as Christians to impeccable, impossible moral standards. Jesus did. We’re going to fail. We’re better off for trying. Our neighbors (the world) is better off when effort is expended at moral advancement. But we must not place our hope in the strength of our efforts. Our hope is that even though on our best day ever we are still poor, wretched, miserable sinners gladly inviting the wrath and rejection of God, and yet despite that, he spilled his blood for our forgiveness, so that we can have the confidence of being in right relationship with him even on our worst days.

      There’s plenty of guilt to go around for every sin and every generation. We need to quit trying to be the solution to our own guilt, because that’s what makes it worse.

      • StuartB says:

        For the Christian, the only solution is to be justified by Christ.

        But that’s just an excuse for your sin. Why don’t you just stop? Just stop. Oh you are forgiven? You still sinned, and you sinned again. Just stop. Quit hitting yourself in the head with a hammer.

        …or so the thinking that drove me to mental anguish and ruined the lives of some of my friends went.

      • StuartB says:

        the hammer of the law is used without the salve of the gospel.

        Gotta stop you sinning at all costs. Be perfect like your Father in heaven is.

        The greatest freedom I found was when I quit feeling bad about my sin and trying to stop sinning because not only does it not matter anymore if/when I sin, but that my sin was forgiven and had already been forgiven. Then, and only then, did sin abate one inch.

        “Well if you sin anyways, that just means you weren’t saved/don’t love Jesus/aren’t spiritual enough.”

        Nope. Shut up. Grace.

        • StuartB says:

          And really, that’s where yesterday’s and today’s post gets sidelined. Because there will ALWAYS be a subset of people whose entire goal is at all costs YOU MUST STOP SINNING. They’ve defined sin, and they will stop you.

          Grace isn’t like that. Law is.

          We get Jesus. We get grace.

        • You are putting grace and law as opposing forces. What you end up with is neither.
          Sin is bad. It is wrong, it is terrible, and our neighbor suffers for it in ways we are too often unaware of. We are so much more sinful than we will ever be aware of.

          So you’re sick of carrying around guilt. Good, but the solution isn’t that guilt is wrong. The solution is learning to bring our guilt to Jesus and receive from him forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is the crux of emotionally healthy Christian spirituality.

          We are still called to hate sin. If we confess that we hate what we do, then like the apostle Paul, we are truly the most miserable among men, except for the hope of Christ.

          Your sin matters. Christ wasn’t blowing hot air when he gave the best moral instruction man has ever known. Indifference is not the answer. The hope of knowing Christ is. Guilty sinners must always be directed to the cross for their forgiveness and relief. That includes all of us. Those who are not troubled by their sin have nothing to gain from Christ. That is why the law is still necessary: It brings us to Christ. Continually, ’cause we tend to drift pretty fast.

          • …and for the record, my sin no longer troubles me nearly as much as it used to. I COMPLETELY sympathize with the relief that comes with getting out from the kind of fundagelical culture that constantly hammers you with the law in order to refine you. It’s what I’ve called the “terminal self improvement program.”

            Some days I wonder if my sin should bother me more. …but every time I do, apparently it is, right? Ultimately, I have much more confidence these days not in my becoming less sinful (most days I despair of that completely!), but rather, in the faithfulness of my savior to freely and fully forgive all. Daily, and richly, my friend.

          • StuartB says:

            I may be, but it’s probably out of a need for there to be a difference between law and grace. 28 plus years, I rarely heard a message about grace. Grace is just that which enables you to perfectly fulfill the law. Horror theology.

            Lots to think about, Miguel, thank you.

          • Burro [Mule] says:

            Seriously, Stuart.

            It does sound like you need to become a Lutheran.

            PS – My confessor doesn’t seem to get tired of hearing me confess the same sins over and over again..

          • StuartB says:

            Oh for sure, I definitely lean Lutheran, even if I’d stay the heck away from the Missouri and Wisconsin varieties.

            Yes, I have never been a part of a congregation where the pastor/priest reminds us daily/weekly that we are in fact saved and forgiven and blessed. It always comes back to an altar call, a try to do harder, a get right with God moment. The table has never been the focus, only exhortation to do more, try harder, let go and let God.

    • Ben, I once heard a pastor tell a teen boy that masturbating wasn’t a sin, but thinking impure thoughts while masturbating was a sin. So think about Mexican food and baseball and other stuff you like while masturbating, but do not think about naked women. Or men. And definitely not anything outside the species.

      • flatrocker says:

        Finally, some advise from someone who’s hand is firmly on the pulse of the….oops, poor choice of wording.
        Never mind.

      • Robert F says:

        The religious teaching I received growing up in the Roman Catholic Church was that nocturnal emissions, even when accompanied by erotic dreams, were not sinful because both the emission and the dreams came from the subconscious, and were not willed by the conscious mind. Sins only occur when something evil is willed by the conscious mind.

        Later as a young man I read Jung’s response to exactly this moral issue, and what he said has stuck with me all my life: “If you are not responsible for what happens in your own subconscious mind, who is?”

        • I do believe Augustine considered those to be sinful. I think he may be right. I’m not loosing any sleep over that sin, but I can’t help but wonder if thought patterns in the daytime have any effect on it. Either way, file it under “things Jesus freely forgives me of anyway” and continue to feast on his body and blood.

      • Pretty sur a taco is outside the specie…

    • Anonymous says:

      I spent several years beating myself up over the masturbation issue, to the point where I was intentionally depriving myself of sleep, sleeping with a cross necklace wrapped around my wrist to keep my hand from wandering, not allowing myself to take communion, and absolutely hating myself. I ended up getting burned out. It was exhausting to maintain that pitch of self-punishment – the self-help books, the guilt, the HOURS AND HOURS spent gritting my teeth thinking DO NOT MASTURBATE, DO NOT MASTURBATE . . . and then dreaming about it and waking up in a panic because I wasn’t sure if I’d actually “done it” or only dreamed it, and whether that made me guilty of mortal sin.

      I don’t know what the right attitude is, but that definitely wasn’t it. It was self-destructive and turned into an obsession, and my relationship with God became entirely centered on whether He would “give me the strength to resist” and how long it had been since my last failure. I couldn’t even confess properly, because I’ve been making attempts to quit for fifteen years or so, and I can’t believe I’ll ever give it up, so how can I say in good faith that I’m going to?

      So far, the only answer that has worked at all for me is to take care of that issue as it arises, efficiently and without dwelling on it afterwards. Then, to focus on God for His own sake (without every prayer and appeal consisting either of “make it stop” or “I’m so weak and disgusting, I hate myself”). Again, I’m not sure that this is the only or best solution, but the legalistic approach is a sure way to mess yourself up.

      Also . . . YES. This is an issue that girls deal with.

      And that is an understatement for the centuries.

      • StuartB says:

        Are you really Augustine? lol

        Talk about someone who thought his way out of his problems…and recreated Christianity while doing it.

      • Robert F says:

        I’ve been there, too. I nearly drove myself crazy trying to satisfy the Confessional demands of Roman Catholic moral theology in this area. It was impossible for me. I thank God for the Reformation, because it set me free of mental tortures of the Confessional.

        • At least the RCC has a position and sticks by it. I grew up Southern Baptist, and when it came to the issue of masturbation, you could ask a dozen different pastors and youth ministers and get a dozen different answers ranging from “it’s no big deal,” to “no truly saved Christian would ever commit a sin that vile” to “excuse me, but we don’t talk about things like that in church.”

  15. DennisB says:

    Adding to what Miguel said, & bypassing the Mexican fiesta 🙂 , there is some good stuff the Philokalia unfolds. It shows that spiritual forces are working behind the scenes in our bad passions. It also directs people to develop an attitude of “mindfulness”, “praying with the heart” & the investment of our time.

    As we put these things into practise, things start to change in our lives. I guess it’s like a car with dodgy steering. If you take your hand off the wheel, it starts to veer again. If you skid or crash, get the car back on the road & start driving again. The “dodgy” steering will be with us the rest of our lives. Jesus is always at the other end calling from the finish line.

  16. Henry Darger says:

    Why does “traditional” Christanity always boil down to its most bigoted aspects? Whatever happened to love, the Golden Rule, etc.? On the subject of sex, the internet atheists are far more sensible and ethically grounded than this retrograde claptrap:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie/2015/05/22/the-church-doesnt-get-to-make-the-rules-about-sex-anymore/

  17. Quoting Shakespeare and Dante:

    Call it not love for love to heaven is fled
    Since sweating lust on earth usurp’d His name.
    Under who simple semblance man hath fed
    upon fresh beauty blotting it with blame,
    which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves
    As caterpillars do the tender leaves.

    Love comforteth like sunshine after rain
    but lust effect is tempest after sun.
    Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain.
    Lust’s winter comes, ere summer half be done.
    Love surfeits not, lust like a glutton dies,
    Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies.

    For as I turned, there greeted mine likewise
    What all behold who contemplate aright,
    That’s Heaven’s revolution through the skies.

    What generation will live t see it all?