A pragmatic Theology of Sex?

Maggi Dawn, a popular blogger in the UK linked to my Episcopalian sex post below, so I've gotten about ten times more hits than my average today. (Thanks Maggi. My secret plan worked Wes.) Which just goes to show you that Christians get all hot and bothered about sex--and especially non-traditional naughty sex!

My working life consists of a half-time youth pastor job at a local church and a half-time program coordination job at an AIDS organization. As you can imagine, sexuality in all of its various forms is a common topic of conversation in my world. As you can imagine as well, in most of those conversations the practical "rubber hits the road" (ha ha double entendre) issues surrounding sexuality tend to carry more weight than my brand of theological mumbo jumbo, or biblical injunctions about what's acceptable. It was from within this context that my original post grew, drawing on a discussion I had with the teenagers in my youth group on Valentine's Day, with the life and death consequences of the sexual act for my friends with AIDS in the back of my mind. Sex can be a sacramental giver of life in the truest sense, as the act which leads to the conception of children, and it can be a hellish--almost comically tragic--taker of life as the act which leads to the contraction of terminal disease. Or, of course, anything in between.

In that context, you might be interested to know that the High Schoolers I presented this idea to originally didn't really care that much about it. Their responses ranged from "Oh that's nice. Can we go now?" to "I still think sex is just something you do". Nothing dramatic. The Junior High kids were totally disinterested, and were more concerned with learning about what masturbation is (and who does it), and answering the basic question "what makes sex bad?". (There are so many directions you could go in answering that one...) The AIDS community? I don't know. My guess is that sex probably loses a significant amount of its luster pretty quickly once it becomes the source of your biggest problems. Does it lose its sense of sacramentality? I don't know.

And that raises a whole lot of concerns for me. I'm a hack theologian really, but I am trying to make sense of the world from a Christian perspective because I care about the impact of our beliefs on reality. I hope you like the idea of sex as sacrament, b/c I think it can provide a nice framework in which to work out a responsible sexual ethic, b/c I think it can be a good bridge between factions in the Anglican Communion, and b/c I think it's more intellectually satisfactory than the adoption of a proof-texted moral condemnation of anything but the sexual practices that were culturally acceptable two thousand years ago. The question always is though, what difference does it make? In what sense does it matter how people view sex?

The connection between belief and action is complex, but its not a directly determinative relationship: there's plenty of evidence to suggest that, for instance, abstinence only programs don't prevent the spread of disease. The belief that premarital or homosexual sex is morally wrong also doesn't generally prevent people from engaging in those activities. (A good book evaluating the statistics is Forbidden Fruit by Mark Regnerus. The fact that the Shakers have pretty much all died out suggests that some beliefs can determine behaviors though.) So this probably isn't an issue of hugely practical importance--at least in the fight against illicit teenage sexual experimentation and the spread of AIDS. People will have sex, just like they'll eat, drink, sleep and breath. The message that the church preaches certainly matters to us pragmatically from a recruiting standpoint: if we make a wrong belief a prerequisite for membership in our community, all of the reflective people will eventually figure it out and leave. Then they also might go and write books about why it's better to be an atheist and turn all of their reflective friends against us as well. I think being right also matters, in general. The Church has always been content to accept a good amount of mystery on some questions, but on issues where we have good physical, social and emotional evidence, we'd better take the time to get it right. Let's do our work and not be blatantly wrong--if only because it's better to not be blatantly wrong. (That motivation is generally what drives me most days).

Ultimately though, I have to think that all of this blustering on about sex is a little bit silly. In my opinion, our ideas about sex matter, for the most part, simply because people care about them. What say you?


maggi said…
"Which just goes to show you that Christians get all hot and bothered about sex--and especially non-traditional naughty sex!"
I hope you weren't referring to me... ;)
Unknown said…
Not at all Maggi.
Anonymous said…
what are the prerequisite conditions in your theology that determine sex to be sacramental? how does it become sacramental? can it be to one, but not to the other individual? is a happy ending required for the sacrament to take hold in the mind?
Unknown said…
Very good question Wes--winding up with a purpose, as usual. Yes, a happy ending is required.

Actually, your question is the same as the question of what the criteria is for the Eucharist, or baptism, or whatever to be sacrament. Not really that easy to answer. My (theological management-speak?) answer is that the act is sacramental (period). The experience of the sacrament may not be universal, but sex is universally sacred in the sense that it has significance beyond the physical act. In a sense what I'm doing is making an observation about the way we experience sex, and interpreting it through an Anglican lens with some basic assumptions about the 'enchanted' nature of reality.
Anonymous said…
And, how does this line of thought add value to every day life, considering that we may believe in a god whether or not one exists? Is it easier or more practical to say that sexuality has a large dynamic range of value, rather than stating that it is mysteriously sacramental? I guess sex as sacrament sounds...more religious. I suppose thats your angle these days. :o)
Unknown said…
Well, I don't think those two ideas are mutually exclusive, or competing. They're making statements about the nature of sex from different angles.

In terms of adding value to daily life, again I'd say that's similar to the value of other religious claims. It's a recognition of a deeper significance in the things that we do. A recognition that nothing is meaninglessness. With or without God, the difference between meaning and meaninglessness is generally a decision about interpretations of experiences. A sacramental worldview is a decision to interpret reality as meaningful. Decide the value of that in whatever way you'd like--it could be a delusion, or it could be an important recognition about the fundamental nature of existence.
Anonymous said…
you're very diplomatic
Unknown said…
I know, I can't help it. Middle-child syndrome.