Aphrodiphobia, Part III: Prolegomena to Some Theology About Sexuality

In the original essay that I am reworking in these blogs, at this point I jumped into exegesis of some passages in Genesis and Mark. Here that would be way too abrupt. I need to provide some background on what I will be doing next.

What I have written will surprise many people (at least among those who actually read it), delight some, outrage others, and confuse quite a few. I’m not trying to upset anyone. I hope that all who read my discussion might say, “These are indisputable facts, this is logical reasoning, and these are therefore inescapable conclusions; so let’s revise the map and get on with life.” But I know that only a minority will react that way.

Scott Peck is best known for his The Road Less Traveled, one of the best guidebooks for spiritual discipline of the last century. I used it as a text when teaching a course on adult spiritual development for the University of San Francisco in the 1980s. His next book, Children of the Lie, was even more significant to me. Peck was the Army psychiatrist who chaired the court martial that investigated the My Lai massacre. He faced the problem of evil in that trial. He defined evil as gratuitous malevolence, that is, being willing to harm someone unnecessarily. (But not just humans; the torturing of animals is one of the earliest earmarks of a serial killer.) He argued that, since evil does not exist separately from human volition, it could be considered a mental illness. If so, it could conceivably be cured and extirpated someday. That would be an achievement devoutly to be hoped for.

He begins Children by pointing out that much evil in history has resulted from people’s refusal to revise their maps, the mental maps, not paper ones. A map consists of data selected from a territory that is being mapped. The total amount of data about anything real is virtually infinite. A map cannot include it all. Have you ever heard the saying, “The map is not the territory”? Many people have, but few seem to apply it to themselves.

Evil begins when people think their mental map includes all the important information about what is being mapped. It worsens when people believe their map was hand drawn and signed by God himself, and that it therefore cannot be altered or questioned. When someone brings new information that does not fit anywhere on the map—and the human situation is that there will always be new information—those who believe that revelation has ended with their map will almost always deny that the information could possibly be true and will sometimes—here is where evil manifests—shoot the messenger, hoping that doing so will cause the information to go away. But if the information is true, it will return, just as putting Galileo under house arrest did not cause the Sun to revolve around the Earth.

I am not laboring under the illusion that anything I write could possibly cause the Roman Catholic Church to change any of its doctrines, teachings, rules, or policies in the slightest. Many better people than I have tried to do that in recent years. However, as I mentioned in the previous entry in this series, American Catholics have been thinking for themselves for more than forty years, much to the dismay of the administration in Rome. I am inviting them to think about what I have written. For that matter, if my reasoning is correct, my conclusions will be of some interest to anyone who is willing to entertain the hypothesis that Rabbi Joshua the Nazarene (popularly know as Jesus Christ, of course) was somehow, in some way, something more than just another human being. I’m not asking anyone to immediately assent to all the propositions of the Nicene Creed. I’m suggesting that one undertake an openminded rethinking of just how different he had to be in order for the stories about him to make any sense. On the other hand, if you are not willing to entertain that hypothesis, then you might as well not bother to read the next blog or two.

Before getting on with the theology, I need to make an assumption explicit: I consider the rediscovered writings of the early non-Roman Christians (especially the Gospel of Thomas) to be historically neither more nor less trustworthy than the four gospels included in the “New Testament” collection. Many current scholars, especially members of the Jesus Seminar, make that assumption also. I will explain the case for it in a later essay.

To transition into the theology mode, let me comment on another aspect of the Constitution’s teaching on sexuality. The passage on marriage argues that sex outside of marriage is wrong only because it can and often does damage the ability to form the kind of total commitment to another person that a lifelong marriage depends on. The theology here does not assume that sex is sinful or evil or at all wrong in itself; it is merely a natural appetite. Rather, the argument is simply cautious: it is not prudent to risk spoiling something that can be infinitely precious. That is a rational argument, a far cry from medieval insanity. And why is such total commitment and fidelity important? It’s not an abstract virtue, like duty, honor, country; those are necessary for the survival of society but rarely benefit an individual directly. The document argues (if one understands Catholic theological terminology) that the sexual ecstasy of a totally committed married couple is an order of magnitude beyond what anyone can experience in any other sort of relationship or context. Why?

Here I must offer my own interpretation of what happens; the passage in the Constitution just asserts it, but does not explain it.

A totally healthy and totally committed married couple can be totally open psychically to each other. They have no barriers, no secrets, no reservations. In the instant of mutual orgasm, their minds, souls, spirits, personalities, whatever you label it, may merge into a single person. For that instant they break free from the illusion that we are separate individuals, and they feel the edge of the ecstasy of a full enlightenment. Afterward they know absolutely everything about each other, even more than before, though much of that knowledge cannot be stated verbally.
That merging experience is not a metaphor. I have experienced it. So have a great many other people. Few people talk about that, of course. Other people would think they were nuts, right?

What sort of crackbrained metaphysical hogwash is all that?—you may ask. Actually, I am now fairly sure that it was part of Jesus’s original teachings and has a scriptural basis. That is what we will look at in the next installment.

  • Sophia Catherine

    Interesting. Have you read people like Marcus Bockmuehl on collective memory in early Christianity? I don’t always like his reasoning, but there’s merit to his point on that. The Jesus Seminar have good things to say, but sometimes they discount Jesus’ contemporary society in their rush to prove he was no messiah. Like many other biblical scholars (including non-Christian and non-’confessional’ ones), I think the social-scientific perspective is one of the most important things being researched in biblical studies today. Us Pagans tend to overlook the great work being done on the Bible and early Christianity by atheists and non-religious scholars. Good to see someone lpoking at what they’re doing.

    • aidanakelly

       Not familiar with Bockmuehl; thank you. I’ll look him up. I don’t think any of the Jesus Seminar members I’ve known have been trying to prove that Jesus was not the Messiah, because that is a nondisprovable proposition. They are simply saying that it is a religious doctrine, not a historic fact. I agree with you about the importance of the social-science approach. I got my doctorate over 30 years ago, so I am not au courant with recent research, but stopping in on the Jesus Seminar website does help me know a little about what’s going on.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    Aidan, I am attempting to follow your logic here. It’s my contention that you have seriously misrepresented Catholic teaching in this series, and I’m not particularly sure what your intention is in doing so, but I’ll leave that aside for now until I see how more of the series plays out. I really just want to ask if I’m correct in interpreting what you’ve written here as equating traditions (specifically Catholicism, but also other traditions with a belief in divinely revealed truth) that teach an unchanging central doctrinal core, what Christian Scriptures refer to as “the rich deposit of faith” with evil. That seems quite a sweeping dismissal of religious traditions in general. Is that a tenet of Paganism? Or is what you are saying that Paganism has no tenets, and is therefore inherently “better” (purer, less susceptible to the corruptions of power that can come with being doctrinaire)? Classical Paganism, at least in its Greek and Roman imperial forms, could be quite as doctrinaire as any inquisitor, as no small number of Christian martyrs (Pagan heretics, in other words) might attest.

    I guess I’m wondering where you’d like to see us be when the scales fall from our eyes and we drop the old maps. I’m neither delighted nor outraged, neither confused nor upset. Just wondering. Thanks.

    • http://wp.wiccanweb.ca/ Makarios

      “I really just want to ask if I’m correct in interpreting what you’ve written here as equating traditions. . .that teach an unchanging central doctrinal core, what Christian Scriptures refer to as “the rich deposit of faith” with evil.”

      As far as I can discern from reading this post in context, that is not what Aidan said, nor is it what he intended to say. If Catholics (or anyone else) believe that they possess the objective, absolute truth about the unknowable (and, indeed, the only objective, absolute truth about the unknowable), that’s fine. We live in a pluralistic society, and people are free to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster if this suits them.

      Where evil comes in is when the true believers wilfully blind themselves to empirical evidence that contradicts their supposed absolute truths (e.g. young-earth creationists). It becomes worse when these true believers attempt to enforce upon others an acceptance of (or at least verbal assent to) the truths for which they have no evidence, and for which there can be no evidence (e.g as the Catholic Church did with the Cathars). It becomes worse still when they attempt to enforce their supposed truths on everyone else in the face of contradictory evidence (e.g. the Galileo incident as cited, or creationists who want to have their nonsense taught as science in public schools).

      • aidanakelly

         Thank you, Makarios, you have indeed paid attention to what I mean. The current example of Catholics pursuing evil policies is the attempt by reactionary Catholics to impose their beliefs about birth control on everyone else. They simply do not get that one goal of our American /Enlightenment revolution was to prevent religious fanatics of any sort from doing that. The First Amendment guarantees the “free exercise” of religion–but only if that does not detract from other people’s religious freedom.

        The current situation is morally no different than if Jews tried to pass laws and picket meat counters in order to prevent everyone else from eating pork. But obviously Jews have more sense about such matters than many Catholics do. It’s not obvious that the Catholics who are trying to abolish acces to birth control are a shrill minority, since it is an established fact that 98% of Catholic women in America have used or are using artificial birth control. The Pope is all bark and no bite–and a lot of people died in the 18th century in order to take that bite away from him.

    • aidanakelly

       Hi, Joannr,

      Okay, point by point (sort of),

      “you have seriously misrepresented Catholic teaching”

      Well, I’m trying to distinguish such teaching from what I think Jesus originally taught, but I haven’t gotten to explaining that yet. I’m about to start.

      Am I equating “the rich deposit of faith” with evil? No, I’m equating the misinterpretation of that deposit, plus all the layers of stuff that people “think is in the Bible when it isn’t”, plus its use for political domination, with evil, in line with Pech’s definition if evil as the willingness to harm people unnecessarily.

      “Is that a tenet of Paganism? ”

      No, it’s what I’ve worked on figuring out over the last 55 years. I don’t care whether anyone one else agrees with me or not. Trying to gain agreement, as if that were the sine qua non for truth, easily destroys a search for truth. I haven’t found all the truth, and I know that neither has anyone else, but I’m still working on it. Perhaps that’s a Pagan attitude.

      Also. modern Pagans have almost nothing in common with ancient Pagans. Reconstructionism is Romanticism. As the brilliant linguist Jim Duran once said to me, “Our Celtic forebears were headhunters.”

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Prof. Duran is indeed quite brilliant, and nice on top of that (which always helps!).

        I do have to disagree with what you’ve said here, though, about “Reconstructionism is Romanticism.”  Yes, there’s an awful lot of self-identified recons who are pretty much re-enactors, or would prefer to be re-enactors and pedants rather than people engaging with the gods.  But, reconstructionism is designed to be a methodology via which one can look at things of the past, assess them, and then adapt them to our very different modern context.  There’s a growing  number of recons who understand this (and have always understood it, some of them for more than 20 years within working with this particular methodology), and are not really appreciative of the recons who don’t seem to understand this, nor the wider number of pagans who equate reconstructionism with the people who are not the best examples of it.

        • aidanakelly

           Hi, PSVL,

          Yeah, that was too broad a generalization. I know most Reconstructionists of many varieties are very well-informed about the religions they are trying to reconstruct. However, nevertheless, there is always an element of creating a current religion that is modeled on what that older religion could have been at its best, a best it might never have achieved; so that does amount to Romantisizing it to some extent. But that’s actually fine with me. Why reconstruct the stuff you would have hated then or now? The point is always to come up with a religious praxis that meets people’s needs now, not to preserve   every bit of data from the past.

  • David Burwasser

    So “lusting in one’s heart” after a non-spouse might comprise a breach of that ecstatic marital unity and thus be deemed already adulterous? I’ve never seen anything before that makes sense of that line.