Sexual Desire versus Sexuality

We may call ourselves and others human, but that is a word that hides more about us than it reveals us to each other.

In the recent dialogue over sexuality, marriage, and homosexuality there was one particular aspect of two presentations that members of the audience found offensive. In different ways the rabbi and the imam appeared to compare human sexual desire with a desire to eat pork. For many at the dialogue it was offensive and degrading to imagine that human sexuality could be paralleled with a taste for swine.

But if the comparison cannot be excused, it should at least be explained. And that explanation is that all three religions have a traditional understanding of humanity that is significantly different from that of most modern, western, people of all religions.

The Jewish (and derivatively Christian) and Muslim myths of human beginnings say that God created the human person by breathing God’s animating spirit into an embodied assembly of desires, or appetites. (As Bill Powers taught us in Old Testament, Adam was created by God to be “a bundle of desires.) These desires include the desire to eat all kinds of foods, the desire to have all kinds of sex, the desire to know all kinds of things, and so on. These desires are located (at least according to Christians) in the “flesh,” which in the myth of Adam and Eve is associated with the earth from which the first bodies were made. These desires are essential to our human nature, but they also are the occasion of our exploitation of each other and nature, and our disobedience to God.

As we heard from Imam Zia, Rabbi Schlesinger, and Pastor Skinner in the tradition of all three religions God’s law is the means by which these desires are tamed and channeled. Guided by revealed law this multitude of primal desires give way to our equally primal desire to be in relationship with God. The spiritual part of the person overcomes the “carnal” or “desire laden” part of each person.

Now beyond this the religions do not agree on either human nature, or the fate of the whole human person after death. But that is for another blog.

The point here is that traditionally all three religions, certainly in their less nuanced theological expressions, make little distinction between these different desires. They are all comparable in being the occasion for exploitation and evil and they are all comparable in their need to be constrained and guided by God’s law.

(I should note that sexual desire is, in all three traditions, more complex because it is located at the nexus of those human relationships fundamental to social life. But that complexity doesn’t make sexual desire different in kind from other desires in the three traditions.)

Thus, to return to the dialogue, all desires are equal both in their danger and their need to be controlled. Hence the comparison of sexual desire with a desire to eat pork.

Now the speakers asserted that different humans have different weakness in terms of those specific desires that need to be tamed by obedience to God’s law. One person may find living in a monogamous heterosexual marriage easy, but find a desire for forbidden foods challenging. Another may find that monogamy is difficult but managing envy is easy. Precisely because all desires are equally a source of rebellion against God, and equally constrained by God’s law all people are equally in danger and equally in need of guidance.

So what is wrong with this apparently fair and equal assessment of human nature?

A lot. In the view of most contemporary people, at least in the West, humans are social animals whose individual needs and wants for human relationships are intrinsic to their unique personalities and thus their unique contribution to humanity as a whole. Society exists to help persons fully realize their individuality while constraining them from harming or exploiting others.

In this view humans are characterized not merely by a set of sexual desires that need to be constrained. Rather they possess a “sexuality” that is essential to their human nature and their individuality. Society isn’t merely a mechanism for constraining sexual desire into a particular kind of relationship. Society should provide the institutional means by which sexuality is fully and healthily cultivated, whether it is heterosexuality or homosexuality.

Thus the key distinction in human nature is not between earthly and spiritual desires, but between just and unjust behavior, with justice being determined by the principles of love, respect, freedom, and etc. And it is adherence to these principles which prevents sexual exploitation (of children for example) rather than the constraints of a divine law.

So again we find a repeated theme in dialogue: the difference between the traditional religious views expressed in our dialogue and those of many contemporary people, including religious people. Thus a discourse that merely appears logical from one perspective is offensive and demeaning from another. Because at the root the traditional religious view of the human person and the modern view of the human person are different.

We may call ourselves and others human, but that is a word that hides more about us than it reveals us to each other.


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