Origen of Love

Or, "Why Do Christians Hate Sex?" (part 2)

There's a lovely song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch called "Origin of Love." It's a retelling of the Platonic myth of the genesis of human sexuality. That myth tells of a time when mortals were once whole creatures until the gods cut us in half and we became what we are now, divided selves striving to be made whole.

It's a beautiful story, a beautiful expression of longing and desire and love. It's an ancient story, but you can hear its echoes today when, for instance, Jerry Maguire whispers "You complete me" (and you realize that, yet again, Cameron Crowe has made a chick-flick for guys).

But Plato's story can also be, depending on how much Neoplatonism one swallows with it, a pernicious bit of hokum. The problem with it is that it designates human sexuality as a consequence of a fall, or of the Fall. It suggests that human sexuality is evidence that the world is not how it ought to be.

Origen bought into this idea of human sexuality and that didn't end well.

Poor Origen was probably the greatest theologian of the early centuries of the Christian church. Then he kinda sorta went nuts. His problem was that he had a physical body, which his Neoplatonic idealism told him must be bad. His body was also, as bodies tend to be, equipped with genitalia, and he figured that was really bad. Mix in a zealously literal reading of Matthew 5:29-30 and, like I said, that didn't end well.

St. Augustine came to Christianity carrying the same Neoplatonic baggage that had led to Origen's troubles. On his good days, he knew better, but on his bad days he couldn't seem to help reading St. Paul through the eyes of Plotinus. And since Augustine is the inescapable, insurmountable, Most Important Christian Theologian Ever, he managed to imprint a good bit of this Neoplatonism on the church he helped to shape.

That hasn't ended well either.

People come with physical bodies and those physical bodies come with genitalia and it's neither helpful nor healthy to start thinking that these things are, in and of themselves, evil.

I studied in college under a modern day Origen, a Yeats scholar who was a brilliant poet and interpreter of poetry. He kinda sorta went nuts too, although he never quite took matters into his own hands the way Origen did. He slowly, then less slowly, withdrew from the physical world. Clinically, I suppose, it was a form of OCD — the obsessive handwashing and the can-a-day Lysol habit — but I've always suspected the real problem was he was climbing Yeats' Neoplatonic tower and Crazy Jane couldn't talk him down.

All of which is one reason why, I suspect, so many Christians nowadays are so obsessed with — and so negative about — sex.

It might seem a bit unfair to blame Plotinus, who died in 270, for things like the recent enthusiasm for abstinence-only sex education. Particularly since most of the puckered proponents of abstinence have never heard of him. They may have never heard of Plotinus, or of Augustine for that matter, but that doesn't mean they haven't inherited the influence of his ideas.

I think it would be difficult to underestimate the influence such thinking has had, and continues to have, on Christian thinking about the physical world in general and sex in particular. I've been trying to avoid too bookish a tone here, but I feel a big quotation coming on. Here's Reinhold Niebuhr in The Nature and Destiny of Man:

One must not claim that Christian thought and life have consistently preserved the biblical insights on the basic character and the essential goodness of the finiteness, dependence and insufficiency of the self. On the contrary Christianity from the very beginning incorporated some of the errors of idealism and mysticism, including their mistaken estimates of the human situation, into its own thought; and has never completely expelled them. The greatest of the early Christian theologians, who dominated the centuries before Augustine, Origen, combined Platonism with Christianity by interpreting the myth of the Fall as pointing to a pre-existent defection of man from God, the punishment for which was his involvement in mutability and finiteness. For him therefore sex, as the consequence of this mutability, was the particular symbol of sin.

Sex as "the particular symbol of sin." That's not a conclusion you would reach sola scriptura, but scripture + Plotinus will get you there.

Augustine is, as I said, inescapable. His influence still is such that on nearly any topic, Christian theologians even today can either agree with him or disagree, but you can't easily ignore him. And contemporary theologians ought to disagree with Augustine, emphatically, wherever his never-fully exorcised Neoplatonism leads him to suggest that the physical world, our bodies or our sexuality are, in and of themselves, evil.

That influence needs to be cut out and cut off. Otherwise you can end up, like Origen, cutting something else off.

  • Erick Oppeen

    [ignorance] Wasn’t there a thing somewhere in the NT about “some men are born eunuchs and some make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake?[/ignorance]
    A lot of the NT and the (alleged) sayings of Jesus make more sense when you realize that they honestly thought that the World Would End Ve-ry Soon. When you’re dodging the beasties from Revelation, you don’t want to be trying to keep a child alive, too.

  • HLC

    It wasn’t until recently that people started to believe that there was such a thing as a female orgasm
    Relying entirely on reading from the context of that remark as originally posted upthread, and on somewhat more than fifty years experience living in a female body — which spent a fair amount of time back in the Seventies eyeballing the works of Dr. Alex Comfort, Our Bodies Our Selves, The Sensuous Woman and other books an average college-age young woman might read to learn more about her body and her sexual responses, — I’d guess that the original poster is slightly confused: it’s not until recently that one started to hear that there was such a thing as female ejaculation.
    The only questions about female orgasm that I’d ever heard of as a young woman were the arguments about vaginal vs. clitoral. But I never heard of any questioning the fact that women did experience some form of sexual climax.

  • Erick Oppeen

    I have read more than enough Victorian- and Edwardian-era porn to know that the knowledge that women have orgasms (although they called it “spending”) was quite widespread even in Them There Days.
    And a lot of the people who are routinely quoted on “Victorians and their weird ideas about s-x” were considered Way, Way Out There in their own time.
    –Erick, token historian

  • rashomon

    Yes, My paragraph on views on female sexuality is simplified…its a paragraph. A more complete but still oversimplified history comes from the web:
    # Long ago, in the 4th century B.C., the great Hippocrates believed that the fetus was a result of female pleasure. Therefore, in order to procreate a woman must always be kept sexually satisfied.
    # In the same century however, the nemesis of the female orgasm, Aristotle, disagreed with Hippocrates. He suggested that only the man’s semen was fertile, and that a woman had no role in the procreative process. So, female sexual pleasure was quickly looked down upon.
    # This mentality continued well into the middle Ages. Throughout these centuries the Church advocated the repression of female sexuality. It promoted chastity, abstinence, and female isolation.
    # By the 18th century the female condition was no better, but it was believed that the female orgasm was necessary for reproduction. Yet, women were still encouraged to repress their sexual desires, and simply fulfill the needs of their husbands.
    # One horrible day in the 19th century, female pleasure was banned, and the husband was forewarned never to waken his wife’s sexual desires.
    # During this time, manuals on the subject were written for young brides experiencing sex for the first time. Such manuals instructed that a young lady should “lie perfectly still and never under any circumstances grunt or groan while the act is in progress” (From “The Madison Institute Newsletter”, Fall 1894).
    # Then one day, in the years following the Second World War (1945), something happened – female sexuality was slowly starting to make its way back into society…
    This is still very simplified. Societies tend to swing back and forth between repressed and open sexual mores, as one set of mores creates a backlash in the following generation and so on. I use traditional here as a long held common belief and recently as being in this century.
    On the orgasm thing, the debate centered on whither female sexual enjoyment equaled orgasm. A short history of the debate can be found at http://www.dailytargum.com/media/storage/paper168/news/2000/11/13/Opinion/The-Female.Orgasm-106711.shtml?norewrite200605140036&sourcedomain=www.dailytargum.com
    There was also a debate about where it happened and what importance that may have. (Freud believed that women who did not have vaginal orgasm were frigid.)Still, I should have worded it differently.
    I think that people should remember that common experiences weren’t always considered normal experiences because normal was idealized. For example masturbation, people have masturbated through out history but it was still considered abnormal and sometimes thought of as a mental illness. Hysteria as a mental illness was thought to be a resolute of female sexual pleasure.
    Other than the historical details, I had two points on the lesbian thing. One) female sexuality wasn’t viewed as important; fathers and husbands had control anyways (not mentioned in original post but I should have) Two) they may have not viewed lesbian activity as sex because no member to penetrate anyone? This theory is based more on Greek and Roman views of sex.

  • Victor Savard

    wintermute said,
    << 1. First, note the lack of capitalisation in my name. There is only one Wintermute, and I am not It. Normally, I let it slide, but recently, it's been looking really odd to me with the capital. Especially when used repeatedly ;)
    I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the real Wintermute and to you also. Please believe me when I say that it was an honest mistake but I should have double checked the spelling.
    << Still that aside, I certainly appreciate your response, though I'm not sure it counts as a "reply".
    wintermute, You’re not sure so I’ll take that as a step forward and not argue the point any further.
    I’ll simply add, Seek and you will find an answer to your first and secondary point because it’s all in the eyes of the beholders.
    <<I have to say that what little sense I can eke out of your comments sounds markedly schizophrenic, though I could well have misinterpreted everything you've said. Is (was?) "sinner vic" you? Did God speak to you directly? Frankly, I'm very confused and slightly scared.
    wintermute, I’m not schizophrenic and neither am I, me and or myself (lol!?). You see what you see and someone else will see what they see and we all interpret what we see in our own way. Sinner Vic was is and will always be One with me, myself and I. I’ve only complicated my reply to make it a little more convincing as to there being a real GOD or is it just “Good and Bad”. God speaks to all hearts who want to be spoken to and no God has not yet spoken to me directly. We are all somewhat confused and scared at times but with Good Old Dad’s Help and a little Faith, I want to believe that we’ll all make it in time.
    If you require more information wintermute, please send me an email and I’ll do my best to answer your concerns honestly and even tell you a little more about myself.(lol?)
    God Bless and Happy Mother’s Day to all “Moms”

  • none

    On the Internet, no one knows you’re a god…

  • cjmr’s husband

    On the Internet, no one knows how to close italics.
    Or if you’re a dyslexic agnostic insomiac.

  • http://zdrake.blogspot.com/2006/05/even-some-of-them-agree-with-me.html Internal Monologue

    Even some of THEM agree with me!

    Remember back when I was complaining that “cultural conservatives” have a pathological model of sexuality? Well, a friend of mind pointed me to a blog, which according to my friend is written by an Evangelical Christian Fundamentalist: slacktivist. A…

  • Puck

    Can’t say I agree with your premise. Christians – especially the fundie-types like Old Order Mennonites, Amish Bretheren, Mormons in Utah, and white-bread Evangelicals everywhere are the last bastion of large white families in this country. Catholics also do pretty well in the baby-making department also.
    And contrary to the assertions of your gay following – it takes sex between a man and a woman to make a baby.
    Acknowledging that sex is powerful is not the same thing as disliking sex.

  • wintermute

    > [I]t takes sex between a man and a woman to make a baby.
    No, it takes a sperm and an egg – thanks to the wonders of modern science, there have been many cases of in-vitro fertilisation happening without any kind of sex at all. Many same-sex couples take advantage of this to produce children without needing to have sex with a member of the opposite sex.
    I’ll accept that humans can’t reproduce via parthenogensis, if that’s what you mean. But I’m confident that science will (eventually) enable that, too…

  • cjmr

    And then there’s that whole pesky ‘inhabiting a womb for nine-ish months’ thing. At this point, that’s the only thing the scientists haven’t been able to accomplish in vitro.

  • wintermute

    Well, that wouldn’t be a problem for lesbian couples, and men can always try for an ectopic pregnancy – With good medical supervision and modern technology, it shouldn’t be significantly more dangerous than a standard womb baby delivered by csarian section…

  • wintermute

    Cæsarian section. WHy doesn’t Typepad accept HTML entities?

  • Anonymous #4

    Sex is understood to be a gift from God, and Evangelicals tend to argue that using appeals to lust to sell perfume or laundry detergent is taking something holy and debasing it. Most folks get mad at sacrilege (I believe that this is the same kind of anger that the Lord experienced when he saw the moneychangers in the Temple. It is the same kind of anger a good Christian ought to have when the beauty of the Gospel is debased into something crass, such as the Left Behind novels.)
    By the way, I’m a fundamentalist, so I’m not sure what kind of bizarre add-ins the evangelicals are allowing these days (personally, their love of flags in congregational meeting places has always irked me) but I’m pretty sure that most of them would be reluctant to claim Origen or Augustine as any kind of authoritative thinker.
    But let’s imagine that the evangelicals don’t really care about sacrilege. Why else would they be obsessed with sex?
    Well, probably because lust is powerful, and good Evangelicals are modest but not perfect. Recall that part of being an Evangelical is a belief that their lives are living witnesses for God. That includes modest dress and comportment. But they cannot escape the fact that when someone “cheats” from modesty they see attention and interest flow to the cheater. Envy is also a powerful motivator, which if they were perfect they could ignore (or would never feel in the first place), but as sinful creatures they cannot. They know they shouldn’t be envious of sinfulness, and so the feeling is sublimated into the passionate vehemence they feel when policing the violation of the Evangelical community’s norm of modesty.
    If this “badmouth the lascivious because I secretly wish I was a popular and interesting as the lascivious” dynamic is the real source of the Evangelical frustration, rather than the sacrilege angle, there is a solution to this problem: more charity and holiness.
    If the Evangelicals are being honest when they argue their anger is because of sacrilege they should stay angry. Since Evangelicals believe that secular power can make the world more Holy they are entirely correct to try to use it to reduce the amount of sacrilege in the world.
    (Remember as a Fundy, I think that secular power is always dangerous and corrupting. That’s the reason I want the Church corporal qua Church corporal have as little to do with it as possible. But that’s an argument for a different time.)

  • Dan Layman-Kennedy

    Sex is understood to be a gift from God, and Evangelicals tend to argue that using appeals to lust to sell perfume or laundry detergent is taking something holy and debasing it.
    I was once told the same thing about smoking tobacco outside the context of a Native American ritual. I find myself equally unconcerned about either, to be honest. To almost-quote Kurt Vonnegut, I am a Unitarian, and know almost nothing about holy things.
    There’s a difference between hoping that someone will respect what you believe in, and expecting that the rest of the world will stop and realign itself with your particular religious taboos and hangups. The first is good manners (but, like right-of-way, something to be given and not taken); the second is just being an asshat.

  • rashomon

    Anonymous’s post made me think of an article I read on how globalization INCREASES CULTURAL IDENTIFICATION AND DIVISION. I emphasize because the common perspective is that globalization waters down cultures and creates a universal monoculture without borders and ethnicity. The article argued that people react to globalization by amplifying their cultural identity. People do this to create stability in a more fluid society and to contrast themselves with the rest of the world so that they can have a group identity.
    What brought this to mind was anonymous’s Evangelical modesty. My family attended a big Evangelical church when I was younger and modest is not the word that you would describe these people with. The church was basically a stadium with a cross on the roof surrounded by SUVs. It’s a BIG church for BIG people, who drive BIG car trucks (cucks?). So they don’t have a problem with Vanity or Pride. no problem with Greed either. Some Sundays, the church was as spiritual as an Amway convention (maybe less) with sermons on how god wanted you to get rich (selling real estate). Gluttony? I don’t think so, the congregation looks like fat bastards family tree and knowing a little about the demographics of America lets me know that its not just my church. You go down the laundry list of sins and all you are pretty much left with is lust or sex to set yourself apart from the rest of the world. The fact is if you put an average Christian next to an average non-Christian you wouldn’t see a huge amount of difference in their lifestyles. I am not saying that Christians make a big deal out of sex and have hang ups about it just because of a need to differentiate themselves. I am saying that sex gets a lot more air play because this and it not being the preferred sin of the people in the pews. Which is the easier sermon to give: one on how the outside world is corrupt with sex or one that says a nation that spends more year after year on war (or stuffing its face or gas guzzling) than it does on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. (A little MLK goes a long way).
    Only buttheads wear asshats.

  • hapax

    To ignore the main point and zero in a tangent — interesting comment on how increasing globalization leads to increasing cultural identification. It reminded me of an argument made by Mary Daly (the feminist anthropologist of religion) that the Jewish laws of kashrut stem from the position of the historical land of Israel in the crossroads of the Fertile Crescent. With every different culture, ethnicity, and tribe continually stomping through their tiny territory, the Israelites developed an especially acute devotion to categorization and classification (what makes something a fish? It swims in the ocean and has scales), and that everything that falls through the cracks (shrimp swim in the ocean BUT have no scales!) was a source of danger and pollution.
    I’m aware that there are many many many different understanding of these laws, and suspect that there is no one “right” interpretation. But perhaps — to really reach for relevance to the topic at hand — if sex is neatly placed in the category “between one man and one woman, married, for the purpose of procreation”; anything that transgresses that definition is equally threatening.

  • arcseed

    Looks like I’m kinda late to the party. I guess I’ll address things that need addressing in reverse order.
    Hapax: That’s a really interesting point. There’s a whole thread running through the OT, and through Jewish life in general, an emphasis on _wholeheartedness_. If you’re going to do something, do it totally. There’s a certain morality inherent in doing something completely, for its own sake. If you’re a defense lawyer defending people you know are guilty, do it to the best of your ability. If you’re a pacifist military engineer, design the best tanks and jets you possibly can.
    Which is coming out of things like the kashrut laws. Meat and milk. Linen and wool. Male and female. Sacred and profane. etc. etc. etc… More, it’s the spirit behind the kashrut laws, which the laws can’t help but instill in those who follow them.
    But notice, for instance, the prohibition against homosexuality in the OT is worded, “a man shall not lay with another man as with a woman” (I’m lazy, or I’d give chapter:verse)
    It’s not that you’re violating natural laws so much as you’re violating categorical boundaries– mixing up the male-female boundary.
    Which… I dunno. Being raised Jewish, I think the wholeheartedness is important, but.. if your heart is wholly telling you to love another man…
    I come down on the liberal side of the issue, but fully understand the conservative (Jewish) position.

  • arcseed

    anon #4 sez:
    Sex is understood to be a gift from God, and Evangelicals tend to argue that using appeals to lust to sell perfume or laundry detergent is taking something holy and debasing it.
    Alas, there’s no evidence that Evangelicals argue that sex is actually a givt from God. Witness e.g. claims that sex within marriage shouldn’t be pleasurable, or shouldn’t happen exept for the sake of producing progeny.
    anon #4 sez:
    If this “badmouth the lascivious because I secretly wish I was a popular and interesting as the lascivious” dynamic is the real source of the Evangelical frustration, rather than the sacrilege angle, there is a solution to this problem: more charity and holiness.
    The problem is, there’s absolutely no evidence that the loudest voices within the evangelical community care much about either charity or holiness.
    Btw, I share your aversion to flags in the temple; after 9/11, we started singing “America, the Beautiful” to start our High Holiday services, perhaps to ward off charges of dual citizenship, and it drives me batshit insane.

  • arcseed

    nieciedo: Where are you getting your information? What you’re saying doesn’t really jive with 12 years of Hebrew School and intermittent lifelong Jewish education. And the ‘Q’ for koph (and the ‘charge’ thing) suggests perhaps an unfortunate encouner with pop-kabbalah? (qwabawwah, I like to call it ;)
    The issue, like every issue in the Jewish tradition, is complicated. But let’s get something straight. ‘Kedushah’, translated as holiness, comes from a Hebrew root meaning ‘separate’. We have this world, and we have holy things that are separated from it, as the holy Sabbath is separated from the rest of the week. We do no work, no mundane activities on Shabbat– instead we focus on study and prayer. (woo! wholeheartedness again!)
    The separation here is not between holy things and unclean things with normality in the middle– instead it is between the sacred and the profane, with an excess of mundanity preventing contact with the transcendent God.
    That said, when you actually come to the issue, you get all sorts of conflicting things. The joy of sex with a loved one, like all joys, comes from God. The libido originates in the ‘Evil Impulse’. Sexual pleasure is one of the three goods a man is required to provide his wife, regardless of the possibility of children. Sex is strictly for the purpose of being fruitful and multiplying, and is otherwise forbidden and unclean.
    It’s not like the Neo-Platonists didn’t get to Jews too– much of kabbalah is Platonists reading the damn Torah.

  • Bruce Garrett

    And contrary to the assertions of your gay following – it takes sex between a man and a woman to make a baby.
    And…so?
    I don’t think you’re getting Fred’s question. He didn’t say that Christians don’t have sex. The question as I understood it was why to they seem to think it is in and of itself some sort of evil, some sort of evidence, in and of itself, of brokeness within us. It isn’t. It’s just part of life, part of our flesh and blood existence. And sex with the one you love is a beautiful, wonderful, spiritual, life affirming thing, whether it makes a baby or not.

  • Dan Layman-Kennedy

    rashomon, I think I really don’t care whether hangups about sex come from a genuine squick about the subject or just because preaching against the other deadly sins would be unpopular. Considering the harm that’s being done to all kinds of people in the name of “purity,” if you’re playing on sexual fears and discomfort just because it’s easier than getting your congregation to face up to its issues about greed, envy, and wrath, you’re certainly not doing anything less despicable as far as I’m concerned.

  • Andrew Reeves

    Arcseed, almost no Evangelicals believe “that sex within marriage shouldn’t be pleasurable, or shouldn’t happen exept for the sake of producing progeny.” Medieval moral theology often makes that argument (but then also argues that the spouses need to satisfy their partners’ “marital debt”–it’s complicated), modern Evangelical Protestants as a general rule don’t.
    Regarding “It promoted chastity, abstinence, and female isolation,” you ought to bear in mind that among the Pagan Greeks the ideal wife was considered a woman who didn’t recognize any males outside of her family. Ideally for the Pagan Greeks, only slaves, prostitutes and non-citizens were un-enclosed.
    Which brings me to something that I think that the all hundred posts here have tended to miss. In any premodern religion/moral schema there’s going to be a fairly strong control over women and women’s sexuality. In a world with unreliable contraception and extremely dangerous abortion, sex usually leads to babies, which tend to be somewhat expensive. And even more importantly, a husband wants to be sure that his children are his own.

  • rashomon

    You have a point in that there are pre christian civilizations that have misognyistic and anti sex attitudes but there are also many who did not; the Minoan culture, the Etruscan Culture, a number of native american cultures as well as some asian cultures (Naxi for example).
    There is nothing innate about pre modern conditions that create these attitudes rather they are a result of political, economic, and religious beliefs. The ancient greeks did have a form of birth control in the form of a plant that grew in the region which they used until it became extinct.(We know of it today because it appears on vases and in some written accounts.)In some pre modern cultures, more children were a sign of wealth because they were also a source of labor. The more children you had, the more people you had to work on your farm, etc. Children were also
    your retirement fund.

  • canwetalk

    I went through 12 years of Catholic school. We were taught that marriage with an unbaptized person or with a person WHO COULD NOT HAVE CHILDREN, was not recognized by the Church. Supposedly a single woman who had a hysterectomy could not have a recognized marriage, UNLESS she had “dispensation” (a favorite word with us Catholics). I guess that also meant that St. Augustine, and Mr. Origen left no outs.
    I personally enjoy sex with my wife. We have the “beautiful, soul touching” sex, but we also have the “one-leg-over-the-bannister” “nasty” kind of kinky sex. I think it’s all good. Thankfully, so does my wife.

  • Acin

    No matter!!! Sex gives life! Safe sex and respect, what is important for me.
    Peace!


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