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.
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.