Sex and Christianity don't really get along so well, do they? The modern experience with Western-influenced religion seems to bounce between two types of sexual repression. In more liberal churches, the overall message is one of tolerance toward gays, choice (in abortion), and a general silence on premarital sex and masturbation. In churches that proudly wear their self-described moniker of "Bible-believing," the message is less nuanced: Sex (in the missionary position) is for one man married to one woman only and nothing else is OK. Simple. Any questions?
Lots of them. Is this the only path open to Christians? What's wrong with masturbation? Why treat homosexuality like it's a choice? What about divorce? Why so many child sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic church and closeted gay Protestant ministers tearfully resigning in disgrace? Both of these are agonizing reminders that what we're doing with religion's take on sex is not sustainable.
The central problem with how Christianity addresses sexuality is best understood by taking an example from Greek mythology. Consider the tale of Procrustes, a robber baron whose men routinely waylaid travelers passing through his territory and then brought them to Procrustes' stronghold. There, Procrustes forced them to spend the night in his iron bed. Those who were too short were hammered until their limbs had lengthened to fit the bed; those who were too tall had their legs pruned back enough to fit the bed. In the end, everyone fit Procrustes' rigid and unyielding bed — perfectly.
This is a handy metaphor for modern religion's treatment of human sexuality. What we humans have most in common is that we are all different. Strangely, what our religions offer us is a rigid and unyielding standard to which we must all be made to fit. But sometimes, it’s not a good fit — like for the gay teen who was raised knowing he simply can't be gay because gays are going straight to Hell. Or for the kids who've reached puberty and are experiencing all their new sexual feelings and needs and they're told either that masturbation is a sin or, in more liberal circles, left to figure it all out for themselves.
The end result is that we are encouraged to be schizophrenic in our handling of faith and sexuality. Religion resides in one part of the brain, while sexuality lives in a whole different neighborhood. Nobody is talking about integrating the neighborhoods. Consequently, our sexuality is left without the benefit of the context and meaning spirituality might offer, while our religions are in the position of writing checks that our bodies cannot cash.
When we try to recall what Christianity has had to say about sex, mostly we remember a lot of rules starting with the phrase, "Thou shalt not" or ending with "this is an abomination." These phrases are the linens covering the rigid and unyielding Procrustean bed of our time. But just as beds are designed to serve and comfort people and not the other way around, so too human religion must bend to the service of human beings. So faith, to be truly useful, is going to have to jump out of that Procrustean bed and learn how to become a lamp unto our feet and a guide unto our path. Faiths that are increasingly shown to be out of touch with sexual reality risk becoming utterly irrelevant.
Got questions about sexuality you’d like marriage and family therapist Steven Ing to address in a future column? Tweet @StevenIngMFT or email askING@stevening.com.
Column originally appeared in the Reno GazetteJournal.