Friday, March 18, 2011

Sex and the Image of God

The assigned lenten reading from Proverbs today (6:20-7:1) contains one of many warnings in the Proverbs against fornication. Of course Proverbs was written by a man for men--one must keep that in mind. It can be quite disconcerting to read repeated exhortations to flee the temptress and the evil woman as though fornication were only and always a matter of weak-willed men giving in to strong-willed women who are seeking to destroy them. I have often wondered what a similar exhortation written by an old wise woman for women would sound like.
I find it interesting that also in our lenten reading today from Genesis (5:32-6:8) we hear about sexual perversion too. Even the “sons of God” (generally assumed to refer to fallen angelic beings) find the “daughters of men” so beautiful that they “came in to...all they chose.” From a man’s perspective, the temptation of women is so great that even the gods fall prey to it.
Yet we know that fornication is not solely a matter of wicked women tempting weak-willed men. Wicked men just as commonly tempt weak-willed women. But this is not really the gist of the matter.
God created man (the human being) in His image as male and female. It is not that man by himself is in the image of God, nor that woman by herself is in the image of God. “Male and female created He them.” There is something about the sexual union of a man and a woman that manifests or presents (makes present) the reality of the image of God in human beings. (Please note, I am not saying that the image of God in a particular man or woman is lacking apart from an active sexual life. What I am saying is that something is in the sexual act that uniquely presents the image of God.)
God has chosen again and again throughout His self-revelation to use marriage as a picture of who He is and how He loves us. Somehow in marriage, including if not particularly the sexual aspect of marriage, God reveals Himself. He is the Bridegroom of the Church. He is the Lover of the beloved. Heaven is the bridal chamber. He the faithful Husband who remains faithful even when we are unfaithful.
Therefore, it seems to me, beyond or underneath emotional and physical longing for sexual intimacy there is a longing for completeness, for the presence of the image of God. Nevertheless, we are all wounded by sin, and even in the best and healthiest marriages, sexual desires and longings are a mixed bag. And in a culture that has almost lost the meaning of marriage, motivations for sexual intimacy become even more mixed and distanced from the original image. Yet “we have this treasure in earthen vessels”: even mixed with dirt, gold shines.
However, longing for union is not the only reason people have sex. Exactly because sex has (more than many other aspects of our lives) the potential to present the image of God, some people express their anger and rebellion against God through their sexual behavior. Sex can become more than merely selfish. It can become a means to strike out, to exert will, to dominate, to hurt, to satisfy perverted and sadistic images of independent power. And the consequence, the fruit, of this perverted use of sexuality is the spiritual, emotional and even intellectual damage of those involved.
Consider with me Proverbs 6: 31 in the Septuagint: “For the value of a prostitute is only one loaf…” I immediately ask the question, “Who has failed to love this woman that she must sell her body for bread?”
That a man might be tempted by a prostitute (most commonly through pornography) has, I think, little to do with the sin of the woman and a great deal to do with the sins of the people (probably mostly men) who in the woman’s life from childhood not only refused to love and care for her but also abused her in all the ways only demonic hatred can imagine. Of course there are always exceptions, but I think Jesus’ particular care for female adulterers and harlots and his frequent mention of them as first in the Kingdom of Heaven gives weight to to my assertion.
We live in a culture in which the only limitation on sexual intercourse is consent. It is hard for us to hear the message: Don’t. But it is not the prudish don’t of an uptight killjoy. Rather, it is the word of a loving Creator, a Creator who has made us male and female in His image to present Himself, to reveal Himself. When we separate sex from faithful, life-long, loving care, we lie about who God is. We deface the image of God.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I think sometimes in Orthodoxy the beauty and godliness of a good Christian marriage can be overlooked with all the seeming focus on monastic life. I found St John Chrysystom's 'On Marriage and Family Life' to be quite encouraging and insightful.

Ps: is that a typo in the last sentence with 'Good'?

Barbara said...

Typo is corrected, thanks for catching it!