Christianity’s rocky relationship with sex
Of all of history's great cultures, none has got its knickers in a twist over physical love as much as the Christian west, says Diarmaid MacCulloch
The west used to be a place: Europe. Then the place got bigger: it extended across the Atlantic, embracing (or digesting) North and South America, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, it built up vast territorial empires which for a while dominated every part of the globe by direct rule or by influence.
As a result, the west is no longer a place, but a state of mind, to be found on every beach and in every shopping mall throughout the world. And one of the things marking it out among ancient and modern cultures is its obsession with sex. This sexual chatter sets the west apart. Every culture has its own hang-ups about sex – but most of them don’t want sex to be a topic of conversation; that would be rude. That great contrast is one of the reasons why there is so much anti-western feeling in many parts of the world. Even when there are plenty of other issues to get angry about, this is an easy target on which to concentrate rage.
I’ve long brooded on this curious distinctiveness of the west, and over my lifetime, I have listened to the furious debates within western culture itself that arise out of it. Why should this peculiarity exist? In my 2015 BBC Two series, Sex and the Church, exploring the west’s sexual obsession, I ranged over more than 2,000 years to argue that it stems from the religion that, over the centuries, slowly took over Europe: Christianity.
Christian churches tear themselves apart arguing about the role of women, contraception, abortion, homosexuality and how to deal with wretched revelations about clerical child abuse. And our modern western pride in our openness about talking and laughing about sex in almost any situation is simply a reversal of two millennia of largely negative Christian chatter on that same subject.
The puzzle is all the greater because the central figure in this religion, Jesus, had very little to say about sex. True, he insisted on monogamy in marriage, and on no divorce (both insistences being new to his own Jewish culture, and rather shocking) – but beyond that, virtually nothing. Indeed, one story about him, in John’s Gospel, is a clear rebuke to those who want to be punitive about sex. He was teaching in the Jerusalem Temple, where the Dome of the Rock now stands, when a group of men dragged before him a woman accused of adultery. They asked Jesus whether they should stone her to death, the usual Jewish penalty for adultery. All he said was: “He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” And when they’d all shuffled off looking sheepish, all he said to her was that she should go off and sin no more. It’s a story of forgiveness and mercy, both of which are themes that run through Jesus’s teaching, and which might be thought to be at the heart of Christian teaching.
So how did the Christian churches turn Jesus’s few quiet words about sex into an ill-tempered centuries-long argument? Probe Christianity’s origins, and you will find that it springs out of two cultures, one Jewish, the other Greek. Judaism had a very positive attitude to sex, as long as it was concerned with procreation, building up families: God’s Chosen People, after all, were constantly threatened with annihilation at the hands of great empires around them, and needed to ‘increase and multiply’. Any sexual alternative, such as celibacy or homosexuality, was liable to get categorised as ‘an abomination’. And Judaism was very male-centred – there really is an ancient Jewish prayer which runs: “Blessed be thou O Lord God, who has not made me a Gentile, a woman, or an ignoramus.”
But when the first Christians thought about sex, they heard other, more powerful voices, from completely outside the Jewish world. The prestige culture was that of the ancient Greeks: there was a Greek-style town (called Sepphoris) just down the road from Jesus’s Galilean home in Nazareth. The Roman imperial power that ran Jesus’s homeland deeply admired the Greeks, and between them, they created the classical civilisation which, as we know from many an epic movie or any visit to museums full of Greek and Roman sculpture, celebrated physical beauty, especially male beauty. So it’s easy to tell a simple story: Christianity poised between Jewish family life and Greek easygoing acceptance of male homosexuality, with Roman culture a den of decadence and orgies. That contrast became a disapproving Christian cliché: Christians loudly condemned Greek and Roman immorality.
As objective history, it’s wrong. Roman society (officially at least) preferred self-control and public decorum over wanton self-indulgence. You might say that the Greeks and the Romans taught austerity to Christianity, not the other way round. The austere denial of the flesh was the doctrine of a philosopher, Plato, who lived four centuries before Jesus. He insisted that this world of flesh in which we live is false, an illusion. Only the world of the spirit matters.
He summed up this attitude in a thought-experiment: think of a cave, home to prisoners who spend all their lives chained up in it, facing a blank wall. Behind them a fire burns brightly. People move in procession in front of the fire, but behind the prisoners. The procession throws shadows on the wall. The prisoners watch the shadows: the shadows are all the reality they have. And that’s us. What humankind thinks is real – the material world – is nothing compared with the world of the spirit.
Plato’s division between body and soul, flesh and spirit, set a pattern for centuries in the classical world. More than that, it became a basic instinct in Christianity. The Greek philosophers had more to contribute. One of Plato’s pupils, Aristotle, made an equally fateful contribution to Greek discussion of sex, just as influential on Christian thinking. He talked a lot about ‘nature’. He defined ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ sexual practices, and in discussing human biology, believed that the most important factor in conceiving a child was male seed. He said it contained the entire unborn child in embryo; a woman’s contribution was simply to act as an incubator for male seed. That made male semen very precious indeed. A man producing semen in any other context was a murderer. Masturbation was a crime against nature, let alone homosexuality. All ‘unnatural’. Nature is a Greek, not Jewish, idea. But thanks to one of the first Christian leaders, Paul of Tarsus, snatching it out of Greek philosophy, it has resounded through Christian discussion of sex.
So there was a background noise in Mediterranean culture that increasingly celebrated austerity and elevated the soul above the flesh. It chimed with a new movement, which first appeared in the Christian world in the second century AD. If you read the New Testament with a fresh eye, you’ll notice something missing: no mention of monasteries, monks or nuns, anywhere. Yet the monastic life has been crucial for later Christian history. The fact that it can be first traced to Syria in Christianity makes it most plausible that Syrians, the ancient east’s great traders, brought back the idea from India, where for centuries there had been exactly that sort of institution in Hinduism and Buddhism. Syrian merchants introduced it into Christianity as an invisible import, along with all the Indian and Chinese luxuries which they sold around the Mediterranean.
Once the monks and nuns established themselves in Christian life, they set the patterns for a thousand years of Christianity. Celibate holy men and women became the celebrities of the Christian world. Christians didn’t just reject the supposed ‘immorality’ of Roman society, homosexual practice in particular, but they also increasingly scorned the Jewish exaltation of marriage, and relegated married people to being second-class citizens of the church in comparison with celibates, virgins. That mattered hugely for all European society, when emperors after Constantine I steadily moved Christianity into a dominant and then an established role.
In fourth-century Rome, a highly influential Christian spokesman, Jerome, who fancied himself as a moral arbiter for the fabulously wealthy Roman families who were flocking in to the newly powerful church, had some extraordinary things to say about marriage. He misused a parable of Jesus, and told his adoring pious ladies that wives would reap a 30-fold harvest of heavenly reward, but widows who did not remarry would get a 60-fold harvest. Top of the score came virgins, with a 100-fold prize. Jerome was so disgusted by sex and marriage that he advised a young and childless widow not to re-marry. Why, he asked her, would she wish to imitate the dog in the Book of Proverbs, and “return to her own vomit”?
Western culture has a particular intensity in this neurosis about sex thanks to a contribution from Latin western Christianity’s greatest theologian, the north African Augustine of Hippo. There is much wisdom in Augustine’s vast array of writings, but on the subject of sex, his own emotional history was bound up in a rejection of physical love which would have gladdened Plato’s heart. Augustine gave his negative opinions on sex a biblical twist: he turned to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and decided that God’s punishment for their plucking the apple from the Tree of Knowledge was to curse Adam and his wife with a new sensation – sexual lust. He suggested that before they ate the apple, Adam and Eve had enjoyed full control of their genitals. Their sexual intercourse had been calm, rational and dispassionate. After the Fall came loss of control, the violent passions released in orgasm. Holiness demanded control.
It sounds rather sweet: Adam and Eve’s calm coupling in Eden. But Augustine’s retelling of the Fall story meant that western society began to see women as sexually unruly temptresses. All ancient societies had regarded women as inferior; now Augustine taught that Eve had lured Adam into sexual passion. It’s led to some extraordinary Christian misogyny, which has an extra depth in the west because popes in the western (Latin or Catholic) church decided in the 11th and 12th centuries to take a remarkable step, which no other Christian church has imitated. The papacy made all its clergy behave like monks: from now on, all of them, not just those living the monastic life, would be celibate.
There was a long and bitter battle over this new demand for celibacy, because for the previous 1,200 years, clergy who were not monks had got married and had families. The bile generated by that clash has left some extraordinary stories. We will take you in our TV series to Durham Cathedral. When it was taken over by monks in the 11th century, they didn’t take long to ban all women from the cathedral, beyond a defined and confined space at the entrance. After one intrepid Scots lady visitor literally overstepped the mark and wandered up the church piously sightseeing, one of the guardian monks had a vision of Durham’s chief pilgrimage asset, Saint Cuthbert. The long-dead saint turned out to be a Grade 1 misogynist, who raged to his monk: “Get that bitch out of here!” No sooner said, than done; poor lady.
Much of our tale concerns the long centuries in which Christianity dominated all western society and imposed this peculiar culture on to it. That culture fractured in the Protestant Reformation, which made a big issue out of sex – for Protestant Reformers bluntly reversed the celibacy rule for clergy, a matter of great importance to them, since most of them were already clergy themselves. Martin Luther himself demonstratively married, in fact to an ex-nun, and displayed an adolescent delight in married life in remarks about his own and friends’ marital bliss which are best left unrepeated in a family magazine, to be rehearsed amid the decorum of television.
The Protestant Reformation thus ended that ‘second-class’ status for marriage: where it could, it abolished the monastic life. Some Reformers wanted to go much further. Our series visits the north German city of Münster, where we will introduce you to the radical Christian leader Jan of Leyden and his ‘wife-a-night’ rota.
The last part of our story takes us into the western culture of the Enlightenment, which over three centuries has dismantled much of Christianity’s power. Some of what we might think was invented in the modern west appeared a startlingly long time back, particularly an open gay sub-culture, which became well established in Amsterdam and London even before the Hanoverians gained their British throne. Today, moralising alarmists blame the permissive society for modern western attitudes to sexuality and gender. But it wasn’t the permissive 1960s that started the rot: oh no, it was the permissive 1690s, a time when Christianity was still the dominant force in society.
That is the fascination of the modern western world. Christianity has not gone away – far from it – but the churches have spent three centuries gradually realising that they no longer call the shots in morality, and puzzling about what to do about it. There is, for example, now a lengthy list of Christians who have been part of creating a sexual and gender revolution, including such maybe unlikely figures as the Rev John Wesley, founder of Methodism; a feisty Victorian gentlewoman called Josephine Butler (or “that dreadful woman, Mrs Butler”, as one Anglo-Catholic clergyman called her); and a scholarly Cornish missionary bishop, John Colenso, who began to have an uneasy feeling that it might not be right to condemn polygamy among his beloved Zulu converts.
What struck me about these various pioneers, painfully working out how to cope with new situations and bringing a new generosity to them, was how many of them were outside the conventional leadership of the church – yes, Colenso was a bishop, but the Anglican Communion invented the worldwide Lambeth Conference of bishops more or less in order to chuck him out.
There are some dark stories to tell, ranging over three millennia. It is not generally realised, for instance, that recent attempts at covering up child abuse among clergy have a long pedigree: the first major case that has left a substantial archive dates from mid-17th‑century Italy, among a religious order called the Piarists. You make discoveries like this, and you may move beyond understandable rage at the crimes and, with the aid of a long view, begin to ask whether there may be a deep-seated structural problem that is there to be solved. It is important to hear such stories so that western society can try doing better. The more history we know, the less we are likely to get hysterical about it. Simple history, particularly on such a technicolor subject as sex, is dangerous history.
At the end of my travels, I diffidently offer a conclusion: Christianity and the west might indeed do better if they listened to Jesus’s recorded words a little more than the subsequent 2,000 years of bilious western chatter.
Sex and the Church airs on BBC Two on Friday 10 April at 9pm. To find out more, click here.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is fellow of St Cross College and professor of the history of the church, Oxford University. His latest book is Silence: A Christian History (Penguin, 2014), and he is writing a biography of Thomas Cromwell.