THE BLOG

Sex And Incarnation

May 31, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

There is one Christian tenet I will always hold dear: the divine became flesh. I am not interested in debating whether Jesus is the only begotten son of God, whether his mother was a virgin, whether his death redeemed our sins, or whether his Resurrection was literal or symbolic. What moves me is that he had feet, he walked with them on this earth, and he allowed them to be washed with the tears of a woman of dubious repute. He knelt down and washed feet himself. Whatever quarrels I have with the church, I love this man. He is real to me.

That said, I confess that for many years now, I have not been a creed-saying Christian. Descended from nine generations of Episcopal priests, I have been (in succession) a baptized Episcopalian, a Quaker, a goddess-worshiper, and, finally, an ordained interfaith minister. I am also the author of an unorthodox (at the least) and arguably heretical series of novels called The Maeve Chronicles, featuring Maeve, a feisty (fictional) Celtic Magdalen who is no one's disciple.

Despite my novels' subject matter, I also have no interest in debating whether or not Jesus had sex with or married Mary Magdalen or whether he chose to be celibate. (Novelists, the wily tricksters, don't argue; they tell stories.) Most of what Jesus had to say on the subject of marriage and celibacy can be found in Matthew 19: 1-12. (If you want Maeve's take on this scene, see chapter 64 in The Passion of Mary Magdalen.)

If you are incarnate, you have to deal with sexuality somehow -- first and foremost your own. In the wake of all the recent scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, some have argued that priests should be allowed to marry. No doubt they should. Celibacy might then become a clear and meaningful choice for those called to it. But allowing clergy to marry, as Protestants always have, will not automatically eliminate clerical sexual abuse, which is rife in every denomination.

Paul of Tarsus (who is often taken out of his historical context by both those who revere and revile him) is famous for saying it is better to marry than to burn. Celibacy and marriage were his only two options, and early gentile converts to what was originally a Jewish sect were eager to distance themselves from gentile pagans who indulged in other practices, including temple prostitution. (For an analysis of St Paul's Epistle to the Romans in this context, see this excellent piece by James Alison.)

However corrupt or excessive first-century pagan practices may have been, I think the ancient pagans may have been on to something. Sex is not just an act, it is a force -- a divine force that can be generative or destructive. To liken it to fire, as Paul did, is apt. Fire contained and directed is used for warmth, for illumination, for cooking, for creating. Uncontained, it lays waste. But its containers and uses are not single but various, and its power is simply that: power -- not good or evil -- except in how we use it.

In my counseling practice, I have worked with many people who were sexually abused in childhood and early adolescence, often by family members -- some of whom were also members of the clergy. I have also worked with adult women who were victims of sexual abuse by their religious leaders. The trauma of abuse lies not just in the physical act itself but in betrayal of trust, abuse of power, secrecy, and the shame secrecy engenders. What is wounded is our sovereignty as incarnate, inherently sexual beings -- something that is not easy to heal.

There is nothing wrong with marriage or celibacy. But religiously prescribed containers by themselves don't stop people from committing adultery or seducing parishioners and altar boys. Jesus was always challenging people to observe not just the law but to understand its intent. Though it may not be of ancient provenance, the Wiccan Rede holds its adherents to a strict standard that might have resonated with Jesus and that members of the clergy might do well to contemplate: and it harm none, do what you will.