Sex and Religion: Joined at the Hip
Sex and religion are joined at the hip. The most interesting distinction is not between religions that do and or do not traffic in sex but between two aspects of a single religion, one of which regards sex as a blessing and the other as a curse.
Many religions drive with one foot heavy on the sexual accelerator and the other riding the sexual brakes. Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism celebrate, on the one hand, the power of sex within marriage and are keen to harness its power for their worshippers, while, on the other hand, they warn you that hair will grow on the palms of your hand if you masturbate. Even among the pro-sex sects, the concern for the control and legitimation of procreation often sprouts anti-sexual policies such as homophobia and an obsession with virginity and female chastity.
Pro-sex religion is not necessarily pro-marriage. Hierogamies (sacred marriages) are celebrated worldwide, but some Hindu sects also celebrate sacred adulteries. For them, the model for the love of god is not boring marital sex “got ‘tween asleep and wake,” as Shakespeare’s bastard Edmund mocks it, but the thrilling love of the married cow-herd women for the incarnate god Krishna, an erotic passion that risks all—honor, family, children, all--for the sake of a moment of intense emotion, sometimes just of longing, not even of consummation. Elsewhere in India, on one day each year, worshippers take the image of the god out of the temple (where he sits beside his wife) and carry him to his mistress in another temple; they leave him there all night, and in the morning, when he is in a much better mood, they address their prayers to him. In medieval Christianity, too, Guinevere and Isolde, the heroines of epic poems about the search for the holy Grail, are notorious adulteresses. These myths and rituals are not regarded as a license to sin; they are metaphors, not role models. No imitatio Krishni here; rather, as the old Latin maxim goes, “What Zeus can do is not for you” (quod licet Jovi non licet bovi).
Some Hindu texts argue that our sexuality is the very sign of our religiosity. Noting that the icons of the god Shiva and his wife Parvati are a lingam (a sculpture, usually in stone, of the male organ of generation) and a yoni (the female organ), they argue that the observed fact that all humans are born with not a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David but a lingam or a yoni built into their bodies, clearly proves that we are all by our very nature worshippers of Shiva and his wife Parvati.
Victorian Protestants, ruling India during the British Raj, were of course scandalized by all of this. (They conveniently ignored the eroticism of Christianity in paintings of the tumescent Jesus [which Leo Steinberg helped us to see] or in the medieval nuns who fantasized that Jesus came to them in the night, not to mention the fact that their own branch of Christianity only existed because Henry VIII had a short sexual attention span). But the Hindus did not need the British to make them ashamed of the sexual aspects of their own religion; from at least the 5th century BCE to the present day there have been ascetic movements in India that loathed the body, loathed women, loathed sex—the part of the religion that rides the sexual brakes.
Sometimes the two approaches to sex in religion compromised, on the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” principle, or, in Paul’s words, “Better to marry than to burn.” Even the mystic movements that preached violent forms of celibacy often used the experience of sexual climax as the closest approximation to the ineffable mystic union with God (see Bernini’s statue of the orgasmic Saint Teresa). At such moments, the sects ceased to raise their ugly heads and agreed that sex was, even if a sin, a felix culpa.
Posted by: Andrew | June 6, 2007 2:32 PM
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