Sex And Religion Morton and Barbara Kelsey


Sex And Religion

by Morton & Barbara Kelsey


What is the source of our fear of talking about sexuality and sexual conduct? Why is the subject so delicate and forbidding for adults that they are uncomfortable discussing it with children? We believe the heresy of gnosticism that has permeated many of the sexual attitudes of the Christian Church is responsible for a great deal of the sexual negativity and unwholesomeness of our culture.

Where It All Started

Gnosticism had an ancient history and has continued in many forms up to the present time. In many ways it was a creative force keeping alive ideas that the church refused to acknowledge. However, its influence in sexual theory has been one of the most negative influences within the church. All gnosticism does not continue the myth we shall describe, but the gnosticism that influenced the church contained it. There are many forms of gnostic belief. In the Protestant Church it helped form much of the point of view of Puritanism, and in the Roman Catholic Church it dominated the attitude of Jansenism that influenced the training of many men and women's Catholic religious orders. When we went to Notre Dame in 1969 we were surprised to find even more sexual repression among students raised in parochial schools than we had experienced in our Puritan background. In the Old Testament we find almost none of this negativity toward sexuality. In fact, sexuality, sexual relationships, copulation, childbearing and rearing were all considered perfectly natural, normal and acceptable.

In the New Testament, with the exception of a few passages in St. Paul, there are few negative statements about sexuality. It isn't until St. Augustine of Hippo in the late fourth century that we find the gnostic viewpoint about sexuality predominating. Early in the Church's life a conflict arose about the nature of evil that wasn't resolved until the end of the fourth century. The mainline Christians accepted the Old Testament as scripture and believed that the God revealed there was ultimate spiritual reality. Along with the Hebrews they believed that the physical world was an expression of the Divine, the direct creation of God, and therefore good. The gnostic attitude toward creation on the other hand sprang out of Persian thinking that saw two equal and opposite divine creative forces <197> the light and the dark. In the Persian view both the light and the dark were present in the spiritual world and in nature. The main purpose of human morality and religion was to support the forces of light and so enable them to conquer darkness and bring salvation to the universe.

Changing Views

Ultimately, however, a perversion of this Persian viewpoint developed and became a seductive Christian heresy. The dark force became equated with matter, with physicality and with the God of the Old Testament, while the light force became equated with spirit, spirituality, asceticism and Jesus Christ. In gnosticism matter was seen as ugly, recalcitrant, irredeemable and evil. The creation of human beings in this point of view was an imprisoning of pure and holy spirit in vile matter. If we believe that spiritual reality is a realm of bliss, harmony and ecstasy (what the gnostics called the pleroma) then the mingling of spirit and matter becomes a cosmic catastrophe rather than purposeful, orderly and good.

In the myth of gnosticism, such a cosmic catastrophe did occur; the realm of blissful spirit exploded and little fragments of spirit became imbedded in the earth where they became human beings. In the midst of such a catastrophe, how is salvation achieved? Through asceticism, by eliminating any attachment to the world of physical reality and by getting rid of emotional involvement and physical pleasure. However, there is something far worse than failing to be detached: bringing more soul or spirit into the world of matter thus becomes the ultimate evil conception becomes the worse possible human act. Carrying this idea to its logical conclusion, one extreme Gnostic sect, the Manichaeans, taught that intercourse with preadolescent girls was not ultimately evil because pregnancy was not possible. Even the Roman Emperors were shocked by this idea and outlawed the sect.

Gradually the idea developed within this sect that anything to do with conception or copulation or sexuality or genital organs was evil or ugly. St. Augustine was a fringe member of the Manichaean sect for nine years and although he eventually disengaged himself intellectually, he never entirely disengaged himself emotionally. His little book "The Good of Marriage" has some passages on marriage that are well nigh unbelievable. Even normal sexual intercourse within marriage can be venial sin; the quicker married people abstain from all sexual relations the better for their souls. For Augustine all sexual acts or pleasure outside of marriage were mortal sins -- acts sufficient to separate people forever from God and so consign them to hell.

One of the many areas affected by this viewpoint is the attitude toward masturbation. Children are sexual beings and exploration of the body is natural; so nearly all children play with their genitals and many children masturbate at two or three. When parents slap their hands as a form of control, impressionable, sensitive children can be traumatized and sexuality itself is seen as bad, wrong or evil: children learn much more from parental acts and attitudes than most parents realize. Children are more influenced by what we do than by what we say.

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Sex And Religion

About The Author

Morton Kelsey is an Episcopal priest and marriage/family counselor. He is also the author of 19 books. Barbara Kelsey is a well-known speaker and counselor. She has presented hundreds of workshops in spiritual development with her husband. The above was excerpted with permission from their book, "Sacrament of Sexuality", ©1991, published by Element Books, Inc. 42 Broadway, Rockport, MA 01966.

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