Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Sexuality and the Divine

According to Scripture, there is an ‘analogy’ between the relationship Christ has with the Church (itself an extension of God’s relationship with Israel) and that between a husband and wife (eg Eph 5:23; Rev 21:1-2).

By ‘analogy’ theologians mean a correspondence which goes beyond that of a metaphor or simile. Metaphorically, God is a rock (Ps 18:2, etc), but in the final analysis a rock and God are two distinct things.
God’s ‘fatherhood’, on the other hand, is more than metaphorical. There is a ‘father-son’ relationship between God and the ‘son of God’ (Ps 2:7; Matt 2:17) and Jesus is described as the monogenēs of the Father (Jn 1:14,18; 3:16), a word that is used elsewhere of Abraham’s “one and only son” (Heb 11:17, NIV). This ‘fatherhood’ relationship is also something in which we share and which we are taught to acknowledge in our prayers: “Our Father in heaven ...”
We have shown previously, however, that marriage itself has two core elements, covenant and sexuality. When it comes to the ‘covenant’ aspect, it is easy to see an ‘analogy’ between the human institution and the divine ‘mystery’. (Note 1) God’s relationship with Israel is ‘covenantal’ almost from the outset (Gen 15:18). Indeed Australian theologian Bill Dumbrell argues his relationship with creation is covenantal from the beginning. And this covenant is made explicitly marital in Ezekiel 16:8:
8 Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine.
God’s covenant is an actual part of his relationship with us — not just a metaphor for something but a ‘thing’ itself.
The question we may then ask, however, is whether we can similarly suggest an ‘analagous’ correspondence between the human and the divine when it comes to sex and sexuality. Reverently, I want to suggest the answer is ‘yes’.
Reading Scripture, we see that human sexual expression has not one but two functions. It is procreative, a feature it shares with the rest of the plant and animal kingdoms, and it is also unitive, in a way which seems to be uniquely human.
Thus on the one hand, sexual activity results in the fruitfulness of Genesis 1:28 shared with the rest of nature (“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth ...”, cf 1:22). On the other hand, the very special circumstances surrounding the origins of Eve, described in Genesis 2, set the scene for something quite unique: “and they will become one flesh” (2:28).
This unitive function is important to the couple concerned. But as we have observed previously, it also has a corresponding spiritual parallel in the process of redemption. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul compares and contrasts the ‘union’ between a client and a prostitute with the union between the believer and the Lord:
16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. (1 Cor 6:16-17)
And it is the union between Christ and the believer which results in the benefits of Christ being transferred to us, whilst our sins are similarly transferred to him:
5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin ... (Rom 6:5-6)
21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21)
We may also suggest, however, that the reproductive function of sexuality has its spiritual parallel in the process of human creation.
At one level, human sexual reproduction is like plant and animal sexual reproduction. It is a way of producing more of us. However, because of the specific nature of human beings, the outcome of our sexual reproduction is of profound significance, for through this process we, who have been created “in the image of God” (Gen 1:26-27), become participants in the ‘imaging’ process. Indeed, we are the ‘production line’ for God’s own image to be replicated and re-replicated. We are not just ‘image bearers’ but ‘image makers’.
Thus in Genesis 5, after the ‘detour’ down the line of Cain, we come back to Adam and Eve and read this:
When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them “man.” 3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. (Gen 5:1-3, NIV)
Importantly, Genesis 5:1-2 recapitulates Genesis 1:26-30: “God created man ... in the likeness of God ... male and female and blessed them”. There is a deliberate sense, therefore, of ‘starting again’. But now, man becomes responsible for carrying on what God has started. God said he would make man “in our image, in our likeness” (Gen 1:26). Now Adam has a son “in his own likeness, in his own image” (5:3). And just as God called Adam and Eve ‘man’ (Heb, Adam), Adam names his new son Seth.
But we are not just ‘starting again’, we are ‘handing over’. The Image-Maker gives way to the image-bearer, who makes more images. And these are not just images of the image-bearer, they are themselves images of God. Thus in Genesis 9, in a poetic statement which has echoes of 1:27, we read,
6 Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man. (Gen 9:6)
The physical ‘creative process’ by which man images God, however, is via the acts of sexual intercourse and bringing to birth:
1 Adam lay with [Heb, ‘knew’] his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” (Gen 4:1, NIV84)
Incidentally, something of the profundity of this act is brought out by the brevity of Eve’s comment (rather obscured in English versions): “I have brought forth a man eth-YHWH” — “with the Lord”. There is nothing less than a human-divine cooperation going on here.(Note 2)
But the process which culminates in birth begins with sexual union. And this, of course, is not some clinical donation of bodily fluids, but is full of passion and desire. “Let him kiss me,” says the woman at the beginning of the Song of Songs, “with the kisses of his mouth — for your love is more delightful than wine.” Love-making, whilst not simply an end in itself, is itself pleasurable and an expression of desire for the other.
And (if we may stretch our thinking yet further on this) the immediate goal of love-making is the ecstasy we call ‘orgasm’. Yet as mystics, including those in the Christian tradition, have recognized, ecstasy is a curious experience — pleasurable, but not simply pleasure. It is an awkward fact that outwardly the human orgasm often looks and sounds less like pleasure, more like pain. Not for nothing has the phrase la petite mort (the little death) become a euphemism for this experience. Yet this experience is one which, at times in our lives, we earnestly desire and fervently pursue.
Then there is the act of childbirth itself, the actual bringing into the world of a creature made in the image of God. This, in human beings, is accompanied by a degree of pain that Scripture specifically associates with the Fall (Gen 3:16). Yet when the birth has taken place, the pain is forgotten (John 16:21) and deemed ‘worth it’ for the outcome. Indeed Jesus himself used this to illustrate the disciples’ experience of pain to be followed by joy (John 16:22-23).
With all this in mind, let us then attempt a ‘Christological’ understanding of sex.
The Bible tells us that God is an Image-Maker and that we are his image-bearers (Gen 1:26-27).
This God, who has made us to bear his image, creates and enters into a covenant with his image-bearers, through which covenant he and they are brought into a right relationship with one another (eg Ezek 16:8).
That covenant, and the relationship it establishes between the Creator-Redeemer God and his created-redeemed people, finds a close parallel in the human institution of marriage (eg Isa 54:4-8).
Human beings are themselves image-makers — and not just of themselves but of God. This image-making is achieved through the physical processes of sexual intercourse and subsequent childbirth, which Scripture tells us are both properly located within the covenant relationship of marriage (cf Mal 2:15).
From an experiential point of view, we may add that the act of intercourse entails an experience of ecstasy which, whilst pleasurable, is not a ‘simple pleasure’. Nevertheless, it is intensely desired. Similarly, the act of birth, whilst painful, is not simply ‘a pain’, since the outcome is also desired.
We may confidently say, from our reading of Scripture, that God’s image is imaged in each human being and that God’s redemptive covenant is imaged in human marriage.
May we not also, therefore, infer that the desire, pleasure, pain and joy of intercourse and reproduction in human beings, which Scripture sets within the marriage bond, ‘images’ something of the work of God in both imaging himself and redeeming his image?
The Song of Songs has been widely regarded in Christian and Jewish tradition as relating, in some sense, to the love of God for his people. The allegorizing approach, however, tended to negate the sexual imagery and interest of the Song. Since the time of the Reformation, the allegorical approach has (rightly in my view) gone out of favour. Yet the Song of Songs, as part of the canon of Scripture, still has something to say to us. And as a celebration of human sexuality, its message is surely that this is something we also should celebrate.
Yet the Song itself is stripped of almost all ‘cultic’ references to Israel’s faith. To find the spiritual message, we have to reflect on what Scripture says elsewhere about the marital relationship between God and Israel. As we do so, however, we can find ourselves back with the medieval allegorists, seeing that the Song, insofar as it tells us about the joy, passion and longing of human love, does indeed give us a window not just into the relationship of the soul with God, but the very nature of God himself — the God whose love for his image-bearers is mirrored in marriage and whose passion in creation and redemption is mirrored in intercourse and birth.
Thus whilst we must follow the example of the Song of Songs (and the practices of faithful Israel contrary to her neighbours) in maintaining a strict separation between sex and the religious ‘cultus’, we may nevertheless reflect that everything we know and experience in and through human sexuality corresponds, in some way, to the reality at the heart of creation and redemption.

1. Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx has written a useful book titled Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery (London: Sheed and Ward, 1976) and whilst I would take issue with some of his theological assumptions, the description of marriage as a ‘mystery’ helpfully picks up the language of the New Testament (Eph 5:32 NIV, “This is a profound mystery ...”)
2. I am not persuaded by the position advocated by Paul Blackham that Eve thinks of Cain as potentially an ‘incarnation’ of God: “it is the Lord”. That is too much to presume in the light of the mandate of Genesis 1:28 that human beings multiply themselves. Nevertheless, that human beings can born as replicates of God’s image is a necessary condition for the incarnation.
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  1. John,

    Glen Scrivener's latest post says something similar:

    Derek Smith

  2. Derek

    ... but a lot more briefly!