Christian love and sex

By Diarmaid MacCullochscholar, author What constitutes Christian love amid the sweaty delights of sex? Organized religion always takes an interest … Continued

By Diarmaid MacCulloch
scholar, author

What constitutes Christian love amid the sweaty delights of sex? Organized religion always takes an interest in sex, usually so it can tidy people’s sexual lives into some easily-managed pattern. The Vatican’s traditional emphasis is that God commands humans to procreate. Good sex has the potential to produce children; bad sex is everything else. Bad sex includes heterosexual acts involving contraceptives; masturbation; gay sex acts of all sorts. The equation of sex and procreation remained convincing for centuries because contraceptive devices were expensive, unreliable and even more comic in appearance than they are now. Now, however, readily available contraception has transformed the way in which human beings use and experience sex. Sex has always been fun: contraception has shown that the fun can be detached from the possibility of having children. The Christian tradition is now faced with the reality that pleasure and procreation are two separate purposes of sexuality, and many parts of the Christian Church, especially the Vatican, are baffled and angry.

How can Christianity cope? A first step would be to recognize that its traditional views on sexual intercourse were filched from non-Christian sources. Christianity is a complex system with two main strands: Jewish and Greek. Of the two, the Greek has made the running for nearly two thousand years. Even though Jesus was a Galilean Jew and probably had little contact with Greeks, the enthusiasts who wrote up his life and discussed his ideas took Christianity far from its Jewish roots. Most of their potential audience had a Greek cultural background, and in trying to make Greeks understand the message, Christianity absorbed the culture which it was trying to capture.

In particular, Aristotle’s wholly wrong-headed discussion of human biology lies behind the Vatican’s obstinate urging of sex-for-procreation. Aristotle asserted that male semen was the most important factor in the conception of a child. Male seed contained the entire fetus in embryo: a woman’s function was simply to act as an incubator while the child grew. Even practicing doctors agreed: the standard Roman authority Galen said that there was no difference between sowing seed in the womb and sowing the earth. Hence the superstitious value attributed to semen in ancient discussion of sexuality: to produce semen in any other context but procreation was to kill a human being.

Christian theologians in late second-century Egypt took up the theme: ‘to have sex for any purpose other than to produce children is to violate nature’, said Clement of Alexandria. It does not inspire confidence in Alexandrian judgment on matters sexual that Clement’s successor, Origen, is said to have castrated himself because he regarded his sexual organs as a source of moral danger. However, these views on sex were so influential in the Church that we can call the equation of sex and procreative potential the Alexandrian rule. The rule was repeated with enthusiasm by Thomas Aquinas, who did so much to make the Church of Rome see the world through Aristotle’s eyes. And so matters in the Vatican rest from the 13th to the 21st century, although its celibate theologians apparently do not now adopt Origen’s desperate measures.

Once Aristotle and the Alexandrian rule have been banished to the theological lumber-room, Christianity can draw on its own resources. Christianity, whether or not you think it’s true, is a love-poem. It should not be afraid of love, even when the love seems dangerous and unfamiliar. Christianity has danger built into it. One of its central liturgical symbols is alcohol: Eucharistic wine, which is both an icon of life and fun and an icon of death and destruction. The Bible is a library on the subject of love. Its story begins with God creating the world out of his love, and seeing that it is good.

But the Christian love-poem is incomplete without its story of danger embraced and overcome. God enters flesh and in his infinite love, takes on all the dangers of human suffering and imperfections, but also human dignity and joy. It was love which brought him to the Cross.

Conservative Christians often mock liberal discussions of Christian love as wishy-washy avoidance of serious moral issues. But there is nothing wishy-washy in taking the danger at the heart of Christianity seriously. Sexual relationships are all the more dangerous for having experienced the contraceptive revolution of the last century. But in their untidy modern reality, they are just as much an icon of Christ as any neat moral scheme from the ancient world.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is professor of the History of the Church at Saint Cross College in the University of Oxford. He is the author of “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,” recently published by Viking.

Read an excerpt from “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.”

Written by

  • YEAL9

    Although most religions warn us about the dangers of pre/extra-marital sex, it is obvious we are not paying attention as pre/extra-marital intercourse and other pre/extra-marital sexual activities are out of control with over one million abortions and 19 million cases of STDs per year in the USA alone. from the CDC-2006″Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain STDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psychological consequences of STDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs associated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.”How in the world do we get this situation under control? A pill to temporarily eliminate the sex drive would be a good start. (Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes calls it an anti-desire pill – 4/18/2010). And teenagers and young adults must be constantly reminded of the dangers of sexual activity and that oral sex, birth control pills, condoms and chastity belts are no protection against STDs. Might a list of those having an STD posted on the Internet help? Sounds good to me!!!! Said names would remain until the STD has been eliminated with verification by a doctor. Lists of sexual predators are on-line. Is there a difference between these individuals and those having a STD having sexual relations while infected???And the following data need to promulgated so everyone is aware that today’s contraceptives don’t always work to the degree advertised:Percentage of women (men) experiencing an unintended pregnancy (a few examples)(Guttmacher Institute statistics)Pill (combined) 8.7 Periodic abstinence – 25.3 (Masturbation) 0

  • WmarkW

    Another improper manifestation of Christian sexual attitudes is advocacy of early marriage. Modern psychology has determined that the personality undergoes a significant change between very young adulthood and the mid-20s, so young marriages tend not to last.The chance of divorce is much, much less when both partners are least 25 years old and never been married before. Mormons, for instance, who frequently marry under 20 have a very high divorce rate.Accept it — society’s better off if people don’t marry until their somewhat mature, but they’re going to have sex before that.

  • YEAL9

    Another improper manifestation of Christian sexual attitudes is advocacy of early marriage??References please!!!

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    “Christianity, whether or not you think it’s true, is a love-poem.”Not really. Christian love, often, is not love. It is just a ritual word, without any personal meaning or value. It is often a disguise for more malevolent emotions, even of hate; I sometimes, wonder that people who immerse themselves in this false, imitation love, really love, even their own families, even their own children. I am not so sure that they do.

  • ThishowIseeit


  • fgoepfert1

    This is a rather pointless discussion. Of course there is sex outside of that necessary for procreation. As in all things, it needs to be operative with the elements of love described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.

  • keeladog

    Christians do not believe in pleasure. Pleasure is evil! A tool of the Devil.Why, everyone knows “pleasure” is a dirty word in America!

  • sallie2

    Love?? Are you kidding me?? Have you read your bible lately??

  • slamming

    So…do people who stand before God and tell that LIE (FOR BETTER OR WORSE, THROUGH SICKNESS AND HEALTH) but in the end get DIVORCED get a gold star because they were MARRIED??? There are people ALL OVER THE WORLD who…for one reason or another…AREN’T MARRIED but have been together for much longer and ARE MORE DEVOTED to one another than some of those who have big, expensive weddings but at the first sign of trouble get DIVORCED!!! People have reasons that are really no other person’s BUSINESS for why they DO or DON’T DO something…God knows what’s in our hearts.

  • YEAL9

    With respect to Paul’s (or the pseudo Pauls) “unchristian”, prudish comments about women, Professor Bruce Chilton, a contemporary historic Jesus and Paul exegete says it best (from his book Rabbi Paul):”He (Paul) feared the turn-on of women’s voices as much as the sight of their hair and skin….. At one point he even suggests that the sight of female hair might distract any angel in church attendance (1 Cor. 11:10).” Much of Paul’s lack of understanding of sex and marriage apparently was due to his belief that the second coming was at hand. Still waiting for that prophecy.Simply add Paul’s thinking about women to the list of flaws in the foundations of Catholicism/Christianity.

  • agapn9

    If Aristotle’s biological theory was incorrect it does not follow that his ethical stance on the special relationship between man and woman was incorrect (as outlined in his Ethics was incorrect.Your argument is invalid because it rests on an assumption that flies in the face of common human experience – the family is the core of any human society.Like Parminides you block out the reality to hold to your one tenet – that sex is more than for procreation.Yes of course it is but only within the confines of marriage.Just as Aristotle’s notion of potency solved the Parminides problem so did Jesus solve the sex problem by making sex in marriage not only good but one of man’s highest goods.

  • schnauzer21

    “CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24”

  • MargaretParker

    You mention contraceptives as if they were 100% effective. They are not. At best they are 99% effective and at worst 96%. To have sex without being in a position to provide for or accept the responsibility of a child (including the child’s right to be raised by both genetic parents)is like playing Russian roulette. But it’s the child who takes the bullet – or the knife or the brain destroying sucking device, or the life with only one parent. Not because of tragedy but because of “choice.” We’ve now decided that killing an unwanted child is a small price to pay for the right to live an irresponsible sex life. But then it’s not the adults paying the price.

  • MargaretParker

    @WMARKW check your facts pleaseThis simple statistic obscures an interesting factor: Mormons who marry fellow believers have an extremely low divorce rate: “A 1993 study published in Demography [magazine] showed that Mormons marrying within their church are least likely of all Americans to become divorced. Only 13 percent of LDS couples have divorced after five years of marriage, compared with 20 percent for religiously homogamist unions among Catholics and Protestants and 27 percent among Jews. However, when a Mormon marries outside his or her denomination, the divorce rate soars to 40 percent — second only to mixed-faith marriages involving a Jewish spouse (42 percent).” 7 Those marrying in the temple have a 6% divorce rate.

  • gormley14412

    Part of the problem is the modern idea that “love” and “sex” are somehow synonymous. Marriage is no longer a covenantal relationship of two people willingly give themselves up, for life, for the other – but is all about a lifetime of good sex. “I’m not enjoying sex with you anymore. Guess we have to get divorced.”The fundamental idea of Christianity is that self-gratification is NOT the highest good. But the fundamental idea of Western culture is that it IS the highest good. And THAT is the problem that the church is having with modern times. Has nothing to do with sex, specifically. It has to do with idea that self-love IS love and is the ONLY love. And that’s a lie. And the church should not stop saying so, because Jesus wouldn’t. HE was at odds with his culture also.

  • Maire2

    Separating pleasure from procreation has always been possible for couples who survived long enough to outlive their fertility. In our time, not only has “readily available contraception” transformed sexual experience, but so have the vicissitudes of nature. The extension of fertility both early and late in life poses problems for any religion that teaches that the primary role of women, according to “nature,” is motherhood. What is “natural” about a ten-year-old becoming a mother or a fifty-five year-old becoming a mother? Both are possible today. Given the propensity of Mother Nature, aided by medical science, to open new possibilities for human fertility and sexuality, can any religious leader speak with “authority” about gender roles and the “purpose” of sex as decreed by “nature” or “natural law”? Nature, not just the pharmaceutical companies, has been surprising us with some serious new challenges! If we are responsible, we will meet the challenges with some serious new thinking about the ethics of human sexuality.