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Is Religion Giving Morality a Bad Name?

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Adam and Eve (

You know the story: Adam and Eve were naked, innocent and blissfully free until a certain snake came along and goaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. She gave in to temptation. The first couple was kicked out of paradise. And it has been down hill ever since.

The apple, not to mention the phallic snake, are symbols for sex, right? That is what generations of religious teacher have taught. But is it true? Go back and read the story. The account speaks of "the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil?" What kind of knowledge is that? The Bible does not tell us. It has been left to the imaginations of generations of preachers and theologians. And we've seen where their imaginations have led them...

Suffice it to say that Christianity -- and the men who have presided over it for the past 2,000 years -- have had sex on their minds. They still do, if the discussions in the mainline churches today are any indication. Almost all of the hot-button issues that bitterly divide church leaders and their flocks revolve around sex -- homosexuality, abortion, contraception, the definition of marriage, divorce. But is sexuality the big deal (morally speaking) that the religious hierarchy makes it out to be?

Not according to Sister Margaret A. Farley, a world renowned scholar and author of "Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics," which was awarded the prestigious 2008 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. The nun writes sensibly that:

In Western culture, at least since its Christian formation, there has been a perduring tendency to give too much importance to the morality of sex. The sexual has threatened to take over the moral focus of whole generations of persons. Everything about the "sexual" is considered "moral" or "immoral," and "morality" is almost reduced to "sexual morality." All of this is to the detriment of concerns about economic justice, the oppression of whole peoples, political dishonesty, and even theft and the taking of life.

Views like these have gotten Sister Margaret into hot water with her religious superiors. Last May, the Vatican sent the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas a notification condemning their nun's book for "doctrinal problems." The Church took issue with Sister Margaret's views on masturbation (she says that self-pleasuring "usually does not raise any moral issues at all"); on homosexuality (Farley believes that gay sex is not inherently wrong and should be judged by the same standards as heterosexual sex); and on the indissolubility of marriage (she states that there are situations "in which too much has changed" between partners, where divorce may be the best option).

It is hardly surprising that the Vatican won't sign off on these views, which are at loggerheads with its own traditional teachings. What is surprising is that Church doctrines have scarcely altered in nearly 2,000 years, while the mores of Church members have changed a lot -- witness the fact that the most recent Gallup poll shows that a slim majority of American Catholics now support legalizing gay marriage.

The failure of the all-male Catholic hierarchy to adopt to the changing attitudes of the rank and file has led to several high-profile clashes with American nuns in recent months. The Vatican argues that moral values are God-given and do not change as society evolves. But what exactly is God's position, if any, on sex?

Religions disagree. Some traditions, like Hinduism and Taoism, view human sexuality as a sacred creative power. The erotic carvings on Indian temples, and texts like the Kama Sutra, for example, bear witness to a religious sensibility which regarded sexuality as an expression of the Divine to be celebrated rather than shunned. Western religions, on the other hand, have generally painted a blushing fig leaf over the whole subject of human sexuality, which it perceives as being explosive and downright dangerous.

Where do these views come from? One might expect that Christians would turn to the teachings of Jesus for guidance on these matters. But Jesus says little directly about sex in the Gospels. When he does address the issue, it is to condemn the overly harsh sexual mores of his time, as for example when he prevents the stoning of an adulteress: "Let him who is without fault cast the first stone." He also famously consorted with "sinners" (sinner was a euphemism for prostitutes in those day). "Judge not, that you be not judged," Christ exhorted his followers in the Sermon on the Mount.

Far from being a sexual bigot or a prude, therefore, Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as being tolerant, empathetic and forgiving. He looks to the inner attitude of love more than the sexual peccadilloes of people as the touchstone of their worth in God's eyes. When Simon criticizes Jesus for letting a woman who is "a sinner" touch him, Christ responds, "I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has washed my feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head... Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much" (Luke 7:36-50).

Contrast this to the angry din from the religious right condemning gays, abortion, contraception and the like. If Jesus had views on these matters, he didn't talk about them. He did say a lot, however, about the things that were truly important to him -- like giving to the poor, loving your enemies, forgiving sinners, turning the other cheek. When is the last time you heard a religious leader rail against someone for failing to turn the other cheek?

Jesus, if he were alive today, would surely acknowledge that sexuality -- like so many other fields of human activity -- possesses a crucial moral dimension. All the more so since sex has an unrivaled capacity both to hurt and to heal, and touches intimately upon the greatest power that we humans have -- the power to express and receive love.

That is where the real ethical issues arise. When sex is used to abuse, to demean and deceive others for ones own selfish advantage, it can do a lot of harm, precisely because it is a betrayal of what sexuality is most deeply about.

The flip side, according to Sister Margaret, is that sex is a blessing when "it is a true response to the reality of the beloved, a genuine union between the one who loves and the one loved, and an accurate and adequate affective affirmation of the loved."

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Richard Schiffman is the author of two spiritual biographies and is a poet based in New York City, as well as a freelance journalist. His passions are his love of nature, studying the world's great mystical traditions and activist writing and (more...)
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