One thing that’s been great about going to seminary is learning about how much of the theology I was raised with was… well, not wrong per se, but not a good fit for me. For example, a few months ago, I wrote about how I’m moving away from the atonement theory I was raised with (substitutionary atonement) and am moving towards a different theory (the moral influence model). That move has been a good one for me. It’s helped me make sense of a wide variety of theological questions and issues that have plagued me for a long time and that’s been nice.
Moving from one understanding of the atonement to a different one was a nice change, intellectually, but it was a largely abstract, theoretical move. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been important to me, it’s more that it hasn’t had a huge impact on how I see and understand my past and my story. However, there’s been another sort of theological misfit that I’ve been uncovering lately and this one has some pretty profound implications for me and my life. It really does impact how I see and understand my past. It also sheds light on how I’ve ended up where I am today and how I hope to carry myself and be in the world in the future. And how I hope to lead others.
And I’ve actually written a bit about this previously. I wrote about how back in high school and early college, I had some really jacked up teaching around dating. In that post, I kind of poked fun at what I was taught but you know, lately I’ve been thinking a lot more about that time and the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to see how there’s been some really deep, really damaging, long-lasting effects that all that bad teaching instilled in me.
See, here’s the thing. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’ve never had a girlfriend. I have a lot of different ideas about why my live has been this way but I’m now starting to realize that one of the root causes has to do with really, really bad theology. All that bad teaching around dating I had in church? I’m finding that it emerged from a really poor, really shallow theology of desire – sexual desire to be more specific.
Their theology went something like this. Sexual desire within the context of a marriage relationship is awesome but all sexual desire outside of that very limited context is wrong. Very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that christian leaders (especially youth and young adult leaders, but not limited to them) are well within their rights to use shame, intimidation, false promises, and fear (lots and lots of fear) in order to ensure that all traces of sexual desire are eliminated.
The way that theology of (anti)desire got preached to me was this. Desire outside the context of marriage is dangerous, it’s unpredictable, uncontrollable, and wrong. It’s so dangerous that if you choose to entertain it in any way, shape, or form, it will seriously and permanently fuck you up for life. It’s so unpredictable and uncontrollable that you should have nothing to do with it whatsoever because you can’t predict what you can’t control and you can’t control what you can’t predict. And it’s so wrong that we’re going to immediately brandish you with white hot shame if we even suspect you’re dabbling in it in any way whatsoever… because that’s how much we love you.
I wish I could say that this kind of teaching is just a youth group kind of thing but it’s not. There are lots of books written by/for adult Christian men that are supposed to help them deal with sexual temptation. (Every Man’s Battle is a popular one and there are lots just like it.) Basically these books say that all sexual desire felt outside the marriage context is bad. To combat this, they outline a variety of strategies to ensure that sexual thoughts or feelings never come to mind in the first place. Chief among them is something Steve Arterburn calls “bouncing.” Bouncing is a technique he teaches where every time your eye is tempted to linger on something that can potentially lead to sexual arousal, you immediately bounce your eyes onto something else. So if a man is walking down the street and spots an attractive woman, he’s supposed to bounce his eyeballs onto something else like a tree or his shoes or maybe the clouds in the sky.
There was a time that I bought into these kinds of ideas and techniques but I don’t anymore. And there are lots and lots of reasons I’ve changed my mind.
- It’s really bad theology.
While it is true that the fullest extent of sexual fulfillment and intimacy is reserved for those in a committed marriage partnership, other forms and expressions of that desire in other contexts are also a part of God’s design for humanity. We have been created as sexual beings. It’s hard wired into our brains. To attempt to be asexual is to attempt to be something less than human and that’s not honoring to God’s design for us. In fact, one could go so far as to say that it’s sin. Let me repeat that so the irony can sink in. Trying to live a life completely free of non-marital sexual desire is sin. It’s a perversion of God’s design for us.
- It leads to a really dysfunctional emotional life.
Sexual desire is a primary human emotion. Constantly dismissing, neglecting, disarming it can’t be healthy. Because here’s the thing. Desire is such a deep seated emotion that, regardless of suppression strategy, it will find expression somewhere, somehow. Denying it only makes it grow and fester such that when it finally does express itself, it’ll likely be in a very unhealthy, destructive way. Given how poorly much of the church has dealt with this issue, it’s no surprise that more than half of the evangelical leaders listed in Wikipedia’s Christian scandals page are there because of a wide variety of sexual indiscretions1.
On a more personal note, I know of at least two pastors who were a part of my life who stepped down or were forced out because of multiple sexual liaisons. In fact, one of these pastors preached a particularly strict procedure for dating – one where you didn’t go out on single dates with the person you were interested in until you were seriously getting ready to propose to him/her.
Of course the most common way hidden/suppressed desire gets dealt with is through pornography. But that’s a topic way too big for this post. Maybe some other time.
- It doesn’t work.
In the world of psychology, techniques like bouncing are known as behavioral modifications. The problem with behavioral techniques is that they only work for a short period of time because it doesn’t deal with root causes. If you’ve ever done any gardening, you know that if you only pull a weed up by what’s on the surface, it might look like the weed is gone but wait a few days and it’s back again. The only way to really get rid of the weed is to yank it out, roots and all. Bouncing eyes is like pulling the surface part of a weed. It’s just not a long term solution to the problem of misplaced or inappropriate or uncontrollable sexual desire.
- It can easily lead to misogynistic tendencies.
Techniques like bouncing are based in fear (fear of sexual desire) and as Yoda once said, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to misogyny.” Poke around the Christian interwebs, in forums that discuss sexual desire (keyword, “lust”) and you’ll soon find men blaming women for tempting them. Rather than honoring what’s uniquely beautiful about the opposite sex, it reinforces objectification – the idea that for men, women are merely sexual(ized) objects, not complete persons.
It’s a terribly mixed message. On the one hand, there are all sorts of pressures urging women to be beautiful (as if that’s all they have to offer) and then on the other hand, there are Christians who are saying, “hey, hey, tone it down! Can’t you see that what you’re wearing is causing me to sin?” Where’s the line? How frumpy is frumpy enough and who gets to decide?
And why are only women getting blamed?
Men (yes, even Christian men) play a huge part in the confusing mess of conflicting standards that women have to negotiate. Why doesn’t this ever get questioned in the church? Why does it seem like it’s always the women who get called into question?
I know I’ve only critiqued ideas in this post. I’ve tried to debunk what gets taught in a lot of churches but haven’t offered any alternatives. Stay tuned – I hope to get to that in future posts.
In the mean time, I’d love to hear thoughts/questions/comments/criticisms in the comments.
1Also significant, almost half of the people listed were involved in homosexual affairs which, to me, suggests that the church’s stance against homosexuality is not just theologically outdated, it’s also tremendously damaging for clergy – but that’s a whole other topic for a whole ‘nother post.