Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Sex and the Sacred

Trinity of The Strangest Alchemy wrote a very interesting piece on her blog a couple of days ago about the spirituality of BDSM. I cannot, through lack of experience (as yet, who knows about the future?) speak about this form of sexual expression but I would like to speak about sexuality and spirituality in general.

First of all, there is no conflict between the two. Osho, who said many very wise, and often very funny, things said, "any religion which considers life meaningless and full of misery, and teaches the hatred of life, is not a true religion. Religion is an art that shows how to enjoy life." If life is sacred, then it is here to be enjoyed. Generally, we have been taught that it is " a vale of tears" in which we have to control or suppress our desires so that we can gain the rewards in the hereafter - whatever that may bring. And foremost among these desires is the desire for sexual contact with other human beings. This, according to the dominant ideologies on this planet, is the major threat to spirituality.

But sexuality, far from being the threat it is alleged to be, is in, of and by itself sacred. Only belief systems that worship death would demonise that drive which leads to the perpetuation of life. Sexual desire arises from and is an expression of the life force within us. It is the desire to merge, both with another human being and with the larger universe - the divine however that is expressed.

That this is so can be seen in the way sexual union has been used as a metaphor for union with the divine. Take, for example, this picture:

Outside of the religious context, this picture is fairly explicit. A young musician sits in a tree while a group of erotically posed women below demonstrate their desire for him. It is a very striking picture and is, no doubt, a rather common heterosexual male fantasy. It is interpreted, however, as an allegory of the yearning of the the soul of the worshipper for union with the divine in the person of Krishna. One reading is "profane" and the other "sacred". But the picture remains the same. Is the picture sacred or profane? Or is this a false dichotomy?
i think so. I cannot see how something profane could serve as a metaphor for something sacred. The latter would, I think, be tainted by association with the former. Similarly, the erotic poem known to christians as the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, is glossed as an allegory of Jesus' love for the church. Similarly, in the medieval instructions for anchoresses (women who lived in walled up cells in churches) called The Ancrene Wisse refers to Jesus as the perfect lover, always attentive and never tiring- unlike mortal men.

In order for such devices as these to be effective there must be something sacred in the one that can be transferred to the other. Sexual desire must therefore be intrinsically sacred. And if the desire is sacred then so is the pleasure that the desire brings. I remember when, as a teenager I converted to Catholicism, being taught that I would inevitably have erections and there was nothing sinful in this. I was, however, told that I must not enjoy them. Something did not compute and my sojourn in that particular branch of christianity lasted only a few years. It seemed to portray the divine as a sort of sick practical joker, giving the means of attaining pleasure but forbidding that pleasure from being taken.

Pleasure is sacred. Inanna, in the sacred wedding songs, sings of of Dumuzzi's erection and her own wet vulva. She sings about the pleasure to come and the feel and taste of him. This is no metaphor - it is a celebration of physical lust and the joys of the bed. Inanna is the young woman who, in another story, leans against an apple tree, looks upon her "wondrous vulva" and "applauds herself". No camera panning away here - any photo at the time would be labelled by many as pornographic.

Furthermore, in the later epic of Gilgamesh there is the tale of the wild man Enkidu who is causing havoc to livestock. A priestess is sent out to tame him and she does it through seven days and nights of sex. She civilises him. Sexuality in this story is, far from being destructive of civilised society, that which makes it possible. It is also, incidentally, in Gilgamesh that Inanna, now known by Her semitic name of Ishtar, is labelled a whore. Something profound has happened between the stories of Inanna and Gilgamesh and that is a shift in the way desire is perceived. We are still living with the consequences.

These stories predate the bible by many centuries. The evidence within the bible, however, shows that the worship of Inanna/Ishtar/Astarte/Ashtoreth - for She was known by all those names - persisted in Palestine for most, if not all, of the time until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the diaspora that then ensued. This event effectively meant that Christianity could take a very partial ( in both senses of the word) reading of Jewish history thereby erasing any notion of the sacrality of sex within the middle east. It was, however, impossible for it - try as it did - to eliminate desire. It therefore had to accommodate it within its own sets of rules and restrictions - and limit it (officially anyway) to missionary position only between married heterosexual couples. Which is, essentially, where it remains to this day. And we are told that this is the norm - that all other expressions of sexuality are, if not perversions, then at least something less than ideal- particularly if the sole aim is, as in most sexual encounters, pleasure. In fact, the Krishna consciousness movement expressly ordains that sex can only occur between married couples and then, ideally, only once a month with the express intention of reproduction.

On the other hand, the Charge of the Goddess - the closest thing in Goddess paganism that I can think of to a creed - states that "all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals". And in this pairing, I feel, is a definition of sacred sexuality. Love must be present with the pleasure and it is here that the question of consent comes in. Where love is present then consent must also be present as love cannot be in a space where consent is not. The feelings of transcendence - of merging with the other and with the the universe - that come in in ecstatic union are not only a metaphor for the sacred but are themselves sacred. There is no separation.


Paul said...

Very well said. Christianity also drew on Graeco-Roman pagan philosophy that often saw sex as a distraction. The ideal man (and it is always man) should forget women, retire to a mountain and engage in pursuits of the mind.

After 36 years of partnership we still rejoice in at least an hours close bodily contact every day. The body is beautiful and divine. Hugging, contact healing, massage and all similar delights are beautiful ways of honouring the other.

Perhaps a "jealous god" cannot abide the fact that we worship our partners. That our partners incarnate the Goddess or God for us. That in the passion of sexual activity the only divine being is our partner whom we worship and in whom we lose ourselves.

Perhaps in the desire to promote one god and deny goddesses men had to be taught to be ashamed of sex precisely because during sex a woman is the very presence of the Goddess who cannot then be denied.

Brian Charles said...

Thanks for the comment about the Graeco-Roman aspects of Christianity - The christian fathers' attitudes to sex drew from that tradition as much as, if not more than, they did from Judaism - which was nowhere near sex-negative enough for them.

I love your other points!