Musings on mere Christianity and ‘A Reforming Catholic Confession’

My Christian identity, from school days onwards (that’s quite a while now!) has been shaped by a commitment to a broad, inclusive evangelicalism.

There are other ways to say this (and I know these phrases can mean different things to different people):

  • an ecumenical evangelicalism
  • generous orthodoxy
  • non or inter-denominational Christianity
  • mere Christianity
  • catholic Christianity

I guess that commitment was shaped early on by mentors and leaders who led me to faith and discipled me. Northern Irish Christianity gets a lot of bad press, but my experience was of a warm hearted faith fostered in local church and para-church organisations.

That instinct for holding to the centre has been reinforced over the years in at least three ways – two positive and one negative:

i. Experience

Some have questioned whether such a thing as evangelicalism even exists … Friendships forged with Christians from many traditions and backgrounds – in work, in ministry, in different churches, in travel – is evidence that it does. Evangelicalism is an ethos as well as a commitment to core Christian doctrines. Seeing the reality of others’ love for God, love for the gospel, love for each other and love for the world among Christians of many different hues is a powerful testimony to the lived reality of that evangelical ethos. The Christian faith is more than knowing truth; it is coming to know God through faith in his Son and by being made alive by his Spirit. Those ‘in Christ’ are united in him and thus to each other. That unity finds expression on common concerns –  in prayer, in study, in worship and in mission together. I work in a place where this unity around common priorities is visible every day –  and it is good. It speaks of the unifying work of the Spirit and the universal application of the gospel to all people.

ii. Theology

That instinct has also been interrogated and analysed theologically – in a PhD on evangelicalism, in writing, research, reading and teaching. The more I go on as a Christian, the more I am convinced that the Scriptures tell a theological story that is coherent, understandable, powerful and true. It is the core story, with the person and work of Jesus at the centre, that we need to focus on and unite around in dialogue with the Great Tradition of the Church catholic.

iii. Schism

Another thing I am more convinced by as I go on as a Christian, is how scandalous division is among Christians who claim to be committed to the evangel. By division I do not mean only where churches divide and split, but where Christians who manifestly agree on the important stuff choose not to work together, not to speak well of each other, to ignore each other and sometimes directly to compete with each other.

I can understand this at an intellectual level – it is usually around what I call an ‘affinity issue’ rather than a core doctrine of faith. An affinity issue is one which marks out a particular sub-grouping of evangelicals. For example, it might be a particular view of the gifts of the Spirit, or of the structure of church leadership, or a stress on a particular aspect of the atonement, or mode of baptism and so on. Commitment to affinity then trumps commitment to a broader unity. Working with those most like you is most comfortable and ‘safe’ after all. You create and forge your own alliances and tend to circle in the wagons tighter than the broad circumference of mere evangelicalism.

But, to be honest, I don’t understand this mentality at a theological and experiential level. Theologically it seems to question the sufficiency of the gospel. Experientially it seems to question the work of the Spirit.

All this leads in to a REFORMING CATHOLIC CONFESSION just published as part of the 500 year commemoration of the Reformation and signed by a wide spectrum of well-known (mostly American) evangelicals. For a quick glance at the signatories, that spectrum embraces Reformed, Arminian, Pentecostal and others .. If I was to make a critical comment, it would be the overwhelmingly American and Western and male make up of those involved in its drafting. A commitment to global evangelical unity needs to reflect that breadth in its formation.

But it is well worth reading and I’d be happy to sign it. It leaves affinity issues to one side as much as  possible in articulating the core implications of the Reformation Solas.

Their motive is given thus:

One of the best ways to commemorate the Reformation is to remember the Reformers’s original vision for Catholic unity under canonical authority. This original vision has sometimes been forgotten not only by the heirs of the Reformation, but also by its critics, who often fixate on the divisions within Protestantism. Thus, a number of leaders from across the Protestant spectrum have come together to honor the original vision of the Reformers by demonstrating that, despite our genuine differences, there is a significant and substantial doctrinal consensus that unites us as “mere Protestants.”

Point 9 of ‘The Explanation’ expands on this motivation:

In sum, the Reformation was an appropriation and further development of the seminal patristic convictions presupposed by the Rule of Faith, the Apostles’ and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds, and the Chalcedonian definition, particularly as these clarified the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation, essential conditions for the integrity of the gospel. The solas (grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone) enabled a deeper insight into the logic and substance of the gospel as well as the unique significance of the person and work of Jesus Christ and, as such, stand in continuity with the whole (catholic) church, even as they represent a genuine elaboration of faith’s understanding.

In Point 10 it states

… in making common confession, as we here do, we challenge the idea that every difference or denominational distinction necessarily leads to division.

Point 22 expands on this pursuit of a generous broad evangelical ethos

We recall and commend John Wesley’s plea that Protestants display a catholic spirit, a call for right-hearted believers to give up their prideful insistence on their right opinions in order to establish right relations with others whose hearts and minds are set on following Jesus according to the Scriptures. We resolve to rededicate ourselves to dialogue in, with, and for the communion of saints, and not to settle for thinking and doing things separately that we can in good conscience think and do together, for the sake of our common witness to the one church of Jesus Christ.

Amen to that.

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What have evangelicals to learn from Catholics?

 

vaticanI’ve been working my way through a very thorough book by an evangelical scholar on Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in order to write a review of the book for a journal.

This post isn’t primarily about that book, but it did raise a question. The structure of the book was a point by point assessment of official Catholic doctrine. It was fairly done. The author brought out commonalities as well as differences. There were substantial numbers of both.

Overall, the approach was to analyse and assess RC doctrine from a particular (Reformed) evangelical perspective. The thrust of the book was to conclude that despite many areas of agreement, there are multiple substantial areas of disagreement that should preclude any notion that the Reformation is over or that evangelicals and Catholics should cooperate in mission and witness.

Again, that conclusion is not what this post is about. It is more about a lingering question I was left with. It wasn’t asked in the book because it tended to be assumed that evangelical doctrine and practice is the yardstick by which to evaluate other systems. The critique was all flowing one way.

What has evangelical faith and practice got to learn from Roman Catholic faith and practice?

This is a self-critical question. It assumes that ‘we’ haven’t got it all right. It is open to learn from others. It implies a certain humility as we look at ourselves, our level of Christ-likeness, our churches, and our often disunited factions.

Despite that last sentence, this is not asking for a long list of the failures or weakness of evangelical faith and practice, nor is it asking for a similiar list of Catholic weaknesses. It’s framed postively …  So another way of asking this is

What for you are the ‘best’ aspects of Catholicism from which evangelicals can learn and be reformed by?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (5): the sexual revolution and Christian marriage

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OK,  some thoughts on marriage in this little mini-series set off by reflecting on allegory and the Song of Songs.

Contemporary Western attitudes to marriage are complex and, at times, contradictory. On the one hand, marriage is legally and socially less significant – a lifestyle choice ignored by increasing numbers of people. Yet, on the other hand, it is a status vigorously pursued as a legal and human right for those formerly excluded from a male-female heterosexual understanding of marriage.

Much confusion arises from different understandings of what marriage actually is. Modern views of marriage are, at key points, historically novel – radically so. Yet, such has been the cultural success of the modern concept of marriage, that it has swept all before it – including much Christian understanding and practice of marriage. The result has been that much Christianity in the West lacks the theological resources to imagine marriage, sex, and the body in radically counter-cultural ways.

So what is this dominant modern view of marriage? It is shaped by at least two major innovations:

Innovation 1: A revolution in the understanding of sex

  • celibacy is incomprehensible (our previous post)
  • being sexually active is an essential part of being human; repression of who we are sexually is harmful and oppressive
  • sex is an activity detached from reproduction. (This is technically possible only in the blink of an eye historically. Remember that for the early church fathers sex was only legitimate if done for procreation. Sex for pleasure was a venial sin).
  • Detachment from procreation frees sex to be a leisure activity – primarily a source of pleasure, fun and self-expression.
  •  Thus sex becomes an end in itself – a source of personal self-fulfilment and expression of identity
  • Modern sex is therefore deeply linked to modern consumerism – it is no accident that sex is used to sell pretty well anything.

Innovation 2: Romantic fulfilment

  • Everywhere in a thousand ways Western culture affirms that the path to individual fulfilment is through authentic romantic love
  • Such love is equal, sexual, intimate and exciting. It is the Other who meets our needs and us theirs. It is ‘us’ and then the rest of the outside world.
  • This vision of romantic love is also new historically – never before in human history has happiness, meaning, fulfilment and purpose been so invested in one relationship.
  • The stakes are high – if the relationship doesn’t deliver exalted hopes then its future is in serious doubt
  • Rising divorce rates suggest that our ‘all or nothing’ investment in marriage / the ‘perfect one’ / ‘true love’ as the ultimate source of identity, happiness and future hope is unrealistic and unsustainable. There are sadly a lot of broken dreams out there.

How has this framework impacted marriage ?

At least two ways:

1. You might think that it would undermine marriage and you would be right.

Marriage rates in Ireland are still high, but on the decline. Many places in the West are far ‘ahead’ in this trend. This makes sense – logically marriage is an optional extra, unnecessary to a fulfilling relationship. For increasing numbers people the thinking is, why bother?

Easier and quicker divorce also follows – if it is not working out, then get out. (I’m speaking big picture here. I’m well aware that many try heroically and self-sacrificingly to make a marriage work and it still fails with associated enormous heartbreak. It takes two to make a relationship function. But the trend is a devaluing of marriage as a life-long commitment).

2. If marriage is only about fulfilment, love, romance, sex, mutuality and happiness then gender also becomes logically irrelevant.

The reshaping of marriage in the West has been about the rights of two individuals ‘in love’ – so it matters not if you are heterosexual or homosexual or somewhere else on a spectrum of human sexuality. This explains the social revolution of the West’s rapid adoption of same-sex marriage. The speed that traditional norms have been abandoned is indicative of how firmly entrenched a romantic individualist view of sex and marriage has become.

Notice though that children are secondary to this pursuit of authentic love. In contrast to a historic, traditional understanding of marriage as the context for conceiving and raising children, the West’s reshaped understanding of marriage has largely detached it from procreation.

This also means that there is now no logical boundary to the pursuit of the perfect relationship. At the moment marriage is limited to two people, regardless of gender in an increasing number of Western nations; it is hard to see why Western culture will not widen its social experimentation to include other forms of ‘pure love’ – love between free, equal consenting adults in whatever arrangement they find fulfilling.

[Can’t remember where I read someone raising the ironical point that the West’s shifting views of sex and marriage, while totally alien to Islam, makes it difficult rationally to resist the argument for polygamy to be legalised. This both on the grounds of ‘free choice of consenting adults’ AND on the grounds of tolerance & inclusion of other ways of life.]

Challenges facing Christians

I said earlier that in the face of the West’s revolution in understanding of sex and marriage, that much Christianity is struggling to articulate a vision for and practice of marriage that is counter-cultural. That’s a big claim and these are blog musings – but what do you think?

I wonder if we are so impacted by Western culture’s revolutionary understanding of sex and romance that these implications follow:

  • adoption of same-sex marriage by many churches and denominations in the West – eg the Scottish Episcopal church vote in 2017, the similar direction of travel of the Church of Scotland, continuing deep divisions in the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the USA etc etc.
  • assimilation of Western romantic individualism that marginalises the idea of marriage as a life-long covenant commitment. Here’s a favourite quote from Stanley Hauerwas talking about a minister doing a marriage preparation course and thinking it

..… interesting to ask if they love one another. What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you’re in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.

  • a subtle revolution in Christian understanding of and practice of divorce. I know this is a painful and complex area and this is not meant in a judgemental way. But it is here that a Christian understanding of marriage should be most counter-cultural. However we understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on divorce, it is crystal clear that it is a disaster; it should be practiced with the utmost seriousness and in limited circumstances. An easy divorce and remarriage policy and divorce rates similar to that of the wider culture would be signs that the church is losing its vision for Christian marriage. [For a very helpful resource on this see the work of Dr David Instone-Brewer of Tyndale House here.]
  • A marginalisation of the practice of celibacy. As I said in this post, while associated with some bad theology, celibacy was the default ‘best option’ in church teaching and life for hundreds of years. It is clearly the New Testament’s preference. Yet today, singleness is not valued as at least an equal option to marriage. While studies vary and stats are unreliable, it is also pretty clear that rates of pre-marital sex amongst young Christians are climbing due to enormous cultural pressures.

Question: do you think celibacy losing credence within the church as well as being incomprehensible outside it?

Of course, describing these trends is easier than saying how best to respond.

Four challenges come to mind:

i. At the very least these are issues we need to be talking about, thinking about theologically, and articulating in teaching and preaching an authentic Christian vision for sex and marriage..

ii. Too often the first response of the church has been to resist and oppose changes in the law enacted by secular governments as a way of ‘protecting’ marriage. Too often absent, has been a first response of looking at ourselves – how church practice and beliefs around sex and marriage have been profoundly formed by Western individualism and consumerism. It is when the church practices sex and marriage well that it will have most impact, not when it takes the Christendom option in a post-Christendom culture of fighting and losing legal battles in the courts.

iii. Almost finally! – there is a need to combine teaching and practicing that vision with listening to people who do not fit within modern church assumptions about the default best option being heterosexual marriage with 2.2 children; singles, people with same-sex attraction, people self-identifying as LBGT+ etc.

iv. Finally finally – let’s return to the Song of Songs. The two lovers are ‘perfect’ – their pristine love captured in beautiful lyrics. We don’t read of them getting older. We don’t read of imperfect lovers making mistakes and failing to love well. Theirs is a wonderful picture of idealised love. It both gives us an inspiring vision and reminds us that our lives and relationships are inevitably marked by sin and selfishness, and our sexual lives are no different. So in all our thinking and teaching about an ideal Christian vision for love, sex and marriage, we also need to practice forgiveness, compassion and tons of grace.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (4): contemporary attitudes to celibacy

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Two strands of teaching on love, sex and the body

STRAND ONE:  a good gift to be enjoyed

In the last few posts we’ve sketched how the Song of Songs does not need to be interpreted allegorically in order to have a rich theology of love, sex and the body (somatology). It is a celebration of an exclusive, monogamous, heterosexual union of husband and wife in a relationship of intimacy, joy, play, and love. We might say that it is a picture of idealised love between an archetypal couple.

This, if you like, is strand one of the Judeo-Christian theology of love, sex and the body.

( I should add that the Song, being about two lovers coming together for the first time, has no mention of children. The book is not really about marriage per se, more about human love. Within wider Jewish and Christian theology, one of the key ‘goods’ of marriage and the central purpose of sex is the making of children who are raised within the security of a covenant relationship between the man and the woman. So this can be added to strand one).

STRAND TWO: an inextricable link to sin and shame

We’ve also jumped forward into the New Testament and early church history to note how the death and resurrection of Jesus was the catalyst for a radical re-thinking of sex, marriage and the body, so much so that celibacy became the highest expression of Christian spirituality for over a millennium.

Strand two is predominantly Augustinian – taking the examples and teaching of Jesus and Paul seriously, but with a deep ambivalence about sex and the body, a somewhat reluctant endorsement of marriage, and with celibacy the idealised state. Sex and body are tied to shame and sin. The less sex the better and the fun, play and delight of the Song of Songs is definitely off limits. This is the strand of sexual asceticism – a hugely influential distortion of the New Testament’s positive teaching on celibacy / singleness.

A more balanced view is that both sex and singleness are good gifts (charisma) of God’s grace (charis). Paul makes this clear in 1 Cor. 7:7

Each man [or woman] has his [or her] own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

There is no hierarchy of status or merit or achievement here – both are gifts of God.

FLUCTUATING FORTUNES

These two strands have in other words, had fluctuating fortunes in church history. To paint with a very broad brush, strand one has made a big comeback since the Reformation, to the point where it re-emerged as the overwhelmingly dominant model of a Christian ethic of love, sex and body. The fusion of marriage, sex and children long ago eclipsed celibacy as the ideal state, particularly within Protestantism with its married clergy and rejection of enforced celibacy. Indeed, it is the nuclear family which has become the Christian ‘ideal’ regarding sex, love, relationships and children and it is that ‘norm’ that churches are often structured around.

However, within both strands, it should be noted that sex is a good gift and belongs within the domain of heterosexual marriage. Sex outside that domain is a misuse of God’s good gift. This is the orthodox and agreed teaching of the Church catholic since the earliest days of Christianity and should not be lightly dismissed.

All this sets the scene for another big jump forward in this post to sex in the 21st Century West.

THE MARGINALISATION OF BOTH STRANDS WITHIN CONTEMPORARY WESTERN CULTURE

ATTITUDES TO CELIBACY TODAY

My suggestion, dear reader, (with which you are welcome to disagree) is that the second strand (the ideal of celibacy) is already completely incomprehensible to the modern mind. When I say modern mind I mean us Westerners – whether Christian or not.

Within the church, in my opinion, the ideal of marriage has been assumed and reinforced in a thousand ways. The strong biblical support for celibacy in Jesus and in Paul, as well as the early church, has been overwhelmed by modern romanticism. Singleness (and therefore celibacy according to Christian teaching) is implicitly viewed as a failure; to be regretted and rarely talked about. Single people in multiple ways are left on the margins.

‘Outside’ the church, attitudes to celibacy are less ambiguous. The 40 year old virgin is a buffoon, an immature idiot, a source of comedy and pity, who must at all costs, get laid belatedly to enter adult life. Sex is the rite of passage into autonomy and self-respect. Sex is an essential part of our identity and self-expression. Sexual identity is who we are – whatever our place on the spectrum of human sexuality. To deny that identity is to deny our core being. Celibacy becomes therefore virtually a form of self-harm; it is evidence of a lack of self-respect. This is why in the movie Steve Carell has to be rescued first and foremost from himself.

If sex is essentially our culture’s idealised form of adult entertainment, a playground of pleasure and enjoyment, then those that refuse to partake in its delights must be victims of a distorted vision of human flourishing. Celibacy, on other words, is not only an idiosyncratic life choice, it is positively harmful.

And when you connect this wider cultural attitude to images of Catholic Ireland, paedophile priests, abuse, repression, and hypocrisy, you can see how celibacy is now understood to be a very dangerous idea indeed.

It was not that long ago that having a son go into the priesthood was a mark of status and honour for an Irish family. No more … just think of the brilliant scene in Calvary where Brendan Gleeson happens to walk with a young girl on her way to the beach. All is charmingly light-hearted and friendly until her father screeches up in a car and tears her away from the insidious danger of a priest – any priest. Gleeson’s despairing slump of his shoulders as the car drives away spoke volumes of a fatally tarnished ideal. The point of the film’s (very) black humour is various residents’ pathological antipathy towards the Church and its representative – a hatred that leads to the climax of the movie.

This post was going to be the last, but it is already too long so we’ll look at contemporary attitudes to marriage in the (really) final one inspired by the Song of Songs.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Song of Songs, love, sex and hidden meanings (3): celibacy better than sex?

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In this post (it’s in the text if you look hard enough) and this post (an ambivalent attitude to sex and the body) we have looked at two reasons why in Church History Christians have defaulted to an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.

So far we moderns may be feeling rather smug at the naive foolishness of our predecessors.

Of course let the text be the text!

Of course the body and sex are to be celebrated and enjoyed! 

Not so fast. As we come to the third reason we begin to be faced with some uncomfortable truths about the Church’s accommodation to Western romantic individualism and its idolisation of the body and sex.  The third reason is this:

3. In the New Testament, celibacy IS the better option than marriage for a disciple of Jesus.

The first Christians and the early church fathers knew this far far better than we do. They knew the words of Jesus and of Paul. Let’s remind ourselves of them:

JESUS

In Matthew 19:1-12, after an exchange with the Pharisees about divorce (which Jesus seems to prohibit but that is another story) his disciples say

‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’

To which Jesus does not disagree. Later in Matthew 22:30 Jesus states that

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven

Which rather drastically relativises the significance of marriage in the future life to come.

PAUL

In answering the Corinthians’ belief that “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Cor 7:1) Paul takes a path that, I think, we would be very slow to walk today.

Basically he disagrees with their renunciation of sexual relations. He sees the place for sex within marriage, with a remarkable and counter cultural sense of mutuality between husband and wife it should be said.

The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 1 Cor. 7:3-4.

However – and it is a big however – he sounds quite Augustinian (yes I realise that is a wee bit off chronologically) in saying that sex and marriage is OK for some, but really he wished that they were all like him – single and celibate.

The whole of chapter 7 can be summed up with Paul’s teaching to ‘Stay as you are’. If you are single, stay that way. Don’t pursue marriage and sex and children and all those responsibilities and burdens, leave yourself free to live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord (v. 35)

each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. 1 Cor. 1:17.

Marriage is specifically described as not a sin (v. 28) but that is hardly the most ringing endorsement of marital bliss that you have ever heard. (Don’t hear this bit of 1 Corinthians preached too often at weddings funny enough – that honour goes to chapter 13).

Yes Paul is clearly NOT laying down laws here. He is at pains to emphasise that much of this is his personal preference – he has taken his apostolic ‘hat’ off. But the fact remains that this teaching, like that of Jesus, radically redraws the purpose and importance of marriage, sex and procreation within the kingdom of God.

My point in this post is to suggest that the early church recognised far more clearly than we do, the radical implications of the death and resurrection of Jesus as inaugurating God’s kingdom within the world. Death itself has been overcome in Christ.

The realities for Christian discipleship meant that martyrdom and celibacy were very much live options for serious believers. Marriage and sex and family were ties to ‘this world’. They were not a wrong choice, but the overwhelming consensus of the early church fathers is that celibacy was by far the better option.

If this is so then some questions for us today:

How is celibacy viewed in contemporary Western culture today? (Hint – the picture below).

An Irish related context question – how has the recent religious history of Ireland helped to shape contemporary attitudes to celibacy?

How is celibacy and singleness (whether for heterosexual or homosexual people) thought of within the Church? How do you think of it?

If you are single, what has been your experience ?

What do Christian divorce rates tell us about contemporary Western Christianity – its priorities and real beliefs ‘on the ground’?

In the last post on this mini-series, we’ll turn to think about the revolution in thinking about gender and sex in Western culture and questions it poses for Christian witness and discipleship. Easy answers guaranteed (not) !

The Song of Songs: love, sex and hidden meanings (2): Augustine – ‘the less sex the better’

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In the last post we looked at the first reason why allegory has been the overwhelmingly dominant approach to the lyrical love poetry of the Song of Songs.

Here’s a second reason:

A deep rooted theological ambivalence about the body and sex

Take, for example this passage of the man extolling the physical beauty of his beloved in Song of Songs 4. This is a wasf – a love poem focusing on the other’s body starting from the head and working downwards (he gets as far as her breasts and gets distracted 🙂 )

How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!

Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats

descending from the hills of Gilead

Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn,
coming up from the washing.
Each has its twin;
not one of them is alone.

Your lips are like a scarlet ribbon;
your mouth is lovely.
Your temples behind your veil
are like the halves of a pomegranate.

Your neck is like the tower of David,
built with courses of stone;
on it hang a thousand shields,
all of them shields of warriors.

Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.

Until the day breaks
and the shadows flee,
I will go to the mountain of myrrh
and to the hill of incense.

You are altogether beautiful, my darling;
there is no flaw in you. (NIV)

This doesn’t need a lot of clever interpreting. She’s drop dead gorgeous and he’s drinking her beauty in. The mountains of myrrh and hill of incense are obviously metaphors for her breasts – he is dying to spend the night in their contours! She is his darling, perfect in every way to him.

The Songs are about young love. Their bodies are in the full flow of youth. It is marital love – she is his bride. But there is no mention of children. Nor, indeed, of God. The structure is centered around their sexual union at the end of chapter 4 and start of chapter 5.

All of this poses a fairly major problem if you come to the text with certain theological assumptions like:

  • sex and sexual desire are inseparably linked with sin
  • sex and marriage are second best to God’s higher calling of celibacy
  • holiness is to do with sexual renunciation. It is the celibate and virgin who is the ideal Christian

Very quickly you can see how, when it comes to sex, the past is another country.

The person who has had greatest influence on Christian attitudes to sex is Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD). He held all of the assumptions above. But we have to be careful not to caricature. He actually developed a fairly positive theology of marriage in contrast to other more radical early church figures and movements.

Some of his thinking can be summarised like this:

  • Human sexuality is a good gift of God
  • It is within marriage that sexual desires can be rightly ordered
  • Sex itself is made by God as the means of procreation
  • BUT (and it is a very big but) – sex cannot happen without the sinful desire of lust (concupiscence). Lust is a lower order desire that acts against reason and will.
  • It is the result of sin (it did not exist in the copulation of Adam and Eve before the Fall)
  • Sex and procreation are essential but are tainted by sin and shame
  • So it is OK to have sex in order to have children. BUT it is a venial sin to have sex for pleasure since that is unnecessarily engaging in lust.

All in all, Augustine might be summarised as ‘the less sex the better’

You can see why I suggested that the past is another country to day when it comes to sex!

Augustine’s reasoning is shaped by platonism – the duality between the higher will / reason and the lower flesh and desire.

But now the soul is ashamed that the body, which by nature is inferior and subject to it, should resist its authority. (Augustine, CIty of God, Book XIV, para. 23)

He, like pretty well all the church fathers before and afterwards – and right up through the Medieval church, through the Reformation and to Wesley and up to many today, allegorised the Song of Songs.

 

It is not so much that sex itself is despised (Augustine’s achievement was to counter that thinking), but his was a theology of profound ambivalence towards sex and the body.  He reluctantly saw that this was God’s way of doing things but because of the Fall and original sin it is shameful.

His ideal for sexual intercourse was Adam and Eve copulating in full control of their wills, free from the dangerous passions of lust. He imagines the first human sex scene thus:

without the disease of lust … at the command of the will … without the seductive stimulus of passion; with calmness of mind and with no corrupting of the integrity of the body, the husband would lie upon the bosom of his wife. (City of God, XIV, para. 26)

A bigger contrast to the Song of Songs is hard to imagine!

A couple of questions to ponder:

What are our modern day theological assumptions about sex and the body today?

What place is there for celibacy?

What are the assumptions of the culture we live in?

The Song of Songs: sex, love and hidden meanings (1)

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1How does a Christian read the Song of Songs?

What to make of it?

How to interpret it?

My guess is the default approach in church is to play safe and ignore it.

As we saw in the last post, it has not been ignored in church history. The overwhelming consensus has been, when faced with startling erotic poetry, to deflect attention to ‘higher’ things via allegorizing the Song of Songs. It started early on in church history and continues to have traction (though less than in the past) today.

The reason to discuss this is it touches on areas of somatology (the theology of the body) :

What is a Christian way of thinking about bodies, sex and love?

How has this shifted over time?

There are few more contentious and ‘hot’ issues that this in contemporary culture and theology. So this is the first is a wee series of short posts on suggested reasons for the popularity of allegorizing the Song of Songs. It will lead on to some posts on love and sex today.

The first reason for allegory is that interpreters see it in the text (or just below the surface of the text):

1. It is there in the text (if you look hard enough)

There are exegetical and theological arguments for allegory within the Song itself. Some are well made. Here are couple of very recent examples:

A Jewish Vision

j10560One such is Jewish scholar Jon Levenson in his recent book The Love of God. He is well aware of the problem of allegory that has nothing to do with the text and exists only in the mind of the allegorizer. He is also aware that the book can be read profitably on its own terms. He acknowledges that identifying the man and woman with Israel and God is ‘not defensible within the plain meaning of the Song’. But, he says, it is far from arbitrary.

He proposes a form of Midrash that brings different texts together to give a deeper unity of Scripture to light (132). And that unity speaks of

‘the longest and most consequential romance ever – the unending romance of God and the people of Israel’ (134).

Israel is ‘wedded’ to God – the background here is Jeremiah and Ezekiel speaking of Israel as his (unfaithful) bride. But here in the Song it is the faithful community of Israel in covenant love with her God. It may not have the reality (witness exile and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem), but it is an ideal, a vision of her true calling.

At the heart of the Torah he says, is love.

A Christian Vision

9781783595396In a recent book on Marriage, Family and Relationships, Rosalind Clarke suggests, like Levenson but from a Christian perspective, that the Songs has different layers of meaning. So, for her, the Song is about THREE layers of meaning:

i. Human sexuality.

This is what I’d call the plain meaning or surface meaning of the text –  ‘The Song of Songs honours human love and human marriage.’ 51.

Her endorsement of this level of meaning is, I think, rather perfunctory. It does not capture the sheer joy and celebration of erotic love that is everywhere in the Song.

2. God and Israel.

The text, she argues, points ‘beyond’ the surface. He is the shepherd-king-bridegroom who embodies the idealised Solomon. The vineyard owner, analogous to YHWH

She is the landscape of Israel – a ‘darling Jerusalem, the promised Land’ (there are a lot of geographical metaphors used of the lovers’s bodies).

Clarke acknowledges the ‘connection between the Song’s male character and YHWH is not made in directly in the Song’ but is suggested by the worship of the male elsewhere. [She does not deal with the fact that there is parallel praise, and even more so, for the woman by the man).

3. Christ and the Church.

Here she goes for the typical allegory of Christ the bridegroom and the woman as the church / bride (Ephesians 5:23-32).

I don’t know about you, but I think it is revealing that Levenson and Clarke both freely acknowledge that the text itself does not clearly point to ‘hidden’ meanings – whether allegorical or a Midrash.

It is, I think, relevant that while Levenson sees levels 1 and 2, Clarke, as a Christian, sees Level 3 as well.

My problem here is that the interpreter sees what he or she wants to see. Getting to the meaning of the text itself and what it says about human love is complicated enough given multiple uncertainties such as the identity of the lovers, the date, whether Solomon is an active participant or whether the two lovers are simply idealised figures etc .

Better to stay at Level 1 is my opinion. The Song is about love, sex, desire, marriage, joy and embodiment. That’s plenty to be getting on with without ‘leaving the text’ and searching for other levels of meaning.

How about you? How have you been taught (or not taught) to view the Songs?

(and regardless of this question, can I recommend that if you have not done so for a long time, dust off that section of your Bible and have a good close read – it is well worth it).

The next post will look at a second reason for allegorizing the Songs (cliffhanger here).