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?