The establishment of a sexual moral code has long been a major objective for the religions of the world, which generally seek to define for their followers a pure and virtuous pathway to communion with the divine. More recently, civil libertarians and those who advocate for church-state separation have criticized the role of religion in sexual affairs as interference in the private lives of citizens of a secular state. But if we grant that religious authorities have influenced the sexual activity of their followers, for better or worse, exactly what constitutes sexual virtue varies widely from faith to faith.
While most faiths have an opinion on the matter, some are more permissive than others about what kind of sex is deemed acceptable. More conservative denominations maintain that the function of sex is procreation and the rearing of children through the stability of lifelong, monogamous relationships; some even maintain that sexual pleasure is merely an incentive for reproduction rather than an aim in itself. As Meredith Heagney of The Columbus Dispatch notes, “Conservative denominations teach that sex is reserved for marriage. To them, that means one man and one woman, ideally for the purpose of creating children”; for Jason Evert, a public speaker on chastity, the “medical dangers of birth control” are just one of many motivations for staying chaste until marriage, when, presumably, the woman will suddenly become ready to perform her office as a “vessel of life”. As people like Evert believe, it is in this procreative potential, and in its social and ecclesiastical approval through the sacrament of the traditional wedding ceremony, that sex has true spiritual significance.
But does this view treat sex and marriage as a mere breeding program (not to mention a means of property and inheritance exchange, and alliance-building) which excludes large segments of the population from the experience? After all, if the sole function of sex is procreation and child-rearing, it should be condemned among infertile couples, post-menopausal women, pre-marital couples (since the act is reserved for married couples) and couples who simply choose not to procreate, let alone homosexuals.
For more liberal faith groups, sex often serves a more relationship-centered than procreative function, and many progressive Christian denominations have taken this stance, especially in the Anglican Communion. As Heagney reports, at one Columbus, Ohio, church “with much more liberal theology, a group of lesbians was permitted to hold a sex-toy party because the pastor wanted them to have a safe place to talk about sexual pleasure”. But, of course, sex toys do not help conceive, two women cannot reproduce with one another, and the minister her/himself acknowledges the reality of “sexual pleasure” among non-heterosexual, non-reproducing couples. Another conventionally ordained minister, Bishop Thomas E. Breidenthal of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, argues that the oft-quoted passage in Leviticus condemning homosexuality is meaningless outside its historical context, and that “same-sex unions can be just as faithful and holy as heterosexual ones”; as it happens, Briedenthal and his peers may soon begin to officiate weddings for same-sex couples when the diocese starts blessing such unions in April. What do the attitudes of institutions like the southern Ohio diocese say about the religious stance toward sex? Such churches often emphasize the “sacredness” of sex between loving, consenting adults, regardless of gender, legal status, or reproductive ability, as what is truly pleasing to God; they emphasize the intrinsic value of emotion and sensuality in sex rather than propagation of the species and the creation of little “family tribes”, thus validating the relationships of couples who engage in sex for pleasure, and not reproduction.
Judaism at some point may have extolled the virtue of sexual pleasure as a pathway to, and a reflection of, the divine. For many Jews and Christians, the Song of Solomon attests to this view—moreover, the declarations of sensual delight in the book are not one-sided, from man to woman, but reciprocal, between woman and man, giving a rare glimpse into female experience of sexual pleasure: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste” (2:2-3). Perhaps because such passages are too risque and erotic, the Church has traditionally treated them as an allegory depicting the relationship between the almighty God (the husband) and the fallible church (the wife), downplaying the obvious avowal of sensual pleasure as well as the reciprocation of it between male and female equals. But if we put aside this later abstraction and look at the dialogue itself, it becomes clear that the Church has sanctioned a text in which the speakers exult in and nearly worship the delights of the flesh, paying little heed to the function of procreation.
Given that some churches stress the virtue of sex and marriage for procreation, and others, the merits of sensual pleasure, what should be the view of Universal Life Church Monastery? As an ecumenical, or universal, church, ULCM incorporates compatible beliefs from multiple religions, insofar as these do not condone harm of others, and this “live-and-let-live” doctrine allows for the potential virtue in any mutually consensual activity which leads to pleasure and not harm. Nevertheless, at ULCM we always invite our ministers to offer their opinions. What should be the attitude of the church towards sex and marriage? Let us know what you think by giving us your comments.