Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2014

The Life of the World and the Death of a Comedian

The first I heard of Robin Williams’ death was a Facebook post from my friend Shawn. He posted all of “O Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman, re-popularized by Williams’ movie Dead Poets Society. Shawn, like the students in the movie, was mourning the loss of a hero.

For my part, I posted a short reflection and a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.

“[I am] giving thanks for the life of Robin Williams, who amazingly took all of his pain and allowed it to illuminate and delight us. The best comedy has always come from troubled souls, who see more clearly some of the tragedies of life. He will be missed.

Into Your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Robin. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech You, a sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of Your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.”

It amazes me how much the internet has become part of our lives; both Shawn and I felt a need to share our grief online.

It was not until the next morning that I discovered how concerned some people were about the whole affair. Robin Williams committed suicide. Matt Walsh wrote a blog emphasizing this. He wants us to know that Robin took is own life; there is nothing heroic about that. It made me think hard about how I feel and what I mean when I celebrate the life that has just ended. It conjured questions of disease and free will and the meaning of life, something I study. It also touched on my faith and my belief that suicide is a bad choice.

When another friend asked me my opinion, I had to sit and think. It’s not an easy matter. Daniel McInerny criticized Walsh. He wants us to know how much our biochemistry and our health impact our choices. It was more than just a “bad choice.” It was influenced, perhaps even brought about by depression. Chris Attaway, argues against a too simple morality that judges people on what they cannot control. “We don’t expect people with Downs syndrome to perform rocket science. We don’t expect people with cerebral palsy to compete at the Olympic level.” Is there such a thing as not-guilty by reason of depression?

Walsh and McInerny and Attaway all make great points, but they have confused mourning and understanding. In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, I want to remember the good he did. I want to speak about what he meant for me. I want to pray for his soul, for his self, wherever it may be. I don’t think understanding what happened will help with any of that. And I fear worrying about it gets in the way of dealing with my own loss.

Let me say for the record – as a Christian, as a pastor, and as a theologian – I think suicide is a bad choice. It doesn’t work. It seems like an option when we are in pain, when we feel alone and powerless, when we don’t want to be where we are. And yet, suicide closes options for the future, it hurts people and pushes them further away. Suicide takes away what it promises to give – our chances for getting better. And that has real important to me, as one who’s considered it, one with friends who struggle with it, and others who, sadly, have made such a choice. This is a very important issue, but now is not the time.

Why do I focus on Robin’s life and not his manner of death?

First, publicizing suicide is a bad choice. We know that the idea of suicide is contagious. Prominent coverage, particularly for celebrities, makes the idea seem more feasible. Public condemnation may be better than public praise, but a brief informative report is better than both.

Second, I favor love over judgment in all cases and for all events. This can be a tough principle, but I find it really important for Christians. Before an action comes a time to discern, to debate, to persuade. After an action, we work at love and reconciliation. If I hope to change someone’s behavior in the future I might tell them how much harm they’ve done. With Robin, I wish him the best as he moves on.

Third, I must not confuse my own needs with those of others. Walsh tells us how important it is to him that he has a choice. I honor his sharing of that about himself, but I don’t think judging Robin empowers Walsh or anyone else. There’s something existential about choice and we have to grab it for ourselves.

Science and medicine can tell us something about our choices. We know that. Doctors treat depression as a medical condition because our biochemistry and mood are intertwined, and they influence our choices. Chemicals like serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), epinephrine, dopamine, and oxytocin profoundly impact the way we feel. It’s valuable to know that the drug Ecstasy can cause euphoria (serotonin high) and that it can also impair your ability to feel the same thing in the future. It’s helpful to know that our environment and choices change who we are and the choices we make – maybe even the choices we can make.

When the time comes, I’ll be happy to talk about the will we have and the will we don’t. I’d love to recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow all about the heuristics running in our heads. I’d love to recommend Kathleen Norris book Acedia and Me all about depression and despair, choice and spirituality. I’d love to tell you how important it is for us to know that we can make choices. Perhaps it will prevent us from making bad choices in the future. Cieply and Barnes point out how important work was for Robin. It was a way to fight depression. So, if I must talk about Robin’s demons, I will say this, he channeled the power of their attacks into making the world a better place.

To everything there is a season. I believe passionately about free will and our need to study and debate how much control we have over our lives. I care deeply about theology and meaning and the value of life. We must reflect on our priorities in the summertime, so that when winter comes we know what matters. And, when a beloved friend dies, it is time to mourn. It is time to affirm the life he led and the lives we lead. That too is a choice.

For now, I come to bury Caesar and to praise him. For myself and for my readers, I’ll choose life. That’s were our attention should be. I’ll praise what was praiseworthy and forgive that which was hurtful. I remember the good he did and the good I may do. And I pray, as always and with the grace of God, that that will be enough.

Posted by: dacalu | 14 August 2014

Martial Arts Booklist

In looking over some old files, I see that I put together a list of good martial arts books in 2004 for Enso Center. It looks like it could use some updates, so feel free to recommend in the comments.

The Classics:

Tao Te Ching   Lao Tzu (Trans. Stephen Mitchell, Thomas Cleary)

The Art of War   Sun Tzu (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

I Ching   (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

Way of Chuang Tzu   Chuang Tzu (Trans. Thomas Merton)

The Book of Five Rings   Musashi Miyamoto (Trans. Thomas Cleary)

Muye Dobu Tongji   (Trans. Sang H. Kim)

 

 

Modern works of interest:

Korean Hapkido   Kwang Sik Myung

The Art of Peace   Morihei Ueshiba (Trans. John Stevens)

Budo   Morihei Ueshiba (Trans. John Stevens)

The Encyclopedia of Taekwondo   Hong Hi Choi

Aikido   Koichi Tohei

A Road that Anyone Can Walk: Ki   Koichi Tohei

Aikido and the Harmony of Nature   Mitsugi Saotome

Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere   Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook

Secrets of the Samurai   Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook

Zen in the Art of Archery   Eugen Herrigel

The Tao of Pooh   Benjamin Hoff

The Te of Piglet   Benjamin Hoff

Tao: The Watercourse Way   Alan Watts

The Way of Zen   Alan Watts

Way of the Peaceful Warrior   Dan Millman

T’ai Chi’s Ancestors   Douglas Wile

How to Win Friends and Influence People   Dale Carnegie

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense   Suzette Haden Elgin

The Relaxation Response   Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper

Beyond the Relaxation Response   Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper

Flow   Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Taekwondo for Dummies   Jennifer Lawler

Martial Arts for Dummies   Jennifer Lawler

Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People   John Corcoran and Emil Farkas

Original Martial Arts Encyclopedia: Tradition, History, Pioneers   John Corcoran, Emil Farkas

and Stuart Sobel

 

 

Works for children:

Taekwondo Dinosaurs   Y. H. Park et al.

Education for Peace Series   Terrence Webster-Doyle

Zen Shorts   Jon Muth

The Asiapak comic Series   Tsai Chih Chung and Brian Bruya

- Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness [Chuang Tzu]

- Sunzi Speaks: The Art of War [Sun Tzu]

- Zhuangzi Speaks [Chuang Tzu]

- The Tao Speaks: Lao Tzu’s Whispers of Wisdom [Lao Tzu]

- The Dao of Zhuangzi: The Harmony of Nature [Chuang Tzu] (by Zhizhong Cai)

- Confucius Speaks: Words to Live by [Kun Fu Tzu]

Posted by: dacalu | 12 August 2014

History of Theology

In a recent post, I set forth a three part history of knowledge, drawing on, but not identical to, Michel Foucault’s archaeology of human sciences in The Order of Things.  It goes something like this:

 

Period                                            Knowledge is

1300-1600 The Renaissance         hidden in the world

1600-1800 The Enlightenment      best way of comprehending the world

1800-1950 The Modern Period      historical state of belief about the world

 

Foucault goes on to label the categorization of knowledge in these periods as Similitude (recognizing the hidden correspondences), Taxonomy (applying the right framework within which everything fits), and History (understanding the progression of ideas and events in time). My next post looked the history of biological knowledge. Those posts, and one on the history of cosmology, appear in my work blog.

Only recently, have I come to appreciate that the typology applies to Christian theology as well. Because this is more speculative and controversial, I’ve placed it here on my personal blog.

Renaissance Theology

In the Renaissance, theology was believed to reveal the underlying patterns of the universe. Indeed, the line between the Natural Law revealed the physical world and the Divine Law revealed in scripture was a thin one. Both were ways of understanding the way the world works, like different windows into the same room.

When medieval and renaissance theologians called sacraments “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” they meant that the sacraments conferred the good gifts in which they participated. When they spoke of the Church, they meant that small fraction of the family of God visible in society. And when they spoke of Scripture, they meant the present active work of the Holy Spirit, alive in the reading and interpretation of the written words. The truth was in all things from the beginning and the things of Christianity were those things that made it most visible (Romans 1:20).

Enlightenment Theology

The Protestant Reformation (Europe c. 1500-1650) shifted our perspective on the truth. For the new theologians, dogma had to do with that order which was given by God and stood in judgment of the world. Our job was not to participate in the Logos of creation, but to comprehend God’s purpose for the world, and comprehending place ourselves in the correct camp.

When Reform (and Lutheran) theologians spoke of sacraments, they wanted to insure we understood them as making sense of grace, but not participating in it. (Luther, I think straddled this divide, but his followers completed the transition.) When they spoke of the Church, it was the category of the blessed within the taxonomy of salvation. This is one reason that purgatory was so offensive; it blurred the line between the saved and the damned. And when they thought of Scripture, it was something wholly outside the corruption of nature, God interceding through the Word.

Modern Theology

The Third Great Awakening (US c. 1850-1900) includes the rise of Pentecostalism, the Holiness movement, and the roots of what we now call Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity. For this group, divine truth began to take on a historical character. (I believe this was when talk of “salvation history” became popular, but I’d love to hear from you if you know more.) Faith was characteristic of an individual, at a specific point in time, someone who had been lost and was now saved.

The Fundamentalists have no concept of sacraments in the medieval sense, believing that the symbol is fundamentally apart from the thing it points to. “Sign” has a completely different meaning. Instead, they prefer to talk about the fullness of God’s will concretely present in a particular time and place. Likewise, the Church is a concrete collection of believers, not an abstract eternal construct. Finally, Scripture takes on the burden of guaranteed truth no longer afforded to sacraments and institutions. It is a record of God acting in the world and an opportunity in time for your personal redemption.

Getting It Right

For me, this makes sense of how alien the three theologies appear to one another.

Roman, Orthodox, and Anglican Christians lean toward medieval and Renaissance theology. For the first, truth is communal – mediated by the magisterium of the church. If you do not conform to the community, you are a heretic, literally one who thinks alone. For the latter two, truth is interactive. The liturgies and works of faith are participation in the truth. There is no way to hold it apart from acting it out.

Most Mainline Protestants (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quakers, UCC, etc.) hold to an Enlightenment theology. They are confessional because the heart of Christianity (for them) lies in holding the correct picture of the universe, in accord with God’s picture. If you do not comprehend that truth, you cannot be saved. Christian doctrine has become an intellectual exercise. Evangelism (spreading the Good News) has become apologetics (the defense of doctrine). Those who don’t get it (the belief system) don’t get it (salvation).

Fundamentalists (including most non-denominational churches) hold to a modern theology. Doctrine is important, but rather than debate the truth of the doctrine, they want to know if you’ve accepted it. Where are you in your spiritual journey? Have you been saved? No amount of action or belief can take the place of that life-changing moment.

Posted by: dacalu | 11 August 2014

Bite Size Jesus: Creation

The story of the world begins with an author. The Author – like the Word, both a person and a principle – gives this world a plot. It means something when read in its entirety. The plot is good and the end is good and all of the characters are good: light and darkness, the sky, the earth and seas and plants, living things: tiny and huge, tame and wild. Humans act as a main character; like authors they keep and drive the plot. And this story, with humans in it, is very good.

Many people mistake the point of creation. They think it is about defending the author, but the author needs no defense. The point of creation is to defend the world as meaningful, good, and complete as written. The world does not need editing. It gets its goodness from the same place it gets its existence. Often we do not understand the details of reality or morality, but we trust that the author is going somewhere with all of it. Creation asks that we read every word in curiosity and hope.

Posted by: dacalu | 11 August 2014

Bite Size Jesus

I’ve set myself a goal of writing a series of very short essays on Christianity: 200 words to capture some of the core beliefs that Americans seem confused about.

 

Christianity in Brief

There is a basic order behind the world and, confusingly, that order is both a general principle and a touchable person. We call him Jesus, the Word, Logos. The Word loves humans and came to us, not as a ruler or even a tourist, but as a guest. We hold a great sadness that we treated this guest so poorly – so much so that we killed him in human form. We hold a greater joy that his love overcame our betrayal. He came back as one of us and still loves us both as a person and as the order behind the universe. Christians feel called to treat one another as the Word treated us, with curiosity, care, and service that holds others equal to our selves. The story of love lost and re-found is played out in our daily lives over and over again and we think it will also be played out in the course of history.

Posted by: dacalu | 25 July 2014

Suspended

Between Seattle and Toronto

the airplane window

fails

to show me

the space between.

 

Traveling mercies –

the innkeeper with room,

the roadside attractor,

the roses –

call me away from myself

 

One perfect moment of peace,

neither here nor there

but in the meantime,

the mean time,

whose value comes from averages.

 

I try to sum my life

with variable delights,

summaries and maximums

that protect me

from the moments themselves.

 

The sheer mass

scares me –

the weight of moments

pulling me

into reality.

 

Gravity:

a thousand thousand

pieces of my soul

calculated

in moments.

 

But wrapt in aluminum

and engineering

how can I know

what passes beneath –

what passes within?

 

It’s ironic

that the plane

keeps me

on the surface

of things.

 

[24 July 2014]

Posted by: dacalu | 28 June 2014

Anti-Virtues

As my friends well know, I have a rather medieval mindset at times.  I have a preference for ordered lists and hierarchies, quite popular in Medieval (scholastic) theology which favored exactly 7 sacraments, 9 ranks of angels, and 7 orders of ministry. [1] Thus I learned early the 7 deadly sins and the 7 human virtues. [2] It always puzzled me that the one did not mirror the other.

The more I reflected on them, the more I realized that the 7 deadly sins [3] were more sensationalist than helpful.  They make for popular art (from Garth Nix’ children’s books, Keys to the Kingdom, which I recommend, to the Brad Pitt movie, Se7en, which I am just as happy to have not seen).  They do not, I think, make for good meditations as focusing on what not to do rarely helps.  I would suggest that instead of thinking about these, it is far more practical to think about the seven virtues and the want of of them.

There are two ways to be in want of a virtue: to lack it all together and to have it’s opposite.  For instance, one who does not love might hate or simply be apathetic.  It’s hard for me to say which is worse, for hatred leads to antagonism, but it also requires some interest in the object of your hate, thus love can turn to hate (and vice versa) more easily than it can turn to apathy.  There is so much more I could say, but for now, I’d just like to give you list to see what you make of it. Note that the virtues are all related to love of God, neighbor, self, or creation, while the lacks are all forms of apathy.

 

Virtue (Anti-Virtue, Lack of Virtue) [4]

Love (hate, apathy)

Hope (despair, carelessness)

Faith (distrust, ignorance about persons)

Fortitude or Courage (recklessness, cowardice)

Temperance or Self-Control (scrupulosity, impulsiveness)

Prudence or Wisdom (foolishness, ignorance about things)

Justice (injustice, isolation)

 

 

[1] In case you are wondering, that would be Sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Eucharist, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Unction; Ranks among the heavenly hosts: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Ophanim, Cherubim, Seraphim; Orders: Porter, Lector, Exorcist, Acolyte (minor orders), Sub-Deacon, Deacon, and Priest (major orders).

[2] In the Middle Ages, they were known as the princely virtues, but the Roman Catholic church renamed them in the 20th century in a fit of political correctness.

[3] The seven deadly sins have been mentioned in multiple versions, but the ones I am familiar with are Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, Lust, and Pride.  Due to a diminishing vocabulary, some moderns may be unaware of the distinction between Envy (wanting more than your neighbor) and Avarice (wanting to accumulate stuff). Alternate lists include vainglory and despair.

[4] The first three or “theological” virtues come from I Cor 13:13.  The second four “cardinal” virtues come from Wisdom of Solomon 8:7. A number of other popular and historical lists exist as well.

Posted by: dacalu | 28 June 2014

Prayers for Ordained Scientists

This past week, I joined many friends for the annual retreat of the Society of Ordained Scientists.  I was asked to lead the prayers of the people for our closing Eucharist, incorporating some of the themes we covered in our meditations. Here is the result.

Dear Emmanuel,

In you we see the height of the heavens and the depth of the seas,

fullness and breadth, living and breathing with us.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for the Church Universal,

eternally triumphant and yet presently struggling;

May we find ways to be your body in the world,

to be good to one another, and to bear the fruits of the Spirit.

We pray especially for the Society of Ordained Scientists,

for our sisters and brothers, present and absent,

for David our visitor and Keith our warden.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for your Creation,

the spacious firmament, stars and quarks in their courses,

planets and atoms, plants and animals, protists and bacteria,

and every living thing;

Give us due respect for your will in them and in us

that we might use our particularity to serve the whole.

We pray especially for wisdom and grace in our use of science and technology;

Give us justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude

for the use of the powers you have granted.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for the human condition,

for sinew and synapse, sensation and spirit,

always both part and whole;

May we see ourselves and one another as heirs

and true images of your perfection;

When we have choice, may we choose wisely;

When we suffer, may we feel your presence;

When we see suffering, may we act.

We pray for all who live with bodies

subject to corruption and competition, disease and infirmity.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for the pursuit of truth in all its forms;

That we might use our intellect and intuition, conscience and consciousness,

to enter more fully into the world which you have made;

Give us faith, hope, and love to study and share the wonders of your handiwork.

We pray for all who seek and for all who find

and for the lost;

We pray especially for our parishes and schools and all communities of learning

and for those who are alone.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

We pray for all who have gone before us on the path,

trusting their step into the darkness will reveal a greater light;

Help us to learn from their learning,

to find strength in their strength,

and to follow in their footsteps.

Hear us, O Lord. Lord graciously hear us.

 

And for all those things,

which in our blindness we cannot or in our fear we dare not ask;

Make us ever more willing to pray, to ask, and to receive;

In Jesus name we pray.

Amen.

Posted by: dacalu | 23 June 2014

Why Rape is Wrong

In a post two back, I set forth what I see as the main reasons people have sex. This is part of a continuing series on Anglican sexual ethics that began here .

God of all creation, no sparrow falls but you take notice, look with compassion upon all who suffer from sexual violence, in our communities and the world. Open our hearts and awaken our minds to act on behalf of our sisters, that our world might become a haven of peace and safety for all. We ask this in the name of the one who transforms our lives, Jesus Christ. (Borrowed, with slight modification, from a prayer by Ann Fontaine for 16 Days.)

Why is Rape Wrong?

This should not be a tough question, but sadly it is. Many people see rape as wrong for all the wrong reasons and that leads them to think that certain kinds of sexual violence are acceptable, even laudable. Throughout the last few posts, I have been setting forth a case for sex being primarily and ultimately about communication, both in the Bible in our ethical view of the world. This may seem counter-intuitive to some readers for whom sex is, or at least should be about other things, notably procreation or pleasure. Rape provides a very concrete case where those intuitions can prove disastrously wrong.

First, let me say what I think rape is and why I think it is wrong.

What Rape Is

Rape happens when one person takes advantage of another sexually without their consent. As with many things related to sex, there are no clear dividing lines. We most commonly associate rape with a violent sexual assault by a man against a woman involving penetration. That is definitely rape. It is important for us to expand that, somewhat, however.

Rape need not be perpetrated by a man on a woman.  Many cases are present in law and history of all possible gender and sex combinations.

Rape need not be violent.  Violence usually suggests physical force, but humans have found numerous ways to force one another to have sex, from physical violence to physical threats, emotional violence to emotional threats, even spiritual violence and spiritual threats (in the case of unwilling marriages, for example).  One of the reasons Christians have been so strongly opposed to prostitution comes from the very real possibility (and common occurrence) of financial coercion.  No, I’m not saying all prostitution is rape; simply that within the context of prostitution, sex workers are often treated as commodities by pimps and madams and forced to continue working due to economic and legal forces. Holding a debt over someone’s head and forcing them to repay it sexually still constitutes rape, even when there is no physical violence.

Rape need not be against someone’s will; it need only be without their consent. This follows directly from the idea that sex should be about communication. Drugging someone who would not otherwise be open to sex counts as rape.

Rape happens any time sex happens with someone’s body but not their will. It can happen because the offender wishes to hurt the victim or simply through apathy, but Christians believe that the will must be just as involved as the body.

Why Rape is Wrong

Rape is wrong because sex is about communication.  Sex involves vulnerability, physical, mental, and spiritual. To force someone into that kind of openness is to send the message that you have more control over their body, mind, and soul than they have themselves. THIS IS FALSE.  Nonetheless, it is the message sent and can easily be believed by the victim. Rape has been used historically as a tool of domination because it can be immensely effective to that end.

Rape is so terrible because it causes damage while breaking down the best avenues for healing. The type of intimacy, love, and acceptance most capable of restoring a sense of personal and sexual health usually comes through sexual contact, which can become terrifying in the wake of a sexual assault. Trust in one’s ability to express oneself, even verbally, to receive and interpret the signals of another can be dangerously compromised.

Communication is broken and the core part of our identity, our relationship with others, our very existence in the image of God seems broken.  I say “seems” because Christians affirm that our soul exists in relation with God always. No matter how broken we feel, we are always whole in this sense: we are with God.

Alternative Sexual Ethics

Many are tempted to take communication out of the role I have set for it – the prime motivation for sex – but I would challenge them to think of the consequences particularly regarding rape.

If procreation really is the core value in sex – as many conservatives will claim – it becomes easy (not necessary, but easy) to start thinking of reasons why procreation might justify rape. In the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites force local women to become their wives and bear their children (Numbers 31, Deuteronomy 20). It is a perfectly logical and consistent ethics that counts women as property and procreation as an obligation. It is, however, utterly foreign to modern sensibilities and, I profoundly hope, incomprehensible to modern Christians. I am unconvinced any account of Biblical literalism could render this Godly to me. Procreation can never be an excuse to neglect or override the will of one partner in sex.

If pleasure really is the core value in sex – as many liberals will claim – it becomes easy (not necessary, but easy) to start thinking in terms of comparative pleasure. If this gives person X a great deal of pleasure but is only slightly distasteful to person Y… Such an ethics appears in the book Brave New World. Admittedly, that is a utopia, but I think many a modern abuser has used this type of reasoning, saying that a potential partner really will enjoy something even if they profess not to. I will reiterate the common slogan: “no means no.” It does not matter one whit whether they will enjoy it or not.  What matters is whether they are engaged in the process as a willing and open partner.

Rape is a serious problem for our culture, and I believe it is for most cultures.  We have an evolutionarily conditioned drive to have sex.  At the same time, we also have brains and wills to make more of our reality than that simple drive. For the Ancient Israelites, Greeks, and Romans, rape meant neither more nor less than a man using sexual property which he did not own. It was an offense against property.  The modern sense of rape is very different and, I think, much better. It will, however, require Christians to be ever so careful interpreting the Bible on this subject. The rules are there. The ethics set forth so clearly in Genesis and the New Testament tell us we must value humanity as individuals in community and in communication. Our sexual ethics must be built on this foundation and not a false adherence to ancient categories – or for that matter, modern ideas of individuality.

Posted by: dacalu | 1 June 2014

When and with Whom

This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.

O God, our times are in your hands; look graciously upon us, giving us good gifts in due season; help us to form loving relationships with one another, to find our true calling, not only as individuals but as friends, lovers, and companions; grant us, where it is your will, to find true partners, raise loving children, and show forth grace in all we do; in the name of him whose passion and humanity make us one, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Over the last several blogs I have tried to set forth a way of understanding the physical and emotional intimacy involved in sex. That way has more to do with a healthy perspective than a list of dos and don’ts. Here I wanted to sum up where we’ve been and try to answer directly “when” and “with whom” The challenge for me is that I think our society should  be having far more sex (intimacy mediated physically and communication about that intimacy) and far less sex (intercourse and fixation on things related to intercourse and procreation). I’m doing my best to encourage both at the same time.

Sex is a big deal in the same way that talking is a big deal. Anyone over the age of 13 should be aware that you can get in more trouble with your tongue than you ever imagined. One ill-timed word can ruin a friendship for life, or provoke a fight, or get you kicked out of a community. One well-timed speech can save a life, or even a country. It is important precisely because it is a regular part of life. And so we need to learn to be comfortable with it, to learn, to make mistakes while on our way to compassionate competence.

1) Sex is, first and foremost, about communication. As much as we might like to, we cannot separate sexual thoughts, behaviors, and relationships from the rest of our thoughts, behaviors, and relationships. Instead of making them taboo or rigidly fitting them into social norms, we need to be aware of how they work, what impact they have over us, and what we want to do with them. There is a broad range of “sexual” activity that includes how we dress, how we think of ourselves, and how we interact as well as whom we touch, and how, and with what part of our anatomy.

2) Intercourse and other types of physical intimacy can be very intense physically, mentally, and spiritually. Caution, patience, and reflection are called for if we want to do them compassionately and well. It’s best to start small and work your way up.

2a) It’s valuable to have some grasp of who you are before attempting to share that with someone else. None of us knows ourselves fully and sex can be an important part of figuring things out, but its worth setting the groundwork. Get to know your own body and emotions before exploring them with someone else. I hate strict guidelines, but as a point of reference, I’d recommend letting puberty set in for a year or two before trying anything explicitly sexual with another person.  Before 13, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to kiss or date, much less anything more serious. The feelings you have and the signals you get will be confused and may not be helpful in figuring yourself out in the present or future.

2b) It’s valuable to know who you are before committing to who you will be with someone else. Intercourse always comes with the possibility of a lifetime commitment. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, it need not be so serious, but the possibility of pregnancy and disease, not to mention the emotional impact of firsts means that this experience and this person could be with you for a very long time. Let some level of independence set in for a year or two before going all the way with someone – either intercourse or marriage. Before 19, it doesn’t seem worthwhile and can set you up for unhealthy relationships. You’ll want to have some ability to differentiate yourself from your parents lest you jump into a relationship to escape or perpetuate old habits.

2c) It’s important to have some ability to read others – their intentions, needs, and emotional state – before getting too involved with them. This, I cannot put an age on. It happens differently for everyone and intimate relationships are a necessary part of learning. I can only suggest that you reflect on it so that you learn to read the cues as early as possible. Start by figuring out what holding hands means to you and to them.  Work your way up. Try not to skip levels. This is not a competition to see who can make it around all four bases first (even though society tells you it is).

2d) It’s not just about you. Let me repeat that: it’s not just about you. It doesn’t matter whether you are ready if the other person is not and it takes serious skill and talent to figure out whether the other person is ready. It’s great if you believe you are precocious – some people are. If you want to jump in early, please take care that the other person is precocious as well. Find someone mature enough to help you reason this through. If you don’t have friends mature enough to reason this through, chances are good you’re not as precocious as you think you are.

2e) Parents, take it easy on your kids. See if you can communicate with them about what it all means without giving them an unhealthy attachment or aversion to sex. It is not a mystical and wonderful distant country to be aspired to when they are older. It is not a shameful place of guilty pleasure and/or pain to be avoided in all but the most proscribed of circumstances. It’s a way of figuring out who they are, what they want out of life and what God wants for them. Start talking to them early about gender and orientation and physicality. They will ask; you need only be calm and comfortable talking with them. It’s probably worth talking with your partner or friends about what topics you want to cover, how, and when. Don’t leave the strategic thinking until they are 13 and bring home a girlfriend.

3) Choose wisely. I’m a scientist and a fan of experimentation, but I mean that in a very particular way. Experiments call for a controlled environment and attention to detail. From your first sexual relationship to your last, find people you can trust and with whom you can communicate. Look for partners who will tell you what’s on their mind and ask what’s on yours. Find an appropriate time and place. Find people you trust to talk with about the experience and move one step at a time. Biology has conditioned us to pursue sex in a rush. It has also provided us with a brain that can make sex and relationships more fulfilling (and even better at producing children). We might as well use that brain.

4) Have fun – care does not mean lack of passion… Blogs are intellectual and verbal and concise. Sex is not (unless you go in for that sort of thing). Sex should be visceral as well as intellectual, expressive and expansive, however you express and expand yourself. It means blurring the boundaries between yourself and someone else. So I can only talk about one aspect – the intellectual moral one. There is a much more emotional moral one to attend to as well. And there is a letting go. Hopefully, these posts have given you some rational tools, with which you can prepare a place to be far less rational (but just as considerate).

5) Finally, be forgiving, both of yourself and others. If you don’t look like a fool when having sex, you’re not doing it right. God made us vulnerable and fragile and silly, perhaps so that we would never make the mistake of thinking we were perfect. Sex should be about sharing things you’ve never shared before and discovering things you didn’t know about yourself. They will be raw and unrefined; just another reason to take things slowly. It’s not about getting it right. It is about being honest and kind.

The process is never ideal. It couldn’t be. Every person is different and every relationship is different. I didn’t write this as an excuse to judge people who do it differently. I wrote it as a meditation for people who want to do it right – for whatever value of right they (with God’s help) come to. And I really think being honest and kind and careful at whatever stage you find yourself will make the whole process more rewarding for everyone.

I write with the hope that we, as a society, can learn to be more open about these difficult issues. They are important in Christianity because they are important in life. And talking about our hopes, fears, and expectations helps. For me, the good news of Jesus Christ means that our humanity may be fulfilled by attending to the love God has for us and the opportunity to love one another – and valuing that love, in joy and humility, above all else. Where better for such love to play out than in sexuality? (And where else can it be so diverted?) You may well disagree with me. I’d love to hear if you do. I may change my position or a I may not but both of us will know a little more about our priorities and about our selves.

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