Ultimately, Christians must come to terms with what other faiths (namely, Jews) already know, accept, and embrace – there is no “standard” narrative of sex or sexuality in scripture. Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John present very different understandings of sex(uality). Paul does not agree with Jesus, nor do Peter or John – the “two pillars” who lived with Jesus. Nor Paul, Peter, or John agree with each other. Every time sex(uality) is discussed in both Hebrew and Christian scripture, the writers disagree – even with themselves.
We are driven by our own set of morals and ethics – not scripture. No matter how strongly we protest that our version of sex(uality) is Biblical… it isn’t. Not even Jesus was “Biblical” in his treatment of sex(uality). He had a new spin in both scripture and tradition. More, if we’re being perfectly honest, it was strange that a man his age had not married yet. Every historical and Biblical scholar agrees on this – from Alfred Edersheim to N.T. Wright to Bart Ehrmann to Ben Witherington III – it was atypical. So much so that apocryphal legends sprung up about Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s relationship. It is a curious absence that literature is still bringing attention to in works like Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ and The DaVinci Code. For the record, I think Kazantzakis was a great writer and Dan Brown writes like a sixth grader. And I once taught sixth graders. But literary merit aside, it’s not just the apocryphal writers. Evangelicals simply cannot conceive of singlehood, despite the fact that Paul reluctantly presents it as the “best” option in a war-ravaged world. John, a man who lived with Jesus and worked with him for a few years, embraces love in a very platonic way – that is, for John, sexuality is healthy and there is an easy comfortability there, a familiarity, which is not as present in either Jesus’ biographies or Paul’s discussions on ethics. John’s silence on sex and embracing of familiar sexuality, I would posit, says something we should also be paying attention to. He is not hesitant to use sexual language in Revelation, but he is also not hesitant to greet his friends in the shorter letters with an effusive and bubbling love that, at times, seems to overstep social convention. Again, there simply isn’t agreement – not even among the four major writers of the Christian scriptures. Further, to argue that sex is linear in the Hebrew scriptures is just laughable. You begin the story in nakedness without shame, a more conservative vision prevails, then a king comes to the throne whose adulterous liaisons are forgiven but whose son (with the woman he had the affair with, mind you!) is crowned the next king only to lapse into hypersexuality… Yet we have kept his poetic play of pre-marital lovers… who have a curious triad going on, we must acknowledge if we’ve actually read the poem… And then you have Ruth encouraging her daughter-in-law to visit a man in the night with sexual favors, and you have Esther as a harem girl. Not exactly pristine models of godly womanhood by Evangelical standards, yet these are champions of the faith in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as Islamic tradition.
Still, this statement that there is no Biblical precedent for our understanding of “right” sex, sexuality, relational dynamics, and the complementary binary familiar unit persists. Why is that?, I wonder – not as a rhetorical question, but a true and well-meaning question towards insight. Why does the majority of culture continue to affirm marriage as an institution, despite it’s shortcomings, failings, and rather consistent movement towards the apathetic?
Of course there is this idea that God’s intentions were best embodied in the relational dynamic of Adam and Eve in the opening chapters of Genesis. After all, the thinking goes, surely God intends us to be faithful to one person for the rest of our lives. That’s how he made Adam and Eve. And indeed, there is something rather… romantic about being exiled with your lover, isn’t there? Even the casual reader can see that Adam chooses exile from God rather than separation from his lover and friend, Eve. I’ve always loved Genesis for this reason; the stories are so rich and full with humanity. It “makes sense” that Adam chooses Eve over God because… after all… isn’t that the romance we have laced into our hearts? Even the sworn bachelors and bachelorettes that I count among my friends lament “the one that got away” – the lover and friend who they walked away from or lost, very much like Adam almost did. There is a romance in knowing and being known by one person, a safety and security.
Is that a curious thing? Hardly. That is, even as extroverts, we generally invest our resources in one place. I have most of my banking through one institution in New Orleans, and have remained loyal to them despite jumping zipcodes, time zones, and continents. I keep my money there not because it is convenient, but out of a sense of security. I trust them. I work with them. They are mine. Very much like the commitment we make in other areas of life – our “best” friend, or our “favorite” movie, or our major at university – we choose a single thing and fixate on it, or her, or him. For some unknown reason, our “tiny minds” begin to reduce the passions of life and simplify and quantify at increasingly lower calculation and… Yes… We do this in our relationships as well, so that we make a commitment and take marriage vows not out of love and romance, but simply because Enh. I could do worse, or This person makes sense, or I’ve run the calculations and given my age and personal shortcomings, I won’t be able to convince anyone better to put up with me. Or, in some instances, we choose faithfulness because we hope they will do the same. We take a gamble that they will provide security to us. Love is not as important as security to many people. I’m sure you know friends and neighbors who fall into this category.
There are thoughts to be had here, and we could certainly camp out with the idea of why people commit, and why they commit to one person, but that would lead us far afield of my purpose. And so I now return to this idea of open relationships.
If you know anyone who has been in such a relationship, one of the common denominators is that these people made their choices. They recognize they are not “normal” or “typical” or “average.” They either are, or imagine themselves to be, above average. Outside the box. Unique. Not like everyone else. Their choice, made long ago and usually long before relationships consumed their thoughts, was that they did not want to be “average.” Every single survey of polyamorous couples shows this – they know “normal” and chose to go beyond those borders not because of the relationship, but because they chose to be other at some other point in life. For some, this meant choosing to be an artist and love their work rather than work a 9-to-5. For some, this meant choosing to not be like everyone else on the playground. For some, this meant questioning the rules until they broke and having to rebuild a new paradigm. But, whatever the reason, the choice was made before the prospect of “opening” the relationship was present.
Confession – I was once in an open relationship.
May I qualify this statement?
There are different dating patterns, based on region, culture, personal choice, interpersonal modeling, and a host of other reasons. Some prefer to date one person at a time (serial monogamy), some many people at one time (either polyamory or polygamy). So, in some sense, unless your dating pattern has been one-at-a-time, you are a poly yourself, Reader. For me, I have been in an “open relationship” in the sense that I have been both polyamorous (loving more than one person at the same time) and a polygamist (even when “dating” one person, I have also dated others).
Now, lest you think I am getting caught up in terminology and allowing the semantics of my argument to cast a spell over you, let me go a step further, at the risk of shocking you.
Some years ago, roughly around the time I began grad school, I began dating two girls at the same time. Sisters, in fact. The three of us knew what was going on – after all, they were sisters and I was not a child. We were open with each other, and yes, actively “dated” each other. The girls certainly found it funny, saying that they were having their own “date night” when they were shopping together or seeing a movie together without me.
But here is the turn – instead of continuing, to my surprise, I began to “fall” for one sister over the other. Both were wonderful, let me be clear. But I found that I enjoyed the company of one far more than the other. Even today, having broken up, I still miss her considerably. Granted, this does not happen with everyone, but it does show that I am not speaking from a theoretical vantage. I know (some of) the challenges of living that kind of lifestyle and came to the conclusion that for me, at that time, with those women, polyamory was not for me – or rather, to use an ironic term, polyfidelity was not for me. Seeing people at the same time was not for me because something inside me wanted to commit to one person. To wrap up that chapter, I committed myself to neither of the sisters. Instead, I fell in love with a girl who wanted to live a safe, comfortable life and “just be a mom.” We lasted three years and I learned love did not, in the end, cover a multitude of sins.
Here is the next chapter – I was never able to be fully honest with that next girl because of the stigma attached to poly relationships. It was a blank space in our relationship, and looking back, I’m not sure she was able to trust me – a sad statement, I recognized much too late. But I have not forgotten that time with the sisters, and so my views may seem a bit more “liberal” than is socially savory. Then, I have friends, even now, who are polyamorous (who love, or have sex with, more than one person) and polygamist (committed to at least one person but seeing others). So in discussing non-traditional relationships, I may not be an expert but I’m also not discussing social theories but the experiences I have been through and know well through the lives of my friends.
Perhaps this colors how I see and define “sin”? Many people think of open relationships as inherently “sinful” because of the idealized hypersexuality. Your mind shifts to porn, threesomes and foursomes and orgies that are wild and licentious and – yes – sinful. But that is not my experience, or the experience of my friends. While yes, there are certainly relationships based on sex, like any “normal” relationship, the sex will fade and you are still there with your partner(s). If sex is not the compelling interest of an open relationship, what is? Where is the payoff?
I think it’s different for each instance. That is, for one couple a clear benefit is the sex – for one couple this means increased frequency of sex and for another the division of “responsibility” to another partner, for another couple it means the security of more people loving you, for still another it is the obvious economic benefit of another wage-earner under the roof. Yet open relationships are not as public for good reason. As I noted previously, there is the stigma of not being “normal.” I personally believe this stems from jealousy or social policing. I can’t have X, so neither can you. Or, why do they get to have all the fun? But, more importantly, there is the frequency of hurt feelings. People discourage open relationships not because they are “wrong” but because they’ve been in a poly relationship of some kind, got hurt, and take it upon themselves to discourage anyone else from getting into a situation where they would feel similarly.
As for me, I have no judgement. That is, I have my own experience and concluded I am a one-girl kind of guy. It’s not entirely ruled out, but I would have to be convinced to get into another poly for emotional reasons rather than be a “typical male” and welcome more adventure in the bedroom. People do get hurt, and there is a stigma which creates antisocial behavior and hiding (ex: you’re less likely to bring the entire “couple” to a PTA meeting or school play). But my argument is not over whether poly is right or wrong, but rather to question why religious systems have yet to adequately address the rise of polyamory and polygamy in our communities. And, to bring my point back full-circle, why religious systems cut down anyone who doesn’t conform.
My choice to be in an open relationship didn’t begin with the girls. It began long before that, when I chose to go outside of the traditions of my faith and find a new way. To be my own person. To take responsibility for my spiritual life. Again, for some this choice is about art of play or personality – for me, the choice was grounded in being “othered” in the Church. I didn’t think, talk, act, or walk like everyone else and so they both pushed me away and I pulled away. I chose to be different… and, later, found myself okay with an open relationship. Like most other areas of sex, this kind of talk is taboo not because it is inherently wrong (as many religious people would claim) but because we’re reluctant to air our business, our thoughts, and our desires to the people who know us.
Take same-sex attraction. It has been a frequent thing that, in supporting my gay friends vocally and by my actions, many people assume I am gay myself. After all, why am I such a strong advocate? I have to be gay myself, right? Or take the recent interest in Fifty Shades of Grey. Many people have read the trilogy – as evidenced by their sales numbers and the appearance of the books on “safe” and “family-friendly” bookshelves at Wal-Mart and Target. These businesses, which seek to avoid any kind of customer displeasure, sell these books because they sell. But if you asked someone, say a neighbor, whether they had read the book, they would say “No. Never. I would never read such rubbish” even though, statistically your neighbors (or you!) are in fact reading the books. So, why so reluctant to admit it? Because of fear of association with BDSM culture – it would be a social/cultural “taboo” to do something other than the prescribed missionary, vanilla sex. We are afraid of vocalizing or expressing our support for fear that we will be grouped together with people who aren’t “normal” because being “normal” is more important than being honest.
Curious, isn’t it, the things religious communities put forward as being important? Sociologically, what vested interest does a religious community have in promoting or forbidding poly? None, really. You could make the same case that historical biblicisits have in arguing that God wanted humans to repopulate the Earth (a curious prefix to include, repopulate) and allowed for polygamous relationships to held spread legs… err… seed… Well now, this is awkward phrasing, isn’t it? Both historians (social science) and biologists & geneticists (physical science) would agree with this – we see an influx of similar genetics around the “dawn” of humanity.
As a general rule, where science, history and theology agree, so do I. Something occurred which caused humans to shift their sexuality to the forefront and begin breeding at an increased rate – and yes, this meant either the creation of, or possibly a shifting of, social roles to “share” partners. But the argument isn’t what happened then, it’s what is happening now, isn’t it? Like God, we can overlook previous offense as long as we stop such behavior, change our ways, and repent. As good students and citizens of the world, we must pay attention to the now over the days of yore.
Except that’s not the way it works, is it? If Ecclesiastes is true, we are forever destined to keep returning to those behaviors. It’s radical, really.
Radical –> from “rad” –> from radish –> meaning “root” –> the most “radical” things in the world are those closest to the root.
As I said when I started this block of posts, my concern isn’t with whether open relationships are right or wrong. You must decide that for yourself. My concern is with where and when and why religious communities embrace people or reject them. The long train of history informs us that most of the world religions have embraced poly at some point. Christianity may have begun rejecting it around the Fourth Century because of St. Augustine’s pen, but it has never really ceased (as evidenced by the “radical” resurgence among the Latter Day Saints under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young). Hinduism has never rejected it – in fact poly is laced into their theology with gods and goddesses who share each other and copulate with humans. Islam has never rejected it except where they have begun migrating West. In the Middle East, it is not uncommon and even in America, certain restrictions in our Constitution regarding religious expression must allow for plural wives when families immigrate. Sweden’s agnostic/atheist culture allows for multiple partners both before and after marriage, France has a long history (even during times of exaggerated Catholicism) of “turning a quiet and blind eye” if troubled by the liaisons of a partner or spouse.
Indeed, the common denominator in where religions people reject poly is the idealized “West” – proof that we are still saying God and country are one and the same (or rather than Victorian ideals that wed God and country together are the same. There has to be a better narrative for religions to put forward than “Well… yes, we did that then but we don’t do it now becauseGodsaidsothat’swhy.” That is the same thing as Joseph Smith’s argument that God revealed polygamy to him – what we have is your God versus my God, my revelation of “yes” versus your revelation of “no more.”
And that’s not good enough.
Something more than “that’s just the way it is” must hold our relationships together. Couples must talk to one another, communities must begin talking about these things, and we must begin deciding for ourselves.
I understand that this may seem a rather radically position – empowerment. Taking the argument out of scripture (which we both love, and consequently become outraged when the other “twists” it) and tradition (which, according to Augustine can change based on time and place), or experience (which, admittedly, can be wild and unhealthy) to something else. Indeed, I have tried to steer this conversation away from scripture because I would never want to “twist” it. I love God and scripture too much to knowingly do that. Instead, to help nudge you to this kind of (spiritual-sexual) empowerment, I’d like to point to something. In the Methodist tradition, there is something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral which governs many things in the Methodist Church’s polity and practice. This four-part key of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience seems nice on paper – Ah, you mean I can better understand my faith this way! Great! This sounds so practical! But in practice this can take on a whole other form. In reading scripture and recognizing tradition, we sometimes come to find that things are far, far different than we thought they were, or should be. We begin to see heresy all around us, laced into the fabric of our faith communities. Racism is a prime example, as it sexism – after all, scripture and tradition allow for us to be racist and sexist. And hey, that’s the way I grew up too. But what does reason tell you? Reason would tell you that racism and sexism are not allowed.
It’s a challenge. I admit this in my own life. I admit that I am challenged when what I know and what I think I know do not agree, when my faith and practice are incongruent, and yes, when I know that I am wrong but use scripture to excuse my behavior (that sickly and acidic “God told me…”).
You may find, in putting your beliefs through the quadrilateral, that open relations are a good thing. You may find they have always, and in all places, been wrong regardless of whether they were permissible. I don’t know. And, honestly, I’m a bit scared because this thing may backfire on me – you may come back with something I never intended and use it against me. Oh, well everyone knows Randall is a pervert! or Randall is so prudish! He couldn’t just come right out and say where he stands – he’s super conservative! But hey, it’s a risk I’m willing to take. We must, we must, we must begin to take these things seriously – faith, sex, community, relationships. And doing it the way they’re doing it or the way it’s always been done simply isn’t enough. You need to be empowered to take risks with your thinking, to try to move towards a personal theology, and to fail and hurt yourself, to get it all kinds of wrong and have to apologize, to forgive others for hurting you, to have the courage to get back up again and try it all over, and find out where you really are on the map.