By the end of my second Masters degree, I realized my views had changed considerably. Throughout my time first as a congregant in, then as a leader of, and later as a professional consultant to churches, I was always progressive. If you were unkind, you might have called me a “liberal” as though this were a curse.
In no small part to my parents insistence on educating myself, trying to see things from “the other person’s perspective” and their rather broad outlook on life, I have often found myself at odds with the more conservative teachings of the Church, wondering when we stepped back from the frontier. We were bold once. Inventive. Adaptive. When did we become such wimps?
Alain de Botton, in his book Religion for Atheists, writes that one of the reasons he is so disappointed in the Christian church is because of the “relatively recent decision” to abandon progress and become entrenched.
He points out that Jews and Christians have historically adopted practices of the cultures they find themselves in, transforming and taking them further. But “recently” they have ceased from this entirely, instead exporting a prepackaged (and antiquated) collection of doctrines which present “the world” as evil and unsalvageable. Though de Botton and I may disagree on opinions of theism, I believe in and appreciate his reading of Christian history. In fact, I agree with him entirely in this regard. But rather than refer to some timeless point of transition, or even at the cultural shifts taking place after World War I, I date the change with St. Augustine (b. 354 – d. 430 C.E.). While Augustine himself may not have seen the changes he sought to affirm, protect, and implement, his teachings in subsequent generations trickled down, becoming ever-more insular.
By the time of the Reformation, John Calvin took Ausgustine’s methodology ever farther, affirming that same model of exegesis – believing that the “truth” of scripture needed to be protected. Protected from what? From who? From humans – both believers (who Calvin sought to correct) and unbelievers (who he sought to condemn). And while Calvin was an important figure in the history of Christianity, his values were based not on scripture but on a way of reading scripture that Augustine began. Namely, to avoid humanity for some higher ideal.
Augustine of Hippo has a rather sordid past. This screenshot sums it up:
Held up as a “Father” of the Early Church, Augustine’s teachings come from a very personal place. He rejects everything in life that he once celebrated, forgetting and at times rewriting his personal narrative. His Confessions are overwhelmingly guilty and where it concerns human sexuality in general and masturbation in particular, I cannot think of anyone who screwed us up so much. His rather sordid past should have led him to different conclusions. Augustine was a prolific writer on Church polity and doctrine. In matters of sex and sexuality, he is the primary reason sex became sinful. From his writings, here are a few statements. If the language sounds familiar, then I’ve proven my point – his views have dominated the Church’s understanding on matters of sex & sexuality.
To a large extent what held me captive and tormented me was the habit of satisfying with vehement intensity an insatiable sexual desire (Confessions, 6.12.22).
I have decided that there is nothing I should avoid so much as marriage. I know nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman’s caresses and that joining of bodies without which one cannot have a wife. (Confessions, 1.10.17)
Although your eyes may chance to rest upon some woman or other, you must not fix your gaze upon any woman… you cannot say that your hearts are pure if there is immodesty of the eye, because the unchaste eye carries the message of an impure heart. And when such hearts disclose their unchaste desires in a mutual gaze, even without saying a word, then it is that chastity suddenly goes out of their life. (The Rule of St. Augustine, 3).
If you are interested in further reading but don’t want the challenge of digesting Augustine’s voluminous writing, I would point you to three articles:
- What Would Augustine Say? by W. Jay Wood
- Sex, Sin, And Salvation: What Augustine Really Said by Dr. David G. Hunter
- The Sex Animal Named Augustine by Jeffrey Anderson
Of course, Augustine was not the only voice. There have been many others who have led subsequent generations to conservative ideals, and I think there is validity in some of what they say. However, no one can match Augustine’s influence on making matters of sex into a legal issue rather than a moral, or even emotional one.
Trained in Greek thought, Augustine would have (and did) rejected emotional appeals. It is my opinion, and that of thousands of my colleagues, that this was a poor decision. To cut the heart away from the head is to ignore intuition, creativity, grace, mercy, and love- charitable attributes. But because of the influence Augustine had as both a scholar and prolific writer, his voice drowned out many others (who he condemned as radicals and “heretics” – a wonderful word to employ when you’re tired of discussing and thinking things through, wanting those who oppose you to simply die).
When I taught a sex-ed course for one of the churches I worked for, I pointed to Augustine as the genesis of our modern-conservative-religious opinions. His unification of the Christian faith with Greek philosophical models is what “legitimized” Christianity and made faith a cultural as well as private issue for Gentiles. And while, in many ways, I appreciate Augustine for this, since I cannot stand Christians who misquote scripture, have crazy ideas they ascribe to “The Spirit” and begin their arguments with “Well, Pastor says…”, I also know that his work was not entirely a good thing. When you transplant your faith into a new context, some things get lost and other things morph in ways you never anticipated. For Augustine, this meant rewriting his personal narrative. Though he had a mistress, an illegitimate child, and some say a curious relationship with his mother, he was not entirely honest in his treatment of sex and sexual matters. His remorse and personal conviction did not (and does not) apply universally. While none of these things disqualify him (sex before marriage, a child out of wedlock, etc) they somehow should – not because he did them, but because he can’t seem to see the incongruency between his personal life and convictions.
That is, if I eat a pie and thoroughly enjoy it, I can’t go around telling everyone, “Pie is evil and I can’t think of anything worse in the world.” Saying this simply doesn’t make sense in light of the way that I downed the pastry. Even we were to say I had repented and/or had a change of heart, you should expect me to be sensitive to those who are similarly afflicted with pie-itis, given my experience. Yet Augustine had none of this. Because of the life he had lived, such a life was wrong for everyone else.
Further, it is a sad statement that most Christians do not realize their reading of scripture is Greek, their models of understanding are Greek, and that the shame-culture in so many houses of worship is also Greek. Not Hebrew. Not “divinely inspired.” And not “Biblical.” Augustine’s models of morality and ethical behavior are all built on Greek thought, not scriptural thought. Most claims to biblical authority and precedent when it comes to sex and sexuality stem from Augustine – not the confusing and contradictory statements made in scripture. We have look no further than the issue of premarital sex – which is permitted by the torah and celebrated in both Ruth and Esther even as it is embodied, demonized, and executed in Jezebel. Again, an incongruency exists when we discuss sexuality and scripture because we are more frequently relying on the teachings of Augustine than scripture itself.
When it comes to masturbation and self-pleasure, Augustine’s shame theology still applies. By disassociating the body from the spirit, you begin to see your life in binary terms like “fleshly and spiritual” or “good and evil.” This is dishonest. Each of us surely knows the ways that life is a combination of both – sometimes, we do good things and regret them. Sometimes we do bad things, and it all works out. We’re not inherently good or evil, we’re just… human. Masturbation is not inherently good or evil. By now, you would have anticipated a decisive statement, right? The seven reasons why I think one way or the other? Except that it’s not like that. It’s not that easy. When it comes to human sexuality, we all have desires and insecurities that we wouldn’t want to become public knowledge. Like most things, sex is a mixture of both and not inherently one or another.
The most frequently cited scriptural passage used to discuss masturbation are:
You have heard it said that you shouldn’t commit adultery. Well, I say if a guy looks at a woman with lustful thoughts, he’s already done it. Matt. 5:27-30
And… Well… That’s kind of it, isn’t it? I mean, we can do all kinds of scriptural gymnastics to prove our point. We can break things down in English and rebuild them in the Greek. We can reconstruct entire cities of meaning. But this is the closest it really comes to discussing masturbation… and you’ll notice that it doesn’t. Masturbation isn’t being discussed here. Rather, illicit thoughts are. The brain is far stronger than a penis or a vagina when it comes to desire, and I tend to believe Jesus is talking about a cultural issue – that men feel they can take whatever they want, even exploit women if need be – rather than a private one governing your bedtime habits.
So, instead I say to you
There is no one innocent, no not one. (Romans 3:10)
Finally, I’m no radical, but… Is it possible that Jesus ever masturbated? Biologically and physiologically, we know that if he never masturbated, then he would have had a nocturnal emission. And, if we think this idea too offensive, then we have to agree he would have gotten an erection at some point. The fact is, if you believe Jesus had a penis, then he would have had an erection. There’s no way around that. And if he had an erection, chances are, he probably touched himself at some point. After all, if you believe God designed the human body, isn’t it plausible that he would have… “test driven” the model?
That may seem a bit shocking to some of you – this idea that Jesus might have masturbated. So I want to offer a few final thoughts to think about. Ultimately, I can’t convince you that masturbation is or is not a sin. I can only offer ideas and let you decide for yourself.
While reviewing some things for this short series, I came across this note in my journal from 2012:
Last week, there was an incident with a classmate which revealed how far we have to go in discussing sex and sexuality. Discussing masturbation, she posited that self-love was “an act of worship to God” and that a person of faith should “reflect on God” during the act to better “welcome God into your sex life.”
When I asked this classmate to clarify, they repeated themselves in no uncertain terms. A person of faith should think about God while masturbating and make this a time of worship.
Is it possible for us to see (big picture) sex as a good thing? To celebrate God’s creativity and the unique wiring of the human body to enjoy sexual pleasure? Further, (smaller picture) is it possible that we see masturbation in this same way? Put another way, why do we celebrate the one and demonize the other? Many religionists make a moral argument. Marriage makes all things legitimate and pure. Last year, Mark Driscoll said that anal sex was okay for Christians – a new idea, and one which seems wildly incongruent with previous statements, but hey. Let’s sidestep all of that since Driscoll says outlandish stuff all the time. Marriage makes things okay. It makes them “right.” It baptizes them in spirituality and sacred space, so while marriage makes sex okay, our desires and longings are always evil until we say, “I do.”
Total bollocks, if you ask me. But then again, I’m an unmarried man so you’re free to discredit me as a fool or a liar. I’ve already been called both.
There’s just one of two hiccups with that thought though about marriage making everything better, and making it “alright” and washing the sinfulness away. Namely, that it doesn’t. Given how open I am about these topics with those who interact with me on a regular basis, friends and coworkers sometimes confess things to me. A recurring confession? Married men who look at porn, or who feel unsatisfied with their wives, or who simply “rub one out” in the garage because they are bored. But it goes farther than that.
In one example, a close friend of mine told me that his father was sexually abusive to him as a child. It has affected his marriage, and he wonders sometimes if the “good” things he’s told to do from the pulpit are really “good.” He readily admits that his questions come from the abuse he experienced as a child, but masturbation has become this comfortable space for him where he doesn’t have to do “dirty” things with his wife. Ironic? Of course. But perfectly understandable when you understand his context.
Or what about those who are disabled? Told that they are stupid and dumb and enduring all sorts of insult, they live with the cloud of shame for being different. For not being “normal” and bringing grief to their family. And then when they express age-appropriate sexual feelings, they are told they are “bad.” So naturally we should tell them they are also “sinful.”
My little brother is such an example. He has Autism, and lives in a group home. As his brother, I want him to be able to enjoy masturbation. Is this some sick perversion of mine? Hardly. It’s a recognition of his sexuality, an acceptance, and a blessing on the fact that he may never have a sexual partner… but he can still have (and at on) sexual feelings.
When I say that we need a better understanding of sex and sexuality, sometimes people ask me why, and I tell them “For personal reasons.”
This usually gets a laugh, as people assume all kinds of things about me.
But this is the reason why I believe we need to develop our ideas on masturbation more, for “personal reasons” that have nothing to do with me, and have everything to do with valuing the people around me who have been shamed.
To be perfectly blunt, I want my brother to masturbate. I want him to enjoy his sexuality and his sexual desires in a healthy way. It is likely that he will never have a sexual partner, and rather than continue in a culture and a theology that shames him for being alive, for being disabled, for being different, and then calling him a sinner for touching himself, I see things differently and want to promote those feelings. In him. For him. In others. For others. And yet I say again, this is entirely “personal” because I have heard by now dozens of stories of friends and family members who feel shame and guilt simply because they are alive. And feel things.
We have a way of desexualizing the disabled, and as his brother, I *want* him to masturbate and feel *some* kind of happiness/joy/release/satisfaction. Which is weird/uncomfortable to say (or read?) maybe, but it’s true.
You are okay. You’re not weird. You’re normal.
In Cheryl Cohen-Greene’s autobiography (the woman Helen Hunt plays in The Sessions), she writes about helping a disabled man learn about his body, how his body is responding, and discuss what helps him orgasm. She notes the same thing I am saying here – we tend to make the disabled (who may *never* have the enjoyment of sex with another person) feel even MORE “dirty” and “wrong” and “less-than” by shaming them and their bodies b/c of masturbation.
But it doesn’t end there. Discussing the sexuality of the disabled isn’t some moral ground that we claim a “free pass” on, or even say “well… okay… just in this instance…” We must continue discussing these things among the abled as well, to discontinue the shaming and disgracing for a spiritual narrative that values people. Yes, I’m all for keeping sin in the table. I believe in sin. I believe that I sin, and that I need grace from others as well as God. But I believe our fascination with making things that are good into sin (like Augustine did so long ago) is misguided and comes from the dark caverns of our own souls rather than “the evil people” around us. We have a way of making everything a sin, and of course I am reacting to that in part. And in part, I am reacting so that I can excuse my own behavior, I suppose. But, far and away, my thoughts on masturbation are truly about “redeeming” something for my brother and my friends, wanting him as much as them to feel validated as human beings – of which sexuality is part. An important part.
For me, the litmus test in my head for anything comes back to the way my parents treated me, and now how I want my brother treated (sound familiar? What we do to the least of these? And the Golden Rule?) I’ll think, “Is this something that would cause my parents to feel shame, or stop loving me?”
Fill in the blank with your vice of choice. If I smoked pot, would my parents be ashamed of me? (no, but they wouldn’t be happy) Okay, pot isn’t a “sin” but where it is illegal, they would be more concerned with the legal ramifications than my smoking. So, pot is more of an ethical/legal concern than a spiritual one in my book.
Sidenote: I’ve smoked pot. Wasn’t impressed. But mazel tov to those who think it’s the bees knees.
In like kind, I may not want to see my brother masturbating, but I wouldn’t be ashamed of him – quite the contrary. I want him to desire, to be desired, to feel – if only in his own fantasy – desirable. I want him to experience some kind of satisfaction in that part of life. But how do you say that in a Christian environment? How do you ask, “Maybe there are instances where we shouldn’t just be silent or turn a blind eye, but we should encourage this kind of sin?”
Maybe we should help people be okay with their sexuality, sexual preferences, desires, and stop trying to police everyone’s thought life and trust the Spirit enough to help guide them – even, yes, in matters like these.
As strange as it sounds, with topics like these, I think about how important it is that we move from masturbation+ (plus other issues like porn and adulterous thinking, etc) into a new understanding. Granted, that may be my “liberal sensibilities” but I don’t think it’s *that* foreign in translation.
In short, masturbation may come with many “well what about”s, but being human and having desires isn’t something to be ashamed about. It’s something we need to celebrate.