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Sex and the
wisdom of the past

Proverbs  -  Song of Songs  -  1 John

The Book of Proverbs

There are three things beyond my comprehension,
  four,  indeed,  that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle through the skies,
  the way of a snake over the rock,
the way of a ship in mid-ocean,
  the way of a man with a girl.

         Proverbs 30:18-19  (JB)

We are dealing with what is called wisdom literature,  the inherited,  distilled wisdom which comes as the result of long experience of life,  generation upon generation of experience.   The saying is attributed to Agur,  son of Jakeh,  of Massa.   This section of the Book of Proverbs perhaps dates to the 5th or 6th century B.C.E.

What we read is a fascinating set of four images of things which constitute a total mystery to the writer:  the flight of an eagle,  the coiling movement of a snake on a rock,  the way a crew manages a ship at sea,  and sexual intercourse between a man and a woman.

We don't like mystery,  for mystery is a challenge to our clever brains.   So now we can explain how an eagle soars on the uplifts of air currents;  how the articulated body of the snake exercises its surface to move forward over a rock.   We even have a science of ocean sailing,  so that our skilful yachtsmen and women can win that crucial extra knot or so out of an ocean-going vessel;  and we have more books and sex manuals than we could ever read to tell us in anatomical and biological terms precisely what happens during human love-making,  and all the physical positions ingenious and flexible men and women can dream up or invent for intercourse to take place.

But mystery remains.   We know that all the sciences in the world will never completely define and explain how we respond to and engage in the flight of the eagle,  the sinuous path of the snake,  the majestic progress of a great ocean-going yacht,  the beauty and passion of love-making.   The mystery remains,  more open perhaps to the poet and artist and film-maker than it ever will be to objective scientific explanation.   It remains endlessly fascinating  -  as awesome and magical to ourselves in the twentieth century as it was to the Hebrews centuries before us.   How good that somewhere in the Bible humans have acknowledged that sexuality is and will always be part of the deepest mystery of life.   That's something for our children's children to know and wonder at.



The Song of Songs

Wear me as a seal upon your heart,
  as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
  passion cruel as the grave;
it blazes up like a blazing fire,
  fiercer than any flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
  no flood can sweep it away.
If one offered for love
  all the wealth of his house,
  it would be utterly scorned.

         Song of Songs 8:6-7  (NEB)
This passage is from the collection of dialogues,  love poems and observations on human sexuality that make up what we know as the  Song of Songs.   Its author is unknown.   The date may be around the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E.

Nowhere else in the Song of Songs do the speakers talk about love in such a general way;  everywhere else the lovers are focussed on each other,  their bodies,  their emotions,  the way they think and feel about each other.   Generally the writers don't put into their speakers' mouths abstract discourses about the nature of love;  instead the lovers describe their vision of each other in the joyful language of the physical senses.   It's as though in these few verses we are looking at a passage that could have been found in the Book of Proverbs.

But it is a famous passage and rightly so:  because its truth has been proved over and over again in human experience,  and because it describes the terrible power and force of our sexuality just as it is.   For all the beauty of the poetic images of seal and fire and flood,  there's no sentimental tosh about how nice the sexual impulse is.   It is power,  says the writer,  it is forever;  it is unimaginably strong,  it can be agonisingly painful,  once it has started there's nothing that can wipe it out,  and it's one of the few things in life you will never be able to buy.   As strong as death,  as cruel as the grave,  the final seal upon the heart  . . .  No wonder parents are driven to despair as they try to manage their teenager's crush on that unsuitable person;  they're trying to stop a juggernaut!   No wonder Othello choked his perfect,  beautiful,  faithful wife to death,  in Shakespeare's great tragedy about jealousy;  he had been made jealous,  and the passion of jealousy is truly as cruel as the grave.   And praise be,  love is as strong as death  -  a centuries-old affirmation,  made long before Paul wrote his famous letter to the Corinthian church:  "Now abideth faith,  hope,  love,  these three,  but the greatest of these is love".

Sometimes we must go back to the Bible for such precious glimpses of truth  (the hard truth)  as this one.   In love and sex we are dealing with one of the greatest forces in all human life;  it is nuclear power,  and it's in our hands.   Maybe this is what we should be telling our teenagers,  and constantly reminding ourselves if we're older  (but not much wiser).



The First Letter of John

Beloved,  let us love one another,  because love is from God;  everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.   Whoever does not love does not know God,  for God is love.   God's love was revealed among us in this way:  God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.     In this is love,  not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.   Beloved,  since God loved us so much,  we also ought to love one another.   No one has ever seen God;  if we love one another,  God lives in us,  and his love is perfected in us.

         1 John 4:7-12  (NRSV)
The First Letter of John was written by someone in the Johannine stream of early Christianity,  around the end of the first century or the beginning of the second.

Here's another famous passage on human love and sexuality.   Now moralists and puritans want to censor this passage,  and place strict limits on the meaning of the word 'love'.   (A word that in English and most other languages is impossibly rich in meanings and comprehensive in scope.)   We even get sucked into their word games by beginning to think that there is a distinctive kind of Christian love  -  something purer and less earthy than the usual sorts of loving  (in fact the more unearthly the better;  best shown,  perhaps,  in the spiritual adoration of monks and nuns,  or the kindly objectivity of charitable good works.)   Love without the body or the world.   I want to say that for me the love that John is talking about includes sexual and sensual love,  and that in our bodily relationships as well as in our emotional and intellectual dealings with each other we make incarnate the incomprehensible richness of God's love towards creation.

If we love one another,  says John,  God dwells in us,  and God's love is perfected in us.   In the full-orbed love which we actually offer to each other there should be room for kisses and hugs and caresses and sexual intercourse  -  along with donations to good causes,  a tin of baking for a lonely old person,  preparing food for a hungry family,  holding the door open for someone else,  taking a friend to the pictures,  working to support a partner,  digging the garden,  and sharing in a community at worship.

If only all of our religious traditions could allow themselves to be so broad-minded!

Colin Gibson



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