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Buddhist-Christian Studies 24.1 (2004) 3-22

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Love, Lust, and Sex:

A Christian Perspective

Boston University School of Theology


When I was assigned the topic of love and sex (and I decided to add lust/desire as the link between the two), I immediately consulted with a number of my colleagues at the Boston University School of Theology.1 The response of my colleagues was uniform. Representing different theological disciplines and denominational backgrounds, they noted that the answer as to the Christian perspective on sex was simple: don't; but if you do, be sure not to enjoy it. If this seems a vast and hasty overgeneralization, please consult Mark Jordan's new book (2002) on Christian sexual ethics to see that this confident and consistent rejection of sex and pleasure has been the dominant and main position for the entire history of the cumulative Christian tradition.2 As Clifford Bishop has noted, the West has held "a wounded body" in ambiguous embrace as chronicled by the history of its written discourse and artistic representation of sex.3 Once my colleagues had delivered this ironic teaching, they did go on to give me good advice as to how to grapple with the topic, as well as to wish me well in the attempt.

I then decided to take solace in Daoism, often a good idea for a despondent Christian with strong Confucian tendencies, but came across this quote from Livia Kohn's new study of the tradition: "Anyone who commits debauchery and indulges in sex will suffer from insanity. Having passed through this, he will be born among the sows and boars."4 So much for differences between Daoism and Christianity—though I should point out that Kohn blames Buddhist influence for such a retrograde teaching. One wonders what will happen to women who act in a similar fashion. However, I was cheered in my search when I read the great Tiantai master Zhiyi's account of the matter: "It is like fighting bandits. Bandits are the root of glory; it is because a general is able to destroy bandits that he attains fame and reward. Infinite lust is a seed of the Tathagata in just the same way. It makes the bodhisattvas come up with an infinite number of Dharma-ages in response."5

According to Mark Heim, Dante had a slightly more charitable view: "Lust is a type of shared sin; at its best, and so long as it remains a sin of incontinence only, there is mutuality in it and exchange."6 At least Dante thought we were in it together. [End Page 3] Moving on to a history of early modern Christian views of sex, which makes sense because this is probably the set of views that informs the modern period as well, I discovered why mainstream Christians were so concerned about the proper teaching of sexual ethics when I read the following: ". . . as the Ranters in seventeenth-century England proclaim, 'What act soever is done by thee in light and love, is light and lovely, thought it be called adultery. . . .No matter what Scripture, saints, or churches say, if that within thee do not condemn thee, thou shalt not be condemned.'"7

If Daoists, Buddhists, and early modern Christians all agree and then disagree, then this is serious business indeed.

Then I started to read about the contemporary history of sex, which I discovered was born, with a vengeance, about the same time as the new theology of dialogue, circa 1970. Even the scholarly, and hence most serious in tone, literature on sex is vast.8 I commend it to anyone who is not convinced that we have lived through and probably are still experiencing a new paradigm shift in the Christian worldview. My thesis is that the worldview transformation is the imaginative articulation of the shifting social grounds that have cried out for a new ethics of sex.9 But perhaps things are not so simple. Does the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s demand a new worldview or did...