Sex and Religion! (Now that I have your attention…)

19th Century conception of a Roman orgy

Title and image aside, I have no intention whatsoever of prurience in this post.  Rather, I want to discuss an issue that has been bouncing around my mind in thinking about certain common themes in Gnosticism, early Christianity, and modern “new religions”.  It occurred to me that a certain framework of viewing these themes might be particularly useful.  I’ll get to that framework in just a bit.  As to the themes themselves, the main one is indeed sex, or rather accusations of sex.  What do I mean by that?  Read on!

Very early in Christian history–perhaps during the lifetime of the Apostles, but certainly within less than a century–divisions arose in the early Church.  These divisions principally centered around the interpretation of the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth, the things he taught, and authority in the Church.  One group claimed to hold to authority passed down in an unbroken chain from the Apostles themselves through their successors, the bishops.  This group later codified its beliefs in the Nicene Creed.  The vast majority of modern Christian Churches–Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, most Protestants, and some others–descend from this group.  In speaking of the early Church, scholars sometimes refer to this group as the “proto-orthodox”.  The proto-orthodox group of Christians stood in opposition to various other groups of “sectarians”, “partisans”, or to use the Greek term, “heretics“.

There were many and varied heretical groups, many of which we know only by their names.  The most successful, which almost won out over the proto-orthodox in the 4th and 5th Centuries, were the Arians.  The groups that lasted the longest and attracted the most attention from their proto-orthodox opponents, however, originated perhaps as early as the 1st Century and persisted in various forms well into the 12th Century.  These are the sects often grouped together in modern times under the term “Gnostic”.  The groups covered by this term were various and often very different from each other, and it has been argued whether the term “Gnostic” is even very useful.  For reasons I explained back here, I think the term is valid, and as I also explain, can be reasonably applied to certain common themes.

Anyway, over the course of the centuries, from antiquity right through the Middle Ages, various groups of Gnostic or Gnostic-derived beliefs continued to crop up throughout the Christian world.  The proto-orthodox and their successors, the Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East, spent much time and effort in opposing these groups as enemies of the True Faith.  Whose side one takes on this will vary according to one’s temperament, interpretation of history, and so on, but that’s not what I’m interested in here.  What I want to look at is how the Church fought the Gnostics.

The earliest anti-heresy writers such as Irenaeus, took a three-pronged approach in opposing the teaching of the Gnostic groups.  First, they argued on the basis of Scripture and Christian tradition that the Gnostics were mistaken in their interpretation of Christianity, and tried to demonstrate the ways in which they had departed from the correct understanding of the Christian faith.  Second, they argued that the sources of authority to which heretical groups appealed were invalid.  This is particularly true of Irenaeus, who was the first to develop the doctrine of apostolic succession.  According to Irenaeus, the validity and truthfulness of proto-orthodox teaching was ensured by the succession of bishops stretching back in an unbroken line to the Apostles themselves.  By contrast, the Gnostics, according to Irenaeus, not only could not trace their teachings back to the Apostolic Church, they were also prone to making up scriptures and teachings on a regular basis.

The third way of in which the proto-orthodox opposed the heretical groups was the simplest and basest, as well as the commonest way that groups, both religious and secular, have used to oppose other groups throughout history:  attacking their morals.  In short, if people won’t follow the logic by which you try to demonstrate Group X is mistaken, or if they don’t understand the structure of your argument, you can always appeal to them by saying that Group X is full of bad, immoral people.  This form of argumentation–the classic ad hominem–is a logical fallacy, of course; but it is all too often effective.  Most effective of all accusations of naughtiness, of course, is the charge of sexual immorality.  This accusation was made by the proto-orthodox against the Gnostics with considerable consistency.  The Carpocratians and the Borborites were the targets of the most spectacular accusations in the early days of Christianity, but other groups were accused of similar naughtiness.

After about the 6th Century, most of the Gnostic groups in the West had died out or gone underground.  Gnosticism–or at least Gnostic ideas–experienced a resurgence in southern France in the 12th Century, in the form of the Cathar (or Albigensian) heresy.  It’s beyond the scope of this post to go into detail about the Cathars, though it is worth noting that the very existence of Catharism as an organized belief system has been called into question.  What’s relevant is that they, like their predecessors  a half millennium earlier, were accused of sexual immorality.  It was said that the Cathars considered all reproduction to be evil, since it trapped souls in material bodies.  The priestly caste of the Cathars, the Perfecti, were completely celibate for this reason, and did not even eat eggs because of their association with reproduction.

Cathar laity were not given so strict a code, but they were nevertheless discouraged from reproduction.  Thus, while they were free to have sex, it was recommended that any sexual acts they were involved in should be non-reproductive.  Use your imagination….  The Cathars were thought to have originated in an offshoot of the Bogomil sect of Bulgaria.  Because of this association, “Bulgar”, later corrupted into “bugger” became the common slang word in British English for non-reproductive sex, and one such act in particular (use your imagination again, and if necessary, look it up–I’m trying to keep this post reasonably clean).  Thus, the perceived sexual practices of the Cathars passed into a byword!

None of this is news.  It has long been asserted that Gnosics, believing themselves to be sparks of light imprisoned in matter, practiced either extreme asceticism (in order to be as little involved with material actions and the material body as possible) or extreme libertinism (because if the light enclosed in the body had no intrinsic relationship to the body, then you might as well “do what thou wilt” with the body).  The best available scholarship would tend to indicate that the truth was in between, with the Gnostics being ascetic, but not that much more than the orthodox (as I noted back here), and not particularly libertine (at least there seems to be no good objective proof of this).

What is interesting is that if we wind the clock back a bit to the time when Christianity was still an illegal, persecuted sect, the pagan Romans accused the Christians of much the same licentious sexual behavior as that of which later Christians accused the heretical groups!  Pagan Romans routinely accused Christians of orgies, wild and uninhibited sexual practices, and even incest.  To an extent, these accusations can be answered.  For both protection from the Roman authorities and partially (in my opinion) because of the tendency of the early Church to function like a mystery religion, early Christians held their gatherings in private, or in secret altogether, with non-Christians and even catechumens (people on the way to entering the Church) barred from participation or even being present.  Human nature being what it is, any organization that has secret meetings will tend to be a magnet for rumors, the more lurid, the better–just think of the wild stories and conspiracy theories bandied about regarding the Knights Templar and the Freemasons, for example.

Secondly, as far back as New Testament times, Christians were admonished to greet each other with a “holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and I Thessalonians 5:26), or with a “kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14 ).  No doubt this was a source of confusion and perhaps salacious interpretation by non-Christians who might have heard of such practices second-hand.  Finally, the habit of early Christians of referring to each other as “brother” or “sister” may have had some part in fueling rumors of incest.

All that said, one still has to wonder.  After all the old saying is, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”  It is very interesting that from antiquity to modern times, new and upstart religious movements are almost uniformly claimed to practice weird or immoral sex.  What’s even more interesting is that, at least in modern times, when we have better records, the accusations very often turn out to be true.  The litany of Buddhist, Hindu, and other non-standard religious leaders who have been found to have engaged in sexual abuse, coerced sex, or at the very minimum promiscuous or non-standard sex over the last fifty or so years is quite vast.  In a few cases, such as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the sexual aberrations were at least in the open and consensual.  For the most part, though, this was not the case.

What I propose to do at this point is to suggest an explanation for this along the following and perhaps surprising lines:

1.  The Romans, at least in part, were correct in their claims about the early Christians.

2.  This can be demonstrated from the New Testament itself.

3.  Later on, the Christians were also correct, in part, regarding the Gnostics.

4.  These facts and the aforementioned sex scandals/non-standard sex of modern fringe groups can be explained in the framework of the Trickster phenomenon, as laid out by George P. Hansen (more on whom later).

To take the first two points together, it’s worth pointing out that there is what could be an antinomian thread running through the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul.  In the Gospels, Jesus heals on the Sabbath many times, asserting that the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27); his disciples do not wash their hands before eating (Mark 7:5, Matthew 15:2); and Jesus consistently attacks the Pharisees for their insistence on external observance.  Paul, in his letters, particularly Romans, repeatedly insists on the inability of the Law to justify and its replacement by the sacrifice of Christ, even going so far as to say that “all is lawful” to a Christian (1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23).  It is clear how outsiders–and perhaps many Christians, too–could have perceived the Christian teaching as transcending, and thus, dispensing with, moral and behavioral norms.

That more than a few Christians actually did dispense with those norms is equally clear.  In the above citations, Paul no sooner says “all is lawful” than he continues with “but not all is good for me”.  Throughout his letters, Paul harps as much on appropriate behavior as he does on the end of the binding power of the Law (causing himself to sound contradictory, at times).  In 1 Corinthians 6:13, apparently out of the clear blue, he shifts from food to sex, and spends the next seven verses decrying one who “joins himself to a prostitute”.  One assumes Paul would not spend so much energy and ink decrying something that wasn’t actually happening; so this must have been an issue, at least in Corinth.

The most spectacular instance, though, comes from 1 Corinthians 5:  “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.” (Verse 1, English Standard Version)  The man–who is not named–is not sleeping with his own mother.  “Father’s wife” indicates a stepmother, secondary wife (assuming the man’s father was polygamous–not common among the Greeks), or possibly a concubine.  It’s also unclear what the specifics of the situation are.  The man might be having an affair with the woman while she’s still married to his father, in which case it would also be adultery; or his father may have divorced the woman, who has now taken up with her former stepson, either marrying him or shacking up (it says he “has” her, and that’s ambiguous); or it’s even possible that the father died and the son married his father’s widow, which while tacky, would be the least morally problematic scenario.  We simply don’t know.

Be that as it may, the situation certainly reeks of scandal.  Leviticus 20:11 specifically prescribes the death penalty for such an act (once more, the term “father’s wife” is used).  Paul, in the verse in question, is no doubt accurate in describing this as something “not tolerated even among pagans”.  Thus, whether the family in question were Jewish or Gentile Christians, it’s highly unlikely that the actions of the son and the step-mother would have been seen as all right in any scenario.  The civil law of some jurisdictions prohibits such marriages even today (though it’s not clear if the relationship in question involved a legal marriage).  All technicalities aside, it is almost certainly the case that such a relationship would have been seen as quasi-incestuous, if not in the strictest sense of the word, at least in perception.

Thus, while much of the fulminations of the Romans against Christianity was no doubt propagandistic and exaggerated, it seems clear from the Bible itself that more than a little hanky-panky, some of it quite lurid, was going on in the Christian community.

As to point 3 above, we don’t have anything from the Gnostic side–nothing that has survived, at least–quite like Paul’s letters.  That is, we don’t have epistles from Gnostic leaders addressing specific issues, sexual or otherwise, in Gnostic communities.  Existing Gnostic writings themselves are mostly concerned with cosmogony and theology, and don’t address sexual norms in a direct or systematic way.  There are things that are suggestive of rituals involving sex–an example would be the “bridal chamber” of the Gospel of Philip–but nothing clear.  If early proto-orthodox Christians were involved in sexual shenanigans, it would be completely unsurprising if Gnostic Christians, coming from similar backgrounds and living in a similar culture, were doing the same thing, at least at times.  It is worth pointing out that many modern researchers who are sympathetic to Gnosticism, believe that at least some Gnostic groups did, in fact, participate in sexual rituals.

So given that we have plausible evidence for non-standard sex among both orthodox and Gnostic Christians, to say nothing of other religious groups that we’ve mentioned, what the heck is going on here?  This is where we turn to George P. Hansen.

Hansen is a researcher of paranormal and psychic phenomena, who is best known for his fascinating book, The Trickster and the Paranormal.  Hansen’s thesis is that paranormal phenomena are closely associated with, or manifestations of, the Trickster archetype.  Over here, in a totally different context, I’ve written at length about the Trickster.  For here, suffice it to say that the Trickster is a Jungian archetype that occurs in the mythology and literature of many cultures.  The Trickster is–well, a trickster–a being that flouts societal norms, plays tricks on others, stirs up trouble, causes chaos, and in general sows confusion and discord wherever he goes.  Tricksters may be malicious, though they are usually not, and may even at times be beneficent.  They may show creativity not ordinarily allowed by society, or they may confirm societal norms by their outsider status.  Examples range from Hermes in Greek mythology to Coyote in Native American myth to B’rer Rabbit in southern African-American folklore to Bugs Bunny in modern cartoons.

As Hansen develops the idea, the Trickster is more than just a stock character, though.  The question as to what exactly a Jungian archetype actually is, is a vexed question.  Jung himself sometimes treats archetypes as if they were cultural or psychological patterns or ways of seeing the world, and at other a times he seems to view them almost as if they were independently existing entities that can in some cases “possess” people or even cause behaviors in individuals or even societies that seem otherwise inexplicable.  Given the tendency of Jung towards occultism–something mostly obscured during his life–one can see his logic in the case of the latter.  In any case, the archetype as something more or less external to us that can have real effects on us–whether one interprets it as separate being, such as a Voudun lwa, or as a deep subconscious process that can “take over” without one fully understanding what’s going on and thus merely seeming to be external–does ring true.  One has only to go to a rock concert or a political rally to see how people are “taken over” by the collective spirit.  On a smaller scale, we have all probably found ourselves sometimes doing things we’d never have thought we’d have done while in the grip of powerful emotions we can’t understand.  How one wants to interpret such phenomena metaphysically is less important that the fact that the phenomena themselves do indeed exist.

Thus, according to Hansen, the Trickster is real in that certain trickster-associated effects occur in specific socio-cultural contexts.  The main thesis of his book is that what are generally referred to as “paranormal” phenomena–precognition, psychokinesis, telepathy, and so on–are strongly associated with the Trickster archetype, and that this is an important reason that they are difficult to study scientifically.  The Trickster, by nature, is irrational and chaotic, and thus hardly a fit candidate for rational, scientific study!

In the present context, though, I’m not interested in the paranormal aspect of the Trickster, fascinating as it is, and much as I’d recommend Hansen’s book to all.  Rather, I want to tie the Trickster into the discussion at hand, sex and religion.  Harking back to my earlier Trickster post, noted above, I want to look at some of the typical characteristics of Tricksters or trickster-phenomena.  The general characteristics are:

  • Liminality–The trickster is associated with times of transition, change, or alteration from one state to another.
  • Antistructure–The trickster is opposed to stable, well-established structures and tends to operate outside of them or to oppose them actively.
  • Boundaries–The trickster moves back and forth across societal boundaries, and is found more at the margins than at the center.

There are several specific traits, but I want to focus on this one:

  • Sexual ambiguity–Tricksters are often homosexual or bisexual, or sexually ambiguous.  They often cross-dress, and may also be asexual.  More broadly, they manifest sexuality that is considered strange, unusual, ambiguous, or deviant by society.

The general traits of liminality and antistructure are not surprising.  Tricksters, by definition, are tricky, chaotic, and hard to pin down.  In his book, Hansen elaborates on this and notes that tricksters and trickster-related phenomena are commonest and most clearly manifested in marginal areas of society or in areas beyond the normal structures of society; and that more broadly, trickster phenomena are commoner in contexts in which the larger society is unsettled, chaotic, or in a state of change.  All of this is quite plausible.  Ambivalence, bohemianism, and chaos by their nature will thrive far from the centers of order and discipline, and will be more prevalent in disorderly or rapidly changing times.

What is germane for us here is the non-standard sexuality associated with Trickster archetype, individual tricksters, and trickster phenomena more generally.  Tricksters blur boundaries, and sexual boundaries are no different.  The sexuality of individual tricksters varies, but it generally deviates from the norm.  The Greek gods Hermes and Dionysus are tricksters, and both are androgynous–Hermes, from the Hellenistic period onward is always portrayed as a beautiful, beardless youth (what in Greek art is referred to as a kouros); and Dionysus is sometimes also so portrayed, and also often shown wearing women’s clothing (yes, men and women both wore tunics or chitons–what we’d tend to call “robes”; but men’s tunics differed substantially from those of women).  Hermes, in fact, had an affair with Aphrodite, resulting in Hermaphroditus, who became merged with the nymph Salmacis, thus becoming a male/female being, and also the origin of the term hermaphrodite.  Even in modern pop culture, Bugs Bunny, a trickster par excellence, constantly cross-dresses, and has even married Elmer Fudd in a couple of episodes–all this during an intensely conservative era of American culture!

Other tricksters tend towards being what we’d now call asexual.  Clowns and jesters, tricksters par excellence, are usually portrayed as unattached, as are holy fools, a subcategory of trickster.  Many pop culture trickster figures–the typical characters portrayed by Jerry Lewis and, much later, Chris Farley in their movies, and worthies such as these–are portrayed as childlike and innocent, with sex being more or less irrelevant.

It is fascinating in all these modern pop culture examples how despite the relatively ephemeral nature of the product and the unlikelihood that the writers and artists were familiar with the Trickster concept, the archetypal characteristics nevertheless crop up, asserting themselves as much in comedies and cartoons as in ancient texts.

Having looked at the Trickster as an archetype and specific instances of tricksters, let’s tie it all back to sex and religion.  Sociologists of religion have long noted that new religions tend to arise during periods of rapid social change and instability.  This makes sense on an intuitive level.  Among the many functions of religion is giving people a sense of meaning and stability in a confusing and unstable world.  Thus, it is natural that when change and confusion are rife, new ideologies and religions will arise to help people cope with this.  Examples abound:  The so-called Axial Age, during which Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism arose, Zoroastrianism took its modern form, and the great Greek philosophers from Pythagoras to Plato did their main work, was characterized by rapid urbanization and the rise of large states consolidating their rule over large regions.  In the 1st Century AD, when Christianity arose, Rome had vanquished all rivals for power in the Mediterranean area and brought rapid transportation and relatively high technology (for the age) even to formerly isolated areas.  In relatively modern times, the ferment in the backwoods and frontier areas in the United States led to many new churches and religious movements beginning the first half of the 19th Century.

Not only do new religions arise in times of change and tumult, they usually begin at the margins of respectable, mainstream society.  Christianity spread at first among the poor, the alienated, and marginalized, to such an extent that early critics of Christianity such as Celsus derided it as a religion of women and slaves.  Though it gradually increased in numbers, it remained marginal until it was legalized by Constantine in the early 4th Century.  This marginal status would have been shared by the Gnostic groups, too–in the eyes of the Empire, Christianity was a scourge to be eliminated, period, and sectarian differences between “orthodox” and “heretics” was of no interest.  Later on, in the Middle Ages, the various heretical groups–the Cathars and others–consistently arose among marginalized groups.  In modern times, alternate religions have been adopted by minorities, out-groups, and bohemians long before becoming (in some cases) mainstream.

Thus religions, in their early days, tend to be strongly associated with change, disorder, and upheaval in society at large, and tend to appeal to despised, minority, or marginalized groups that are not fully part of “respectable” society.  In short, they arise in the exact milieu which is the breeding ground for trickster phenomena.  It would be no surprise at all, then, if manifestations of these phenomena–including, but not limited to manifestations of unusual sex–should be thick on the ground during the early stages of the development of new religions.  In fact, paranormal and miraculous events are indeed disproportionately reported in the formational stages of most religions.  More to the point here, aberrant sexuality–ranging from extreme asceticism to extreme indulgence–occurs with startling regularity.  As I noted above, accusations of illicit or unusual sex have been leveled against new and alternate religions for centuries; and while we may attribute some of this to standard-issue mudslinging, the very consistency of this over many millennia and in reference to very different movements indicates at least a core of truth.

Thus, to conclude, it seems to me that neither the claims of the Romans about the Christians, nor the claims of the Christians about the Gnostics, were completely without merit.  It would be wrong to take such claims of sexual misbehavior as representing the normative forms of those religions; but it would be equally wrong to completely reject them.  Sex and religion are both very powerful forces, rooted deep in human nature and consciousness, mostly beyond our ability to directly perceive or understand them.  Small wonder that they interact in complicated and sometimes surprising ways.

Part of the series “Religious Miscellany“.

Also part of the series “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy

Posted on 28/04/2020, in Christianity, Gnosticism, religion, religions and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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