By L. Alfred James
“Sex is no big deal.” We hear it all the time. “So why do Christians make such a big deal out of it?” A good example of this kind of complaint comes from Sam Harris:
You [Christians] believe that your religious concerns about sex, in all their tiresome immensity, have something to do with morality. And yet, your efforts to constrain the sexual behavior of consenting adults—and even to discourage your own sons and daughters from having premarital sex—are almost never geared toward the relief of human suffering. In fact, relieving suffering seems to rank rather low on your list of priorities. Your principal concern appears to be that the creator of the universe will take offense at something people do while naked. This prudery of yours contributes daily to the surplus of human misery.1
To be sure, much of what Sam Harris says here is correct. I know many Christians who are extremely disturbed about American society’s acceptance of a loose sexual morality who, at the same time, never seem even slightly distressed about millions of people who are suffering from severe poverty, hunger, or discrimination. But Harris is wrong to assume that Christians (or anyone else) should be unconcerned about the sexual behavior of human beings. Why?
Sex Really is a Big Deal
Sex is powerful. Just consider the psychological impact of sexual abuse. Why is it that so many millions of people have struggled with severe emotional trauma after being molested as a child or raped as an adult? Are we supposed to tell these victims to “Just get over it! Sex is no big deal”? That would be shockingly insensitive and unhelpful. The fact of the matter is that sex is a big deal to these victims because our psychological well-being is closely connected to our sexuality. This is not merely a “Christian thing.” Whether we want to admit it or not, sex is an extraordinarily powerful force. The essayist Susan Sontag thinks that sex is so powerful that we can label it with the word “demonic”.
Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomenon, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than the ordinary experiences of humanity. Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness—pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one’s consciousness, for death itself.2
Sex is a big deal. And it is meant to be a big deal. It is designed by God to continually reinforce the oneness that exists in a marriage between a man and a woman. Of course it has to be powerful. It is like the strong nuclear force that holds the core of an atom together. The bond between husband and wife is the core force that keeps the nuclear family together.
If we honestly consider how powerful sex is, it shouldn’t surprise us that God has such strict rules about it. In any human endeavor (conducted by psychologically healthy people), wherever powerful forces are at work one will find strict rules are in place (and quickly enforced). Is it not true that the more potency something has, the more raw power it has, the more carefully it ought to be handled? Consider a couple examples:
Weaponry: If a weapon has the potential to only cause one human being a slight amount of pain, such as a small knife, you handle it carefully, but not with an excruciating degree of concern. If it can cause several human beings a lot of pain or even risk of death (such as a gun) then you have more rules about how it is handled, and these rules are quite detailed. But if a weapon can destroy a large number of people, or even a whole city, like a nuclear bomb, it is necessary to have meticulously defined rules and procedures about how it ought to be handled.
Transportation: We have a few basic rules for handling a bicycle in public. But even those rules are held very loosely. Almost every day one sees people on bikes disobey traffic laws, even while police are watching, and they suffer no consequences. Why? Because the potential for seriously hurting other people with a bike is quite low. But think of all the rules that apply to driving automobiles. Not only are there more rules, they are more strictly enforced. Why? Because an automobile has a lot more power than a bicycle. Thus, it can do a lot more harm. Take it even further, think of all the rules and regulations that apply to heavy construction equipment, eighteen wheelers, or other powerful vehicles on the expressway. There are signs of all kinds that limit their activities. “Trucks not allowed in the left lane.” “Truck Speed Limit: 55.” You get the idea.
Again, my point is this: Wherever powerful forces are at work one will find strict rules are in place. The same thing is true with sex. One major reason that God demands that we only have sex within the confines of marriage is because of how strong of a psychological and emotional impact it has on us.
This is why he gives us specific rules about who we have sex with and when. Namely, only with human beings, and only with someone of the opposite gender. And only after we are married to them.
If we are having sex outside of those rules, then we are playing with fire. Or, to stick with the automotive analogy, we are driving outside the lines. And we often hit the rumble strips in the form of our conscience. The farther outside the lines we drive the more risk we incur.
Over the next few weeks, I would like to make the case that our culture is now encouraging us to not only cross over the rumble strips, but to cross the median and drive right into oncoming traffic.
1. Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
2. Susan Sontag, “The Pornographic Imagination,” reprinted as an introduction to Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 103.