Origins of the Sex-Spirit Split
of the Sex-Spirit Split
This conference paper is based on a keynote presentation at the Sex & Spirit conference, Findhorn Foundation, 21 October 2001.
Sex-Spirit split in Western thought can be traced mainly to Greek influence,
both in philosophy and in the New Testament, particularly in the writings of
Paul. There is also some evidence in the Old Testament linking it to the
militarised feudal patriarchy. Here I shall confine myself to quoting some key
sources, tracing it through Plato to Paul, with some Old Testament and Celtic
stops along the way.
most influential work, The Republic,
sets an ascetic tone on just its 3rd page [329 Stephanus] where
Cephalus says to Socrates:
Take the poet Sophocles, for example. I was with him
once, when someone asked him: “How do you stand, Sophocles, in respect to the
pleasures of sex? Are yu still capable of intercourse?” “Hush, sir,” he
said. “It gives me the greatest joy to have escaped the clutches of that
savage and fierce master.”
it is to The Phaedo
that we must turn for Plato’s fullest exposition, and his necrophilic
linkage of denigration of the body with adulation of death.
Plato (c. 427 – 347 BCE), speaking either through or for his philosophic hero,
Socrates, in other words, for the so-called “Platonic Socrates”,
transcendence from body to soul was the central task of the philosopher:
Such transcendence partly justified the philosopher’s presumption of elitism, which in The Republic finds its way into the “philosopher kings” principle, and in The Laws is used, as Karl Popper has shown, to justify explicit philosophical authoritarianism.
Here too we find the laying down of the “stiff
upper lip” philosophy of emotional detachment. The Platonic Socrates opines
This makes the true vocation of philosophy nothing
other than necrophilia – the love of death, because, says Socrates:
… purification, as we saw some time ago in our
discussion, consists in separating the soul as much as possible from the body,
and accustoming it to withdraw from all contact with the body and concentrate
itself by itself; and to have its dwelling, so far as it can, both now and in
the future, alone by itself, freed from the shackles of the body… And the
desire to free the soul is found chiefly, or rather only, in the true
philosopher; in fact the philosopher’s occupation consists precisely in the
freeing and separation of soul from the body… Then it is a fact, Simmias, that
true philosophers make dying their profession 
the Hellenic (Greek) influence is one face of Western thought, the other is the
Hebraic (Jewish) perspective. Let s turn now to see what that has to say about
sex and spirit.
the Old Testament we find little evidence of denigration of the body. Men,
though not women, are commonly portrayed as having full sex lives, and renowned
kings like David and Solomon were seriously polygamous. David also had his
celebrated relationship of male warrior bonding with Jonathan. We are told in 1
Samuel 20:17 (NRSV) that “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him;
for he loved him as he loved his own life”. In his lament for Jonathan and
Saul in 2 Samuel 1, David ordered that the “Song of the Bow”, as he called
it, should be “taught to the people of Judah”. This includes verse 26 of
that chapter, which reads:
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.
Old Testament is also remarkable for its use, common in Middle East mystical
writing such as is also found within the Sufi tradition of Islam, of using
erotic metaphor for the love of God. The Song of Solomon (or
Song of Songs) is replete with explicit sexual imagery in this way and as
such, has been described by some in the Hebraic tradition as being the most
important of all the books in the Old Testament. It is a short and poetic read,
much to be commended to any who think that spirituality and sexuality are
It is, however, a matter of deep concern, and
cause for considerable reflection, that the Old Testament actually permits the
sexual violation of women taken as booty in war. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 lays out
the procedure for when “you see among the captives a beautiful woman whom you
desire and want to marry”, and in Numbers 31 we find the Israelites so
distributing the “booty” after their conquest of the Midianites. However, a
plague comes among them. Some scholars have speculated that this was venereal
disease. because Moses commands them to, “kill every male among the little
ones, and kill every woman who has known a man by sleeping with him. But,” he
continues, “all the young girls who have not known a man by sleeping with him,
keep alive for yourselves” (verses 17 – 19). Some people are also set aside,
along with animals, as “an offering to the Lord” (verse 29), possibly a
reference to human sacrifice.
Judges 21 also offers an example of the
Benjamintes, who were short of wives, sending out twelve thousand soldiers to
put to the sword the entire population of Jabesh-gilead except for “four
hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man” (verse 12). These,
however, proved insufficient for the Benjaminites to quench their concupiscence.
The elders said, “What shall we do for wives for those who are left, since
there are no women left in Benjamin…. There must be heirs for survivors of
Benjamin, in order that that a tribe may not be blotted out from Israel”
(verses 16-17). The elders solve the problem, saying:
and lie in wait in the vineyards, and watch; when the young women of Shiloh come
out to dance in the dances, then come out of the vineyards and each of you carry
off a wife for himself from the young women of Shiloh…. The Benjamites did so;
they took wives for each of them from the dancers whom they abducted (Judges
Interestingly, the Book of Judges ends at this
point, with the closing comment that, “In those days there was no king in
Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). However,
acquiring a king was not, in itself, a measure necessarily calculated to improve
the lot of women. In 1 Samuel 8 we arrive at a pivotal point in the Old
Testament where the Israelites want a human king to be like any other tribe, but
Samuel tells them that God wants them to have only Him as their king. A human
king, God says, would turn the Israelites into a militarised feudal patriarchy.
A king would “take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his
horsemen, and to run before his chariots”, he would take a tithe of the
agricultural produce and “the best of your fields and vineyards and olive
orchards and give them to his courtiers”. And he would “take your daughters
to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.”
This is an important Biblical example of God
objecting to the gender stereotyping of women (another is with Jesus in the New
Testament’s Mary and Martha story of Luke 10:38-42). However, the Israelites
“refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said … ‘we are determined
to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations’” (verses
19-20). Accordingly, “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and
set a king over them.’ (verse 22). Saul was appointed – “a handsome young
man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he
stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Samuel 9:1-2). And the rest,
as they say, is his-story.
We are left wondering whether God actually
approved of all the genocide and violation that fills the Old Testament, or
whether God merely, as John Calvin would have said, “accommodated” such
human wickedness as part of the historical process of spiritual evolution.
We might also set later sexually ascetic
doctrines in a context where violation was so common that asceticism might have
had a moral edge and purpose that it lacks in most of today’s Western world.
Here was a world on the cusp of rapacious anarchy and feudal lordship, but not
yet ready for spiritual “lordship”. Rather as separatist feminism today can
allow women the space they need to heal from patriarchy, so religious celibacy,
in the past, might have had a similar function.
We can see hints of this in some of the lives
of saints. Here virginity may have provided a form of social protection of the
integrity of the person. For example, in his classic Lives of the Irish
Saints Fr. O’Hanlon draws together early sources suggesting that St Bride,
the greatest of Celtic women saints, was the virgin daughter of a sex slave. Her
sanctity protected her from an attempt by her stepmother and father to sell her
into bondage similar to what her mother had endured.
Indeed, early Scottish and Irish society was forced to take the issue of
women’s violation by mutually warring tribes sufficiently seriously that, in
the year 697, Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona, passed his renowned “Law of
the Innocents” where representatives of the kings of North Britain and Ireland
agreed upon protection for women, children and clergy. Punishments were laid
down for rape, and in the event of a woman actually being killed, the punishment
was to be death preceded by amputation. Thus Article 33 of the Law reads, “For
whoever kills a woman is condemned to a double punishment, i.e. his right hand
and his left foot are cut off before death, and then he shall die….”
The significance of such corporal punishment, in the same century that the
prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) established Islam, is not to be missed in
taking an evolutionary view of comparative religion – we had hand-cutting too,
and even the cutting-off of women’s hands is to be found in the law of Moses
in the Bible (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).
We leave the Old Testament, then, with an
understanding that spirituality can be and should be richly erotic, but with the
question of whether males have historically behaved in such a way as to merit
rendering this fully incarnate for women and men alike. We can see why sex and
spirit may have started to split, and yet it is questionable whether this was
God’s intended way of things or just necessity.
Moving in to the New Testament era we find a
Jesus who associated with women in a manner that would have rendered him
ritually unclean, who was anointed by a woman’s precious oil (and therefore
recognised as a “king”), who stuck up for a women’s right to learn
spiritually (Mary and Martha), and who even allowed women to touch him sensually
(Luke 7). However, the writings of St Paul introduce a new asceticism which,
though he was a Jew, seem to owe much to the Helenic mindset of the Greek in
which Paul wrote. Accordingly, it is to Paul that we can trace much of the
Christian put-down on sexuality, though we might be more accurate thinking of it
as “Paulianity” than “Christianity”.
Paul’s writings can be rich in love and
wisdom, but are also laced with an ascetic and patriarchal authoritarianism
reminiscent of Plato at his worst. Slaves are told to “obey your earthly
masters with fear and trembling … as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).
Unreconstituted Jews had better watch out, because, “if you let yourselves be
circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Galatians 4:2). And
hippies, albeit with “Jesus” hairstyles, are also out: “If a man wears
long hair, it is degrading to him” (1 Corinthians 11:14).
This latter reference, much quoted by teachers
of “religious instruction” in Scottish schools during the 1960’s,
underlines Paul’s concern for sharp gender demarcation. He expressed explicit
homophobia in, for example, Romans 1:27 (a condemnation not found in the
teachings of Jesus). And in heterosexual affairs his manifest preference was for
celibacy. Thus he councils: “Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife”
(1 Corinthians 7:27). Again,
Paul orders, “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord”
(Ephesians 5:22). He continues, “Let a woman learn in silence with full
submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is
to keep silent” (1 Timothy 2:11-12).
And that’s not all. In passages more extreme
than anything to be found in the Qur’an (which merely speaks of the need for
women to draw their veils over their bosoms and not display themselves
immodestly except to their husbands (Surah xxiv:31)), Paul specifies that:
“Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not
with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls or expensive clothes” (1 Timothy
2:9), and, “Any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces
her head…. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her
hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved,
she should wear a veil” (1 Corinthians 11:5-6).
Paul’s excesses in these matters appear
sufficient to justify the allegation of misogyny. However, in terms of his
splitting apart of sex and spirit, we might, as with our earlier discussion
about holy virgins, remember that he was living in an era when his faith was
subject to persecution and it is therefore perhaps understandable that an
unmarried way of live, in an era before reliable contraception, could be seen as
offering greater spiritual freedom.
If we might finally return to Plato, the Greek
put-down on sexuality took place in a context of homosexual warrior culture of
which the Platonic Socrates was disapproving (see Plato’s Symposium,
which gave rise to the notion of asexual “Platonic love”). However the
absolute otherworldliness of Socrates, taken to the point, as we have seen, of
necrophilia, is set in The Phado in a context of Socrates last days as he
awaited judicial execution. Similarly, Jesus’ attitude towards the world might
be advisedly measured in a context of remembering that he knew his own tortured
end was nigh. Both Socrates and Jesus faced death, Paul suffered imprisonment,
and many of the early Christians were most brutally martyred. If one is about to
be fed to the lions, or grilled in an amphitheatre on a metal grate, the
attraction of a world-denying transcendental spirituality with renunciation of
that which keeps the show on the road – sexuality – may be rather more
appealing than it is for many of us in a more fortunate world today.
It is in this context that we might view the
origins of the sex-spirit split. This is how we might look towards their
reconciliation in an immanent or incarnate theology, where sex is a blessed gift
of God, rendered most orgasmic when celebrated in chaste (i.e. pure)
relationship, as nothing less than an act of spiritual communion.
As the Rev Ian Fraser of the Iona Community
once told me, “I consider Heaven to be the fulfilment of the erotic”.
 Plato, The Republic, Trans. A. D. Lindsay, Everyman, London, 1935.
 Plato, The Phaedo, in The Last Days of Socrates, Trans. Hugh Tredennick, Penguin, London, 1959. References are to the standard pagination of Stephanus’ 1578 edition.
 See discussion of this point in my Soil and Soul, Aurum Press, London, 2001, chapter 19.
 John O’Hanlon MRIA, Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol. II, James Duffy & Sons, Dublin, 1875, 1-246.
 Gilbert Márcus OP (ed.), Adomnán’s ‘Law of the Innocents, Blackfriars Books, Glasgow, 1997, 18.
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19 March 2002