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 Origins of the Sex-Spirit Split


Origins of the Sex-Spirit Split


Alastair McIntosh


This conference paper is based on a keynote presentation at the Sex & Spirit conference, Findhorn Foundation, 21 October 2001.



The 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.


Plato’s most influential work, The Republic,[1] 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.”


However, it is to The Phaedo[2] that we must turn for Plato’s fullest exposition, and his necrophilic linkage of denigration of the body with adulation of death.


To 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:


Ordinary people seem not to realise that those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death. … A man of this kind [a philosopher] is not concerned with the body [and sexual pleasures], but keeps his attention directed as much as he can away from it and towards the soul [64].


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.[3]


… in despising the body and avoiding it, and endeavouring to become independent – the philosopher’s soul is ahead of all the rest…. The body fills us with loves and desires and fears and all sorts of fancies and a great deal of nonsense, with the result that we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything…. We are in fact convinced that if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things by themselves with the soul by itself  [65-66].


Here too we find the laying down of the “stiff upper lip” philosophy of emotional detachment. The Platonic Socrates opines that:


…a system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true. The true moral ideal, whether self-control or integrity or courage, is really a kind of purgation from all these emotions, and wisdom itself is a sort of purification [69].


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 [67]


If 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.


In 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.


The 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 incompatible.


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:


Go 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 21:15-23).


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.[4] 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….”[5] 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”.




[1]  Plato, The Republic, Trans. A. D. Lindsay, Everyman, London, 1935.

[2]  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.

[3]  See discussion of this point in my Soil and Soul, Aurum Press, London, 2001, chapter 19.

[4]  John O’Hanlon MRIA, Lives of the Irish Saints, Vol. II, James Duffy & Sons, Dublin, 1875, 1-246.

[5]  Gilbert Márcus OP (ed.), Adomnán’s ‘Law of the Innocents, Blackfriars Books, Glasgow, 1997, 18.








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19 March 2002


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