Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reformation for Women: A Short Historical Write-Up

During the time of the Reformation, there was a definite strain within the religious climate which seemed to have definitely negative views towards sex, even within the confines of marriage, and the body in general. This was particularly troublesome for women, as they tended to be associated with the bodily side of the dichotomy between body and mind or spirit and hence also with sex and sin as well. In part, this may have been a holdover from certain Gnostic influences which crept into the church, viewing the body and bodily matters as bad. But it also may be in part a result of the Stoic influence on the church (which is readily visible in, for instance, Boethius, whose work became very influential in the Middle Ages), emphasizing escape from the sufferings of the world through detachment from desires and happiness being found in what was internal and inviolable alone.
Add to these influences the monastic, ascetic strain in Christianity which, when Christianity became popular and filled with nominal believers, sought to display a greater devotion and higher degree of being set apart through extreme asceticism and self-denial. Reactions against pagan sexual excess probably had their fair share of influence as well. Given all of these influences, it is not surprising that many church leaders, who followed in the footsteps of these very influences and in principle followed a highly ascetic ideal, should at times display highly negative attitudes towards the body, sex, and, by extension, women.
All of this, of course, was in tension with the anti-Gnostic position of the church on the goodness of the material creation, the goodness of the body and sex, and the view that body and mind alike displayed sin (one finds such attitudes in Augustine, for instance, who argued that sex was part of God’s good, pre-Fall creation intent for humankind). One can see some of the Reformers such as Luther making a return to re-emphasize these historic views over and against the overly ascetic, monastic strain dominating the religious hierarchical scene. Sex, body, and marriage are all seen as good things created by God, part of his very good created order.
Things were obviously still not all roses, however. Female sexuality could still often be seen as especially dangerous in comparison to male, the idea being that females, often even unwittingly, lead otherwise pious men astray into sexual sin. The problem here seems to be a combination of a double standard coupled with male abdication of responsibility in their own sexual lives (passing the buck, as it were, onto the women much as Adam did with Eve). The men were not so bad since, after all, it was the women’s fault!
There was an even greater double standard in relation to sexual relationships outside of marriage. Males were not, in society, frowned on as much as women were they to engage in such relations. Women, meanwhile, could be considered “damaged goods” and exceedingly wicked. A number of factors probably contribute to this, including the desire to ensure the legitimacy of male heirs which attaches directly to female but not to male sexual expression as well as the fact that the males were in charge and hence were more likely to give themselves or other men a free pass in this arena than to do the same outside of their own gender group.
If we filter out the double standards and scapegoating, however, it seems like overall that folks like Luther actually achieved, in theory at least, a rather nice balance between the goodness of sex and the body, on the one hand, and, on the other, the realization that, like all human desires, sexual ones can be corrupted by sin and ought to be pursued within their proper, God-given bounds. In the past fifty years, we have seen a much greater emphasis on the former but also, with the sexual revolution, a loss in many areas of the church of the latter. In the rush to be rid of sexism, patriarchy, double standards, and so on, it seems that many church leaders and laity have thrown out the sexual discipline baby with the patriarchal, overly ascetic bathwater.
The balance has been lost (if we ever fully had it), some in response overreacting in the opposite direction, making sex again a taboo, others embracing sex yet casting off restraint, with sex and sexuality becoming almost an idol, thus contributing to the increase in our society of things like pornography and radical sexual expression, sexual peer pressure, the sexualization of younger and younger girls, the breakdown of family relations and the rise in the number of broken homes and “deadbeat dads”, the increase in the incidence of STDs along with teenage pregnancies and abortions, and so on.
The historic balance the church has always struggled with and yet has in one form or another always been committed to, seems to be the goodness of sex and body (and women!) but with the ethical view that sexual relations have a proper place within certain confines. Either one without the other, it could be argued (though obviously many will disagree) is not a happy thing. Though we may argue about which by itself is worse (some more Fundamentalist groups might argue that it is better to have the latter by itself than the former), it would be better to retain that balance between the goodness of a thing along with a recognition of moral constraints on it which is so essential to ethical thinking in general, let alone religious.

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