What does your sex life say about God?
Conventional Christian teaching states that there are two acceptable options – celibacy outside of marriage, how ever difficult that may be, and monogamy for life within marriage, regardless of whether the sex is endlessly pleasurable, dull or non-existent. It reinforces a stereotype of wholesome, legs-crossed Christianity that just isn't, well, sexy.
In fact, according to our prevailing culture, it's a downright preposterous choice.
To remain a virgin is ridiculous.
To turn away from a sexually active life, to resist the pleasures of sex until marriage, is ludicrous.
And to stay in a marriage that's not sexually – or otherwise – satisfying is absurd.
It's high time for another sexual revolution.
If, as a society, we're so liberated sexually that sexual bullying is the norm in schools; in one of our best-selling videogames you can have sex with a prostitute, then kill her and take your money back; and you can even soon buy a child sex robot to fulfill a fantasy, then I'm up for going all the way round the circle in this revolution.
Not that there's some golden heyday of sexual purity to return to. No. But while enjoying the best of our society's approach to sex – including freedom from prudery, secrecy and the taboo – let's celebrate the radical, counter-cultural attitudes to sex held by many Christians. Let us reclaim virginity and celibacy from sniggering embarrassment, and honour that way of life for the courageous, beautiful and utterly Christlike way of living that it is. Let us celebrate marriages that, despite being inevitably imperfect, mirror something of the faithful, selfless love of God, in the sacrifices that are made. Because to display a measure of contentedness in these two lifestyle choices, is an almost unparalleled witness to God's goodness, in our sex-crazed world. Paul writes about this contentment: "Don't be wishing you were someplace else or with someone else. Where you are right now is God's place for you. Live and obey and love and believe right there. God, not your marital status, defines your life" (1 Corinthians 7:17, The Message).
Jean Vanier, who founded L'Arche Christian communities for people with disabilities, chose a life of singleness and celibacy. He found this an undeniable struggle, but still believed that any 'grass is greener' view of sex-without-consequence was false:
"We have to choose between two ways of being crazy... the foolishness of the Gospel and the non-sense of the values of our world". There is madness in the Christian approach to sex, but it is far less than that of our culture: "If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become "fools" so that you may become wise" (1 Corinthians 3:18).
But these approaches to sex are so revolutionary (or counter-revolutionary) in our world, how is it actually possible to live them out? For any radical lifestyle to be sustained, be it financial, spiritual or sexual, it requires the support of a close community, which shares in the same values. Brother Luigi Gioia stated at the HTB Leadership Conference that celibacy is only possible when one is surrounded by a loving community, in which the tenderness of friendship is authentically experienced: "In friendship I am free to be myself and can learn to love and accept myself, including all my brokenness".
Only in community with people who are celibate and married-for-good, supporting one another in our struggles, can we model a radiant alternative attitude towards sex. Marva Dawn sets out a vision for this type of community living in Sexual Character: Beyond Technique to Intimacy, in what she calls 'sexual shalom':
"We will not exploit or manipulate others to gain our own sexual satisfaction, but rather will seek their wholeness. As our social sexuality is supported by the love and encouragement of other members of the Body of Christ, we will have the peace within ourselves that instills courage to resist our society's false notions of sexuality... Throughout the lives of members of the community, we seek to nurture the virtues necessary for sustaining both singleness and marriage according to God's purposes and a person's calling".
We need community to reboot this sexual revolution. But we need more than that.
We have within each one of us a set of complex desires:
to be free-spirited and to be settled;
to change and to be accepted as we are;
to be lavish with our love and to focus it singularly;
to be experimental and to find comfort in the familiar.
No single set of circumstances, no man or woman, no wild sexual experience, not even the very best community can satisfy all of who we are. It is only in being united with our Creator, through Christ, that our restless longings and cravings find their satisfaction. It is here that we are loved unconditionally, even as we are fully known. It is only this, most intimate, relationship that can bear the whole weight of all our complex desires. Let the revolution start here.
Alexandra Lilley is a curate in the East End of London.