Friday, January 9, 2009

Sex, Romane and Divine Grace

Having just completed an in-dept study of the Song of Songs during a winter course at Dallas Theological Seminary, I can say decisively that the Bible celebrates romance as a legitimate aspect of the human experience. Not only this, but the Song goes a step further in championing the sexual relationship enjoyed within the bonds of marital monogamy. However, throughout history many interpreters and commentators have been uncomfortable with how "earthy" a theme this is for a biblical book. It was assumed that such a humanly-themed book was somehow beneath the higher purposes that biblical works should have. For this reason, many who have examined the Song of Songs concluded that a "higher"meaning must be found in the book that points to more spiritual themes. This is called "allegory."

Instead of interpreting the book from a natural reading of the text, letting its plain sense come out, well meaning theologians have sought to see in the Song "hidden meanings" pertaining to the loving relationship between Christ and the Church. They simply could not get their mind around the notion that God would have inspired writers contribute a book to the Bible that had no loftier message than how great is romance that leads to marital sex. As a result though, they were unwittingly supporting a worldview steeped in a Greek philosophy that values the spiritual far more than the physical. Such neo-Platonism could be taken to the extreme, sliding toward gnosticism (a heresy that denied Christ as God in the flesh, spawning competing views of Christ that were rejected by the mainstream church; i.e. the Gospel of Judas and "The DaVinci Code"). Certainly theologians of the ancient church that sought to interpret the Song of Songs with allegory (even later reformers would follow suit) should not be accused of gnosticism. However, the valuing of the spiritual to the marginalization of the physical aspects of the human experience is a trend that the church has always found it necessary to shew away. This tendency has never gone away. Christians have always struggled with this. We want to escape to the spiritual realm because living for Christ in a physical existence is just plain difficult. We want to be more spiritual than we are physical, hoping that will fix out problems.

One of the problems we create for ourselves with this instinct is forgetting the implications of Christ's humanity. The ancient Church has always confessed that Christ is both fully God and fully human. The Definition of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) sought to codify this. The result has been that Christians must confess that Jesus is no less divine than the Father and the Spirit are, and no less human than we are. One of the implications of confessing Jesus' full humanity then is that human experiences (which do not constitute sinful rebellion) are owned and endorsed for divine purpose. We are to embrace and celebrate human experiences as divinely granted. To the extent it conforms to moral standards revealed in the Scriptures, human and earthly enjoyments are a gift of God for our full-life in Christ. This includes the romance, courtship and intimacy enjoyed by married couples.

Therefore, romance and sex are divine gifts with distinct parameters meant for our enjoyment. Couples are to conform to biblical moral norms, but then fully enjoy one another knowing that God has given them each other. Not only that, but God has given them the ecstasy and adventure of their intimate expressions. For this reason, the Song of Songs must be read naturally, allowing its plain sense to come out so that the reader receives from the sacred pages a celebration of human intimacy. This is a symptom of God's grace, that he calls us to enjoy his gifts within our human experience. Far from encouraging us to deny our humanity, God graciously quickens us express our humanity in the best possible way. This actually redeems our humanity (little wonder considering the humanity of Christ).

The Song of Songs is further evidence of God's grace, wherein he advances a healthy approach to our earthy relationships and experiences. Instead of trying to find a "loftier" or more spiritual meaning behind such texts, we need to thank God for acknowledging and even endorsing our humanity in areas of romance and intimacy through this ancient book. If marriage is a favored analogy of Paul for describing the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5), then it only follows that God, in his grace, would want us to enjoy our marriages to the full.

No comments: