When I was a boy in school, I go back to this because my experience may not be – I do not know how typical it would be of children brought up in the United States in a religious environment – but my experience in England was quite fascinating. About you know, when as one is baptized as a child and you don’t know anything about it, and your godfathers and godmothers are yours sponsors, then there comes a time when you are about to enter into puberty, when you are confirmed, when you undertake for yourself your own baptismal vows. And in England confirmation into the Church of England, which is Episcopalian in this country, confirmation is preceded by instruction. And this instruction consisted very largely of lessons in church history, because the British approach to religion is peculiarly archeological, based on the great past, the great Christian saints and heroes. It is really quite interesting, because it somehow associates you, and puts you in the tradition of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and all that sort of thing. But the time comes when every candidate for confirmation has a private talk with the school chaplain. And obviously in every process of initiation into mysteries, from time immemorial, there has been the passing on of a secret. So there is a certain anticipation about this very private communication, because you would think if you being initiated into a religion, what the secret consist of some marvelous information about the nature of God or the fundamental reason for being and so on. But (it is) not so in this case. The initiatory secret talk was a serious lecture on the evils of masturbation. What these evils were was not clearly specified, but it was vaguely hinted that ghastly diseases would result. So, in a perverse sort of way, we used to enjoy tormenting ourselves with imagining what kind of terrible venereal disease, epilepsy, tuberculosis, or the great Siberian itch would result from this practice.
The extraordinary thing about it is this: that the very chaplain who gave these lectures had, in his own upbringing, been given the same lecture by other chaplains, and I imagine this went back some distance in history. And they all knew perfectly well that one of the characteristic behavior patterns of adolescence is ritual defiance of authority. But you have to make some protest against authority, and in this you are in league with all your contemporaries, your peer group. Nobody would dream of giving anybody else away, because then he would be a tattletale, a skunk, definitely not one of the boys. Therefore, obviously, masturbation provided the ideal outlet for this ritual defiance because it was fun, it was also an assertion of masculinity, and it was very, very wicked.
So I meditated on this sometime as the why the system continued and I came to the realization that the Christian putdown of sex is an extremely mysterious thing. In the religious background of the Western world, we have mainly two traditions, one Semitic, and one Greek. So far as the Semitic tradition is concerned, the material world and sexuality are definitely good things. Both Jews and Muslims think that God’s creation of beautiful women was a grand idea. In the Arabic book that is the Islamic version of the Kama Sutra known as The Perfumed Garden, the book opens with a prayer to Allah that is a very full, detailed thanksgiving for the loveliness of women, with which Allah has blessed mankind. In the Book of Proverbs, we are enjoined to enjoy our wives while they are young. But on the whole it is the Semitic belief that sexuality is justified solely for purposes of reproduction of the species. This makes it good in the eyes of God and sexual energy should not really be wasted for other purposes. That’s the limitation put on it.
On the other hand, we have a Greek tradition that is peculiar in that, it is strongly influenced by a dualistic view of the universe, in which material existence is conceived of as a trap, as a fall into turgid clogging matter that is antagonistic to the lightness and freedom of the spirit. Therefore, for certain kinds of Greek religions—among which we must name the Orphic Mysteries, the Neoplatonic point of view, and the late agnostic points of view—being saved means being delivered from material existence into a purely spiritual state. From this point of view, sexual involvement is the very archetype of material environment—martyr, mother, mater, matter, are really the same word. So the love of woman is the great snare. This is, incidentally, a doctrine invented by men. It goes back to the words of Adam, “The woman that thou gavest me, she tempted me, and I did eat.”
In the development of Christian theology, from approximately the time of Saint Paul through the beginning of the Renaissance, it was universally held that sex was a bad thing. You should read Saint Augustine on this; he said that in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, reproduction took place in just the same way and with just the same lack of excitement as one excretes, or passes water and there was no shameful excitation of the sexual parts. The whole attitude of the church fathers in those centuries was that the virgin state was immensely superior spiritually to the marriage state, and that sexual relationships were excusable only within the bonds of marriage and for the sole purposes of reproduction. The manuals and moral penitentiaries of the theologians of the Middle Ages list all sorts of penances that must be said, even by married couples who performed sexual intercourse on the night before attending mass or before receiving Holy Communion. Of course, sex must be avoided completely on certain great church festivals. Although in theory marriage is a sacrament that somehow blesses this peculiar relationship, there is a definite attitude that it is after all dirty and not very nice.
You must realize, also, that in those days the institution of marriage was not what it is today. Marriage at the time of the rise and development of Christianity was a social institution for (creating) alliances between families. You did not marry the person of your own choice except under the most peculiar circumstances. You married the girl your family picked out for you, and they thought it over carefully from its political point of view, as well as from the point of view of eugenics, and whether this was a good healthy girl, and whether this was a good healthy man, they had an economic bargaining about it when you married this girl, you were not necessarily in love with her. And it was perfectly well understood in the secular world that on the side you had other arrangements. You had, if you could afford them, concubines or even second and third and fourth wives. And these subsidiary wives were…, there was someone more choice open to you in getting those than in the first one, first one was definitely a family arrangement. That is the context of it, don’t forget that. So what the church were saying was only that woman should be your bedfellow, whose marriage has been arranged by paternal authority.
The idea of romantic love does not arrive in connection with marriage until the troubadour cults of Southern France, of Provence, in the late Middle Ages, when they’re begins to be this idea of the idealization of woman as the inspiring goddess almost, of the knight-errant. Dante’s Beatrice is the inspiring woman who leads him to heaven. Historians today are not agreed as to whether the ladyloves of the chivalrous knights were in fact their mistresses or whether they were simply idealized women, but the influence of the cult of romantic love on the West was profound. And it brought about a weird combination of ideas: one – the notion of the married state being the only licit relationship in which sexual play might be carried on, and two – the notion that the girl you marry should be the one with whom you have fallen in love. Two more ill-adjusted ideas could hardly be put together, because naturally when you love someone very much indeed, in your enthusiasm of youth, you say things that are hardly logical, or rational. You may stand up before an altar and say, “My darling, my sweetheart, my perfect pet, I adore you so much that I will live with you forever and ever, until death do us part.” And that is the way you feel at the time. In a rather similar mood, ancient people would hail their kings and say, “O King, live forever.” Obviously this was not meant literally; they were just wishing him a long life. But to live forever? No sir, no mortal does that.
The trouble was that when a certain kind of extravagant poetic expression fell into the hands of people like Augustine and Totalian, who were rather influenced by Roman literalists, they wrote it into the law books. And so this amazing situation came about. But we still have not fully explored the subtlety of it. Let us consider certain periods when this attitude of prudery toward sexuality was in ascendancy. Nearest to our time is the bourgeois revolution in Victorian England and the United States. We all say Victorian as an adjective to indicate grundyism, extreme monogamy, a definite disgust for all things sexual. Yet, when we really go into the history of the Victorian period, we find that it was an extremely lascivious epoch. One has only to look at the lushness of Victorian furniture to realize that chairs were disguised women; even the way piano legs were shaped reflects this influence throughout Victorian art forms, and the conduct of the British aristocracy, during that period, beg a description.
People like Freud and Havelock Ellis made a certain mistake. They said about the church and about religion in general, that it was nothing but a form of sublimated sex. They said, “These people for curious reasons suppressed sex, and therefore it became a very powerful force for them.” You must remember of course that they worked on a hydraulic analogy of human psychology. That they likened it all to a river—if you dammed it up, it could burst the dam. It does not actually follow that human psychology is hydraulic, but this is the metaphor they used. They said, “The church has repressed sex, but if you look at its symbolism, it is nothing but an expression of sex. Everything is reduced to libido as the fundamental reality”. The church replied: “It is nothing of the kind. We deny this. We think that this reduction of everything to sex is just a way of attacking holy things, and on the contrary, we would say that people who are fascinated with sex and make it their god are repressing religion.”
The problem in this debate – everybody has missed the boat. The church should have said to Freud, “Well, of course, thank you very much. Yes indeed, our symbolism is sexual. The steeples of our churches, the vesicle-shaped windows and heraldic shields on which we put images of the crucifix or the Virgin Mother of God, these are all quite plainly sexual. But you see, the sexual biology in its turn, reveals the mysteries of the universe. Sex is not mere sex. Sex is a holy thing, and that’s one of the most marvelous revelations of the divine.” But imagine, the church just could not say that.
If you look at Tibetan Buddhist iconography and their images, or you look at Hindu temples, you will find things that Europeans and Americans have never been able to understand. Here are images of buddhas and of the gods engaged in amazing diversions with their female counterparts. Everybody thinks that these are kinds of dirty sculptures, but they are nothing of the kind. They are saying to the people who look at them that the play of man and woman is, on the level of biology, a reflection of the fundamental play of the cosmos. The play of positive and negative principles, of the light and the dark, of the mental and the material, they all play together. And the function of sexual play is not merely the survival and utilitarian function of reproducing the species, as it is among animals to a very large extent. What peculiarly distinguishes human sexuality is that it brings the partners closer and closer to each other in an intense state of united feeling. In other words, it is a sacrament, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, bringing about love. So, if that is peculiar to human beings, it is perfect nonsense to degrade human sexuality by saying it should only be carried on in the way that animals do this, because they have not yet evolved to the place where sex is the sacramental expression of man and woman’s love. And a love in that sense is a kind of enthusiasm, which means being possessed by the Divine. Falling in love, although considered by practical people to be a sort of madness, is actually the same sort of thing as the mystical vision, or grace. In its light we see people in their divine aspect. When the song says “Every little breeze whispers Louise,” that is a sort of extraordinary state of mystical intoxication in which the ideal woman becomes a goddess. Which is from one point of view, what every woman is, if you see her with the scales off your eyes. Likewise, every man seen with the scales off her eyes. [to see the true reality]
What happened then, as a result of this historical situation, was mutual name-calling, between the proponents of religion and the proponents of scientific naturalism, such as Freud and Ellis, people of that kind. They have never got together because they have never understood, neither the church nor the opponents of the church, has clearly understood that the secret of unconscious motivation of sexual repression is to make it all more interesting. And on the other side, it has never been clearly understood that sexual biology and all that goes with it, is a triggering forth, on the level of biology, of what the whole universe is about – ecstatic play. So as a result, there has been a kind of compromise. Today in ecclesiastical circles, sex is being damned with faint praise. People are saying, “After all, sex was made by God, and we should remember the Jewish point of view, and perhaps it is for something more than reproduction, it may bring about the cementing of the marriage ties between husband and wife,” but still in practice it remains the frightening taboo.
On the other hand, the opposition to Christian prudery goes overboard and always moves in the direction of total license. You see, what’s going on is a contest between the people who want the skirt pull down to the floor and the people who want them pulled up to the neck. And you have got to draw the line somewhere. But the play between these forces is: where we’re gonna draw the line. That is very exciting (play), providing neither side wins. I mean, imagine what it would be like if the libertines won and they took over the church, so that on Wednesday evenings the young Presbyterian group could meet for prayer through sex. Every child would go to the school physician for a course in hygienics, they would have classes and plastic models, and all the children would do it in class in very clean, hygienic circumstances all sprayed with rubbing alcohol. Imagine how boring it would all become. So you see, the people who say: ‘no, modesty is important’ have something right about it. But they must not be allowed to get away with it, but they must not be obliterated. You see, life works that way.
Let’s take an entirely different analogy, let’s take a given biological group, a species we will call A. It has a natural enemy, B. One day A gets furious at its natural enemy B and says, “Let us obliterate B.” They gather their forces and knock out their natural enemy. Suddenly, after a while, they begin to get weak, they get overpopulated. There is nobody around to eat up their surplus members, and they do not have to keep their muscles tensed against any enemy. They begin to fall apart because they have destroyed their enemy. What they should do is cultivate the enemy. That is the real meaning of “Love your enemy.” There is such a thing as a beloved enemy. And if you don’t have a beloved enemy, another words if the flies and the spiders don’t go together, there would be too many spiders or too many flies. These balances keep the course of nature going, what is exactly the same thing as between the libertines and the prudes. They need each other. And you should thank, if you have a prudish father and mother, you should be very grateful to them for having made sex so interesting. So don’t defy them completely, don’t go to your own campus with signs bearing four letter words, because that’s going to spoil the show. But every generation must react to the one before it, to this keeps this tension going. It is by this tension, this play of the opposites that we have the love that makes the world go round.