Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Here is Christianity in very much the form in which we saw it under Calvin’s rule. Historically, it was inevitable that Christianity should have become a guilt ridden religion. It seems equally clear that this was not what Christ himself intended, for it is patently obvious that He never intended to set on foot this frenzy of masochism and sexual repression. Even in the accounts which the Church has officially approved, at no point does He advocate or practise masochism. He made one long fast in order to undergo a spiritual experience, but in general we find Him recognizing the importance of satisfying human needs— feeding crowds, defying Jewish law to relieve His own hunger on a sabbath, and even turning water to wine for a wedding feast. Nor did He anathematize sexual pleasure. It is, as a matter of fact, somewhat surprising that He never gave any indication of His views on these matters, and avoided a direct answer to the only direct question put to Him on a marital matter. His consideration for the woman taken in adultery hardly suggests a puritanical attitude to sex. Furthermore, He declared himself against violence, and indeed against Thanatos in its widest sense, for He said:

“I came that ye might have life and that ye might have it more abundantly.”

On the face of it, then, the teaching of Christ has the air of an attempt to relieve guilt. Christ said that He came to “take away the sins of the world” — that is, to reduce the sense of guilt. He claimed the power on earth to forgive sins, provided only that the listener believed in His power. It was a wholly reasonable claim, for the sense of guilt vanishes as soon as we cease to think it exists. In primitive peoples, guilt is often disposed of by selecting a goat, asserting that the sins of all present are henceforth borne by the goat, and killing it. Christ’s death provided, once and for all, such a scapegoat and even a rationalist may suppose that He may have seen that His own death was a necessary feature of His scheme.

If this was His intention, no formal organisation, and few rules of conduct, were necessary. The essential feature was only that the news that sins were forgiven, and that Christ had died to this end, should continue to be propagated.

From these considerations alone, one would suspect that some drastic change in the character of Christianity took place in the first few centuries after the death of Christ. The great mass of scholarship which has been devoted to the subject of the Early Church in the last half-century confirms this, and since it was this change which was responsible for the attitude to sex which dominated the Church in the Middle Ages and which has influenced attitudes to sex to a greater or lesser extent for two thousand years, it will be worth our while to examine it in rather more detail.