Sex, Sin & Antinomian Antics
The best one can say of Pope John's portrayal of St. Francis's ideals of poverty as a 'perversion of scripture' is that it was an act of the head of an entrenched institution defending his and its privileges from a perceived threat. By the 13th century the Catholic Church was well practised in maintaining both its rule and its view of the world. Over the centuries there had been many threats and many enemies to both its physical and spiritual fabric. Not the least of these was the ever-present threat of Eros, the normal sexual drive. Since Jesus himself made no association at all between sexual desire and sin, this connexion has to be seen as a later accretion. But it was one that came to dominate the Church's thinking to an obsessive degree. The Church attempted, and largely succeeded, in associating sexuality with guilt in a uniquely oppressive way - but as a result had to maintain an eternal vigilance against all matters sexual, treating them as an insidious and relentless threat.
The early Church, based as it was in the Mediterranean cultures of the ancient world, was in constant conflict with older pagan practices, especially those with a sexual element. The Christians particularly detested the more sensual mystery cults such as those of Bacchus and Priapus, and the women’s goddess Bona Dea. The festivals associated with these cults, however, were extremely popular and were traditionally times of great sexual licence. Saint Augustine's account of the goings-on at the feast of Priapus (which was essentially a fertility festival) typifies the sense of repugnance felt by the priests of the new religion for such loose behaviour - 'The rites of Priapus were celebrated at the crossroads in Italy so immodestly and licentiously that the male genitals were worshipped in honour of the God, and this not with any modest secrecy, but with open and exulting depravity ..... during all of these celebrations the citizens used the most disgraceful words until the phallus had been carried across the market place and put to rest again. It was necessary that the most honourable of matrons should publicly place a wreath on that disgraceful effigy.'
In fact phallic worship had been very common throughout the Classical world. Perfectly respectable women used phalli as amulets to promote fertility, and they were also used as household ornaments, lamps, doorknockers etc. However, there is little doubt that the festivals associated with Bacchus in particular were pretty wild, not to say orgiastic. During this time the devotees of the God, the Bacchantes, ran about the streets naked or half-naked, drinking wine from phallic-shaped glasses, danced around floats containing enormous models of male and female sex organs, and generally engaging in scenes of debauchery. It wasn't just Christian commentators who were horrified. The celebrations were viewed with disapproval by the authorities, who frequently banned them. Livy, the somewhat conservative historian, obviously felt that matters were getting out of hand - 'When wine had inflamed their minds, and night and the mingling of males with females, youth with age, had destroyed every sentiment of modesty, all varieties of corruption began to be practised, since each had at hand the pleasure answering to that which his nature was more inclined.'
Even more appalling to the misogynistic temperament of the early Christians were the activities of the cult of Venus, the Bona Dea (Good One). Men were excluded from the rites of this mystery cult, but their festivals were also used as an opportunity for orgiastic behaviour. Juvenal has left a description - 'The Maenads with their wild countenance, howl horribly and toss their flowing hair, how their eyes sparkle, how their bosom glows, how their cheeks burn as passion rises...' and later in the proceedings '...the shout is heard, 'Let the men in' ...'
There are vestiges here of the ancient and widespread custom of sacred prostitution, by which woman attending temples dedicated to Venus offered themselves to complete strangers as a form of propitiation. The Church Fathers were, of course, well aware of these customs and were inimically hostile to them, as they were to anything that savoured of the erotic. Indeed their fanatical opposition to sensuality in general was their principle driving force. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, was to order the closure of all pagan temples in the Empire, particularly those associated with the cults of Venus and Baccchus. The establishment of Christianity as a state religion also led to the systematic destruction of any works of art or literature that savoured of eroticism. Sensual love had become a sin, and women were blamed as temptresses, and a new regime of censorship and misogyny came into being, directed by celibate priests. At this time a great deal of classical literature, poetry and sculpture was destroyed because it offended the new, prurient sensibilities.
But however radical, or in many cases fanatical, was this new prudishness, many of the old customs lingered on. In fact the Church had to fight a constant rearguard action against the reappearance, often in disguised form, of the old sensual ways. Even phallic-worship persisted in some of the more remote provinces, with the statues of Christian saints being provided with a highly conspicuous male organ.
The agapae, or 'love-feasts', of the early Christians were a typical pagan survival. These were gatherings, often associated with the Eucharist, or held to commemorate the lives of deceased friends. They were essentially a Christian modification of the old pagan funeral banquets, but from the very earliest days they were a source of anxiety for the religious authorities. In the New Testament itself there are dark warnings about the activities of those who allowed the celebration to degenerate into a promiscuous riot ('turning the grace of our Lord into lasciviousness': Jude 4) and this was just the beginning of the Church's long struggle against partying. The priests knew only too well that dancing could lead on to more serious immorality, but their complaints were obviously ignored. By the 4th century, at the Synod of Elvira, it was deemed necessary to completely forbid the traditional watches for the dead in churchyards. Apparently here was a tendency for these gatherings, in an obvious echo of the past, to progress from a simple ceremony of prayers for the departed into a ritual trampling of evil spirits. From this it was a short step to dancing, which became more and more animated, culminating, if accounts are to be believed, in a promiscuous free for all, These agapes took their name from the Greek term for selfless, or spiritual love, as distinct from Eros (lustful love) and Philia (friendship or fraternal love).
The early church was threatened by another form of agapetism that drifted all too easily into eroticism. This originated with the agapetae, those female celibates and widows of the time, who had devoted their lives to the service of the clergy or monks as an expression of their dedication to the church and of their spiritual love for its ministers. Unfortunately an element of competition entered these relationships. The exultation of their celibacy led many of these ministers to positively seek out opportunities to demonstrate their virtue. Monks and priest took to sleeping with their agapetae (particularly with young virgins) in order that they might triumph over the temptation of the flesh. Naturally this was not always successful. Not surprisingly scandals and suspicions tended to hang around the practice, and after repeated attempts at regulation it was officially denounced. There were attempts to justify such eroticism as did arise by appealing to the doctrine that Christians were free from the law and lived in God's grace, or that love constituted a mystical communion with God. Both of these notions (or excuses) were to reappear in the future in various guises, but they didn't wash with the anti-erotic Fathers of the Church. The practice of agapetism itself was officially suppressed, although it seems to have persisted over the following centuries since it was once again denounced at the Lateran Council of 1139. However the notion that had occasionally accompanied it, that Faith excuses Sin (antinomianism) was of far more serious concern; it was, indeed, a matter of heresy.
There were a number of Gnostic-influenced Christian sects in the early centuries that came to see themselves as having acquired such a degree of perfection that they were quite above conventional moral law. The Messalians were typical. This group believed that every man had a personal demon residing in his soul: once this demon was ejected, as the result of a protracted and arduous course of exercises, sin was no longer possible. The initiate, who was then at one with the Holy Ghost, could return to the world and live as luxurious and debauched life as he liked without any danger to his immortal soul; which they did. Another group, the Carpocratians, went even further and believed in the necessity of ignoring conventional moral constraints in order to transcend human law. To this end they wilfully engaged in every form of vice and perversion and, in the process, got themselves (and other Christian sects) a very bad name indeed
One of the constant themes of this collection is that there would appear to be no real limit to the degree of self-deception, nor of the extent to which those convinced of an idea can rationalise and justify their actions; this is particularly true in the religious sphere, and particularly where sex is involved. There have been any number of sexually-motivated religious leaders, but their given reasons are various (and often ingenious). The fact is that a sexually repressive religion (as Christianity was and still is) is prone to go into reverse gear from time to time.
[to be expanded
The Anabaptists of Munster (albeit under extreme circumstances) went from puritanism to promiscuity in the course of a single year 164 'Hist. of Sin'
The Millerites (in 19th century U.S.A.) went in for 'testing of faith' by licentious advances notes 'Religious Sects'
'Frog-hopping' and orgiastic behaviour after Kentucky revival 235 'Tech. of Persuasion'
Krafft-Ebbing on religious and sexual states of emotion 10 'Secret & Forbidden'
also Vallabha's pantheistic tendencies 'ln the sect that he founded into regrettable antin. licentiousness' Hinduism 87, 101 & see Saktism 106,07 ibid & 'Hist. of Sin' 172
Tantra etc. 117 'History of Sin'
'Love in action' pgs 402,410-413; 'Love locked out' pgs 9,272,274;275...
'Short. Hist. of Sex Worship' pgs 65-82; 'Human Sexuality' pg29;
'Early church' pg 36; Eunuchs for Heaven pgs140-141,146-152,155,198,208,210