OK, so I’ve got your attention. Why on earth would I bring up something that so many would seem so distasteful and to others so banal? That’s why. Contemporary views about masturbation, even among Christians, highlight something of the moral and ethical change that has taken place in western culture over the last forty years or so. In our churches there can now be a huge diversity of beliefs on issues of sexuality. Because most of these topics are so visceral and emotionally charged it’s hard to even begin discussion. But, perhaps because masturbation seems to be less of an attack on a personal identity, I think it gives us a starting place for discussion of Christian sexual ethics. I think it also gives us some pointers as to how we might begin to address other subtler or more visceral topics within the larger debate. Furthermore it gives some insights into the Christian nature of love and our own spiritual formation.
To be clear, in this particular post I’m not pushing more accountability among Christians about masturbation, although this may well be helpful. Rather, I’m suggesting that it gives us at least one remaining topic, related to sexuality, that we might be able to think about logically and Christologically, without everyone getting so angry and emotional that the conversation devolves into a mud slingling context. Therefore, it may give us some clues as to how we can handle the larger debates we find swirling around us, for which most of us feel ill equipped.
As this is an informal blog I won’t use academic references. However, I do think it’s important to say that these ramblings are a synthesis of ideas from Jon Tyson (Church in the City, New Work), Mark Sayers (‘This Cultural Moment’ podcast), Glynn Harrison (‘A better story’), Jonathan Haidt (‘The Righteous Mind’) and, probably, Tim Keller.
Previous generations of western Christians, such as those born before the 1980s, would generally have seen masturbation as something that is ethically or morally wrong. Why? Because, they may say, it perverts the sanctity of human sexuality as designed by God. A Christian of these generations may also appeal to the Bible as an authority, to say that masturbation takes something that the Bible promotes within marriage, sexual satisfaction, and re-orders it outside of marriage. Jonathan Haidt points out that previous generations would often have appealed for morality to things such as ‘sanctity’ or ‘authority’, and some conservatives may even today. Previous generations would also have held a more corporate sense of morality, which balances the well-being of an individual with the well being of the community. On these grounds it may be pointed out that sexuality should be expressed within marriage, as marriage is a bedrock of a society and the best way to raise children. Certain things are right, because they’re better for society as a whole. Or so the argument goes.
But this framework is lost to the age we live in. Authority can no longer be appealed to because authority is seen as the thing we’re trying to free ourselves from. Authority, tradition and institution is seen as coercive, even abusive, by nature. As a result, a young Christian finds themselves in a culture which appeals, morally, to things such as ‘care’, ‘fairness’ and ‘oppression’. Within such a framework, based exclusively around the freedom, rights and satisfaction of the individual, masturbation could never be ‘wrong’ in any moral sense, in fact it could be viewed as quite helpful. Why? Contemporary western culture may say that an individual’s need for self expression, sexually, might be met through such individual satisfaction. In fact, to deny your inner desire could even be damaging or repressive, someone may argue. Anyway, what’s it got to do with me what another individual does in their own time? There’s no longer much sense of ‘society’ as a whole, so as long as no-one’s getting hurt it doesn’t matter.
How do people with these opposing world views even begin to speak to one another? And, bearing in mind that all cultural moral frameworks have blind-spots, how can Christians of either generation find Jesus’ way in all of this? After all, Jesus practices and preaches both justice and care for the individual and an appeal to the authority of the scriptures. In Haidt’s language, Jesus appeals to moral taste buds from both ‘the right’ (conservatism) and ‘the left’ (progressives). And surely, part of the Church’s witness to the world is that young and old can talk, debate, relate and learn from one another.
Perhaps the most helpful approach I’ve heard is the concept of spiritual ‘formation’. This is an ancient Christian understanding, grounded firmly in the Bible, that many of our churches have forgotten. The idea goes a bit like this: we are all being formed, spiritually, all of the time. Throughout the day, every day, we are engaging in practices that will either make us more ‘other loving’ (based on the Christian concept of ‘agape love’) or form us in another way. The other main option in contemporary western culture is probably ‘self love’, which I think often quickly turns into ‘self hatred’. But it’s clear that the Christian aim is to become more like Christ, who laid down his life for others. Agape love, ‘other-love’ is our aim. Christians believe that Agape love leads to the flourishing of both society and the individual. It is the pattern set by God in Creation and Christ in incarnation and atonement, thus appealing to both views of morality.
So the question is: are your daily practices forming you into a person that is loving others more or less? Are your daily habits forming you to be more like Christ or into a different image? For example, using and engaging in social media throughout the day. This is a formation practice. A very strong one. For many people it’s the first thing they do in the morning, the last thing they do at night and the first thing our dopamine addicted brains turn to at any possible moment in between. It will be forming us whether we like it or not. So, for you, what is it forming in you? Agape love? Worship? Or narcissism and anger? Patience or impatience? Is this formative practice growing your love for God and making you more like Christ? It’s possible but quite unlikely!
Let’s apply this concept now to Masturbation. When you or I have a desire for sexual satisfaction how we act on that desire will ‘form’ us. I would suggest that acting on masturbation forms us gradually into the kind of person who wants instant gratification and takes it without consent. After all, the images used for masturbation, whether in your mind or on a computer screen, don’t have to consent. On the other hand, the practice of submitting your sexual desires to God, i.e. not masturbating, begins to form in us self control, patience and consideration of others. This means that when we are functioning in relationship with another person, whether sexual or non sexual, our formation instincts have taught us to honour the other persons’ desires, not just our own. We are remembering to see a person as a person. We are learning to be patient. We are learning to submit our desires to God and to others.
C.S Lewis, of course, puts it brilliantly:
For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself . . . ‘
So perhaps the question we should be asking, when it comes to sexuality issues such as masturbation, and other much more emotionally charged topics, is how is this practice forming me? Or As Jon Tyler says, there are two questions: How am I being formed and who am I becoming? These questions can really help us stand back and examine our daily practice in a huge variety of ways. Are your daily practices, routines (disciplines?) helping you grow in agape love?
When, instead of being marched through each day by our impulses and desires, we turn back to the ancient Christian formation practices of praying for others, meditating on God’s word and Creation and pursuing Christian virtues in our lives, these normal Christian practices can have a radical and transformative effect on our mind and relationships. The Holy Spirit begins to form in us the ‘mind of Christ’ and an attitude like that of Christ Jesus. All from a conversation about masturbation!