Sometimes a man has been heard to declare that he wishes both to enjoy the advantage of high culture and to abolish compulsory continence. The inherent desire of the human organism, however, seems to be such that these desires are incompatible, or even contradictory. Any human society is free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom: the evidence is that it cannot do both for more than one generation. (1)
We believe that civilization has been built up by sacrifices in the gratification of the primitive impulses, and that to a great extent it is being perpetually recreated as each individual repeats the sacrifice of his instinctive pleasures for the common good. The sexual are amongst the most important of the instinctive forces thus utilized; they are in this way sublimated–that is to say the energy is turned aside from its sexual goal and diverted towards other ends, no longer sexual and socially more valuable. (2)
I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning, consequently assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially a matter of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously a liberation from a certain kind of political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. (3) Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and talked with me, saying to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who sits on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth were made drunk with the wine of her fornication…Then he said to me, “The waters which you saw, where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues. And the ten horns which you saw on the beast, these will hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh, and burn her with fire…” Revelation 17:1-2, 15-16.
Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Revelation 21:2
The Bible ends with two cosmic cities in the book of Revelation (chapters 17-22). The New Jerusalem, which represents “the New Heaven and the New Earth” is the outcome of the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. At the very end of the Bible, it “comes down from Heaven” and appears to hover over the earth, and is very near. The book of Hebrews assures us that we have now come “to the city of the living God, the New Jerusalem.” (Hebrews 12:22) It is a present reality. It is something like “corporate headquarters” of the Kingdom of God.
Likewise, Babylon the Great is also an on-going present reality, and it represents all of fallen humanity’s attempts to find sufficiency and life apart from God. For a time, it is a very rich, and in many ways, successful city. It is a city of merchandise and the merchandise named indicates the economic conquests of that city. It has merchandise of “gold, silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet, every kind of citron wood, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble…” and much more (Rev. 18:12). But it is also a city of corruption, decadence, and violence. Ultimately, the mark of its commerce is that it trades in the “bodies and souls of men.” (vs. 13). It is the “dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird…” (Rev. 18:2). It is finally a city that is “drunk with blood”.
These images are especially relevant for us because we are living in a time when the entire planet is “metropolozing”. Everywhere, human beings are leaving their rural roots and are moving into the city. In China, every year, 30,000,000 people are leaving farms and rural life and are moving into cities. That, as one of my professors reminded us, is the entire population of Canada moving annually into the city in that great nation. This phenomena is global on every continent, and in virtually every nation. So it behooves us to study the city, and to find a theology of the city.
But it is also true that typology and symbolism cut to the truth faster and with more clarity than a hundred sophisticated sociological studies ever could. I am currently interested in sexual mores and their effect on civilization, and the Biblical images cut to the chase almost instantly on this theme.
Most languages have masculine and feminine nouns, and I am not sure these are entirely arbitrary. The gender of nouns may convey very deep truths that need to be unearthed. The city, in all languages that I am aware of, is of the feminine gender. Both of the cities at the Bible’s end are feminine, and both are symbolized by women.
Biblical imagery is fluid and traverses the depths of meaning by what it immediately transforms into. If one looks the first time, one sees a city. But, if one blinks, what is seen with the second look is not a city, but a woman. In both cases they are beautiful women, and both are possessed of glory. But one is corrupt and is the woman of death, and the second is faithful and true, and is filled with life, infinite life. The first city is Babylon the Great who becomes the Whore of Babylon. The second is the New Jerusalem who becomes the Bride of Christ.
Now here we find an intertwining of two things that in some mystical and final sense belong together. It is also the fascinating case that empirically in the modern world, they belong together. The power of sexual relationship, and the fact of a metropolis belong together. The city is the great trysting place, the place of renewal or destruction of relationship, the place where souls and bodies are bought and sold, or where truth and fidelity create new life. They do so in the text, and they do so in reality.
Socrates was very willing to pay the price exacted upon him by his city because he owed his existence and being to it. And the “it” was not an “it”, but a “she”, and “she” was a mother to him. Our respective cities ought to function as mothers giving us life, and nourishing and protecting us after our birth. But our cities are not without husband and mate or pimp and master, and all belong to God, or gods who father through them and lend their character and name. In the ancient world, every city had some titular god or gods that she was beholden to. Prostitution was more often than not, sacred prostitution. The prostitute was a gateway to the god whom he or she served. To have intercourse with a sacred prostitute was to consort with the gods, and this sexualized relationship defined the underlying “energy” of the city. The temple was the center of the city and the center of the temple was the sexual commerce of the temple.
The ancient world was, with qualified exceptions, (exceptions that gave rise to both expansive and cultural energy) overwhelmingly given to polymorphous sexuality. The issue was not one of gender. I.e., the issue was not one of male and female, but one of penetrator, and penetratee, and it did not much matter what was penetrated by the aggressive party. It might be boys, girls, men, women, or animals. And while romantic love did exist within marriage (as the story of Helen of Troy, or Penelope and Odysseus remind us) it was a rare aristocratic luxury and did not in principle exclude other forms of sexual expression, especially for the man. And when chastity was imposed, it was universally imposed on the woman and not on the man. The sexualization and exclusiveness of marriage was the gift of the Torah and of Judaism.[iv] The Torah restricted sexual intercourse to the heterosexual union that was bound in covenant, and in the law of the Old Testament, we see the gradual move away from polygamy to a monogamous standard. The model for both parenting and for marriage as found in the Old Testament is found in Jehovah’s relationship to Israel and Jerusalem as Father and finally as Husband. All peoples model themselves on their gods, and Israel likewise modeled herself on the God she belonged to.
But the more radical difference made by the Torah in relationship to marriage had to do with the underlying metaphysics. In the Roman Empire, for example, (and the rest of the ancient world), there were hundreds of cults and religions. They all however, had underlying characteristics that were similar. All of them were dependent on an underlying monism or pantheism. This was not always the bald monism that became the defining characteristic of the Vedas or of what we would now describe as “Eastern religion”, but underneath the differentiation of being that existed at the surface level, at a much deeper level, there was a shared unity and power. Sexual energy was one of the shared powers or energies that defined the unity, and also the divinity of being. The religious, monistic, and divine nature of sexual energy is most explict in a text like The Kama Sutra, and in the discipline of tantric sex. But, it is implicit in all of paganism. To penetrate would be the sign of power and dominion, but to be penetrated meant to overwhelm, engulf, and swallow the other in a great ocean of being. In all of this, there was participation in the underlying divinity of the cosmos.
The one religion in the ancient world that denied the identity of sexual energy and divinity was Judaism. The Torah, alone in the ancient world, confined sexual expression to marriage, and denied the polymorphous sexualization of all being. Christianity followed Judaism and carried the theme of complete fidelity within monogamous marriage forward in the great image of Christ and His Bride as the Church. That now began to redefine the city. The city was not to be an expression of ancient polymorphous sexuality, but an expression of His unique and faithful relationship in monogamy with His Bride. Hence, something relatively new appeared on the scene. There were precursors to this in the inter-testamental period with the Jews while they were still under the rule of Persia, Greece, and Rome, but those precursors were now greatly magnified and expanded. From that point on, the ancient city, which rested upon the foundations of sexualized monism, was to be challenged by another city which was defined by Christ’s faithful marriage. The challenge was and is complete and total. Both cannot be the foundation of the world. One or the other will ultimately predominate. From that point on, pagan polymorphous sexualized monism was to be challenged by Christian monogamy. Hence, just as a wounded animal will lash back with fatal defensiveness, now, polymorphous sexuality will also lash back at its challenger, and it has been radicalized. It has always been defined by domination and submission, but as with everything else in the ancient world (all of the principalities and powers) it was far more benign in the ancient world than now. In the ancient world, apart from the challenge of Israel (which was comparatively small and localized) the challenge spread and threatened to become universal and to completely displace what was previously normative. Hence, polymorphous sexuality now takes on the character of “anti-Christ”. What was implicit but often hidden then is now explicit and radicalized. Polymorphous sexuality would now evolve to become sado-masochistic, violent, and blood thirsty (as became evident in the in the Games and Colosseum of the late collapsing Roman Empire). Hence domination and submission are radicalized, and become means of seeking perverse “salvation”, and ultimately becomes the worship of death. So, we see in a figure like the Marquis de Sade, torture and murder become means of achieving orgasm and satisfaction. Modern serial murder is almost always tied to pulsating orgasmic pleasure, and pornography as it descends from “softcore” to “hardcore” is defined by how much it relies upon inflicting and receiving pain.
Hence, the beast, the kings, and the woman are all now ultimately defined by what they hate and are against. The woman is “drunk with the blood of the saints”, the beast is “filled with names of blasphemy” and the kings “make war with the Lamb”. They are all defined by being against the Kingdom of God that has now been established and has come into competition with them. The sexual relations of the woman, the kings, and the beast are entirely made up of what we would now term “sado-masochism”. The kings that she gives herself to are themselves beholden to a power that is superior to them, and this power is termed the “beast”. The woman also has direct relations with the beast and the language and imagery indicates bestiality. She has intercourse not only with the kings, but also the beast upon whom she is “seated”. It is lust fueled by pain, domination, slavish submission, hatred, and rebellion. The danger of any woman giving herself to more than one man is that the men involved will either not value her, or if they do, they will be afflicted with great jealousy. These relationships eventually become violent and destructive. The text finally tells us that the ten kings, in the end, “hate the harlot, make her desolate and naked, eat her flesh and burn her with fire.” (Revelation 17:16).
Both of these cities are now active historical powers. Both are now at work and active on the human scene. Real cities in the real world partake of the reality of both of these cities right now. No city in the world is one city or the other. But for every city, especially now as the Gospel is taken to all the world, both of these realities are at work. While these are symbolic types, what is clear from the Bible is that the Gnostic dualism between symbol and fact, does not exist. The question is never a choice between whether something belongs to the realm of fact, or to the realm of symbol and value. There is no dualism of this sort. The symbolism of the two women and the kind of covenants (or anti-covenants) that they live in extends to the real sexual and marital relationships that real men and women live in, in the real cities of the world. A city that worships like Babylon the Great, will be a city that models its sexual relationships after the harlot and the beast and the kings. A city that worships as a part of the New Jerusalem will model its marital covenants after the Bride and her Husband.
The question is which city will dominate in any given city in the world in which we live. One city is corrupt, and lives ultimately by trading in “the souls of men…” (Rev 17:13) and is under judgment. It is a city given to destruction. The other city is the city of the glory of God and the glorified humanity. It is the place where ultimately all human potentialities are fulfilled, and it is finally blessed with no curse. What is most important for our purposes in this short paper is that the first city is marked by sexual debauchery and what could be termed relations that are sado-masochistic. The second is marked by fidelity and love in the bonds of marriage.
Richard Bledsoe is a Theopolis Fellow and works as a chaplain in Boulder, Colorado.
- J. D. Unwin, Sex and Culture( London: Oxford University Press, 1934) p 412
- Quoted by Phillip Mottu in “The Secret of Civilization” in Modernizing America, ed. by John McCook Roots (Pace Publications, Los Angeles, 1965), pp 79-80
- Aldous Huxley, Ends and Means (New York & London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1937), p 316[
- Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (London: The Hogarth Press, 1953, translated from German by Joan Riviere)