Category Archives: Marriage

Does God seek me or do I seek God? The Parable of the Prodigal Son sheds some clues

I offer my profound thanks to Tim for a document he sent me last week that included a collection of quite fascinating chapters written by the Catholic philosopher Herbert McCabe from his book ‘God still matters’. One of the chapters, entitled ‘The Prodigal Son’, is a homily of Jesus’ ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ (sometimes called his ‘Parable of the Lost Son’), was both extremely moving and a wonderfully accurate articulation of my current period of religious reflection.

The parable is told by Jesus to his disciples in Luke, the gospel. Those interested in reading the original version may want to look up chapter 15, verses 11-32. For those who would prefer just a brief synopsis, the story is about a father of enviable wealth, his house and two sons. Both sons grow up in the house of their father and a loving community. The father possesses an estate that he promises will be inherited by his sons, two-thirds for the eldest and a third for the youngest.

One son, the youngest, decides that he wants to cash in on his father’s estate immediately, and enjoy his newfound riches elsewhere. He leaves behind him the community he grew up in, one of love and friendship, and sets off to explore new pastures. After many years of excessive spending and living an extravagant lifestyle, he is out of pocket, and must sell his labour to an employer who uses him to feed swine. The sin, Jesus reminds us, is in loving the gift more than the giver.

The younger son realises that, upon leaving the loving community behind him for one obsessed with self-seeking and individualism, everybody he is surrounded by is motivated by the same kind of personal gain as he is. “Naturally enough”, writes McCabe, “in that kind of society, the employer finds his product much more important than his employee.” The son contrasts the community he abandoned with the community he travelled to and begins to realise that he would be happier, in whatever form, returning home to his father’s house.

In this parable, Jesus is teaching his disciples that when we view ourselves as worthy of worship in and amongst our conflicting interests and we ignore divine intervention we are not liberated but enslaved. He reveals that society cannot be truly fit for human purpose unless it is more than just human. In other words, without the forgiving sanctuary of the father in the parable (analogous of God), the younger son cannot realise how he has fallen and what he is missing. It is this concept, of how one can be ‘lost’, as the parable suggests, that fascinates me most.

McCabe summarises his sermon of the parable (Chapter 25 of God Still Matters) quite beautifully. He writes:

“Luke is saying to them: we make merry and are glad in the Holy Spirit, not because of our virtue, important though it is, but because, more deeply than that, we are all sinners who are forgiven, who have been embraced by the exuberant, impatient love of God, because ‘we have been dead and are alive, because we were lost and have been found’.”

The state of ‘being lost’ particularly interests me because it has been the very foundation of my religious reconsideration. To be clear, as of the time of writing, I am no longer an atheist, but it is too early for me to be pigeonholed elsewhere. The problem with my current lack of a religious position is that, due to the confusion that has seeped into my mind, it is incredibly difficult to write about.

For quite a while, I have not felt any real meaning in the things that non-believers claim embody the purpose and value of life. These things include family relationships, hedonistic encounters and cultural figures or pastimes. I have, for the first time in my life, really started to consider whether I should turn my focus towards something more. Something higher, perhaps. Importantly, I love Christian traditions. I am a huge believer in marriage, having children inside wedlock and of respecting human life over calls for choice and bodily autonomy.

This detached feeling from the outside world is what I would describe as my state of being lost. Unlike the younger son in the parable, I have spent my life in a different house, but as my political transformation (from liberal to conservative, almost two years ago) suggests, I think I had realised subconsciously that this ‘new house’ I was living in, that being my 21 years as an atheist, did not provide me with the kind of purpose and liberation that for years I argued it did.

The parable is also hugely significant as it touches on the question of who seeks whom. Do we seek God, or does He seek us? The parable explains that the younger son needs the experience of leaving his father’s house behind in order to realise what he has lost. During my period as an atheist, I was comforted by the fact that I didn’t just hold my beliefs to fit in with the spirit of the age, but rather they were held sincerely and I did not ever concede that there was a possibility of allowing God into my life. I do not regret this. When the son returns home, his father, we are told, does not wait for forgiveness, he rushes to his son and offers a loving embrace. Though it may not apply to those who have converted to the household of God, it does tend to suggest that the ‘seeking’ is mutual.

I cannot say with any certainty that God is seeking me. Nor can I say that I am actively seeking God. Moreover, it feels, much like it does in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, that the connection that may be developing between me and God is – whilst not yet firmly established – not just mutual, but inevitable.


Why we should abandon the concept of virginity

First, a warning. This essay is about as progressive as I get. I am no liberal, and nor can I be described with any uncertainty as a feminist. But on the issue of virginity, I share some surprising common ground with those I would usually describe as opponents.

Most people who bother with the concept or losing of one’s virginity do so without fully understanding the extent of its incompatibility with contemporary society. The state of being a ‘virgin’ is one of the more frequently misunderstood labels that our culture demands we place on others; a shocking fact given the nature of its origins. I’d like to argue not only that our attitude towards virginity is largely ignorant, but that our usage of the term actively sours sexual discourse, shaming both sexes and discrediting sexual minorities.

Conceptually, ‘virginity’ is anchored in sexism, emerging from the days of female commodification. Centuries ago, patriarchal capitalism allowed for men to treat women as goods, to be sold or passed on from one owner to the next. Women were classified according to their ‘purity’, effectively transforming their bodies into reliquaries of male desire. Without modern medical practices, men had to be sure that any offspring they fathered belonged definitively to them. “Sexuality was also, of course, regulated by religion, which made sex shameful and taboo outside of marriage. And for the most part, contraception was unattainable, so it was important for women to remain virgins for their husbands to ensure the purity of his bloodline. Basically, virginity served as the medieval form of a paternity test”, writes Erin McKelle.[1]

But the idea of virginity in establishing status goes far beyond this. Nowadays, it is used primarily as a vehicle to shame both sexes, and – quite interestingly – for opposite reasons. Men, expected to have had as much sex as possible even at relatively young ages, are made to feel compelled to have sex, whereas women who do lose their ‘virginity’ can be demonised either for losing it too young, or for having sex far too often. Angella D’Avignon noted in a recent article that “while having sex for the first time is a universal experience, the conditions that define virginity are socially constructed and have been used to control and exploit women.”[2]

It is particularly astonishing that men, too, fall victim to this kind of labelling, given that virginity has no anatomical or historical importance to them at all. There are no physical indicators on the male body that confirm an alleged loss of virginity. Memory, being intangible and impossible to observe, does not count. Since men do not have a hymen, the ring of tissue surrounding the vagina which, when stretched, becomes the barometer for the loss of virginity, it is very difficult to assess how being a virgin actually relates to males.

Furthermore, there are a string of technical problems caused by the very definition of virginity. “The state of never having had sexual intercourse”, provided by one dictionary[3] doesn’t seem to take effectively into account that there are different types of sexual intercourse. “Someone who has never had sex” also echoes this issue. [4] Not only is sex defined (and vastly different) specifically by and for those involved in the act, it is also hard to establish objectively what we mean by sex.

In 2002, 164 heterosexual Canadian students were asked by researchers about what acts counted as ‘sex’. Results showed that “the vast majority of participants (about 97%) consider penile-vaginal intercourse to be sex. Slightly less (about 83%) consider anal sex to be sex. Less than 25% consider oral sex to be sex, and 15% or lower think genital touching is sex”.[5] Four years later, Trotter & Alderson concluded that “In some respects, the definition of sex is broader for same-sex couples (such as a higher percentage endorsing oral sex as sex for two female partners than they do for a female with a male partner). Definitions of sex also broaden in more established relationships; people include more behaviours as sex with a partner they have been dating for three months vs. a one-night stand. This means that the emotional connection with a partner also plays into definitions of sex.”[6]

Individuals, especially those who classify as sexual minorities (like myself), have the right to decide for themselves what sex is to them. Penis-vaginal sex holds special status in a context pertaining to procreation, but not in terms of the legitimacy of a sexual act. Homosexuals, for instance, will enjoy perfectly healthy sexual relationships and desires without venturing into a vagina or, in the case of lesbians, without hosting a penis. Virginity, being a fundamentally heteronormative construct, tends to delegitimise the sexual behaviour of sexual minorities.

It also ignores the concerns of many women, and in some cases men, who are assaulted or abused during their first sexual experience and who may want to redefine their loss of virginity. The social parameters we place around virginity and the ensuing labels make this process much harder. Free from the idea of losing virginity, or indeed of being a virgin in the first place, individuals can tailor their sexual career to their own emotional or physical needs, and can more easily ignore the ideals of wider society. They will more easily be able to view an initial painful or abusive experience as just an obstacle in the way of something greater, rather than something that person will never be able to get back.

Modern teaching would do well to phase out the importance placed upon virginity. It is a social construct that, when used as a weapon, can have devastating emotional consequences for both men and women. But most significantly, virginity reinforces our peculiar obsession with status, hoovering attention away from action or common good and attaching it to superficiality.

Notes

[1] ‘5 Reasons Why We Need to Ditch The Concept of Virginity For Good’, Everyday Feminism, [http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/08/losing-virginity-for-good/], August 2013, last accessed 18th November 2016
[2] ‘A Quick and Dirty History of Virginity’, The Establishment, [http://www.theestablishment.co/2016/05/11/a-quick-and-dirty-history-of-virginity/], May 2016, last accessed November 19th 2016
[3] Oxford Dictionary, [https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/virginity], last accessed November 19th 2016
[4] Cambridge Dictionary, [http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/virgin], last accessed November 19th 2016
[5] Randall, H. E., & Byers, S. E. (2003). What is sex? Students’ definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and unfaithful sexual behaviour. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 12, 87-96.
[6] Trotter, E. C., & Alderson, K. G. (2007). University students’ definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and virginity loss: The influence of participant gender, sexual experience, and contextual factors. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 16, 11-29.