A personal view by Wulfstan OR
Today in Western countries there is much confusion about the desirability of marriage. Many couples now live together and have children without getting married. The number of so called single parent families has risen dramatically in recent years whilst at the same time other individuals and groups still seem to believe that there is virtue in communal living, creating and maintaining a commune where children are raised without the special exclusive relationship which normally obtains within the family unit.
Once again it is important I believe for us to go right back to basic principles if we are to understand fully the function which marriage fulfils in society since it is clearly not simply a question of procreation. Compared with most animals the human infant is particularly vulnerable for a very long period of its early life. If it is to survive and prosper it is essential that someone cares for it on a daily basis for at least fourteen years and preferably for a considerably longer period than this. To realise it’s full potential and to avoid traumas and the debilitating effects of emotional and physical deprivation it requires a secure environment, and experience over many millennia has shown that this is most likely to be achieved if the child’s parents live together in a stable relationship. Failure to provide a secure home environment will lead progressively to a break down of society in general.
Quite apart from the requirement to bring up children satisfactorily there is also the need for adults to establish a close special relationship with another person which helps them to cope with the stresses, demands and uncertainties inseparable from this life on earth. And finally of course there is the perennial problem of ensuring that the enormously strong sex drive, which naturally is essential to the survival of the species, is channelled in ways which will not threaten the cohesion and strength of the community.
Given the supreme importance of marriage in helping to ensure the stability of human communities throughout the world it is not surprising that organised religion has always played a significant role in defining and circumscribing the marital status. Once again however we can see very clearly the problems which arise if marital and sexual matters are considered to be subject to the dictates of a God who has laid down demands concerning the conduct of men and women which cannot be adapted to take account of changing circumstances. A fault which is ingrained in all the so called revealed religions.
When we examine the situation in Western countries we find that in this very important area of human relations the malevolent influence of Christianity over the centuries has, quite unnecessarily, caused great harm and great unhappiness to untold millions of people because of its absurd antagonism towards the perfectly natural act of sexual union between a man and a woman. Of course the Church has been forced to accept the institution of marriage, though even that was often disparaged in the past, but there is no doubt that from its earliest beginnings the Church has considered those who practise celibacy to be in some way morally superior to those who had normal relations with the opposite sex.
The reasons for the Christian Church’s hostility towards the sexual act, though by no means absolutely clear, seems to have their origins in the idea that the supposed asexual angelic state is one to which committed Christians should aspire and that it is desirable to approach this condition in the world by abstaining from sex. The most important single passage in the New Testament which underpins this distorted view of life is to be found in The Gospel according to Luke 20, paragraphs 34-36 where Jesus is reported to have said ‘The men and women of this world marry, but those who have been judged worthy of a place in the other world and of the resurrection from the dead do not marry, for they are not subject to death any longer. They are like angels.
In the New Testament Revelation of John Chapter 14 we read of the 144,000 chosen and redeemed by the Christian God. These are the men who had never defiled themselves with a woman [note the emotive terminology] and were described as faultless. A very important indication of the desirability in the Church’s eyes of celibacy for it’s own sake.
It is just possible that this attitude towards celibacy derives from the knowledge gained in earlier shamanic practices that certain men, though by no means all, need to abstain from sex if they wish to gain sufficient additional energy to be able to travel between the worlds lying in different dimensions of reality. This explanation can be no more than speculation, but since shamanism probably represents the earliest of all man’s religious endeavours and since shamanic practices were known all over the world until the revealed religions suppressed them, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the earliest Christians also had knowledge that abstention from sex could enable some people to achieve a higher level of perception. If this were the case the Christian church rapidly lost sight of the limited and specific purpose of sex abstention and distorted the practice to a vague all embracing teaching that such abstention was somehow specially favoured by God.
In about 172 CE Tatian, a pupil of Justin the Martyr [100-165], a well known early Christian father, returned from Rome to the Near East with teachings which actually denounced marriage and urged celibacy on all Christians. St. Jerome [340-420], an ascetic Christian scholar, argued that since Christ and his mother were both virgins (!) they had consecrated the pattern of virginity for both sexes. Even St. Paul made it clear that he considered the unmarried state preferable to the married one. He asserted that the former left Christians without cares and helped them to think of God alone. Although he did not condemn marriage as such one of his New Testament passages begins ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman.’
But the individual who perhaps more than any other set the seal on the Church’s negative attitude towards sex was Ambrose, Bishop of Milan between 373 and 397CE. The degree of power excised by Ambrose during this time was beyond anything which any churchman had hitherto aspired. He dominated three Roman emperors and even publicly humiliated one, Theodosius, who carried out reprisals to, which Ambrose objected, against the citizens of Thessalonica.
Quite a few of his letters and writings have survived and from these we can tell that Ambrose nursed not just a distorted but an almost pathological warped view of sex. He described even a good marriage as slavery. For a woman, he said marriage is a bondage, a yoke and a burden. On the other hand he also commented that every man is persecuted by some woman or other. Perhaps his most striking comment was ‘The best course for a woman is virginity for a virgin could redeem the sin of her parents in conceiving her.’
Before we dismiss these views and assertions as merely outmoded beliefs which are not really relevant to the present situation in the Church, we should reflect on the fact that in Christianity today worldwide there are about 1,600,000 adults who have taken a vow of celibacy. It would therefore be a grave mistake to assume that the Church’s distorted attitudes on the subject of sex relations as outlined in the paragraphs above need no longer be taken seriously.
Indeed I will seek to show that this appallingly warped view of sexual relations between men and women which for centuries has been propagated by the Church in one form or another, is directly responsible for many of the social problems which are so glaringly apparent in our society today from the breakup of marriages to excessive pornography.
Let us consider firstly the attitude towards sex which was prevalent in the Victorian age and which indeed prevailed until about the 1950s in the UK. The subject was virtually taboo. It was not talked about to the extent that the majority of women in Victorian Britain had no idea what the sexual act involved and went into marriage totally unprepared and ignorant of what was expected of them. The male population confronted with a situation where one of the strongest urges to which they were subject could not be discussed in a sensible and rational manner and where sex before marriage could only be found in the seediest of circumstances, lived a life of hypocrisy before and often after marriage; on the surface subscribing to the so-called moral standards of the Church but in reality seeking sexual satisfaction in the back streets where a host of unregistered brothels existed in the larger towns. It is hardly surprising in these circumstances that so many people were wracked with feelings of guilt and found it difficult if not impossible to enjoy a normal healthy sexual relationship. Any psychiatrist will confirm how harmful a situation like this can be, easily distorting a person’s whole response to life and turning him/her into a resentful, angry adult subject to irrational outbursts and unreasonable behaviour.
As a boy growing up in the 1940s in the UK, well beyond the normal definition of the Victorian era, I can nevertheless recall that the subject of sex was never mentioned to me either formally at school or in the home. I even remember that a French teacher carefully went through French magazines which we had in our library cutting out pictures of any scantily clad women; in those days there were no women actually shown nude or even topless, presumably so that we would not be contaminated by what we saw. We should also recall how we still use expressions which imply that there is something wrong or sinful about sex. Why do we still describe a pleasant weekend which a man and woman spend together making love as a ‘dirty weekend.’ What on earth is dirty about it.
Of course whenever any strong feeling is unnaturally suppressed a time will come when individuals or society as a whole rebel, and then the pendulum, as is usually the case, will swing too far in the opposite direction, and that is exactly what happened in the 60s. Suddenly the slogan free love was everywhere. People were encouraged to copulate without any consideration of the consequences and whether they had any genuine feelings of consideration, let alone love for their partner. Sex became a free for all from which any sense or responsibility had been removed. A situation lacking any sense of balance which in its own way caused as many problems as the stiflingly suppressed atmosphere of the Victorian age.
Society is faced with a situation where the sexual drive reaches its peak in men at about the age of 19, probably as a result of the biological need in the past to reproduce early at a time when life expectancy was perhaps little more than thirty on average; however it is clearly not desirable in most cases for young men and women to marry at too early an age because they lack experience of life and have not established themselves in a secure job. Until the techniques of contraception became widely known this meant that if couples did not enter into a formal union there was a very real problem with children born out of wedlock and women left to cope with children without the support of a husband, a situation which is inimical to the welfare of the community if it affects a significant number of women.
On the other hand it seems clear that it is far more satisfactory that people should have sexual partners before marriage, to assuage sexual desire at a time when their sexual drive is very strong and to gain experience enabling them later to make a better choice of a life long partner. Now that contraceptive techniques are well understood and available to the population at large there is nothing to prevent this pattern of behaviour. Many indeed have adopted it but the attitude of mind imbued in people by the church over many centuries still cast a baleful shadow over the whole situation. The practice is still formally condemned by the Christian church because of its insistence that sex outside marriage is ‘Against God’s Will’. This illustrates once again the supreme importance of the Odinist view of life which emphasises the need for flexibility in determining the requirements of the community. Contraception has provided a very satisfactory solution to the dilemma outlined above. It is now possible for men and women to have ‘trial’ marriages before embarking on the full commitment to married life without facing the problem of unwanted pregnancies. It would be far better for all concerned if this solution were welcomed by religious authorities and became a properly regulated institution within the community.
It is scarcely necessary to point out that human relationships are fraught with a host of problems which make the task of a married couple’s living together in harmony often very difficult. As I have pointed out before Odinism fully accepts the desirability of the institution of marriage but at the same time, in contrast to the Christian church, it also recognises the fact that if a married couple find it impossible to live together in harmony it is in the interests of the community that they should be able to divorce and seek a new, more satisfactory marriage with another partner. Once again the Christian church, and in particular the Roman Catholic church is confronted with the rigid doctrinaire limitations of a dehumanised teaching which proclaims that God, the Christian God, has laid down that divorce is a sin punishable with eternal damnation.
The structure of marriage as established by the Christian church is both uncompromising and lacking in compassion because it fails to take account of the characteristics of human beings as pointed out above. Individuals are told that sex outside marriage is sinful. The only way that God will accept the normal expression of sexual feelings is after a couple have entered into a sacrament and vowed that they will remain with their partner for the rest of their life, come what may. The committed Christian therefore feels obliged to get married once she or he begins to experience a strong normal sexual drive. This inevitably increases enormously the likelihood that she or he will choose a partner who is unsuitable and who she or he finds it impossible to live with or any length of time. Someone finding him/herself in this position is then plagued by feelings of guilt because their marriage has become a sham and yet the church still demands that they keep the vow to remain with their partner regardless of the changed circumstances.
Admittedly some Christian churches have accepted that some form of compromise is necessary in respect of divorced couples but the fact remains that such a compromise is extremely difficult to justify on the basis of Christian teaching. After all marriage is regarded as a solemn religious commitment by all the Christian churches and also as a sacrament in the case of the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches; therefore if a marriage breaks up and one or more of the partners remarry they are, strictly speaking, committing adultery in the eyes of the church.
In this context we should also consider the question of homosexuality since increasingly strident demands are now being made by homosexuals and lesbians to be accorded the same rights as heterosexuals. It is perfectly clear that when Orlog established the basic structure of animal and human life he determined that the reproduction of the species should be dependent on two sexes, male and female. It is possible for us to imagine other mechanisms which might have been chosen. Conceivably all individuals could have been hermaphrodites or all female with the ability to produce offspring by means of virgin births. But this was not the case. We must conclude therefore that homosexuals are subject to a form of medical dysfunction similar to a host of other medical conditions where glands are failing to perform their allotted function normally. It may or may not be possible to treat this condition satisfactorily but clearly it is not desirable in any way to encourage what, in a very real sense, is a malady.
In the same way that society in general would seek to help anyone suffering from a disease, whether treatable or not, it would still in the interests of the rest of the community, take all reasonable steps to contain the disease. There is certainly evidence to suggest that some people, particularly in their teens, are uncertain of their sexual orientation. It would be a very serious mistake if homosexuality came to be considered as a ‘normal’ condition since there would be a definite risk that such individuals, who could have lead normal lives in due course, will be encouraged to adopt deviant behaviour patterns; in other words society will have allowed them to become sick unnecessarily.
In summary therefore Odinism recognises the great importance of the institution of marriage in maintaining the cohesion and strength of the community. In sharp contrast to Christianity however it also recognises that sexuality is something to be welcomed, not a condition which outside marriage is associated with sin or something which anyone seeking to develop their spirituality should suppress. The Odinist recognises that the given pattern of life on earth requires a strong sex drive in order to maintain the continuity of the species. The important thing is to ensure that the expression of sex is channelled in ways which will not threaten either the welfare of the individuals as such or the welfare of the community as a whole.
In this connection an interesting new perspective on man’s sexuality has been highlighted as a result of the interest in the discovery of the so-called Boxgrove man, the oldest human in Europe, in May 1994. An article in The Times newspaper on 23/5/94 discussing the find pointed out that there is a direct link between the size of the male testes and the mating pattern of different species. Species that live in monogamous pairs have smaller testes: those in which males associate with more than one female, slightly larger ones and those where several males compete for the favours of the females larger still. It turns out that human testes are rather larger than they ought to be for a truly monogamous species.
Every effort should be made to ensure that the right conditions are created for the individual to make a balanced and mature decision regarding the choice of a marriage partner. Coercion on the grounds that sex is only permitted after marriage is inimical to this objective and indeed in the past has been the reason for so much marital unhappiness. It is extremely important that individuals should take marriage very seriously and should make every endeavour, once they have tied the knot, to stay with their chosen partner. However if this proves impossible there must be a provision for divorce, but only after a most careful examination has been carried out to determine that this is indeed the lesser of two evils. Divorce should never be an easy option.
Odinism has always taken human relationships very seriously. A number of Goddesses have assumed specific responsibilities in respect of married and unmarried people. Frigga, the Queen of Asgard and Odin’s wife is the Goddess most closely associated with conjugal and motherly love. In the case of those couples whose marriage has truly created a lasting bond of genuine love Frigga will extend an invitation for them to live permanently with her in her hall, Fensalir, in Asgard so that death will not divide them. She has a number of attendants, Goddesses in their own right, who have specific responsibilities to promote good and lasting relationships between the sexes. Lofn has the duty to remove obstacles from the path of true love, Vjofn to reconcile quarrelling husbands and wives, Gefjon looks after all those who do not marry in this life. Freya, the other great Goddess of the north, takes responsibility for the love between those who are not married. She is the most prominent deity associated with human sexuality in general.
We see therefore that our native religion provides, sensitively and comprehensively, for every aspect of the relationship between the sexes. What a welcome contrast this is to the sterile and disapproving attitude of Christianity which for centuries has sought to belittle and condemn the natural expression of sexuality in man by associating it at every turn with some aspect of ‘sin’ and suggesting that somehow virtue should be found in celibacy. Once again Odinism is seen to be a balanced response to one of the most important drives in man; the attitude of Christianity is a distortion of the natural order which has been responsible for an incalculable amount of unnecessary human suffering for two thousand years. Is it not time for us to discard those twisted teachings root and branch?