Polygyny, Homosexuality, and Other Controversial Examples
It should come as no surprise: it’s difficult to separate what is cultural and what is spiritual sometimes. The spiritual tugs at our heartstrings inspire awe or fear. The cultural factors are the facets of the day, including prevailing social ideals, politics, and even geography.
If, for instance, a religious text discusses certain issues that become seriously problematic today (such as polygyny in Islam, and certain streams of Christianity) us, civilized, 21st-century folk usually have no problem explaining this commentary and law away as a ‘cultural norm’ to be explained some other way. In the case of polygyny, I’ve heard some pretty compelling arguments about it serving as a way to show grace to lower-class, non-virgin women who would have to turn to prostitution otherwise. This is not to say that people today exercise laws with these original intentions, even if they do hold true. In any case, this falls under a cultural understanding.
However when it comes to gay rights, for instance, suddenly 2 very similar verses in the Old Testament referencing a single sexual act (that can take place in heterosexual relationships too!) becomes grounds to alienate and harass. Some parties view these verses as extremely clear while others view them as a little more complicated and to be interpreted in various ways, from a spiritual perspective.
I’ve studied Jewish laws for a few years now and I always find myself surprised and perplexed the more I research. Things are not always as straight forward as they seem, the deeper you dig.
In cases such as the verses described, I’ve asked myself with great difficulty the following question: are God’s laws, commandments, words, and declarations communicated in order to prevent sin from taking place or are the laws meant to prevent an unpreferable outcome?
Let’s continue this example related to the case of male homosexual relations (I say male because the Bible doesn’t have much to say about lesbian sex). Most of us know that there are medical complications that can occur without safety consideration. The Mayo Clinic reports, “Men who have sex with men are at increased risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as well as other sexually transmitted infections.” Many of these same risks (perhaps in different forms) existed in Ancient Hebrew society. Another obvious ‘reason’ to prohibit homosexual relationships in Hebrew society is the potential loss of paternal lineage which seemed to matter a lot for the Jewish people, granted the whole ‘be fruitful and multiply’ thing (Genesis 1:28).
In another case (also in Judaism), eating pork or various shellfish may transmit a plethora of diseases that other animals properly slaughtered objectively are less likely to possess.
What about in a tricky case where there are no explicit sanctions against an act, though culturally it has become very embedded: premarital sex. Sure, there are laws about adultery (aka not having access to another guy’s wife) and not having extramarital sex in general, but the case of premarital sex is much more confusing than meets the eye. For the sake of this piece, however, let’s consider premarital sex as being bad in the eyes of God.
In this case, do we deem sex itself sinful or do we say that the emotional weight of various deep, romantic encounters with the additional risk of complicated familial relationships, if a woman has children with multiple men, is an unpreferable outcome? Is it the act or the implications that affect other people?
I’d think most wise people of any faith can recognize the benefits of waiting until marriage to have an active sex life as scripture may suggest, but I also ask myself whether the individuals writing could have fathomed men and women growing up to the ages of 18, 20, 25 — even 30 before getting married and having sex for the first time?
I find religion is fairly hard on individuals who can’t ‘keep their legs shut’ when to do so is fiercely against the way God designed us in the first place… I am not arguing for a child-bride weird situation, nor am I advocating for a world of non-marital sexual relationships, but it is a point worth making that ties back to my original question: are the laws meant to prevent sin from taking place or are the laws meant to prevent an unpreferable outcome?
Is it healthier to promote sex-positive values without explicitly encouraging premarital sex and paving the way for a healthy marital sexual relationship or is it better to shut off the conversation of sex because it is supposedly one of the ‘first sins’ in Judeo-Christian belief (which, for the record, I disagree with greatly). I beg these questions as someone who has abided by traditional views on premarital sex all my life, and doesn’t plan on giving in anytime soon…
A final area I am less familiar with provokes similar questions for myself: the case of alcohol. It appears as ‘religion’s’ progress in time, the heightening awareness of alcohol’s (and for that matter, drugs) negative effects.
Judaism is fairly alcohol-positive, Christianity is depending on the stream, Islam is against, and according to recent conversations, Baha’i is against as well. I can’t help but wonder if this is a gradual understanding of ‘truth’, an examination of human’s capacity to abuse a substance, or just a cultural evolution granted, for instance, Baha’i was birthed out of the Middle East and thus shares traits with Islam.
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a “short” list of negative health effects alcohol can provoke, including Cardiomyopathy, Fibrosis, and Cancer, amongst others.
Are the laws, such as the ones outlined in the Quran, meant to prevent sin from taking place or are the laws meant to prevent an unpreferable outcome? Is alcohol the sin or isabuse, acting irrationally, and distraction the unpreferable outcome?
If we come to the conclusion that the action is what is sinful, then we must better understand why we fall into places where we commit certain actions. This is somewhat a spiritual perspective.
If we are to come to the conclusion that the effects of the action are what is sinful, in many cases, there are things we can do to prevent these effects and better understand why these happen as well. This is somewhat a cultural perspective.
Further than God’s views on sin, whether sin manifests in specific outlined actions or rather the unpreferable outcomes of those outcomes, we must consider how we, as humans, will reflect on sin.
Will we pass judgment onto God and say, “Who cares?” Unlikely.
Will we reject the action? Probably.
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