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Pornography and the Sacred

Ron Rolheiser, OMI - Tue, Aug 25th 2020

The ancient Greeks had gods and goddesses for everything, including a goddess of Shame called Aidos. Shame for them meant much more than it normally means to us. In their mind, shame brought with it modesty, respect, and a certain needed reticence before things that should remain private and hidden. The goddess of shame instructed you as to when you were supposed to turn your eyes away from things too intimate to be seen. Shame, as they understood it, contained a modesty and reverence you were supposed to feel in the presence anything sacred or when you were receiving a gift or when making love.

They had an intriguing myth undergirding this:  Aphrodite, the goddess of Love, is born out of the sea; but, as she rises above the waves in her stunning beauty, her nakedness is shielded by three deities: Aidos, the goddess of shame; Eros, the god of love; and Horai, the goddess of propriety. They protect her naked body with love, propriety, and shame. For the ancient Greeks, this was a religious truth, one which taught that without these three deities of protection, the naked body should not be seen. When nakedness (of any kind) is not protected by these deities, it is unfairly exposed and dishonored.

I cite this myth to make a case against pornography, since today it is too naively accepted in the culture and its real harm is mostly unrecognized.

Let me begin this way. First, internet pornography is today, far and away, the biggest addiction in the whole world. No credible analyst or critic will deny that. Like all addictions, it’s also deadly. Yet, more and more we see our society become casual and even indifferent to it. Pornography is everywhere, is often seen as harmless, and it’s not uncommon to see mainstream sitcoms on television speak of someone’s porn collection as they might speak of his collection of toy airplanes.  Beyond that, we have more people positively challenging those who speak out against pornography. I’ve had colleagues, Christian theologians, say: “Why are we so uptight about seeing sex! Sex is the most beautiful thing God left us, why can’t it be seen?”

Why can’t it be seen? We might begin with Carl Jung’s statement that one of our greatest naiveties is that we believe that energy is friendly and is always something we can control. It isn’t. Energy is imperialistic, it wants to take us over and control us. Once it takes hold of us, it can be hard to turn off. That’s one of the reasons why pornography is so dangerous. Its energy takes hold like a “demonic” possession.

But pornography is not only dangerous, it’s also wrong, badly wrong. Those who protest that sex is beautiful and there should be nothing wrong in seeing it are, in fact, half right; sex is beautiful … but its energy and nakedness are so powerful that it should not be seen, at least not without the deities of love, propriety, and shame in attendance.

As Christians, we don’t believe in a pantheon of gods and goddesses, we believe in only one God; but that God contains all other deities, including Aphrodite, Aidos, Eros, and Horai (Beauty, Shame, Love, and Propriety). Moreover that God is always shielded from our look, shrouded, hidden, not to be approached except in reverence, and for a reason. Our faith tells us, no one can look at God and live.

That’s why pornography is wrong. It isn’t wrong because sex isn’t beautiful, but rather because sex is so powerful as to carry some of the very energy and power of the divine. That’s also why pornography is so powerfully addictive – and so harmful. Sex is beautiful but its naked beauty, like the naked body of Aphrodite arising out of the sea, may only be looked at when it’s properly attended by love and propriety and protected by shame.

In the end, all sins are sins of irreverence and that irreverence always contains some impropriety, disrespect and shamelessness.  Pornography is a sin of irreverence. Metaphorically, it is standing before the burning bush with our shoes on as we watch Aphrodite arise naked out of the sea without being accompanied by love and propriety without shame shielding our eyes from her nakedness.

There’s why the world of art makes a distinction between being naked and being nude, and why the former is degrading while the latter is beautiful. The difference? Being naked is being unhealthily exposed, exhibited, shown, peeked at, in a way that violates intimacy and dignity. Conversely, being seen nude is to have your nakedness properly attended to by love and propriety and shielded by shame so that your very vulnerability helps reveal your beauty.

Pornography degrades both those who indulge in it and those unhealthily exposed in it. It is wrong from both a human view and the view of faith. From the human view, Aphrodite’s naked body needs to have divine shields. From the view of faith, we believe that no one can look at the face of God and live.

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