A philosophical exploration of the complex relationship between Christianity, love and sex.
By Radheesh Ameresekere | Canada
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for his love is better than wine.”, or so
opens the Song of Songs. The poetic canticles, situated in the Ketuvim of the Tanakh and
present in the Christian Bible, tell the intimate story of two elated lovers. However, these
prose deviate from the largest majority (if not entirety) of Judeo-Christian scripture in their
content: they talk about neither theological truths nor ethical axioms. Frankly, they omit any mention of God entirely. Rather, the canticles provide a deeply personal insight into the
shared experience of two lovers in harmony, celebrating a deeply subjective intimacy and
sexual connection. It is a celebration of love’s beauty and the ineffable bridge between eros
My very opening sentiments on the Song of Songs would likely be considered
blasphemy in their own right. To suggest that Canonical scripture is somewhat ‘impartial’ to
the nature of God, His covenant with man, and/or the ethics of the faith, are grounds for
(albeit fair) criticisms – criticisms backed by popular religious discourse. With concentric
Jewish circles reading the verses as an allegory for God and Israel, and Christian circles
reading them as an allegory between Christ and the Church, there may be something to be
said about an implicit theological reading. But such a reading is precisely that – implicit.
The literal content of these verses is undoubtedly the love and sexual desire between two lovers. While the Judeo-Christian tradition is by no means a stranger to allegory, canonical allegories are often if not always redrawn to some explicit theological statements and explanations. They are hardly ever left as allegory or parable. The Song of Songs differs in that there is simply no theological redress or commentary; a theological reading is therefore uncharitable and arguably non sequitur. However, this beautiful account does clear up religious (not theological) misconceptions about love, sex, and romance.
Much like the great romances of literature, the subject of these verses are two lovers
entirely and unapologetically intoxicated by one another. There isn’t even a remote stifling of their experiences – the many ways they embrace one another make this clear. Religious
language, especially in accounting for romantic love, is so often criticized as prudish, puritan, and moralistic – quite frankly, its stuffy. These verses are in no way subject to any such criticisms. There is an explicitly sensuous, overtly sexual quality to the descriptions present, in many ways reminding the reader of that eternally youthful feeling of being in love.
Whether in ‘His’ romantic appeal for Her to “show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely, or ‘Her’ praise of Him stating “How handsome you are, my beloved! Oh, how charming! And our bed is verdant.”, there is no puritan romance at play, but rather, a playful indulgence in the loveliness of one’s partner. Moreover (cover your eyes if you’re faint of heart), there is an explicit desire to enjoy the fruits of a partner’s physicality and body. “I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste.” She says. “Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle.” He says. So on and so forth. These exclamations of sexual love and erotic affection are few among many, but clearly account for a staunch physical intimacy.
However, as is so often the case with love, heartache accompanies in tandem; these
verses hardly shy away from this painful truth. To briefly consider an alternative perspective, Medieval Islamic theology often considered love to be a force of ‘motion’ of animate and inanimate objects alike, finding its antithesis in death – the cessation of motion (Rosenthal, Man versus Society in Medieval Islam). A profoundly beautiful commentary, it in many ways echoes sentiments found in the canticles. We hear Her lament that “I opened [the door] for my beloved, but my beloved had left; he was gone. My heart sank at his departure.”
There is a deeply subjective, phenomenological anguish apparent in the absence of Her lover. These verses are deeply in touch with the psychological sorrow and hardship often accompanied by not only absence of one’s lover, but by the straining reality of love’s very nature. However, these canticles conclude on an essentially positive note, seeing the reunion of the lovers, marking them as overjoyed in their unity. Even in these reconciliations of heartbreak and romanticised conclusions, there is a deeply potent sentiment of codependence and interwovenness; “My beloved is mine and I am his”, She passionately exclaimed.
It is rather apparent that these verses are not only celebratory of sex and bodily intimacy, but discuss and reconcile the deeply psychological ramifications of this sort of unfeigned love in no uncertain terms. However, there still seems to be a lingering sentiment of
patriarchy – a criticism by no means unfamiliar to the Judeo-Christian dogma. Most
apparent among them is that She seems to only be celebrated in light of Her lover, rendering Her value something more instrumental and far less intrinsic than it should be. In reply (on a superficial level), one may argue that He suffers from the same fate; namely, He is only celebrated in light of His lover; however, this reply seems far too convenient and somewhat ignorant to clear gender imbalances historically perpetuated by religion and scriptural texts.
A far more compelling reply is simply that She is quite regularly celebrated entirely
independent of Her lover! By Her own admission “[She is] a rose of Sharon, a lily of the
valleys.”; a beauty amid the sweeping valleys, radiant in her own bloom. Yet, she is not
confined to mere poetic simile, and is also explicitly recognize as an invaluable member of her family and community at large. “The only daughter of her mother, the favorite of the one who bore her. The young women saw her and called her blessed; the queens and concubines praised her.” There is an essential, intrinsic value to this portrayal of the archetypal ‘Her’, valuable by the very merit of Her existence. Moreover, there is an intrinsic socio-political value, appraised by the queens and concubines of her day, appealing to a communitarian qualification of value. The objectively progressive appraisal of womanhood in this right during the period of the Davidic Monarchy speaks to an essential egalitarian quality that organized, institutional religion has conveniently overlooked.
Passages such as this and the like pose a substantial threat to notions of socio-religious
orthodoxy. In many ways, there is an absurd, paradoxical quality to them; they are
simultaneously the religious canon while acting as a dissenting voice against prevailing
religious opinions. In many ways, this provides us with a hermeneutic insight into how easily passages like this appear to be quite the aporia – however, there is very little that is essentially or irreconcilably confusing about them. They are a philosophical endorsement of the euphoria one feels when they are in love. They are a celebration of the deeply intimate, physical, sexual connection shared between romantic partners. They are a celebration of both manhood and, moreover, womanhood in many ways. But they exist in holy texts which have historically been weaponized against impassioned romantic love, sexual enjoyment and connection, and most significantly, women in light of themselves and their communities.
Reconciling – if not rectifying – these disconnects is the essential task of the contemporary
believer. It is the difference between leaving the faith in the dark ages, and bringing an
ideology of unapologetic love to the forefront of modern thought.
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