by Graham Hellier

from Signs of the Times, No. 23 - Oct 2006

Having enjoyed the MCU conference on human sexuality, may I offer some fragments:

Is patriarchy too easily diagnosed or assumed to be oppressive? It is good the age of equality has dawned but we can be quick to judge the past. Do we misrepresent some periods of Jewish history or forget the realities of many working class families in nineteenth century mill towns? We expect an equal range of choices and become impatient with the separation of gender roles. Yet different roles do not necessarily imply inequality. Our modern individualism may distort our understanding. Historically the family was seen far more as a unity - the husband and father more often operated in the public arena but he represented his whole family and was answerable for all its members.

Males, of course, are a problem and some females can be very judgmental (!) - understandably, given the aggressive and exploitative behaviour that is only too apparent at times. I happen to believe that young males, in particular, are more unstable and confused than females. They may use sex to exploit others but they are also driven by powerful forces over which they have insufficient control - and can be as much victims as perpetrators. The biologist's point of view was scarcely represented at this conference. If, for example, we accuse men of being power-seeking and potentially violent, we can observe that women have selected them for these characteristics! Over thousands of years, women have sought men who could defend them and their offspring. These gained the best opportunities to pass on their genes and therefore their characteristics, and it is still true today - men of power and wealth have little difficulty attracting admiring females! By the same token, men have helped to fashion the female types who have prevailed through hundreds of generations.

As an aside, some readers will know that one of the best current suggestions for the evolution of sexuality is that it is a defence against disease. Put simply, if the mother were to clone herself, all the harmful organisms that have lodged in the parent would pass to the offspring and find themselves in familiar territory, with another lifetime to wreak havoc. Sexual reproduction ensures that the new and strange 50-50 combinations of DNA will greatly enhance the immunity of the carrier. As usual, women may have to put up with men for the sake of the children - at least for a little longer!

I found that rigid lines were sometimes drawn between lust and love. Would that it were so easy. We may think that it ought to be so. Take the case of the paedophile. We can call such attraction lust, because it is exploitative of the immature - but this begs the question. Those who work with paedophiles often come to recognise that there has been genuine love for children but that it has crossed a boundary into forbidden territory. Such love is as complex as that experienced by the adulterer.

Another disturbing suggestion reflected at this conference is the easy acceptance of divorce on the grounds that people in the past didn't have to face long the terrible prospect of living with the same person for forty or fifty years. They all died young didn't they? The answer is 'No'! Lifespan statistics are averages. Those who survived infancy and the dangerous years of child-bearing and warfare could well settle into a reasonably long life. We have improved longevity marginally but 'three score years and ten' has been a useful simplification for over two millenia. This is echoed in the Mishnah, where Rabbi Jehudah described the different periods of life nearly 2,000 years ago:

At five years of age, reading of the Bible; at ten years, learning the Mishnah; at thirteen years, bound to the commandments; at fifteen years, the study of the Talmud; at eighteen years, marriage; at twenty, the pursuit of trade or business; at thirty years, full vigour; at forty, maturity of reason; at fifty, for counsel; at sixty, commencement of agedness; at seventy, grey age; at eighty, advanced old age; at ninety, bowed down; at a hundred, as if he were dead and gone, and taken from the world." (Aboth v.21)

There is every reason to think that couples in past generations hoped for a reasonable length of life. Of course for some today, divorce will be a welcome release but there is still loss - we don't expect to ditch our friends every ten years or so!

It was good to see the conference take account of children. Today's mantra is 'to put the child first' and this cropped up several times. It has led to the redressing of some imbalance but also to grave wrong. Sometimes it has devalued consideration of the family in all its relationships. Sometimes it has led to the automatic acceptance of accusations of child abuse, where entirely innocent adults have been pilloried. It took time to accept that fundamentalist psychologists had wrongly taught that the child must always be believed ('fundamentalism' is a characteristic of all belief systems). 'Putting the child first' can paradoxically lead to the abdication of true parenting, if it means that children must be given their head and never restricted or punished. The assumption is that we know what the best interests of the child are - and that begs a great number of questions.

Enough. I suppose my message is - question everything - not least what I have said above!

Graham Hellier is a retired Church of Scotland minister and author of The Thoughtful Guide to Christianity.