Byron C. Bangert

February 15, 1998

Song of Songs 7:1-9; II Corinthians 13:11-13

The headline in the INDIANA DAILY STUDENT on Thursday read, "love '90s style." The second of three articles on the page began, "Everybody knows the rules in a relationship: no lying, no cheating and a reassuring hug every now and then doesn't hurt" [February 12, 1998, p. 9]. The author uses this word "relationship" as if she assumes everyone will know what she is talking about. And perhaps she is right. To be "in a relationship," I have learned--especially from years of counseling with couples preparing to be married--is to be attached to someone else in a special way. In my generation it might have been called "going steady," being a couple, being "pinned," or even being "engaged." I have the feeling, however, that being "in a relationship" today may entail something more, and maybe something less, and surely something different from any of these.

If I had to guess, I'd say that being "in a relationship" these days means something more sexual and less romantic than what my generation regarded as "going steady," and probably different in being somewhat tentative and rather intentionally or consciously experimental. It is very evident to me that lots of people are in lots of relationships that don't work out. It is also evident to me that lots of people are trying very hard to make their relationships work. And it is evident to me that many people who regard themselves as being in successful relationships see this as an accomplishment resulting in significant part from their determined efforts.

Now, this is not going to be a sermon just about being "in a relationship," that is, the sort of relationship that many unmarried couples have. After all, most people are not "in a relationship." As the guest columnist in Friday's IDS noted, some people call Valentine's Day "'Single Awareness Day'--the yearly reminder to single people that they have no one to send flowers to or get candy from" [Tracy Cocquyt, p. 7]. It does strike me, however, that to speak of the particular kind of attachment and arrangement that many single couples have as a "relationship" does provide a kind of clue and connection between what is going on with them and what goes on in most marriages and in many other on-going relationships of which we are a part. In any event, yesterday was Valentine's Day, and that conjures up all kinds of thoughts about human relationships and the human condition, about what draws people together, and what helps them stay together, and why such relationships are neither easy nor unrewarding.

Having said this, I now feel a bit like a mosquito in a nudist colony: Where should I begin? There are in fact all kinds of important human relationships. If we are going to think about human relationships in light of the human condition and on Valentine's Day weekend, however, it seems to me we must at least think about sex, love, and marriage. Because this is a sermon, I also want to reflect upon these in light of our scriptures and tradition. Maybe out of this will emerge some insights into other important human relationships as well.

There are few things more obvious, more embarrassing, or more important than the fact that we are sexual beings. Perhaps few things more interesting, either. The last three weeks have made clear that there is nothing like a story about sexual behavior, or misbehavior, in high places to grab a newspaper headline or to lead off the nightly news. But talking about human sexual behavior in church is very difficult to do well. It is also fraught with danger. As a denomination we are deeply divided over certain questions of human sexuality. For some the question is focussed primarily upon homosexual behavior as it relates to ordination and leadership in the church. For others the question is whether there is room for any human sexual behavior outside of marriage. While some protest that we ought to be paying attention to more important matters, it is unmistakably clear that how we think of ourselves as human sexual beings is not an incidental matter. It is fundamental to our sense of morality, to our sense of identity, to our understanding of how we are to be in relationship with one another. We can hardly ignore the facts of human sexuality, and a refusal to engage in conversation about matters that unsettle us will not make them go away.

What does the Bible say about human sexual identity and expression? Clearly not enough to settle the matters that divide our denomination and our society. As a matter of fact, the Bible says very little about sexual behavior in terms that relate directly to the issues of our day. Most of the biblical teaching about sexual relations outside of marriage cannot be understood apart from the view of women as the property of men. Many of the sexual purity codes of the Old Testament are tied up with other notions about purity that Christianity has long since abandoned. What little the Bible has to say regarding what we call homosexual behavior derives from an understanding of our sexual natures very different from that provided by the biological and social sciences today.

One thing does seem fairly clear throughout our scriptures and tradition, however. We are to affirm and not reject the body. The material conditions of our human existence matter. We do not live by bread alone, but we cannot live without our daily bread. The poor, the needy, and the stranger are never to be denied the requirements of the body. To be human is to live in the flesh. To be married is to become one flesh. To love and care for others is to love and care for them in the flesh. Fleshly existence is not to be treated lightly or with indifference. Therefore, how we regard and use our bodies and how we treat others and their bodies is a matter of profound significance. We have a great responsibility for how we live our lives in the flesh.

What you will not find in our scriptures or tradition is a sex manual on how to relate to another human being with your body. But neither will you find anything on how to eat a proper diet, or how to exercise, or how to relax. You will find commands against gluttony, against drunkenness, against indolence and laziness, and in favor of keeping the sabbath rest. And you will find commands against various forms of sexual promiscuity. None of these commands implies a negative view of the body. Rather, they imply a respect for the body, for its needs and its integrity, and for the integrity of our relationships with others through our bodies.

We know that the body can be a source of great distress, and the realities of hunger, thirst, injury, disease, and pain are very present throughout the scriptures. But so also are the pleasures of food and drink, the delights of the senses, the gratitude for wholeness and physical well-being. And there is at least one place where the physical delights of the body are celebrated in terms of our sexual being. That place is the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, from which this morning's Old Testament text was taken. Here is a kind of sexual love poetry that is erotic without being lascivious, explicit without being vulgar, physical without objectifying or de-personalizing the one whose body occasions delight and desire. The body is good and beautiful. Its pleasures are not to be exploited, but neither should they be denied.

Whenever I am preparing to marry a couple, I let them know that I plan to read a passage of scripture, and that that passage of scripture will be from I Corinthians 13, Paul's famous chapter on love, unless they would like me to read from somewhere else, such as the Song of Songs. Almost all of them choose the agape love of I Corinthians over the eros love of Song of Songs. I think I would be concerned about any marriage, however, in which either of these forms of love was absent. Eros love is the love of desire, the desire for union and completion, the desire to become one flesh. Agape love, on the other hand, is the love of loyalty and commitment, the commitment to the good of the other, the commitment to be for the other. I suspect that these two forms of love are actually complementary, and that each is essential to any enduring relationship. Eros seeks to love the self in the other. Agape seeks to love the other in the self.

In any case, it is clear that sex without love is not a human expression. It is only an animal behavior. All human relationships require the presence of love in at least some of its forms. Human sexuality itself can hardly be understood in terms of its biological mechanics. On Tuesday those of us in the Bloomington Rotary Club heard local author, counselor, researcher, and psychotherapist Alan Bell talk about his latest book, THE MIND AND HEART IN HUMAN SEXUAL BEHAVIOR. Bell had originally planned to title his book SEX BETWEEN THE EARS. The point that he makes is not simply the one of which Ann Landers occasionally reminds us, namely, that the brain is the most important human sex organ. Bell's point is that what is most important in human sexual behavior is not what transpires physically between the sheets, but how that is felt and understood in the hearts and minds of the sexual partners. It is a question of meaning, not just of physical event. It is a question of quality of relationship, not just of quality of performance. I do not recall that he spoke of love, but clearly what he had in mind was the ability of two people to relate to each other in an open, honest, playful, caring, understanding way. Indeed, there was very little that he had to say about what is important in human sexual behavior that would not improve all of the relationships that we have with one another.

I would not want to say, and neither would our scriptures or tradition, that what happens to our bodies, or what we do in and with our bodies, is of no particular significance. It is of tremendous significance. We cannot ignore, and should not diminish, the realities of pain and pleasure that are mediated to us through our bodies. We must not forget the limits and capabilities of our bodies. The body is a great reservoir of memories, memories in the form of emotions, fears, and desires, that are awakened is us by circumstances like those that have affected us in the past. Nonetheless, the meaning of what happens to us and what we do in our bodies cannot be fixed and defined, or known and understood, apart from our own feelings and thoughts, apart from what we make of what is going on. We contribute to the meaning of all our behaviors, we interpret certain of our experiences in terms of relationships, we seek in these relationships to give expression to our thoughts and feelings, including love in some if not all of its forms.

But what makes for relationships that endure? For a good marriage, I think there must be elements of both eros and agape love. I think the same is true for other relationships as well. We need the love that is desire, that seeks union with and completion in the other, and we need the love that is loyalty and commitment, that is bound to the other for the sake of the other and that seeks the other's good. But is this all that we need?

A few months ago THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY carried a cover article entitled, "Can the Government Prevent Divorce?" The gist of the article was that researchers in the field of marriage and divorce believe they can identify certain behaviors or attitudes in couples who are planning to marry that are highly predictive of divorce, and they can teach certain behaviors or practices to already married couples that will reduce the likelihood of divorce. As disruptive as divorce can be, as traumatic as its effects on children sometimes are, and as common as it is in our society, the question raised by the article is whether government ought to step in to help fund and perhaps require certain types of counseling designed to prevent unpromising marriages and to rescue failing marriages from divorce [Francine Russo, October 1997, pp. 28, 30, 38, 41-42].

What interested me most was some of the research reported by John Gottman, formerly a teacher at Indiana University who now presides over a couples laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle. Beginning with studies of married couples in his lab at I.U., and following some of them for as much as fourteen years, Gottman has singled out four attitudinal behaviors that, when evident in a couple's relationship, are 90 percent accurate in predicting marital failure: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling [30]. Think about these in any human relationship. Don't you suspect that if these are present, that relationship is bound to fail!

What most intrigued me, however, was Gottman's account of what makes for a successful marriage, or what characterizes couples who stay together. The common wisdom in the field of psychology is that these are couples who have learned how to communicate in order to resolve their differences. They have learned how to listen actively to each other, they have learned how to eliminate destructive behaviors and defuse potential conflicts, and they have thereby solved their problems. "Wrong," according to Gottman:

Happy couples have problems, and they tend to have exactly the same problems several years later. . . What distinguishes them from unhappy couples is that they develop a "dialogue" about their perpetual problems, trying to effect what change they can with humor and affection while at the same time accepting their partners as they are [41].

"They develop a 'dialogue' about their perpetual problems, trying to effect what change they can with humor and affection while at the same time accepting their partners as they are." We have all heard the conventional wisdom that you should not get married to somebody with the idea of changing that person. If your happiness depends on change in that other person, you had better make sure that change happens before you get married, before a committed relationship has been established, before you join yourself to the other. Now here is the suggestion that happiness does not depend on the other ever changing, ever being the way you want that other to be. Happiness depends on being able to live with the differences. It depends on being able to acknowledge and talk about your problems, continuing to scuffle and banter over them, but not necessarily on being able to solve them. It depends on being able to relate with humor and affection, and maybe effect some changes along the way, but to accept the other regardless of whether change comes and the problems are solved or not.

We live in a culture that is very high on solving problems. It is a culture that tends to regard sexual behavior in isolation from being human, as a necessary concession to the flesh on the one hand, and an achievement or performance, on the other. It is a culture that thinks of happiness as a right almost to be demanded and self-fulfillment as a duty you owe yourself. Consequently, it is a society that is very confused about the place and role of human sexuality, and about the meaning and nature of love. And so it is a society in which the pain of relationships is often all too keenly felt, so much so that this pain is often regarded as not worth whatever promise these relationships might hold. But in the realm of human relationships, much of what we think is wrong, much of what we desire cannot be attained, and much of what we expect is selfishly unrealistic.

There is wisdom in our scriptures and tradition, if we can discern it. We need to honor and care for and delight in one another in the flesh. This requires an appreciation and respect for the body, for its needs and its integrity, and for the integrity of our relationships with others through our bodies. We should hope to love each other in ways that join the needs of others with our own, ways that admit both the permanence of some of our differences and the mutuality of some of our desires. This requires the ability to relate to each other in open, honest, playful, caring, and understanding ways. Surely it will help if we can also develop a "dialogue" about our perpetual problems, trying to effect what change we can with humor and affection while at the same time accepting one another as we are. Finally, enduring relationships require a love that manifests itself in loyalty and commitment, such that we are bound to the other for the sake of the other and that we seek the other's good. AMEN.