Another Theology of the Body, Part X--Avoiding the Trap of the Fertility Cult

The word in Hebrew is "qedesha."  It comes from the root "q-d-sh," which has to do with things that are "holy" or "set apart," both in Hebrew and in Hebrew's cousin languages from around the Middle East.  Despite the positive connotations of the word, the Torah makes clear that one should not be a "qedesha," or its male form a "qedesh."  Indeed, Deuteronomy specifically forbids it.

Temple of Bacchus, Jupiter, and Venus.  Baalbek, Lebanon
Modern English Biblical translations render "qedesha" as "temple prostitute."  See Deuteronomy 23:17.  Such people were "set apart" for religious rituals by the cultures that surrounded the People of Israel, rituals which involved some form of sexual activity.  It appears that there is scholarly debate as to the nature of these rituals, and surely they varied from place to place within the ancient Near East and beyond.  As an example, the Greek historian Herodotus, in his Histories, describes at least one example in the area around Babylon:

The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger once in her life. Many women who are rich and proud and disdain to mingle with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages drawn by teams, and stand there with a great retinue of attendants.  

But most sit down in the sacred plot of Aphrodite, with crowns of cord on their heads; there is a great multitude of women coming and going; passages marked by line run every way through the crowd, by which the men pass and make their choice.

Once a woman has taken her place there, she does not go away to her home before some stranger has cast money into her lap, and had intercourse with her outside the temple; but while he casts the money, he must say, “I invite you in the name of Mylitta” (that is the Assyrian name for Aphrodite).

It does not matter what sum the money is; the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin, the money being by this act made sacred. So she follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home; and thereafter there is no bribe however great that will get her.
Ishtar, Babylonian Fertility Goddess

Histories 1, ch. 199:1-4.  Now, Herodotus is not always the most accurate source--much of the Histories is an exercise in anti-Persian and anti-Middle Eastern propaganda for the benefit of his Greek audience.  Nevertheless, this kind if thing is attested to in a variety of sources, and was clearly on the minds of the writers or compilers of the Torah.  That animus was translated to Christian writers and thinkers as well.  Eusebius, the first Christian historian, cites with approval Constantine's decision to close down temples of Venus upon his conversion to Christianity, temples that were doing much the same stuff Herodotus describes.

Why would people do something like this?  It is generally believed that these rituals were understood by the participants to reflect the idea that fertility was sacred.  In most cases "fertility" was understood to mean both human fertility and the fertility of nature, and as such these rituals insured both a good harvest and future children.  By performing the proper ritual actions, then the miracle of fertility would continue--fail to honor these taboos, and barrenness of all kinds would result.  As fertility of both sorts was a matter of life and death, such rituals were taken very seriously.

It is easy for us to be dismissive of this kind of thing, sitting on our perch as modern, "enlightened" people.  But we talk casually about the "miracle of birth" or the "miracle of life."  New parents routinely mention being amazed that they created an entirely new life, one that rapidly develops its own thoughts, feelings, and preferences.  It is amazing if you stop and think about it.  And it is a short jump from "amazing" to "miraculous," and then to "divine" or "holy."  It would almost be more surprising if ancient cultures didn't divinize fertility.

Nevertheless, Judaism and Christianity rejected this divinization, and that is assuredly for the best.  As I see it, the fertility cult brings with it two, unavoidable problems.  First, it is based on a fundamental untruth--human sexuality and fertility are not magic.  They do not make the crops grow, or ensure the society will flourish.  My sexuality, and my sex life, is important to me, and is a component of being a well adjusted person.  But that's it.  It's not divine, and it is not the primary concern of the gods, or God.  A sexual relationship may be a vehicle for appreciating divine love, and sexuality is a key component of that relationship, but sex in and of itself is not any more holy than it is unholy.  It just is.  The fertility cult places an importance, and a burden, on sexuality that it simply cannot bear.

The other problem is that the fertility cult makes one's sexuality a public good.  Because sexuality takes on an importance that is way beyond that of the individuals involved, the individuals in question are not fully in possession of their sexuality anymore.  It becomes subject to social needs and agendas, whether the persons involved like it or not.  The women Herodotus described going to sit in the Temple of Aphrodite didn't have a choice in the matter--their sexuality was drafted to serve the purposes of the society as a whole.  That is a profound violation of the individual, and yet it is justifiable in the context of the fertility cult.

So, Christianity was right to reject the fertility cult.  In doing so, however, it swung in the opposite direction--viewing sexuality as a a stain.  Rather than sexuality being holy, it becomes unholy, or at least a temptation to unholiness.  As I have been discussing in this series, I think this is a serious problem that Christianity needs to correct.  But, in the course of correcting it, we need to make sure we don't swing back all the way back in the other direction.  Replacing the old sex negative ideas of traditional Christianity with a new fertility cult is not moving the ball forward, but replacing one set of problems with another, even older set.

It seems to me that there are two versions of this neo-fertility cult, one "liberal" and focused on the idea of sex having magical powers, and the other "conservative" and grounded in the idea of sexuality as community property.  Neither are good, neither reflect a humane, even Christian, view of sexual relationships (or relationships, period), both of them should be rejected by a Christian sexual morality.  Despite, or perhaps especially because, of the fact that Christian groups often co-opt the "conservative" version for their own purposes.

The "liberal" version turns sex into a therapeutic commodity.  If your life is bad, if you are unhappy with who you are--well, all you need is to have sex.  Or to be sexy (in whatever the currently approved way is).  Or have sex in this new and improved way (12 Tips to Drive Him Wild in Bed! Tantra!, etc.).  Like the old patent medicines, sex is good for whatever ails you.  And it can be yours for the low, low price of this makeup, or this ab machine, or this book, or this surgery.  There is lots of talk about how advertising creates unrealistic expectations about the body, about sexuality.  I think that's right, but I think there is an even more fundamental problem with the promotion of sex as commodity.  Even if you could look like, or sleep with, the models in the pictures--even if the images were not unrealistic--looking like that or sleeping with that person is not, by itself, going to make you happy, which is the unspoken assumption underlying all of this advertising.

Again, this is not to say that sexuality is not a component of happiness--it is.  Problems in one's sexual life can absolutely be a source of unhappiness.  But sexuality is a thread in the tapestry of a person's life, woven with all the other threads.  The therapeutic commodity view of sex raises it above the others and bestows on it the kind of magic powers that fertility cults imputed to sexuality.  Having good sex is not going to fix problems with work, with family, with friendships, with one's place in the world.  It is a lie to claim that it can.  And yet, that claim is broadcast to us, constantly.

The "conservative" version harnesses sex, and (usually) more specifically procreation, to some set of political and cultural objectives.  A couples' duty is to breed, for the good of whatever faction that couple is a part of.  Having more children means having more foot soldiers for whatever cause this particular group advocates.  Looking for an example?  Come on down, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar.  The Quiverfull movement stands out for being particularly overt about its modus operandi, but there are other, slightly more subtle versions.  When a Catholic priest writes an article stating that a schools has been "contracepted out of existence," he is indistinguishable from the Duggars.

Jesus said, "the Sabbath was meant for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27).  Institutions, political ideologies, schools--they are there to serve people, and are useful and appropriate only to the extent they do so.  The moment that people, and especially children, are understood to be for the purpose of serving those institutions or ideas, then we have left the realm of authentic Christianity, and authentic humanism.  The Christian fertility cult is inherently, and fundamentally, dehumanizing.  Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, their children, the parishoners at that priest's parish--they are being treated like cattle, to be bred and herded and moved to fit the ranchers goals and whims.  They are no different from the women forced to sit in the Temple of Aphrodite and wait for the first man to put a coin in her hand.

If Christianity is serious about defending the value and dignity of each individual life (and not just "human life" as some sort of abstraction), it must continue to oppose the fertility cult.  In all of its forms.  Even when those forms are being done in its name.


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