Christian sexual ethics: a perfect demonstration of Einstein’s definition of insanity

Today my Facebook timeline is full of outrage and disappointment. My Christian friends are responding in dismay to the news that the founder of l’Arche, the late Jean Vanier, sexually abused 6 woman.

L’Arche is an international Catholic network of homes and communities for mentally handicapped people. It became well known in protestant circles through the writings of Henry Nouwen, a catholic priest whose writings also made a big impression on me. I did not know Jean Vanier, but many held him to be quite the saint.

Which, apparently, he was not. Six women have come forward independently and told stories of how, as they approached him for spiritual guidance, he initiated sexual relations with them ‘through spiritual and mystical justifications’.

Another one bites the dust?

And so my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed are full of Christian disappointment and anger. Oh no, not another one! Not him! How is this possible? What is wrong with Christian men? With Christian Leaders? Jean Vanier joins an ever growing list of Christian leaders who have ‘fallen’ into sexual sin: Bill Hybels, Josh Harris, Tom Randall, Andy Savage — all the way to Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. Of men who have not been able to ‘keep it in their pants’. Of figureheads whose sexuality took on abusive and manipulative form.

I, in turn, am surprised by the surprise of these Christians. It seems to me these failures are entirely logical, and fully to be expected. Jean Vanier is not the first, he will not be the last; in fact: we will barely have moved beyond this news before the of the next one comes out. And Christians will write messages of anger and disappointment on Facebook and Twitter, and so the cycle goes on and on.

Of course there will be some investigation into what causes this sick merry-go-round. In social media conversations today there were fingers pointed quickly at the strongly sexualized context of the modern world. As if communities like l’Arche don’t isolate them selves from the world and remove worldly influences — especially sexual messages and images. Others pointed fingers at the lack of systems that adequately keep leaders accountable. As if there is a system that can keep us from struggling with what is inside of us. Still others pointed at these men and called them weaklings and frauds and traitors. As if any one of these men did not start out desiring to please God and do nothing but his holy will — only to find out that the sexual drive of the human pays no homage to religious dreams.

I am not surprised, because the real problem is the Christian faith itself. It promotes a view of the world and of human sexuality that simply does not correspond to reality. And so it sets you up for failure. These fallen Christian leaders never had a chance; they believed the message they received and submitted to a perspective that did not match their sexuality. I imagine they sought to repress it; repent of it; seek healing for it; believe they were healed from it — only to find out the sexual drive was still there. In the process they made victims, and that is terrible — but they were also victims themselves. Chances are they lived in anguish as they tried to control themselves and give themselves to God and do what is right — and fell short time and time again.

The worldview creates the problem

Sexual deviation from Christian norms is nothing new. But you and I are fortunate to live in the 21st century, where we now know a lot about our species and its sexdrive. Truth is, we are monkeys, or, as Elizabeth Gilbert put it, mammals with a super-computer for a brain. We are descended from Chimpansees and Benobo monkeys. Both breeds of monkeys have an amazing sex-drive and are the furthest thing from monogamous. The drive to procreate is hardwired in every species, but it is particularly strong in the human species.

And this is where the Christian worldview creates the problem. It advocates repression, a one-size-fits-all type of sexuality for those who can’t totally abstain and serve God, and abstinence for those who think they can. Too bad if you have a homosexual orientation; think you were born with the wrong genitalia; have a desire for leather in the bedroom; enjoy being naked in nature; or enjoy writing erotic fiction — there’s no place for alternative sexualities and no place for fetishes or kinks.


And this is where Christian expectations of human sexuality become a perfect illustration of Einstein’s definition of insanity: repeating the same behavior over and over again, each time expecting different results.. The truth is: we need sex. We need to enjoy it, we need to explore it, we need to discover it. It makes us feel alive. “The erotic”, says Esther Perel, “is the antidote to death”. We need it, because, in doing so, we discover who we are, and how we are wired. Repress it, conversely, and we are repressing ourselves. And that will only hold for so long. Someone compared our sexuality to a river: it wells up inside of us, and will flow out of us. You can put rocks in the water, or even a dam (celibacy, anyone?), but the water will find a way. And if you don’t allow it to flow, it will flow where you don’t want it. It stands to reason that there would be no need for much of the really strange behavior exhibited by Christian leaders, if only they could lead healthy sex lives. Healthy, as in: explore, investigate, enjoy, celebrate. The denial of oneself, as Christians propose, is not healthy. It is detrimental to our health.


One might be tempted to think the problem is limited to Christian leaders, and particularly to leaders who take a vow of chastity. But the real scale of the problem is far greater. The Christian worldview, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, creates an ecosystem that perpetuates human suffering. This suffering comes in many forms. It is the teenager who struggles with masturbation, asking desperately for God to free him from this demon. It is Matthew Shepherd, who struggled with his homosexuality so much he confided in his youth leader. Who in turn told kids in the youth group, who captured him, tied him to a fence and threw soda cans at him till he died. It is Bill Hybels, who sought to do a great thing for God and build a magnificent church. And who did in fact organize extensive accountability structures around himself to protect himself from his sexual cravings —only to find out these sexual cravings were stronger than any structure he could create. It is the child, whose story I heard this Friday, who was brought to a Christian childrens home by Child Protection Services. Who, six years old, when he wet the bed at night, was forced to stand naked in front of the whole group and have his wet underpants forced in his mouth by the care-taker. It is Jean Vanier’s victims, who approached him for guidance, and, in their moment of dependence, were preyed upon.
And yes, it is Jean Vanier himself, whose heart, no doubt, was to do good for God. But as strong as his faith and his commitment were, they were no match for his sexuality. If only someone could have helped him through the confusion and helped him be who he was.

I understand it is difficult for Christians to do so. You love God and so are committed to His word. Faith is encouraged; critical thinking frowned upon. It is easier to point at other factors, like the strongly sexualized culture, or the weakness of these individuals. But the denial of responsibility is starting to sound like the rhetoric of the NRA after yet another school shooting (‘thoughts and prayers’), or the denial of responsibility by large oil companies in the face of climate-change. It’s time to face reality. It is time to end this insanity.

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