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Sex and the Church — A Lecture by Alan Watts

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Alan Watts was an English writer, philosopher and orator who was singularly skilled in interpreting Eastern religions and philosophies and distilling them into easily understood and appealing sentiments for Western audiences. He moved to the US to study religion as a young man, earning a master’s degree in theology and becoming ordained as an Episcopalian priest. Having been interested in a wide range of Eastern religions even as a youngster growing up, he furthered his education in this area at various institutions in the US. He really came into his own in the 1950s and ’60s, when he started writing and speaking prolifically in the US and elsewhere on the subjects that were so much a part of his life.

He dabbled on the fringes of new age celebrity status during that time, associating with the likes of Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary et al., but still remains largely unknown to many.

Though his books have remained relatively popular since his death in 1973, with the burgeoning power of the Internet to disseminate information, he continues to gain posthumous praise and new fans.

Besides his books and essays, he made dozens of recorded lectures. Usually generalist and topical in nature, they tie in some aspect from any number of religious teachings that originate in Eastern countries and are applied to something that was (and usually still is) relevant to the audience of the day.

Possessing a sonorous and easy-to-listen-to voice, the recordings would be a good starting point for anyone interested in exploring different spiritual outlooks from around the globe. A highly skilled speaker, Watts never talks down to the audience, and despite the sometimes annoying habit of laughing at his own jokes (and thus prompting the rapt audience members to erupt as well,) these are some truly thought-provoking pieces.

The recorded lecture entitled “Sex and the Church” concentrates on Christianity more than the Eastern religions he normally talked about, though inevitably comparisons enter into Watts’ discussion.

Though every organized religion seems to have strange and distorted views of human sexuality, Christianity has forged a monumentally fucked-up and repressive obsession with the human genitalia and related urges. At the same time, Watts argues, this dominant role that sex plays in the church is also an undeniable indication of its importance in Christianity.

At the root of most major condemnations that flow from Bible beaters and their leaders are those related to the pelvic thrust. Not lies, not attempts to defraud, not hatred, malice or violence, but primarily any and all things sexual. “Living in sin” and anything “immoral” is almost inevitably related to some form of fucking that has not been authorized by the church. “Sexual regulation societies” is what Watts calls most Judeo/Christian-based churches in Western societies.

Why is this so?

Because, as Watts points out, eating and fucking are our most fundamental ties to the material world. The point at which we can become most attached to the physical organism we inhabit.

Secondly, and more subtly, we cannot rid ourselves of our sexuality. Religion as repressed sexuality or sexuality as a manifestation of the divine? This is a question that Watts poses and comes back to explore more thoroughly near the end of his talk.

Watts argues that the negative connotations are in themselves an expression of sexuality. “A peculiar form of eroticism” is the result of creating such a longstanding taboo out of sex. But Watts also says that the whole anti-sex tradition is not as “anti” as it appears.

Behind this most ultimate of physical pleasures and the resulting attachment is the impermanence of life. Inherent in the emphasis on detachment from the body that is part of all religions is this moral fixation on sexuality. The degree to which you identify yourself with the pleasures of the body is the degree to which you will be sucked away by the force of transience.

Underlying the emphasis on detachment is a problem, according to Watts. And that is, Why is there a physical universe at all? If this existence is such an inescapable snare, and we should be so wary of that which is presented as reality, then WHY?

According to some theologies, the world is in fact looked upon as mistake, a fall from divinity. A rational soul in charge of an animal body is the result. The divided human…the soul and the body as dueling entities that make up the whole, is a longstanding theme in many beliefs.

Here is where Watts departs. Though we are all falling apart, this is not something to be lamented but is truly part of the splendor of being alive. Watts goes off on a bit of a tangent here stating that one day the replacement of all our decaying parts, limbs, organs, etc. as we age, will be end the result of our obsession with staying young. The fallout will be artificial and bored fools, as plastic as the materials used to prolong their lives.

After the brief bit of prophecy, Watts homes in on the theme of duality that crops up in most of his books and speeches, a result of his understanding of Eastern religions. In other words, without decay there cannot be vitality, just as one is inherent and represented by the other. Just as, in fact, black represents white and vice versa.

“Supreme moments, superb vitality.” The importance of reacting, taking steps to make things happen, as in the timing of music and that urgency that is part of youth, are two such examples. So too, timing is of the essence in matters of both sexuality and that other most real connection with physicality, all the pleasures associated with the art of gastronomy. “And then it’s happened and you’ve had it,” as he says, but this should not impart a feeling of regret. The only genuine facet of regret is not taking it when you had the chance.

Detachment should not mean that you must remove yourself from participation. Complete participation but still detached…this is where Watts comes to the point he does in every lecture and one that presents a conundrum, signifies the limitations of language for most others. Usually it as this point where he demonstrates his skill in providing some clarity to certain concepts.

Not a blasé, mien of nonchalance, with your thoughts elsewhere while you are furiously hammering away…not a way of being anxious about physical pleasure, so afraid that some there is a certain way it’s supposed to be that can never quite be attained. Empty, desperate machinations, so you want it again and again (kind of like the phenomenon whereby someone eats bland food and keeps cramming it in because they are never satisfied). When you’re grasping for something you cannot fully experience it. Holding on too hard takes the life out of something transient. This, says Watts, is the danger in becoming too attached to the physical world.

In the second part of the lecture, Watts delivers an amusing anecdote on the initiation ritual of confirmation he experienced as a young lad. Not some wise passing on of special knowledge from the reverend in his church where he grew up but a stern warning on…the evils of masturbation. Nothing more that a standard spiel on jacking off, replete with the assortment of ailments that were sure to befall every young boy who couldn’t resist.

He also provides a brief history on the rising and falling tides of morality within the church. Marriage was initially a social institution to strengthen the alliance between families. Politics, eugenics, and the bargaining process that was part of the union meant that inevitably perfect matches rarely occurred and getting a little bit on the side was not uncommon. Idealization of women as goddesses in the Middle Ages changed things somewhat and coincided with the growing cult of romantic love. The institution of marriage became intertwined with such notions. What also flowed from this was that such sentiments started to infuse the laws of the day. The person you married was the person you should love and the only relationship where sex should have been allowed to occur was marriage.

Periods where prudism toward sexuality were in ascendancy were contrasted by the presence of lasciviousness during those same times, such as the Victorian Era, and here again Watts comes back to the theme of interdependence, the fact that one cannot exist without the other.

Watts also argues that according to a defender of the faith, the church could be held up as symbolically nothing but sex as opposed to repressed sex while those who make sex their god are the ones repressing religion. Sexual biology in turn reveals the mystery of the universe, and is not obscured but evident in the paintings, interior design and architecture of many of the great churches of the world.

While Watts is mainly playing the contrarian here, this supposes a monolithic and continuing consciousness of “the church” that suggests a secret and shared understanding all leaders and followers. However, a powerful sociological aspect of all group behaviour means that every sap who is part of the process does not have to be acutely tuned in to a higher awareness to help carry forward the definitive character.

Still, the more plainly erotic manifestations of artwork in other religions is simply an undeniable statement of how fundamentally part of the cosmos human sexuality is and more proof of the different attitudes that prevail in the western world.

Watts finally comes to the crux of his speech and what I had been expecting. Those few seconds of orgasm that over a lifetime may add up to a few hours seem almost patently to be one the easiest ways to approach a higher plane without any dedication or discipline. One of the oldest and most basic charges against organized religion is of a concerted attempt to control the masses. Surely the attempts to imbue with fear and demonize that which represents something more powerful than they could ever offer are part of the skewed, eons-long fixation.

“The ultimate sacrament in bringing lovers together.” This is why sexuality is degraded when fools say that it should only be carried on for purposes of procreation. In fact, “that is what animals do.” “Mystical intoxication,” becomes the ideal goddess. “Scales taken off the eyes”–by this I assume Watts means the inevitable comparison that many indulge in when looking at potential mates and which has to cease before someone will enter the realm of lover.

Returning once again to the theme of duality Watts states that opposition to prudery goes overboard. Where do you draw the line? The battle of morals represents the same complementary aspects that are part of everything. Moralists mustn’t be obliterated or the resulting total hedonism would become bland and plastic. Libertines and prudes need each other. The tension that exists between them is what helps makes the world go round.

The problem with trying to relay the gist of a lecture by Watts is the same as trying to retell a good joke from a master comedian. It falls a bit flat in the translation. Also, unlike in print, a lecture will rely on simpler language and the skill of the speaker to pass on not only ideas but an overall feeling. Like a good novelist or filmmaker who takes a simple almost clichéd idea and makes it work, the cumulative and combined effects of an Alan Watts lecture are what makes it enjoyable.

Cross-posted at: Pistonhips: misanthropic ravings from an expat in Bangkok

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  • Eric Olsen

    fascinating material presented very well – thanks Finkleman! I think the duality notion can be taken to absurd cnclusions but I agree the tension between opposities is much of what makes the world go round