It’s the last day of summer and so I am trying to catch up on unfinished business.
The question of whether or not a blog can have unfinished business seems a bit ridiculous even to pose, because blogging is an ongoing, daily effort. To the extent that right now the unfinished business of this blog might involve unfinished business of history, then I doubt it will ever be finished.
Bearing in mind the possible futility of my topic, the last day of summer (just before the Fall) seems about as good a time as any to write about the last days of Rome (just before The Fall), but here I am, again contemplating the conflict between religion and sex. A conflict I did not create, but which will not go away — and which compels me to write frustrating essays which will not be welcomed by those I want to reach.
Steven Malcolm Anderson‘s citation of Maggie Gallagher is as good a place as any to begin:

The idea that sex is a simple appetite for orgasm, is I think Barry, contradicted by pretty much all of human experience, without dragging metaphysics into it. Sex is interpersonal in ways that eating simply isn’t. Sex involved not only physical pleasure, but possibilities of suffering, rejection, triumph, union, and affirmation that eating really does not. If sexual desire were only a desire for pleasure, people who never be moved as they are to do and suffer so much in restless search for its satisfaction.
I once explained to a man that sex always has a spiritual component. He gave me this look, this look that said: “You’re a girl. You don’t have a clue.”

I do not always agree with Maggie Gallagher, but the more I contemplate the above statement, the more astounded I am. As she suggests, the modern world views the linkage of sexuality and spirituality as a female phenomenon.
Not so in the ancient world! There is simply no dispute that the sexual and the spiritual were linked together in innumerable ways, by gods, ceremonies, cults, religious orgies, ad infinitum. Is it possible that early Christianity, with its stigmatization of sex, and its protracted struggle with the pagan celebration of sexual spirituality, may have placed a sort of damper on the mixing of the spiritual with the sexual? I pose this question not only because of the nature of this blog, but because the Culture War — and our seeming national obsession with defining the sexuality of other people — demands that I pose it.
I ask further: did this contribute to a culture of stigmatizing women? Despite their generally subordinate role in Roman life, once the Vestal Virgin cult was extinguished the role of women declined further. While many women had been Christian martyrs, the early church did not allow women to serve as priestesses, and trumpeted the idea of male celibacy as the “ideal.” Spirituality was seen as the opposite of sexuality. (The ultimate example of this was the self castration of Origen, said by some to find justification in Christian religious texts.)
Please bear in mind that by exploring these issues, I do not mean to suggest that sexuality and spirituality are always linked, nor that only women can link them. Obviously, more men than women go through their lives seeing sex as a purely physical phenomenon. I do not mean to condemn them in the least; only to pose some questions. For that matter, why must sex (or sexuality) be seen as always one thing or the other? Why must sex be either spiritual OR physical — any more than sexuality must be either heterosexual OR homosexual?
The concept of Original Sin doubtless did much to reinforce early Christian doctrine that spirituality and sexuality are incompatible. (Whether any such notion is present in the teachings of Jesus seems largely irrelevant.)
Here is my big, unresolved question (which I think may constitute the unfinished business of history): To what extent did early Christianity develop its anti-sexual tendencies as a result of reacting against the ancient Roman world?
Any evidence that the competition between early Christianity and late Roman paganism contributed to a deliberate effort to sever the connection between the sexual and the spiritual (or, worse yet, by setting one against the other) begs the question of whether we suffer lingering effects of this conflict even today. Considering that the Culture War is seen by many as a direct war between religion and sexualty, this is no idle question. (Not for this blog, at least.)
I do not wish to be judgmental if I can avoid it. Despite the deliberately satirical nature of this blog, I am not trying to promote a pagan revival, nor is it my goal to attack Christianity. Do I want to be a mediator? No one has asked me, Christian or pagan, so I guess that question is largely irrelevant. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I consider myself a Christian and a pagan. And if anyone wants to tell me I can’t call myself that, well, I can because I just did. The failure of Christians and pagans to peacefully coexist in ancient Rome does not obligate me or anyone else. It no more creates a permanent state of Culture War between these two religious philosophies any more than the teachings of Muhammad obligate Muslims to kill Christians and Jews.
Furthermore, if the current debate over homosexuality does not invite a new look at this old history, then what does?
Where is a good place to start? Let’s take the last Roman pagan deity, Antinous.
Antinous, the beloved favorite of the Emperor Hadrian, drowned in the Nile River in 130 AD. The emperor was so grief-stricken that not only did he lapse into a deep, lifelong, depression, but he deified Antinous, creating a cult which would rival anything the ancient world had seen, and which lasted right up until it was finally extinguished by early Christians in the Fifth Century. Moreover, Antinous came to redefine male beauty in art and in Western culture. The truth of this physical beauty could not be extinguished — as even early Christians conceded.
In the Fourth Century, Christians found themselves suddenly at the helm of power in the Roman Empire, and the cult of Antinous must have bothered the hell out of them, for they condemned Antinous in the strongest possible terms. Here’s Saint Athanasius:

But others, straining impiety to the utmost, have deified the motive of the invention of these things and of their own wickedness, namely, pleasure and lust, and worship them, such as their Eros, and the Aphrodite at Paphos. While some of them, as if vying with them in depravation, have ventured to erect into gods their rulers or even their sons, either out of honour for their princes, or from fear of their tyranny, such as the Cretan Zeus, of such renown among them, and the Arcadian Hermes; and among the Indians Dionysus, among the Egyptians Isis and Osiris and Horus, and in our own 9time Antinous, favourite of Hadrian, Emperor of the Romans, whom, although men know he was a mere man, and not a respectable man, but on the contrary, full of licentiousness, yet they worship for fear of him that enjoined it. For Hadrian having come to sojourn in the land of Egypt, when Antinous the minister of his pleasure died, ordered him to be worshipped; being indeed himself in love with the youth even after his death, but for all that offering a convincing exposure of himself, and a proof against all idolatry, that it was discovered among men for no other reason than by reason of the lust of them that imagined it. According as the wisdom of God testifies beforehand when it says, ?The devising of idols was the beginning of fornication.”

In the case of Antinous, the problem was compounded not merely by homosexuality (something early Christians forbid but for which pagans did not even have a word), but by the almost eerie similarity of Antinous mythology to Christianity:

There was a precedent for worshipping dead emperors, but not dead boyfriends of emperors. Some people snickered. Others were outraged. But all in all, the general populace of the empire were touched by Hadrian’s devotion and loss. A city was founded in Egypt where Antinous’ body had washed up. Initiatory mystery rites were begun and his cult spread throughout all of the lands of the Empire. He was identified with the beautiful young god, usually of vegetation, who dies too soon, only to be reborn and join the other deities in the celestial heavens. A whole philosophy of rebirth after death was associated with his cult. His likeness became the last great movement in ancient Pagan sculpture, in the guises of Hermes, Osiris, Adonis, Dionysus and Apollo.
So in the end, Antinous became a young god of healing, resurrection and rebirth, able to bestow eternal life on his worshippers in exchange for their devotion. Consequently, he was attacked viciously by the Christians who wanted to distinguish him from the figure of Jesus they were promoting. Most Romans couldn’t see much of a difference, and this infuriated the early Christian writers. The fact that this young male lover of the emperor was equated with their Jesus drove the Christians crazy. Finally, Constantine and his descendants assured that the worship of Antinous would stop. Like all of the youthful male gods of vegetation and rebirth, Antinous was made into a demon by the Christian writers. His rites were forbidden and outlawed. His symbols and iconography were stolen by the Church and given to Jesus. His images were destroyed. The obsessive grief of Hadrian was forgotten, and as homosexuality in particular became increasingly more incompatible with the Church’s idea of society, his very presence in history was all but erased and obliterated.

The cynic in me has to wonder whether Hadrian, despite his grief, might have wanted to kill two (or more) birds with one stone. By establishing a new cult and building a city (Antinoopolis) to honor Antinous, Hadrian was able not only to process his grief while building new bridges between Greek and Roman culture, and between Roman and Egyptian culture. But was he also borrowing a key Christian tenet (rebirth after death into eternal life)?
Might he have been trying to slow the growth of this new cult by offering a similar alternative? Did this end up only infuriating early Christians into a counter-reaction? Are we still feeling the effects today?
I don’t know — but it feels like unfinished business to me.
Part Two of this essay will have to await the Fall.