This article appeared in Sacred Web 12. To order this issue of Sacred Web and other back issues, click here.
Towards a Traditional Understanding of Sexuality
by M. Ali Lakhani
In primordial man sexual ecstasy coincides with spiritual ecstasy, it communicates to man an experience of mystical union, a “remembrance” of the Divine Love of which human love is a distant reflection.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
T.S. Eliot: from ‘Little Gidding’
In traditional thought, sexuality—as is the case with all qualities of the human order—is a reflection of qualities that reside archetypally within the divine order, and its roots are therefore metaphysical. The first instance of a division into male and female, and the first procreative act, occur in the divine order, and these therefore constitute archetypes that are reflected within the human order. Thus, before one can begin to address sexuality and the particular issues that it raises within modernity, one must be prepared to view these issues as symptoms of the denial of transcendence, which characterizes modernism, and trace their causes back to their metaphysical origins.
Tradition teaches that reality unfolds through multiple levels, arranged hierarchically, commencing with a metacosmic Supreme Principle, which is transcendent in relation to these cosmic levels. The Supreme Principle or Self (Aristotle’s “Motionless Mover,” which is to be understood as being ‘without any trace of the development of manifestation’; in Hinduism, for instance, It is termed Paramatma or Brahma Nirguna, the Quality beyond all qualities) is transcendent in relation to the cosmic levels that proceed from It, and contains within Its Essence, androgynously, as it were—not as separate entities, but as aspects of “a conjoint principle” (Aquinas)—the archetypes of two cosmic principles, an active (male) element and a receptive (female) element. The male element (purusha, Yang) is the Absolute pole of Divine Essence, qualitatively represented by attributes such as Majesty and Rigor. The female element (prakriti, Yin) is the Infinite pole of Divine Substance, qualitatively represented by attributes such as Beauty or Compassion. These polarities, the archetypes in divinis of male and female qualities, constitute the metaphysical elements of the autogenetic union which is the origin of all creation. They reside within the very heart of the Supreme Principle, which Itself transcends the products of their union.
All creation is an act of divine self-procreation, “an act of fecundation latent in eternity” (Eckhart). This generative act is the archetype in divinis of procreation, symbolized as the impregnation of darkness by light. Tradition emphasizes that the generative act occurs through a union of the polarities, based on the principle of their complementarity, not opposition. This principle is vital to an understanding of gender relations upon the lower plane, as we shall see.
Creation can also be understood as divine self-reflection, a series of mirrors within mirrors, in which the image always includes elements of the original reflectors, these being the metaphysical polarities described above. It follows therefore that there is nothing in creation that does not contain the germ of its opposite. Thus human beings, though divided into genders that exteriorize and reflect the metaphysical polarities within the Supreme Principle, each contain within themselves the possibility of their opposite, just as the interior contains within itself the possibility of the exterior, and vice versa. This is depicted in the Taoist symbol of Yin-Yang, in which each element includes an element of its opposite.
In traditional cosmology, order is predicated on the hierarchical unfolding of the universe from a transcendent Center through a progressive exteriorization of the archetypal possibilities latent within Itself—combinations of qualities, attributes and forms—through multiple levels of being. Just as water vapor liquefies into water and then crystallizes into ice, so the universe unfolds out of essence into form, through levels which correspond, both microcosmically—within mankind—and macrocosmically—within the greater universe—to the spiritual, the astral and the material realms. These dimensions, within mankind, correspond to the Heart (the spiritual or intellective center of man), and, in descending order thereafter, the soul (the animic or psychic dimension), and the body (the sensory realm of the physical world). This architecture implies an order based on hierarchy, in which the exterior derives from the interior, the material/sensory from the spiritual/intellective through the intermediate realm of the astral/psychic. Reality is masculine (or essential) before it is feminine (or substantial). It is in this sense that the Logotic principle of creation sunders the feminine soul from the masculine Spirit (see Hebrews 4, 12). It is only when the feminine soul (anima, nafs) surrenders to the masculine Spirit (Animus, Ruh)—when the exteriorized will of the Outer Man yields to the interior principle of the Inner Man—that the Spiritual Self is born. This spiritual birth is the métier of all religious questing.
It follows from this view that all creatures share a common spiritual patrimony, an Origin or Center from which, qua creature, they are separate both temporally and spatially (this is the dimension of transcendence, or exclusivity), but in which, qua Spirit, they live and move and have their being (this is the dimension of immanence, or of inclusivity). Value or worth, according to this view, lie in the ability to reconnect with the Origin or Center, which are identical in traditional cosmology, and are located in the Heart or spiritual core of one’s being. Traditional morality is therefore ontological before being behavioral. Morality is thus the correspondence between metaphysical structure and ontological value. An action has greater or lesser value in the measure that it draws one ontologically closer to or farther from the Origin or Center. With this criterion of morality in mind, let us now examine its implications for sexuality.
Sexuality, like all creation, is within the Cosmic Veil of Maya, and therefore contains a certain ambiguity. The ambiguity lies in the fact that, unless things are metaphysically transparent, their allure is seductive and illusory. Thus beauty can be perceived as a sacred theophany or can be viewed as an end itself, and thereby profaned. Sexuality, as a response to beauty, must therefore be sacralized, lest it be profaned as lust (“the expense of spirit in a waste of shame”, as Shakespeare described it). Thus, the sexual act is not in itself sinful, so long as its orientation is sacred and within the bounds of the Divine Law, but when it transgresses these bounds, it is considered sinful. This explains why the same tradition can contain two apparently contradictory perspectives (participative and penitential) regarding sexual conduct. For instance, the Pauline perspective within the Christian tradition emphasizes the blessing of conjugal procreation (because it is assumed to be a sacrament, and is within the prescribed bounds of matrimony), while the Augustinian perspective encourages abstinence (associating the sexual act primarily with carnal desires). Both these perspectives, despite their apparent contradiction, share the view that concupiscence is a profanation of the gift of sex. It places the flesh above the spirit, in an inversion of traditional morality (which places the spiritual above the material). The denial of transcendence—which characterizes modernism, throws open the gates of licentiousness, in a parody of true liberty. To paraphrase Dostoevsky, “When God is dead, everything is permitted”.
Tradition is an affirmation of transcendence, hence of the principle that sexuality is merely a reflection of the higher, spiritual order within the lower, psycho-physical realm. Thus the gift of sexuality is a means of experiencing the Divine Union of which it is a distant reflection, and thereby of sublimating the sexual experience to a higher purpose. Sublimation may take the form of chastity—as in the case of nuns or monks, or others who take the vow of chastity, and who thereby transcend their sexuality by the principle of extinctive infinitude into the realm of paradisal bliss that is symbolized by androgynal unity. But sublimation does not necessarily require sexual abstinence, merely detachment and complementarity, as affirmations respectively of transcendence and harmony. Modernistic conceptions of “free love” and sexual hedonism are a parody of the principle of extinctive infinitude referred to above, particularly in their lack of detachment. It is by detaching oneself in the horizontal dimension that one can become fully engaged in the vertical dimension.
It is in the context of modernism’s denial of transcendence that we need to view its challenges to traditional morality. In terms of gender relations and sexuality, the two principal challenges that have emerged are (1) the equalitarian view of gender relations advocated by the modern feminist movement, and (2) the sexual exclusivism advocated by homosexuals. Both these alternatives are unacceptable from the traditional perspective because both perspectives violate the archetypal principle of gender complementarity, the first by a false engagement, the second by a disengagement. Let us review each in turn.
In traditional thought, transcendence is to be achieved through the metaphysical complementarity of polarities, not through their opposition. Translated to issues of gender, this requires the emphasizing of gender differentiation so that each gender reflects its own natural attributes, which in turn constitute the basis of a complementary attraction. This requires the feminization of women, and the virilization of men, based on the principle that “opposites attract,” prefiguring a harmonious union that reflects on the human level the unio mystica which is inherent in archetypal androgyny and central to the human entelechy. The feminization of women and the virilization of men is always subject to the metaphysical principle that the feminine soul is subservient to the masculine Spirit—or darkness to light. In other words, humanity fully realizes itself only through transcendence, by being receptive (feminine, or passive) in relation to its guiding intellect (masculine, or active).
From the perspective of the Supreme Principle, the metaphysical polarities which It contains are complementary and united within the identity of the Self. This Universal Self (the Adam Kadmon of Judaism) is therefore metaphysically androgynous. This androgyny represents a paradisal beatitude that precedes the differentiation of humanity into its two genders, a differentiation represented by the Fall. It is the goal of genderized humanity to regain the lost paradisal innocence of the Adamic Self, the archetypal androgyne that symbolizes the primordial state of human perfection, transcending all polarities. This is the symbolism of the hermaphroditic Hindu deity, Ardhanarishvara, who represents the complementary union of Shiva (the masculine Principle and active pole of the Spirit, which is celestial and solar) and Shakti (the feminine Energy and receptive pole of the soul, which is terrestrial and lunar).
The implication for humanity is that the polarities represented by the different genders are to be transcended, not by a denial of forms, but through the principle of complementarity. In the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr:
Individual human beings are born as men and women, not accidentally but according to their destiny. They can fulfill their function in life, reach the perfection which alone can bestow felicity and even transcend all traces of separative existence and return unto the One, only in accepting their destiny and transcending from above the form into which they have been born, not by rebelling against it.
In traditional thought the antagonism between genders (which modernism terms “the gender wars”) is considered a rebellion against divine destiny. Thus, for instance, it is stated in the Qur’an,
O Mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female. The noblest among you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct. (46:13)
The “best in conduct” contemplates a complementarity of gender relations in keeping with the entelechy of mankind. Complementarity is an aspect of hierarchy, because the lesser is subservient to the greater: the soul (or Outer Man) must “obey” the Spirit (or Inner Man). To restate this principle differently, that which vitalizes us must draw its energy from its true source: the feminine Energy (Shakti) must conform to the masculine Principle (Shiva). Thus, all human attempts to harmonize diversity—including gender differences—must conform to the intellectual principle of an engaged detachment, whereby humanity can hope to regain a foretaste of paradisal bliss in the dimension of the vertical axis, while maintaining a social equilibrium through mutual gender respect and support in the dimension of the horizontal plane.
From the traditional perspective, gender equalization—in the sense of the homogenization of the sexes—conflicts with the principles of diversity and hierarchy inherent in traditional cosmology. Homogenization is a parody of the quest for paradisal androgyny, in that it consciously or unconsciously attempts to create, on a lower plane of differentiation and diversity, an equality that is intrinsic to humanity on a higher plane, namely the equality of pre-gendered humanity, symbolized by the Adamic Prototype. From the traditional perspective, such an attempt is bound to fail, and can yield only a disequilibrium on the lower plane. The paradisal bliss symbolized by “androgynous unity”—the need for equality or homogeneity on the human plane being in essence an adequation of Divine Unity—can only be achieved by the genders embracing their own sexuality in accordance with the forms given to them and by complementing, through mutual respect, the sexual difference that the opposite gender characterizes. Thus the Majesty and Rigor of the male archetype finds a complementary resonance within the Beauty and Compassion of the female archetype, and vice versa. By opposing or, through homogenization, denying this marriage or union of archetypes, the quest for paradisal bliss needs must fail.
One of the negative effects of the modern feminist movement has been precisely this reductive homogenization of genders by which men have become devirilized and women defeminized. This in turn has created a false opposition of the genders, basing gender relationships on the footing of competition rather than of mutual respect and support, qualities that reflect the virtues of detachment and generosity. We hasten to add that much of what the feminist movement has sought to legitimately redress has derived from abuses of male privileges, in which males have abrogated their traditional responsibilities towards women, substituting respect and support with abuse and exploitation. In the words of Nasr,
The revolt of the female sex against the male did not precede but followed in the wake of the revolt of the male sex against Heaven.
The “revolt against Heaven” was bound to adversely impact human relationships in an earthly dimension, and thus we inevitably find, in the context of gender relationships, that this impact manifests principally as the loss of respect and mutuality among the genders, which has in turn contributed to the breakup of the family and the erosion of the social fabric. We note also that technological innovations, in particular, modern forms of contraception, have contributed to the changing relations between genders, but it should be borne in mind that it is one’s underlying values that shape one’s attitudes to the use of technology, and these values, outside the bulwarks of tradition, have become corrupted and lost all sense of objectivity and proportion.
The other alternative that has emerged in modernity as a challenge to gender complementarity is homosexuality, the exclusivism—or disengagement—of the genders in terms of their sexuality. Modernistic and secular societies are increasingly accepting homosexuality as a norm, to the point that some legal jurisdictions are now permitting “same sex marriages”. These developments are unacceptable to tradition in as much as they contradict both the revealed Law and the metaphysical order that underlies it. Temporal courts have purported to legitimize homosexuality on the basis of “equal rights” (note the term “gay rights movement”, which emphasizes the importance of predicating legitimacy on the basis of “rights”), but it should be borne in mind that “rights” are subordinate to “principles”. Thus, for instance, no claim based on the argument of equal rights could justify an incestuous marriage between consenting adults (a mother and son, for example), because their “right” to such a marriage is subordinate to the “principle” that incest is wrong. It is useful to bear in mind that etymologically, the term “right” is derived from the root “rt” (as in “rite” or the Sanskrit word “rti”) which denotes order. To claim a right therefore requires that one relate it to the metaphysical order of the universe. It is by virtue of such order that “principles” can be derived. Temporal courts that have purported to legitimize homosexuality and “same sex marriage” on the basis of equal rights, have missed the mark. Social acceptability cannot be the criterion for deriving principles. Truth cannot be sacrificed to the malleable views of the masses. Morality is more than mere pragmatism. Human norms (that is, standards that are merely of the human order and not derived from principles that are rooted in metaphysical structures) are not objective, but merely preferences, and are therefore no substitute for an objective morality rooted in transcendence. Objectivity implies transcendence: no system can validate itself from within. Thus, as we have argued earlier, traditional morality is based on the correspondence between metaphysical structure and ontological value.
Applying this criterion of morality to homosexuality, we see that homosexuality is, by its very nature, opposed to the principle of sexual complementarity, which is vital to the traditional worldview. It constitutes the profanation of form by disassociating it from its eternal archetype. Further, it constitutes the isolation of one aspect of the archetypal polarities by its ignoring of, or, worse, opposition of the other. In the words of Whitall N. Perry,
The homosexual error is, among other things, that of isolating one pole of a binary cognate and treating it as an absolute, which does violence to the imperatives of the cosmic order.
To speak of the “homosexual error” should not be construed as a condoning of the legitimate grievances that homosexuals have regarding various forms of societal discrimination or abuse, which in themselves constitute an abrogation of tradition. However, though tradition demands tolerance and a compassionate understanding of the human margin, metaphysical truths are not subordinate to contingent needs nor the circumscriptions of “political correctness”. “There is no right greater than that of Truth”. What is at stake here is the very foundation of traditional order. The imperatives of the cosmic order mandate an equilibrium which results from the complementarity and union of the polarities inherent in the Supreme Principle. To violate those imperatives is thereby to invoke the disequilibrium that we are now experiencing in the modern world. Equilibrium within the lower order can only be achieved by reference to the higher order, which is the sole source of objectivity. We must take care not to subvert our spiritual purpose, for its effects reverberate not only here-below but throughout eternity.
Gender differences are part of the diversity of created forms, and tradition teaches us that such diversity can only be harmonized, not by homogenizing, opposing or denying forms, but by accepting them and transcending them. The journey of transcendence is a process of interiorization into “the crowned knot of fire”, the sanctum of the Heart, our spiritual and regal Center. Tradition teaches us also that reality is the harmonious combination of archetypes, the essentializing fire that represents the pole of the Absolute, and the multifoliate rose that represents the pole of the Infinite. To be true to ourselves requires us to manifest the divine archetypes complementarily: to integrate the True, the Good and the Beautiful. “And all shall be well and/ All manner of thing shall be well” when we have made the journey to our transcendent Self, and have thereby attained the Truth that manifests inwardly as Goodness and outwardly as Beauty. It is by combining these virtues within ourselves that we can regain the paradisal bliss prefigured in sexual ecstasy.