Though I knew nothing of Freud and his theories about sex and aggression at the time, I had immediately equated sex and violence. I grew up in a fairly tough blue collar neighborhood. We boys fought all the time, mostly wrestling matches with an occasional blow with a fist, elbow or knee. When we grew older and wrestling matches turned to all-out fist fights, after the first time we witnessed one of our own knocked unconscious, we found other ways to establish dominance (merciless ridicule mostly). Physiologically, sex seemed a lot like the high of fighting, except I didn’t have to be angry. (Of course, boys don’t always fight angrily, either. Sometimes we fought just because we were boys.)
“So this is what they’ve been trying to keep from me,” I thought.
I knew why—because God said so. Sex outside of marriage is immoral. I began to wonder—for the first time—why did God say no? I felt like a different person. Instead of trying to be King Kong in the neighborhood, sex seemed to bring out a kinder, gentler me. And in the background, behind this question was another nagging question, when and how would God’s punishment come?
There was another question that began to emerge. Why was it evil for me to have sex with a girl I loved, and good for me to travel to someone else’s jungle to kill Viet-Cong? I wasn’t asking this question of the people around me, I asked God. And still, there was no punishment for premarital sex. It occurred to me then that maybe God hadn’t punished me because he couldn’t.
The thought came to me: There are no atheists in foxholes. Was that it? I wondered.
Having fairly regular sex at seventeen made me happier, more confident and alive than I had ever been. I was cocky, you might say. I didn’t feel any great need for God. But if I were about to wet my pants for fear of death in some steamy jungle, well, that would be a different story. It made a lot of sense. Sex was bad, because it was bad for faith in God. War was good, because it was good for faith in God. That’s about the time I prayed and told God I understood his little game and I would beat him at it. Still, no punishment came.
I decided that what God said was evil was at least potentially good, and what God said was good was probably generally evil. I was still a suburban, working-class white kid born in the fifties, so I wasn’t particularly adept at making so complete a moral reversal.
The idea of “water brothers,” for instance, from Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” was very appealing to me. “Water brothers” were a group of men and women who cared for each other in a semi-communal way and had heterosexual relations as it suited them. The heterosexual only sexual unions seemed like an obvious weakness in the scheme to me. Heinlein was just a little too enamored with God’s moral standards for my taste, but I tried self-consciously to inaugurate a “water brothers” practice among my small group of high school friends.
I had my girlfriend’s acquiescence if not her permission—in theory. In practice my first bungled attempt resulted in a complete change of heart—mine. I returned to her quite contrite actually, confessed my sin and asked for her hand in a much more traditional marriage.
Still, no punishment came from God. If he could not punish me to defend his holiness, if his holiness was little more than his own self-interest, maybe he wasn’t God at all. That’s when it hit. Oh my God, he isn’t at all! And he never was. I wasn’t happy with the conclusion, but at the time, I couldn’t escape its logic: God did not punish me for sin, therefore God was not.
Eventually, my girlfriend had enough of me, and I went into a decline that is such a cliché, it is too embarrassing to mention in detail.
One night, years later I was visiting my mother. I sat up reading a book by Hal Lindsey. It was just sitting there on her coffee table. I don’t even remember the title. The subtitle was “a prophetic odyssey.” For reasons I can no longer recall I assumed that meant it was fiction. The advantage of this misunderstanding was that I didn’t need Hal Lindsey’s account of the end times or his interpretations of the book of Revelation to be true, just plausible. It was a tale of God’s wrath deferred, punishment stored up for the end of time. It gave me hope that the world could look as corrupt and devoid of God as it appeared to me, and yet God might still be there waiting for any who might perchance call upon Him.
I didn’t think much of the Gospel then. Been there, done that, I thought. The Gospel just didn’t work out for me. This time I was going to do it right. The objective truth of the Bible was irrelevant to me. Its truth was like that of a contract. There were things for me to do and things God would do in exchange. He knew what the contract I held in my hand said, and so could I. I was still pretty cocky.
I felt like the major difference between an Old Testament Israelite and a New Testament believer was that believers went to church on Sunday instead of synagogue on Saturday and had ham for Easter instead of lamb for Passover. I didn’t completely discount the Gospel, I suppose, but I thought it was more for God’s benefit than mine. It seemed like a trick He played on himself, so He could draw near to a screw-up like me without feeling obliged to strike me dead with a lightning bolt. I was grateful and all for the second chance, but I believed wholeheartedly it was a second chance for me to prove what I could do for God.
One more thing you should know about me. A song of David, another king of Israel (and Solomon’s father), was preserved in 2 Samuel. A portion of that song, sung to the Lord Jesus, goes: You prove to be loyal to one who is faithful; you prove to be trustworthy to one who is innocent. You prove to be reliable to one who is blameless, but you prove to be deceptive to one who is perverse. I usually appreciate God’s deceptiveness (the NIV translates it shrewdness, if you prefer) first, before I recognize his reliability, trustworthiness and loyalty. So I assume that I am far more perverse (NIV, crooked), than I am blameless, innocent or faithful.
Addendum: 11/21/2017 – I just read an article online from the New Republic, Charles Manson’s Science Fiction Roots by JEET HEER. I hadn’t known that Robert Heinlein was friends with L. Ron Hubbard or that both were enamored with the teachings of Aleister Crowley. Would that knowledge have steered my thinking away from Heinlein’s ideas, I wondered, or moved me closer to the occult? I don’t know. My native materialism has kept me from taking occult knowledge too seriously.
I’ve been thinking recently how the strange paths of my life have kept me from potentially stranger paths. After I saw Spotlight I realized that if I had met those playful, gentle men at twelve I might have become their accomplice and their temptation. I didn’t meet one until I was seventeen (he was not Catholic, by the way) or at least I didn’t understand what he wanted from me until I was seventeen, almost eighteen. By then he was too late. No matter how playful or gentle he was, he had nothing on a seventeen-year-old girl. He was disappointed but never came around again.